Theater Ballistic Missiles and China’s Doctrine of “Active Defense”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 6

The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense recently announced that China has accelerated its build-up of theater ballistic missiles facing the island and that by 2010 nearly 1,800 missiles will be poised for launch across the Strait (China Post, February 8). Due to the build-up of theater ballistic missiles by both China and North Korea, other military powers in the region are investing in ballistic missile defense (BMD) sensors and weapons systems. These investments in BMD are, in turn, reducing China’s strategic missile deterrence force, as some could intercept long-range missiles over Chinese airspace and thus negate their ability to deter. As these systems come to fruition, China will have to invest heavily to counter these BMD systems or lose its primary means of strategic deterrence.

Chinese Theater Ballistic Missiles

The Second Artillery Force is the operator of all of China’s ballistic missiles that are armed with both conventional and WMD warheads. These range from intercontinental ballistic missiles in reinforced silos to mobile theater ballistic missiles (TBMs) now being deployed as part of the PLA’s new reorganized corps structure. The command-and-control equipment in the mobile missile forces have been extensively modernized in the past few years and thoroughly trialed and evaluated in a series of recent exercises. The command-and-control of China’s ballistic missile force has come under some debate inside the PLA. In the late 1990s, control of the PLA’s short-range ballistic missiles was delegated to the group armies [1]. With the creation of the corps as the major combat group, this has created a command-and-control conundrum for the use of TBMs. The 600km range DF-15 could now come under a corps commander instead of the control of the military region commander.

The current corps restructuring envisages the A-100 multiple rocket launcher and twelve DF-15D theater ballistic missiles in two different battalions as the primary organic deep strike weapons systems. There is a range mismatch, however, between the A-100, with its maximum range of 120 kilometers, and the 600km range DF-15D [1]. This creates a significant command-and-control challenge, as the A-100 is the longest-range weapon that PLA corps commander can use without central authority. Theater ballistic missiles still come under control of the Second Artillery Force, as a recent exercise evaluating the structure of the new corps structure in Xinjiang has revealed (PLA Pictorial, April 1, 2005). Permission to use the DF-15 theater ballistic missile thus needs to be accessed from the Second Artillery Force. Time-critical targets could be missed during the process of acquiring authorization. (Contrast this with a U.S. Army corps commander, or a delegated officer, who can order the launch of an ATACMS ballistic missile which depending on the variant has a maximum range between 128km and 300 kilometers [2].)

China has recently developed the B611 Zhenmu tactical missile system, which better fits the needs of its new corps (Kanwa Defense Review, December 1, 2004). With a range of 150km and equipped with cluster or high explosive warheads, it enables a corps commander to strike deep without having to request longer range weapons from the Second Artillery Force. The launch vehicle uses a North-Benz 8×8 Type 2629 chassis and is equipped with twin canister launched missiles, which after firing can be quickly replaced. This would enable the corps commander to have command-and-control of deep strike assets that would not be available if a new short-range ballistic missile system is not procured.


The missile forces in Fujian are seen as a key piece in China’s forces against Taiwan, both as a show of force and a first strike weapon in the event Taiwan declares independence. U.S. estimates currently state that over 700 CSS-6 (DF-15) and CSS-7 ballistic missiles face Taiwan, with 100 being added every year (Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2005). They are seen as leverage in thwarting Taiwan’s democratic ambitions, as well as providing a first strike capability. They are, however, causing Taiwan to arm itself with BMD sensors and systems, as well as Japan (which also is forced to guard against North Korea).

Taiwanese air defenses are hardened, dispersed and mobile to ensure survivability in the event of a surprise attack with many roads able to be used as runways in an emergency. The Taiwanese would employ company sized combat groups to reduce their vulnerability to missile strikes by reducing their signature whilst still retaining enough combat power to destroy airborne and amphibious incursions. Units this size are easily concealed in forests, hills and in urban areas

Regional Active Defense and Ballistic Missile Defense Systems

The Standard IV anti-ballistic missile (ABM) onboard AEGIS-equipped warships and the land-based THAAD and Patriot PAC-3 would be capable of intercepting a warhead with a re-entry speed of five kilometers per second when fully developed, which equates to a ballistic missile with a range of 3,000- 3,500km. This capability effectively neutralizes much of China’s nuclear deterrence [4]. Japan and the U.S. Navy have ships capable of using the Standard IV and have PAC-3 missiles, with Australia’s new destroyers being designed to carry Standard IV. Taiwan has considered purchasing the AEGIS system for future warships, following the four ex-USN Kidd-class destroyers currently being incorporated into the Taiwanese Navy. Their launchers are already Standard IV capable but the ships are not equipped with the AEGIS system. Taiwan already has approval to purchase Patriot PAC-3 BMDs and has stated it requires nine batteries to defend Taiwan (China Post, February 8).

Ballistic missile defense systems pose a problem for China’s theater ballistic missiles, if deployed in Taiwan or off the Chinese coast. The ranges of THAAD and Standard IV would enable missile interception over China, with warheads exploding over or falling onto its soil. This is why Chinese military strategists see the deployment of BMD sensors and weapons systems in Northeast Asia as inherently offensive. Chinese defense magazines have talked about this, as well as countermeasures that could be deployed on the missile [5]. Yet all options nearly lead to a reduction of range or warhead size, including variable trajectories to light and heavy decoys (Ibid.). The active defense doctrine method would be to destroy the systems with a pre-emptive strike, or stop their being supplied to Taiwan and other states by economic pressure. The latter has already been applied.

