Creation of Missile Programme

It is widely believed that gunpowder was first invented by ancient Chinese in the 9th century, originally used as fireworks to scare away evil spirits and later in military applications. The earliest gunpowder-based weapons and explosives were used by the Imperial Chinese Army as early as the 12th century. Unfortunately, over the next several hundred years a fast expanding Europe began to overtake the Middle Kingdom as the major economic and industrial world power. By the time the Industrial Revolution had led to the birth of the rocket propulsion technology in the early 20th century, China was descending into endless internal turmoil and conflicts.

China’s Industrialisation in the 1950s

When the Chinese Communists took the power and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, China remained largely an agricultural country with near non-existent industrial infrastructure and technological capability. The Chinese leadership decided to seek help from the Soviet Union. In December 1949, Chinese leader Mao Zedong travelled to Moscow to meet Joseph Stalin. The next February, the two leaders officially signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. Under the treaty, the Soviet government agreed to supply the urgently needed financial assistance and technical expertise to help the PRC industrialise and modernise.

Under the advice of Soviet advisers, the PRC opted to follow the Soviet model of economic development. The country’s First Five-Year Plan that ran from 1953 to 1957 set up ambitious goals in industries and economic growth, with primary emphasis on heavy industry and advanced technology. Moscow provided US$300 million in loans and sold equipment for 156 key Chinese industrial projects, including steel complexes, mines, oil refineries, petrochemical plants, motor and tractor factories, and general machinery factories. Several thousand Soviet engineers, scientists, technicians and planners were working in China to provide technical assistance and consultancy in planning and developing these projects.

The First Five-Year Plan was a success in term of economic growth, with a solid foundation created in heavy industry. The nation’s output in coal, steel, pig iron, oil, cement, and chemical fertiliser had all multiplied. Thousands of industrial and mining enterprises were constructed. Industrial production increased at an average annual rate of 19 percent between 1952 and 1957, and national income grew at a rate of 9 percent a year. Despite a lack of state investment in agriculture, agricultural output also increased substantially, averaging increases of about 4 percent a year during the same period, mainly due to gains in efficiency brought about through collectivisation.

In 1949, there were no more than 50,000 scientific and technological professionals in China, of which only 500 were engaged in scientific research, and there were only some 40 scientific institutions across the whole country. The China Academy of Sciences (CAS) was established a month after the founding of the PRC. By 1956, a total of 840 scientific and technological research institutes had been set up, covering a wide range of scientific and industrial sectors. The number of scientific and technological professionals had increased to over 400,000.

Decision to Develop Nuclear Weapons

The Chinese political leadership took the decision to embark on a programme to develop an independent strategic nuclear force sometime in 1953—54. In October 1954, during his first visit to China after becoming the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev was asked by Chinese leader whether the Soviet Union could provide assistance to help the country create a nuclear weapon programme. Khrushchev politely declined the request on the ground that the PRC did not have the industrial capabilities and financial strength to support such a programme, and that the Soviet Union could provide the PRC with a reliable nuclear umbrella. Instead, Khrushchev offered to help China with the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The Chinese leadership’s decision to seek nuclear weapon came as the result of painful lessons learned through their confrontations with a nuclear-armed United States in the early 1950s. During the early stage of the Korean War in 1950—51, U.S. military planners repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapon against Chinese and North Korean forces. During the subsequent Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954—55, once again the Pentagon recommended the use of nuclear weapons to stop a possible Chinese invasion of the Taiwan Island. In both occasions the Soviet government refused to offer their nuclear guarantee. Chinese political and military leaders therefore concluded that only an independent nuclear force could deter American’s nuclear blackmail against China.

In Spring 1956, the Chinese leadership called for a “March to Modern Science and Technology”, a national campaign to advance China’s scientific and technological capabilities. Under the instructions of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, the State Council established the Science Planning Commission with the task to draw up China’s first long-term R&D blueprint — the 12-Year Programme for Scientific and Technological Development (1956—1967). The plan, drafted by 800 Chinese scientists and Soviet advisers over a period of six months, covered 616 research projects in 57 key areas of science and technology, including nuclear and modern jet (rocket) propulsion technology.

