Transformation of a Chinese Military Organization

Transformation of a Chinese Military Organization




Many military organizational changes have taken place over the last few decades. Nearly all have been evolutionary, continuous and limited to using new technology with existing organizations and operational concepts. Resultant increases in combat capability have been incremental and marginal.


From time to time, however, military organizational change is revolutionary and discontinuous, resulting in dramatic increases in combat effectiveness. These changes have been identified as revolutions in military affairs. They and their imperative, military transformations are brought about by combining innovative, even radical changes in military technologies, doctrine and organizations. ‘These periods of discontinuous change have historically advantaged the strategic/operational offence, and have provided a powerful impetus for change in the international system. They occur relatively abruptly – most typically over two-to-three decades. They render obsolete or subordinate existing means for conducting war.’[1]


The appearance of very different military organizations has been a key indication of past military transformations. Historical examples of transformed military organizations include placing warriors into chariot teams; universal conscription – Napoleon’s levée en masse; combined arms formations of WW II capable of rapid and deep penetrations – blitzkrieg; and establishing aviator organizations for use on ships – carrier flight squadrons.


Alexandr Nemets and others have noted Chinese military interest in the revolution in military affairs.[2] This interest includes the organizational dimension and the need to move from concept to practice. Among China’s military organizational changes over the last few decades, one stands out as possibly transformational: China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile force. When combined with China’s nuclear missile groupings, the organization is known as the 2nd Artillery or Strategic Rocket Force. This paper emphasizes the conventional rather than the nuclear aspects of the 2nd Artillery. This is not to undervalue the importance of nuclear weapons but rather to acknowledge that China’s conventional weapons are useable in essentially all conflicts whereas its nuclear weapons can only be used in a very narrow set of circumstances.


The development of China’s 2nd Artillery Corps and the rise of its strategic conventional missile capability have been documented by Mark Stokes and others.[3] As with the Chinese Army, Navy and Air Force, the 2nd Artillery enjoys the status of a Service. Day-to-day operational control of this organization is held by the General Staff Department with the Central Military Commission holding direct command and control.


A number of key trends are evident in the development of China’s conventional ballistic missile organization.[4] The size of the organization has increased while other Chinese military organizations, especially the land army, have decreased. Second, the number of its road-mobile, conventional missiles continues to climb. Third, the range of its ballistic and cruise missiles has steadily increased. Fourth, the accuracy of its missiles may have been greatly improved with the arrival of China’s Beidou indigenous satellite positioning system and the availability of the US Global Positioning System and Russia’s GLONASS system. Fifth, China reportedly has available a family of warheads including runway penetrators and fuel-air explosives. This paper asks what these organizational developments might mean.


Indicators for detecting transformational organizations

How would one recognize the appearance of transformational organizations? Detection criteria can be derived from study of earlier periods of discontinuous change such as those mentioned above. How past revolutions in military affairs played out, what the winners and losers did and did not do, can be very helpful. Because the ongoing revolution in military affairs is powered, in part, by the information revolution, it is helpful to look at institutions outside the military – for example, business. How have these institutions changed organizationally and operationally when confronted with the information revolution? What indicators are these institutions using to assess competitors and how were the indicators derived?


Approaching the detection question this way results in a preliminary set of criteria. In general, discontinuous military organizations:


Result from a dedicated and visionary formal or informal group effecting decisive jurisdictional and policy influence

Engineering a discontinuity in military competencies often began with a strategic problem and a vision to solve that problem. But a vision must be backed by people with real power. Transformation must be in the hands of decision-makers with the resources to make things happen. Often, only a relatively small number of people are engaged during transformation’s initial stages.[5] For example, in the American Civil War, a discontinuity in warfare was made possible by the rifle, the telegraph and the railroad. The US President took a hands-on approach to operational and organizational change and conceived a vision of needed transformational change. Talented civilians were given senior military grades and asked to serve.[6]


Effect major impact on an adversary’s vital operational/strategic level capability

Up until 1941, the US President and his key advisors saw US Pacific forces with its ports and airfields as deterrents. The US belief was the basis for reinforcing the Philippines while it concentrated on the Atlantic battle.[7] Meanwhile, ‘Japan was counting on the pressing demands of the war in Europe, and the rapidity of the first phase of her conquest, to make the Far Eastern situation acceptable to, or at least unchallenged by, the United States.’ Japan would do much of this using a new organization: carrier-based air squadrons.


