Nuclear and Missile Threat from China
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Issue Vol 23.3 Jul-Sep 2008 | Date : 14 Jun , 2012

Types of Chinese Missiles

Founded in 1966, the PLA’s dedicated missile force was named the Second Artillery Corps by former Premier Zhou En Lai. It has been an independent branch of the PLA since 1974 and controls the day-to-day operation of nuclear and non-nuclear long, intermediate and short range ballistic missiles. The Second Artillery fired its first long-range DF-5 ICBM in May 1980 into the Pacific Ocean near Tarawa. While the Second Artillery is an independent branch, it does not have the same status as the Army, Air Force and Navy. It is subordinate to the General Staff of the PLA, but it is believed that it reports directly to the Central Military Commission (CMC).

The Second Artillery Headquarters is located in Qinghe, near Beijing. During peacetime, the headquarters performs administrative, planning and budgetary functions. It is designed and mandated to shift during wartime. One report holds that use of nuclear weapons would be a collective decision of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and the CMC. Command of conventional missiles, however, would shift to the wartime national command in Beijing, which would be in direct contact with a temporary theater level, or “war zone”, that would group missiles under its command into a Theatre Missile Corps. Missile strikes would be co-ordinated with air, naval, army, artillery, electronic warfare and special forces operations.

The PLAs new long-range ballistic missiles use modern liquid and solid fuel motors. Early ICBM like the DF-5, and early IRBMs like the DF-4 and DF-3, used storable liquid fuels.

The Second Artillery is reported to have a strength about 90,000 personnel. Some estimates reckon it to be 120,000. There are eight Base Headquarters. Each Division or Base is commanded by a Major General. Divisions have departments for political, communication, logistic, training and nuclear warhead maintenance purposes.

A division comprises brigades which is the basic missile-firing unit of the Second Artillery. The number of brigades have grown from 19 to 22. More are likely to be formed to control missiles aimed at Taiwan. Brigades are commanded by a Senior Colonel. Mobile brigades are further divided into battalions, comprising ‘launch companies’. A ‘launch company’ has a launch vehicle, an electrical generation vehicle, survey and communications vehicles, and a missile transporter/re-supply vehicles.

Missile brigades are divided between nuclear and conventional units. Mobile nuclear brigades include those equipped with the DF-31 ICBM, DF-4 IRBM, DF-21 IRBM and the DF-3 IRBM. In the future DF-21 brigades could contain non-nuclear warhead armed missiles. Non-nuclear missile brigades would include those armed with the DF-15 SRBM and the DF-11 SRBM. It is expected that the Second Artillery and the Army will in the future receive ground-launched mobile land-attack cruise missile units. Their structure would possibly be akin to the SRBM brigades, except that the ‘launch vehicles’ are most likely to launch multiple missiles.

Missile Related Modernisation

The PRC’s ongoing modernisation of its ballistic missiles and cruise missiles is made possible by technical advances in areas of engines, guidance and warheads. In many cases the PRC is also able to incorporate foreign technology, that it has either purchased, stolen, or obtained clandestinely. Ballistic missile development is largely co-ordinated by the First Academy of the China Aerospace Technical Corporation (CATC).

It is the largest research and development organisation with about 27,000 personnel on its rolls.


The PLA’s new long-range ballistic missiles use modern liquid and solid fuel motors. Early ICBM like the DF-5, and early IRBMs like the DF-4 and DF-3, used storable liquid fuels. Such fuels are highly corrosive if kept in the missile, so, they have to be loaded into missile fuel tanks just before launch. But, when this is done in the open the missile becomes vulnerable to counterstrikes. Like the DF-3 IRBM is said to require about 2-3 hours to prepare for launch. However, the PLA has decided to continue with the use of liquid-fueled motors, in that, it is replacing early DF-5 ICBMs with an upgraded modified version.


The accuracy of new intercontinental, intermediate and short range ballistic missiles has been given added impetus by the development of improved guidance system. The primary guidance system for older DF-5 ICBMs, and newer Mobile ICBMs is the inertial guidance system based on internal gyros.

Smaller Warheads

Critical to the success of the PLA’s new long range missiles has been the development of a new class of smaller nuclear warheads that confer greater accuracy and allow for multiple warhead carriage. The DF-5 ICBM carries a single large 3-5 megaton nuclear warhead that weighs about 3,000 kgs. This is too large for modern Mobile ICBMs. The DF-5 warhead, most likely, has a blunt, semi-circular shape, meaning it is not capable of high accuracy.

…Moscow continues to sell arms to China is a difficult question to answer, but money alone cannot be the reason. Certainly the entire Russian Pacific coast, including Vladivostok, is placed at ever increasing risk by these new Chinese capabilities.

