China’s Second Artillery Corps: New Trends in Force Modernization, Doctrine and Training

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 25

The transformation of the Second Artillery Corps, which is the arm of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for most of China’s conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles, is one of the centerpieces of China’s military modernization program. The number of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs, respectively) in China’s inventory has increased dramatically in recent years, posing an increasingly potent threat to Taiwanese and U.S. forces in parts of the region. This development is particularly striking given that China had no conventional ballistic missile capability until the Second Artillery added conventional strikes to its mission in the early 1990s [1]. In addition to these conventional augmentations, China is also modernizing its nuclear missile force to enhance its survivability. Accompanying these improvements in force modernization have been advances in the Second Artillery’s doctrine and training, which are greatly increasing the operational capability of the conventional missile force and strengthening the deterrence posture of the nuclear missile force. These developments have tremendous implications for military planners and policymakers in both the United States and Taiwan.

Force Modernization

At the time of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, the PLA had reportedly deployed about 30-50 SRBMs. As of the late 1990s, the number of SRBMs deployed across from Taiwan had reached about 200, but the SRBMs remained fairly inaccurate, limiting their potential utility against military targets such as ports, airfields and command and control (C2) centers [2]. This soon changed, however, as China began to enhance its ability to conduct precision strikes against Taiwan and other targets in the region by employing satellite-aided navigation for its missiles and developing land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). These improvements in quality were accompanied by a dramatic expansion in the size of the conventional missile force. As a result, the number of SRBMs deployed opposite Taiwan has more than doubled in the past five years. China currently fields 710-790 DF-11 and DF-15 SRBMs and the number of deployed missiles is increasing at a rate of about 100 per year [3]. Moreover, newer versions of the SRBMs feature extended ranges and enhanced accuracy. Indeed, newer variants of the DF-15 possess the range to strike U.S. forces on Okinawa as well as targets on Taiwan. Another area of emphasis in Chinese ballistic missile modernization is the development of “an increased variety of conventional warheads” [4]. In addition, China is developing conventionally armed MRBMs, which will allow the Second Artillery to increase the striking range of its conventional missiles.

China is also developing LACMs that can be fired from bases on the ground as well as from aircraft and submarines. According to Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, China is developing a land-attack cruise missile known as the Dong Hai-10 (DH-10) that has a range in excess of 1,500 kilometers (Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, October 2004). Defense officials in Taiwan have stated that some of China’s LACMs will be highly accurate, with circular error probables (CEPs) of 10 meters or less (Taipei Times, October 5, 2004). The U.S. Department of Defense assesses that these LACMs will allow for “greater precision than historically available from ballistic missiles for hard target strikes, and increased standoff” [5].

China is also modernizing its strategic and theater nuclear forces to enhance their striking power and survivability [6]. According to the 2005 Department of Defense report to Congress on Chinese military power, “China is qualitatively and quantitatively improving its strategic missile force. This could provide a credible, survivable nuclear deterrent and counterstrike capability” [7]. According to the same report, China currently has about 20 silo-based, liquid-propellant DF-5 ICBMs, which are capable of striking targets in the continental United States and a number of older missiles that are more limited in range and serve primarily as a regional nuclear deterrent. As China’s nuclear force modernization continues, its strategic nuclear forces will consist of DF-5A ICBMs (longer-range versions of the older, silo-based, liquid-fueled DF-5 ICBMs), road-mobile, solid-fueled DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs, and JL-2 SLBMs, which will be deployed on China’s new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The deployment of road-mobile ICBMs will improve the survivability of China’s nuclear forces by making them more challenging to locate, while the addition of SLBMs will provide another survivable nuclear retaliatory capability. China also has the capability to deploy a multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRV) system for the DF-5 ICBM [8]. In addition to upgrading its strategic nuclear forces, China will also continue to maintain nuclear-armed road-mobile DF-21 MRBMs as the cornerstone of its regional nuclear deterrence capabilities [9].