Germany’s military during the 1920s and 1930s focused on the problem of overcoming operational stalemate coming out of WW I trench warfare. That problem was solved with new, very different organizations including the Panzer division working with strike aircraft. The result was a dramatic operational and strategic loss for France and others. 


Inflict shock on the victim

‘I did not comprehend the violence of the revolution effected since the last war by the incursion of a mass of fast-moving, heavy armour. I knew about it, but it had not altered my inward convictions as it should have done.’[8] Winston Churchill’s 1949 admission is typical of many military observers of the interwar period. Shock at the strategic/operational level is a major psychological event – something extraordinary, stunning and deeply unnerving – not merely a tactical surprise. Criteria might include an after-the-fact realization of a major intelligence failure.


How does surprise happen? In his study of strategic and technological surprise in war, Michael Handel concluded: ‘As in a majority of failures to anticipate strategic surprise, the principal technological surprise is not to be found on the collection level or attributed to the absence of information; it is, instead, the outgrowth of problems at the level of analysis or perception and acceptance on various levels [or “politics”]. In this respect, the causes of strategic and technological surprise are quite similar: they range from perceptual biases, rigid concepts, ethno-centric views, compartmentation, and co-ordination problems between the intelligence community and the military as well as among various intelligence organizations, to bureaucratic politics arising from conflicting priorities and competing interests.’[9]


Stephen Peter Rosen’s study of innovation in the inter-war period adds to this explanation.[10] ‘One of the important findings is that for all three types [of innovation] – peacetime, wartime and technological – intelligence about the behaviour and capabilities of the enemy has been only loosely connected to American military innovation.’


Before Pearl Harbor was struck in 1941, many US policy-makers believed an attack by the Japanese would be insane and therefore improbable.[11] To make the coming shock of Pearl Harbor worse, the US mindset ‘was part of a general attitude that projected American psychology onto the Japanese government.’ But the Japanese believed quick denial of forward bases would present the Allies with ‘a staggering fait accompli.’


Confront the adversary with asymmetries and change the rules of the game

In the 1920s and 1930s, Germany decided to abandon trench warfare and fighting over wide fronts. Instead, it confronted its enemies with rapid breakthroughs at a few points. With the success of its Panzer organizations, the Germans changed the metrics, the rules of the game.


Japan’s Pearl Harbor strike and the following battle of Midway demonstrated the decline of naval warfare centred on battleships and the rise in importance of aircraft carrier groups. The rules of the game had changed again.


Possess little genetic inheritance from pre-existing military organizations

Reconfiguring existing organizations may result in marginal improvements in effectiveness and efficiency.  But crafting an organizational discontinuity can result in non-trivial, even decisive performance. There may be some organizational ancestry – armoured warfare evolved in part from horse cavalry – but as with the Panzer division, clear indications of an organizational disruption will be evident. Committing to a new and major military organization is often concomitant with a reduction of legacy organizations.


Develop in conjunction with transformational doctrine and materiel

Over time, military doctrine, organizations, training and materiel are established and measured against what is the ‘state-of-the art’. Assumptions about how future wars will be fought become entrenched. Militaries having done well in recent wars may be particularly vulnerable to ‘hardening of the categories.’ Some militaries remain stubbornly committed to obsolete assumptions, plans and the rules for doing well in war. But transformational organizations challenge existing assumptions about how future wars will be fought. These organizations undermine existing doctrinal ‘how to fight’ manuals, training, and equipment.


