The China Military Power Report is out, and it contains some particularly interesting claims about the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces. I’d like to share my thoughts on some of them, particularly because some of the claims are not really strongly supported by much of the data we’ve so far gathered about the PLARF. Parts of the estimate seem too low, and other parts seem way too high. The radical changes in this report compared to previous reports would suggest to me that this year’s report in particular should be scrutinized closely before we accept some of the claims it currently contains.
The critical piece of information in this report is that the DoD has finally specified its estimates for the PRC’s total warhead stockpile: the “low 200s.” This number is actually lower than most open-source estimates, including mine. I’m currently going back over my estimates to see what I could be over-counting, but I would speculate that the difference may be in terms of how many warheads the DoD thinks are deployed among the dual-use DF-26. As the DF-26 can swap between conventional and nuclear warheads in the field, a typical DF-26 brigade with 18 launchers and reload support could theoretically have between 0 and 36 deliverable nuclear warheads. So far, I and most other PLARF watchers have been assuming that a typical DF-26 brigade is equipped with half nuclear and half conventional warheads (18 nuclear, 18 conventional). It's possible that either half nuclear is too high, or that some DF-26 brigades are conventional only.
The biggest surprise in the missile estimate is the DF-26 numbers themselves. Last Year’s China Military Power Report claimed that the total number of DF-26 launchers was around 80. This matches my estimates considering how many DF-26 brigades the PLARF has currently deployed. With 18 launchers per brigade, the PLARF’s four deployed DF-26 brigades (625, 626, 646, and 666) would amount to 72 launchers. The China Military Power Report this year claims that the PLARF has 200 DF-26 launchers. 200 launchers would suggest that the PLARF have deployed, in a year's time, seven additional DF-26 brigades. I have trouble believing this point. The PLARF does not have seven additional brigades bases ready to go. Seven additional brigades would also be a massive strain on the PLARF’s manpower. The report does not include any bases I didn’t already know about on any of the maps of major PLA units, suggesting that the PLARF hasn’t added any DF-26 units. The most probable explanation as to the source of this number is that someone confused launchers and missiles. 100 launchers across five brigades would be a completely believable update to the PLARF’s inventory. It’s also possible that the data is suddenly counting produced, not deployed, launchers for the DF-26. This would be in itself quite a claim as, although they are certainly making a lot of DF-26 launchers, 200 would be a huge number of launchers to make simply to keep around as well as an incredibly expensive undertaking. Keep in mind that for every launcher you produce, you also need to produce reload vehicles, reload cranes, company command vehicles, battalion command vehicles, brigade command vehicles, cargo trucks, and communications equipment. And the confusion over launchers does not end at the DF-26 – the report also has two different numbers for SRBM launchers. In one place it says 200, and in another, it says 250.
In addition to specifying the warhead count in the low 200s, the China Military Power Report also repeats the claim that China would double its arsenal over the next ten years. Doubling from low 200s would mean a total in ten years of 450-500 warheads. Given the number of brigades they appear to be adding, and the number of warheads such brigades would be able to deploy, that number doesn’t actually seem too unlikely. However, keep in mind that Hans Kristensen has pointed out that this is not the first time the intelligence community has predicted such a growth among China’s nuclear forces, and we haven’t seen that growth occur. This time, however, I think the US has a better case for making the claim. The difference now is the fact that the PLARF is starting to roll out more missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads. Combined with the number of new brigades the PLARF is currently in the process of standing up, a jump from 225ish to 450ish over ten years would be possible. This is also probably the most they could produce. China stopped producing plutonium some time ago and the possible future size of their stockpile is limited by this. James Acton did some number crunching on the amount of plutonium China currently has stockpiled and concluded that 450 warheads is probably near the upper limit of what they could produce.
A little thought experiment: there are currently 34 finished brigades and six more in the process of being built and stood up. One of these brigades will almost certainly be equipped with the DF-16 or DF-17 given the unit's probable location. Two more will probably be equipped with the DF-21’s new mod or the DF-26. Three more are in Central China, indicating a probable ICBM loadout. The PLARF paraded two DF-41 brigades down Tiananmen Square in 2019. Assuming three warheads per missile, and assuming that every DF-41 brigade comes equipped with the standard 12 launchers, those two brigades would add 72 nuclear warheads to the arsenal. If the third brigade is equipped with the newer DF-31AG, that would bring it up to 84. Then you have the new silos being built across China. Assuming of these silos will contain missiles that are MIRV capable, these would add another 2-3 dozen warheads to the total – and all of this is happening in the next 3-4 years. We haven’t even gotten to MRBM, IRBM, or SLBM expansion and we’ve already added over 100 warheads. So China doubling its warhead count is totally possible, if we make some assumptions about the degree to which the PRC will modernize and MIRV its forces.
At the same time, the report makes other claims about modernization programs that it presents very little evidence for. The China Military Power report relies surprisingly heavily on what it refers to as “media reports” to track developments in the Rocket Force. In some cases, the report relies entirely on media reports to describe some fairly critical modernization programs. In one place the report talks about media reports of the DF-31B. As I’ve mentioned previously in my article about China’s mobile ICBM forces, the DF-31B is how the Free Beacon originally reported the testing of the DF-31AG – reports based on DoD leaks. Since then, Bill Gertz has clarified that the DF-31B was, in fact, the DF-31AG. The PRC may have since started a DF-31 mod program, but given that the report only vaguely cites media reports, I would be very careful about repeating this claim.The DF-5C, a missile originally reported in STARTCOM’s Nuclear Matters Handbook, is also attributed to media reports. I would treat the claims that these missiles even exist with some intense skepticism.
Lastly, there are some interesting data points in the report about China’s nuclear posture. Eric Gomez already has a good explanation of this, but basically, the report speculates that the expansion of silos ongoing across some PLARF installations would indicate a change from China’s doctrine to Launch-On-Warning (LOW). Instead of waiting for a US nuclear strike to hit, the PRC could under LOW launch a response when they can see the a missile strike incoming. The PRC would do this if they thought that the number of nuclear missiles that could potentially survive a first strike is too low. Silo forces are not considered particularly survivable now with the onset of more accurate missiles, so the DoD is seeing an expansion in silos as evidence that the PLARF might embrace at least a partial LOW posture. To give some context for this, the PLARF only currently has around 20 missile silos. This might jump to around 30 over the next 3-4 years. For the time being, this isn’t a particular earth-shattering force expansion. I’d have to be presented with a bit more evidence, particularly about how the PLARF itself views the survivability of its silo forces, before agreeing with this particular line of argument, but its not a surprising or unbelievable argument to be making.
That’s all the nitty-gritty PLARF stuff I wanted to talk about. The report is very long and in-depth in some places, so if you are at all interested in Chinese military developments you should go read it if you haven’t already. I hope the DoD clarifies some of the items in this document because the missile count is still very unclear about what is being assumed. For the time being, everyone is busy reexamining their force estimates trying to fit these new numbers into the brigade totals.
China Military Power Report 2020 Missile Table
China Military Power Report 2019 Missile Table