By Mark Stokes |
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery Force appears to be in the midst of a significant expansion of its ballistic missile infrastructure opposite Taiwan. Public statements made by senior authorities in the U.S. and Taiwan indicate that the PLA has formed its first unit equipped with an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system. Looking beyond a first generation ASBM, the Second Artillery also is investing in a new generation of conventional medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) systems. The Second Artillery’s expansion appears to include incorporation of two ballistic missile brigades previously under the PLA Army.
The first noteworthy example of the Second Artillery’s expansion is the apparent deployment of a follow-on variant of the DF-21 MRBM that is capable of engaging moving targets at sea out to a range of 1650 kilometers. In a December 2010 interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, Pacific Command (PACOM) Commander ADM Robert Willard asserted that the Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D) has reached an “initial operational capability” (IOC). Quoting an unnamed PLA official, China’s English language Global Times claimed that the country’s first generation ASBM system is “deployed with the army.” In March 2011 testimony before the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan National Security Bureau (NSB) Director Tsai Der-sheng also asserted that the DF-21D ASBM is “deployed.”
A Project 2049 Institute Asia Eye post published in August 2010 outlined two possible candidates for receiving the ASBM, both newly established units in Guangdong Province. A recent Defense News report indicates that the initial ASBM brigade is located in the area of Guangdong’s Qingyuan City. A number of sources suggest that the report has merit. The Qingyuan brigade, known by its cover designator of the 96219 Unit, is administratively subordinate to the 53 Base, which operates in Southern China. Headquartered in Kunming (Yunnan Province) and commanded by Major General Zhou Yaning, the 53 Base oversees two DF-21 MRBM brigades, a DH-10 land attack cruise missile (LACM) brigade, and a brigade-level training complex. Before his 53 Base command assignment, Major General Zhou served as 52 Base Chief of Staff. A new brigade equipped with a maritime variant of the DF-21 would bring the total number of MRBM brigades under 53 Base to three, and a total of 10 DF-21 brigades in the Second Artillery. The operational training facility under 53 Base is located in Guizhou Province, with a detachment on Hainan Island. Missile brigades are supported by training, transportation, nuclear warhead, repair, and communications regiments that report directly to the 53 Base command staff.
The Qingyuan brigade was formed as a regimental-level test and training unit as early as 2006. The unit was originally collocated with a DF-21 brigade in the Chuxiong area, west of Kunming (NOTE: The DF-21 brigade command staff has likely relocated to newer facilities in Yuxi City). The test and training unit appears to have converted to an operational brigade as early as 2009. At the same time, the unit began the move to its permanent home in Guangdong Province. Elements of the brigade have been noted in Yingde City and Qingxin County, both within Qingyuan City’s jurisdiction. A Second Artillery engineering regiment responsible for construction of pre-surveyed launch sites has been present in Yingde as recently as late 2010. Reliable sources indicate that between 10 and 12 missile rounds are available to the brigade’s subordinate battalions for training and familiarization. In 2009, Second Artillery headquarters team certified a training simulation system developed by the test and training unit.
The Qingyuan brigade is commanded by Senior Colonel Zhang Weimin, and its political commissar is Colonel Chen Zhihao. Key engineers responsible for technical aspects of the new missile variant’s introduction into the operational inventory include Zeng Weidong and Hu Xianfeng, who in 2007 was credited with discovering design shortcomings in a new missile system. The brigade’s Equipment Department, directed by Lu Kangwen, also likely played a key role in integrating the new missile variant. The operational test and evaluation team included battalion commander Li Shaogang, a graduate of Northwest Polytechnical University and the Second Artillery’s only battalion commander with a PhD. Dr. Li carried out extensive liaison work with relevant R&D institutes and the manufacturer. The ASBM brigade appears to have conducted one of its first major field exercises at an unspecified joint training center in early Spring 2011.
The specific organization of the brigade is unclear at the present time. However, if structured like other MRBM units, a Second Artillery ASBM brigade could have six launch battalions, a technical battalion, a site management battalion, a communications battalion, a technical service battalion, and an electronic countermeasures (ECM) battalion. The technical battalion would prepare the missile for launch, including inspection and testing of assemblies and components, mating, targeting, loading, launch control, and other tasks. Missile preparation work may be carried out in a fixed central depot, possibly an underground facility maintained by the site management battalion. The site management battalion could oversee as many as six subordinate companies. Responsibilities could include underground facility management, including power and electricity, water, air conditioning, and ventilation. A service battalion likely would provide support functions such as security, camouflage, concealment, and deception, as well as weather reporting. The ECM battalion or group would help defend brigade assets, especially the brigade’s central depot and launch positions, against air strikes.
