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A Case for China’s Pursuit of Conventionally Armed ICBMs

Circumstantial evidence suggests China might consider using its growing inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles in a conventional strike role.

A Case for China’s Pursuit of Conventionally Armed ICBMs

Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

The growing inventory of at least 200 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos across three silo fields in Guazhou, Hami and Hanggin Banner renewed discourse on China’s evolving nuclear strategy. This narrative culminated with the U.S. Defense Department’s 2021 “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” report stating that China is “implementing a launch-on warning posture.”

But what if these ICBMs, and potentially other strategic launch systems that China has on hand, have a conventional strike role? The United States has at least considered the idea of using ICBMs for conventional strike missions for decades and China has never openly dismissed the possibility.

The idea is not without its criticisms, many of which revolve around cost and escalation concerns. However, these are China’s weapon systems to use as it sees fit. As such, we should base our assessments of how China might intend to use its growing arsenal on the way China thinks about the use of force; not how the United States or other external actors think about it.

Circumstantial evidence suggests China might consider using ICBMs in a conventional strike role. Specifically, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at one point openly considered employing ICBMs in a conventional strike role, the PLA still states that it wants a surface-to-surface missile that can strike deep into the enemy’s “strategic depth” and PLA training continues to indicate that China does not share the concern of greater nuclear escalation risk associated with the entangling of nuclear and conventional weapons.

An Idea Is Born

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The idea of using ICBMs in a conventional strike role is not foreign to the PLA.

The PLA’s “Science of Second Artillery Campaigns” is a military publication dating from 2004 that broadly discusses how the Chinese military envisions employing its strategic missile forces in wartime. Although the document is extremely dated at this point, it still serves as one of the few publicly available sources that provides a window into how the PLA views nuclear and conventional missile strikes.

In the section of this publication that discusses the PLA then-Second Artillery Corps’ (now the PLA Rocket Force) participation in joint operations to “resist against intervention from the Powerful Enemy,” authors state:

 …carefully select long range or intercontinental missiles armed with conventional warheads to target the enemy territory and their will to fight, and at the right moment, conduct a long-range warning strike. This will cause the enemy to be unwilling to suffer unbearable attacks and limit its intervention operations. (“Science of Second Artillery Campaigns,” p. 402)

The PLA uses the term “the Powerful Enemy” as an oblique reference to the United States in public documents and articles. This one-off reference suggests that, at least in 2004, parts of the PLA considered the use of conventionally armed ICBMs against the United States as a viable option.

It appears that this idea persists at least within parts of the PLA up to the present day. The PLA’s latest edition of “Science of Military Strategy,” a PLA military publication issued by its National Defense University, explains the growing need for strategic missile units to integrate nuclear and conventional capabilities to the extent that tactical formations are dual-capable and are on an integrated information and command platform.

Although this statement alone does not suggest that the PLA intends to create dual-capable ICBMs, this section of the publication goes on to make oblique references that having dual-capable ICBMs is a possible end state. “Science of Military Strategy” describes the U.S. Prompt Global Strike concept and Russian efforts to co-mingle nuclear and conventional capabilities as global trend indicators. The logic of dual-capable systems appears to be two-fold. First, this publication states that there is increased demand for being able to engage hardened, time-sensitive, and fleeting targets. Second, the operational utility of “nuclear strategic missiles” is decreasing. This second component is likely due to the PLA’s open acknowledgement that escalating to a nuclear exchange is neither desirable nor likely.

ICBMs for System Destruction Warfare

The desire to have a global conventional strike capability also fits nicely within the PLA’s current framework on how to win wars. The idea of system destruction warfare calls for “acupuncture style” strikes against key targets to paralyze the adversary’s warfighting system and degrade the adversary’s will to fight. The PLA states in the “Science of Military Strategy” that the targets of “strategic strike” activities should include national command and control, military, power, communications, transportation infrastructure, and strategic weapon systems. They go on to elaborate later in the book that “the targets that must be struck by conventional surface-to-surface missiles are mostly in the enemy’s strategic depth, and the ability of long-range conventional precision strikes is even more important.”

Many United States facilities that fall within one of the aforementioned categories are located within the Continental United States (CONUS) and are well beyond the roughly 4,000 km range ring of the PLA’s DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile. The DF-27 “long range ballistic missile” with a possible range of 5,000 to 8,000 km would open possibilities of U.S. targets in Hawaii and Alaska as well as the entirety of Australia but would still not be able to reach CONUS-based targets.