The Second Artillery Corps’ Evolving Doctrine

The PLA is revamping its doctrine to meet the challenges of the types of wars it expects to fight in the near future. Based on its assessments of recent military operations (e.g. the 1999 Kosovo Air Campaign and the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom), the PLA believes that future military conflicts will be “Local Wars under Informatized Conditions” (China Brief, June 7). The Second Artillery Corps would play a central role in such high-intensity and high-lethality conflicts because they would place a premium on mobility, speed, logistics, sustainability, deep strikes, joint operations and high-tech weapons. In future conflicts of this type, the Second Artillery would cooperate with the other services to conduct “integrated operations” (zhengti zuozhan) and launch “key point strikes” (zhongdian daji) against the opponent’s key vulnerabilities (China Brief, November 8). The key target sets for the Second Artillery would include military C2 centers, early warning facilities, communications facilities, air defense sites, air bases and surface-to-surface missile sites. The most important mission for the Second Artillery in such a campaign would be the suppression of Taiwan’s air defenses [10]. China would expect an adversary to launch precision deep strikes against targets such as its own C2 centers, air defense networks and air and missile bases, so conventional missile doctrine also devotes considerable attention to protecting strategic points from enemy long-range attacks.

China is also exploring the use of ballistic missiles for anti-access missions, such as precision strikes against airbases, ports, command and control facilities, air defense systems, ground-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) nodes, and possibly surface ships such as aircraft carriers. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, China could eventually employ ballistic missiles in combination with a broad-area maritime surveillance and targeting system to strike ships at sea [11]. This would form part of an emerging area denial or anti-access capability.

As for its nuclear forces, China views nuclear weapons as an important component of its great power status. Beijing also sees nuclear weapons as underwriting the stable external security environment that it views as key to its continuing economic development and emergence as a great power. At the same time, the possession of nuclear weapons are also considered a key deterrent against the nuclear superpowers and as a backstop against infringements on China’s vital national interests, a view that emerged in direct response to U.S. nuclear threats against China in the 1950s. In addition, Chinese strategists appear to view the modernization of China’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems as vital to supporting the attainment of China’s key national security objectives, such as unification with Taiwan or at least the prevention of de jure Taiwan independence (China Brief, December 6).

In the view of Li Bin, a prominent Chinese scholar of nuclear strategy, China’s nuclear forces and strategy have gone through three stages of development [12]. In the first stage of development, China relied on “existential deterrence” (cunzaixing weishe). Although it had a nuclear weapons capability, China lacked effective delivery systems and had no real means of retaliation. In the second stage, China’s strategy was one of “minimal deterrence” (zuidi weishe) based on a small but indefinite number of nuclear weapons. Any country that was contemplating launching a nuclear first strike against China would have had to worry about the possibility that at least a few of China’s weapons would survive the attack, allowing Beijing to retaliate. It was this uncertainty that China relied on to deter its superpower adversaries from launching a first strike. Minimal deterrence also rested on the premise that a handful of nuclear weapons were sufficient to inflict “unacceptable damage” (buke renshou de sunshi) on an adversary, especially if that adversary had only peripheral interests at stake in a conflict. (Li and other Chinese strategists note that this fell well short of the McNamara-era Pentagon standards of holding at risk a substantial portion of an adversary’s population and industrial capacity even after suffering a preemptive attack.) In the third, current stage of the development of Chinese nuclear forces, China’s strategy is one of “credible minimal deterrence” (zuidi kexin weishe). Although still based in part on the uncertainty surrounding an indefinite number of nuclear weapons, this strategy relies primarily on highly survivable mobile missiles to ensure that an adversary would lack confidence in its ability to locate and strike all of China’s nuclear deterrent forces, even if it expended a large number of its nuclear weapons. The adversary is thus deterred from launching a first strike because of concerns that China would retaliate with its surviving mobile missiles.

