The Defense Department states that China currently has fifty to seventy-five ICBMs. The liquid-propellant, two-stage, silo-based DF-5 (CSS-4 Mod 1) ICBM served as the mainstay of China’s intercontinental nuclear-deterrence force for more than two decades after its initial deployment in 1981 and remains an important component of that force even today. China currently deploys about twenty silo-based DF-5 ICBMs, which have a range of at least 13,000 km, sufficient to strike targets throughout the continental United States. Moreover, according to the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, China is “enhancing its silo-based systems” as part of the modernization of its nuclear-missile force. In addition, China also retains some of its older, liquid-fueled, two-stage DF-4 (CSS-3) ICBMs with a relatively limited range of at least 5,500 km. In 2013, NASIC stated that China retains about ten to fifteen CSS-3 launchers, but many observers anticipate that China will soon decommission this older system.
After lengthy development programs, the PLASAF has deployed two three-stage road-mobile ICBMs: five to ten launchers for the DF-31 (CSS-10 Mod 1), which has a range of at least 7,200 km, and more than fifteen launchers for the DF-31A (CSS-10 Mod 2). This represents an important development because road-mobile ICBMs are more difficult for an enemy to locate and therefore more survivable than their silo-based counterparts. The DF-31’s range is sufficient to reach U.S. missile-defense sites in Alaska, U.S. forces in the Pacific and parts of the western United States. After a protracted development history that began in the 1980s, China conducted the first developmental flight test of the DF-31 in August 1999, and the DF-31 was finally deployed in 2006. The DF-31A has a maximum range of more than 11,200 km, which allows it to reach targets throughout most of the continental United States. China reportedly began deploying the DF-31A road-mobile ICBM in 2007; the Pentagon estimates that its force will increase by 2015, and be joined by enhanced DF-5 ICBMs. Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris estimate that China has deployed a total of about twenty to forty road-mobile ICBMs.
WHAT THIS ONGOING quantitative and qualitative modernization portends for the future of China’s nuclear force is a subject of growing attention in the United States, Russia, India and other countries. Over the next decade, China is likely to continue increasing the size of its nuclear stockpile while concentrating on further enhancing its ability to survive a first strike and overwhelm adversary missile-defense systems, steps which Chinese strategists appear to regard as critical to maintaining the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent.
As part of a broader effort to counter U.S. and allied ballistic-missile defenses, the PLASAF could employ MIRVs and hypersonic capabilities. In addition, the Pentagon noted, it could deploy “decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons,” as well as other countermeasures.
Even as China’s nuclear force continues to increase in quality and quantity, however, Beijing is highly unlikely to achieve numerical parity with the United States and Russia, unless the numbers of nuclear weapons in those countries’ arsenals decline dramatically. According to General Jing Zhiyuan (who served as PLASAF commander from 2003 to 2012), China’s “limited development” of nuclear weapons “will not compete in quantity” with the nuclear superpowers, but as many Chinese scholars have written, it will be sufficient to protect China’s national security. China does not believe it needs to match the United States or Russia to protect its national security or to cement its status as a major power, but it will continue to deploy the larger and more capable nuclear force it appears to see as essential to guaranteeing an assured-retaliation capability and a credible nuclear deterrent. In particular, China is reportedly developing and testing the DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM capable of carrying MIRVs. The principal motivation for developing MIRV technology appears to be increasing the number of warheads China could deliver against targets such as major cities and large military installations as a means of overwhelming U.S. missile-defense capabilities. In NASIC’s assessment, “Mobile missiles carrying MIRVs are intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrence. MIRVs provide operational flexibility that a single warhead does not.” For China, the key advantages of MIRVs include “simultaneously increasing their ability to engage desired targets while holding a greater number of weapons in reserve.” Additionally, from an organizational perspective, when the DF-41 is deployed, it will very likely ensure that the PLASAF maintains its status as the cornerstone of China’s strategic nuclear deterrent even after the PLAN’s Jin-class SSBNs begin conducting deterrence patrols later this year.
