NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Air Force sees “incredibly” large missile buildup by China
China’s military is engaged in a large-scale expansion of both nuclear and conventional missiles described in a U.S. Air Force Air University report as “incredibly” large and rapidly increasing.
The report by the China Aerospace Studies Institute at the university said the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force (PLARF), formerly the 2nd Artillery, is expanding both in the sophistication of its missiles and size of its arsenal. The growth in both missiles and launchers was based on increasing numbers of Rocket Force brigades and highlights the rapid buildup.
From 1980 to 2000, the PLA added four new missile brigades, including three armed with the latest weapons.
“This expansion accelerated in the 2000s: between 2000 and 2010, the 2nd Artillery stood up as many as 11 new brigades equipped with its growing array of weapons, including its first ground-launched cruise missile, the CJ-10, and its first self-contained road-mobile ICBM, the DF-31, as well as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile,” the report said.
The speed of the missile buildup intensified between 2010 and 2020 with the addition of 13 new brigades along with the longer-range and multi-warhead DF-41 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile; the dual nuclear-conventional DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and deployment of the world’s first hypersonic missile, the DF-17.
“Incredibly, between 2017 and late 2019 the PLARF added at least ten new missile brigades,” the report said. “This unprecedented expansion from 29 to 39 brigades represents a more than 33% increase in size in only three years.”
China’s leaders also made the Rocket Force a centerpiece of a 2015 military reform by upgrading the force to a full military service. At the same time the ground, air and naval forces were either reduced in size or lost direct control of forces to a new joint theater command structure.
“Thus, the PLARF has evolved from a small, unsophisticated force of short-ranged and vulnerable ballistic missiles to an increasingly large, modern and formidable force with a wide array of both nuclear and conventional weapons platforms,” the report said.
The report did not say how many missiles were involved in the expansion.
Military analysts have stated a typical PLA missile brigade deploys between nine and 54 launchers depending on the missile type. The actual number of missiles is estimated to be 20% to 25% larger than the number of launchers.
Long-range DF-31 brigades come with 12 launchers and DF-41 Brigades have 10 or 12 launchers. Short-range DF-15 brigades are equipped with between 32 and 36 launchers. Land attack cruise missile brigades are equipped with as many as 27 transporter-erector launchers. The differences in launcher numbers are based on infrastructure and command and control requirements.
Each missile brigade includes between 4,000 and 6,000 troops.
The Pentagon’s most recent report on Chinese military power states that the PLA has around 100 ICBMs, along with an unspecified number of short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles. That number of ICBMs is expanding rapidly with recent disclosures that as many as 360 silos for new multi-warhead DF-41 ICBMs are under construction in western China.
China’s conventional missile strength is estimated to be more than 2,200 ballistic and cruise missiles, considered the largest missile force in the world. More than 1,000 missiles are deployed within range of Taiwan, a key target of Chinese military strategy.
Adm. Charles Richard, commander of the Strategic Command, said China’s missile expansion is one element of a major nuclear buildup. The number of road-mobile missiles in China doubled in the past few years, he told Congress in May.
Army Maj. Christopher Mihal, a nuclear and counter-weapons of mass destruction officer in the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said that, in addition to numbers, the accuracy of some Chinese missiles increased as much as 800%.
For example, China’s first nuclear missile, the DF-3A was assessed to be capable of hitting a target within a radius of more than 13,000 feet. By contrast, the new DF-41 can hit targets within a radius of between 328 feet and 1,640 feet.
Maj. Mihal said China’s missiles are “perhaps China’s most valuable current military asset as [they provide] China both offensive and defensive capabilities against a wide range of opponents, as well as the inherent value of deterrence that nuclear weapons provide any nation.”
China’s missile force, while large, lacks large stockpiles of missiles, he added.
“China does not possess vast stockpiles of missiles; in a protracted conflict, the utility of the PLARF will diminish rapidly,” Maj. Mihal wrote recently in the Army journal Military Review.
“This is doubly true for the nuclear arm of the PLARF. China simply does not have enough nuclear missiles to warrant a nuclear exchange, though Chinese defense white papers of the last decade have stressed an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ concept regarding nuclear employment.”
Japan’s military wants 1,000 new long-range missiles
The Japanese military is considering a buildup of more than 1,000 long-range cruise missiles in response to growing threats from China, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported this week. The missile buildup is based on concerns about a potential conflict between China and Taiwan, the newspaper reported, quoting sources in Tokyo.
The missiles would be deployed on southern islands from Kyushu to the Nansei island chain.
The goal of the long-range missiles would be to counter China’s deployment of missiles aimed at Taiwan, weapons that likely also could be turned on Japan in a future conflict.
Japanese officials disclosed several months ago that Japan’s military would join the United States in any future defense of Taiwan during a mainland attack. That has prompted Chinese state media reports to warn that Beijing would attack both Japanese and U.S. military bases in Japan during a Taiwan conflict.
The proposed Japanese cruise missiles would be an extended-range version of the ground-launched Type 12 surface-to-ship guided missile.
The Ground Self-Defense Forces currently have deployed the Type 12 missile and the range extension would boost the missile’s target-hitting capability from 62 miles to 621 miles — enough to reach North Korea and coastal areas of China. The missile also would be upgraded for launch from both ships and jet fighters.
Tokyo plans to field a ground-launched version of the new missile as early as late 2023. That is two years earlier than originally scheduled and highlights concerns among Japanese leaders about the need to deter the Chinese military more effectively.
The Japanese also plan to use the extended-range missile as a surface-to-surface strike weapon.
Tokyo is working to revise its national security strategy by the end of the year. The new version is expected to call for developing a counterattack capability against enemy missile bases. Japan in the past had adopted a policy of not possessing such attack capabilities and thus did not seek long-range missiles.
The report said China is believed to have about 1,900 land-based, medium-range missiles capable of targeting Japan and about 300 medium-range cruise missiles.
China and South Korea clash on THAAD deployment
China recently sought to pressure the South Korean government into restricting the single U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile system in the country, but the Seoul government rejected the pressure.
During recent talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, the Chinese official demanded South Korea’s military adopt a policy of restricting operations of the THAAD battery deployed in South Korea and not deploy additional batteries, which are deployed to ward off a North Korea threat but which China fears could target its missiles as well.
The demand was rejected by the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol as infringing the country’s sovereignty and national security.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Mr. Park told Mr. Wang that South Korea would not abide by a 2017 agreement with China to limit THAAD, which has sensors that can reach areas of China.
Permanent deployment of the single THAAD battery now located temporarily near Daegu in the south-central part of the country is being stepped up. The system can shoot down short- and medium-range missiles.
China opposed the anti-missile system deployment as threatening China’s large missile forces and fears the highly effective missile-killing system will be integrated into a regional anti-missile system led by the United States.
A senior South Korean official in the presidential office told reporters earlier this month that THAAD is a self-defense measure that would not be subject to negotiations, Reuters reported. The anti-missile system is needed to defend against North Korean missile threats.
Mr. Yoon has said he will jettison the previous government’s promise not to deploy further THAAD batteries and not to join a U.S.-led regional missile shield, or create a trilateral alliance involving Japan.
After the THAAD deployment was announced in 2016, China sought to punish South Korea by restricting trade and other economic ties that cost Seoul several billion dollars.
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz