How Are China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces Evolving?

How Are China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces Evolving?
How Are China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces Evolving?
How Are China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces Evolving? Top

    Conventionally armed (non-nuclear) missiles have become an increasingly important component of military power. They can be employed to deter threats or project power hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. As part of sweeping efforts to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China has developed one of the most powerful land-based conventional missile arsenals in the world. China’s conventional missile forces have significantly reshaped the security landscape in the Indo-Pacific region, and the US and other regional actors are steadily adapting their own capabilities in response.

    China’s Growing Conventional Missile Arsenal  

    China’s land-based conventional missile capabilities have developed significantly over the last several years. According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), China’s missile forces in 2000 “were generally of short range and modest accuracy.” In the years since then, China has developed the world’s “largest and most diverse” arsenal of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.1

    The PLA Rocket Force, which maintains and operates China’s land-based conventional and nuclear missiles, has fielded multiple new missile systems over the last several years.2 Many of these missiles are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads. The analysis on this page focuses on China’s conventionally armed missiles, and therefore excludes intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and certain other systems that only carry nuclear warheads.3

    Tracking China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces

    As China has developed its conventional missile forces over the last few decades, it has focused heavily on fielding systems that possess greater range and accuracy. This affords the PLA an enhanced ability to conduct precision strikes farther from China’s territory. In particular, China has prioritized the fielding of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), with maximum ranges between 3,000-5,000 kilometers (km). According to the IISS, the number of IRBM launchers in China’s arsenal grew from zero in 2015 to 72 in 2020. This accounts for roughly 56 percent of the growth in China’s total arsenal over this period.

    China’s arsenal of IRBMs consists entirely of the Dong Feng-26 (DF-26). With a maximum range of 4,000 km, the DF-26 can fly farther than any other Chinese missile besides nuclear ICBMs and SLBMs. It is reportedly the first and only land-based missile in China capable of conducting conventional strikes against the US territory of Guam, which is home to an American Air Force base. There is also reportedly a variant of the DF-26 that can strike ships at sea. Notably, the DF-26 is likely “hot swappable,” or capable of rapidly switching between conventional and nuclear warheads. Each PLA Rocket Force brigade operating the DF-26 is equipped to carry out both conventional and nuclear missions. 

    Excludes nuclear-only systems, including ICBMs, SLBMs, and the DF-21A/E.

    The PLA Rocket Force has also been fielding a growing number of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), with ranges of 1,000-3,000 km. China had an estimated 42 MRBM launchers in 2013. By 2020, this figure had more than doubled to 94 launchers. The DF-21D MRBM has been behind much of this growth. Between 2013 and 2020, China’s inventory of DF-21Ds grew from just six to 30.

    A conventionally armed variant of the older, nuclear-armed DF-21, the DF-21D has an estimated range of 1,550 km. Unlike its predecessor, the DF-21D is equipped with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle, which significantly enhances the missile’s accuracy. The DF-21D is believed to be the world’s first operational anti-ship ballistic missile, and is often referred to as a “carrier killer” for its alleged ability to strike aircraft carriers.  

    Interested in learning more about the missile capabilities of China and other countries? The CSIS Missile Defense Project maintains a collection of information on global missile systems, with illustrations and up-to-date information on their capabilities and history.

    The Rocket Force is likewise fielding more ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). Between 2013, and 2020, China’s inventory of GLCM launchers grew from 54 to 70. China unveiled its newest cruise missile, the Changjian-100 (CJ-100), at a parade in 2019 commemorating the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding.4 The CJ-100 is believed to have a range of up to 2,000 km, but few details have been publicly revealed.

    China’s short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) forces have not experienced similar growth. According to IISS, China’s inventory of SRBM launchers actually fell from 252 in 2013 to 189 in 2020. As a share of China’s full conventional arsenal, SRBM launchers declined from about 72 percent of the total to just 45 percent over the same period.

    Estimates of China’s missile forces by the DoD show slightly different figures, but similar trends. According to the DoD, the PLA Rocket Force possessed 200 IRBM launchers in 2020 – a massive uptick from as recently as 2016, when the DoD assessed that it had none. From 2010 to 2020, the number of MRBM and GLCM launchers roughly doubled, while the number of SRBM launchers remained essentially unchanged.

    Estimated Number of Launchers in China’s Land-based Missile Forces
    Missile Type DoD 2020 Estimate IISS 2020 Estimate
    IRBM 200 72
    MRBM* 150 94
    SRBM 250 189
    GLCM 100 70
    Source: US Department of Defense (DoD); International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
    *IISS estimates for MRBMs are lower because we have disaggregated them to exclude the nuclear DF-21A/E. DoD estimates are not disaggregated.

    China’s conventional missile arsenal is largely unique in the world. The United States and Russia do not possess significant land-based conventional missile forces. This is because the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibited the two Cold War superpowers from developing or deploying land-based missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km from 1987 until the United States’ withdrawal in 2019. If Beijing had been a signatory to the INF Treaty, roughly 95 percent of China’s missiles would be non-compliant.

