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The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: Reshaping China’s Approach to Strategic Deterrence

15 Sep 2019
By Professor Bates Gill and Adam Ni

China has upgraded its rocket forces. What does this mean for the United States and its allies?

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in the midst of a sweeping reform programme formally initiated at the end of 2015. These reforms have significantly transformed the PLA’s organisation, force posture, command and control structures, and internal politics. From the Chinese leadership’s perspective, these reforms are critical to China’s goal of transforming the PLA into a world-class military from a force that is unprofessional, untested and deeply corrupt. In their view, the rise of China as a global power must be underpinned by a military that is capable of conducting effective joint operations, fighting short, intensive and technologically-sophisticated conflicts, and doing so farther from Chinese shores.

While not entirely “new,”establishment of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has solidified China’s missile forces as a critical element of China’s evolving strategic deterrent posture, portends continued significant investment in PLARF modernisation, and points to a more concerted effort to integrate PLARF capabilities into more effective PLA-wide joint operations— all key developments in the fundamental reshaping of China’s approach to strategic deterrence. Importantly, such advances on the part of the PLARF pose significant new challenges to the United States, its allies and other security partners, including Australia. These challenges could affect US strategic and extended deterrence postures, U.S.- China strategic stability, allied conventional force operations, information dominance and security, critical infrastructure, and other key aspects of national security.

The PLARF has two key missions: strategic deterrence and warfighting. As the successor of the SAF, the PLARF is the “core force of China for strategic deterrence” with the responsibility for “deterring other countries from using nuclear weapons against China.” As part of its strategic deterrence mission, the PLARF conducts a diverse range of operations, including the display of combat readiness and missile capabilities through the media, military parades, military exercises, and force deployments. In addition, the PLARF is also responsible for nuclear counterattack “either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other [PLA] services.” Under China’s nuclear strategy, nuclear counterattack serves primarily a strategic purpose, such as to deter future nuclear aggression. However, authoritative PLA texts suggest that nuclear counterattacks may also serve secondary operational objectives.

The PLARF has been explicitly called upon by the Chinese leadership to make a significant contribution to “strategic balance” between China and its main strategic competitors. This suggests that China’s commitment to continuing the modernisation of its strategic missile forces remains unchanged. At the same time, it is worth noting that the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force are seeking a larger nuclear role through the development of sea and air platforms for the delivery of nuclear weapons. The PLARF will increasingly share its strategic deterrence role with these two services along with a corresponding need to coordinate strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack missions.[…]

Challenges to strategic stability

While stability at the strategic nuclear level may be theoretically enhanced as China develops a secure second-strike capability, ambiguities in China’s nuclear posture could lead to dangerous instabilities in the future. These ambiguities include the future interpretation of the no first use commitment; the proximate co-location of conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles; the existence of dual-capable ballistic missiles such as the DF-21 and DF-26; the nascent deployment of Jin-class nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines; and the command-and-control challenges inherent in China’s diversifying nuclear arsenal. These ambiguities could lead to misperceptions and escalatory actions on the part China and the United States (and its allies) in times of crisis and/or conflict.

As China invests more heavily in its space-related infrastructure to enhance its strategic capabilities, especially in support of PLARF operations, kinetic and non-kinetic attacks on China’s land- and space-based reconnaissance and targeting assets could be interpreted as attempts to undermine the country’s nuclear capability, prompting an escalation towards the use of nuclear weapons.

A more capable PLA at the conventional level

The future development of the PLARF will be central to the PLA’s aim of becoming a more effective fighting force. A key motivation for the ongoing PLA reforms, including the establishment of the PLARF, is to develop the capacity to defy, deter and/or, if necessary, defeat the United States and its allies in what is envisioned will be a relatively short, localised conflict. In such a conflict, the PLA would seek to prevail in a system-vs-system confrontation featuring information warfare, precision strikes and joint operations.

The conventional forces of the PLARF will likely be employed offensively at the very outset of a campaign, while PLARF strategic deterrent capabilities would be readied with the aim to manage escalation risks and deter and/or defeat large-scale regional intervention. For example, the conventional side of the PLARF is being configured to deter and attack with precision strike capabilities: missile systems such as the DF-21 and DF-26 are designed with U.S. and allied land- and sea-based assets in mind. With further testing and development of more sophisticated reconnaissance and targeting assets, these weapons, in combination with other offensive (including other anti-ship) capabilities will increasingly complicate U.S. and allied military options, especially around China’s maritime periphery.

Possible US and allied responses

These likely developments for the PLARF prompt several key recommendations for the United States and its allies. First, given China’s diversifying array of nuclear and strategic conventional capabilities, the United States must articulate reliable extended deterrence guarantees to allied partners and develop and extend assurances to partners to deter non-nuclear Chinese threats and attacks which could have strategic effect as in the space- and cyber-domains.

Second, with China’s growing array of advanced conventional capabilities, especially in the advanced aerospace (missiles), outer space, and cyber domains, the US government, in cooperation where possible with allies, must enhance defensive and offensive counter-measures in these realms to ensure maximum operational manoeuvrability. These investments must include the ability to pre-empt, suppress and defend against Chinese conventional missile and counterspace attack. To the greatest extent possible, such defensive and offensive countermeasures should extend to protect key allies and security partners such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan which would likely to be targets of Chinese offensive operations.

Third, as the PLA becomes more reliant on space- and cyber-based systems to achieve its strategic aims and improve operational outcomes, including those of the PLARF, the United States and its allies should in turn increase focus on China’s space- and cyber- related assets to assess the PLA’s progress toward more effective joint operations and to identify potential targets for pre-emption and disruption.

Fourth and finally, relevant U.S. and allied agencies should invest further resources toward understanding China’s evolving strategic deterrent posture, especially in the nuclear, space, cyber, and aerospace domains. Attention should be given to three impor- tant aspects of China’s evolving strategic deterrent posture. The first is the PLA’s effort, including through the PLARF, to explore and develop a ‘strategic integrated deterrent’ against strategic competitors. The second concerns the operational meaning and likely outcome of Beijing’s expectation that the PLARF will enhance and achieve ‘strategic balance’ vis-à-vis the United States. Third, a sharper focus is needed to fully understand how the PLA’s advancing strategic capabilities are affecting nuclear doctrine and use, including a broadening interpretation of the no first use pledge.


The sweeping reform of the PLA, including the establishment of the PLARF and the wholesale restructuring of the military command and control system, have major implications for China’s growing military power. While many obstacles remain, the PLA is moving towards becoming a more professional force increasingly capable of joint operations across a wider spectrum of deterrence and warfighting scenarios.

The creation of the PLARF along with the continued rapid modernisation of China’s nuclear forces pose new and formidable challenges to the US and its allies, especially with respect to strategic stability, deterrence and extended deterrence, and allied conventional force operations. These challenges will become more pronounced in the years ahead as the organisational reform, technological developments, and doctrinal debates continue to shape China’s evolving strategic forces. This lays the conditions for China to reconsider its approach to the use of nuclear weapons and its strategic deterrence posture in the years ahead.

Dr Bates Gill is professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University with 30 years of experience as a researcher, policy adviser and institution leader focusing on Asia, China and US-China relations.

Adam Ni is a researcher at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. His areas of interest include Chinese foreign and security policy.

This article is an extract from Gill and Ni’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: reshaping China’s approach to strategic deterrence.” It is republished with permission.