In-depth research. Perceptive insights.
In-depth research. Perceptive insights.
Monday, June 5, 2023
Tan Meng Wah
In-depth research. Perceptive insights.
5.6 Modernization of PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF)
1 April 2018
The PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF), which controls the country’s land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles and ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles, was formerly known as the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF). It was renamed in 2016 and upgraded to a full service as part of Xi’s new impetus to accelerate the long-term military modernization program that has been slowed by institutional inertia and obstruction. In response to Xi’s call for change, PLARF advanced its long-term modernization plans in 2016 to enhance its “strategic deterrence capability”. The service is now developing and testing several new variants of missiles, forming additional missile units, and retiring or upgrading older missile systems
Notably, PLARF dealt with only nuclear missiles till 1980s. Since then, however, improvements in conventional weapons technology have dramatically increased the deterrence strength of conventional military power. Hence, in 1993, PLARF also began carrying conventional missiles. Their rapid response capability, long-range, high accuracy and strong penetration complement PLAAF’s and PLAN’s conventional strike capabilities and afford China the means of striking outside forces (i.e. the US) at a distance before they can intervene with China’s military actions in the region. With the inclusion of conventional missiles, PLARF focus has therefore gravitated to “dual deterrence, dual operations,” mode.
PLARF’s Arsenal of Missiles
It has been said that "China's missile industry is factually the most dynamic branch of their military industrial complex. In this area the Chinese stopped copying foreign models fairly early on. They generally regard ballistic missiles as a priority, since their development allows them to compensate for the relative weakness of its aircraft in relation to the US.”
*Short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) are part of the wider grouping of theatre ballistic missiles (TBM) which includes any ballistic missile with a range of less than 3,500 km.
**Some include an additional category, the long-range ballistic missile (LRBM), for missiles with a range between IRBMs and true ICBMs.
In warfare, a theatre is an area or place in which important military events occur or are progressing. A theatre can include the entirety of the air space, land and sea area that is or that may potentially become involved in war operations. Tactical weapons are for local battlefield use, and are designed to be deployed against targets strictly of immediate military value. Theatre weapons are intended to be used against C3I assets behind the main battleline, but not against national production or political infrastructure. Strategic weapons are used for strategic purposes - threatening an opponent's industrial infrastructure, targeting their command structure, and are generally designed to hit targets which disrupt the enemy's ability to conduct warfare at a high level.
Basically, the classification of Strategic vs Theatre vs Tactical boils down to answering this question: Who are you shooting at, and how far away are they?
Indeed, to accomplish their objective of dual deterrence, PLARF has progressively put together over the years a complete array of short, medium, intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles called the "DF missiles" (DF for Dongfeng 东风 or ‘East Wind’).
The first of the Dongfeng missiles, the DF-1, was a licensed copy of the Soviet R-2 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). The DF-1 had a single RD-101 rocket engine with a maximum range of 550 km and a 500 kg payload. PLARF then came up with DF-2 in late 1960s and DF-3 in early 1970s. DF-1, DF-2 and DF-3 have since been retired from service.
In 1970, PLARF successfully tested DF4, a two-stage, transportable, liquid-fueled intermediate to intercontinental ballistic missile (IRBM/ICBM) with a maximum range of 5,500 km designed to strike US bases in Guam initially but later to hit also Moscow. Deployment, however, was delayed till 1980 because of the Cultural Revolution and a higher priority placed on completing the DF-5 ICBM. Notably, the DF-4 eventually led to a three-stage satellite launch vehicle known as the Long March-1 which was used to launch the first Chinese satellite in 1970. As of 2017, an estimated 10-15 DF-4 launchers remain operational.
*Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) are unmanned, rocket-launched, manoeuvrable aircraft that glide and “skip” through the atmosphere at incredibly fast speed (> Mach 5). For example, multiple HGV warheads could be used with the DF-41 to hit anywhere in the US in less than an hour. Since HGV warheads can travel at much higher speeds, lower altitudes and less-trackable trajectories, there is less time for defence systems to intercept. In the event of war with the US, China would likely launch both HGV and ballistic missiles to give defenders two types of missiles to defend against. It would complicate, but not render useless, existing defenses.
