Nuclear Policy Issues in the 2013 Edition of The Science of Military Strategy: Part 2 on PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) Strategy and Capabilities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 13

Chinese ICBMs on parade. (Image: Xinhua)

As highlighted in Beijing’s May 2015 defense white paper, China is modernizing its strategic missile force as part of its focus on strengthening the PLA’s preparation for “winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS [preparation for military struggle]” (State Council Information Office, May 2015). Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) has emerged as a centerpiece of Chinese military modernization along with the growth of its nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. Specifically, according to the Chinese white paper:

In line with the strategic requirement of being lean and effective and possessing both nuclear and conventional missiles, the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) will strive to transform itself in the direction of informationization, press forward with independent innovations in weaponry and equipment by reliance on science and technology, enhance the safety, reliability and effectiveness of missile systems and improve the force structure featuring a combination of both nuclear and conventional capabilities. The PLASAF will strengthen its capabilities for strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack, and medium- and long-range precision strikes.

China’s latest Defense White Paper refrains from offering further details, but the most recent edition of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power paints a more complete picture of PLASAF’s growing capabilities. The Department of Defense report notes that PLASAF is “developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, including hypersonic glide vehicles; forming additional missile units; upgrading older missile systems; and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses” (U.S. Department of Defense [DoD], May 8, p. 8).

PLASAF has long served as the cornerstone of China’s nuclear deterrent. Currently, PLASAF fields 50–60 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including silo-based DF-5s, some of which are equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), DF-31 and DF-31A road mobile ICBMs, and older and more limited range DF-4 ICBMs, as well as its theater-range nuclear missile capabilities. PLASAF “continues to modernize its nuclear forces by enhancing its silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and adding more survivable, mobile delivery systems” (DoD, May 8, p. 8). In addition, it is improving its nuclear command, control and communications (C3) capabilities and developing the DF-41, a road mobile ICBM possibly capable of carrying MIRVs (DoD, May 8, pp. 8, 31–32).

As for its conventional missile force, PLASAF has at least 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and it is improving its conventional strike capabilities with the deployment of 800–1,000-kilometer (km) range DF-16 ballistic missiles and conventional-armed DF-21 MRBMs, which will not only improve China’s ability to strike Taiwan, but also other targets in the region. PLASAF also fields conventional land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships in the western Pacific Ocean” (DoD, May 8, p. 8). In addition, it is developing conventional IRBMs capable of striking targets on Guam (DoD, May 8, p. 46).

Against this backdrop of PLASAF’s growing nuclear and conventional missile capabilities, this article reviews the discussion of PLASAF issues in the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy, which was published by the PLA Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) publishing house. SMS 2013 goes beyond the previous edition of SMS with its inclusion of a detailed section on PLASAF strategy. This PLASAF-specific section underscores the priority Beijing attaches to further strengthening PLASAF’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. It also envisions a growing role in space, and perhaps cyberspace, for China’s strategic missile force.

Second Artillery’s Role and Responsibilities

PLASAF was established in July 1966 as the arm of the Chinese military responsible for nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. In the early 1990s, PLASAF added a conventional mission, and now occupies a unique position in China’s military establishment due to its responsibility for nuclear deterrence and counter-attack as well as conventional long-range strike missions. As SMS 2013 puts it, Second Artillery’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities give it a “special position” among the instruments of Chinese military power and ensure that it “plays an extremely important role in defense of [China’s] national security.” [1] Additionally, SMS 2013 states that Second Artillery is an important strategic force under the direct command of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and top-level leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (SMS 2013, p. 228). It further states that the highest-level leaders of the CCP and the CMC must make all of the key decisions about the construction, development and employment of China’s strategic missile force, because of its strategic importance. In particular, “All significant nuclear deterrence actions and any scale of nuclear counterstrikes are undoubtedly categorized as significant strategic actions.” Thus these decisions must be made at the highest level (SMS 2013, pp. 234–5).

