Since 1964, China has developed nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems optimized for a retaliatory nuclear strike using a land-based missile force. China’s first priority in its NC3 arrangements is strict control over the alerting and use of nuclear weapons by its top leaders, while its second priority is the survivability of NC3 systems. Technical systems include multiple, redundant means of communicating with mobile, land-based missiles, an automated command and control network allowing top leaders to skip levels in the chain of command, and likely technical use-controls. China’s current nuclear attack early warning capabilities are limited to ground-based radars on Chinese territory, but those systems are likely to become more sophisticated in the next decade, perhaps with the addition of space-based early warning systems. China separates its warheads and missiles in peacetime to ensure negative control. Little is known about NC3 arrangements for China’s nascent sea-based nuclear deterrent, but Chinese experts point out that China’s NC3 arrangements for land-based missiles cannot be easily replicated at sea. Chinese leaders may be forced to confront difficult trade-offs between strict control and the survivability of its undersea nuclear weapons. The only known incident involving China’s NC3 system was the alerting of China’s first nuclear units during the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has maintained a retaliatory nuclear posture since it tested its first nuclear device in 1964 and adopted a No First-Use Policy for its nuclear weapons. The PRC relies primarily on land-based missiles to carry out its only campaign for the use of nuclear weapons, a nuclear counterstrike campaign. This profile focuses on China’s land-based missile force nuclear command, control, and communications arrangements (NC3), which is the most mature and transparent leg of China’s nuclear deterrent. Where possible, it also speculates about possible arrangements for China’s ballistic missile submarine NC3.
China’s NC3 arrangements are optimized for a small, land-based missile force because its nuclear force has until recently been a strategic monad made up of land-based missiles. China is slowly taking steps to develop a sea leg to its nuclear deterrent and is likely to develop an air leg in the future, with a view to establishing a triad of delivery systems. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery Force, established in 1966, operated China’s land-based missile force until it was renamed the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) on January 1, 2016 as part of sweeping PLA organizational reforms implemented that year. Although Chinese leaders decided to develop a sea-based nuclear deterrent in 1958, China only began to seriously develop an operational ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) capability in the 1990s when its leaders decided to develop a second-generation SSBN. The PRC could have used aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons, but its early bombers lacked the range and survivability to deliver a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union or United States. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) may, however, gain a nuclear mission for a dual-capable strategic bomber in the future.