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Evolving PLA Rocket Force: Some Observations – Analysis


China is in the midst of sweeping military reforms that will affect the force structure, administration, command and control mechanisms of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Among the major steps taken is the creation of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), which replaced the former Second Artillery that controls China’s nuclear forces and land-based ballistic and cruise missiles.

The Gulf War was the major benchmark for the modernization of the Chinese military. According to military and strategic experts around the world stress the importance that China was attracted to the technical-military power shown by the US in Gulf War. It gave a new focus to China’s military modernization involving such developments as the reprioritizing of the modernization program to give priority to developing the air force and the navy and its missile development program. The immediate result was the enhanced accuracy of medium range missile of the sort that was fired near Taiwan in March 1996. 1

During the Gulf War, China was convinced that it could no longer base its defence on the weight of numbers by looking at the use of precision weapons in Operation Desert Storm by the Americans Another event which gave a new turn in its modernization process is when the PLA was hectoring Taiwan with missile tests in 1996. China had to back down. The collapse of the Soviet Union persuaded China’s leaders that an arms race with the world’s only superpower could squander enough money to pose a threat to the party’s grip. China made efforts into affordable “asymmetric” weapons. This unorthodox strategy has made the PLA’s progress harder to measure.2 Thus, China’s analysis of the 1990–91 Gulf War provided further motivation for transforming the PLA so that it would be better prepared for future conflicts along China’s periphery.

Against this backdrop of the modernization process, Jiang Zemin’s “Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period,” promulgated in January 1993, reflected this assessment and codified these imperatives. Following Jiang’s speech to an enlarged CMC meeting in December 1995, Chinese “army building” has been guided by the “Two Transformations” policy line, which calls for the PLA to prepare to win “limited local wars under high-technology conditions,” emphasize quality over quantity, and shift from being personnel-intensive to being science- and technology-intensive.3China took immediate steps to update its military technology, generally through purchasing the most-advanced Soviet hardware.

Strapped for cash, Russia was eager to make deals, and didn’t worry overmuch about the long-range consequences of technology transfer. China also attempted to acquire technology with military applications from Europe, but sanctions associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre hamstrung this effort. Finally, China accelerated efforts to increase the sophistication of research and development in its own military-industrial base.4

Within a few years, China’s nascent conventional missile capability reached the forefront of its coercive diplomacy toward Taiwan. During the ensuing 1995–96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the conventional missile force conducted two “large scale conventional deterrence firing exercises.” These exercises included a total of 10 SRBM launches into designated waters off the Northern and Southern Taiwan ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung.

In any case, during the next few years, plans were apparently implemented for the SAF to begin establishing five SRBM brigades opposite Taiwan. Still another important milestone with implications for the development of the SA’s conventional missions and capabilities came in 2002, when China updated the “Military Strategic Guidelines” that were issued almost a decade earlier.

In revising the guidelines, President Hu Jintao directed the PLA to focus on “local wars under informatized conditions,” meaning that the PLA had to improve the utilization of information technology and networks and be prepared to degrade or deny an adversary’s capability to use its own information technology and networks.

The development of China’s conventional missile force has subsequently been driven by several factors. These include a desire to influence politics in Taiwan and deter US intervention in a regional crisis or conflict and the relative advantages offered by emphasizing missile force modernization rather than relying primarily on the development of capabilities such as stealth aircraft to conduct precision strikes.5

Further changes took place on the eve of 2016 as the SAC was recommissioned as the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) on December 31, 2015. Additionally, the PLARF was elevated from an independent branch to the fourth military service alongside the PLA, PLAN, and PLAAF. Though the decision to reconstitute the PLARF as a military service indicates the importance China puts on maintaining modern missile forces, at this point it seems unlikely that the PLARF’s roles and responsibilities will differ substantially from the SAF.6

Implications of the PLA Rocket Force

The changing nuclear dynamics around the world especially with China on growing conflicts with its neighbours on issues such as South China Sea and East China Sea China seems to shift away from minimum deterrence to that of limited deterrence. 7 In view of this, China seems to be moving from a strategy of simply possessing warheads as a form of deterrence to that of a strategy which favors a build-up of capabilities to deter any type of threat. 8

China seems to have adapted to the concept of A2/AD9. The A2/AD concepts are extremely similar to the application of what is known in the U.S. as A2/AD capabilities. The applications of these concepts are similar to the actions that preventing the outside power (such as the U.S.) from entering into a theatre and operating freely within a theatre.10

The DF 21D which is formidable an anti-access weapon is theoretically capable of credible performance with respect to its assessed increased range and payload.11The DF-21D is developed by China Changfeng Mechanics and Electronics Technology Academy. The latest DF-21D was said to be the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).12 The DF-26 is an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM).