As with China’s national defense white papers and other PLA publications, SMS 2013 indicates that Second Artillery’s main missions are deterring a nuclear attack or nuclear threats against China, being prepared to carry out a nuclear counter-attack and launching conventional precision strikes with its conventional missiles (SMS 2013, pp. 231–2). For PLASAF, its “many types of equipment and conventional weapons that are able to effectively strike at different distances and against many different types of targets are the ‘crack troops and sharp weapons’ of the PLA’s conventional operations, and they have a powerful deterrence role in dealing with strong enemies” (SMS 2013, p. 231).

SMS 2013 underscores the view that Second Artillery’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities play key roles in strategic deterrence. Indeed, like a number of other Chinese military publications, SMS 2013 describes Second Artillery as “China’s core force for strategic deterrence” (中国战略威慑的的核心力量) (SMS 2013, pp. 228–9). Second Artillery’s main contribution to strategic deterrence is its nuclear missile force. According to SMS 2013, “nuclear deterrence undoubtedly remains the core and foundation of China’s strategic deterrence and plays a primary role in the containment of large-scale warfare and effectively holding in check the primary strategic opponents. At present, Second Artillery is the main part of China’s nuclear force, and it is also the core force for China’s strategic deterrence” (SMS 2013, pp. 228–9).

SMS 2013 emphasizes that Second Artillery also plays a critical role in strategic deterrence and actual combat because it constitutes the main part of the PLA’s long-range conventional strike capabilities. According to SMS 2013, Second Artillery’s conventional ballistic and cruise missiles make an important contribution to strategic deterrence and could serve as a powerful instrument of coercive diplomacy in addition to the important role they would play in any one of a number of PLA joint campaigns.

According to SMS 2013, Second Artillery’s conventional missiles make it “the principal component of the PLA’s long-range conventional strike forces” (SMS 2013, p. 229). Since it began fielding its first conventional missiles in the early 1990s, PLASAF has upgraded its conventional strike capability in terms of numbers of weapons, range and accuracy. Moreover, compared with other conventional weapons, land-based conventional missiles have advantages in terms of their ability to conduct long-range attacks, high precision, rapid response and strong defense penetration capabilities. As a result, conventional missiles are currently the “primary weapons” (主战兵器) for the Chinese military’s long-range conventional strike operations (SMS 2013, p. 229). Moreover, even with the expected diversification of the Chinese military’s long-range strike weaponry in the future, conventional missile weaponry will continue to possess clear advantages and will remain highly relevant in “confrontations with a powerful enemy.” Overall, according to SMS, “Second Artillery serves as an important force for the PLA’s implementation of long-range conventional strikes, possessing special functions for which there are no substitutes (有不可替代的特殊作用)” (SMS 2013, p. 229).

More generally, PLASAF’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities bolster China’s international position, strengthen its image as a major country with a powerful military and protect its national interests (SMS 2013, pp. 230–1). Additionally, PLASAF’s capabilities help preserve a favorable external security environment. They deter the outbreak of major war, which helps to protect and extend China’s “period of strategic opportunity” (战略机遇期) and enable it to focus on economic development (SMS 2013, p. 231).

SMS 2013 on PLASAF Missile Force Modernization

SMS 2013 appears to indicate that PLASAF’s role is likely to become increasingly important in the future as it continues to improve its nuclear and conventional missile capabilities in a coordinated fashion. Of note, the discussion of PLASAF capabilities and modernization programs in SMS 2013 appears to align closely with external assessments about deployed and developmental missile systems, such as those that appear in the latest Defense Department report on Chinese military power. This suggests that SMS 2013 represents a well-informed exploration of missile force developments. Indeed, it is probably the most authoritative recently published volume that addresses nuclear and conventional missile force modernization issues.