The successful development of new mobile and solid fueled ICBMs by the PRC also include development of new smaller nuclear warheads. As noted earlier, these warheads are believed to weigh about 500 kg to 700 kg, and feature modern payload design, as also modern, sharp and more accurate conical shapes.

Multiple Warhead System

In Jul, 2002 the US Department of Defence revealed that to enhance the penetration chances for its missile warheads, the PLA undertook a number of measures, including–“perhaps (the) development of a multiple warhead system for an ICBM, most likely for the CSS-4 (DF-5)”. This may mean that the new DF-5 Mod 2 may carry a MIRV bus. The PRC is said to have developed multiple independent targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warhead technology since long.

The PRC’s ability to launch multiple foreign satellites, such as its Long March 2C/SD configured to launch two US Motorola Iridium communications satellites, also demonstrates the PRC’s ability to build the “bus” necessary to launch multiple nuclear warheads in the future. Manoeuverability for warheads on ICBM or smaller missiles enhances their ability to survive missile defence. Putting multiple warheads on a missile also increases their strike power and deterrent value.


A critical element to sustain and enhance PRC’s nuclear deterrence against the United States has been, its efforts to improve its nuclear missile force survivability. One major initiative to increase the survivability of the PRC’s missile force has been a clear effort to give greater mobility to all future land-based missiles. As such, the PRC is following Russia’s example, and eschewing that of the US, which keeps its land-based ICBMs in fixed silos. Limited mobility is given to the liquid-fueled DF-3 and DF-4 IRBMs, in as much, as they must be taken from disbursed caves to a launch location. There has been a clear effort to give greater road and off-road mobility to the newer classes of solid fueled missiles. New intermediate-range missiles like the DF-21, and new intercontinental-range missiles like the DF-31, are carried by truck-based Transporter-Erector Launcher (TELs).

The missile is towed behind the TEL engine/cab in a tractor-trailer fashion and ejected from their container tubes by compressed air. These TELs are less capable as all-terrain transport, and therefore need access to paved roads, so as not to cause cracks in the solid rocket motors that could lead to missile failure. New SRBMs are carried by TELs with a greater off-road capability.

The WS-2400 TEL manufactured by the Sanjiang Space Group for the DF-11 Mod 2/M-11 Mod 2 SRBM is clearly all terrain capable, enabling these missiles to be disbursed over a wider area.

Defeating Missile Defence

As China vigorously opposed US missile defence plans, the PLA places a high priority on enabling its missile warheads to penetrate future US missile defences. MIRV warheads can defeat missile defences. PRC researchers also show a familiarity with a range of measures that could defeat missiles defences, to include: infra-red stealth cloaking; plasma stealth cloaking; manoeuvering warheads; chaff; balloons; decoy warheads; warhead signature change; attacking satellites; and ground-based missile defence facilities. The use of smaller warheads enables an ICBM/IRBM to carry penetration aids such as decoys, chaff, and other materials that confuse radar that might guide intercepting missiles.

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Chinese sources indicate they have conducted research into making ICBM warhead decoys. A leaked US intelligence assessment noted that decoys were tested on the DF-21 irbms in 1995, 1996 and 2002. The PRC is reported to have tested decoys on a 1999 test flight of the new DF-31 ICBM. Reported development of small thrusters for PRC SRBM warheads, such as on the DF-15, may also indicate an ability to put thrusters on ICBM warheads. Even a slight manoeuvering capability may be enough to significantly decrease the chances of interception.

New Non-nuclear Warheads

  • Sub-munitions. These are small-unguided bomblets that are disbursed by the missile over a wide area to attack airfields, ports or other soft targets. The PLA is reported to have developed guided sub-munitions for future use that would allow one missile to engage multiple targets.
  • EMP/HMP Warheads The development of non-nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) warheads has been reported for future PLA missiles. EMP is a large electromagnetic shock lasting for a few seconds, one of the effects of a nuclear explosion, which can disable electronic equipment over a wide area. The PLA is also reported have employed a Russian technology called Explosive Magneto Cumulative Generators (EMG), which explosively compresses charged coils to produce an EMP effect. The PRC has developed High Power Microwave (HPM) warheads for missiles, which produce the same effect against electronics as EMP, but cannot be countered as is possible with EMP. It is considered to be possible to use HPM to develop warheads that combine radar and destructive functions.
  • Penetration Warheads. Deep penetration warheads allow a missile to attack targets deep underground, such as command posts or aircraft shelters. Israel is reported to have provided technology that may help PRC to develop deep penetrating warheads. Research and development for ICBM decoys might also be applicable to smaller decoys for SRBMs and IRBMs.
  • Thermobaric Warheads. The PLA is reported to have equipped some SRBMs aimed at Taiwan with thermobaric warheads. Thermobaric warheads rapidly disburse fuel, which is then ignited to produce enormous blast and heat, upto five to eight times the force of an equivalent weight of conventional explosive. They have a devastating effect against buildings, soft equipment and personnel. The PLA obtained Russian thermobaric warhead technology in the mid-1990s when it began co-producing the SHMEL shoulder-fired thermobaric rocket.

