After decades of largely unsuccessful effort, China’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent finally is taking shape with the Type-094, or Jin-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and its intended armament, the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The 2012 Department of Defense report on Chinese military and security developments indicates that although Jin-class submarines have started entering service with the PLAN, China has not yet completed development of the JL-2, preventing the maturation of its long-desired sea-based nuclear deterrent. . Regardless, Beijing continues to dedicate resources to this program, as reflected by the construction of a specialized tunnel on Hainan Island that many observers believe is intended to position the PLAN’s new SSBNs for deep-water patrols in the contested waters of the South China Sea (Strategic Security Blog, April 24, 2008). As soon as technical details of the JL-2 fall into place, China finally will possess a submarine-based nuclear deterrent—one that would fall far short of the nuclear deterrence capabilities of the US Navy’s SSBNs—but would nonetheless give China an operational nuclear dyad that also would include the land-based missiles of the PLA’s Second Artillery Force.
China’s Long Search for a Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent
While U.S. and Soviet submariners spent the 1960’s and 1970’s making huge headway in the development of an underwater nuclear deterrent, the Cultural Revolution targeted many foreign-trained engineers like Huang Xuhua, a lead submarine designer. At times, protecting China’s scientific and technological expertise required the personal intervention of senior leaders. In addition to such personalized attacks, this period was also fraught with systemic and technical disasters: "overall, the Cultural Revolution had a devastating impact on the development of China’s submarine force" . For domestic political reasons, China thus struggled during the years most associated with progress in nuclear deterrence in the United States and USSR.
After the Cultural Revolution ended, the PLAN worked to make up for lost time and eventually made great strides in the mid- and late-1970s—deploying their first nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), the Type 091, or Han-class, in 1974. In the following decades, the Chinese acquired Soviet and French technology to improve the capabilities of their submarine force dramatically. They bought components (e.g. French DUUX-5 sonars), submarine designs (i.e.. those of the Type-031 Golf-class SSG test platform still in use today and those of the Romeo-class SS also still operational), and entire submarines (e.g. the dozen Kilo-class submarines, each with its own collection of weapons). There is also increasing evidence that China pursued foreign expertise even when the respective governments were not willing to assist; it thus seems increasingly likely that Beijing has—in addition to pursuing overt cooperation and acquisitions—managed a long-term clandestine collection campaign designed to support their submarine fleet’s modernization and expansion (Pravda, June 25; RIA Novosti, June 20; The Diplomat, December 11, 2011). With such foreign knowledge and materiel, China has pieced together a substantive and capable submarine force.
The sea-based nuclear deterrent, however, progressed at a painfully slow pace, leading to the Xia-class SSBN, which Beijing only deployed within coastal waters. In 1982, the PLAN also successfully tested China’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-1 from its North Sea Fleet-based Golf-class SLBM test platform, the Great Wall 200, which official Chinese media recently lauded as the “vanguard” of SLBM test launches (Science & Technology Daily, January 23, 2011). The Xia was designed to carry twelve CSS-NX-3 (JL-1) SLBMs—each with a relatively short maximum range of about 1,600km (1,000+ miles)—but the Xia has never conducted a deterrent patrol and is not considered operationally deployed .
Yet, problems with follow-on platforms and armaments remain. In 2003, Chinese fishermen found a "crippled, half-submerged" Ming-class submarine floating adrift. After the hatch was opened, the fishermen found all 70 crew members suffocated inside (Wen Hui Bao, May 7, 2003). While the disastrous loss of Ming 361, and of all her crew, has proven the exception and not the rule for China’s submarine force in the twenty-first century, important problems are not yet resolved. Most importantly, the PLAN has done well with the Jin-class itself, but each submarine only matters so much as it can silently patrol the deep with its twelve JL-2 SLBMs, which have an estimated range of at least 7,200 km and are equipped with penetration aids designed to defeat enemy missile defense systems . According to the Department of Defense’s 2010 report on Chinese military developments, “The first of the new Jin-class (Type 094) SSBN appears ready, but the associated JL-2 SLBM appears to have encountered difficulty, failing several of what should have been the final round of flight tests.” Consequently, the 2010 report stated, “the date when the Jin-class SSBN/JL-2 SLBM combination will be operational is uncertain” . The 2012 report presents a more optimistic assessment, indicating, although the JL-2 program “has faced repeated delays,” it “may reach initial operating capability within the next two years.” When deployed, the report notes, “The Jin-class SSBN and the JL-2 will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear capability” .
