China’s Missile Forces: Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement

The potential risks of nuclear-conventional entanglement in China’s missile forces has drawn increasing concern from American observers. This entanglement could increase the likelihood of nuclear use in a crisis or conflict. But much of the details of how and why that entanglement exists has remained unknown to analysts. In research recently published in the Journal of Strategic Studies, I find that while the risks of entanglement are less acute than other analysts have feared, they are real and likely to evolve. Significantly, American and Chinese strategists appear to have starkly different views of the dimensions, drivers, and risks of this entanglement. Addressing the risks will require concerted effort to reduce entanglement within China’s missile forces and to reduce the chances of misperception between China and the United States.

What is entanglement?

Entanglement refers to the potential overlap between conventional and nuclear weapons systems. China’s ground-based missile forces are operated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, which commands conventional, nuclear, and dual-use missile systems. These conventional and nuclear forces could be entangled in several ways. They might operate in the same geographic areas, be subject to the same command and control structures, or be technologically indistinguishable from the perspective of other countries.

Entanglement can increase the risks of nuclear use in several ways. First, it increases the likelihood of an adversary inadvertently destroying a nuclear missile that it believed was conventional. Second, it can raise the threat perceptions of the entangled state by increasing ambiguity about the adversary’s true aims in a crisis or conflict. Third, entanglement can increase the likelihood of an adversary state misperceiving an impending conventional strike as a nuclear one (and vice versa).

Together, these dynamics can increase the incentives for an entangled state to use its nuclear forces before losing them and an adversary state to target nuclear forces before they are used.

Dimensions and drivers of entanglement

The open-source evidence suggests that China’s ground-based missile forces are moderately entangled. China deploys conventional, nuclear, and dual-capable mobile missiles. The mobility of these missiles means that they may deploy far from their home garrison and in close proximity to the units of other missile brigades. Open-source information suggests separate command and control lines for nuclear and conventional missiles, though PLA materials envision a future in which the PLA can “organically integrate nuclear counterattack capabilities and conventional strike capabilities,” suggesting greater future entanglement. Finally, the conventional and nuclear variants of some medium- and intermediate-range missiles and of some truly dual-capable systems may be technologically indistinguishable.

Much of the American analysis of entanglement in China has focused not only on whether and how conventional and nuclear forces are entangled but also why. Much of this work assumes that Chinese entanglement is a deliberate strategy to deter U.S. strikes by increasing the risks of nuclear escalation. For example, American scholar Caitlin Talmadge has argued that the PLA “likely sees some strategic advantage in these linkages. Precisely because these entanglements raise the prospect of nuclear escalation, Beijing may believe that they contribute to deterrence—that they will make the United States less likely to go to war in the first place.” Similar claims have been made by American participants in Track-1.5 dialogues between the United States and China.

The evidence, however, suggests that Chinese entanglement instead emerged from narrower organizational dynamics. The risks of entanglement have received limited attention from Chinese analysts. By contrast, they frequently extol the operational benefits of integrating conventional and nuclear systems. For example, Sun Kuaiji, the deputy director of the Department of Military Strategy at the PLA National Defense University, has praised the “resource savings” that dual-use missiles can offer. Military reporting on Rocket Force training and exercises similarly emphasize the operational benefits that stem from the flexibility of integrating conventional and nuclear forces.

This mismatch in perceptions could exacerbate escalation dynamics in a conflict between China and the United States. If American officials believe that China’s entanglement is both extensive and deliberate, they may be more inclined to undertake riskier military operations under the (false) belief that China has well considered and prepared for the risks of entanglement. Conversely, if Chinese officials have not considered those risks, they are likely to be less prepared for the risks of escalation that follow, and may be more likely to interpret ambiguous American actions in the worst possible light.

Implications for China and the PLA

Though China’s missile forces do not appear as entangled as some analysts fear, the risks are real, particularly given the potential mismatch in perceptions and the possibility of greater future entanglement. Both China and the United States can work to reduce these risks and lower the chances of nuclear use.

First, China should work to reduce and prevent further entanglement in its ground-based missile forces. China should ensure separate lines of command and supporting communications infrastructure for its conventional and nuclear forces. As China expands its missile arsenal, it should also avoid assigning either conventionally-armed ballistic missiles or shorter-range nuclear ballistic missiles to Rocket Force bases that control intercontinental ballistic missiles. It could also avoid mixing shorter-range conventional- and nuclear-capable missile systems at lower levels within the Rocket Force.

Second, China should take care not to replicate entanglement risks in its air force or navy. For example, some Chinese analysts have argued for arming some of China’s submarine launched ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. However, such developments could dangerously blur the lines between conventional and nuclear forces at sea. Rather, China should clearly separate its conventional and nuclear maritime forces. Similarly, China could develop distinct command and control arrangements for its ballistic missile submarines, which are charged with maintaining nuclear deterrence, and its other submarine forces, which are likely to feature heavily in a conventional conflict.

Third, China can engage meaningfully in strategic dialogue with the United States to reduce the likelihood of misperception. Chinese and American strategists appear to have differing views about the extent, drivers, and risks of entanglement. This mismatch in perceptions could prove dangerous in a crisis or conflict by causing each side to misread the signaling and intentions of the other.

Despite growing strategic competition, Beijing and Washington still have many overlapping interests. Chief among these is avoiding a nuclear conflict. Addressing the risks of nuclear-conventional entanglement is a goal that both countries would do well to cooperate toward.


Image: Screenshot of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’s first promotional video.