Report: Chinese Sub Test-Launches ICBMs
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI - China test-launched six Julang-2 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) sometime before the new year from a submarine in the Bohai Sea, according to reports by a local daily newspaper.
Chinese fishermen near the test found one of the missile's booster rockets, said the reports in Qilu Wanbao, a newspaper based in Jinan, Shandong.
Such a capability could eventually allow China to launch a surprise attack on U.S. cities with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. The tests came as U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to pivot U.S. defense strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region.
If the reports are true, the JL-2 test launch "shows that China is well advanced toward the development of a sea-based nuclear deterrent capability," said Sam Bateman, a submarine specialist at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore. "A fully operational capability, however, is still some years away, but the Chinese are catching up rapidly."
The JL-2 is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) based on the land-based Dong Feng 31 (DF-31) ICBM. The test is believed to have been conducted from a new Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered, ballistic nuclear missile-carrying submarine (SSBN).
"It is the first time China has apparently developed a working sea-based nuclear-armed ICBM," said Bud Cole, a specialist in Chinese naval capabilities at the National War College in Washington, D.C. "They have at least three [or] four Jin-class submarines capable of launching the JL-2, which has the range to reach a good portion of the U.S."
U.S. analysts report that the JL-2 has a range of 8,000 kilometers. One Jin submarine can carry 12 JL-2 missiles.
Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis, said if the tests were successful, "this would mean that China now possesses a proper strategic sea-based nuclear deterrence force."
Three or four Jin-class submarines are the minimum needed for nonstop strategic patrols.
Bateman said the deployment of a sea-based nuclear deterrent would also help spur India to develop a similar capability.
Sometime in early January, Chinese fisherman off the coast of Shandong province in northeast China found a spent first-stage solid-rocket booster for the JL-2, according to the Qilu Wanbao. Local media reports indicate the booster was brought to shore at Changdao County, a chain of islands in the Bohai Sea, where it was retrieved by the military.
The spent booster matched photos and specifications of the JL-2 booster, right down to its light blue coloring and guidance rails, Li said.
The Chinese-language reports indicate the booster was 4 meters long and 2 meters in diameter.
"Printed inside the casing were the words 'support part' and '-2,'" Li said.
There is little publicly known about the Jin-class SSBNs, including how silent they are, Li said.
"Chinese subs are notoriously noisy, and more importantly, how many improvements had been made since the first generation of nuclear submarines, which suffered from terrible radiation leakages."
This is one reason the Chinese navy began relying on diesel-electric submarines for hunter/killer flotillas, he said.
Command-and-control issues are still question marks, said Mark Stokes, a China military analyst at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington.
"Once the system is operationally available, what People's Liberation Army organization would store and handle the JL-2 missiles and nuclear warheads that would be deployed on and launched by Navy submarines?"
One possible answer is that the Second Artillery Corps would store, transport and load mated missiles and warheads onto submarines, while the navy would operate and maintain the vessels themselves.
Future capabilities also interest Stokes. The defining characteristic of a modern military power is the capability to neutralize, paralyze or kill with precision and minimal collateral damage, he said.
"Just imagine the implications of a future submarine-launched DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, also dubbed the aircraft carrier killer, or a maritime variant of the DH-10 land-attack cruise missile," he said.
China's improved nuclear deterrence capabilities will force the U.S. to increase military oceanographic research in and around bastions in the East Asian seas, such as the Bohai Sea and the South China Sea, where China's SSBNs might be deployed, Bateman said.
"Submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles have the inherent advantage over land-based systems in that, due to the difficulties of tracking and detecting the launching platform, they provide an assured second strike capability to respond to a nuclear attack," Bateman said.
The U.S. traditionally has had a "triad" approach to launching nuclear-tipped missiles composed of silo-launched, B-52-launched, and fleet ballistic-launched missiles (FBM), Cole said. China is adding FBMs to its ICBM land-based component creating a "dyad" composed of land-launched DF-31s and sea-based JL-2s, he said.
However, land-based ICBMs, such as the DF-31, "are a lot less expensive and easier to control than sea-based versions," Cole said. "But apparently Beijing believes having a dyad is worth the cost."