China’s Strategic Rocket Force: Sharpening the Sword (Part 1 of 2)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 13

DF-31 training photos (Source: China Military Online)
  • The Second Artillery has made significant progress, particularly in modernizing its hardware, but also operations and training.
  • Its main mission remains deterrence, especially toward U.S. intervention in a regional conflict.
  • This deterrence mission increasingly emphasizes conventional capabilities, but nuclear weapons have also been modernized to ensure their continued effectiveness.

On January 22, the website Chinese military newspaper PLA Daily published photos of a People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) unit engaged in field training with a DF-31 road-mobile ICBM launcher (China Military Online, January 22). The photos did not reveal a new capability (China began deploying road-mobile ICBMs more than seven years ago), nor were they likely intended as a warning to a particular state, although some regional media interpreted them as a threat (South China Morning Post, January 23; Chosun Ilbo, January 26). However, their publication highlights an important trend: increased confidence in the conventional and nuclear capabilities of China’s strategic missile force. As context and military missions change, PLASAF has remained relevant by developing growing conventional deterrence through demonstrating capability to prevail in a regional conflict and preventing U.S. intervention therein.

PLASAF, which controls the country’s land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles and ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles, is an increasingly formidable force. Cutting-edge industrial capabilities and long-term strategic prioritization make it the world’s “most active and diverse ballistic missile development program” (National Air and Space Intelligence Center [NASIC], Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, 2013 [PDF], p. 3). China is increasing missile numbers and diversity; testing and introducing longer-range, more accurate, improved-payload missiles, while simultaneously upgrading older systems; and establishing new units. The latest U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) report on military and security developments involving China, released in early June, underscored the continuing modernization of China’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. Reflecting the impressive progress China has made in this area, it described China’s ballistic and cruise missile development programs as “comparable to other international top-tier producers,” an impressive achievement that is giving China a variety of new and increasingly potent capabilities (DoD, Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2014 [PDF], June, p. 46).

Substantial, rapid improvements have yielded not only a sophisticated, survivable arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of putting regional and continental U.S. targets at risk, but also the world’s most numerous, diverse and comprehensive conventional, ballistic and cruise missile force. Today, these capabilities make PLASAF “China’s core force for strategic deterrence” (Zhongguo zhanlüe weishe de hexin liliang). [1]

This two-article series provides an in-depth look at PLASAF developments and highlights its emergence as an increasingly dynamic and important component of the PLA. Part one examines PLASAF’s growing conventional precision strike capabilities and doctrine. Part two will focus on the modernization of PLASAF’s nuclear deterrent capability and personnel and training issues.

Modernizing Conventional Long-Range Precision Strike (LRPS) Capabilities

From its formation in 1966 until the late 1980s, PLASAF’s nuclear missiles were few, backward and potentially vulnerable. In 1993, however, it assumed a conventional strike mission. After it expanded its missions to include conventional strike, PLASAF deployed a relatively small number of conventional short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in the 1990s. By 2001, China had about 350 conventional SRBMs. By about 2007, that number had roughly tripled, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

For the PLA, conventional weapons play a central role not only in executing combat operations, but also in strategic deterrence. Chinese military strategists note that improvements in conventional weapons technology have dramatically increased the deterrence strength of conventional military power in the decades after the end of the Cold War. Not only are conventional weapons becoming more and more capable, they are also more usable and offer much greater flexibility than nuclear weapons. Along with this process of what one recent PLA publication refers to as the “conventionalization of deterrence” (weishe liliang changguihua), PLA officers state that conventional weapons have “become a powerful deterrence means for achieving political objectives” (chengwei shixian zhengzhi mubiao de youli weishe shouduan) (SMS, pp. 137-38). Substrategic in range but strategic in impact, PLASAF’s conventional missiles play a key role in this regard.