Indications of Chinese military organizational change

We can now use these criteria to ask if China’s conventional missile force might represent an organizational discontinuity.


Result from a dedicated and visionary formal or informal group effecting decisive jurisdictional and policy influence

Over the last decade, China has seized on the possibilities of the ongoing revolution in military affairs and has sought to transform its military operational concepts, organizations and materiel.[12] China’s ‘Transformation Czar’ was (and to some extent, may still be) Jiang Zemin, Central Military Commission Chairman. His transformation vision and programme have full backing now and likely will, in future years, from Chinese military leaders and China’s new President, Hu Jintao. Over the last decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has moved quickly and urgently to ‘leapfrog’ from an ‘early warfare stage mechanization’ to ‘mechanization and informatization’ and then to ‘informatization warfare’. Leapfrogging policy seems to apply across the board, not just to materiel. Armament criteria have been re-defined to accommodate the ongoing revolution in military affairs and transformation.


The most significant obstacle to transformational change had been the deep and abiding power and value system of land army generals. But Jiang Zemin took a number of decisions to change that, including adding the transformation-oriented Commanders of the 2nd Artillery, Navy and Air Force to the Central Military Commission.[13] Resources have been taken from legacy investments to free-up resources for transformation investments, especially the conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization. As in the American Civil War transformation, China has reached out to non-military specialists.[14] As part of this, officers including ‘Technical’ Major Generals have been appointed in the 2nd Artillery and in the General Armaments Department.


Effect major impact on an adversary’s vital operational/strategic level capability

What are today’s vital, ‘must-have’ US operational/strategic military capabilities? According to US national strategy and security documents, a top US goal is to project and sustain power to distant theatres. Doing well in denying access to US power projection forces without playing to US strengths is a top strategic challenge for China. China knows this enduring US way of war is very dependent on access to forward bases – especially airfields and ports – places where the US must ‘project power’ if it is to use its short-range weapons. China also realizes the US projects power using aircraft carrier battle groups. The loss of one or both US capabilities would have a major impact on a vital US operational/strategic level capability. Chinese authors apparently believe conventional ballistic and cruise missiles are able to inflict such losses. 


Unclassified sources have chronicled early Chinese conventional missile ranges sufficient to reach Taiwan, and later Korea, Japan, Russia and India. If this trend continues, one might expect to see Chinese conventional ballistic missiles intended for targeting Guam – apparently to be upgraded to a major US base[15] – Diego Garcia or even the US. Here, it is important to be open to the possibility of the Chinese replacing nuclear warheads with conventional ones on some of its existing intercontinental ballistic missiles, something the US has seriously considered. The Secretary of Defense’s Defense Science Board Task Force on ‘Future Strategic Strike Forces’ has recommended conventional warheads for fifty Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles currently being deactivated.[16] The Board also recommended a non-nuclear ballistic missile for existing US Navy missile submarines. The Navy missiles would have a range of 1,500 miles and a two-metre accuracy. A conventional ballistic missile with a manoeuvrable warhead apparently has also been considered.


Key Chinese advantages in this anti-access vs. power projection competition are evident. First, the number of US forward bases is small. Second, the bases occupy small areas, are fixed, probably well surveyed and functionally well understood. Consequently, the Chinese military has a small number of targets to service. Assuming sufficient accuracy and quantities, Chinese conventional ballistic and cruise missiles can neutralize or destroy these targets. Third, to do well militarily, the US may have to strike Mainland China, a country with intercontinental nuclear weapons. To do well militarily, China need not strike the US Mainland. Similarly, the number of US aircraft carrier battle groups available for Asian crises is small and China believes they can be attacked by conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. All this suggests China’s conventional missile organization may be designed to execute non-nuclear strategic attacks.


