New Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary, Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman and PRC President Xi Jinping’s early interactions with the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) have sparked a considerable amount of speculation about the future of China’s strategic missile force under his leadership. Late last month, acting in his role as chairman of the CMC, China’s top military decision-making body, Xi signed an order awarding a merit citation to a PLASAF brigade to recognize its outstanding performance. Among the unidentified brigade’s accomplishments since its establishment about twenty years ago, it has participated in two National Day military parades and successfully launched more than 100 missiles—the most of any PLASAF brigade—according to official media reports (Xinhua, February 25). Xi’s recognition seems another sign that the Second Artillery’s star will continue on its rise.
In late November, international media reports also highlighted Xi’s promotion of newly-appointed Second Artillery Commander Wei Fenghe to the rank of full general in a special ceremony. Some observers speculated that the promotion, the first over which Xi presided as the new CMC Chairman, was intended to signal the growing importance of the strategic missile force, help Xi consolidate his political power and allow him to build a loyal support base within the top ranks of the PLA (The Diplomat, December 11, 2012). Notwithstanding the tone of some Western media coverage, Wei’s promotion to full general was actually quite widely expected among PLA-watchers, as it was required following his November 2012 appointment as a member of the CMC (South China Morning Post, November 24, 2012; Xinhua, November 23, 2012). The timing and process—promotion of the lone lieutenant general to full general about one week after the Communist Party Congress—mirrored the 2007 promotion of Chang Wanquan to full general after he was elevated to the CMC as Director of the General Armament Department (GAD) (South China Morning Post, November 3, 2007; Xinhua, November 2, 2007).
Similarly, Xi Jinping’s remarks at a December 2012 meeting with delegates to Second Artillery’s 8th Party Congress were also widely reported in international media (New York Times, December 5, 2012). At the meeting, Xi described PLASAF as “the core strength of China’s strategic deterrence, the strategic support for the country’s status as a major power and an important cornerstone safeguarding national security”(People’s Daily, December 13, 2012; Xinhua, December 5, 2012;). Beyond Xi’s exhortation to build a powerful and technologically advanced missile force, however, little has been revealed about the specifics of his views on the future development of PLASAF’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. China’s limited transparency further complicates efforts to predict future missile force developments, but trends during the Hu Jintao era and the comments of senior missile force officers probably offer a reasonable guide to understanding PLASAF’s likely direction under Xi’s leadership. According to former Second Artillery Commander Jing Zhiyuan, who was replaced by new PLASAF Commander Wei Fenghe during the CCP and military leadership turnover last year, future developments across the missile force will include improvements in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, ability to penetrate missile defenses, destructiveness, survivability and protection of the missile force, precision strike and rapid reaction capabilities . It is also possible to predict some more specific developments in PLASAF’s nuclear and conventional missile force capabilities and its training.
Nuclear Missile Force Developments
As for future nuclear missile force developments, China is all but certain to deploy the forces it perceives as required to ensure it will have a credible assured retaliation capability. Jing writes China’s “limited development” of nuclear weapons “will not compete in quantity” with the nuclear superpowers. Instead, he writes, Beijing intends to maintain the “lowest level” of nuclear weapons that is sufficient to safeguard its national security. Nonetheless, this is likely to entail considerable further growth in the size of China’s nuclear missile force. According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), "China’s strategic missile force…currently has fewer than 50 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that can strike the continental United States, but it probably will more than double that number by 2025” .
According to the 2010 edition of the Department of Defense’s annual report on Chinese military and security developments, China may be working on a new road mobile ICBM, “possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs)” . This statement followed many years of speculation about possible Chinese follow-on ICBM systems. Indeed, rumors about a possible DF-41 ICBM program have been in circulation for well over a decade (Hong Kong Standard, October 15, 1999). More recently, photos of a large, eight axle transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that appeared on the Internet in 2007 have contributed to renewed discussion about new road mobile ICBMs (Janes Missiles and Rockets, May 16, 2007).
Conventional Missile Force Developments
With regard to the continued modernization of the conventional missile force, PLASAF appears poised to continue extending the power and reach of its conventional precision strike capabilities. According to Mark Stokes of the Project 2049 Institute, after the deployment of the DF-21D, the logical next step for China would be to develop a longer-range ASBM, capable of threatening U.S. aircraft carriers out to a distance of at least 3,000 kilometers, possibly by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan in 2015 . Another possibility is that Beijing might choose to pursue new longer-range conventional land-attack missions and capabilities for Second Artillery . Specifically, future developments may include further expansion of PLASAF’s conventional Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) force and possibly development of conventional Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs). According to the 2011 DoD report on Chinese military developments, “China’s ballistic missile force is acquiring conventional medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that extend the distance at which it can threaten other countries with conventional precision or near-precision strikes” . Moreover, according to a Chinese media report, China is developing an intermediate-range conventional missile with a range of about 4,000 kilometers. The missile, which is reportedly scheduled for deployment in 2015, would enable Second Artillery to launch conventional strikes against targets as far away as Guam. Indeed, the report quoted an unnamed military source as stating that the project “extends the range of China’s missiles and will therefore greatly enhance the national defense capabilities” (Global Times, February 18, 2011).
Developments in Second Artillery Training
The PLA has focused on improving training and Second Artillery has been no exception. Indeed, its top leaders have frequently emphasized the importance of training. In January 2011, for example, then-PLASAF Commander Jing Zhiyuan and Political Commissar Zhang Haiyang issued an order emphasizing the central role of training in further enhancing the combat capabilities of the missile force. Reflecting this strong emphasis on the importance of training, Jing and Zhang called on PLASAF to “uphold military training as a key focus in expanding and deepening preparation for military struggle, the basic way to generate, consolidate and enhance combat power, and regular, core work in the development of [missile force] units” (Rocket Force News, January 1, 2011).