In addition to increasing the number of its conventional SRBMs, China has also improved their capabilities in terms of range, accuracy and types of warheads. More recently, PLASAF also began introducing conventional medium-range ballistic missiles, including not only medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) designed to attack land targets such as regional air bases, but also the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), intended to target large surface ships such as aircraft carriers. Beijing began deploying the latter in 2010, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (National Defense Report Editing Committee, 2011 ROC National Defense Report, Ministry of National Defense, August 2011, p. 71). The 2014 DoD report indicates that Beijing is currently working to further extend the range of these conventional missile capabilities by developing a conventional intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) (Annual Report, p. 40). Chinese media reports indicate that when deployed, it will be capable of reaching targets as far away as Guam, an increasingly important location for U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific region (People’s Daily Online, February 18, 2011).

By December 2012, China had deployed an increasingly-capable arsenal of more than 1,000 SRBMs, most positioned within range of Taiwan.

Exhibit 1: China’s SRBMs


Maximum Range (km)

CSS-11 Mod 1 (DF-16)


CSS-6 Mod 1 (DF-15)


CSS-6 Mod 2


CSS-6 Mod 3


CSS-7 Mod 1 (DF-11)


CSS-7 Mod 2


CSS-8 (DF-7)


 CSS-9 Mod 1


CSS-9 Mod-X-2


CSS-14 Mod-X-1


CSS-14 Mod-X-2






Note: All missiles above are road-mobile, with more than 200 launchers in each category (there are more missiles than launchers, potentially necessitating reloads). All are solid-propellant, except for the CSS-8, which is solid and liquid propellant. Source: National Air and Space Intelligence Center, 2013.

While cross-Strait relations have reached a new zenith, Beijing still fears Taiwanese opposition to integration and strives to maximize related deterrent and coercive capabilities, while increasingly insisting that missiles are targeted principally at outside parties that might seek to intervene (the United States and perhaps Japan). The authors have observed this approach directly in interactions with PLA personnel and Mainland and Taiwanese experts.

PLASAF has also deployed ground-launched ? 2,000 km-range DH-10/CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). In doing so, it compensates for limited PLAAF and PLAN long-range precision strike (LRPS) capabilities. Similar in range, but offering other advantages, are two conventional variants of the same series: 30 1,750+ km-range DF-21C (CSS-5) MRBMs and small but increasing numbers of 1,500+ km-range DF-21D ASBMs. Future Chinese conventional LRPS capabilities will include PLASAF IRBMs (DoD 2014, NASIC 2013).

With its rapid response capability, long-range, high accuracy and strong penetration capability, PLASAF’s conventional missile force affords China its main means of executing highly precise and damaging long-range conventional strikes. Even as PLAAF and PLAN conventional strike capabilities improve, PLASAF remains a central part of China’s regional conventional strike capability. According to the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy, “For the PLA, PLASAF is the [most] important force for conducting force for conducting conventional long-range strikes, and it has an irreplaceable and special role” (SMS, p. 229).

Modernizing Doctrine

Since conventional missiles entered service in the 1990s, Second Artillery has focused on the requirements of “dual deterrence, dual operations,” a formulation that highlights its responsibilities for nuclear and conventional missile deterrence and strike operations. Along with the modernization of its forces, PLASAF has also engaged in the elaboration and refinement of its doctrine, which in turn is intended to guide the further development and future employment of its nuclear and conventional missile force capabilities. Documents issued when the PLA published the “new generation operations regulations” in 1999, and books published a few years later, reflect the progress PLASAF has made in this area. In particular, openly available Chinese military publications suggest that important advances have been made in how the Second Artillery thinks about deterrence operations and missile force campaigns. [2]

Should deterrence and coercive diplomacy fail to meet Beijing’s objectives, PLA publications stress that missile force survivability is critical to achieving China’s operational and strategic goals. For example, the PLASAF’s China Strategic Missile Force Encyclopedia offers details concerning doctrine, operations, command and control, logistics, management and history. An editorial committee led by PLASAF commanders initiated the project in 2001.