While China’s nuclear weapon research was still in theoretical study stage, the Chinese leadership already began to consider the nuclear delivery system. China’s obsolete aviation industry was incapable of producing modern bomber aircraft that could penetrate enemy air defence to deliver the nuclear bomb. As a result, Chinese military planners followed the Soviet route to choose the ballistic missile as the means to deliver nuclear weapon. During his meeting with the Soviet chief military adviser in China on 12 January 1956, the Chinese defence minister General Peng Dehuai revealed that the PLA was planning to develop military rocketry technology and requested Soviet assistance.

In August 1956, the Director of the Chinese State Planning Commission Li Fuchun wrote to the Soviet Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers Nikolai Bulganin officially requesting for immediate Soviet assistance in the establishment and development of a Chinese missile programme. Much to their disappointment, a month later the Soviet government replied suggesting that China should start with educating relevant missile and rocket engineers, before establishing research and development institutions and manufacturing enterprises. Moscow agreed to send Soviet missile professionals to teach in Chinese universities, and accept 50 Chinese students to study missile-related subjects in Soviet universities.

Return of Dr Qian Xuesen

Rocketry research is generally regarded a collective effort, requiring the involvement of a large number of individuals and organisations across many different scientific disciplines. However, it cannot be denied that a small number of key individuals often play a pivotal role in a country’s rocketry and space effort. Just as Russia has Sergei Korolev and the United States has Wernher von Braun, China also has its leading figure in the development of rocket technology — Dr Qian Xuesen.


Qian was born in 1911 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in China. He graduated from Chiao Tung University in Shanghai in 1934 and received a Bachelor degree in mechanical engineering. He spent an internship in Nanchang Air Force Base but left China in August 1935 on a Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A year later he graduated with a MSc degree and then went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to conduct research under Theodore von Kármán. He was awarded his doctorate from Caltech in 1939.

During his time in Caltech, Qian earned his reputation as a leading rocket scientist and played a key role in early United States’ efforts to exploit jet and rocket propulsion in the 1940s. He co-founded the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1943. In the aftermath of World War II, Qian and Von Kármán were sent to Germany to investigate Nazi wartime rocketry research. There he inspected research facilities and interviewed German scientists including Wernher von Braun. In 1949, Qian applied the knowledge he had learned in Germany to develop an intercontinental spaceplane concept, which inspired later studies on winged spacecraft including the Space Shuttle.

When the Korean War broke out, Qian became a victim of widespread red scares under McCarthyism. His security clearance was revoked in June 1950, making it impossible for him to continue his research at Caltech. He was then questioned and later detained by the FBI for allegedly joining the Communist Party. He spent the next five years in house arrest, being prohibited to either continue his research or leave the United States. In June 1955, Qian appealed through his connections to the PRC government for help. After Beijing agreed to release 11 U.S. Air Force prisoners of war, Qian was allowed to return to China via Hong Kong in October 1955.

Upon his return, Qian was asked by Chinese military leaders including Marshal Nie Rongzhen and General Chen Geng to help set up a missile programme, to which he swiftly agreed. In February 1956, Qian presented a report to the CCP’s Central Committee outlining a detailed plan for developing China’s rocketry and missile technology, including the creation of a dedicated missile R&D institution and relevant management body within the government and military echelons. Qian’s plan was soon approved by the political leadership and put into action. In October 1956, Qian was appointed the director of the Ministry of National Defence’s Fifth Academy in charge of China’s rocketry research and development.

Qian was not the only Chinese scholar who have returned from overseas. In fact, even before they took power the Chinese Communists had already begun to secretively recruit from Western educated Chinese scientists living overseas, especially those with expertise in nuclear technology and rocketry. In the early 1950s, the PRC government publicly called for overseas Chinese scholars to return to the motherland to join the ‘socialist construction’. Between 1949 and 1955, a total of 1,536 Chinese scholars returned from overseas, including 1,041 from the United States.

