The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 3: People’s Liberation Army Joint Capabilities > The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force

 3-18. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is the branch responsible for operating China’s strategic missile and rocket forces and a substantial portion of the country’s long-range tactical missiles. It is the largest missile force in the world, operating well over 1,000 short-range, medium-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and over 300 long-range cruise missiles. There is not a U.S. equivalent to the PLARF. U.S. ICBMs are operated by the USAF, a very limited quantity of short- range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) are operated by the U.S. Army, and both the U.S. Navy and USAF operate cruise missiles.

 3-19. The PLARF is descended from the Second Artillery Corps, China’s original nuclear missile unit. It is a discrete military branch similar to PLAAF or PLAN. The PLARF operates using the same base-brigade-battalion structure as the PLAAF. PLARF bases are corps-grade, and each base operates multiple PLARF brigades. It is unclear exactly how the PLARF command interacts with theater commands (TCs), but it is known that each TC houses a PLARF contingent designed to integrate ballistic missile fires into its operations. PLARF missiles are considered strategic assets, and authority for their use is likely retained at the national level. It is also likely that high-value strategic missile assets, such as ICBMs and long-range ballistic missiles, are to be employed only by national authorities, while SRBM brigades may be attached to TCs in support of their operations.

 3-20. The PLARF operates most of China’s nuclear arsenal through a fleet of 60-70 ICBMs. China professes a “no-first-use” nuclear policy and maintains the nuclear missile fleet in a deterrent capacity— though there is an ongoing internal dialogue in China about possible situations were first-use may be necessary. The country at present does not possess an immediate second-strike nuclear capability, and it has relatively few nuclear warheads. Its nuclear strategy can be described as a minimal deterrence approach, possessing only the nuclear capability necessary to deter a nuclear attack. Future modernization accompanied by an expansion of the nuclear force, however, is a clear possibility.

 3-21. In contrast to its relatively small nuclear force, the PLARF’s conventional ballistic missile force is the world’s largest and among the world’s most technologically advanced and most capable. The PLA employs ballistic missiles as its primary precision deep-strike capability. Ballistic missiles target high-value assets, including air and seaports, supply depots, and command and communication nodes. Ballistic missiles represent a significant element of the Chinese antiaccess strategy. More-advanced ballistic missiles are designed specifically to engage hardened or mobile high-value assets, such as aircraft carriers and antiballistic missile systems. Chinese ballistic missile capabilities represent one of the PLA’s strongest investments in system warfare, as ballistic missiles asymmetrically destroy or neutralize assets that traditionally required force-on-force methods to effectively attack. China is not a signatory to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and thus it is free to develop short- and medium-range missiles of all types. Due to the country’s strict no-first-use nuclear policy and its substantial investment in ballistic missile capabilities, it is unlikely that China will ever voluntarily downgrade its conventional missile-strike capability.

 3-22. While many PLARF ballistic missiles are strategic assets, hundreds of SRBMs may be used to target high-value tactical assets or in support of tactical-level missions. PLARF ballistic-missile launchers are mobile, and their facilities hardened, making it difficult to target or neutralize these systems prior to launch. The PLARF also operates much of China’s land-based cruise-missile fleet. Unlike the United States, PLA cruise missiles are seen as complementary to the ballistic missile force, rather than the other way around.

 3-23. PLARF missile tactics are advanced and mature, taking full advantage of the suite of capabilities available. PLARF units will work along with other national assets, such as cyber warfare, EW, and air and naval forces, to neutralize or destroy antiballistic missile and air defense systems using a system warfare, combined-arms approach. PLARF ballistic missiles are accurate and precise, integrated with advanced surveillance and targeting capabilities, equipped with advanced penetration aids and countermeasures, and can be employed in sophisticated structured attacks. The PLA will seek to deplete expensive and rare antiballistic interceptors; defeat or destroy air defense radars; and either sink, damage, or threaten antiair surface naval vessels, giving it freedom of maneuver when employing its missile force.


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