Missile launchers of the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force on display in Beijing.

Missile launchers of the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force on display in Beijing. Getty Images

China’s New Missile Fields Are Just Part of the PLA Rocket Force’s Growth

Since 2017, the PLARF has grown by one-third and worked to streamline and improve various support functions that are key to combat efficiency.

In recent weeks, the discovery of two large clusters of ballistic missile silos in western China forced observers to dramatically increase their estimates of China’s number of ICBM silos and even rethink beliefs about Beijing’s nuclear strategy. But this dramatic imagery—notably, captured by commercial satellites—is only the most visible part of a larger growth.

Until recently, the PLA Rocket Force had been known to maintain about 20 silos for its liquid-fueled DF-5 ICBMs. In late June, analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies discovered about 120 more silos in a remote part of Gansu Province. This alone was huge news, representing a sudden six-fold increase. About four weeks later, analysts at the Federation of American Scientists announced the discovery of a second such area of almost equal size, this one located in a remote part of Xinjiang, about 240 miles from the small city of Hami. The second site is in an earlier stage of construction but appears large enough to eventually house about 110 silos. This puts the count at around 230, a more-than-ten-fold increase in the number of silos across an incredibly short period of time.

Naturally, this news sparked an outpouring of analysis of China’s intentions and whether this means an end to its longstanding policy of minimum deterrence. There is a caveat, however: we currently have no way to know how many of the silos will be filled with actual missiles, nor how many warheads each missile will carry. It is unlikely that all, or even most, of the silos will be filled, at least for the time being, given limitations on China’s stockpile of fissile material. And even if they were, it would not fundamentally challenge the strategic balance with an American nuclear arsenal that is still many times its size. One possible conclusion is that the PLA Rocket Force may be executing a kind of “shell game”: filling only some of the silos and perhaps moving the missiles periodically. This would force an adversary to expend resources targeting every silo.

While the focus of media attention has been on the sheer number of new silos, other aspects of China’s significantly expanded and modernized ballistic missile force are less visible but equally important. 

The first is how these silo fields might affect the PLARF’s force structure and order of battle. Since the 1960s, the PLARF (or, before 2016, the 2nd Artillery), has consisted of six operational Bases, each overseeing several brigades stationed across a wide geographic area. In the PLARF, a capital-B “Base” refers to a discrete unit within the PLA organizational structure, the same as a regiment, brigade, or division, in this case, a Corps or Corps-Deputy strength organization. Each designated Base may in turn oversee several lowercase “bases,” that is, a generic term for a physical location housing military forces.

As we previously reported, the PLARF exploded in size between 2017 and 2019, growing more than 33 percent in only three years. Ten new brigades were added, with the six Bases growing to accommodate them. However, the construction of two entirely new missile silo fields could make that existing structure inadequate. Assuming roughly six to 12 silos for a typical ICBM brigade, each field could easily require multiple brigades, even if only a fraction of the silos were filled. Currently, all PLARF Bases oversee between six and seven brigades and seem unlikely to grow much further. This means that each of these sites would likely be too large to fit within the existing force structure and could easily become a Base in its own right. This would make them the PLA’s first new ballistic missile Bases in over 50 years.

Meanwhile, the PLARF has also taken important steps to streamline its support structure. Since 2017, scattered Base elements responsible for missile storage, maintenance, transport, and loading have been pulled into a single unified regiment, improving logistical efficiency and coordination. A second unit has unified launch support functions such as meteorology, survey and mapping, engineering, and physical security. These seemingly mundane reforms to the PLARF’s support system play a critical role in ensuring that missiles get to their deployment sites, launch successfully, and accurately hit their targets. It remains to be seen whether further reforms or expansions to the support system will be necessary to accommodate the large number of missiles and warheads that will likely be on-site at these silo fields.

Third is the production side. While more difficult to precisely quantify, there is also evidence that this growth in size has been accompanied by growth in the PLARF’s ballistic missile production capabilities. A recent study of China’s ballistic missile industry by our colleagues at BluePath Labs uncovered several examples of how China has rapidly expanded many of its missile manufacturing facilities in recent years. The infrastructural growth is extensive. These include the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology building new ballistic missile production facilities in Beijing and Tianjin; the CASIC 4th Academy, creator of the DF-21, building new research and production facilities; and Tai’an Aerospace Special Vehicle Company, which is partly responsible for production of many of the PLARF’s transporter-erector-launcher vehicles, expanding its production facilities.

After the PLARF expanded from 2017 to 2019, it seemed likely that the force would require a period of slower growth while new billets were filled, personnel were trained, and new systems produced. These recent revelations suggest that the PLARF has chosen a different path and pace. It is still not done growing—and in important ways beyond the number of silos. 

Ma Xiu is an analyst currently researching China’s defense research base and the PLA Rocket Force at BluePath Labs, LLC.

P.W. Singer is Strategist at New America.

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