Chinese Command and Control Systems, Crisis Management, and Active Defense

The PLA has invested heavily in survivable computerized command-and-control systems linked by satellites and fiber optics to link the military regions command centers with units in the field as well as with higher headquarters. China’s command centers regularly practice with field units and the Guangzhou Command Center uses a planning display incorporating the South China Sea. The core of Chinese military strategy is active defense summarized by a senior PLA officer as “based on three basic principles: no provocation of other nations; no bases anywhere on foreign soil; and no seizure of territory” [6].Yet little is known of the crisis management systems and methodology.

Chapter two of China’s National Defense 2004 White Paper noted that “China adheres to its military strategy of active defense,” with Chapter one attacking the United States for accelerating its development of BMD, Japan’s development of BMD, and the U.S. continuing to “increase, quantitatively and qualitatively, its arms sales to Taiwan.” Chapter one also states that Taiwanese independence “forces have increasingly become the biggest immediate threat to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as peace and stability on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.” This has portents for the deployment of BMD systems ands sensors by Taiwan.

The Chinese government repeatedly claims it would not use nuclear weapons first. Yet the problem with this is that the “offensive defensive” doctrine is a lynchpin of China’s active defense strategy. The Chinese intervention against United Nations Forces in the Korean War, and the Sino-Vietnamese conflict, are justified by the PLA using this strategy. Whitson argued that the 1962 Sino-Indian occurred because of the Chinese professional preference for the offensive defensive doctrine in which the initial spoiling attack is staged against the weaker adversary (India) on the eve of an assumed coordinated attack against China a stronger one (the USSR) [7].

Pre-emptive operations or spoiling attacks have been part of the PLA’s doctrine since its beginning as the Red Army. Thus, in the event of problems in the South China Sea, or over Taiwan, the PLA could attack a third-party if the Chinese leadership thought it might intervene and upset its operations. Alternatively, it might initiate the attack early, even if not fully prepared to forestall intervention by taking over the areas earlier. This would occur if its strategic deterrence systems were seen to be under threat. China certainly feels threatened by any ballistic missile defense systems in North East Asia that threaten its ballistic missile land-based deterrence system. U.S. President Richard Nixon identified China as a “rogue nation” in 1969 to justify the deployment of the Sentinel BMD system and the proposed deployment and acquisition of BMDs by Taiwan and Japan in 1996 made sections of the in the Chinese government feel that these were parts of a United States containment strategy [8]. If China felt threatened it might launch its nuclear-armed missiles “on warning of threat,” believing that if it waited to “launch on warning” (of a launch) or wait until “launch under attack” its missiles would be intercepted before they could be used. China believes the latter scenarios destroy the basis of its strategic deterrence.

The Strategic Quandary

The Chinese leadership is in a quandary. BMD systems are being deployed in Northeast Asia because of the build-up in Chinese and North Korean ballistic missiles. Yet if it were to negotiate the removal of its ballistic missiles facing Taiwan it loses its key leverage over Taiwan—with Japan and South Korea still keeping their BMD systems in the face of North Korea’s arsenal. Yet by sustaining—and adding to— missile forces in Fujian, Beijing runs the risk of negating its strategic deterrence. If the Chinese leadership follows its doctrine of active defense and believed its nuclear deterrence was becoming neutralized or under threat, it could conceivably launch strikes against Taiwan and Japanese and U.S. ballistic defense missile forces, certainly leading to retaliatory economic and military action. With the acceleration of Chinese ballistic missile forces opposite Taiwan, this is becoming a matter of concern on both sides of the Asia-Pacific [9].


1. Wang Hui, ZTZ-98 zhuzhantanke zhuanji, Inner Mongolia Cultural Publishing Company, 2002, p. 74.

2. “Zhuhai hongzhan zhongchan xinzhuangbeimantan,” Bingqi Zhishi, 2005 Niandi, 1

Qi, Zhongdi 207, p. 69

3. Lockheed Martin – Missiles and Fire Control. ATACMS Block IA and ATACMS Block


4. Figures taken from Gronlund, L.; Lewis , al. “Highly Capable Theater Missile

Defenses and the ABM Treaty,”Arms Control Today, Volume 24, No. 23, April 1994, pp. 3-8.

5. Yang Zukuai and Wang Zaigang, “How to Develop China’s Precision Guided

Missiles,” Beijing Jiachuan Zhishi, January 5, 2005, pp. 28 – 30; “New PRC Ballistic Missile Possesses Similar Features as Eskander-E System,” Kanwa Defense Magazine, January 1, 2005.

6. Whitson, W. & Chen-Hsia Huang. The Chinese High Command: A History of

Communist Military Politics 1927-71, Macmillan, London, 1973, p. 489.

7. Comments by Senior Colonel Hua Liuhu, a PLA specialist on strategy and security,

at a presentation given by him to the United States Command and General Staff College on January 8, 2000.

8. Friedman, E. “Goodwill, Lost in Translation,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol.

159, No. 31, 1996, p. 27.n

9. Quadrennial Defense Review Report 2006, US Department of Defense, 6 February

2006, pp. 29 & 30.