It Isn’t All About Europe: The Impacts of China’s Missile Forces on Russian Threat Perceptions and the INF Architecture

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 13

A DF-21D transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) of the PLA Rocket Force.


The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in December 1987 between the United States and the Soviet Union, bound the signatories to eliminate “ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, their launchers and associated support structures and support equipment” (Text of INF Treaty, December 1987). The agreement resulted in the two sides removing broad categories of ground-launched, nuclear-armed, short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles from their military inventories. [1]

In the years since, Russia and the United States have exchanged multiple accusations of INF violations. A critical move came in February 2018 with Russian deployment of the IskanderM missile system into Kaliningrad—thereby outflanking NATO’s defenses, giving Russia a rapid first strike option, and throwing the INF framework into disarray (RIA Novosti, February 5, 2018). In response to the Kaliningrad deployment, in December 2018 the U.S. Government announced it would withdraw from the INF Treaty in response to Russian violations (Washington Post, February 4, 2018). In late April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly ordered his administration to push for a new arms control agreement with the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Moscow responded that Russia was open to the possibility of new arms control deals, but that there were no ongoing talks (Reuters, April 29).

Discussions of the INF architecture usually focus narrowly on either Russia and the United States, or on the United States and the PRC. Furthermore, significant discussion has taken place regarding how Chinese missile forces might impact the military calculations of the United States, Australia, Japan, and other Pacific nations. However, little attention has generally been given to how developments in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) affect Russia. Chinese missile forces, which are steadily expanding in terms of both numbers and capability, are a major factor affecting Russian strategic calculations (The Diplomat, October 24, 2018). This article examines the ways that China’s build-up of short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles has affected Russian threat perceptions—and therefore the broader INF architecture as a whole.

China’s Theater Ballistic and Cruise Missiles

The DF-21 Series

The emergence of more modern and accurate Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) is one of the primary reasons that the Russians threatened to pull out of the INF treaty as far back as 2007 (Arms Control Wonk, February 14, 2007). In this, the Dongfeng (“East Wind,” 东风), or DF series, has played a prominent role. In 2010, the author postulated that the PLA would gradually replace its earlier models of 300km range DF-11 and 600km range DF-15 short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). As self-propelled multiple rocket systems, these SRBMs had created more survivable and easily deployed systems that could overwhelm air defenses within their range (China Brief, January 7, 2010).

Nine years on, new short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles have been introduced. The DF-15B has been updated with a guided warhead and an extended range of more than 600km. Newer missiles in the DF series—the DF-12 SRBM, the DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)—have increased throw weight and range, and more accurate warheads. They therefore increase the threat, both nuclear and conventional, to potential regional adversaries. The DF-16, first revealed publicly in September 2015, has a range of over 1000km and a warhead of over 500kg, employing the same transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) as the DF-11 with a new prime mover. It is likely a replacement for the DF-11, and may employ the same warhead as the DF-15B. [2]

The PRC has also been modernizing its theater ballistic missile forces by introducing the DF-21 (CSS-5) mobile solid fuel IRBM, which was developed from China’s JL-1 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). With a range of over 2,000km, the road mobile DF-21 placed large parts of Russia under nuclear threat from mobile launchers deep inside China. The DF-21D (a variant of the DF-21) and the new DF-26 further increase these capabilities. The DF-21D, introduced in 2006, may possess a maneuverable warhead and considerably increased accuracy compared to earlier systems. The DF-26 is a new missile, larger than the DF-21, and has a quoted range of between 3,000 and 4,000km. [3]

The CJ-10

Another Chinese missile system with implications for the INF architecture is the Chang Jian (“Long Sword,” 长剑)-10, or CJ-10, ground launched cruise missile (GLCM). The PLARF version of the CJ-10 is identified by three long launch canisters mounted on the rear of the Chinese WS 2400 8×8 TEL, and has a reported range of between 1,500km and 2,000km. The PLA Navy (PLAN) also employs a land attack variant of the missile—the latter mounted in vertical launchers on Type 52D and Type 55 destroyers, with canister launchers employed on the Type 52C destroyers. The CJ-10 system poses a serious challenge to Russian air defense planners. The missile uses both GLONASS and GPS satellite systems for guidance, with four different types of warheads available: a heavy variant weighing 500 kg, and three 350 kg variants (high explosive blast, submunition, and earth penetrator). The CJ-10A, an updated version unveiled in 2015, possesses a 500kg warhead and a range of up to 2,500km. [4]

Russian Views on China and the Role of Missile Forces in National Defense

In the late Cold War period when the INF Treaty was signed in 1987, the Soviet Union oriented the bulk of its strategic missile and bomber forces against targets in the United States and NATO nations—with a large proportion of its theater ballistic missiles deployed to threaten targets in China. The strategic environment for Russia has clearly changed dramatically over the past three decades. However, despite warming relations with China—and even talk of a Sino-Russian “comprehensive strategic partnership” (Xinhua, June 6)—the PRC remains a source of concern for Russian defense planners.

Russian forces have been limited in their ability to respond to a ballistic missile strike with a counter strike, short of using their strategic bomber forces or inter-continental ballistic missile systems (ICBMs). Going back as far as 2007, the lack of a credible intermediate-range strike system against China has been one of the motivating reasons behind Russian threats to withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty (Sputnik News, November 14, 2007).