Impact on the Region

These developments, now no longer prospects but realities, are already having a strong impact on the Asian region. The case of India is obvious. It has to now undertake a major programme of force development and modernisation, fundamentally in response to China. Evidence suggests that at least some in Russia are increasingly concerned by China’s range of strengths in its weakly-held Far East and Central Asian regions. Why exactly Moscow continues to sell arms to China is a difficult question to answer, but money alone cannot be the reason. Certainly the entire Russian Pacific coast, including Vladivostok, is placed at ever increasing risk by these new Chinese capabilities.

…attractive to the PLA, because the US has no plans to defend its southern approaches with land-based missile defenses.

South-east Asian states are also concerned, though none, except Singapore, is responding with a really major attempt to strengthen its military. Singapore, of course, will deny that China has anything to do with it. Of particular concern to this region will be China’s apparent intention to base some of its future SSBN and SSN fleet on Hainan Island, which is closer to deep water patrolling areas. This deployment will also cause China to move more naval and air forces to that island, perhaps even aircraft carriers in future. This may then lead to more aggressive Chinese behaviour to enforce its territorial claims, and more incidents similar to the April 2001 EP-3 incident could occur should the US Navy seek to monitor or contain China’s vital strategic submarines.

Political scientists believing in the “realist” theory of international relations, argue, that a major challenge to the military balance, such as China, is currently mounting, and will lead to one of two possible reactions–states may bend to the new power and accommodate themselves, or they may seek to form balancing coalitions and seek allies. Unfortunately, the theory does not tell us, as how to know, which of these two quite different reactions will be followed in a given case. The evidence suggests that China is expecting the first reaction: accommodation and acquiescence. It would appear that Beijing wants paramount influence, and expects to achieve it by over-awing its neighbours with military might –but with luck, not actually using it. If this method works, it will be possible to attain hegemony, without conflict, or even endangering economic links around the world.

What about the other states? Evidence suggests unwillingness to bend and accommodate, and instead, balancing and seeking for allies. India is a good example, but so too is Japan, which already possesses a strong military, though without force projection capabilities or weapons of mass destruction. Should Japan feel the need, it could rapidly and self-sufficiently create military forces far stronger and more sophisticated than China’s. For the moment Japan is committed to alliance with the US.

…the PLAs near-term potential to project power into Central Asia will strengthen Beijings leadership within the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and impart impetus to the evolution of this organisation into a more active military bloc, which potentially may give India reason to moderate its more recent strategic tilt toward Washington.

The steps Tokyo and Washington are now taking to co-ordinate military capabilities are very important. As long as Washington does its part, the US–Japanese alliance will be secure, and it is the real foundation of security and stability in Asia. But if the US wobbles, or be seen as unreliable, then Japan would most likely decide that the time has come to solely assume its own defence. China fears Japan more than any other power. Yet by arming itself with such vigour, China ie, paradoxically enough, is pushing a pacifist Japan into doing the same.

Other states in the region are also looking towards greater military self-sufficiency, An arms race has begun, thanks to Beijing, and it has been intensified by the qualitative leaps that foreign technology has permitted. Now we must brace ourselves for appropriate reaction to China’s initiative, for, as Clausewitz stresses, in international security no less than in physics, actions elicit reactions. The problem is that in international relations one cannot predict the reactions as one can in physics.

Impact on the United States

For Washington the PLA’s foreign fueled missile buildup only adds further challenges to the already stressed US military, as it is eroding support for the US-led alliance and military cooperation network in Asia. To be sure, Japan’s reaction has been quite the opposite and it wants to increase security co-operation with Washington. But, should the PLA conquer Taiwan and hold Tokyo’s maritime arteries hostage with superior naval forces, there could also be accommodation at the expense of the American relationship. South Korea, Philippines, Australia, and even Vietnam show signs of wanting to accommodate Beijing, be it regarding Taiwan, or conflicting maritime resource claims, or even security relations with the US.

In addition, the PLA’s near-term potential to project power into Central Asia will strengthen Beijing’s leadership within the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and impart impetus to the evolution of this organisation into a more active military bloc, which potentially may give India reason to moderate its more recent strategic tilt toward Washington.

