Chinese President Xi Jinping has charged the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) with transforming itself into a “powerful people’s air force with integrated air and space and offensive and defensive capabilities” (iFeng, September 1, 2016). This undertaking aligns with the capabilities prioritized in China’s 2015 defense white paper, China’s Military Strategy, and one that PLAAF Commander Ma Xiaotian has suggested his service must approach with a sense of urgency (Defense White Paper, May 29, 2015; iFeng, September 1, 2016). One important part of this transformation is strengthening the PLAAF’s strategic deterrence and long-range strike capabilities. Xi has expressed personal interest in China’s bombers. In February 2015 Xi and other members of the Central Military Commission visited a PLAAF bomber base near Xi’an to inspect China’s newest bomber variant, the H-6K (Xinwen Lianbao, February 17, 2015). China appears to have even more ambitious plans for its future strategic bomber force.
According to the Department of Defense’s latest annual report to Congress on Chinese military power, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017, the PLAAF “is developing a strategic bomber that officials expect to have a nuclear mission.”  Indeed, the PLAAF, which has long seen its contribution to China’s strategic deterrence posture overshadowed by the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and more recently by the PLA Navy (PLAN), appears to be moving in the direction of developing a modern nuclear deterrence and strike capability of its own. A PLAAF nuclear bomber capability “would provide China with its first credible nuclear ‘triad’ of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air.” 
China’s New Strategic Bomber
PLAAF Commander Ma Xiaotian foreshadowed this development in fall 2016 when he publicly confirmed China’s development of a “next-generation, long-range strike bomber” (China Daily, September 2, 2016). General Ma did not reveal any details related to the new strategic bomber, but subsequent Chinese commentary suggests it will be called the H-20, and that it will have both conventional and nuclear deterrence and strike missions. According to a February 2017 article that appeared in China Youth Daily and was published in English the next day on China Military Online, China’s new strategic bomber is likely to feature characteristics that include “good stealth performance,” very long range, a larger bomb load than China’s current bomber, the H-6K, nuclear and conventional strike capabilities, and “strong electronic combat capability” (China Military Online, February 17).Additionally, the H-20 should be “capable of large-capacity data fusion and transmission,” so that it will be able to “serve as a C4ISR node and interact with large sensor platforms like UAV, early warning aircraft and strategic reconnaissance aircraft to share information and target data.” Although the authors are unclear about many of the details, including the potential targets the new bomber might hold at risk, its range, and other requirements, they underscore the importance of it having nuclear and conventional strike capability. With respect to “nuclear-conventional integration,” the authors write, “The new-generation long-range bomber will have both nuclear and regular strike capability to hit the enemy’s key links and systemic weaknesses” (China Military Online, February 17). The authors of the China Youth Daily article do not specify what type or types of munitions the new bomber will carry. Nor do they say anything about the possibility of adding nuclear strike capabilities for the PLAAF’s H-6K bombers, which China used to conduct long-range patrols around Taiwan and in the South China Sea last year and are currently the PLAAF’s most advanced bombers. Of note, however, according to the May 2017 worldwide threat assessment the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency presented to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, China is pursuing not only air-launched cruise missiles for its aircraft but also “two, new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.” 
The PLAAF and Nuclear Deterrence
A nuclear role for the PLAAF would also likely enhance its status within the PLA and help realize its goal of becoming a “strategic air force,” a concept that calls for it to play a decisive role in protecting Chinese national security interests, field capabilities commensurate with China’s status as a major power, and enjoy an institutional status on par with the other services. This aspiration apparently requires the PLAAF to strengthen its strategic deterrence and strike capabilities as well as to enhance its ability to perform other war-fighting and MOOTW missions. For the PLAAF, its transformation into a “strategic air force” is probably also focused on ensuring its bureaucratic status and influence are commensurate with those of the PLA’s other services, an important consideration in a traditionally ground force-dominated military.
Some observers credit the PLAAF’s bomber force with at least a residual capability to deliver nuclear weapons.  According to the 2017 edition of the China military power report, however, the PLAAF “does not currently have a nuclear mission.”  The PLAAF clearly had some capability to airdrop nuclear weapons early on, as demonstrated by China’s nuclear testing program, but its nuclear bomber capabilities appear to have atrophied in the 1970s and 1980s. One possibility is that Chinese strategists concluded at the time that the PLAAF’s antiquated bombers would be unable to penetrate enemy air defenses, and thus provided little value in terms of nuclear deterrence. Consequently, as China’s land-based strategic missile capabilities increased in numbers and sophistication, the PLARF, (known as PLA Second Artillery Force until December 2015) supplanted the PLAAF as the cornerstone of nuclear deterrence in China.
