Jeffrey LewisYang Yegong

Yang Yegong (杨业功)—a commander in the Second Artillery—has died of bowel cancer. CCTV has a massive retrospective.

I have no idea why Yang is a big deal, but it is fun to speculate.

This article suggests (I think, it is in Chinese) that he was commander of Base 52, which supports conventionally armed DF-15 and DF-11 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).

Moreover, a biographical account in the People’s Daily suggests his base tested a new missile that landed in the East China Sea in 1995 (fits the DF-15) and I think that’s a DF-11 behind his head in the picture.

Here is an excerpt from the People’s Daily:

A new-type missile flew in the skies, traveling a long distance and accurately hitting a target at sea. As the measurement and control data came, people at the launch position were excited. Yang Yegong, the on-site commander-in-chief, excitedly said: “With us here, the motherland and the people can be rest assured!”

In the summer of 1995, our country’s new missile unit made its first appearance in this way. This development immediately shook international military circles: “This meant a formidable major breakthrough.”

That year, as deputy chief of staff of a Second Artillery base, Yang Yegong established our military’s first new-type missile brigade with modernized combat capability according to an order. When accepting the task, he solemnly gave his promise: “The party and the people have shown great trust in me. I vow in the name of a Communist’s party spirit that I will resolutely complete the task and will never let the party and the military lose face!” After that, Yang Yegong devoted almost all his life and family to the heavy pioneering task.

In the mid-1960s, the Second Artillery, the strategic missile force, was officially established. Under the direct leadership of the CPC Central Committee and the Central Military Commission, this youngest modernized branch of our military became a trump unit of modernized operation with hard pioneering work done by generations of officers and soldiers, constituting not only the symbol of our country’s military power but also an important pillar of China’s big power status.

The birth of this new-type missile unit added to the capability of the Second Artillery.

The pioneering work was hard, and the mission was accomplished. Yang Yegong led troops in drawing up the design of the new-type missile unit on a blank sheet of paper, working to building China’s crack strategic missile unit according to military thinking on modern warfare.

During that period, Yang Yegong went to the positions and units, and took almost no day off. His “all-day-long” work was felt by even some young comrades to be unbearable. He demanded accuracy in all work, but was never on time for his own meals, rest, and going home. He repeated his touch phrases innumerable times: “Less empty talk, more effort to find a way, more real work, and more achievements!”

As Chief of Staff Gao Jing of the base recalled, in the winter of that year, the unit conducted a series of experimental training under low-temperature conditions in a locality in the northwest. In the Gobi desert with a temperature of nearly 30 degrees below zero, Yang Yegong worked according to the schedule for 15 consecutive days while suffering from a sever cold. He collapsed in the dorm after coming back from experiments twice. But, he ordered comrades around him never to “disclose the secret.”

Finally, Yang Yegong and his comrades-in-arms turned the superior’s order of “establishing the unit, forming combat capability, and accomplishing the task of live ammunition firing in the same year” by successfully carrying out live ammunition target practice. Since then, our military has had one more “shield” for “defending peace of the motherland and maintaining world peace.”

I find the emphasis on someone who commanded conventional —rather than nuclear—missiles to be interesting.

Kenneth Allen and Maryanne Kivlehan have documented the rise of the conventional missiles in Second Artillery doctrine:

The Second Artillery’s conventional missile force was not established until the early 1990s. According to Zhanyi Xue, it was not until 1998 that Second Artillery developed the concepts referred to in this paper as the “conventional missile attack campaign” and compiled its first instructional textbook, entitled Second Artillery Conventional Missile Attack Campaign [Dierpaobing Changgui Daodan Tuji Zhanyi 第二炮兵常规导弹图集战役]. Shortly thereafter, the PLA published The Essentials of Campaigns of the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery [Zhonghua Renmin Jiefangjun Dierpaobing Gangyao 中华人民解放军第二炮兵纲要]. Beyond what is written in Chapter 14 in Zhanyi Xue, little is known about the contents of these documents. Scholarly articles from the mid-1990s address some of the key issues, but, as has been pointed out earlier in this volume, examining such materials sensitizes us to the range of views, but does not necessarily inform on the outcome of this process of experimentation and debate.

One source that does provide some authoritative insights into PLA thinking on conventional weapons strategy as a whole, however, is the Academy of Military Science’s (AMS’s) 2001 publication entitled The Science of Strategy [Zhanlue Xue 战略学]. The authors of this book divide PLA thinking on conventional weapons strategy into two broad categories: (1) conventional weapons strategy pertaining to periods in which there is no nuclear threat, and (2) conventional strategies that pertain to operating under the existence of a nuclear threat. They discuss the implications of the nuclear threat on conventional operations, and examine how the strategic importance of conventional weapons has changed with the end of the Cold War.

Allen and Kivlehan focus on the PLA’s rationale for emphasizing conventional ballistic missiles. As someone who favors bureaucratic explanations, I suspect that the PLA doesn’t care for nuclear weapons largely based on institutional perogatives.

In 1961, a coalition of senior civilian and military leaders tried slow or suspend strategic programs. This meeting is summarized in the autobiography of the head of the nuclear program, Nie Rongzhen (Inside the Red Star, 702‐703). As Nie described the debate, military officers wanted tanks and other military equipment that they could use immediately. Nie carried the day by arguing that investing in nuclear weapons and other strategic programs was a long-term investment in China’s scientific and technological development.

I suspect the military never recovered control of nuclear weapons policy after that. In fact, I am not sure that the military even controls the warheads on a day-to-day basis, given that the warheads are stored seperately.

Such an arrangement would, presumably, drive a warfighter nuts.

Disatisfaction with with custodial arrangements and no-first-use would explain large PLA investments in conventional ballistic missiles as well as the conversion of some CSS-5 (DF-21) MRBMs to conventional roles.

No egghead scientist was going to tell Yang Yegong how to use his missiles.


  1. Christopher Karel (History)

    You know, I’m pretty certain he died from “bowel” cancer. I do believe that “bowl” cancer is strictly a soup-related illness.

    Yes, I am this anal. No, I don’t have anything better to do.

    [Changed it. ACW]