In the years since China’s leader, Xi Jinping, transformed the People’s Liberation Army, one of his crowning creations has been the Rocket Force, the custodian of China’s expanding nuclear arsenal. The force, with its array of missiles and launch silos, embodied Mr. Xi’s ambitions to elevate his country as a respected, and feared, great power ready to counter American supremacy in the region.
But this week, Mr. Xi abruptly replaced the Rocket Force’s two top commanders with outsiders with no experience in the nuclear force. It was the highest-level upheaval in China’s military in over five years. The move comes as China is also dealing with questions about the fate of its former foreign minister, Qin Gang, who disappeared from public view in late June before being replaced without explanation.
The shake-up in the rocket force indicated that the force’s expansion has been accompanied by serious problems in its top ranks. Suspicions of corruption or disloyalty to Mr. Xi may slow or complicate China’s upgrade of its conventional and nuclear missiles, several experts said.
“I imagine this could disrupt the modernization,” said David C. Logan, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University who studies the Rocket Force and China’s nuclear weapons modernization. “Instability at senior levels is never good when you’re carrying out large-scale changes, and the shifts taking place in the Rocket Force are significant. Plus, its senior leadership now appears to have little relevant experience with the missile forces.”
The reasons for the removal of the former commanders of the Chinese rocket force — General Li Yuchao and his deputy, General Liu Guangbin — are unclear. The force is extremely tight-lipped, even for the opaque Chinese military. The two men have not appeared in official media reports for months.
Their absence has set off a flurry of speculation, including rumors that one or both were recruited as spies, and allegations of corruption which were reported last week in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper. Several analysts said that graft involving the force’s big spending on missiles, silos and technology seemed the most plausible cause for the downfall of the two leaders.
“There is a lot of money going to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force right now as they built up their infrastructure, particularly their nuclear silos,” said Matt Bruzzese, an analyst at BluePath Labs, a consultancy firm in Washington, who wrote a recent study of the Rocket Force. “Historically, contracting has been one major avenue for P.L.A. corruption.”
Aside from the disappearance of General Li and General Liu, word of the death of Wu Guohua, a former deputy commander in the force, also fanned the speculation about corruption investigations in the force. A Chinese news website issued a report that Mr. Wu had died of cancer, but the report was taken down, inspiring more uncorroborated speculation that his death was suspicious. And last week, too, the procurement office for the Chinese military issued a call for information about possible corruption in contracts dating back to 2017.
Whatever the cause, Mr. Xi’s move to replace the force’s leadership suggests that he is anxious to reinforce his dominance over it.
He installed its two new leaders on Monday: The new commander, Wang Houbin, was a deputy commander in the navy; the new second-in-charge, Xu Xisheng — the force’s political commissar who oversees discipline and personnel issues — came from the air force.
“When both of them come from outside the Rocket Force together on the heels of a purge, it is clearly a sign that Xi feels the rot runs deep and he can’t trust any of the Rocket Force’s deputies to take over,” said Mr. Bruzzese.
The possibility of corruption or disloyalty at the top the Rocket Force is likely to be particularly stinging for Mr. Xi. After coming to power in 2012, he made it a priority of his leadership to clean out brazen corruption in the military, and claimed that effort as one of his signature successes.
Now such misconduct may have resurfaced, and in a particularly sensitive arm of the military. Doubts about the integrity of the Rocket Force’s commanders could lead to questions about whether China’s nuclear missiles and infrastructure have been compromised.
“Such a dramatic personnel change is very abnormal,” said Ying Yu Lin, an assistant professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan, who studies the Chinese military. Mr. Xi, he added, had seen how Russia’s failures in its invasion of Ukraine in part reflected corruption and false bravado among Russia’s generals. “As the Rocket Force comes under fresh scrutiny, will they discover more and more problems too?”
Mr. Xi unveiled the Rocket Force on the last day of 2015, part of a sweeping effort to make the People’s Liberation Army more capable of projecting China’s power outward and more answerable to Mr. Xi, who is chairman of the military, as well as leader of the ruling Communist Party. The predecessor of the Rocket Force — the Secondary Artillery Corps — was founded in 1966 to oversee China’s budding nuclear arsenal, and Mr. Xi’s move to elevate the unit’s status indicated that he wanted it to play a bigger role.
“The rocket force is a core force of our national strategic deterrent,” Mr. Xi said during the ceremony in 2015, when he handed over a red banner to the new commanders. Their mission, he said, included “enhancing a credible and reliable nuclear deterrent and nuclear counter-strike capability, and strengthening medium and long-range precision strike forces.”
The People’s Liberation Army now bristles with one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated missile arsenals, posing a potential threat to U.S. forces in Asia and to Taiwan, the democratically ruled island that Beijing claims as its territory. In 2021, China launched 135 ballistic missiles for tests and training, more than the rest of the world combined, outside of war zones, the Pentagon’s 2022 assessment of the People’s Liberation Army said.
The Rocket Force also controls nearly all of China’s growing number of nuclear weapons. Beijing does not disclose the size of its nuclear force, but the Pentagon has estimated that China has more 400 warheads, and could have 1,000 by 2030, bringing it closer to the numbers of warheads deployed by the United States and Russia.
The Rocket Force brandished its nuclear expansion by building around 300 launch silos for ballistic missiles across three arid expanses of northern China. Chinese officials have not publicly acknowledged the silos, but Mr. Xi has made clear that he wants a more potent “strategic deterrent.”
Those ambitions may have been temporarily undercut by the turbulence in the Rocket Force command.
Unusually, General Xu, the new commissar of the rocket force, is politically higher ranked than the new highest commander, General Wang. General Xu is a full, voting member of the Central Committee, a council of several hundred senior Communist Party officials, while General Wang is not on the committee at all.
General Xu is poised to chair the powerful party committee of the Rocket Force, said Phillip C. Saunders, the director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington.
“In this case, they may have needed a set of politically reliable hands from outside the rocket force,” Mr. Saunders said. China has kept more of its missiles on a more alert footing, he said. “This makes the reliability of rocket force personnel increasingly important, and the commander and political commissar set the tone for the force,” he said.
Muyi Xiao contributed reporting from New York.