A Preliminary Assessment of PLARF’s 2022 August Missile Tests

A Preliminary Assessment of PLARF’s 2022 August Missile Tests

A Preliminary Assessment
A Preliminary Assessment of PLARF’s 2022 August Missile Tests

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.

In a significant escalation of military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese military fired at least 11 Dongfeng (DF, 東風) ballistic missiles and rockets around and over Taiwan at designated closure areas that encircle the island. The barrage of lethal projectiles—all fired in a single afternoon on August 4—was accompanied by other significant military exercises and blistering rhetoric that Beijing authorities claimed were in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional delegation (CODEL) visit to Taiwan. The rockets and missiles struck five pre-designated closure areas that bracketed the main island of Taiwan. To cap off this display of aggression, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF, 中國人民解放軍火箭軍) fired four ballistic missiles that reportedly overflew the main island. These operations are a key part of a sophisticated combination of military exercises that still continues as of this writing. [1]

This level of Chinese aggression is unprecedented on multiple levels, even when compared to the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis—which lasted over a period of eight months—in which the PLA fired 10 missiles around the Taiwan Strait over several phases that included other military maneuvers. This preliminary analysis will specifically examine the knowns and unknowns of the 2022 missile tests, provide a quantitative and qualitative comparison to the 1995-1996 missile tests, and assess the signals that the current tests may be intended to convey, as well as their implications. 

Unprecedented Overflight Numbers, Missile Types, and Designated Exclusion Zones

On the evening that Speaker Pelosi arrived in Taipei—following a slow-boiling controversy over her proposed visit—the Chinese government immediately announced that it would begin military exercises in six designated closure areas encircling Taiwan from August 4-7. Notably, two of these closure areas overlapped with Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while another overlapped with the Philippine’s EEZ. Simultaneous announcements from official Chinese sources, however, indicated that the exercises would begin on August 2—while Speaker Pelosi was still on the ground in Taiwan—even though the closure areas were scheduled for August 4-7. This caused some confusion among China watchers about the signal of the announcements. While it is not clear whether the apparent confusion in these official announcements was deliberate, it is plausible that Beijing authorities were being purposefully ambiguous in order to create uncertainty over whether the exercise could affect Speaker Pelosi directly during her time in Taiwan. This uncertainty was amplified by People’s Republic of China (PRC) propaganda outlets in the lead-up to her visit, with some Chinese commentators claiming that she could be prevented from flying into or landing in Taipei. 

At least nine of 11 missiles appear to have been fired from three launch sites located in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi Provinces along the southeastern coast of China. While multiple military experts have speculated that a variant of the DF-15 (which was also the type of missile used in 1995-1996) was used, the exact types were not disclosed by the Chinese military. Based on visible features from videos published on Chinese military websites, many experts believe that the main ballistic missile used was the DF 15B, though both this variant and the DF-16 could have been fired as well, in addition to several PHL-16 rockets fired from Pingtan Island. According to global intelligence firm Jane’s, the DF-16 has “Multiple Warhead Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles” (MIRVs), which allow for the targeting of multiple locations. However, per the Jane’s analysis the missile launched this time appears to have carried only one MIRV. 

There are at least three features of the most recent missile and rocket tests that make them especially notable. First, according to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, four of the ballistic missiles reportedly flew over the main island of Taiwan and five landed in Japan’s EEZ. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD, 國防部), the main flight path of the DF missiles that overflew Taiwan was outside the atmosphere and thus is not considered to be in the country’s airspace. Had the missiles traversed Taiwan’s airspace, this would have been an even more provocative act. According to Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲), an analyst with the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense-funded think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research (國防安全研究院), since the missile did not technically intrude into Taiwan’s airspace, it did not pose too much of a military threat. As such, Su believed that the missile overflights were forms of the PLA’s “psychological warfare” (心理作戰).