Like other PLA publications, this encyclopedia notes that in wartime, PLASAF missile units could be key targets for enemy attacks. As a result, they will have to operate in a very harsh combat environment, placing a high premium on survivability. PLASAF needs to be prepared to defense against threats such as enemy precision guided weapons attacks and special forces raids, and to be ready to conduct repairs and rapidly recover combat capability in the aftermath of an attack. [3]

The PLASAF encyclopedia indicates that maneuverability, concealment and rapid response time are critical to ensuring missile force survivability (Missile Force Encyclopedia, p. 73). In particular, maneuvering undetected is key to survival. This relies on concealment, feints and other denial and deception measures. For example, PLASAF can exploit darkness and adverse weather or move during gaps/blind spots in enemy ISR coverage (Missile Force Encyclopedia, p. 77-78).

Once they depart their garrisons, missile launchers and support vehicles would go to “missile technical positions” (daodan jishu zhendi). There, they would conduct missile loading and testing activities. Technical positions are usually located in underground facilities to ensure missile force units’ protection and concealment (Missile Force Encyclopedia, p. 89). Launch units would then proceed to “missile readiness positions” (daodan daiji zhendi), in underground facilities or other concealed locations, where launch units would remain concealed and stand by while waiting to receive further orders via secure (e.g., fiber optic) links (Missile Force Encyclopedia, p. 89).

Chinese military publications list a number of potential targets for conventional missile strikes. These include enemy command centers, communications facilities, radar stations, other information and communications-related targets, guided missile positions, air force bases, naval facilities, railway stations, bridges, logistical facilities, energy facilities, electrical power centers and aircraft carrier strike groups. The goals of a Second Artillery conventional missile strike campaign would include “paralyzing the enemy’s command system; weakening the enemy’s military strength and its ability to continue operations; creating psychological shock in the enemy and shaking its operational resolve; and checking the powerful enemy’s military intervention activities.” [4] To achieve these goals, the PLASAF encyclopedia stresses the importance of ensuring the missile force is fully capable of penetrating or overwhelming enemy missile defense systems via such means as multiple warhead technology, maneuvering warheads, decoys, stealth and saturation attacks (Missile Force Encyclopedia, p. 87).


Deterrence is a moving target: to maintain its ability to address gradually growing but broadly stable strategic objectives, PLASAF must continue to improve specific conventional and nuclear capabilities. PLA publications highlight the growing importance of conventional deterrence capabilities, which continue to enjoy rapid qualitative and quantitative development.

Beijing’s emphasis on deterring rival claimants in Near Seas disputes and other potential adversaries from harming its homeland security and regional interests, and the U.S. from intervening in such disputes, imposes new requirements on PLASAF. First, developing credible counter-intervention capabilities against such as a well-resourced, capable potential opponent as the U.S. is requiring a major ramp-up in conventional capabilities.

In addition, to maintain effective nuclear deterrence despite potential opponents’ increasingly-potent countermeasures, PLASAF must continue to enhance its nuclear forces. Finally, in order to realize its already-significant hardware modernization achievements in practice under realistic conditions, PLASAF must enhance operations and training accordingly. These latter efforts will be the topic of part two of this series.


  1. Junshi kexue yuan junshi zhanlue yanjiubu [Academy of Military Science Military Strategy Research Department), ed., Zhanlüe xue [The Science of Military Strategy], Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe [Military Science Press, 2013], pp. 228-29. (Hereafter: SMS)
  2. Yu Jixun, “Xin shiji xin jieduan de zhanlüe daodan budui zuozhan lilun chuangxin fazhan” [The Innovative Development of Combat Operations Theories of the Strategic Missile Force at the New Stage and in the New Century], Huihuang niandai: Huigu zai gaige kaifang zhong fazhan qianjin de di er paobing [Glorious Era—Looking Back on Second Artillery’s Development and Advances in the Period of Reform and Opening], Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Press, 2008, pp. 441-46.
  3. (Zhongguo Zhanlüe Daodan Budui Baike Quanshu [China Strategic Missile Force Encyclopedia] Beijing, China: China Encyclopedia Press, 2012, pp. 81-82). (Hereafter: Missile Force Encyclopedia)
  4. People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force, Di er paobing zhanyi xue [The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns] Beijing: PLA Press, 2004, p. 318. (Hereafter: SSAC)