AS WITH THE REST OF THE PLA, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent given the extreme gravity of its mission, PLASAF software in the form of personnel and training has long lagged behind hardware. That is now changing as recent Chinese leaders, and Xi in particular, have charged the PLA with enhancing training realism. While the PLASAF lacks real combat experience, authoritative sources such as its official newspaper, Rocket Forces News, and the PLA’s Liberation Army Daily document extensively that it is implementing more realistic and rigorous training. Particular emphasis is placed on preparing the PLASAF to conduct future joint operations and operate under what are known as “informatized” conditions. Specifically, the PLASAF’s latest known volume, China Strategic Missile Force Encyclopedia, emphasizes the importance of a “mobile command post” and “minimum communication support.” As a “necessity of high-tech localized warfare,” the “New Three Defenses” are likewise stressed to protect the PLASAF against precision attack, electronic interference and reconnaissance. Initiated in 2001 by an editorial committee led by PLASAF commanders, the tome endeavors to support the PLASAF’s development by offering detailed entries in such areas as doctrine, operations, command and control, logistics, management and history.
Meanwhile, hardware to support such efforts is being improved still further, in the form of capabilities such as the integrated command platform. China is improving command and control over its nuclear arsenal. Over the past decade, a wide range of demanding technical standards have been promulgated and implemented. Technical talents are being recruited through such pipelines as the Defense Student Program, China’s version of ROTC, to ensure that the PLASAF is able to operate and maintain its increasingly sophisticated equipment effectively.
As part of his rapid, vigorous consolidation of leadership, Xi has emphasized the importance of developing reliable war-fighting capabilities. Along with the development and deployment of a more modern, survivable nuclear deterrent, China also seems to be improving the readiness of its strategic forces. Scholars have long thought that all of China’s nuclear weapons were kept in centralized storage facilities and that its nuclear-missile forces were kept at an extremely low level of readiness, especially in contrast to those of the United States and Russia. Indeed, at least one Chinese scholar has suggested that China might not have any nuclear weapons that would be considered operationally deployed by U.S. and Russian standards. Yet passages in recent Chinese missile-force publications indicate that even in peacetime China stores at least a small number of nuclear warheads at missile bases and suggest that some PLASAF units maintain a higher level of readiness than others.
These sources indicate that China has been increasing the readiness of its forces, which is consistent with its transition to a strategic deterrent that will be composed largely of mobile missiles and SSBNs. Indeed, China’s most recent national-defense white paper indicated that the PLASAF “keeps an appropriate level of readiness in peacetime,” and “has formed a complete system for combat readiness and set up an integrated, functional, agile and efficient operational duty system to ensure rapid and effective responses to war threats and emergencies.” Moreover, the white paper states:
If China comes under a nuclear threat, the nuclear missile force will act upon the orders of the [Central Military Commission], go into a higher level of readiness, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China. If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the PLASAF will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services. The conventional missile force is able to shift instantly from peacetime to wartime readiness, and conduct conventional medium- and long-range precision strikes.
AS A RESULT OF THE PLASAF’S GROWING CAPABILITIES for nuclear deterrence, rapidly improving long-range conventional-strike capabilities, increasingly sophisticated command-and-control systems, and more rigorous and realistic training, China’s strategic missile force poses an increasingly serious set of strategic, operational and tactical challenges for the United States and its regional allies and partners. Likewise, China’s conventional missile force poses an increasingly serious threat to regional bases and may also enable China to target U.S. aircraft carriers. As for the modernization of the PLASAF’s nuclear forces, China continues to derive considerable advantages from adhering to its current nuclear policy, but a larger and more diverse nuclear missile force may also give Chinese leaders a broader range of policy and strategy options. China’s growing nuclear capabilities could create fresh challenges for U.S. regional extended deterrence, particularly with respect to Japan. Moreover, the United States will need to continue developing and refining new operational concepts and capabilities, and work even more closely with its allies and partners to respond to the challenges posed by China’s growing conventional missile-force capabilities. If it chooses not to do so, then it will discover that this, too, is a choice with potentially dire implications for American security.