    India has made progress in developing increasingly capable missile forces to deter attacks from Pakistan and China, but its arsenal is smaller than China’s and generally consists of shorter-range weapons. For example, India’s Prithvi class of ballistic missiles has a maximum range of only 350 km and makes up most of India’s arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles. The Indian military fields some longer-range systems, including the Agni-2 MRBM (maximum range of 3,500 km) and the Agni-3 IRBM (maximum range of 5,000 km), but these are dual-capable systems that are believed to primarily carry nuclear payloads.

    The Role of Land-based Conventional Missiles in China’s Military Strategy 

    For decades, the PLA primarily sought to improve its missile capabilities to better ensure its ability to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes. While deterring nuclear attacks remains a top priority, China’s leaders have attached growing importance to the role of conventional land-based missile capabilities for both deterrence and warfighting.

    Alongside conventional missiles, nuclear missiles form a core component of China’s defense capabilities. What steps is Beijing taking to modernize its nuclear missile arsenal? Find out.

    China’s pursuit of conventional precision strike capabilities can be traced back to around the end of the Cold War. China’s 1998 defense white paper made clear that the risk of a nuclear world war declined with the conclusion of the Cold War, but the risk of “local wars” remained. For China’s leaders, the US’ success during the 1990-1991 Gulf War provided the first glimpse of how conventional precision strike capabilities could be used to win local wars. The conflict also revealed the extent to which China’s missile capabilities lagged behind those of major powers.

    Not long after the Gulf War, leaders in Beijing were again reminded of the need for China to enhance its missile capabilities. During the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the US deployed two aircraft carrier fleets to the area around Taiwan. The move left Chinese leaders concerned about the ability of the US to project power so close to China’s shores.

    This experience is believed to have contributed to Beijing’s pursuit of anti-ship missiles, like the DF-21D and anti-ship variant of the DF-26, along with other missile capabilities that could deter unwanted interventions along its periphery. Together with air and sea defenses, this capability is known as anti-access and area denial (A2/AD).

    Click image to enlarge

    The geographic distribution of PLA Rocket Force brigades provides insight into the roles that different conventional missile systems might play in implementing A2/AD. For example, many of the Rocket Force brigades fielding the short-range DF-15B and DF-11A are clustered in coastal provinces along the Taiwan Strait. They would thus be the most likely to engage in a potential Taiwan contingency. Reports suggest they are capable of striking Taiwan within just 6-8 minutes after launching, or even less.

    Similarly, brigades operating anti-ship missiles like the DF-21D and DF-26 are situated primarily in China’s southern and northern provinces, putting them within range of virtually the entire South and East China Seas, as well as US military forces in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. Notably, only one Rocket Force brigade is located in far-western China, which indicates that PLA leaders assess there is a lower potential need to conduct conventional strikes against ground targets in Central and South Asia.5

    “Other” includes brigades that operate nuclear-only systems, including ICBMs, SLBMs, and the DF-21A/E.

    In terms of specific targets, China’s 2008 defense white paper states that the country’s conventional missile forces are charged with conducting precision strikes against “key strategic and operational targets of the enemy.” These targets would include reconnaissance and early warning systems, electronic countermeasure systems, anti-air and anti-missile systems, as well as military bases. By neutralizing these enemy capabilities early in a conflict, the Rocket Force aims to establish the conditions necessary for China’s naval, air, and other forces to conduct their own operations.

    The mission set that China has laid out for its land-based conventional missiles differs in important ways from the role that conventional missiles play in other countries’ military strategies. For instance, while much of China’s missile forces are aimed at deterring threats along its maritime periphery, the bulk of India’s land-based missile force is largely geared toward deterring threats along its land border with Pakistan and, increasingly, China.

    “The [PLA Rocket Force] plays a critical role in maintaining China’s national sovereignty and security.”

    China’s 2019 Defense White Paper

    In the US and Russian militaries, land-based conventional missiles have played a minimal role thanks to the limitations put in place by the INF Treaty. However, this may be changing. The US withdrew from the INF Treaty in August 2019 in response to Russia’s fielding of the SSC-8 (9M729) ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile, which was not compliant with the treaty. The US withdrawal was also motivated by concerns that the treaty left US missile capabilities hamstrung as China rapidly built up its arsenal.

    After withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the US carried out two tests, in August and December 2019 respectively, of ground-launched missiles that would have been previously prohibited by the treaty. Additionally, a day after the US withdrew from the INF Treaty, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed his desire for the US to place ground-launched intermediate-range missiles in Asia. So far, however, allies in the region like Australia and South Korea have stated that they have no plans to host any US land-based missiles.

    While the US has not yet deployed land-based missiles to the Indo-Pacific, Chinese officials have already voiced their opposition to the US doing so. Fu Cong, director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Arms Control, warned that “China will not stand idly by and will be forced to take countermeasures should the US deploy intermediate-range ground-based missiles in this part of the world.” It remains to be seen whether the US will field new land-based capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, but if Washington does so, it could mark a significant development in the US’ military presence in the region.