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However, even the shortest ranged modern ICBM in the PLA’s inventory, the DF-31 ICBM with a range of roughly 11,000 km, can reach much of CONUS should it be fitted in the three known silo fields. Other PLA ICBM models such as the DF-41 or DF-5 would provide even greater coverage of CONUS-based targets.

Beyond land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, China has virtually no means of conducting kinetic attacks against CONUS targets as of 2021. Although PLA network operations against U.S. infrastructure offer a somewhat viable alternate means of degrading some key targets in CONUS, there is no substitute for physical destruction.

Risks of Entanglement and Escalation

The PLA’s pursuit of weapon systems that are capable of both conventional and nuclear strike inevitably results in discussions about the dangers of entanglement. Often, the discussions on nuclear-conventional entanglement assume that the United States will not deliberately use conventional forces to destroy China’s nuclear forces unless the United States perceives a nuclear strike from China as imminent.

However, the PLA does not appear to share this assumption.

At least parts of the PLA have long assumed that the United States and other adversaries would subject PLA nuclear forces to conventional strikes, even before a nuclear exchange has taken place. The aforementioned “Science of Second Artillery Campaigns” states that in preparing for a nuclear counterattack campaign, China’s nuclear forces must enact measures to mitigate the effects of not only adversary nuclear attacks, but also adversary conventional strikes using precision munitions that may even occur early in a conflict.

The PLA’s operational nuclear units continue to build and train extensively toward the requirement of survivability against conventional threats to the present day. The airfield that hosts the PLA’s 106th Bomber Brigade, a unit that likely constitutes the PLA’s nascent air-leg of the nuclear triad, has a short-range air defense site that is only useful in defending against conventional air threats.  The PLA Rocket Force’s 663rd Brigade, a unit equipped exclusively with DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missiles, trained to deal with adversary special operations teams and conventional precision strikes just this year. There are at least three other publicized instances of PLA units equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles conducting similar training in 2021.

The continued training and preparation suggest that the PLA has long assumed that its nuclear forces would be targeted by conventional strikes, perhaps even early in conflict. As such, there is a strong case that the PLA does not perceive any additional risk of nuclear escalation should they use intercontinental ballistic missiles in a conventional role.

The PLA’s possible confidence that adversaries will not view the co-mingling of nuclear and conventional capabilities at the tactical level may also be driven by their “No First Use” policy. China might view this policy as a clear message to the United States and any other nuclear-capable nations that PLA fires from nuclear-capable systems inherently will be armed with conventional warheads until the adversary nuclear power uses nuclear weapons on China. The PLA may take this logic to the extreme and apply such a rule unilaterally across all nuclear-capable launch systems, whether it is a DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile or a DF-41 ICBM.

More Thinking and Less Concern

To be clear, the discussed evidence is entirely circumstantial and does not explicitly tie the growth in China’s ICBM force to a conventional strike mission. However, there is sufficient evidence to warrant greater consideration of the possibility that China is currently or could in the future consider the use of land-based ICBMs or other strategic launch systems in a conventional role.

The United States must start thinking about the possibility of strikes against CONUS targets should a conflict arise with China. The list of U.S. targets at risk from PLA strikes, be it from PLA land, sea, air, space, or network forces, continues to grow each year. Should the PLA opt to operationalize what may have previously just been a good idea and utilize ICBMs for conventional strike missions, that list of targets that must be defended and adversary capabilities that must be addressed grows dramatically. Even if the PLA chose to reserve its ICBM force solely for nuclear missions, other emerging PLA capabilities such as their growing blue water strike capability or future long-range bomber capability likely will place at least some CONUS targets at risk in the future. The PLA even makes references to “space-to-ground” attacks as being an inherent feature of military operations in the space domain.

Separately, there is also a potential case for dismissing some concerns that the PLA’s comingling of nuclear and conventional capabilities will result in an increased risk of nuclear escalation. China likely assumes that its adversaries will target PLA nuclear forces with conventional strikes at any point during a conflict. Although there are almost certainly nuances in this assumption that include some distinction between strictly nuclear forces and co-mingled forces, destroying nuclear-capable PLA forces may not be as escalatory as once thought.