The Fifth Academy

In his plan for developing China’s jet propulsion technology and rocketry research, Dr Qian Xuesen recommended the creation of dedicated missile R&D institutions as well as a government body to provide oversight and planning for the entire missile and rocketry programme. This led to the creation of three organisations for the missile programme in 1956, all under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Defence (MND):

  • The Aeronautical Industry Commission established on 13 April 1956 was a governmental and military office for overseeing China’s military aviation and rocketry R&D. Marshal Nie Rongzhen, the patron of the Chinese strategic weapon programme, was appointed the commission’s director.
  • The Fifth Bureau established on 6 August 1956 was the executive agency for managing the missile development programme. The bureau had 146 staff and was headed by Qian Xuesen.
  • The Fifth Academy established on 8 October 1956 was the primary missile research, development, testing and production institution. The academy was also headed by Qian Xuesen. In March 1957, the Fifth Bureau was merged into the Fifth Academy to create a single entity with overall responsibility for China’s missile development.

Over the year, the Fifth Academy would have grown substantially in size and eventually evolved into today’s Chinese aerospace industry, which comprises two large state-owned aerospace consortia employing over 200,000 people in total. However, back then the situation was very different. At the time of its creation, the academy had merely 300 staff, two thirds of whom had just graduated from university and none had seen a real rocket. Operating from their temporary home in a disused military hospital and two sanatoriums in Beijing, Qian and his assistants’ first task was to develop curriculum for the staff on the foundation knowledge of rocketry and aerodynamics.

Luckily for Qian, the missile programme was given the highest priority in funding and resources allocation. He put together a list of 21 key persons required to work on the missile programme, and received them with no delay. Just like Qian himself, most of the people on the list were Western trained scientists and engineers, including Ren Xinmin (MSc and doctorate in mechanical engineering from University of Michigan), Tu Shancheng (MSc and doctorate in electrical engineering from Cornell University), Liang Shoupan (MSc from MIT), Tu Shou’e (MSc from MIT), and Huang Weilu (MSc from the Imperial College, University of London). They later all became leading figures in China’s missile and space programme.

Despite lacking any experience or technical know-how to build even the simplest rocket, the Fifth Academy was set some very ambitious objectives for the period of the PRC’s Second Five-Year Plan (1958—1962) in March 1957. These included the reverse-engineering of Soviet short-range ballistic missile and the independent development of an indigenous medium-range ballistic missile, as well as the development of unmanned target drones.

Soviet Assistance

Even with China’s best talents at his disposal, Qian realised that his team were still be unable to develop a modern missile independently. In July 1956, the Fifth Bureau submitted a report to the Chinese leadership requesting for Soviet assistance on missile development and operations. The request was forwarded to the Soviet government in August, but received only a lukewarm response. Unwilling to share its latest missile technology, Moscow only agreed to send five Soviet professionals to help set up rocketry-related curriculum in Chinese universities, sell two R-1 missiles for teaching, and accept 50 Chinese engineers to study astronautics in Soviet universities.

The two R-1 (NATO code name: SS-1 ’Scunner’) missiles were delivered to China in the spring of 1957. First test launched in 1948, the R-1 was essentially a Soviet copy of the German A-4 (V-2) missile developed during the WWII. Although these obsolete missiles provided Qian with little help since he had already studied its technology in German a decade before, they provided a valuable opportunity for other Chinese engineers to gain insight into the design of a working rocket. One of the two R-1 missiles were completely dissembled and put back together by Chinese technicians at the Fifth Academy, allowing them to measure and examine every single component and part of the missile.

A turning point came in the summer of 1957, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was attacked by opponents within his own party. The Chinese Communist Party lent a helping hand by endorsing Khrushchev’s leadership. In return he agreed to expand the scale of Soviet assistance to China’s nuclear weapon and missile programme.

