China’s military reforms will have a far-reaching impact on the People’s Liberation Army, but the implications for Taiwan are less clear, write Joel Wuthnow and David Logan.
As part of a sweeping set of organisational reforms announced earlier this year, China’s military (the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) created a new Rocket Force. This organisation, responsible for the country’s land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces, is a fully-fledged service on par with the ground forces, navy, and air force. It replaced the Second Artillery Force, which had existed since 1966 as an independent branch of the army.
From a regional security perspective, the creation of the Rocket Force is most relevant to Taiwan. For the past 20 years, China has been increasing its conventional missile arsenal located opposite Taiwan. These forces (numbering more than 1,200 missiles) are designed to deter Taipei from declaring independence and the United States or other third parties from militarily intervening on Taiwan’s behalf. China’s missile forces are a coercive tool that would also play a key role in any actual conflict that occurred across the Taiwan (Formosa) Strait. In this context, will the upgrading of China’s missile forces from a branch to a service create new problems for Taiwan?
In one sense, the answer is no. The creation of the Rocket Force did not itself include any obvious tangible changes to the composition or structure of China’s land-based missile forces or in the PLA’s missile doctrine, which refers to the ways in which missiles are to be used in the context of a military campaign. There have also been no significant changes to the Rocket Force’s leadership as a result of the reorganisation. The only real changes that have been announced to date have been superficial ones, including the unveiling of new uniforms and patches.
This is not to deny that Taiwan will face increasing challenges from the Rocket Force as China continues to deploy new types of missiles and further strengthens its missile arsenal facing Taiwan. Indeed, the US Department of Defense notes that China is improving the lethality of its short and medium-range ballistic missiles and is moving ahead with missile variants (such as the DF-21D) that can strike not only land, but also sea-based targets. This will improve “China’s ability to strike not only Taiwan, but other regional targets” (the latter certainly including Japan). The point is that these trends will continue regardless of the Rocket Force’s creation or its status as a branch or service.
In another sense, Taiwan could face increased challenges if Rocket Force operations are more effectively integrated with those of the other services. The reforms attempted to enhance the PLA’s ability to conduct so-called “integrated joint operations” by establishing joint headquarters at the regional level. Across the Taiwan Strait, the new Eastern Theatre Command has replaced the former Nanjing Military Region, and will—at least on paper—have the ability to formulate joint operational plans, oversee joint training, and lead joint forces in the event of a conflict.
Stronger cross-service coordination would pose problems for Taiwan in two main areas. First is in the PLA’s ability to more effectively plan, train for, and conduct amphibious operations. The Rocket Force might be better positioned to coordinate with PLA marines, army, naval, and air force personnel to degrade critical Taiwanese military infrastructure, such as air defense units. Second is by threatening intervening US forces. Chinese land-based precision-guided missiles might be used alongside submarine- and air-launched weapons to threaten US aircraft carriers, regional bases, and other targets, making it harder for the US military to deploy adequate forces in time. Enhanced joint operations could make the task of defending Taiwan much harder.
However, recent reforms have not dramatically enhanced the ability of the Rocket Force to participate in joint operations. Both conventional and nuclear units appear to still be under the strict control of the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s highest-level decision-making body. The independent command structure of the Second Artillery—with missile bases commanding brigades located in different theatres—appears to still in be in place. Media reports on Rocket Force exercises emphasise the need to “coordinate” with Theatre Commands but make no mention of the Rocket Force as part of the formal theatre chain of command. Unlike the army, navy, and air force, the Rocket Force does not have either theatre-based service component headquarters or deputy commanders within the new Theatre Commands. In short, the Rocket Force remains separate from the PLA’s new joint command structure.
Still, we may see future indications of attempts at greater integration between the Rocket Force and Theatre Commands. The appearance of Rocket Force component headquarters within the theatres or Rocket Force officers being seconded as theatre deputy commanders would signal substantially greater integration, as would stronger representation of Rocket Force senior officers in joint professional military education programs, such as those conducted by China’s National Defense University.
Increased Rocket Force participation in joint exercises, especially with units assigned to the Eastern Theatre Command, would also indicate greater “jointness” (a US neologism to describe inter-service cooperation in all stages of the military process), including for prospective Taiwan contingencies. Of note, there appears to have been some uptick in the pace of Rocket Force joint training over the past few years. As recently as 2014, the Second Artillery appeared to have only participated in one large-scale joint exercise. In March of this year, Rocket Force News, the Rocket Force’s internal newspaper, reported that missile units had already participated in joint training exercises with all three other services. Whether this trend toward joint training continues will be a key issue to watch.
The significance of continued Rocket Force independence may ultimately depend on the type of operation. For simpler operations in which Rocket Force units are used primarily to send signals, such as what occurred during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, the lack of formal command integration may not matter. However, for more complex and protracted campaigns requiring the simultaneous use of Rocket Force units with those of the other services, such as multi-directional operations targeting US forces intervening in a crisis, the continued command and organisational independence of the Rocket Forces may prove an obstacle.
China’s recent military reforms may have a far-reaching impact on the PLA. But the implications for the Rocket Force in a cross-strait contingency are more muted, especially given the inherent challenges of joint operations. Reorganising military institutions is a long, hard slog. One comparison is the US military, which is still wrestling with how best to structure itself for joint operations more than 30 years after the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act encouraging inter-service cooperation. Taiwan defence officials should watch with care for signs of greater Rocket Force integration, but China’s missile units still have a long way to go on the march to effective “jointness.”
Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs (CSCMA) at the US National Defense University. David Logan is a Research Intern in CSCMA. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the US government.