Inflict shock on the victim

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu maintains that ‘the victorious army only enters battle after first won the victory, while the defeated army only seeks victory after first entering the fray.’[17] How might a new Chinese military organization satisfy Sun Tzu’s requirement? Is the US predisposed for strategic shock by the employment of the Chinese long-range non-nuclear strategic force? For example, would the US be stunned at the sudden loss of its forward bases in the Pacific? Today, for the US President and his key policy-makers, the US Pacific force with its ports and airfields are deterrents. This policy permits the US to concentrate on the Global War on Terrorism. Do US policy-makers believe a Chinese attack on US forward bases to be insane and therefore improbable?  Does the US project this belief onto the Chinese government? Or do the Chinese see US forward bases as targets?


Confront the adversary with asymmetries and change the rules of the game

Many Chinese military articles discuss conventional ballistic missile attack of US carrier battle groups on the high seas. For example, according to the Commandant of the PLA Naval Academy, ‘The mastery of the sea is no longer a mission solely for the navy. Long-range ballistic missile units possess tremendous ability for long-range surprise attacks … so they can play an important role in the mastery of the seas. Ballistic missile technology is well developed and there are many types. With appropriate reconfiguration, they can possess the ability to attack a moving aircraft carrier, making them a practical anti-carrier deterrent. Ballistic missiles in an anti-carrier role have several strong points: one, their long range can compel an enemy aircraft carrier to remain distant from the shore, limiting the combat power it can bring into play; two, there are large numbers available; three, their speed is great, attack angle is acute and the possibility of surprise attack is great; and four, one hit has tremendous destructive potential.’[18] In February 2003, a Chinese article commented on two US papers pointing to a Chinese capability to attack aircraft carrier battle groups.[19]


New Chinese doctrine presents adversaries with another asymmetry, avoiding closing with a target. For example, a Chinese submarine targeting an enemy ship will no longer come close to the target, determine a fire solution and fire a torpedo. Instead, the submarine will remain well over-the-horizon from the target and, using off-board target acquisition and possibly off-board fire solution, launch anti-ship cruise missiles. Battle damage assessment would also be done by means remote from the submarine. This means metrics such as submarine speed and noise no longer enjoy their former importance in anti-submarine warfare.  Nor would US Navy short range submarine detection materiel and doctrine. The US still has an anti-submarine problem but now it is very different.


Possess little genetic inheritance from pre-existing military organizations

While long-range conventional ballistic and cruise missiles obviously have a role to play in transformation, they cannot be adequately analyzed in isolation from target acquisition and command and control capabilities. In particular, the conventional missile force is likely part of a reconnaissance-strike-complex. Reports state China wants such a complex. ‘China's military is seeking to develop its electronic warfare capabilities into a ‘reconnaissance-strike complex’ of highly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles combined with AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System], over the horizon radar and signal intelligence gathering systems. Such a system could render highly accurate hundreds of Chinese global positioning satellite-guided DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles and DF-21 terminally-guided long-range cruise missiles.’[20] Well-known Chinese reconnaissance capabilities include photo and electro-optical satellites, international and indigenous positioning and navigation satellites, land and sea based radar, maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and other sensors. Each of these can be expected to cue the others.


China’s land-based over-the-horizon radar apparently has the unique advantage of continuously tracking a slow moving target such as an aircraft carrier battle group and its aircraft, over many days and at thousands of miles range. This may mean future carrier

locations could be continuously determined and broadcast, and fire-control solutions needed by weapons to attack the carrier battle group continuously updated. All this would evidently make possible a simultaneous (‘time-on-target’) attack by scores of Chinese ship, submarine and air-launched anti-ship conventional cruise missiles, and land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles within range of the carrier.


Although derived from its need for a nuclear ballistic missile force, China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile force represents a new, very different kind of organization. Unlike earlier organizations, the organizing principle for China’s conventional missile force is not a physical media (land, sea, aerospace) but weapons capable of use in all those media. This organizational approach avoids some of the problems of ‘battlespace overlap’ – one Service’s weapons and target acquisition systems capable of reaching well into the traditional battlespace of the other Services. This overlap, a natural outcome of ever increasing sensor ranges, weapon ranges and data links, explains much of the ‘jointness’ difficulties coming from traditional and dissimilar military organizations struggling to keep their identities and jurisdictions with marginal and ad hoc organizational changes. The Chinese conventional missile force changes the organizational rules of the game.