The standard land attack DF-26 missile is nicknamed the “Guam Killer’ because it would be used to barrage the American island stronghold and other US bases in the region during a conflict. It has a range of roughly 2,000 to 2,500 miles. So an anti-ship variant of the DF-26 would likely have over double the range of the DF-21D. It still isn’t clear what the operational status is of the anti-ship variant of the DF-26, but it is clearly an ongoing program for the Chinese military. Seeing that the DF-26 anti-ship missile concept would not be feasible without robust long-range naval targeting capabilities, its very existence is an indication that China has progressed significantly in this area over the last seven years or so.13

Cruise missiles often do not receive the same attention as ballistic missiles but they serve as both a method of delivering nuclear weapons and can provide precision strikes with conventional weapons. As such, they are as important – if not more important in terms of probable use and the ability to conduct lethal attacks – than most SRBMs and MRBMs without high-yield nuclear weapons.14

Indeed, cruise missiles form a vital part of China’s A2/AD concept and present a serious threat to any force that engages the PLA in battle. The PLA has a wide variety of cruise missiles that can be launched from land, air, sea, and sub-surface platforms.15 Cruise missiles have several advantages over ballistic missiles; they can be updated during flight on battlefield changes, their low flight altitude makes them very stealthy against air defense radars, and fuel efficient turbofan engines allow cruise missiles to be lighter and cheaper than their ballistic counterparts.

The flexibility of the DH-10 is its greatest strength. The 1550 mile-ranged H-6K bomber can carry 7 KD-20s (the DH-10’s air launched variant), giving the PLAAF the ability to reach Pacific targets distant as Hawaii. The next generation of this family will be the YJ-100, a proposed DH-10 anti-ship variant that will have an on-board radar and 800km range, potentially China’s answer to the U.S. Long Range Anti-ship Missile.

More broadly, future Chinese cruise missiles are likely to branch off into two families, one optimized for stealth, and the other focused on hypersonic flight. China is already investing large amounts of money into hypersonic engines and stealth technology; stealthy cruise missiles would be used to achieve operational surprise while hypersonic missiles would run past heavy enemy defenses. Other advancements would likely include electromagnetic attack technology, data links and distributed sensors/networks and improved AI to autonomously hunt targets in denied environments.16

The operational flexibility of PLA rocket force gives China to fight a successful limited or theater war. The PLA Rocket force gives flexibility to engage targets on land sea and air in the entire battle space from Arabian Sea to Malacca Strait. It is a force multiplier and has the potential to disrupt mobilization, buildup and concentration of forces for offensive and defensive military maneuver. It can achieve simultaneity of operations by striking targets along the tactical battlefield area, strategic lines of communication and battle space to erode war waging capability.

China is rapidly improving infrastructure in the Sino-Indian border region as part of development plans for Tibet as well as prepare for possible defensive or offensive operations.17 China has constructed roads along the disputed areas, built airbases and logistics sites that will facilitate easy deployment of its military and operations in the difficult terrain if war breaks out. India too has improved infrastructure on its side of the border and deployed additional military forces.18

The infrastructure and logistics build-up shall double up as base support for the PLA to facilitate military operations. The modernisation of the communication network in terms of fibre optic cable and satellite communication indicates an up gradation of the command and control elements capable of conducting operations effectively and sustaining increased force levels in the future. Tactical / strategic missiles can be moved up and preserved in the TAR, thus maintaining surprise and deception, besides achieving increase in engagement ranges covering complete India, South Asia and much of Central Asia. 19


While the Gulf War, was one of the lessons which was learnt by most militaries in the world that the idea of the prowess of the military being dependent on its manpower is an idea of the past. China, in particular, took these lessons to heart in their modernization drive, focusing on enhancing its capabilities in other domains of warfare, focusing more on its modernization drives to ensure that the efficiency of the PLA, PLAN, PLAAF and the PLA Rocket Forces will be the deciding factor in future confrontations.

The PLARF is an elite branch of China’s military. The PLARF is becoming increasingly versatile as its missiles have become smaller, more powerful, and more accurate. The modernization of the PLARF can be seen as one of the more significant drives in its modernization as a means of creating an effective deterrent against any threat.

The PLARF can also be seen as an extension of China’s strategic interests and how it intends to protect those from encroachment or international pressures in the future, signaling its clear military dominance, showcasing not only its ability to protect its own strategic interests now, but also making room for an expansion of the same in the near future. Therefore, China has built its Rocket Forces, keeping the need of protecting its interests as its number one priority, while at the same time acting as an effective deterrent against any perceived aggression from those it considers its adversaries.

*Anushree Dutta, Research Associate with Indian Air Force Think Tank’s “Centre For Air Power Studies, based in New Delhi. Currently, working on a project named “China-Japan Relations: Prospects and Challenges”.

1. Evolution of China’s Military Strategy:
2. The fourth modernization:
3. The Conventional Missile Capabilities of China’s Second Artillery Force: Cornerstone of Deterrence and Warfighting: file:///C:/Users/All%20in%20one%20Web/Downloads/Second-Artillery-Conventional-Deterrence_AS_2012-2.pdf
4. What Scares China’s Military: The 1991 Gulf War:
5. Supranote 16
6. The PLA Rocket Force: Evolving Beyond the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) and Nuclear Dimension:
7. Chinese Nuclear Proliferation: Susan Turner Haynes
8. Johnson, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking’
9. How China Plans to Utilize Space for A2/AD in the Pacific:
10. How China Plans to Utilize Space for A2/AD in the Pacific:
11. China’s ‘Anti-ship Ballistic Missile’ based Anti-access Concept Implications of a Southward Re-orientation:
12. China used DF-21D “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles during military drills:
14. The PLA Rocket Force: Evolving Beyond the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) and Nuclear Dimension
15. China’s Second Artillery Corps: Dr Carlo Kopp
16. China Shows Off Its Deadly New Cruise Missiles:
17. Supranote 3
18. Border standoff: China moulded its Western Theater Command keeping India in mind:
19. Infrastructure Development and Chinese War Waging Capabilities in Tibet, :

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