**Missiles that are road mobile are usually loaded on transport erector launch (TELs) that must be driven along paved roads to suitable launching sites. In the case of new all-terrain TEL vehicle, the capability to be driven off-road offers more stealth.
^ LF = Liquid fuel; SF = Solid fuel
Development of the DF-5 began in 1966. After successful testing throughout the 1970s, the DF-5 completed its first full test flight in May 1980. The missiles entered service in 1981 and were deployed in hardened silos in central China. The DF-5 has an effective range of 12,000 km and delivers a payload of 3,900 kg. This payload is equipped with a 1 to 3 MT yield nuclear warhead. It is reported to also be equipped with chaff and decoys or penetration aids to increase its resilience to missile defense systems. PLARF came up the DF-5A in the mid-1990s with improved range (>13,000 km) and DF-5B in 2015 capable of carrying 3 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads that can each individually strike a different target. This was followed by the DF-5C variant in 2017 equipped with 10 MIRVed warheads. While powerful, the DF-5A/B/C uses liquid fueled engines, requiring a lengthy (up to 2 hour) fueling process before launch, making it vulnerable to a first-strike attack. 
The DF-11 is a road-mobile, nuclear-capable, solid-fuel short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) can reach ranges up to 800km. While the DF-11 has an estimated accuracy of 200m CEP, the PRC is reportedly working to increase its accuracy to 30 CEP by 2020 through the addition of Global Positioning System (GPS) and laser guidance systems.
The DF-15 family offers a variety of strategic implications for China. Tested heavily during the 1995/1996 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis, it is apparent that the DF-15 missiles are often used as a deterrent against Taiwan seeking independence. DF-15C was originally designed with the intention of destroying the Heng Shan Military Command Center in Taiwan's capital of Taipei, which was built to withstand a 20 kiloton nuclear blast, a 2 kiloton conventional bomb blast, or an electromagnetic pulse; another target would be Chiashan Air Force Base. According to one estimate by the RAND Corporation, the PRC’s DF-15 stockpile alone is nearly double the size needed to eliminate Taiwan’s attack aircraft infrastructure. The extended range on the DF-15A allows China to expand their strike range beyond Taiwan, reaching as far as South Korea and parts of northern India. Depending on where it is deployed, the DF-15B can reach Kadena Air Base in Japan as well as New Delhi, India. The DF-15 family is therefore a versatile component of the PRC’s rapid attack and anti-access/area denial capabilities.
Along with the DF-11, the DF-15 provides the PRC with a plausible theater nuclear capability. Should the PRC successfully update its SRBM arsenal with more sophisticated guidance systems, this capability will become all the more formidable.
The DF-16 is one of China’s most accurate missiles, with enough accuracy to hit slowly moving targets. Its range of 1,000 km fills the gap that previously existed with the absence of a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) in the PLA's arsenal. It is designed to pose a challenge to foreign military installations along the first island chain, which is what the Chinese military calls the series of islands that stretch from Japan in the north to Taiwan and the Philippines to the south. The DF-16 and the longer range DF-21 ballistic missiles are believed to be stationed at the same base and can cover all targets within Japan and the Pacific first island chain stretching from the Kuril islands just south of the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia all the way to Borneo and the Malay peninsula.
Most of DF-11, DF-12, DF-15, and DF-16 are deployed against India and Taiwan, with those deployed in Taiwan's direction not nuclear-armed. The overall strategy of China's military industrial complex has been the development of large numbers of missile systems. "Their tactical missiles may not be perfect, but they are banking on numbers – even if enemy air and missile defenses take some of them down, some will still make it through to their targets." The numbers of DF-11s and DF-15s China has deployed could actually range in the thousands.
The DF-16 is not the only relatively new missile that the US and its allies must worry about. China recently tested a new ballistic missile, the DF-17 MRMB capable of carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) that can be deployed from a ballistic missile upon its re-entry on a flight path much different from that of the ballistic missile carrying it. The HGV can then glide as far as 1,400 km to its target at extremely high speeds, at relatively low altitudes and on difficult-to-predict trajectories. The HGV may also have maneuverable characteristics during its terminal phase. This makes it difficult for either antiballistic-missile defense systems or traditional surface-to-air missile systems to defeat the weapons on approach.
