As a rising power in the Asia-Pacific region, China has developed a diverse and sophisticated arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. These missiles are part of a broader military modernization to enhance Beijing’s ability to assert itself in regional and territorial matters.

China’s Nuclear Program and Doctrine

China became a nuclear weapon state when it exploded its first nuclear device in 1964. Since then, China has slowly developed and modernized its nuclear weapons program using a mixture of foreign and indigenous weapons designs and technology. China’s current nuclear arsenal contains approximately 200-300 nuclear weapons including silo-based and road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, short and medium range ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Predictions about the size, status, and capabilities of China’s nuclear forces are often difficult given the secrecy surrounding China’s nuclear program and China’s extensive use of underground tunnels to store military hardware and possibly nuclear weapons. China also has refused to engage in strategic arms control dialogues that would require transparency about its nuclear forces. Generally, China views secrecy as an essential part of ensuring the survivability of its relatively small nuclear force and an integral part of its no-first-use policy.

Historically, China has maintained a nuclear doctrine based on the concept of ‘no-first-use’ (NFU), viewing its nuclear arsenal as a means of self-defense and deterrence. China’s military modernization program and upgrades to its nuclear weapons arsenal, along with its 2013 defense white paper that did not comment on China’s NFU pledge, has led some to question China’s commitment to its NFU policy. However, in its May 2015 defense white paper, Beijing reaffirmed its NFU policy stating that its nuclear weapons are for “strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack.”

Ballistic Missile Program

China maintains a diverse and growing missile arsenal that it has been modernizing over the past couple decades. China is in the process of phasing out its older missiles such as the DF-3, and DF-4, replacing them with upgraded versions including the DF-21, DF-31, and DF-31A. As it upgrades its missiles, China is incorporating ballistic missile technologies such as Multiple Independently-targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) and Maneuverable Reentry Vehicles (MaRV). MIRV allows for ballistic missiles to carry multiple warheads that can be aimed at different targets within the same area, whereas MaRV is capable of maneuvering during reentry, increasing accuracy against fixed and moving targets and even allowing warheads to avoid interception by missile defense systems. China acquired the technology and capability to develop and deploy MIRVs several decades ago, but Chinese leaders chose not to deploy missiles with this capability until recently. Over the last several years, China has developed, tested, and deployed several ballistic missiles capable of carrying MIRVs including the DF-5A and the DF-41.

China has also developed a sea-based missile arsenal. Its first nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) the Type 092/ Xia-class, was launched in 1981, commissioned in 1987 and test-fired its first SLBM in 1988. The Xiaclass SSBN is able to carry up to 12 JL-1 medium-range ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, giving China the third leg of its nuclear triad. It is not believed that the Xia-class submarine has ever left Chinese coastal waters due to vulnerabilities related to slow speed and a noisy engine. The Xia-class underwent a refit from 1995-2000, but it remained vulnerable to antisubmarine warfare platforms. The Xia-class was replaced by Jin-class submarines launched in the 2004-2012 timeframe.

China currently has four Type 094/ Jin-class ballistic missiles submarines that carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs. The Jin-class submarine is seen as a China’s first chance at a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. The JL-2 SLBM is an intercontinental-range, three-stage ballistic missile that is similar to China’s DF-31 ICBM. The JL-2 has a range of more than 7,200 km and is equipped with either a single MT nuclear warhead or three to eight smaller MIRV’d warheads.

Cruise Missiles

China has been actively developing cruise missiles with foreign assistance, primarily from Russia. It already possesses nearly a dozen varieties of anti-ship missiles, such as the Russian-made SS-N-22, and is pursuing land-attack cruise missiles. According to the Department of Defense, China now has the capability to domestically produce highly accurate land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles.

Hypersonic Weapons

In recent years China, Russia, and the United States have renewed efforts to develop hypersonic weapons as part of their conventional and nuclear arsenals. Hypersonic weapons are ultra-high speed weapons that fly along the edge of space and accelerate to between Mach 5 and Mach 10. Given their rate of speed and nonballistic trajectory, hypersonic weapons are difficult for current ballistic missile defense systems to intercept.

Since 2014, China has carried out several tests of its hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). The HGV or WU-14 is launched during the last stage of a missile and can reach nearly 7,500 mph (Mach10), as well as maneuver to avoid missile defenses and zeroin on targets. This weapon can be configured to carry a nuclear or conventional warhead and China claims it is precise enough to attack ships at sea. Hypersonic weapons could also compress the amount of time leaders have to make decisions in times of crisis, because they can strike much faster than other weapons.

Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Deployment Range (Km)
DF-16 Solid  MIRV (3) Conventional/Nuclear Road-Mobile 800-1,000
DF-15 Solid Single HE/Nuclear/Chemical Road-Mobile 600-800+
DF-11 Solid Single HE/Nuclear/Chemical Road-Mobile 280-350+
M-7/8610 Solid/Liquid Single HE/Chemical Road-Mobile 150
DF-12 Solid Single Road-Mobile 280

Medium/Intermediate Ballistic Missiles (M/IRBMs)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Deployment Range (km)
DF-3 Liquid Single HE/Nuclear Transportable 3,000
DF-21/21A/21B/21C Solid Single HE/Nuclear Road-Mobile 1,750+
DF-21D Solid Maneuverable Conventional/Nuclear Silo/Road-Mobile 1,500+
DF-26 Solid Unknown Road-Mobile 3,000-4,000

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Deployment Range (km)
DF-4 Liquid Single Nuclear Transportable 5,500+
DF-5 Liquid Single Nuclear/4-6 MIRV Silo 13,000+
DF-31 Solid Single Nuclear/3-5 MIRV Road-Mobile 7,000+
DF-31A Solid Single Nuclear/3-5 MIRV Road-Mobile 11,000+
DF-41 Solid Single Nuclear/up to 6 MIRV Silo/Road-Mobile 12,000-15,000

Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Submarine Class Range (km)
JL-1 Solid Single Xia 1,700+
JL-2 Solid Single/3-4 MIRV Jin 7,200+

Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs)

Model Launch Mode Warhead Type Range (km)
YJ-63 Air Conventional 200
DH-10/CJ-10 Ground Conventional or Nuclear 1,500+
CJ-20 Air Conventional/Nuclear 2,000+ (est.)

Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs)

Model Launch Mode Warhead Type Range (km)
YJ-12 Air/CM-302 variant can be launched from air, sea, and land platforms Single HE 400
YJ-18 Surface ship/Submarine Single HE ~540


Map of China’s Missile Ranges

china missile range

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