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China Can Bombard Taiwan With So Many SRBMs

March 5, 2022
The DF-11A SRBM prepared for launch. Via Chinese state media.

With the pace of its military advancement in firepower and technology now far beyond its own neighbors the People’s Republic wields the best tools for settling its thorniest territorial problems. Indeed, a clear pattern has emerged in the last handful of years meant to test and eventually wear down resistance in Taiwan. This is accompanied by frequent threats to annex the island nation. What makes these activities all the more sinister are the PLA Rocket Force’s (PLARF) immense arsenal of ballistic missiles.

Yet even the best sources that measure the PLARF’s arsenal struggle to ascertain its scope and size. The US military keeps a watchful eye over the branch and the annual Pentagon report on China’s military strength examines it with rigor even when the numbers don’t add up. By 2021 the Pentagon estimated China had 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles or SRBMs in three distinct models: the DF-11, the DF-15, and the DF-16. These are all road mobile and transported by multi-axle carrier vehicles. Although the DF-11 and DF-15 are getting on in years their upgraded variants remain in service.

The PLARF’s missile arsenal began to grow in the 1990s when relations with Taiwan almost broke down if not for the timely intervention of the US. In the wake of the “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis” that happened in 1995 the PLA began to rapidly introduce new SRBMs and the Pentagon has been fixated on this trend ever since. US-based researchers were convinced the PLARF would have 500 DF-11/11A SRBMs (pictured above) in service by 1995. The DF-11 is still a misunderstood weapon system and its slight resemblance to the Soviet vintage R-17–better known as the Scud-series–can lead to confusion. It originated in the early 1980s as China sought to keep up with tactical missile development. The state-owned research institute responsible for it is now managed by aerospace manufacturer CASIC. The crucial difference is the DF-11/11A uses solid fuel, rather than a liquid fuel, for its propellant and its range is superior to the R-17. The DF-11A in particular is accurized compared to its predecessor and has a new separating warhead and four canards around the upper half of its airframe.

In fact, the Pentagon’s own careful analysis of the DF-11A ascertained its range of 600 kilometers, which is very impressive since most SRBMs today are bound by strict export controls and are unable to travel beyond 250 km. The Pakistani SRBM known as the Ghaznavi is a derivative of the DF-11 and flies up to 290 km. This is in keeping with the DF-11’s original range of 250 to 300 km. The Pentagon believes there are two existing regiments of DF-11/11A SRBMs that each have 20 transporters or TELs. The precise stockpile is unknown though and from 2018 until 2019 the Pentagon reported its growth from 1,200 missiles to 1,500 missiles. This is contradicted by the Pentagon’s later reporting of just 600 missiles in 2020 and all of a sudden 1,000 missiles by 2021.

The unclear measurement of a missile stockpile should be controversial as it limits public knowledge regarding a potent threat. The Pentagon knows the PLARF have SRBM regiments deployed in southern China within striking distance of Taiwan. But the unreliable figures it presents casts doubt on its other measurements of the Chinese military’s hard power, which can ill-serve regional allies in a future conflict. The Pentagon’s latest tabulation of PLARF missiles shows 1,000 SRBMs, 600 MRBMs, 300 IRBMs, and 150 ICBMs with single and multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) payloads. The PLARF also have at least 300 long-range cruise missiles. When disregarding the PLARFs nuclear missiles the branch does boast having an immense arsenal of tactical missiles although Iran’s notorious IRGC can rival it if numbers are the only comparison.

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