Within this broader strategic context, Chinese language sources reveal an increasingly sophisticated discussion of nuclear doctrine, centering on the concepts of “effective nuclear deterrence” (youxiao he weishe), “counter-coercion” (fan he weishe) and the “nuclear counterstrike campaign,” which would involve retaliatory strikes against civilian and military targets. China’s nuclear doctrine is rooted in a commitment to a no-first-use (NFU) policy. Some Chinese analysts have advocated attaching conditions to the NFU policy or abandoning it entirely, but PLA writings reflect an assumption that China would employ nuclear weapons only in response to an enemy nuclear first strike. For instance, according to the Zhanyixue [Science of Campaigns], “In accordance with our country’s principle, it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons; the Second Artillery Corps’ nuclear counterattack campaign will occur under circumstances in which the enemy has first launched a nuclear attack against us” [13]. Consequently, PLA writings describe a number of measures intended to increase the survivability of Second Artillery forces and improve their ability to penetrate an adversary’s missile defenses. These writings discuss a variety of measures intended to enhance survivability, including cover and concealment, improved warning systems, mobility, electronic warfare, air defense and missile defense. They also advocate deploying penetration aids and missile defense countermeasures, increasing the number of ICBMs, and perhaps deploying missiles with multiple warheads (duo dantou) to protect the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrent in a missile defense environment [14]. Some Chinese authors summarize these capabilities with the phrase “first resist, then penetrate” (xiankang houtu), meaning the Second Artillery Corps must be able to survive a first strike and then utilize missile defense countermeasures to penetrate an adversary’s missile defense system.

Second Artillery Training

The PLA is attaching increasing emphasis on improving training to help prepare for modern, high-intensity, information-centric conflicts, as reflected by President Hu Jintao’s speech to the 2006 All Army Training Conference. During his speech, Hu highlighted the importance of making training more realistic, shifting from “military training under mechanized conditions” (jixiehua tiaojian xia junshi xunlian) to “military training under informatized conditions” (xinxihua tiaojian xia junshi xunlian) as well as strengthening joint training [15]. Indeed, many branches of the PLA are engaging in more frequent, realistic and challenging training exercises. Recent reports suggest that Second Artillery training is also growing in realism and complexity. For example, the Second Artillery has practiced a variety of techniques to counter enemy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), precision strikes and electronic warfare attacks [16]. Second Artillery exercises have also incorporated opposing forces—blue teams—and simulated realistic combat conditions. In addition, Chinese military newspapers report that many exercises feature simulated electronic warfare and jamming conditions [17]. The PLA is also conducting more joint service exercises as part of its training reforms. In recent years, the PLA has conducted numerous multi-service exercises, providing considerable opportunities to improve its familiarity with the conduct of joint operations and joint C2. One recent example was a joint exercise in the Beijing Military Region (MR), the “North Sword 0607,” that featured PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Second Artillery units (Xinhua, August 24).

Implications for the United States and Taiwan

The synergy between force modernization, evolving doctrine and increasingly advanced training is enhancing the capabilities of the Second Artillery Corps in ways that pose serious challenges for the United States and Taiwan. The Second Artillery’s conventional force modernization is focused on developing the capabilities required to rapidly degrade Taiwan’s defenses and deter, delay, or otherwise complicate U.S. military intervention in a cross-Strait conflict. The Second Artillery’s conventional arsenal has increased from about 30-50 SRBMs in the mid-1990s to almost 800 SRBMs today and has increased in both accuracy and lethality. This quantitative and qualitative improvement represents a severe threat to U.S. forces in the region, and especially to Taiwan. Indeed, as a result of the rapid growth in numbers and improvements in accuracy, China could paralyze Taiwan’s communication links, command centers, airbases and ports with five waves of strikes in as little as 10 hours, according to Lt. Col. Chen Chang-hua, a Taiwan Ministry of National Defense official (Taipei Times, March 8; AFP, March 8). This raises serious questions regarding whether Taiwan’s military possesses the capability to hold out in the event of a cross-Strait conflict until the U.S. military could intervene decisively. In addition, China’s development of new MRBMs and LACMs is enhancing its regional conventional strike capabilities and has the potential to complicate U.S. intervention in a future cross-Strait crisis or conflict.