With respect to nuclear capabilities, SMS 2013 identifies nuclear missile force modernization as a “long-term and fundamental” responsibility for Second Artillery (SMS 2013, p. 232). Specifically, it calls for quantitative and qualitative improvements in China’s nuclear counter-attack capabilities. According to SMS: “Under the circumstances of maintaining a certain scale (一定规模) for China’s nuclear forces, raising the efficacy of Second Artillery nuclear counterstrikes is of the utmost importance.” One means of doing this is increasing the proportion of missiles with intercontinental ranges. This is because of the geographic relationship between China and its “primary strategic opponent” and the location of the relevant nuclear counterstrike targets, which determine that ICBMs should constitute the main part of Second Artillery’s nuclear force. According to SMS, “increasing the number of intercontinental-range guided missile nuclear weapons is an important means to effectively strengthen Second Artillery’s nuclear counterstrike function.”

Second, SMS states PLASAF must “give prominence to the key points of nuclear capabilities development.” It notes that, in the event of an opponent’s nuclear attack, the survival of the nuclear missile force is a prerequisite for and the foundation of the implementation of a nuclear counterstrike. Additionally, SMS highlights the ability to effectively break through the opponent’s missile defense system as a “necessary condition” for achieving required nuclear damage results against the opponent. Therefore, according to SMS, Second Artillery nuclear force capability development should prioritize enhancing survivability and defense penetration capabilities. Specifically, it calls for Second Artillery to develop rapid mobile launch capabilities, hypersonic glide vehicles and multiple warhead technologies, and to update and replace its missile weapons, because improving survivability and defense penetration capabilities is key to “increasing the efficacy of nuclear counterstrikes” (SMS 2013, pp. 233–4).

SMS 2013 also calls for strengthening PLASAF’s conventional missile force, which it identifies as a high priority given that China still faces a complex security environment and that “there is still a highly prominent contradiction between the actual strength of Second Artillery’s conventional guided missiles and the requirements of dealing with actual security threats” (SMS 2013, p. 233). Furthermore, according to SMS, Second Artillery conventional modernization should focus on expanding the range of conventional guided missile firepower, placing emphasis on the development and deployment of “conventional guided missile weaponry with effective ranges exceeding 1,500 km” (SMS 2013, p. 234). It should also focus on overcoming enemy defenses, improving rapid response capabilities and enhancing accuracy.

In addition, SMS 2013 highlights the missile force’s role in enabling the PLA to expand its operations into other domains (most notably space). The volume suggests that Second Artillery will focus on “developing new types of operations methods,” and will thus play an increasingly important role in the space and information domains (SMS 2013, p. 233). Specifically, according to SMS 2013, “The expansion of national security interests and development and transformation of the pattern of warfare, are making struggles and confrontations that utilize the fields of space and the Internet more and more intense, and this raises new requirements for military capability development. Having a foothold in and relying on the special points and advantages of guided missile weaponry, developing new types of operations methods, and taking Second Artillery operations capabilities into space and other new domains of development, are important directions in Second Artillery’s construction and development” (SMS 2013, p. 233). With respect to space, this is in part because Second Artillery’s missile capabilities could be modified to carry out spacecraft launches. It is also as a result of the development of ground-based missiles capable of carrying out attacks against satellites. In all, the Second Artillery’s capabilities make it an “important support” (重要依托) for the expansion of the PLA’s operational capabilities into the space domain (SMS 2013, p. 229).


SMS 2013 contains a detailed section on PLASAF strategy that also touches on PLASAF roles and responsibilities and force modernization requirements. Notably, the discussion of force modernization requirements in SMS 2013 appears to track very closely with the assessment of PLASAF capabilities that appears in the most recent U.S. Department of Defense report on Chinese military power. Furthermore, SMS 2013 indicates Second Artillery will play a major role in all of the main aspects of strategic deterrence—nuclear, conventional, space and information—that Chinese military strategists highlight as essential to protecting China’s national security. Indeed, looking to the future, it suggests the PLASAF will continue to serve as the core component of China’s strategic deterrent, and will increase its role in this regard along with improvements in its nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. As highlighted by SMS 2013, the additional roles in other areas of strategic deterrence, particularly in the space domain, have emerged, further ensuring a strong role for the PLASAF in the future.