The expansion of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers by a factor of five is a highly concerning development in the military landscape. China has recently undertaken such an expansion, but the underlying reasons for this significant increase remain undisclosed by Beijing.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), known for its secrecy, maintains an unprecedented level of paranoia within its missile force. Shedding light on the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), Decker Eveleth, a US-based researcher associated with the James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, published an up-to-date report on the PLARF’s operational structure in July. Eveleth’s expertise and credentials are highly regarded, as he was the first civilian to identify the construction of massive missile silo fields in China’s interior in 2021.
Eveleth’s warning highlights the enigma of Chinese nuclear thinking: “Currently, Chinese nuclear thinking is a black box – we can observe the inputs of security drivers and the military infrastructure and systems resulting from them. However, due to the Chinese military’s reluctance to publicly disclose their thoughts on nuclear weapons and deterrence, their exact strategic reasoning eludes us.”
Traditionally, the PLARF has maintained a relatively small size and low readiness levels, constrained by China’s policy of refraining from the first use of nuclear weapons. However, in 2015, Chairman Xi Jinping elevated the Rocket Force to full-service autonomy. A decade ago, China possessed approximately 50 ICBMs, with only 30 capable of reaching the mainland United States. Presently, the PLARF possesses a diverse range of missile types with specific missions, including neutralizing Taiwanese defences, targeting American warships both at sea and in port, and conducting retaliatory nuclear strikes.
Summarizing the aforementioned report, China is currently undergoing a significant expansion of its land-based missile launchers, encompassing both conventional and nuclear capabilities. Over the past decade, the PLARF has doubled the number of combat missile brigades, unveiling a wide array of new capabilities, such as missiles equipped to fire conventional and nuclear warheads, as well as hypersonic glide vehicles designed to evade missile defences.
By 2028, China’s ballistic missile launchers are projected to exceed 1,000, comprising 507 nuclear-capable launchers, 342-432 conventional launchers, and at least 252 dual-capable launchers. Regrettably, China has chosen not to comment on this extensive buildup and refrains from acknowledging its scale.
What are the crucial points raised by the Middlebury Institute report? Starting with ICBMs, the force is expected to multiply from just over 100 launchers to more than 500. Much of this growth is attributed to the construction of 334 solid-fuel ICBM silos in expansive fields located in Yumen, Hami, Hanggin Banner, and Jilantai. Hanggin Banner stands out due to its distinct command-and-control facilities, suggesting it may host different missile types compared to Yumen and Hami. Both the DF-31 and DF-41 have been proposed as potential candidates for populating these silo fields.
Eveleth highlights the ongoing construction of these silo fields, stating that Yumen is nearing completion, with significant progress made in digging and concrete pouring. However, it remains unclear when these fields will become operational. One particularly intriguing detail is the construction of radar platforms and support facilities for radar at all three sites, possibly indicating that the PLARF aims to defend these fields with anti-air weapons. The exact number of missiles to be deployed at each site is difficult to ascertain, but there are indications that China may adopt a “shell game” strategy, periodically moving a limited number of missiles between silos to confuse adversaries and compel them to allocate more missiles for their destruction in the event of an attack.
What are the implications of China’s growing investment in missile silos? The significant expansion of solid-fueled silos may be a response to diminishing confidence in the survivability of their mobile forces. It could serve as an attempt to create a large “missile sponge” capable of absorbing an initial American strike, thereby leaving the United States with limited remaining missiles to target China’s mobile forces. The number of liquid-fueled ICBM silos is also increasing. For instance, 18 silos for DF-5 ICBMs are under construction at three different locations. Within the next three years, the number of DF-5 silos is expected to more than double from 18 to at least 48 operational silos.
Notably, the new DF-5 silos feature significantly larger support facilities compared to older DF-5 sites, suggesting a higher state of readiness, possibly indicating a launch-on-warning (LOW) capability.
In the author’s opinion, the most concerning change in China’s nuclear forces is not merely the numerical expansion of launchers but the apparent shift from a retaliatory plan that involved firing a salvo of nuclear missiles after an adversary had already completed an attack on Chinese territory to a LOW posture. Under the launch-on-warning approach, an incoming nuclear attack is detected during flight through satellites and ground-based radar, allowing a state to retaliate before the incoming missiles reach their targets. China’s developing LOW capability, combined with solid-fueled missile silos, enables them to swiftly launch a nuclear attack at a moment’s notice. This LOW posture introduces new challenges in maintaining the conventional nature of conflicts.
The multiplication of DF-5 silos provides additional insights. The expansion of liquid-fueled systems indicates China’s concerns about its forces’ capability to inflict significant damage. Liquid-fueled missiles, such as the DF-5, can carry heavier payloads compared to solid-fueled missiles, allowing for a greater number of warheads and penetration aids. This enhances China’s ability to penetrate American missile defences and strike U.S. cities, even with a small expansion of missiles.
Another indication of China’s concern regarding penetrating American missile defences is its investment in a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). In August 2021, China conducted a test of a FOBS, wherein a warhead was placed into orbit and circumnavigated the globe before impact. A FOBS enables firing in unexpected directions, bypassing an adversary’s missile defence system. Referring to mobile ICBM units, Eveleth anticipates that around 50 DF-41s will be deployed once all brigades are fielded, an increase from the current 12-20. A typical brigade consists of eight DF-41 ICBMs. The mobile ICBM force is gradually expanding and modernizing. The Pentagon believes that China is exploring various basing options for the DF-41, including rail and silo configurations.
The original DF-31 has been retired from active service, with the majority of DF-31A units upgraded to the newer DF-31AG. The DF-31AG is transported by 16×16 launcher vehicles, offering greater mobility compared to the less mobile truck and trailer units of the DF-31A. It is estimated that there are currently between 48-56 DF-31AG launchers. Evaluating China’s substantial investment in nuclear weapons, Eveleth emphasizes the strategic significance of China’s rapid expansion of ICBM launchers. It provides the Chinese nuclear deterrent with enhanced survivability against adversary missile defences, conventional precision strike systems, and superior American fast-strike submarine-launched ballistic missiles. However, due to the opaque nature of China’s political drivers and strategic considerations, it is challenging to predict the limits of China’s nuclear expansion, the basing concepts they will adopt, or how they might employ their nuclear forces during a crisis or conflict.
The exponential growth of China’s missile force, particularly its nuclear-capable weapons, raises considerable concerns. It indicates a shift in Xi’s strategic thinking, even if China refrains from openly disclosing this recalibration. These developments suggest that Beijing is transitioning from a restrained second-strike nuclear posture to a multi-level deterrent, including nuclear war.
Eveleth shares these concerns, stating, “Even if China is not currently planning to utilize its new nuclear assets more aggressively, the fact that those assets now exist and are capable of doing so makes a possible eventual shift to a more aggressive posture much easier to achieve.”
Furthermore, as tensions escalate between China and the United States regarding the status of Taiwan, obtaining accurate data on China’s conventional and nuclear missile forces becomes more crucial than ever. Unfortunately, the PLA refuses to engage in discussions with the United States, as directed by its political leadership, exacerbating an already precarious situation.