Nuclear Missile Threats

PLA espionage, interactions with US companies in commercial space activities during the 1990s, and probably deeper commercial access of Russian technology during the same period, have enabled the PLA to modernise its primary and secondary long range nuclear missile strike capabilities. The PLA’s goal is not to match the numbers of US and Russian nuclear missiles, but to ensure that PLA missiles remain a tool for deterrence and political coercion. New PLA nuclear missiles will place immediate burdens on US missile defences planned for deployment. The extent to which the PLA can surmount US missile defences will decide the degree to which it can use its nuclear missile forces for potential political blackmail against the US, its friends, and allies. Whether from espionage of classified US data, or through open sources, the PLA has been able to build modern small thermonuclear warheads. This achievement by the early 1990’s was essential to the development of new mobile missiles and multiple warhead missiles.

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At the beginning of the 1990s, the PLA had some DF-5 ICBMs which could only lob one large and inaccurate warhead at the US. Further, these DF-5s were vulnerable during the time needed to erect and fuel them, possibly enabling the US to attack them. By the middle of this decade, the PLA will have two new ICBMs that are more accurate and more survivable. The first will be the DF-5 Mod 2, which the Pentagon has reported, that it may be the first PLA ICBM to have multiple warheads. As such, it will be far more capable to penetrate US missile defenses that are planned for deployment. It can be expected that the DF-5 Mod 2 will be continually upgraded with more capable penetration aids that enable its warheads to evade US missile interceptors. As of now, the Pentagon reports that there may only be about 20 DF-5 Mod 2s. But if each can launch five warheads, a low estimate for this large missile, it adds up to a potential 100 warheads from DF-5s alone.

Modernisation of the PLA Second Artillery has highlighted the significance of challenges posed by China to the neighbouring countries, though, the current military build-up indicates its orientation towards Taiwan, Senkaku/Diaoyutao, and South China Sea Islands.

By the middle of the decade, if not already, the PLA will begin deploying three new types of solid-fueled ICBMs. It is possible that these missiles were made possible in part by US solid-fuel technology transferred by the US Martin Marietta Company. The 8000 km range DF-31 ICBM may be in the process of development and will be joined by the 12000 km range DF-31A later in this decade. The DF-31 may only carry one warhead but the DF-31A may carry up to three. Both will be road-mobile, meaning they can be hidden in numerous steep valleys and caves, hidden from US satellites. As they are solid-fueled, they need very little time to prepare for launch. This not only complicates defense against these missiles, but also the estimation of their final number. The Pentagon expects overall ICBM numbers to increase to 60 by 2010, meaning as many as 40 will be mobile ICBMs.

This overall number will jump by 16 nuclear missiles for each new Type 094 SSBN built for the PLA Navy. Its new JL-2 SLBM is also derived from the DF-31. Its range has not been disclosed by the Pentagon, other than to say that it is more than 8,000 km. The 094 SSBN, thanks to substantial Russian technology used to make the Type 093 nuclear attack submarine, will be the PLA’s first modern and reliable “second strike” platform. The JL-2’s range may permit the 094 SSBN to loiter in waters near the PRC, or further into the “First Island Chain” in order to reach most of the US. The 094 SSBM also offers other potential options for the PLA, such as being able to undertake patrols in the Southern hemisphere that would enable South Polar SLBM launches. This might be attractive to the PLA, because, at this point, the US has no plans to defend its southern approaches with land-based missile defenses.


Modernisation of the PLA Second Artillery has highlighted the significance of challenges posed by China to the neighbouring countries, though, the current military build-up indicates its orientation towards Taiwan, Senkaku/Diaoyutao, and South China Sea Islands. Possible military action by China in Taiwan Strait include six different scenarios, ie, SRBM pre-emptive strikes, attacks to paralyse electronic and C4I system, air strikes, deployment of airborne forces, conducting submarine blockades, and amphibious landing operations. In addition, China’s propensity to fight and win local wars on borders poses threat to regional stability.

Changes from minimum to limited nuclear deterrence with its impact on enhancing nuclear stockpile; development of miniature versions of nuclear warheads; and development of accurate long-range, solid propellant, and MIRV capabilities; are broadly the modernizing aspects of strategic weapons of China’s Second Artillery. These were highlighted by the Taiwan Strait missile crisis of 1996; Wen ho Lee spy case at the Los Alamos Laboratories in the US; the alleged transfer of W-88 miniaturised nuclear weapons technologies to China; the Loral & Hughes transfers of satellite guidance systems to China (that could be instrumental in enhancing the accuracy of the Chinese missiles); and the US plan to deploy ballistic missile defence system in East Asia.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal, PhD

served in the Regiment of Artillery and was awarded a Doctorate for his research & thesis on "Sino-Indian Relations".

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2 thoughts on “Nuclear and Missile Threat from China

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  2. Nice article, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Centralised and hierarchical (Chinese/communist) organisation and apparatus always wins against the bumbling, sometimes-corrupt, Indian system. Even with similar-order-of-magnitude finance, timescales and geo-politics. Would you agree sir?

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