Chinese military media reports suggest that PLASAF training increased in realism and complexity during the Hu Jintao era, but PLA and Second Artillery reporting on training and exercises continues to highlight deficiencies in certain areas and underscore the need for further improvements. Nonetheless, PLASAF’s own self-assessments suggest that overall they made major strides in training and exercises during the Hu years. As Jing and Peng Xiaofeng put it, “The degree of actual combat lifelikeness has been constantly enhanced for military training.” Moreover, they state “…Second Artillery has perfectly completed a number of major exercises and combat-readiness-related tasks assigned by the Central Military Commission. In particular, in the past few years, during major live campaign exercises based on complex electromagnetic scenarios, missile brigades participating in the exercises used various types of missiles to deliver precision fire strikes on a variety of targets in several rounds, accurately hitting all the targets” .
Similarly, Wei Fenghe, now PLASAF Commander, has highlighted the importance of “tempering the troops” through rigorous training and emphasized the importance of achievements in training and exercises, including live missile launches, during the Hu years . In addition, one recent PLA Daily report depicted summer 2012 training involving several PLASAF missile brigades as reflecting a “historic leap” in the core military capabilities of China’s strategic missile force, especially its ability to conduct long distance mobile combat operations and its growing precision strike capability (PLA Daily, August 27, 2012). More recent reports on Second Artillery training have highlighted informatization, new command systems and “information system-based system of systems operations” training, suggesting these will be among the key themes in PLASAF training under Xi’s leadership (PLA Daily, February 1).
In the Hu Jintao era, the Second Artillery made impressive strides in the development of its nuclear deterrence and conventional strike capabilities. The deployment of substantial numbers of road mobile ICBMs is giving China the assured retaliation capability it has long sought for its growing, but still relatively small nuclear missile force. The expansion and diversification of PLASAF’s conventional missile force has greatly enhanced China’s conventional deterrence, coercive diplomacy and regional precision strike capabilities. Furthermore, Second Artillery’s institutional stature appears to have increased along with these force modernization developments. This is reflected by the central role PLASAF has been assigned in PLA joint campaigns and the elevation of Second Artillery’s Commander to membership in the CMC.
Under Xi Jinping’s leadership over the next ten years, China can be expected to continue to strengthen PLASAF’s nuclear missile force, which will remain the most important element of China’s nuclear deterrent posture even after the anticipated introduction of Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) into the PLA Navy’s inventory. Perhaps the most important development in this regard could be the deployment of MIRVed road-mobile ICBMs. The trend will be toward a more survivable strategic nuclear missile force. China also can be expected to further enhance PLASAF’s conventional precision strike capabilities with upgraded SRBMs, MRBMs and IRBMs. Adding longer-range conventional missile systems to its inventory would expand China’s ability to strike regional targets.
Although it is possible to sketch the outlines of some potential developments over the next decade, a number of important questions about Second Artillery’s future remain unanswered:
- What new nuclear and conventional missile capabilities will Second Artillery deploy during the Xi Jinping era?
- Will China’s leaders assign the Second Artillery any new missions, such as offensive counter-space or cyber warfare operations?
- If so, how will such missions fit in with PLASAF’s responsibilities for nuclear and conventional deterrence and conventional missile strike operations?
- How will missile force strategy and doctrine evolve as PLASAF capabilities continue to improve and the missile force potentially takes on new responsibilities?
1. Wei had received his second star in late December 2010, upon his appointment as one of the five Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff (DCOGS). He was the first Second Artillery officer to serve as a deputy in any of the four General Departments and probably was placed there at least in part so he could have the grade of military region leader in order to be able to move up to the CMC member grade once he became commander of PLASAF. Of note, no Second Artillery officer replaced Wei as a DCOGS.
2. Jing Zhiyuan, “Jianshe jinggan youxiao zhanlue daodan jundui wei weihu shijie he anquan zuochu gongxian liliang ” (“Creating a Lean and Effective Strategic Missile Troop Contributing to International Nuclear Security”), Zhongguo Jundui (China Armed Forces), No. 6, 2010, pp. 4–5 (Chinese), 6–7 (English).
3. Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., “Annual Threat Assessment,” Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, United States Senate, February 16, 2012, available online <https://www.dia.mil/public-affairs/testimonies/2012-02-16.html>.
4. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2010, p. 2.
5. Mark Stokes, China Evolving Conventional Strategic Strike Capability: The Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Challenge to U.S. Maritime Operations in the Western Pacific and Beyond, Project 2049 Institute, September 14, 2009, p. 2.
6. James C. Mulvenon, Murray Scot Tanner, Michael S. Chase, David Frelinger, David C. Gompert, Martin C. Libicki and Kevin L. Pollpeter, Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Transformation and Implications for the Department of Defense, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006, p. 95. See also Mark Stokes, China Evolving Conventional Strategic Strike Capability: The Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Challenge to U.S. Maritime Operations in the Western Pacific and Beyond, Project 2049 Institute, September 14, 2009.
7. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2011, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2011, p. 33.
8. Jing Zhiyuan and Peng Xiaofeng, “Pinghuli jianzhu huihang” (“Riding on the Tide, Sharpening the Sword and Creating Glory”), in Huihang Niandai:Huigu zai gaige kaifang zhong fazhan qianjin de dier paobing [Glorious Era: Looking Back on Second Artillery’s Development and Advances in the Period of Reform and Opening), Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Publishing, 2008, pp. 1–22.
9. Wei Fenghe, “Shiming zhongyu Taishan” (“Our Mission is Weightier than Tai Shan”), in Glorious Era, pp. 493–500.