The road-mobile 9K270 Iskander-M missile system, first unveiled in 2006 and possessing a range of 400 km, has been adopted as one of the primary SRBMs employed by Russian forces.  The missile has a reported range of 400km, but Russian officials have claimed that this range could be increased in excess of 500km by using a lighter weight nuclear warhead (Sputnik News, November 14, 2007). Four Iskander-M brigades are based in Russia’s Eastern Military District (MD) bordering China, which is double the number in any other Russian MD (The Diplomat, October 24, 2018).

Many of the Russian military’s other options were limited by the INF architecture: for example, the road-mobile RS-26 Rubezh was declared by the United States to be a breach of the treaty. (The flight tests were conducted with a light or no payload, so they breached the INF treaty as the rocket system reached over 5,500km.) Deployment of the RS-26 has been suspended until 2027; only then will a decision be made about its deployment (TASS, March 22, 2018).

In the event that Russia were to come under the threat of a Chinese missile attack, the Russians have learned from Western military experience that hunting down the TELs before they launched their missiles would be almost impossible. The Russian military does not have anywhere the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets that the Allies possessed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which “The Great Scud Hunt” achieved very little tactically in an open desert environment. [5] In over 3,000 sorties conducted over Kosovo during Operation Allied Force, NATO aircraft succeeded in only destroying 26 tanks out of 440 in a very small geographic area. [6]

Furthermore, it is open to serious question as to whether or not the Russian military currently possesses enough deployed anti-missile systems (along with associated radars) in its order-of-battle to protect Russian air space against the plethora of Chinese theater ballistic and cruise missile systems, which are becoming both more numerous and more advanced. Current Russian ground-based defenses against ballistic and cruise missiles are centered on the in-service S-300VM, S-300PMU-1, and S-300PMU-2 Favorit, and the recently introduced S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missiles systems, all of which have an anti-ballistic missile capability. [7]

The S-300VM is reportedly capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with a range of 2,500km and re-entry speeds of 4.5km/second; whereas the S-400 is claimed to be capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with a range of 3,500 km and re-entry speeds of 4.8 to 5km/second.  A system designed to intercept warheads at 5km/second has the ability to act as a point system against simple ICBM warheads, which have a typical re-entry speed of 7km/second. [8]  This means the S-300VM has the potential capability to intercept the later versions of the DF-21, but in a much reduced area.


Completely aside from Russian threat perceptions regarding the United States and NATO, concerns about China have provided Russian defense planners with reasons to doubt the INF architecture as established in 1987. China’s development and deployment of sophisticated ground-launched cruise and short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles has presented a potential threat to Russian territory that Moscow cannot ignore, even if Sino-Russian relations appear to be warm.

Additionally, demographic factors are also pressing the Russians to deploy nuclear-armed SRBMs and MRBMs on the border with China. The Russian side of the border is sparsely populated, with many Russians moving away and infrastructure crumbling (Belfer Center, undated; Russia Business Today, July 4, 2018). With Russia’s male (and primary military) population in decline, nuclear weapons offer an effective means of stopping a large-scale invasion of Siberia by Chinese forces, without the need to stage large-scale military forces along the border areas.

Based on U.S. and Russian actions taken in early 2018, the old INF architecture is a thing of the past. However, these two countries are not the only military powers with a stake in any potential future agreements regarding short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missile systems. China will have to be included in any future negotiations for a potential successor treaty to the former INF architecture. As to whether the Chinese government is prepared to become involved in any such agreement, only time will tell.

Martin Andrew retired from the Australian Defense Force after 28 years of service and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Bond University. His book, How the PLA Fights: Weapons and Tactics of the People’s Liberation Army, is in its 5th edition.


[1] A ballistic missile with a maximum range less than 1,000km is classed as a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM); a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) has a range between 1,000km to 2,500km; and an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) possesses a range between 2,500km to 5,500km.

[2]Jinian Keng Ri Zhanzheng sn hengli 70 zhounian yebing (ti) dui jianji lujun wuqi zhuangbeide ruibian’. Tanke zhuangjia cheliang, 2015 Niandi, 10 Qi, Zhongdi  437, p 31.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Jinian Keng Ri Zhanzheng sn hengli 70 zhounian yebing (ti) dui jianji lujun wuqi zhuangbeide ruibianTanke zhuangjia cheliang, op. cit., p. 34.

[5] Rosenau, William.  Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War (RAND, 2002), pp. 40 – 43.

[6] Mann, P.  “NATO Arraigned For ‘Strategic Miscalculation’,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, Vol. 150, No. 8 (May 3, 1999).

[7] The NATO reporting names for these systems are: S-300 PMU-1 is SA-10D Grumble; the S-300PMU-1 is SA-20 Gargoyle; the S-400 is SA-21 Growler; and the S-300VM is SA-23 Giant/Gladiator.  Performance figures for the S-300 series are from taken from ‘S300VM (Antey-2500)’, S-300PMU-1 Air Defence Systems and Favorit Long Range Air Defence System’ in ‘Air Defence Systems’, Rosobornexport Catalogue, Rosonboronexp[ort, Moscow, 2003, pp. 10-13.

[8] Gronlund, Lisbeth; Lewis; Georhe; Postol Theodore and Wright, David. “Highly Capable Theater Missile Defenses and the ABM Treaty,” Arms Control Today, April 1994, pp. 3 – 8.