The Chinese military has expanded its missile force over the past decade and rolled out modern missiles allowing it to target Taiwan and its allies in the event of a cross-strait war, according to military analysts.
According to a report released earlier this month by Decker Eveleth, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force is widely deploying DF-17 medium-range ballistic missiles near Taiwan.
Rocket force brigades in southeastern provinces near Taiwan have been upgrading their short-range ballistic missiles, defined as those capable of striking targets within 1,000km (621 miles), according to the report, which is based in large part on publicly available satellite images from rocket force bases.
The PLA has not said how it intended to use its missiles. But the rocket force, which only became a full service branch in 2016, played a major role in Beijing’s live-fire drills targeting Taiwan last August and its simulated assault on the self-ruled island in April.
Kapil Kajal, a land warfare reporter at the defence intelligence firm Janes Asia-Pacific, said the modern DF-17 ballistic missiles have gradually been replacing the short-range missiles.
“With the deployment of the DF-17 in the 61st Base [of the rocket force], the PLA seeks to acquire the capability to strike foreign military bases and fleets in the Western Pacific,” he said.
According to US intelligence, these missiles can travel 1,800km to 2,500km when mounted on a Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).
HGVs can fly more than five times faster than the speed of sound while carrying a missile. Their ability to glide in the atmosphere makes it hard for them to be detected by radar than conventional ballistic missiles with a fixed trajectory that brings them above the atmosphere.
Kajal added that the HGV associated with the DF-17, with a speed between Mach 5 and Mach 10, could be impervious to US air-defence systems such as the THAAD, SM-3 and Patriot missile systems.
Although the medium-range DF-17s have been replacing short-range missiles, nearly 1,000 short-range missiles are still deployed opposite Taiwan and could reach the island in six to eight minutes, Kajal said.
He added that short- and medium-range ballistic missiles across south and southwestern China would form the first wave of attack on Taiwan.
Eveleth agreed that DF-17s would be the first wave of missiles to target Taiwanese and allied air defence installations.
“But the problem is that a lot of US systems are out of range of the DF-17,” he said, noting that these short-range missiles could not reach Guam and other key US naval forces.
However, the intermediate-range anti-ship and anti-land DF-26, with a range of at least 3,000km, could reach these targets.
“I would argue that it’s the most important missile in the arsenal. They are building a lot of them. I mean, really a shocking number of DF-26 are being rolled out. And we can see that partly because I can look at the production facility and I can see the missile roll out of the facility,” Eveleth said.
US President Joe Biden has said American troops would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by Beijing. The White House later said Biden’s remarks about US troops coming to Taiwan’s aid did not reflect a change in policy.
Historically, the US has been unclear about its role in such a conflict, allowing Washington to keep official ties with Beijing while also deterring an attack on the island.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province to be united with the mainland, by force if necessary. Most countries do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but many are against any attempts by Beijing to attack the self-ruled island.
The DF-26 has been deployed by seven rocket force brigades based in Anhui province, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and elsewhere, according to Eveleth’s report. An eighth brigade, based in the northeastern province of Liaoning, has DF-26 facilities under construction.
The DF-26 presents a problem for US forces. As an inland system, it is difficult to target. It is also located near nuclear assets and can be equipped with either nuclear or conventional warheads.
“Any American attempt to neutralise the DF-26 force is at risk of hitting dedicated nuclear assets,” Eveleth said.
While China’s missile capabilities could be gleaned through satellite imagery, how the PLA will use them and its reasons for building up capability are more elusive.
Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the think tank Rand Corporation, said the rocket force’s expanded capacity could motivate China to change its nuclear doctrine of “strict no first use” – not launching nuclear arms until an enemy nuclear weapon has hit its territory.
The doctrine could be changed to “launch on warning”, which would allow China to launch nuclear weapons as soon as an enemy has launched theirs.
Eveleth said restarting dialogue between academics and military leaders would reduce the risk of a conflict between China and the US.
The dialogue stopped after former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, angering Beijing. The PLA responded with unprecedented live-fire drills around the island.