Leaders in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategic strike force will be transitioning during the 18th Party Congress this coming autumn. But while the focus of the China-watching community has largely been on the top-brass of the central party leadership, much less is openly discussed about the changing leaderships within the armed services – especially the military’s strategic strike force.
Leadership positions within high-placed grades of the services are important indicators of future rank and seniority within the military hierarchy. In addition, the backgrounds of these new Second Artillery leaders, the section of China’s military that controls much discussed anti-ship ballistic missile weaponry and nuclear weapons, may reflect upon the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Central Military Commission (CMC) priorities for Second Artillery as the PLA continues to modernize its military capabilities.
Since its formation, the Second Artillery’s central responsibility has been nuclear deterrence. Yet, as the strategic environment changed, Second Artillery’s mission has gradually expanded to become the CCP and CMC’s principal instrument for achieving strategic effects through direct targeting of enemy centers of gravity. The process may be seen as a gradual effort to streamline Second Artillery missions into future military operations. Operational firepower is distributed among six corps-level missile bases, a centralized base for storage and handling of nuclear warheads, and operational support brigades/regiments reporting directly to Second Artillery headquarters in Beijing.
At the most senior level, Second Artillery Commander and CMC member Gen. Jing Zhiyuan is expected to retire later this year. Jing rose through the ranks of Second Artillery’s 52 Base, the corps-level missile command operating in southeastern China, then had assignments with 53 Base in Kunming and 56 Base in Xining. He served as 52 Base Commander during the 1995-1996 missile tests off the coast of Taiwan. His assignment as CMC member in 2004 reflects the Second Artillery’s growing prominence in resource allocation debates at the most senior levels of the party.
His replacement remains uncertain. One possible candidate is Lt. Gen. Wei Fenghe, who currently serves as PLA General Staff Department Deputy Chief of General Staff. Wei’s tenure in a military region-grade position, and likely promotion to full general this summer, could qualify him for CMC membership upon assignment as Second Artillery Commander.
Second Artillery Political Commissar Gen. Zhang Haiyang may continue in his current position. Given his non-traditional Second Artillery background and princeling status, Zhang is also a candidate for promotion to Director, General Political Department (GPD).
If Wei returns to the Second Artillery, his GSD experience would augment that of Wu Guohua, a career GSD officer assigned as Second Artillery Deputy Commander in December 2010. As Director, GSD Third Department – roughly analogous to the U.S. National Security Agency – Wu Guohua directed China’s most powerful intelligence collection enterprise. In addition to its traditional signals intelligence mission, the Third Department may play a leading role in the CCP’s global cyber espionage campaign. Along with the assignment of Wu as Second Artillery Deputy Commander, Wei’s GSD experience offers the CMC, GSD, and Second Artillery an unprecedented level of jointness.
The assignment of a career Third Department officer to the Second Artillery Deputy Commander position isn’t insignificant and raises an interesting hypothesis. Could the CMC have assigned Second Artillery the PLA’s strategic computer network attack (CNA) mission? While this is speculative, an internal Second Artillery textbook published in 2004 asserts that the Second Artillery would be adopting a computer network operations (CNO) mission in the future. To be sure, the GSD Third Department provides critical network intelligence, and the Second Artillery Engineering Academy established a Network Warfare Research Center around 2004 to 2005.
Among all PLA service branches, the Second Artillery best understands the art of nodal analysis, strategic targeting, and effects-based operations, which is traditionally under the purview of the air force. However, the PLA Air Force appears to be still in the early stages of transforming from a defense counter-air mission toward an offensive interdiction orientation.
Beyond the possible adoption of a CNO mission, the first officer from the PLA’s conventional strategic strike corps has entered the Second Artillery’s most senior ranks. Newly assigned Second Artillery Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Gao Jin spent the last 20 years establishing and expanding the Communist Party’s conventional strategic strike force intended to coerce Taiwan into a political settlement on Beijing’s terms.
Born in Jiangsu Province, Gao represents a new generation of Second Artillery leadership. A 1985 graduate of the Second Artillery Command Academy, then Lt. Col. Gao led the operational test and training “seed” group that began introduction of the PLA’s first conventional ballistic missiles into the active force in 1991. The 815 Brigade, China’s first conventional SRBM unit, was based in the Jiangxi City of Leping and may have recently moved to northeast suburbs of Shangrao City. As 815 Brigade Chief of Staff, Gao executed missile exercises off the northern and southern shores of Taiwan in July 1995 and March 1996. Gao rose to command 52 Base, where he served until summer 2011.
The senior figure overseeing the probable introduction of the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) variant into the active force, Maj. Gen. Zhou Yaning, has assumed command of 52 Base. Replacing Gao in July 2011, Zhou had commanded 53 Base since 2009.
While military strategies and advanced platforms are important indicators of future capabilities, personnel is equally if not more important in the overall context of understanding China’s military development. After all, an army is only as smart and strong as its generals and soldiers. As the CCP and PLA make their transitions during the 18th Party Congress this autumn, the China-watching community should invest more efforts in understanding the backgrounds and proclivities of leaders in Second Artillery.
In light of the growing prominence of Second Artillery in Chinese military operations, a deeper understanding of the roles and future direction of this operationally significant service may be warranted. At the same time, leaders within high-placed grades of each service are important indicators of future rank and seniority within the military hierarchy – and there’s a logic pattern to why someone with their particular experience and qualifications are where they are.
Given the apparent emphasis being placed on cyber operations by the top leadership, one single organization within the PLA likely is charged with planning for and conducting deliberate cyber attacks against computer networks upon which opposing national command authorities and supporting critical infrastructure rely. If supported by GSD intelligence, integration of nuclear, conventional strike, and strategic cyber warfare planning, programming, and budgeting within a single Second Artillery headquarters staff department would be significant.
At the very least, the promotion patterns of Second Artillery leaders may be seen as a reflection upon the CCP and CMC priorities for the force as the PLA continues to move to more jointness and modernize its military capabilities under a new strategic environment.
Mark Stokes is the Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute. L.C. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the institute.