DF-21 is China’s first road-mobile, solid propellant MRBM developed in 1991. It is a variant of the JL-1 submarine-launched system that replaced the DF-2 in the early 1980s. Unlike the DF-11, DF-12, DF-15, and DF-16, which are mostly SRBM, the DF-21s family comprises of highly accurate conventional and nuclear capable MRBMs with a maximum range of 2,150 km.
Conventionally-armed DF-21s greatly strengthen China’s A2/AD capabilities by allowing the PLA to engage in theater-range ballistic missile opening or escalating strikes meant to counteract an adversary’s invading forces and infrastructures. Their range, speed and accuracy made them ideal for holding US Navy platforms and their supporting assets at risk in the near seas and their approaches within the first island chain. This would allow China to perform long-range preemptive, opportunistic, or suppressive, strikes that can interfere with adversaries attempting to assemble for an operation. The MaRV DF-21D with CEP of 20 m and top speed of Mach 10, for example, is particularly lethal and has been branded a “carrier killer”.
The nuclear-armed DF-21s, on the other hand act as an additional deterrent to other regional adversaries such as Japan, Korea, Russia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
To reach the second island chain, PLARF uses the intermediate range continental missiles (IRBMs) such as the DF-26 which is capable of conducting conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets and conventional strikes against naval targets in the western Pacific Ocean. Fielded only in 2016, it is thus China's first conventionally-armed ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam, a major hub for the Pentagon’s shift of U.S. forces to Asia Pacific. This has led to the missile being referred to by netizens as the "Guam Express" or "Guam Killer". The DF-26 is thus a critical component of PLA’s military buildup aimed at controlling the Asia-Pacific waters and preventing the US military entry to the two island chains along China’s coasts. To be sure, China has been able to reach Guam with nuclear weapons for decades. For example, the nuclear-armed DF-4 deployed in the 1970s was likely targeted at Guam. But in terms of lethality, DF-4 is nowhere near the DF-26 which is equipped with manoeuvrable and hypersonic warhead.
Finally, for a global reach, PLARF has the DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) family that can reach a maximum range of 11,700 km and the soon-to-be-deployed DF-41 ICBM with a maximum range of 15,000 km. The DF-31 and DF-31A ICBM can be launched either on road or rail. DF-31B, on the other hand, can be launched from new all-terrain TELs. The capability to be driven off-road offers more stealth. To top it off, DF-31A/B are also able MIRV capable making them harder to be intercepted. The real game-changer is DF-41 which some called China’s “ultimate doomsday weapon” that can potentially wreak extensive destruction. When deployed, DF-41 will be the world’s longest range missile capable of carrying not only conventional/nuclear warheads but also HGVs. With a hypersonic speed of Mach 25, it is capable of delivering up to 10 MIRVed warheads and can strike the continental US within 30 minutes. Moreover, China is loading DF-41 with manoeuvring re-entry vehicles (MARVs) that would give them the ability to further defeat US missile defence, and potentially, attack different targets including mobile ones at the same time.
As for delivery by submarine, PLAN’s JIN-class (Type 094) each carries twelve JL-2 SLBM (Julang-2 巨浪2) with an estimated range of 8,000 – 9,000 km. The JL-2 is a naval variant of the land-based DF-31. It is capable of carrying either 3 – 8 MIRV (90kT each) or a single warhead with a yield of 250-1000 kT over a range of 8,000km. Together, the four JIN-class SSBNs are supposed to give the PLAN its first credible long-range sea-based nuclear capability. Moreover, PLAN is reported to be developing a fourth-generation the Type 096 SSBN each to be equipped with 24 third-generation nuclear armed intercontinental SLBMs, the JL-3.
Notably, there is no talk by PLAAF about fielding air-launched nuclear missiles even though H-6, or for that matter, PLARF’s other bombers are nuclear capable. There are reportedly also no nuclear aerial bombs in the China's nuclear stockpile. This may be because China has a nuclear "No First Use" policy. It is thus oriented towards defensive use of nuclear weapons, a strategy that prioritizes platforms that are more likely to survive an adversary’s nuclear first strike, such as ground-based and submarine-launched strategic missiles and not bombers which are more vulnerable to surprise attack in the air.