The second feature is the synchronized sequence and intensity of the missile and rocket barrage. The sequence began with the PHL-16 rockets—a type of multiple launch rocket system (MLRS)—fired from Pingtan Island to a target across the median line in the Taiwan Strait at around 1:56 PM on August 4. This was followed one hour later by a simultaneous firing of two DF ballistic missile fired from bases in Fujian and Jiangxi to targets located near the south and northeast coasts of Taiwan, followed by a third volley targeting the southwestern closure area. The fourth and fifth volleys, which were also fired simultaneously from the launch site in Zhejiang, targeted two closure areas to the northwest and east of Taiwan. The barrage was finished off by four missiles fired from the base in Fujian that overflew Taiwan to target the closure area on the island’s east coast. The entire sequence concluded at 4:08 PM, lasting 132 minutes in total. The test sequence clearly simulated a bracketing of the main island of Taiwan—north, south, east, and west—which is a cueing technique used by artillery forces in preparation to strike a target. These exercises demonstrate a level of synchronization not seen before in any previous exercises conducted by the PLARF. While the sequencing of these drills may not be visible to the general public, the military signal is clear.

According to Randy Schriver, “The coordinated bracketing of the island is the kind of exercise that will be more applicable to an actual strike.” “This is several shots targeted at different closure areas timed in a particular way, so that more closely resembles if they were actually going to use missiles to strike Taiwan,” Schriver added.

The third feature is the PLA’s coordinated propaganda and information operations apparently aimed at amplifying the psychological effects of simulating an effective “blockade of Taiwan.” Propaganda outlets in China have repeatedly referred to the exercises as a blockade of the island, even though the exercises themselves did not rise to the level of a blockade. 

While there is clearly military value to the tests and exercises, the overall propaganda value may be far more important. This view was suggested even by Chinese officials themselves. According to the PRC’s Ministry of Defense, the purpose of the operations was to test precision strike and area denial capabilities. Yet, as Major General Meng Xiangqing (孟祥青), a professor at the PLA National Defense University, noted, the scope, intensity, deterrent effect, and action elements of this military exercise are far greater than past exercises. In describing the locations of the six closure areas, Meng emphasized: “Altogether, the six areas form something of a noose. When the knot tightens, it’s like containing separatist forces on the island.”

1995-1996 Redux?

The last time that Beijing authorities fired missiles at Taiwan was during the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Over three consecutive days in July 1995, a total of six DF-15 missiles were launched from sites in Fujian Province at a rate of two launches per day. In March 1996, after an interlude of eight months and in the same month as the island’s first direct presidential election, the PRC began another round of missile tests targeting closure areas within 50 miles from Taiwan’s ports in the north and south of the island. Three DF-15 missiles were fired from bases in Fujian on March 8, then another DF-15 missile was launched five days later. The PLA was “bracketing” Taiwan by targeting the northern and southern tips of the island in a sequenced pattern that resembled a zeroing technique that could be used as a prelude to a direct attack. In total, the 1995-1996 Crisis saw 10 missiles fired over the course of eight months, compared to 11 missiles fired in one day during the 2022 missile tests. 

While the political signal of the 1995-1996 episode was focused primarily on Taiwan, the 2022 exercises appear to be more heavily focused on the United States. According to China military analyst Dean Cheng, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation: 

It is striking that when we look at what the Chinese are doing right now off of Taiwan, there is an interesting parallel—announcement of closure spaces, firing of missiles—compared to 1996. And yet, today’s China is a very different entity from the China of 1996 [when] […] [w]e sent two carrier battle groups to the region, and the second group in particular sent a distinct message to Beijing: “you are outmatched.” […] [N]o one at this point […] is about to openly advocate sending two carrier battle groups directly into harm’s way. Why? Because frankly […] the PLA of today is significantly different. I think that what this is saying from Beijing is “you are outmatched,” and that underlies the foundation for why China has been escalating, is that that balance of power—military, but also economic, and even to some extent political—is in Beijing’s view shifting and sliding in its favor.