While speculative, a brigade equipped with the DF-21D could also include a similar variant in its inventory, such as the DF-21C. Inclusion of both maritime and land strike variants could present a brigade commander with a wider range of targeting options. At least two brigades are believed to be equipped with the 1650 kilometer-range, terminally guided DF-21C — the 822 brigade (96117 Unit) at Laiwu (Shandong Province; 51 Base) and the 823 Brigade (96365 Unit; 56 Base) at Korla (Xinjiang Province). In addition to the DF-21C, the 823 Brigade’s inventory is said to also include the 1650 kilometer-range DF-21B variant. Few details about the DF-21B are available at the current time. As a side note, the 808 Brigade at Yuxi (Yunnan; 53 Base) appears to be the only unit equipped with the original 1800 kilometer range DF-21 variant, while the 806 Brigade in Hancheng (Shaanxi; 51 Base), 816 Brigade at Tonghua (Jilin; 51 Base), 807 Brigade at Chizhou (Anhui; 52 Base), 811 Brigade at Qimen (Anhui, 52 Base), 802 Brigade at Jianshui (Yunnan; 53 Base), and 809 Brigade at Datong (Qinghai; 56 Base) are likely equipped with the 3000 kilometer range DF-21A variant.
The Second Artillery is looking beyond the DF-21D. In his presentation before the legislature, Taiwan’s NSB Director referenced the introduction of a new ballistic missile system into the active inventory – the DF-16. The DF-16 is said to have a range of over 1000 kilometers. Specific technical characteristics of this missile system are unavailable at the current time. However, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) do indeed appear to be developing new designs for the Second Artillery. One is a two stage solid-fuelled “tactical” missile system, which is said to incorporate a high strength carbon fiber motor casing. A new two-staged solid rocket motor, developed by CASC’s Fourth Academy, was successfully flight tested on September 25, 2010. CASIC’s 066 Base in Hubei Province has been investing in optical and imaging infrared terminal guidance technology development. A Wikileaks cable refers to a medium range ballistic missile under development (NATO designation CSS-X-11), which served as a target for a January 11, 2010 missile defense test. The intercept was made at an altitude of 250 kilometers, indicating a range of at least 1000 kilometers. As a side note, a Xinhua news release, quoting an unnamed PLA official, highlighted the development of a new generation 4000-kilometer range missile system that could be completed by 2015.
Another recent development is the Second Artillery’s establishment of a new launch brigade (96166 Unit) in the area of Shaoguan, just north of Qingyuan. The unit is subordinate to the 52 Base, the army-level command that operates in Southeastern China. The launch unit was initially collocated with an existing DF-21 brigade in Anhui Province’s Chizhou City. A Second Artillery engineering regiment responsible for tunneling was operating in the Shaoguan area in early 2009. The 96166 Unit moved to new permanent facilities in Shaoguan in July 2010. The unit’s leaders appear to have extensive experience with the 600 kilometer-range DF-11A short range ballistic missile (SRBM) system. Two brigades under 52 Base are believed to be equipped with the DF-11A — the 817 Brigade in Yong’an (Fujian Province) and the 818 Brigade in Meizhou (Guangdong Province). Former 96166 Unit Commander, Senior Colonel Tang Qixing, and Deputy Commander Tang Guozhong previously served with the 817 Brigade. Former Meizhou brigade Chief of Staff, Colonel Liu Chuanguo, was assigned as the Shaoguan brigade commander in July 2010. While possibly being equipped with follow-on variant of the DF-11, the Shaoguan brigade could be a candidate for a new MRBM system, such as the DF-16. Two subordinate launch battalions have been identified to date.
As a final note, there are indications that two tactical missile brigades under the PLA Army have transferred to the Second Artillery. The Nanjing Military Region’s First Missile Brigade, based in Fujian Province’s Xianyou County, may now be assigned to the Second Artillery’s 52 Base (cover designation of the 96180 Unit). The Guangzhou Military Region’s Second Missile Brigade, based in Puning City’s Hongyang Village, may now have a designation of the 96212 Unit, and subordinated to 53 Base. A February 11, 2011 Second Artillery publication reported that the Puning brigade conducted the Second Artillery’s first live fire training exercise in 2011. The units’ older 300 kilometer-range DF-11 SRBM systems may be replaced with more modern extended range variants. The Second Artillery also would incorporate the brigades’ inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles, which would be particularly useful in a Taiwan scenario.
The expansion of the Second Artillery’s infrastructure in Southern and Southeastern China has been driven largely by the PLA’s desire to coerce Taiwan into a political settlement on unfavorable terms. The expansion also reflects PLA interest in undercutting the capacity of the United States to assist Taiwan in a conflict against China, and enforce other territorial claims around its periphery. Trends suggest that existing SRBMs targeting Taiwan may gradually be replaced with MRBM systems with ranges greater than 1000 kilometers. Higher re-entry speeds associated with extended range ballistic missile systems, such as the DF-16, could reduce the effectiveness of PATRIOT PAC-3 missile defense systems expected to come on line over the next few years. Operations from launch areas further inland also enhance survivability. A relative erosion of Taiwan’s military capabilities could create incentives for Beijing’s political and military leadership to assume greater risk in cross-Strait relations.
Mark Stokes is the Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute