China’s strategic missile force, previously known as the PLA Second Artillery Corps, was created in 1966. It was renamed the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and became a full service branch on 31 December 2015. The PLARF controls China’s land-based nuclear and conventional missiles, with a total strength of 100,000 personnel.
The PLARF is responsible for operating all of China’s land-based ballistic missile assets, both nuclear- and conventionally-armed. The force has also been equipped with strategic land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) since 2004. PLARF units across the country receive logistic support from the regional PLA headquarters they are stationed in, but only receive orders directly from the Central Military Commission (CMC) through a 4-tier chain of command: CMC, missile bases, missile brigades, and launch battalions.
The PLA’s first ballistic ‘seed’ missile unit was created in 1958 in Beijing under the cover name of “Artillery Training Group”, to be trained by Soviet missile troops on the use of the Soviet-supplied R-2 (SS-2 ‘Sibling’) short-range ballistic missile. The first operational missile unit, the 802nd Artillery Battalion, was activated in 1959. By 1961, a further four battalions (801st, 803rd, 804th, and 805th) were created in the Shenyang, Beijing, and Jinan Military Region. These units were known as “the Old Five”, the seeds of the PLA’s strategic missile force. In 1964, the five battalions were expanded into five regiments due to the expansion of China’s missile programme.
On 6 June 1966, the CMC issued an order to establish the headquarters of the Second Artillery Corps (SAC), with General Xiang Shouzhi appointed the Commander and General Li Tianhuan the Political Commissar. In 1968, the 806th Missile Regiment was activated. In March 1977, the 803rd Missile Regiment conducted a field missile launch drill – the first time the SAC conducted a missile launch outside missile test centres. The drill was carried out in a combat scenario, with four missiles fired from a non-predetermined temporary launch site.
In 1983, the SAC conducted its first nuclear counterstrike exercise, with four DF-3 MRBMs fired. The exercise was watched by senior PLA leaders. In 1985, the SAC’s missile regiments were reorganised into brigades. In the same year, the 801st Missile Brigade became the first SAC unit to be equipped with the DF-5 ICBM.
Following the end of the Cold War, the SAC began to be equipped with conventionally-armed theatre missiles to give the force both nuclear and conventional capabilities. During the 1995—96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the SAC fired a total of ten DF-15 SRBMs into the international waters off the Taiwanese coasts as an intimidation. The size of the conventional ballistic missile force in the SAC increased significantly over the next decade, to over 1,000 missiles by 2010.
The SAC was an independent service arm (兵种), a grade lower than other branches within the PLA hierarchy. On 31 December 2016, the CMC issued an order to elevate the missile force into a full service branch (军种), on the same level as the Ground Force, Navy, and Air Force of the PLA. At the same time, the force was renamed the PLA Rocket Force (中国人民解放军火箭军). The word ‘strategic’ was deliberately omitted in the force’s name to reflect its nuclear and conventional nature.
Operational units of the PLARF are organised into bases, which are corps-sized units composing of several missile brigades. There are currently six operational bases and a training base, plus a number of support, training, logistics, and engineering units. The PLARF Headquarters in the Qinghe Compound in northwest Beijing is responsible for overseeing the force’s administrative management, personnel affairs, recruitment, training, budgets, etc. However, in the event of a nuclear war, missile bases may receive orders directly from the CMC.
A missile base is the largest operational organ in the SAC, each assigned with a specific target area. For example, Base 51 is responsible for covering targets in Northeast Asia; Base 52 is responsible for covering Taiwan; Base 53 is responsible for covering Southeast Asia; Base 56 is responsible for covering South and Central Asia and Russia; Base 54 and 55 are responsible for covering targets in North America and Western Europe.
Each missile base is composed of a headquarters, 4—7 missile brigades, as well as support elements, which normally include a signal regiment, an electronic warfare regiment, an engineer battalion, a reconnaissance group, a survey/mapping group, a computer centre, a meteorological centre, maintenance workshops, a guard company, and missile and warhead storage. Additional engineering, air-defence, and chemical-defence units may be assigned if necessary. Some bases also have a battalion-sized specialist opposing force (OPFOR) unit for training and exercise.
The missile brigade is the principal operational unit that operates, protects, maintains and supports the missile troops. A missile brigade normally consists of a brigade headquarters, 4—6 launch battalions, a signal battalion, a telemetry battalion, a launch site battalion, a technical battalion, a maintenance battalion, and a number of logistics and support units. Each brigade likely includes a mobile command post, a central depot, an assigned set of pre-surveyed launch sites, as well as a set of reserve launch sites. In peacetime, missile brigades report to their base headquarters. In time of war, conventional missile brigades are likely to be assigned to one of the joint-service Theatre Command Headquarters.
The launch battalion is the basic launch unit, responsible for the daily maintenance and operations of the missile systems. A launch battalion is only equipped with a single type of missile. Each launch battalion possibly consists of a fixed or mobile launch control centre, with a number of launch companies. There are microwave and radio data and voice communications links between the launch battalion and the missile brigade and base command centres.
A nuclear missile launch company may be in charge of a single missile, either silo-based or mounted on a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle. A conventional missile launch company may deploy 5—6 TEL vehicles and 5—6 missile transport vehicles. A mobile launch company may also include an electric-power generation vehicle, a surveying vehicle, and a communications command vehicle.
PLARF Order of Battle
Base 51 (Shenyang, Liaoning)
- 806 Missile Brigade (DF-31A ICBM)
- 810 Missile Brigade (DF-3A MRBM)
- 816 Missile Brigade (DF-15 SRBM)
- 822 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
Base 52 (Qimen, Anhui)
- 807 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
- 811 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
- 815 Missile Brigade (DF-15 SRBM)
- 817 Missile Brigade (DF-15 SRBM)
- 818 Missile Brigade (DF-15 SRBM)
- 819 Missile Brigade (DF-15 SRBM)
- 820 Missile Brigade (DF-15 SRBM)
Base 53 (Kunming, Yunnan)
- 802 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
- 808 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
- 821 Missile Brigade (CJ-10 LACM)
Base 54 (Luoyang, Henan)
- 801 Missile Brigade (DF-5 ICBM)
- 804 Missile Brigade (DF-5 ICBM)
- 813 Missile Brigade (DF-31A ICBM)
- Unidentified Missile Brigade (DF-26 IRBM)
Base 55 (Huaihua, Hunan)
- 803 Missile Brigade (DF-5 ICBM)
- 805 Missile Brigade (DF-4 IRBM)
- 814 Missile Brigade (DF-4 IRBM)
- 824 Missile Brigade (DF-4 IRBM)
Base 56 (Xining, Qinghai)
- 809 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
- 812 Missile Brigade (DF-31A MRBM)
- 823 Missile Brigade (DF-21 MRBM)
- Training & Experimental Unit
Base 22 (Baoji, Shaanxi) – Nuclear warhead storage
Last updated: 1 January 2017