China Adds a Nuclear-Missile Sub -- Or Two
Seen as Move Against U.S. Missile Defense
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — In October, U.S.-based nuclear-arms researcher Hans Kristensen discovered a Google Earth photo that showed two ballistic missile submarines, believed to be Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs built by China’s Bohai shipyard at Huludao. The image, snapped in May, sparked a debate over whether China now has two or three Jins.
China launched its first Jin, a submarine of about 8,500 tons’ displacement, in July 2004, but the news that there was at least one more surprised China watchers. If China has three Jins, each carrying the maximum load of 12 Julang-2 (CSS-NX-5) missiles, that would mean three dozen ballistic missiles, each of which can loft one 2-megaton or three 90-kiloton nuclear warheads some 8,000 kilometers. The JL-2 is a variant of the land-based Dong Feng-31 ICBM.
“I see this generally as adding a layer to Chinese strategic deterrence, and specifically as providing insurance against U.S. ballistic missile defense,” said Eric McVadon, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral who served as a defense attaché in Beijing.
“The combination of older missiles plus the DF-31 [and -31A] and the Jins with their JL-2s seems to me to have the purpose of making it clear that China can defeat U.S. ballistic missile defense. This is not to suggest Beijing is blissfully heading for a nuclear conflict with Washington, but it is to suggest that Beijing insists on being taken seriously about both its strategic deterrent and its emerging capability to thwart a timely and effective U.S. intervention in a Taiwan conflict.”
Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said China appears to be reacting to a threat to fixed land-based missiles from U.S. Trident submarines in the Pacific.
“Their objective seems to be to make a portion of their nuclear deterrent force less vulnerable to what they perceive as a threat from the United States and potentially also Russia. China is trying to build a triad of nuclear forces,” he said.
Bill Murray and Lyle Goldstein of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College said U.S. officials are concerned about the new submarines, which give China a second-strike option. But they note that the U.S. military has 14 SSBNs and nearly five decades of experience in this area.
“So, while these new submarines do indicate a major step for the People’s Liberation Army Navy [and Chinese nuclear forces], they should not be interpreted as a major threat. Still, having assured second-strike nuclear capabilities might give Beijing additional flexibility and confidence in a crisis,” they said in an e-mail.
Murray and Goldstein called China’s recent sub-building efforts impressively rapid, building four classes of subs plus importing Kilo-class boats from Russia.
“This rather aggressive development program has surpassed prior U.S. intelligence estimates regarding the pace of submarine force modernization,” they said. Most of the development is aimed at “access-denial within a Taiwan scenario.”
China has about 10 nuclear-powered submarines, including two or three SSBN Jin-class, two SSN Shang-class (Type 093), one SSN Han-class (Type 091), and one aging SSBN Xia-class that was launched in 1982 and never deployed on a deterrant patrol mission.
China also has about 40 diesel-electric submarines, including two aging SS Yuan-class (Type 039A), nine SSK Song-class (Type 039), 17 SSK Ming-class (Type 035), an unknown number of SSK Romeo-class (Type 033), and two types of SSK Kilo-class (10 Project 636 and two Project 877EKM).
China recently took delivery of two Kilo-class submarines from Russia, completing a contract for eight signed in 2002. China operates 12 Kilos, the newest of which are outfitted with supersonic SS-N-27B anti-ship cruise missiles.
Both argue that China’s attack-sub fleet shows its naval ambitions.
“Much uncertainty among global naval analysts about China’s naval strategy reflects China’s lack of transparency in military affairs. There would likely be less concern if China revealed the true dimensions [force levels, costs, posture] of its long-term plan for submarine force development,” they said.
Cold War Redux?
In October 2006, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric submarine broke the surface in close proximity of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier near Japan. The incident shook the U.S. Navy and demonstrated an increased aggressiveness on the part of the Chinese Navy.
Kristensen sees the new submarines as “signs of an arms race,” but not with Cold-War intensity. “This is the competition that I and two other authors warned against in our 2006 report, ‘Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning,’” he said. “On a bigger scale, the Chinese SSBNs are part of a post-Cold War trend where boomers are getting new attention: The United States has moved the majority of its SSBNs into the Pacific to increase targeting of China; Russia is starting to send out SSBNs on patrol again and has decided to deploy eight new Borey-class boomers with new SLBMs with multiple warheads in the Pacific; Britain has decided to renew their Trident force; France is in the middle of their SSBN modernization with a new SLBM coming on line in 2010; and India has announced that it is working on a nuclear sub- and sea-launched ballistic missile.”
Murray and Goldstein said the new Chinese submarines likely do not signal the return of a Cold War. China’s sub buildup is moderate compared to the Soviet effort and its deployment strategy is not provocative.
“By contrast, China and the U.S. are not overt rivals, benefit from a dynamic trading relationship, share a variety of common global interests and are cooperating successfully in many realms,” they said.
However, the U.S. Navy takes China’s nuclear missile boats seriously. Over the last several years, the U.S. Navy has been discussing the challenge of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations against Chinese submarines.
“Overall, China’s developing submarine force forms one potent aspect of a multifaceted anti-access strategy that poses a major potential challenge to the U.S. Navy,” Murray and Goldstein said.
The current distraction the U.S. Navy faces in dealing with counterterrorism patrols and support operations for Iraq and Afghanistan “has necessarily precipitated difficult choices about resource allocation and training that have impacted the U.S. Navy’s ASW capabilities,” they said.