On December 31, China inaugurated three new military forces: a general command for the army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force, and the PLA Rocket Force. The latter, which replaces the Second Artillery Force, will be in charge of China’s nuclear arsenal.
General Wei Fenghe was named the new force’s first commander. Wei has a long history with the Second Artillery Force; he served as its chief of staff from 2006-2012 and then as commander-in-chief from 2012 until the service was reconfigured as the Rocket Force.
The creation of the Rocket Force is part of a larger move to restructure China’s military with a streamlined command under the direct control of the Central Military Commission. The new force is considered the fourth branch in China’s military, on equal footing with the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force, according to Global Times. Unlike the Second Artillery Corps, the Rocket Force will command all three legs of China’s nuclear triad, rather than just controlling land-based nuclear missiles. The Rocket Force will also be in charge of conventional missiles. Global Times reported that the force has already held its first drills, practicing mobile combat operations and missile launches.
In the inauguration ceremony on Thursday, President Xi Jinping (who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission) called the PLA Rocket Force the “core force of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power, and an important building block in upholding national security.” He tasked the new force with enhancing China’s nuclear deterrence and counter-strike capabilities, and thus maintaining a strategic balance. He also urged the Rocket Force to improve China’s ability to conduct medium- and long-range precision strikes.
Yang Yujun, spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, emphasized on Friday that China’s nuclear policy and strategy will not change under the PLA Rocket Force. China remains committed to its no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons, and will keep its “nuclear capability at the minimum level required for safeguarding its national security,” Xinhua paraphrased Yang as saying.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2015 report on the Chinese military, the Second Artillery Force had 50 to 60 inter-continental ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, China was devoting more energy to developing sea-based nuclear platforms, such as the Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
As the report notes, “Further increases in the number of mobile ICBMs and the beginning of SSBN deterrence patrols will force the PLA to implement more sophisticated command and control systems and processes that safeguard the integrity of nuclear release authority for a larger, more dispersed force.” The creation of the PLA Rocket Force may herald further changes to China’s command and control systems for nuclear forces.