China’s Strategic Rocket Force: Upgrading Hardware and Software (Part 2 of 2)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 14


Part One of this article covered the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force’s (PLASAF) conventional arsenal and the “conventionalization of deterrence”—the creation of doctrines that rely on advanced non-nuclear weapons to deter U.S. and other international intervention in a regional conflict (read the first part in China Brief, Vol. 14, Issue 13). While PLASAF has made these changes, it has also upgraded its nuclear capabilities, including discussions of ways in which nuclear weapons can deter conventional attacks despite China’s No First Use policy. But for upgraded hardware to achieve its goals, it must be commanded and operated by higher caliber, better-prepared soliders, a challenge that is increasingly important to this branch.

Enhancing Nuclear Deterrence Credibility

Deterrence is a moving target: To maintain its credibility, 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. Meanwhile, Chinese military sources also emphasize the continuing relevance of nuclear deterrence. Even if only modest quantitative growth is pursued, this suggests a continual need to modernize nuclear forces and increase their sophistication to ensure that they outpace ballistic missile defense (BMD) and other potentially threatening developments.

The most recent edition of the Science of Military Strategy, published by the Academy of Military Science in 2013, underscores the importance of China’s development of a “lean and effective nuclear retaliatory force,” which it identifies as a key component of its “deterrence system” (weishe tixi). [1] PLA analysts see this as a challenge, because China faces a “complex nuclear security environment.” The main adversary China must deter is the United States, but China cannot ignore other nuclear-armed countries in its neighborhood, such as India, which is also modernizing its nuclear capabilities. PLA analysts also express concerns about technological developments they see as possible threats to the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent, most notably missile defense and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) capabilities. (SMS, p. 171). PLASAF nuclear missile force modernization plays a central role in China’s attempts to address these challenges.

From humble beginnings of uncertain capability, which relied on Mao’s risk-acceptant rhetoric and “first strike uncertainty” (an enemy’s inability to be completely sure it could successfully locate and destroy all of China’s nuclear missiles with its own first strike) for much of its effect, China today is securing a more credible nuclear retaliatory capability. China’s nuclear missile force currently consists of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) for regional deterrence missions, and silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs capable of striking targets anywhere in the world. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) estimates that China’s ICBM force will continue to grow by size and type, and that “the number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 15 years” (Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, 2013, p. 3). PLASAF’s fielding of additional, more survivable mobile ICBMs with improved countermeasures and command, control and communications (C3) capabilities offers potential for a secure second-strike capability. Of particular note are improvements in nuclear C3. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), “Through the use of improved communications links, China’s ICBM units now have better access to battlefield information and uninterrupted communications connecting all command echelons, and unit commanders are able to issue orders to multiple subordinates at once, instead of serially, via voice commands.” [2]

Rhetorically, Beijing maintains a “no first use” (NFU) policy, and takes pains to emphasize this. Yet ambiguities have emerged concerning the precise circumstances under which it would apply. Some Chinese military publications suggest that China’s nuclear capabilities could help deter conventional strategic attacks. Of course, this does not necessarily mean China would resort to nuclear escalation in response to any but the most severe conventional threats, but it does suggest that Beijing would rely on its nuclear retaliatory capability to constrain an adversary’s options and wants potential adversaries to weigh this possibility carefully. As the authors of Science of Second Artillery Campaigns note, nuclear weapons are “a strong nuclear backstop for ensuring the status of large countries and a potentially huge resource for deterrence.” [3] The fear of possible nuclear escalation could cause an adversary to be very cautious when fighting a conventional war against China, and this could constrain the enemy’s options in ways that make it easier for China to conduct conventional military operations. Specifically, according to Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, “In local wars under informatized conditions, simply by moderately revealing nuclear strength, it is possible to flexibly use many types of deterrence methods; when the enemy uses informatized conventional air raids to attack us, they cannot help but to prudently consider the possibility that they might pay a price that would be very difficult to bear, thus achieving the objective of supporting conventional operations” (SSAC, p. 274).

Nonetheless, Chinese officials stress policy continuity, maintaining that they are merely pursuing a “lean and effective” nuclear force that meets China’s evolving national security needs. Yet compared with the rudimentary nature of Beijing’s earlier nuclear arsenal, its ongoing gradual augmentation and rapid qualitative enhancement is making a major difference. PLASAF silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs can strike targets worldwide and mobility is enhancing the survivability of China’s strategic missile force. NASIC estimates that China’s ICBM force will continue to improve not only qualitatively but also quantitatively.

As part of this significant force enhancement, China is reportedly developing and testing the DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) (Global Times, October 28, 2010; DoD 2014, p. 7). China has also tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), which it could eventually deploy in a nuclear deterrence role (The Diplomat, January 17). Important to PLASAF bureaucratic interests, DF-41 deployment and a possible future HGV can preserve its preeminent nuclear deterrent role despite the PLAN’s moving toward conducting deterrence patrols with its new SSBNs.

The Human Element 2.0

In recent years, hardware has emerged as a relative strength of China’s military, propelled by technocratic emphasis and drawing on tremendous amounts of foreign technology. For PLASAF, this includes an integrated command platform and other C4ISR capabilities. Yet the greatest need for improvement clearly remains in human capital. China’s civil and military leaders clearly recognize this imperative, and are making revisions accordingly.

Improving personnel caliber is an essential foundation. The PLASAF recruits needed technical talent through the National Defense Student Program and “strategic marriages” with top universities including Tsinghua, Northwest Polytechnical, National University of Defense Technology, Information Engineering University and Technological University (Rocket Forces News [Huojian bing bao], January 3, p. 1). Similar civil-military talent cooperation has been underway for the past decade at the PLASAF Armament Research Institute (Rocket Forces News, December 28, 2013, p. 1).

