April 12, 2024

Part IV – The PLARF: Nuclear deterrence and A2/AD


The 2015 reforms saw organizational transformation on the branch level. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) and People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) were established as standalone branches of the PLA. These reforms were warranted by the unique strategic-operational challenges that the PRC and the PLA face. The US Armed Forces rely on a strategy of sustained forward presence overseas to deter aggression and win wars. This necessitates the US Marine Corps as a standalone branch of the Armed Forces, specialized in amphibious operations overseas. Conversely, the PLA’s operational concept of ‘forward defense’ necessitated the reorganization of its missile arsenal into the PLARF, reporting directly to the CMC. According to the IISS Missile Threat, “[The PRC] has the most active and diverse missile development program in the world. [The PRC] is modernizing its ICBMs, developing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles”. The PLARF serves the dual purpose of providing strategic deterrence via nuclear and conventional long-range precision strike capabilities, as well as ensuring short- and medium-range A2/AD in the PRC’s immediate strategic environment.

The PLARF plays a crucial role in maintaining the PRC’s strategic deterrence capabilities, particularly in the realm of nuclear deterrence. Its arsenal of ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), contributes to the PRC’s second-strike capability, ensuring that it can respond effectively to any potential adversary’s nuclear aggression. To this end, the PLA historically employed the DF-4 and DF-5 ICBMs. As IISS details, the DF-4 is a legacy transportable ICBM with a range of 5,000 km, while the DF-5 is the PRC’s first silo-launched ICBM with a range of 13,000 km, capable against North American and European targets. Both missile types were set to be decommissioned by 2005, with only single PLARF brigades left operating the DF-4 and DF-5 as of 2023.

The PLA was set to complement their legacy ICBM arsenal with the transportable DF-31 and DF-41 missile systems. The DF-31 with a range of up to 11,700 km entered service in 2006. The DF-41 had its first flight test in 2012 and was unveiled at the military parade for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 2019, with a reported range of 13,000 km and the capability to deliver multiple independently targeted warheads (MIRV). In 2015 the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) entered service to serve as a further nuclear deterrent via the PLAN’s Jin-class SSBNs, each carrying 12 MIRV-capable missiles. The JL-2 was developed together with the DF-31 starting in the 1970s.

The development of hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles since the 2010s has been further strengthening the PRC’s nuclear deterrent. The DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle entered service together with the DF-41 in 2019. While the DF-17 is medium-range and conventional, it represents a major technological breakthrough in PLARF capabilities, while the DF-41 is also said to be capable of delivering HGVs. In 2023, leaked documents exposed the development of further hypersonic capabilities being developed for the PLARF. The DF-27 will be a hypersonic capable intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a range of up to 8,000 km.

Several other short-range (SRBM), medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), and IRBMs, as well as cruise missiles ensure the PLARF’s effective A2/AD capabilities up to a range of 5,000+ km. The centerpiece in this arsenal is the dual-capable DF-26 IRBM, unofficially nicknamed ‘Guam killer’, which entered service in 2016. Its anti-ship capable variant, the DF-26B was first tested in 2020, coining the term ‘carrier killer’, raising red flags among US naval strategists about the ‘dreadnought effect’ and the potential obsolescence of aircraft carriers under the newfound A2/AD operational environment.

The PLARF’s MRBM system, DF-21 has a range of 2,000+ km, effectively extending the PLA’s A2/AD posture beyond the Second Island Chain. The DF-21 entered service in 1991 and is yet to see a successor MRBM platform. The IISS elaborates that the PLARF’s suite of conventional SRBMs threatens Taiwan, Korea, and India, and ensures A2/AD in the PRC’s littoral waters and the surrounding green water seas. The DF-11 and DF-15 entered service in the early 1990s and are still in use, with respective ranges of up to 300 and 600 km. Their successors, DF-12 and DF-16 entered service in 2013 and 2011 respectively, with ranges of 280 and 1,000 km. The PRC exported the DF-12 to Qatar under the designation, M-20. The DF-11’s export version, the M-11 in turn likely served as the basis for Pakistan’s nuclear program.

The PLARF’s suite of ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) belong to the dual-capable but conventionally operated HN family. The HN-1, HN-2, and HN-3 started development in the 1970s, and entered service in 1996, with respective ranges of up to 650, up to 1,800, and 3,000 km, according to IISS data. Their more modern successor is the YJ-18 anti-ship capable GLCM, which entered service in 2014.

In total, as of 2023, the PLARF operated 140 nuclear ICBM-, 110+ dual-capable IRBM-, 40 nuclear and 54 conventional MRBM-, 225 conventional SRBM-, and 108 conventional GLCM launch systems in addition to a stockpile of 400+ nuclear warheads.

That the PRC lags behind the US and Russia in the volume of their nuclear deterrent does not undermine the sophistication and world-class conventional capability of the PLARF. Together, the PLARF’s capabilities form the most capable missile force in the world when it comes to A2/AD. The missile systems were developed and entered service in two waves, in the 1990s and 2010s respectively. Today, the PLARF has the capability to effectively challenge any adversary within the PRC’s maritime vicinity, including the US and Allies, at various ranges. The PLARF can target US Allies such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, US strategic assets, such as aircraft carriers sent on a potential counter-blockade to defend Taiwan, and US soil on Guam. The US Air Force’s base on Okinawa could be struck with the PLARF’s arsenal of SRBMs, making operations impossible for fighter aircraft for 14 days. These capabilities are wildly cost-inefficient against non-strategic targets, quickly deplete, and risk rapid escalation against the US and Allies. At the same time, it is hard to develop effective counter-capabilities against the PLARF’s arsenal, with no US hypersonic equivalent to the PLARF’s HGV to date and rendering an effective US naval response to the PRC’s hypothetical invasion of Taiwan highly costly. In short, the PLARF successfully accomplishes the PLA’s A2/AD strategic-operational objective.


Global A&D

Adam Meszaros
Analyst London
Craig Belanger
Senior Partner & Co-Founder Boston
Joe Giandomenico
Principal Boston
Anirudh Suneel
Principal London
Ben Osterholtz
Manager Boston
Robyn Pirie
Manager Boston
Mark Kipphut
Senior Advisor Dallas
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