Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force: The Decisive Instrument

Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force: The Decisive Instrument

The PLARF (Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force) is the most decisive instrument in the matrix for the realisation of the Chinese dream of ruling the world. Chinese nuclear power and its reach are critical components among those forces that provide the wherewithal to Chinese ambitions. The author deals with the up-gradation of Chinese Strategic Artillery to PLARF in a two-part sequel.

 This article encapsulates the run-up to the PLARF being created and elevated to levels in tune with China’s growing reach. This article is in two parts. Part 1 details the route to the point when PLARF was ultimately announced. How PLARF affects India will be the next part’s focus?

President Xi Jinping has assumed a larger role after the 19th Congress, where he declared himself President for life. With it, he has also professed a vision for China in the form of a national Strategy. As propounded by Xi Jinping, the gist of the national strategy is – ‘China’s strategy seeks to realise “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This objective, which Xi calls “the Chinese Dream,” is a long-held national aspiration to “restore” China to a position of strength, prosperity, and leadership on the world stage’

The cornerstone of this strategy is Economic superiority with Military might. However, by the admission of Xi implies that the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has to grow and improve to become the best Military in the world – he seeks PLA to become so by 2049. Thus, he has embarked upon large scale transformation of its armed forces. The transformation is guided by the desire to become the best, backed by the most modern weapon systems, the best-trained manpower and a battle hardy military. 

It is not surprising that in his foreign policy guidelines, Xi’s has propounded a more significant role for the PLA – ‘in 2019, the PRC recognised that its armed forces should take a more active role in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power’.

The raising of military theatre commands by leaving out the redundant military regions concept is a step in that direction. There are now five theatre commands in place of seven military regions. The concept of joint manship is weaved in the joint command concept. Two new forces have been created – namely the PLARF (PLA Rocket Force) and PLASSF (PLA Strategic Support Force). This piece deals with the importance of PLARF for the PLA and its application against India.


PLASAF (PLA Second Artillery Force), was the principal missile force of the PLA from 1966 since its raising, till 2015. Two years after the first nuclear blast in Lap Nor in 1964, China raised a missile force and christened it as the Second Artillery Force. This force had the trappings of a full-fledged service, yet it never got the same bureaucratic preference.

The second artillery force was responsible for bringing China’s nuclear status to the current levels, acquiring the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) nuclear capability. Till the end 1980s, the second artillery force was only a nuclear arm. The 90s saw the emergence of the addition of conventional missiles to its arsenal. Since then the composition has been gradually tilting towards the conventional missiles or missiles with dual-use. Second Artillery force remained a support arm, and never the arm of decision. The second artillery carried out extensive modernisation of China’s nuclear force. 

They moved from the first-generation silo-based liquid-propellant missiles to the more modern road-mobile, solid-based propellant missiles striking at targets with a longer reach. With the change in the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) thought process and the consequent enunciation of a new National Strategy and a new National Security Strategy, the PLASAF got a new lease of life. On 1 January 2016 Second artillery force found its rightful place in the Chinese Military the PLA as PLARF.


PLARF formed a new force to support the CMC’s (Central Military Commission) new strategy for national security on 1 January 2016, named PLA Rocket Force. It was a logical promotion for the PLASAF. The raising of the PLARF was keeping in mind China’s growing aspirations as a nation and making the PLA the best military force by 2049. Also, to make PLA an instrument of forging its foreign policy as stated in the defence white paper published in 2019. PLARF is an essential tool in the achievement of this objective.

The upgrading of PLARF also meant that it would now have independent philosophy for its employment and was no more subordinate to other forces. With PLARF, the CMC has advocated a dual objective of Anti Access and Anti Denial (AA/AD). It translates as; not allowing any inimical force access to Chinese space: land, air, or sea and deny the enemy any space to fight a battle near the Chinese territory, including Taiwan and the first chain of islands. We will define the first chain of islands a little later.

Such a philosophy necessitated the PLARF to possess dual deterrence capability, which means a nuclear capability and a conventional capability. The nuclear capability is to deter any nation from launching a nuclear strike on China. Moreover, possess the ability to launch a punitive counterattack with nuclear missiles if a strike is launched. The retaliatory strike is keeping in line with the Chinese policy of ‘No First Use’ of nuclear weapons. PLARF is primarily a strategic deterrence force. The nuclear missiles are the deterrent, and China has about 300 nuclear-tipped missiles to deter any nation from launching a nuclear attack.

The current range of PLARF’s ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) the DF (Dong Feng) 31 and DF 41 variety is sufficient to cover any location from where a nuclear attack could be launched on China. This article will not discuss the nuclear-tipped missiles, further. Suffice it to say that China has sufficient stockpiles and delivery platforms to absorb the first enemy strike and retaliate from both land and sea.

Conventional PLARF

In the nineties, the Chinese realised that keeping a nuclear-armed missile force can only be deterrence and not an offensive tool, as PLA cannot use it against a conventionally armed enemy. A heavy quantum of firepower is required to make the PLA fight the local wars under informationized conditions. This requirement of firepower led to a deliberate change in the focus: of developing conventional missiles. With time, their numbers increased, and they became both a source of deterrence and offensive action.

The development had an overriding constraint, that of the accuracy of the payload. While a nuclear missile is an area weapon, the conventional missile is deemed effective only if it can destroy pinpoint targets or land in areas as designated. Pinpoint destruction asked for accuracy of a high order. The initial set of missiles had an accuracy defined in terms of CEP (Circular Error of Probability) of 800 meters, which was in line with the nuclear deterrence. However, with increased realisation in the CMC in the 1990s, local wars and not nuclear wars would be the future, the need for accuracy grew. Precision thus demanded the use of conventional missiles with higher accuracy or lower CEP. There was a drive to find technological answers to designs guidance systems which would achieve much lower CEP. The successful use of cruise missiles in the first Gulf war by the US forces convinced the CMC that conventional missiles had a better chance of application against Taiwan and targets in the East China Sea for the PLA.

The quest for conventional missiles with precision strike capability gained strength. The quest transcended from short range to medium range, and a new class of missiles called the IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles). Also added to the family was the introduction of Cruise Missiles. This class included the Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) and Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM). They complimented the PLARF’S philosophy of AA& AD (Anti Access & Anti Denial). The use of missiles in a conventional role was possible only because their CEPs were of the desired order.

The graph given below depicts the progress of improvement of the CEPs:

For any missile to be relevant, it must possess three essential characteristics: Precision, Lethality & survivability. PLA has worked on all three aspects. Increasing the precision has boosted the lethality given the same quantum of explosive content in the missile head. For survivability, PLA has moved away from the liquid-fuelled missiles to more robust and less time consuming solid fuelled missiles. Solid fuels have allowed the reduction in the missile chain and allowed missiles to be vehicle bound. A missile on the wheels gives it better mobility and increases its survivability.

(To be continued, the next part discusses its employability against India)

Written By: Maj Gen Nitin Gadkari.


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