In September 1957, a 40-men Chinese military delegation led by Marshal Nie Rongzhen arrived in Moscow to negotiate the details of a nuclear and missile technology transfer package. On 15 October, the two countries officially signed the Sino-Soviet Accord on New Technologies for National Defence, which covered the technology transfer in a wide range of areas:

  • The Soviet Union would help China establish an atomic R&D complex, provide assistance to China’s nuclear research and production, and provide teaching models and blueprints of the atomic bomb;
  • The Soviet Union would sell equipment for Uranium enrichment, as well as enough quantity of the Uranium hexafluoride (UF6) material for the Chinese Gaseous Diffusion Plant;
  • The Soviet Union would transfer two companies of the P-15 (SS-N-2 ‘Styx’) costal-to-ship missiles and their launch equipment, and help the PLA Navy to establish a costal defence missile force;
  • The Soviet Union would provide assistance to China’s missile development and the construction of a missile test range, and provide China with examples and blueprints of the R-2 (SS-2 ‘Sibling’) surface-to-surface missile and S-75 (SA-2 ‘Guideline’) surface-to-air missile;
  • The Soviet Union would provide assistance to the construction of a nuclear weapon test site and training of relevant technical staff;

Ballistic Missile Programme

First flying in 1949, the R-2 short-range ballistic missile that Moscow agreed to transfer to China had considerable technical improvement over the R-1, including a greater range and a larger payload. However, the missile was not nuclear-armed and its 590 km range was not enough to reach U.S. military bases in Japan when launched from China mainland. By then, the Soviet Union had already successfully tested the 8,000 km range R-7 (SS-6 ‘Sapwood’) ICBM and used it to launch the world’s first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik-1 into orbit, but as a rule Moscow only allowed the transfer of weapon technologies that had been retired from the Soviet armed forces.

On 24 December 1957, a railway train from the Soviet Union carrying two R-2 missiles and their associated launch equipment arrived at the Chinese border. Along with these hardware was a Soviet rocket launch battalion of 102 men, whose mission was to escort the missiles and train their Chinese counterparts on how to operate them. Transfer of the R-2 technology took place throughout 1958, with six missiles and over 10,000 volumes of blueprints and design documents delivered to China. Soviet advisers arrived in China in August 1958 to provide assistance on the missile development and the construction of missile R&D and rocket engine test facilities. Construction of a rocket test range had also begun under Soviet supervision in the desert in northwest China.

The reverse-engineering of the R-2 under the code name ‘Project 1059’ began at the Fifth Academy in May 1958. For the inexperienced Chinese missile engineers, even producing such a relatively simple missile by following Soviet-supplied blueprints and technical documents proved highly challenging. The missile’s development encountered numerous technical difficulties and also suffered poor product quality. The situation was made worse by the rapidly cooling relations between Beijing and Moscow, which led to delays in receiving special alloys, rubbers, electronic components, and liquid oxygen propellant from the Soviet Union. As a result, Chinese engineers had to source locally produced alternatives.

The missile development programme was also impacted by China’s internal political turmoil. The Great Leap Forward, a failed campaign launched by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958 for a rapid industrialisation and social transformation, had led to economic hardship and widespread famine in the countryside between 1959 and 1961. Even the engineers of the Fifth Academy suffered from malnutrition and Marshall Nie Rongzhen had to intervene personally to ensure that the staff on the missile programme was allocated with enough military rations.

By 1960, the ideological disputes between Moscow and Beijing had turned into public arguments and eventually a breakup of all ties. In June 1960, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the suspension of all Soviet assistance to China and the withdrawal of 1,400 Soviet experts working in the country. The last Soviet advisers left China in August 1960, but the preparation for the 1059 Missile test launch continued as scheduled.

On 10 September 1960, China successfully conducted its first ever ballistic missile test using a Soviet-supplied R-2 missile fuelled with Chinese-made propellants from the Jiuquan missile test range. Two months later, on 5 November, a Chinese-made Project 1059/R-2 missile was successfully tested, marking the success in China’s first ballistic missile development.

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