In addition to ballistic missiles, China also invests in its cruise missile programs and is currently developing and testing several different models of advanced land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) that are capable of standoff, precision strikes.
China's first land attack cruise missile (LACM) was the ground-launched HN-1 (HN for Hongniao 红鸟 meaning Red Bird), which has a range of 600 km and can carry a 300 to 400 kg conventional warhead or a 90 kT nuclear warhead. The HN-1 is believed to use inertial guidance with terrain comparison or GPS updates. An improved version, the CJ-10 (长剑-10 Long Sword10; aka DH-10 or 东海-10), has an increased range of more than 1,500 km and can be ground- or ship-launched. It has an air-launched variant, CJ-20, that is still under development. CJ-20 has a longer range of 2,200 km and it can launched from a H-6K bomber which further extend the range of the missile by another 3,700 km. The H-6K can carry a maximum of six CJ-20. While these missiles may be capable of fielding a nuclear warhead, they currently appear to be conventionally armed.
China’s arsenal of anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) include the YJ-91, YJ-12 (YJ for yingji 鹰击 meaning Eagle Strike), YJ-18 and YJ-63. The YJ-91 is an anti-radiation missile (ARM) is a missile designed to detect and home in on an enemy radio emission source. It was developed from the Russian Kh-31P which uses a wide array of seekers to cover the entire radar frequency band. It has a range of 120 km. There is also another version of YJ-91 that is an ASCM with a shorter range of 50 km.
The YJ-12, on the other hand, is an air-launched missile that can be deployed on H-6K medium-range strategic bombers though it can be also be launched from land or sea platforms and used in a land-attack role. With a range of 400 km, it can reach speeds of up to Mach 3, carrying a 500 kg conventional or nuclear warhead. YJ-12 is capable of performing air-borne evasive manoeuvres before hitting its target. In service since 2015, the YJ-12 is considered the “most dangerous anti-ship missile China has produced thus far” for U.S. naval forces in the Pacific. The missile’s long range mean that it can be launched beyond the engagement ranges for US Aegis Combat Systems and SM-2 surface-to-air missiles protecting the US carrier strike groups to identify and engage it while the high speed greatly reduces the US Navy’s time to react. Protection against the YJ-12 is even more difficult due to its cork-screw-like turns which allow it to evade final defenses. With the combination of Chinese Flanker bombers, YJ-12’s can potentially reach up to 1,900km which could cause an even larger problem for the US than DF-21D ASBM.
In contrast, the YJ-18, is a vertically-launched ASCM that can travel at supersonic speeds of up to Mach 3 and has a range of 540km. It can carry a 300 kg HE warhead that is capable of taking out a destroyer-sized ship and severely damage a carrier-sized vessel. The PLA Navy deploys the YJ-18 on its LUYANG III destroyer (DDG) and Type 055 cruiser (CG) surface combatant ships and SONG-, YUAN-, and SHANG-class attack submarines. Although China currently has only one LUYANG III destroyer with a vertical-launch system capable of firing the YJ-18, it plans to have ten more ships operational by 2017.
The YJ-63 is an air-launched, land attack cruise missile (LACM) that carries a conventional payload of up to 500 kg capable of precision strikes against both land and maritime targets. It has a range of 200 km and is carried by China’s H-6H and H-6K bombers which has a maximum range of 3,500 km. This puts large portions of the western Pacific within range.
In conclusion, China produces a broad array of missiles ranging from short-range systems to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It is actively modernizing the delivery systems, moving away from the older and relatively inaccurate liquid-fuelled, silo/cave-based missiles, towards more accurate, solid-fuelled road-mobile missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in order to strengthen its deterrence and to increase its strategic options, including conventional first strike options.
At the same time, to enhance the missiles’ ability to penetrate ballistic missile defence systems, China is also working on a range of technologies including Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicles (MaRVs), Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), decoys, chaff, jamming, and thermal shielding. There is speculation that DF-31 and JL-2 will also likely employ GPS technology for improved accuracy. This will strengthen China's deterrent and enhance its strategic strike capabilities.