    The Evolving Indo-Pacific Security Landscape 

    As China’s missile capabilities continue to evolve, the security landscape in the Indo-Pacific region is poised to shift significantly in the years to come. Specifically, the advent of hypersonic weapons could undermine existing ballistic missile defense systems established by the US, Japan, and India.

    One of the most significant systems in the region is the sea-based US Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System. Aegis is an integrated collection of sensors, computers, software, displays, weapon launchers, and weapons. Together, they facilitate the interception of short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The US Navy will possess 48 Aegis BMD-capable ships in 2021 and is projected to increase this to 65 by 2025.6 Seven of the destroyers in Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force also operate the Aegis BMD system, with an eighth set to enter service in 2021.7

    India has constructed its own two-tiered missile defense system to deal with missile threats posed by Pakistan and China. Made up of the Prithvi Air Defense and Advanced Air Defense interceptors, the system is engineered to defend against both exo- and endo-atmospheric missiles. According to the Indian government, the tests for the missile defense program were successfully completed by January 2020.

    While these missile defense systems might provide some security against enemy missiles, their effectiveness is being eroded by advancements in hypersonic missile technology. Hypersonic weapons, which primarily include hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles, are able to travel above five times the speed of sound (Mach 5, or 1.72 km/s) for sustained periods. Their speed and maneuverable flight path8 make them difficult to track and intercept.

    Major Milestones of China’s Hypersonic DF-17
    Date Milestone
    January 9, 2014 Successful Test
    August 7, 2014 Failed Test
    December 2, 2014 Successful Test
    June 7, 2015 Successful Test
    August 9, 2015 Successful Test
    November 23, 2015 Successful Test
    April 22, 2016 Successful Test
    November 1, 2017 Successful Test
    November 15, 2017 Successful Test
    October 1, 2019 Unveiled during National Day parade
    Source: CSIS Missile Defense Project

    China developed one of the world’s first HGVs primarily to overcome US missile defense systems. China first tested a prototype HGV known as the DF-ZF in January 2014, and tested it at least eight more times through 2017. The DF-17, as the weapon is now known, can travel at Mach 5-10 (1.72-3.43 km/s) for 1,800-2,500 km. China publicly revealed the DF-17 at a military parade in October 2019, indicating it is likely operational.

    Other countries are racing to develop their own hypersonic weapons. In December 2019, Russia stated that it successfully deployed the hypersonic Avangard system, which Russia claims can travel at Mach 20 (6.86km/s) and fly more than 6,000 km. In March 2020, the US tested a hypersonic glide body in a long-range flight test, continuing years of its own research and development. India first successfully tested a short-range hypersonic missile demonstrator in September 2020.

    Comparison of Chinese and Russian Hypersonic Weapons
    China Russia
    Name DF-17 Avangard
    Type Hypersonic glide vehicle Hypersonic glide vehicle
    Status Operational In development
    Warhead Likely conventional Nuclear
    Range 1,800-2,500 km >6,000 km
    Speed Mach 5-10 (1.72-3.43 km/s) Mach 20 (6.86km/s)
    Source: CSIS Missile Defense Project

    Multiple states are building defense systems to respond to the threat posed by hypersonic missiles. In March 2020, Russia claimed that its S-400 missile defense system successfully destroyed all hypersonic missiles in a live-fire exercise. The US has initiated multiple programs to develop hypersonic missile defense, including the Glide Breaker, the Hypersonic Defense Weapon System, the Regional Glide Phase Weapon System,9 and the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor. Since 2020, the US Missile Defense Agency has been investigating ways to integrate hypersonic glide vehicle defense mechanisms into the US’ existing ballistic missile defense architecture, including Aegis.

    While the global number of hypersonic weapons is still small, many policymakers regard the technology as critical to the future of missile deterrence. Countries that are able to master the technology and scale it up will gain a significant advantage against countries that only employ traditional missile defense systems. That edge will persist until their adversaries are able to develop a reliable defense system against hypersonic weapons. ChinaPower

    1. Ballistic missiles are launched to very high altitudes and then generally follow a ballistic trajectory to their target under the force of gravity; however, some are maneuverable in their terminal stages. Cruise missiles fly at lower altitudes within the atmosphere and are powered at relatively constant speeds for most of their flight.
    2. Prior to December 31, 2015, the PLA Rocket Force was known as the PLA Second Artillery Force (SAF). The SAF was renamed the Rocket Force and elevated to the status of full service (equal to the air force, army, and navy) as part of larger PLA organizational reforms.
    3. In addition to excluding all ICBMs and SLBMs, we also leave out the DF-21A/E, which carries only nuclear warheads.
    4. The CJ-100 is also known as the DF-100.
    5. It is worth noting that the Rocket Force brigade in western China is likely equipped with a nuclear-armed DF-21, rather than conventionally armed missiles.
    6. Fiscal years, not calendar years.
    7. In 2017, Japan also drew up plans to construct two Aegis Ashore sites, which are the land-based variant of the Aegis system. Although the plans were cancelled in June 2020 due to concerns about costs and safety, there are reports that a modified plan might be revived.
    8. For non-ballistic hypersonic weapons.
    9. The program was paused in August 2020. The Missile Defense Agency will complete reviewing the program by the end of January 2021.