Chinese Missile Development
China’s substantial defence related investments are a reliable indicator of its increasingly assertive aims. China’s President Xi Jinping has made force modernisation a national priority, looking to transform the Peoples Liberation Army (The PLA) into a ‘world-class force by 2050’. World Class force for the PLA means being able to match the operational capabilities of the United States, the global benchmark for military power. The PLA is striving to eradicate the significant capability gaps that prevent it from unilaterally operating in its region. In particular, the PLA is developing asymmetric capabilities that render the U.S. numerical advantage in the legacy platform a liability rather than a strength. Missiles are the method the PLA is primarily employing, and they have laid the groundwork for their development with organisational reforms and increased investment over the last decade. In 2016 the PLA second artillery was transformed into the PLA Rocket force, making it the 4th branch of the PLA.
The PLA has taken their ballistic modernisation program seriously by launching more ballistic missiles in 2019 for testing and training than the rest of the world combined. This has allowed them to develop missile systems like the DF-21D at breakneck speeds. The DF-21D is a ‘carrier-killer’ missile that renders the U.S.’s technological and numerical advantages in aircraft carriers obsolete, changing the battlespace’s status quo. Along with the DF-26D, these missiles form a crucial part of China’s A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial). A2/AD utilises large numbers of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles to overwhelm naval defence systems, effectively making China’s maritime periphery inoperable to foreign Navies. These capabilities change the strategic balance in favour of China as these reduce the U.S. navies effectiveness to intervene against any Chinese aggression of its regional allies. It is worth noting that acquiring these capabilities to ‘ensure its sovereignty’ plays very well to a domestic Chinese audience.
China is also investing in the digital infrastructure necessary to make the PLA Rocket force more potent. China has expanded and integrated BeiDou, China’s domestically built satellite navigation system, into PLA operational command. As we know from the development of GPS, this positioning technology has critical military as well as civilian utility. These technological and ballistic improvements have dual-use capabilities, which means they can be used for conventional and nuclear missiles. China has for years kept a minimum deterrence posture, with a ‘no-first use’ policy. However, it has now moved to a launch on warning. Additionally, it has ramped up the production of nuclear warheads, as can be seen on the graph below. The pentagon’s China Military power report also predicts China’s Nuclear arsenal to expand rapidly in the coming decade.
It is not just the numerical increase in China’s nuclear stockpile but the type of upgrades and their speed. According to satellite data published by the American Federation of Scientists, China is currently in the process of constructing over 230 new Nuclear Silos. Whether these will hold live Warheads or not is uncertain, but this represents the most significant building of silos anywhere in the world since the Cold War. Once these are completed, China will now have more Nuclear Silos than Russia. However, It must be noted that Chinas Nuclear stockpile is still far less than the U.S. or Russia and will be for some decades. Nevertheless, the speed of Chinas missile development and technological advancement threatens to raise geopolitical tensions and alter the strategic balance in East Asia. The recent announcements of China’s 2nd hypersonic glide vehicle missile test will further increase tensions.
By: Luc Wilson