Chinese Nuclear Policy, Strategy, and Force Modernization with Dr. Michael Chase

Photo: Missile-laden military vehicles on display at Tiananmen Square, The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

By Brian Wickizer, Reporter

The Center for Security Studies (CSS) Lunch Series hosted Dr. Michael Chase on February 11 to discuss China’s efforts to modernize its nuclear forces and Chinese thought on nuclear deterrence. Dr. Chase is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation specializing in China’s military and Asia-Pacific security issues in addition to his role as an adjunct professor at SSP. In a presentation titled “PLA Rocket Force and Chinese Nuclear Policy, Strategy, and Force Modernization,” Dr. Chase explained the importance of the December 31, 2015 renaming of the ‘People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps’ to the ‘PLA Rocket Force,’ elucidated China’s goals in creating ‘lean and effective’ deterrence, and hinted at implications for the US-China relationship.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force is the cornerstone of China’s nuclear deterrence capability. Until recently known as the Second Artillery Corps, its renaming was no mere cosmetic change. The Rocket Force’s elevation within the PLA to become a ‘service’ coequal to the Navy and Air Force underscores the high value Chinese strategists place upon their nuclear forces. China has long adhered to a ‘No First Use’ policy for its nuclear forces, deterring aggression by credibly communicating its ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons. According to Dr. Chase, the Chinese are content with this policy and are not likely to adopt a more aggressive posture. Unlike the United States, which extends a nuclear umbrella over allies in Europe and East Asia, the Rocket Force is solely responsible for the Chinese homeland. With a more limited mission than that of US nuclear forces, the Chinese are comfortable with a more passive nuclear posture and believe they derive diplomatic benefits from espousing this policy.

The PLA is prioritizing the modernization of the Rocket Force to ensure credible deterrence. The survivability of its nuclear forces is seen as the key to deterrence; without modern missiles and launch platforms, the viability of its second strike capability is questionable. Dr. Chase recalled that in his talks with PLA officers the Chinese were open about their view that the United States presented the primary threat to China’s nuclear security environment. Chinese concerns about US intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, precision strike capabilities, and missile defense technology date back to the late 1980s. To counter these capabilities, the Chinese have deployed truck-based missiles that can be concealed in extensive tunnel networks across China and easily moved between hiding places. Looking toward the future, the PLA is pouring money into the research and development of hypersonic glide vehicles that can beat existing missile defense systems and the DF-41, a truck and rail based ICBM capable of carrying multiple warheads.

The Rocket Force’s modernization program is part of a strategy to create ‘lean and effective’ deterrence. The Chinese believe the massive nuclear arsenals owned by the Americans and Russians are redundant, expensive, and destabilizing. On the other hand, China does not emphasize minimizing its nuclear force, as it believes doing so would undermine the credibility of its second strike capability. As such, Dr. Chase said, the Chinese pursue ‘medium strength nuclear deterrence.’ The PLA will tailor the size and makeup of the Rocket Force to counter the threats it faces, but will not waste resources stockpiling superfluous warheads.

Considering the implications of PLA Rocket Force modernization on the US-China relationship, Dr. Chase said that in theory modernization should contribute to greater stability between the two states. With a full contingent of road and rail mobile missiles, submarines, and air assets dispersed around China guaranteeing a second strike capability, the impulse for China to ‘use it or lose it’ during a crisis should be mitigated. Of course, Dr. Chase acknowledged as the talk came to a close, reality is messier than theory. For the United States, China’s nuclear forces are the most opaque among the nuclear-armed nations, and as China rolls out new technologies there will be uncertainty among US analysts about their capabilities and Chinese doctrine concerning their use.

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