Develop in conjunction with transformational doctrine and materiel

The conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization developed along with new Chinese non-nuclear strategic deterrence theory, new doctrine and new materiel. Chinese Academy of Military Science authors have argued that strategic deterrence has now passed through the nuclear stage and become long-range, precision and conventional, and that is driving doctrine and other military capability choices.[21] With nuclear weapons as a backdrop, ‘The high degree of integration, precision, and efficiency of informationized conventional means will bring about a greater deterring power to its existence, demonstration, and implementation than the traditional conventional means. In certain circumstances, such conventional deterrence may even directly achieve the strategic purposes.’ Now, conventional deterrence not only exists before the start of war but also through war termination because unacceptable results using the new conventional weapons can be achieved at any time. China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization is the centerpiece of this strategic deterrence.


For the Chinese, conventional weapon-based strategic deterrence was made possible by the information revolution and long-range precision guided weapons. Acting on this possibility, China’s military is transforming itself with a different vision of warfare and instituting a new doctrine, standoff warfare.[22] Training with new, long-range target acquisition systems, over the horizon data chains and conventional weapons accompany the new doctrine. These changes represent a discontinuity, a qualitative change in the Chinese way of war.


Land-based, road-mobile conventional cruise missiles can be used against US forward bases and ships. Even before the cruise missiles are ready, conventional cruise missile organizations may have been added to the conventional ballistic missile organization.[23] In another example of the Chinese military leapfrog policy, at least one cruise missile brigade has apparently been established and made part of the 2nd Artillery. Reporting also asserted:
  • Although unconfirmed, a second brigade may be established soon.
  • One kind of cruise missile (presumably conventional) would be used by the land, sea and air forces with the Air Force using the B-6 bomber and the Navy using the Type 093 nuclear submarine as launch platforms.
  • The number of conventional cruise missiles will exceed the number of short-range conventional ballistic missiles (now estimated to be 600-700 and increasing).
  • Land-based cruise missile brigades appear to be a new Chinese military organization. As part of China’s conventional ballistic missile Service, cruise missile brigades would share the same target acquisition, networking and command and control.
  • A cruise missile named DH-10 has reportedly been deployed with combat units.[24] The land-based missile is launched from a wheeled vehicle with multiple launchers. Two generations of turbo fan powered, cruise missiles have been developed: one with a range of about 600 km and another with range of 1,000 km. Both missiles apparently use inertial and terrain comparison guidance. It is speculated radar terminal guidance may also be used. 


The report concluded that: ‘China’s purpose of developing the two types of cruise missiles is to use the 600km-ranged cruise missile for assault missions against Taiwan and deter the US aircraft carrier combat fleets with the 1,000km-range upgraded version cruise missiles. It is very likely that the 600km-range cruise missiles will be mix-deployed with DF15 and DF11 (conventional ballistic missiles) so as to achieve the strategic goal of co-ordinated operations of cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. This will at the same time help to reduce the disruptions brought about by different types of covered bases and commanding systems.’[25]



China has addressed a strategic problem, denial of US power projection, without playing to the strengths of the US military. China realized a conceptual solution in standoff warfare, devised an organization to satisfy the concept and resourced that organization by decreasing the priorities of legacy forces. A top goal of the US is to project and sustain power in distant theatres. Denial of that capability, including previously ‘access insensitive’ aircraft carriers and key long-range bomber bases, would have a major impact at the strategic level of war. China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization seems intended to do this and that raises important strategic management issues for the US and others. Additional issues are raised by China’s obvious capability to project power via its conventional long-range, precision missiles.