As the PLAAF pursues its “strategic air force” vision, however, it now appears to have strong incentives to pursue a revitalized nuclear deterrence and strike mission and the associated nuclear capabilities as it modernizes its bomber force. This judgment is based on comments and writings by Chinese strategists that advocate the development of advanced bombers capable of conducting nuclear as well as conventional missions. These actions would improve the survivability of China’s nuclear force if the bombers were operated in a survivable manner to assure survivability from a short-warning attack by potentially both increasing the number of targets for a potential adversary and allowing the bombers to escape an attack by launching for survival. They would also offer new strategic signaling options and an additional layer of nuclear strike options in the region beyond what is currently available with China’s land- and sea-based strategic missile force.
From an organizational perspective, nuclear capabilities could help bolster the PLAAF’s “strategic air force” reputation as it compares itself to other major air forces like the USAF and Russian Air Force. The PLAAF very likely sees its new strategic bomber in this context. The China Youth Daily article cited above indicates that the new strategic bomber marks the PLAAF’s “transformation from a big force to a strong force,” and states that a modern long-range strategic bomber represents “an indispensable part of a major country’s strategic strike system” (China Military Online, February 17). Specifically, according to the authors, “The large long-range bomber has always been a weak point for the PLA Air Force, which is at the critical juncture of moving from quantitative accumulation to qualitative change and from being a big force to a strong force.” Furthermore, they argue, “The new-generation LRSB will considerably improve China’s strategic attack capability and make the PLA Air Force a strategic air force in the true sense.” Finally, turning from the bomber’s implications for the PLAAF, the authors emphasize its importance “for countering nuclear blackmail from superpowers, solving surrounding maritime disputes that impede China’s rise, and preserving world peace” (China Military Online, February 17).
From an institutional interests perspective, the status of PLA Rocket Force as China’s “core force for strategic deterrence” and the increasing prominence of the PLAN’s contribution to the nuclear deterrence mission—as reflected by its Jin-class SSBNs and its plans for follow-on SSBNs and SLBMs in the future—suggests the PLAAF could lose ground if it doesn’t play a role in this area as well. In that sense, adding a nuclear capability would likely give the PLAAF an opportunity to increase its prestige while bolstering its contribution to the broader strategic deterrence mission. Other organizational incentives for regaining a nuclear mission include strengthening of the PLAAF’s status vis-à-vis the other services, especially now that the PLAN has a nuclear mission as well as the PLARF. Rather than ceding this area to the PLARF and PLAN, the PLAAF might seek a voice on matters of China’s nuclear strategy and force modernization, not to mention a share of the budget associated with the PLA’s nuclear mission. Finally, the PLAAF might want its own capabilities to strike certain enemy targets, rather than relying exclusively on other services to hold those targets at risk.
There are also several possible bureaucratic downsides for the PLAAF if it develops nuclear capabilities. One of these could be the risk of embarrassment or other more severe consequences resulting from any potential error related to nuclear weapons storage, handling, transportation, or security, areas in which it would need to develop and refine capabilities it presumably has not maintained for many years. Also, the costs of assuring the physical security and operational reliability of the nuclear weapons could be considerable. On balance, however, regaining a nuclear mission would likely boost the PLAAF’s role and support its transformation into a “strategic air force,” while also giving China an increased menu of options for strategic signaling and regional nuclear deterrence and strike operations.
Implications for the United States
The PLAAF appears to be moving toward a nuclear deterrence and strike role with the development of new bomber capabilities. If realized, China for the first time would have an operationally deployed nuclear triad. The possibility of an emerging nuclear mission for the PLAAF, and of this change in China’s nuclear posture, highlights the importance of discussions related to the implications for strategic stability and nuclear issues in the US-China relationship. Such discussions should take place as part of the US-China military-to-military relationship, such as during senior leader and counterpart conversations and exchanges. Continuing to develop and use a common lexicon to address nuclear issues is one critically important component of this dialogue. Although the PLAAF will need to display its nuclear bomber capabilities if it wants them to be useful for deterrence purposes, the longstanding reluctance of PLARF leaders to engage in detailed discussions of nuclear issues at an official level suggests that, at least initially, PLAAF leaders might not be receptive to such exchanges either. Thus, early discussions on the PLAAF’s nuclear role would probably need to take place at a non-governmental, informal Track 2 level, or by incorporating more PLAAF participants into existing Track 2 or Track 1.5 (informal, semi-official) exchanges.
The United States will also need to consider the regional security implications of a nuclear PLAAF, particularly regarding concerns about extended deterrence and strategic stability in Northeast Asia. U.S. allies, especially Japan, may be concerned that PLAAF nuclear bomber capabilities could be part of a more varied set of regional nuclear strike options and might suggest movement away from China’s longstanding nuclear no first use (NFU) policy. Any such developments could create new challenges for extended deterrence, underscoring the importance of continuing to strengthen U.S.-Japan exchanges on these issues.
Michael S. Chase is a senior political scientist at RAND and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
- Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (CMPR 2017), May 15, 2017, p. 61, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
- CMPR 2017, p. 61.
- Defense Intelligence Agency, “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” May 2017, p. 10, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Stewart_05-23-17.pdf.
- See, for example, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2016,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 2016, pp. 209–210.
- CMPR 2017, p. 61.