The Second Artillery Corps’ nuclear force modernization is focused on improving survivability to make China’s nuclear deterrence posture more credible, a task that has taken on increased urgency as a result of China’s concerns regarding U.S. nuclear preeminence, missile defense plans and conventional precision strike capabilities. China is moving toward a much more survivable and thus more credible strategic nuclear posture with the development of the road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs and the JL-2 SLBM. Indeed, as experts have highlighted, the introduction of road-mobile strategic missiles and SSBNs will allow China to achieve “a degree of credible minimal deterrence vis-à-vis the continental United States” [18]. The modernization of Chinese nuclear forces and the transition from silo-based to road-mobile nuclear missiles and SSBNs would thus enhance deterrence stability, though it would also introduce new C2 challenges for the Second Artillery [19]. Escalation control will remain a serious concern in the event of a high-intensity conventional conflict. Specifically, U.S. military planners and decision-makers would need to carefully manage a conventional war with China to avoid the risk of unintended escalation, which could lead to a nuclear conflict that would be incredibly devastating for both sides [20]. At the same time, however, Washington would likely also need to prevent Beijing from using nuclear threats to achieve its political objectives, given that Chinese analysts have suggested nuclear weapons might be used to deter—or at least limit—U.S. military intervention in a cross-Strait conflict. Successfully managing this dangerous balancing act requires an in depth understanding of Chinese views on nuclear signaling, crisis management and escalation control.


1. Kenneth Allen and Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise, “Implementing the Second Artillery’s Doctrinal Reforms,” in James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein, ed., China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs, Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analysis, 2005, pp. 159-219.

2. Bates Gill and Michael O’Hanlon, “China’s Hollow Military,” National Interest, 56 (Summer 1999), pp. 55-62.

3. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006, p. 29.

4. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2004, p. 23.

5. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006, p. 29

6. See Bates Gill, James C. Mulvenon, and Mark Stokes, “The Chinese Second Artillery Corps: Transition to Credible Deterrence,” in James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang, ed., The People’s Liberation Army as an Organization: Reference Volume v1.0, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2002, pp. 510-586.

7. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005, p. 28.

8. Robert M. Walpole, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015,” Statement before the Senate Subcommittee on International Security, Nonproliferation, and Federal Services, March 11, 2002,

9. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005, p. 28.

10. Mark A. Stokes, “Space, Theater Missiles, and Electronic Warfare: Emerging Force Multipliers for the PLA Aerospace Campaign,” paper presented at conference on Chinese Military Affairs: State of the Field, National Defense University, Washington, DC, October 26-27, 2000, available at

11. Ronald O’Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, November 18, 2005, p. 5.

12. Li Bin, “Nuclear Weapons and International Relations” (Hewuqi yu guoji guanxi), briefing presented at Beijing University, November 25, 2003,

13. Wang Houqing and Zhang Xingye, ed., Science of Campaigns (Zhanyixue), Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2000, p. 370.

14. Li Bin, “Nuclear Weapons and International Relations.”

15. “Editorial: Vigorously Promoting Innovation and Development of Military Training in the New Century and New Stage” [Benbao shelun: dali tuijin xin shiji xin jieduan junshi xunlian chuangxin fazhan], PLA Daily (Jiefangjun Bao), June 28, 2006, available at

16. Ministry of National Defense, ROC, 2004 National Defense Report, Republic of China, Taipei, Taiwan: Government Information Office, 2005, p. 32.

17. Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, “The Chinese Second Artillery Corps: From Transition To Credible Deterrence,” p. 512.

18. Ibid.