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Pulling Back the Curtain on China’s Rocket Force
Military vehicles carrying DF-26 ballistic missiles drive past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing (Sept. 3, 2015).
Image Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool

Pulling Back the Curtain on China’s Rocket Force

 
 

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force is both one of China’s most important military organizations and, regrettably for scholars of Chinese security issues, one of its most opaque.

The PLA Rocket Force commands China’s conventional and nuclear land-based missiles. Some have even speculated that the organization could eventually control all legs of a future Chinese nuclear triad, including the long-range bombers and ballistic missile submarines (though a review of official documents suggests this is unlikely).

The dual identity of the Rocket Force raises important questions about the future of China’s missile units. Will the Rocket Force continue to prioritize its traditional mission of strategic nuclear deterrence or will it increasingly emphasize its conventional mission set? Analysts have also raised concerns that entanglement between these conventional and nuclear forces could create risks either that an otherwise conventional conflict could escalate to the nuclear level or that the lack of a “firewall” between the conventional and nuclear forces could lead China’s nuclear missile forces assimilating practices from their conventional counterparts. To what extent are China’s conventional and nuclear land-based missiles entangled? And to what degree might this entanglement cause China to change its nuclear practices?

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Despite (or, rather, because of) the importance of the Rocket Force, much about it remains unknown. As with much reporting on the PLA, information about the PLA Rocket Force is closely guarded. Chinese official media often refer to Rocket Force units only by their military unit cover designator (MUCD), a unique five-digit number assigned to each military unit. More cryptically, news reports may identify Rocket Force units as nothing more than “a certain missile base.” Even the name of the Rocket Force’s predecessor, the Second Artillery, was intended to hide its function and confuse foreign snoops.

In a new article in Asian Security, I attempt to pull back the curtain on the Rocket Force by examining the career paths of officers who rise to the ranks of senior leadership.

Organizational Analysis of the Rocket Force

China’s missile forces are organized under six missile bases, numbered sequentially from 51 to 56. Assigned to these missile bases are missile brigades, which operate the missiles. In addition, the Rocket Force is believed to also have a central warhead and storage handling facility, known as Base 22. (Recent evidence suggests that the Rocket Force may have changed the numbers it uses to designate its missile bases, though here I use the older designations. See the full Asian Security article for more on this possible change.)

Although almost all of these bases appear to control both conventional and nuclear forces, they also appear to be oriented toward specific mission sets based on their location and armament. Base 52, which has most of its launch brigades garrisoned along the country’s southeast coast opposite Taiwan, controls much of the Rocket Force’s short-range conventionally-armed ballistic missiles. Base 54 and Base 55, in the center of the country, command the country’s ICBM forces. Base 51, Base 53, and Base 56, in the north, south, and west, respectively, command medium-range nuclear-armed missiles and appear to be assigned a regional nuclear deterrent mission.

To shed light on the institutional priorities and organizational practices of the Rocket Force, I performed a form of organizational analysis by looking at the career paths of officers who comprised the Rocket Force’s senior leadership. I first identified the PLA officers who have served in “senior leadership” positions within the Rocket Force: the Rocket Force commander, deputy commanders, and chief of staff, and the commanders of the six missile bases. These positions are corps leader or higher in grade and major general or higher in rank. From 2002 to 2017, at least 35 officers have served in one of those positions. I examine the career paths of these officers through the Rocket Force’s missile bases. (A more detailed description of the methodology is available in the full manuscript.)

Three key findings emerge from this analysis. First, officers who have served in the Rocket Force’s premier conventionally-oriented base appear to be more likely to be promoted to senior leadership than officers who have served in bases assigned either the strategic or regional nuclear deterrent missions. Of officers for whom previous career information is available, 12 had previously served in Base 52, the premier conventionally-focused base. This compares to only six with in Base 54 and five in Base 55, the two ICBM bases. Even fewer senior officers had experience in the three bases that appear to be assigned the regional nuclear deterrent mission, with five serving in Base 56, two in Base 51, and only one in Base 53. This high representation of experience in the conventionally-oriented Base 52 suggests that the Rocket Force may either reward experience there or direct more of its promising officers there.

Second, there is evidence of at least an informal hierarchy among the Rocket Force’s missile bases. This evidence is found in the pattern of lateral transfers, when the commander of one missile base was assigned to command a different missile base. Given the military’s up-or-out structure, these transfers suggest that the officer’s arrival base may have a higher status than the officer’s departure base. The pattern of transfers also comports with patterns of prior missile base experience among senior leadership. In every instance, an officer was transferred from a base with less representation among the senior leadership to a base with more representation. At the top of this hierarchy appears to be the conventionally-oriented Base 52, followed by the ICBM-equipped missile bases and finally the missile bases armed for the regional nuclear deterrent mission.

Third, at the level of senior personnel, there appears to be a degree of separation between officers who serve in conventionally-oriented missile bases and those who serve in nuclear-oriented ones. Of those officers analyzed, at least 13 had at some point served in the conventionally-oriented Base 52. (The numbers here are slightly different than in the earlier analyses because they include officers who have ever served in a missile base, not just officers who served in a base prior to entering senior leadership.) Only one of those officers also served at some point in either of the two ICBM bases. By contrast, of the 11 officers who had ever served in one of the ICBM bases, more than half had also served in both ICBM bases. The difference in overlap suggests some degree of separation between the conventional and the nuclear, at least at the personnel levels.

Though the findings here are compelling, some caveats are in order. The analysis only includes a few dozen officers, making for a relatively small dataset. Promotions are influenced by several factors, not simply the past assignments of the officer. Though missile bases may generally be assigned different mission sets — conventional, strategic nuclear, regional nuclear — each missile base may also deploy both conventional and nuclear forces and the distinction between conventional and nuclear is not so clean at the base level.

Despite these important caveats, the findings are still valuable for several reasons. Though the dataset is small, it covers nearly all the individuals who held a senior leadership position during the years in question. In that respect, it is nearly exhaustive. Though promotions are influenced by other factors, such as social networks, those factors are, in turn, likely somewhat correlated with past career assignment. In addition, some of the findings, such as the prominence of the conventional forces, comports with other evidence. As noted by the U.S. Defense Department, “Taiwan remains the PLA’s main ‘strategic direction’” and officials closely affiliated with the conventionally-oriented Base 52 appear to enjoy special prominence.

Beyond the specific findings regarding the PLA Rocket Force, the analysis also demonstrates the potential value of this kind of career analysis in illuminating characteristics of otherwise opaque institutions. Similar analyses might be conducted on other branches of the PLA or other similarly secretive political and military organizations within China and beyond.

Conclusion

The findings here have important implications for U.S.-China relations and security in East Asia.

To the extent that personnel patterns also reflect operational practices, the relative separation of the conventional and nuclear units perhaps suggests the “firewall” between the two is stronger than some research has suggested. In this respect, the Rocket Force may be less likely to apply operational practices of its conventional forces to its nuclear missiles. If personnel patterns are indicative of operational practices, then the separation also suggests the Rocket Force’s conventional and nuclear forces may not be as tightly entangled, marginally reducing the potential escalatory risks in a conflict.

In addition, the relatively high representation of officers with experience in the conventionally-oriented base, along with evidence that this base sits atop an informal hierarchy suggests that the Rocket Force may prioritize the conventional mission set over the nuclear. This may indicate that China is less likely to significantly expand its nuclear capabilities, or at least that it may not have strong bureaucratic reasons to do so.

David C. Logan is a Ph.D. student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in the Nonproliferation Review, Asian Security, Foreign Affairs, and Joint Force Quarterly.

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