Training under realistic conditions is likewise essential, and a subject of concerted focus. Perhaps most importantly, particularly in the Xi Jinping era, there appears to be a genuine effort at accurate self-assessment and continuous improvement. In December 2013, in PLASAF’s official mouthpiece Rocket Forces News a major article stressed that Xi’s directive to adopt “combat-realistic training” must be implemented substantively, and held up the U.S. and Russian militaries as exemplars in this regard. It emphasized: “In conducting actual combat conditioning training…. it is necessary to focus on the future battlefield… conduct confrontation with a powerful enemy, and stick close to actual combat in inspecting and examining training concepts, training methods and actual combat capabilities.” “Strengthening actual combat awareness” must be achieved by “sticking close to the key points of actual combat” and “recognizing the future battlefield and understanding the future opponent.” “Training principles,” which “determine operational modes,” must be transformed accordingly: “If we are to get the upper hand and win the initiative on the future battlefield, we must constantly transform the training principles… taking aim at the shortcomings… and constantly innovating training methods and tactics, use concept innovation to advance training model innovation.” Finally, standards must be implemented strictly: “Conducting actual combat conditioning [shizhan hua] training requires strictly implementing the training standards and the through rigid implementation of the standards in order to spur effective boosting of training levels” (Rocket Forces News, December 14, 2013, p. 2B)

Accordingly, in March 2014, Rocket Forces News reported, “During a battalion-versus-battalion confrontational drill, two battalions which received orders for sortie at the same time arrived at the designated location at different times, with one arriving 10-odd minutes earlier than the other. Citing this case as an example, a brigade has launched an extensive discussion, which has in turn urged the troops to introduce some ‘self-initiated actions’ [zixuan dongzuo].” The commander in charge of the exercise maintains that “Although these ‘self-initiated actions’ deviate from normal ‘standardized procedures’ and ‘violate regulations’… they are recommendable.” Accordingly, “this brigade has extensively launched a massive discussion on the ‘combat strength standards,’” generating “‘lively and heated discussion’ on how to realize the objective that ‘Everything should be geared to enhancement of combat strength’” (Rocket Forces News, March 15, p. 2).

Such accounts have appeared regular in military media, promoting similar practices. Another example praised a special drill designed to retest logistics and repair skills that had emerged as a weakness in a “special evaluation and critique forum” following an exercise (Rocket Forces News, January 22, p. 2). (Rocket Forces News, January 22, p. 2). Improving equipment, logistics and communications support capabilities is also emphasized, including the use of civil-military integration (Rocket Forces News, December 17, 2013, p. 1; November 9, p. 3). Drills increasingly involve night operations, crossing regions; under extreme conditions and with fierce opposition (including simulated satellite surveillance and nuclear, chemical and cyberattacks) (Rocket Forces News, January 22, p. 2). Computer simulation is increasingly employed in training and teaching (Rocket Forces News, November 26, 2013, p. 4).

Non-commissioned officers (NCO) are regarded not only as an important bedrock of technical expertise but also command ability, with one brigade training 18 NCOs as “launch commanders” (Rocket Forces News, October 1, 2013, p. 1). This is all part of a larger regimen in which such traditional staples as camouflage, improvisation and political and psychological reliability continue to be stressed (See “Reforming the People’s Liberation Army’s Noncommissioned Officer Corps and Conscripts,” China Brief,  October 28, 2011).


In recent years, the Second Artillery has made impressive strides in the development of its nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. Furthermore, Second Artillery’s institutional stature appears to have increased along with these force modernization developments, as reflected by the elevation of the PLASAF commander to membership in the Central Military Commission, along with the navy and air force commanders, in 2004, and the central role the missile force has been assigned in PLA joint campaigns, particularly with respect to the employment of conventional missile strikes to help the PLA seize information, air, and sea supremacy.

Acutely aware that meeting its increasing responsibilities will hinge on its human capital, PLASAF is strengthening recruiting and instruction, while improving realism of training to heighten readiness. Such training and command reforms are happening broadly across the PLA under Xi Jinping, who has emphasized preparing realistically to engage in high-intensity combat operations. PLA academics are working hard to translate Xi’s general guidance into implementable specifics (see “Third Plenary Session Calls for PLA Reform and Restructuring” and “PLA Joint Operations Development and Military Reform,” China Brief November 20, 2013 and April 9).

Looking forward, PLASAF development is likely to focus on modernizing its nuclear missile force, strengthening conventional missile strike capability, and “developing new types of warfare means” (fazhan jinxing zuozhan shouduan) to extend its capabilities to the space and network domains (SMS, pp. 232-233). First, China can be expected to continue to strengthen PLASAF’s nuclear missile force, which will remain the cornerstone of China’s nuclear deterrent posture even as China adds a sea-based component to its nuclear force. China can also be expected to further enhance PLASAF’s conventional precision strike capabilities and eventually to add longer-range conventional missile systems to its inventory. In addition, capabilities in the space and cyber domains could further strengthen the missile force’s contribution to China’s strategic deterrence and conventional war-fighting capabilities.

Along with the PLA’s growing air; naval; space and counter-space; and information and electronic warfare capabilities, the continuing modernization of China’s nuclear and conventional missile forces is likely to pose increasingly serious tactical, operational and strategic challenges for the United States and its friends and allies in the region. Potential responses to China’s conventional missile threat could include dispersal, hardening, longer-range strike systems and a variety of measures to deny, disrupt or degrade Chinese intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting capabilities.


  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. 148. (Hereafter: SMS)
  2. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2014 [Hereafter, DoD 2014], p. 28, < >
  3. People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force, Di er paobing zhanyi xue [The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns] Beijing: PLA Press, 2004, p. 274. (Hereafter: SSAC)