Issue 1: Responding to China’s non-nuclear strategic force. Do the Chinese believe a quick denial of forward bases would present the US with a staggering fait accompli? Is China counting on the pressing demands of the Global War On Terrorism and the sudden loss of much of US military power in Asia to make a new Far Eastern situation acceptable to, or at least unchallenged by, the United States? How do nuclear weapons, unavailable at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, play in the Chinese anti-access vs. US power projection calculus? China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization can be seen as capable of inflicting destruction and neutralization heretofore requiring nuclear weapons. The US has been mostly successful in demonizing the nuclear weapon. Might it now attempt to do the same for China’s conventional strategic force? Under what circumstances might China attack US forward bases; US aircraft carriers? Would the US then respond by conventionally attacking a Mainland China equipped with intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles?


Issue 2: Department of Defense premises for planning. A principal US starting point for planning and programming seems to ask what the US military can do to adversaries and not to think too much about what they plan to do to US forces. This has been called capabilities-based vice threat-based defence planning. This point of view is consistent with other things such as the emphasis on forward-presence, short-range weapon platforms. Might the DoD want to think again about this policy? Has short-range become an irrelevant legacy metric for power projection platforms? Another policy issue is pre-emption. As with the Global War on Terrorism, if US military forces can no longer focus solely on responding to aggression then they must eliminate certain threats before they can strike. Does China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization pose this kind of threat? What might that mean for US political and military planning? Finally, China’s conventional missile force is now capable of projecting power in a very different way. How should the Department of Defense think about the consequences of that for, say energy and energy lines of communication?


Issue 3: Awareness. What is the US and other’s awareness level of the Chinese capability? As host nations become aware of the Chinese capability, will they re-think the pros and cons of US bases on their land? There are important political and other reasons for maintaining forward bases but these are challenged if the bases are not seen as survivable. Indeed, if the perception is that the bases are not survivable, the political and other advantages may become disadvantages. US presence becomes one of disutility as alliances and confidence in US ability to perform militarily erodes. Some of these countries may think about a nuclear capability to deter Chinese conventional attack. How should the US think about these things and what are the available options?


A related issue results from a Chinese view of strategic deterrence that requires ‘making the deterred side aware’ of China’s conventional power.[26] This may be demonstrating a very long-range conventional and precise ballistic missile airfield attack or by sinking a moving naval target, possibly simulating an aircraft carrier. The US may therefore want to think through now how it will respond politically, militarily and otherwise when China demonstrates its new capabilities.


Issue 4: US intelligence priorities. What will be the state of China’s conventional ballistic and cruise missile organization over the next few years? How will the capabilities of this organization’s materiel, especially its missiles, advance? How can its reconnaissance-strike-complex be better described today and how will it look in time? China seems to be betting on superior situational awareness and understanding; is this a possible point for exploitation – an opportunity for the US? What intelligence will assessments and war gaming require? Has China moved from transformation’s phase one into phase two, i.e., from ad hoc networking of existing organizations using existing target acquisition and weapon systems to a phase of using information as the initial organizing principle from which new organizations and materiel are optimized from the beginning? These kinds of issues are drivers for prioritizing intelligence collection. 


Issue 5: Net assessments and war gaming.  If a major Chinese goal is a conventional missile capability able to neutralize or destroy US forward bases and carrier battle groups, one would want to know when the goal’s culminating point will be reached – or, has it already been reached? Can the US very quickly establish missile defences or is it too late? If the US cannot, how else might it project power and how well might these other options meet US requirements? The US Department of Defense may want to consider emphasizing net assessments and war gaming to answer where are we in the Chinese anti-access vs. US power projection competition and to evaluate new ways of projecting power. Last, the Department may want to assess the new Chinese power projection capabilities and net assess those capabilities against US military capabilities and interests.



Thomas J. Welch

The author is a consultant specializing in military transformation. He produces classified and unclassified assessments, net assessments and warning indicators for high consequence, long-term, military developments. His government service included ten years in the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defence.

[1] Andrew Krepinevich, Director, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, Washington DC. Quote from the CSBA website, 15 October 2004.

[2] Alexandr Nemets, ‘<SPAN style="FO

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