Finally, China is also developing its own missile defence intercept systems including its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system aimed at destroying an opponent’s satellites in order to diminish their capacity to conduct informationized C4ISR network battles.
PLARF’s Stockpile of Nuclear Warhead
Despite its impressive range of missile types, however, China has a surprising low stockpile of nuclear warhead compared to that of the Russian and the US which held nearly 30,000 warheads during the Cold War. In 2017, even though China’ stockpile has grown to 270 or more than double what it was in 2006, that number is still no where near the designated 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads that Russia and America will each deploy under the New START Treaty.
To be sure, the low number has nothing to do with a shortage of nuclear material. Beijing current estimated stockpile of fourteen and eighteen tons of highly enriched uranium and 1.3–2.3 tons of weapon-grade plutonium is enough for anywhere between 750 and 1,600 nuclear weapons. Rather, China’s smaller arsenal is more a result of its no-first-use (NFU) nuclear doctrine and its principal goal of strategic deterrence by achieving assured second strike capability against its adversary. It is the only nuclear weapons state that has adopted the defensive NFU doctrine. Given its cautious stance, China has thus chosen to maintain a relatively small nuclear arsenal, since its first nuclear test in 1964. Looking ahead, however, a couple of technical developments are likely to propel China to undertake a significant buildup in nuclear warhead in the coming years.
Source: Arms Control Association.
The first of these is China’s acquisition of a viable nuclear triad for the first time comprising of not only land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and strategic bombers but also nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines SSBNs. Prior to this, Beijing has primarily relied on single-warhead land-based ballistic missiles to deliver its nuclear weapons. After decades of false starts, however, China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent capability has strengthened noticeably with its deployment of four JIN-class (Type 094) ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) in 2014 with another one on its way. Given that each JIN-class SSBN can carry twelve JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and each JL-2 can be equipped with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) to carry between 2 - 8 warheads, the 5 JIN-class SSBNs will require somewhere between 60 and 480 nuclear warheads.
Meanwhile, there are also reports about PLAN adding five more advanced Type 096 SSBNs to its service in the 2020s. Assuming that each sub has 24 launch tubes for a new more lethal missile, the JL-3, and each JL-3 carries just one warhead, PLAN will need another 120 warheads.
Moreover, China’s land-based ballistic missiles are simultaneously also requiring more warheads. The DF-5C missile China tested earlier this year has ten MIRVed warheads. It is also believed to be MIRVing its older DF-5B, with somewhere between three and ten warheads. Pentagon has estimated in the past that China has around 20 DF-5A and DF-5B missiles. Assuming half of these are DF-5B, and those are equipped with 3 warheads apiece, and China builds 10 DF-5C missiles with 10 warheads a piece, this would amount to 130 warheads, or about half China’s entire arsenal. Furthermore, China is also building a new, more advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), the DF-41 which is expected to be deployed in 2018. If China were to build 10 of these missiles each carrying 10 warheads, that would be another hundred missiles. Together with the estimates from the DF-5B and DF-5C, this would equal 230 warheads, or 87 percent of its arsenal.
Clearly, looking ahead, China is poised to substantially increase the number of warheads in its arsenals in the years ahead as its hardware upgrading go full steam.
Effectiveness of China’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy
Despite all the advancements in missile technology, however, there are concerns over the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrence strategy.
To begin with, China stores its warheads and its missiles separately, both strictly under the control of the top leadership. To deploy them, warheads and missiles would first have to be put together and handed over to the delivery vehicle. This would not only entail a huge leap in the alert status of the Chinese nuclear arsenal but also similarly huge delegation of responsibility to one of the armed forces. When to start deploying fully armed nuclear weapon thus poses a huge dilemma for the ultra-cautious top leadership.
Second, nuclear weapons can only be launched upon receiving orders from the top. They thus risk being rendered unusable by a surprise “decapitation” strike on the Chinese leadership.
Finally, there is also a fear that the Chinese nuclear arsenal is so small that it could be almost completely wiped out without notice. Even if a few missiles survive and manage to be launched in reprisal, they risk being destroyed in mid-air by US missile defences.
In short, without that capability to respond with a “second strike”, China would have no meaningful deterrent at all.
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