China’s National Day parade to showcase advances in nuclear deterrence

Minnie Chan

China plans to show off its most advanced active weapon systems at the upcoming National Day parade, which will be the biggest of the 14 such events it has held over the past seven decades.

The parade, to be held on October 1 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, will highlight the military modernisation – particularly in nuclear deterrence – that has taken place since President Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, according to military experts.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) offered a glimpse of those weapons during rehearsals for the parade in downtown Beijing from September 14.

As part of the celebrations, Xi, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, will inspect 48 squads on the ground and more than a dozen airborne squadrons, according to a military insider involved in support services for the parade.

More than a dozen airborne squadrons will take part in the National Day parade. Photo: Kyodo

The squadrons will include the air force’s first stealth fighter, the J-20; the main active warplanes such as the J-10 and J-11B; and armed helicopters like the Z-20. However, the J-8 fighter jet would not appear this year, the source said, confirming that the first interceptor built in China has been formally retired.

“The ground march will be led by several hero forces from the five theatre commands, which is different from previous squads selected from the ground forces, air force and navy,” said the insider, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“The main goal of this year’s parade is to promote the military modernisation of the PLA under President Xi’s leadership over the past seven years, with the military overhaul being one of the key achievements.”

Thirty-three of the 48 squads would be “weapon squads”, while the 13 others would be made up of infantry troops from the five theatre commands, the source said.

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As part of the PLA’s sweeping military reforms, the army’s previous seven military commands were reshaped into five theatre commands, while the four former general headquarters were dissolved and replaced by 15 small functional departments.

In September 2015, Xi announced the PLA would shed 300,000 troops, cutting its size to 2 million, a move aimed at turning the PLA into a more nimble and combat-ready fighting force on a par with international standards.

Xi also split the former Second Artillery Corps into the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force, with the latter backing up the military’s electronic warfare units in cyberspace and outer space.

Among the 33 weapon squads, the highlights are expected to be the PLA’s strategic nuclear missiles such as the Rocket Force’s land-based DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-17 hypersonic missile and the sea-launched JL-2, or Big Wave-2.

Adam Ni, a researcher at Macquarie University in Australia, said that showing off different types of missiles on land and sea indicated that the PLA was improving its nuclear deterrence capabilities by perfecting a three-pronged military force structure, or the so-called nuclear triad.

The DF-17 hypersonic ballistic missile will be one of the highlights of the parade. Photo: AP

The DF-41 is capable of carrying multiple warheads and many decoys, making it harder to detect than silo-based systems and better able to survive a first strike.

Ni said the DF-41 was China’s next-generation cutting-edge weapon.

“It’s actually an advanced ICBM and has a range to hit practically anywhere in the world, including the continental United States,” Ni said.

“The DF-41 is the ultimate symbol of the destructive potential of Chinese armed forces, just as nuclear weapons are similar symbols of the US and Russia.”

The JL-2 – which has a shorter range of 7,000km (4,350 miles) and can be launched by the PLA Navy’s Type 094 submarines – is unable to hit anywhere on the American continent when launched from submarines in the South China Sea and coastal areas of China.

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However, China is developing the JL-3, which has a range of about 9,000km; the upgraded version of the JL-2, with a flight test conducted in June, though it is still less than the 12,000km range of the American Trident II.

“China is stepping up its military modernisation, which includes a number of aspects; the land-based aspect is introducing more mobile and survivable missile systems,” Ni said.

“The game change will happen when China is able to hit the whole US continent with its missile submarines in Chinese coastal waters.”

In military terms, survivable refers to the ability to remain mission capable after a single engagement.

The DF-17 is a land-to-land short-range strategic missile capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional payloads. The US intelligence community has estimated that it will reach initial operational capability by 2020. But if the missile is displayed in the parade, that means it is active already.

China conducted two tests of the DF-17 in November 2017, with the first launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia.

An insider said the main goal of this year’s parade is to promote the military modernisation of the PLA. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the nuclear weapons that would go on show in the parade would all be strategic missiles designed to improve China’s deterrent capabilities.

The show comes after the PLA delivered a national defence white paper in July stressing its goal to “maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China”.

Unlike in the past, this year’s report stated that the US and China were now competing superpowers, and that the PLA’s growing forces were developing to the point that they could challenge the US.

Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military observer, said it was also necessary for the PLA to “show some of its muscle” amid the ongoing trade dispute between Beijing and Washington.

“To prevent misunderstanding, most of the weapons are just strategic equipment, not tactical arms, because Beijing still doesn’t want to irritate Washington,” he said.

About 280,000 people were involved in the rehearsals for the parade and related support services, according to Xinhua.

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