In the preliminary analysis, the 2022 missile tests and military exercises could mark a “new normal” in the Taiwan Strait—a semi-permanent state of higher levels of tensions. Current reporting indicates that Chinese military exercises are continuing even as of this writing, and the PLA has already indicated that it will continue to operate in areas east of the median line of the Taiwan Strait. While this does not mean that the PLA will now frequently fire missiles around and over Taiwan, it has laid down some new military markers for political redlines. Additionally, the targeting of five closure areas encircling Taiwan and the fact that four missiles overflew the main island reflect the PLARF’s enhanced capability and willingness to encroach upon Taiwan’s territorial space. Ultimately, the 2022 missile exercises were clearly intended to demonstrate a superior capability than that demonstrated during the 1995-1996 crisis, and reflect a more able and confident PLARF

While it is unlikely that the missile tests and military exercises are a prelude to an imminent military invasion, they do reflect aggressive military posturing by Chinese leaders that appears intended to set out a benchmark for political redlines on future actions. Overall, these actions contribute to a heightened state of military tension that will not be going away anytime soon. As seriously provocative as these missile tests were, however, they appear primarily intended to produce political and psychological effects. As such, it is important that Taipei and Washington not take the bait and come up with measured—yet firm—approaches to ensure that their responses are coordinated and proportional.

While the exercises in 95-96 may have been primarily directed at Taiwan, the current exercise seems to be intended to send a message to the United States. On August 8, PRC Defense Ministry Spokesman Wu Qian (吴谦) defended the cancellation of military talks in retaliation for Pelosi’s visit, calling Beijing’s actions a “necessary warning” to Washington “not to go down the wrong path […] We urge the US side to respect China’s core interests and concern and abandon this illusion of using the Taiwan question to contain China.”

Since the exercises were not simply a show of military force, what are Beijing’s political objectives? As then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher later wrote about the 1995-1996 crisis, “The administration was concerned that a simple miscalculation or misstep could [have lead] to unintended war.” Such concerns led the Clinton Administration to form a “strategic partnership” with Beijing to manage tensions, which eventually led to Clinton’s “three-noes.” If past is prologue, it may now be the case that Beijing is similarly attempting to manufacture a crisis to improve its negotiating position vis-à-vis the United States. Just as the 95-96 incident was seen as a successful case of coercive diplomacy, Beijing may be using the Pelosi visit as the justification to beat back what it sees as the advances of US-Taiwan relations that have occurred in recent years, as well as what Beijing considers American and Taiwanese salami-slicing and a so-called “hollowing out” of the “One-China Policy.” 

Whereas the Chinese were militarily incapable of keeping the United States from intervening in the 1995-1996 standoff, the PLA is now more than capable of keeping US military assets at risk and at bay, a fact that it is clearly demonstrating. As Beijing ratchets up military tensions to affect the political-military calculus in Washington and Taipei, the two security partners may need to seriously consider being more willing to remove some of the existing constraints on Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities to ensure that it can effectively defend itself against the spectrum of Beijing’s coercive actions. While this phase of the missile tests has likely concluded, this is likely only a pause as the PRC stakes out a more favorable position to demand political concessions from Taipei and Washington. There is a distinct possibility that there could be another set of missile exercises within the next 16 months in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election in Taiwan and after Xi Jinping (習近平) secures his unprecedented third term in office after the 20th Chinese Communist Party (中國共產黨) Congress. 

The main point: In terms of missile numbers, flight paths, and sequencing, the 2022 missile tests demonstrate a level of intensity and synchronization not seen before in any previous missile tests conducted by the PLARF. While it does not appear to indicate a prelude to an imminent military invasion, it does reflect Beijing’s aggressive military posture, which is likely aimed at political negotiations.  

(The author would like to thank Adrienne Wu for her research assistance.)

[1] On August 4, Taiwan’s MOTC also announced another closure area in the vicinity of the eastern coast of Taiwan, raising the total to seven.

Update: The PLA Eastern Theater Command announced the end of the military exercises on August 10, 2022. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the entire sequence of rocket and missile launches lasted 72 minutes, which is in fact the time for the synchronized ballistic missiles. The entire sequence including the PHL-16 rockets took 132 minutes.