China has invested considerably in advancing its capabilities for strategic situational awareness.1 Although traditional shortcomings in strategic early warning have been a serious concern for China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today is developing a more mature architecture that could enhance its capability to undertake nuclear counterattack and conventional operations. Although the improvement of capabilities for early warning and situational awareness will remain a challenge for the PLA,2 these capabilities today encompass a growing number of satellites for remote sensing and electronic intelligence (ELINT), large, phased array radars and a range of other radars that are increasingly sophisticated, and early warning aircraft, as well as unmanned systems. The expansion and maturation of these varied systems will continue to be a priority for the PLA, pursuant to new missions and operational requirements in the region and worldwide.

China will likely redouble these efforts in response to new strategic requirements in coming years. According to the 2015 Ministry of National Defense white paper on “China’s Military Strategy,” “China will optimize its nuclear force structure, improve strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction, and survivability and protection.”3 This focus on improving strategic early warning reflects persistent concerns that the PLA has been lacking and lagging in these capabilities, which may exacerbate the risks of a “false negative” if a nuclear attack were to occur undetected.4 Meanwhile, the new focus in some authoritative writings on options for “rapid reaction” (快速反应) to an attack appears to imply the capability for a rapid second strike. There has been some speculation that China’s posture could evolve toward that of “launch on warning,” which would demand much more reliable early warning systems.5 Such a posture could be consistent with China’s traditional commitment to a “no first use” policy.6 The PLA also intends to expand its construction of a space-based system for strategic surveillance that could detect indicators of a potential nuclear attack, including warning of a surprise attack against China’s missiles.7 These trends will continue to merit analytic attention.

Historical Developments

The origins of China’s early warning capabilities can be traced back to the 640 Project (640工程).8 This initiative was launched in 1964 to advance the development of anti-missile systems under the orders of Mao Zedong, who declared at the time in response to concerns over nuclear threats, “If there is a spear, there must be a shield” (有矛必有盾).9 Before the program was discontinued in 1982, its various projects had enabled advances in foundational technologies and capabilities that set the stage for some of China’s modern advances.10

In particular, China’s first anti-ballistic missile system, HQ (红旗)-18 was linked to the CK (长空)-1 ELINT satellite, which was intended to provide early warning of any attack from the Soviet Union.11 It operated in conjunction with the Type 110 and Type 7010 radars, developed through Project 640-4.12 The Type 7010 passive electronically scanned array radar, located at Huangyang Mountain in Hebei Province, first entered operation in 1974.13 The Type 110 mono-pulse radar, capable of long-range precision tracking, which is located in Yunnan, entered service in 1977.14

  1. Please note that I am using the phrasing “strategic situational awareness” in reference to the framework that informs this CSIS PONI project, to characterize not only encompassing strategic early warning capabilities of relevance to China’s nuclear arsenal but also other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that might be relevant in a high-end conflict contingency. This paper is not intended to provide a comprehensive assessment but rather attempts to provide an overview of the status of these developments. 

  2. “Expert: China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Early Warning Capability Construction Confronts Multiple Challenges” [专家:中国解放军预警能力建设面临多重挑战], China Military Online, August 2, 2013, The details included come from an interview with Professor Yan Shiqiang (闫世强), who is the director of an early warning laboratory at the Air Force Early Warning Academy. 

  3. Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国国防部], “China’s Military Strategy” [中国的军事战略],”The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 26, 2015,

  4. For a great analysis of these concerns and how this may impact the Chinese military’s approach to leveraging emerging technologies, see: Lora Saalman, “Fear of false negatives: AI and China’s nuclear posture,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 24, 2018, 

  5. The 2013 AMS textbook, Science of Military Strategy, discusses this possibility, and the Pentagon’s 2019 report on the PLA notes this aspiration in its assessment. See the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congress: Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019, (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, June 2019),

  6. Academy of Military Science Military Strategy Research Department [军事科学院军事战略研究部] (ed.), The Science of Military Strategy [战略学]. 

  7. Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮] (ed.), The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], National Defense University Press, 2015. 

  8. See, for example, the history of the project released online: “640 Project – Mao Zedong and Qian Xuesen’s Discussion on “If There’s a Spear, There Must Be a Shield”” [640工程–毛泽东和钱学森“有矛必有盾”的谈话],

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Reportedly, this discontinuation exempted the development of laser weapons and nuclear electromagnetic pulse technology, the remaining anti-missile projects were all stopped. Certain of these lines of effort appear to have been continued under the auspices of China’s 863 Plan. 

  11. For further information, see: “640 Project.” 

  12. “Secret “640 Program: China’s Anti-Missile Research” [揭秘640工程:中国反导研究已秘密实施45年], January 18, 2010,

  13. For a quick analysis, see: “7010 Phased-Array Missile Warning Radar,” Global Security,

  14. “640-5 Project - 110 Tracking Radar,” Global Security,

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