China's Nuclear Forces: Operations, Training, Doctrine, Command, Control and Campaign Planning
Authored by Dr. Larry M. Wortzel.
Recent books and journal articles published in China provide new insights into nuclear doctrine, operations, training, and the employment of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) strategic rocket forces. The major insights come from exploiting sections of a doctrinal text published for PLA institutions of higher military education by the Chinese National Defense University, A Guide to the Study of Campaign Theory (Zhanyi Lilun Xuexi Zhinan). In the view of many in the PLA, the military power of the United States, the potential to use that power to coerce or dominate China, and the ability to threaten China’s pursuit of its own its interests, presents a latent threat to China. Additionally, China’s own threats against democratic Taiwan, and the fact that PLA leaders believe that the United States is likely to come to Taiwan’s assistance in the event of Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait, magnifies the threat that PLA officers perceive from the United States. This perceived threat drives the PLA to follow U.S. military developments more carefully than those of other nations and to be prepared to counter American forces. The PLA is mixing nuclear and conventional missile forces in its military doctrine. Also, some in China are questioning whether the doctrine of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons serves China’s deterrent needs.
The major insights in this monograph come from exploiting sections of a doctrinal text published for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) institutions of higher military education by the Chinese National Defense University, A Guide to the Study of Campaign Theory (Zhanyi Lilun Xuexi Zhinan). This book is an unclassified “study guide” for PLA officers on how to understand and apply doctrine in a restricted PLA book on campaign doctrine in warfare, The Science of Campaigns. Other recent books by PLA or Chinese government controlled publishing houses validate the insights in the monograph and demonstrate how the PLA is going about achieving its vision for modern war fighting.
These materials provide new insights into China’s Second Artillery Corps, the “Strategic Rocket Forces.” Chinese strategists believe that China must be prepared to fight in, and if necessary, control space; which explains the 2006 laser attack on a U.S. satellite from China and the 2007 anti-satellite missile test by the Chinese. PLA officers also believe that U.S. satellite reconnaissance from space could constitute a threat to China’s nuclear deterrent.
China’s leaders and military thinkers see the United States as a major potential threat to the PLA and China’s interests primarily because of American military capabilities, but also because of U.S. security relationships in Asia. To respond to these perceived threats, China’s military thinkers are examining the relationships between conventional and nuclear ballistic missile units in war and developing new doctrine for missile employment. There are explicit discussions in PLA military literature and scientific journals on how to use ballistic missiles to attack deployed U.S. naval battle groups, particularly aircraft carriers. Indeed, the Second Artillery Corps is developing a new class of maneuvering reentry vehicles with this mission in mind. In addition, there is also more open information revealed in these documents about frontal and national-level command and control of missile units.
The targets suggested for theater warfare and conventional guided missile campaigns at the operational level of war are designed to achieve battlefield effects that will destroy an enemy’s ability to wage war effectively. Secondarily, the targets selected would disrupt the enemy’s economy, reconstitution and resupply capabilities:
• Enemy political centers;
• Economic centers;
• Major enemy military bases and depots;
• Enemy command centers;
• Enemy communications and transportation networks; and,
• Major troop concentrations.
China’s strategic intercontinental ballistic missile force remains primarily retaliatory in nature. The PLA may employ theater and shorter-range ballistic missiles, however, as elements of a surprise attack or to preempt an enemy attack. PLA military thinkers recognize that long-range precision strike by conventional weapons is now an integral part of U.S. military doctrine. They fear that a conventional attack on China’s strategic missile forces could render China vulnerable and leave it without a deterrent. This has led to a debate in China among civilian strategic thinkers and military leaders on the viability of the announced “no-first-use” policy on nuclear weapons. Some strategists advocate departing from the “no-first-use” policy and responding to conventional attacks on strategic forces with nuclear missiles.
The objectives for nuclear campaign planning are ambiguous enough to leave open the question of preemptive action by the PLA. According to A Guide to the Study of Campaign Theory, a major objective of Chinese nuclear planning is to “alter enemy intentions by causing the enemy’s will [to engage in war] to waver.” Preemption, therefore, would be a viable action that is consistent with the PLA’s history of “selfdefensive counterattacks.”
The PLA leadership has prioritized the objectives of nuclear counterattack campaigns as follows:
• Cause the will of the enemy (and the populace) to waver;
• Destroy the enemy’s command and control system;
• Delay the enemy’s war (or combat) operations;
• Reduce the enemy’s force generation and warmaking potential; and,
• Degrade the enemy’s ability to win a nuclear war.
The decision by Beijing to put nuclear and conventional warheads on the same classes of ballistic missiles and colocate them near each other in firing units of the Second Artillery Corps also increases the risk of accidental nuclear conflict. A critical factor in any American decision will be the capabilities of American space-based sensor systems. Accurate sensors may be able to determine whether China launched a conventional or nuclear-tipped missile, and such a determination could prevent immediate escalation of a crisis or conflict.
These are serious matters for the American armed forces. China’s nuclear forces are evolving and the way they are used is under debate. The way that the PLA handles its commitment to dominating space and its commitment to being capable of attacking American command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems affects strategic warning, missile defenses, and command and control. For the Army, with the responsibility to defend the United States against missile attack, it means that watching the evolution of this debate in China is critical to success.
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