Current Status of the Jin SSBN and JL-2 SLBM
According to China’s 2010 defense white paper, the PLAN is enhancing its “strategic deterrence and counterattack” capabilities, a clear reference to the Type-094 SSBN and JL-2 SLBM combination . Indeed, the Type-094 appears to be a major improvement over China’s first-generation Xia, even though an unclassified report by the Office of Naval Intelligence indicates it is somewhat noisier than Russia’s older Delta III SSBNs (Strategic Security Blog, November 21, 2009).
Perhaps in part as a result of its thus far disappointing experience with the Xia, China seems to be aiming to build enough Type-094 SSBNs to enable the PLAN to conduct near-continuous deterrent patrols if desired. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) assesses China will build a “fleet of probably five Type-094 SSBNs … to provide more redundancy and capacity for a near-continuous at-sea presence” . A variety of Chinese publications, normally citing ONI products and adding few details, suggest the relatively small SSBN forces of Britain and France may serve as models for China .
It is clear that multiple hulls have already been launched, based on internet photos and commercial satellite images depicting Jin-class SSBNs at the PLAN’s Xiaopingdao and Jianggezhuang naval bases, Huludao shipyard as well as a recently-constructed submarine facility at Yalong Bay near Sanya on Hainan Island (Strategic Security Blog, June 2, 2011). The images of the facility on Hainan Island provided some hints as to the PLAN’s SSBN basing plans. Indeed, the photo of the Jin at Yalong Bay—specifically the dimensions of them and the support facilities that they include—suggests the facility may be the key base for China’s future SSBN forces.
Expected Future Developments
As China’s progress toward an undersea deterrent continues, a series of important questions will arise. First, the Type-094 and JL-2 combination, when the SSBN and SLBM are finally operationally deployed, will represent a major step forward in China’s long quest for a sea-based nuclear deterrent to complement its land-based strategic missiles, but it may not be the final chapter of this story. Indeed, the Jin ultimately may represent a waypoint, and not the final destination, in China’s long quest for a sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent. China has yet to reveal its plans, but media reports in Taiwan suggest Beijing eventually may develop and deploy a follow-on SSBN and SLBM combination: the Type 096 SSBN and JL-3 SLBM (Taipei Times, May 23, 2011).
Another question concerns the roles of the Second Artillery and the PLAN. Although the Second Artillery Force has traditionally occupied a preeminent position as China’s “core force for strategic deterrence,” that role could change along with the PLAN’s progress in sea-based nuclear deterrence . Yet, the Second Artillery’s land-based missile force offers Chinese leadership greater transparency and constant control. The nature of submarine deterrence creates an important disconnect between national leadership and warfighters: the men deployed on future Jin patrols will remain incommunicado and un-located for prolonged periods of time as the survivability that comes from stealth is the main advantage of SSBNs. In the current political environment, the inability for civilian leaders to remain constantly informed—and in control—of SSBN operations may push them beyond their comfort zone if Beijing maintains routine deterrent patrols. The combination of the SAF’s proven track record of experience handling nuclear weapons and its deployment of increasingly survivable mobile forces suggests that the Second Artillery will remain China’s preeminent strategic deterrence force.
Another closely related issue is how the relationship between the SAF and the PLAN may evolve after the Jin and JL-2 combination reaches initial operational capability and becomes an integral component of China’s nuclear force. Chinese military publications that describe the Second Artillery’s role in nuclear deterrence and nuclear counterattacks indicate that SAF nuclear missile strikes can be conducted as an “independent nuclear counterattack campaign” (duli he fanji zhanyi) or as a major part of a “joint nuclear counterattack campaign” (lianhe he fanji zhanyi) . The latter would seem to imply a requirement for the PLAN and Second Artillery to plan jointly in peacetime and to coordinate deterrence and strike operations in wartime. An alternative could be coordination and de-confliction at the level of the General Staff Department (GSD) or Central Military Commission (CMC).
Still another question concerns the armament of future Chinese SSBNs. Another possibility is that China could follow in the footsteps of the United States, which converted some of its SSBNs into SSGNs to carry conventional land-attack cruise missiles, by deploying conventional strategic strike capabilities of its own. For example, former U.S. Air Force foreign area officer Mark Stokes has suggested China could choose to increase the flexibility of it sea-based deterrent by arming one or more of if its SSBNs with conventional weapons—perhaps anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) or land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) (Defense News, January 16).
The Xia itself also presents some unanswered questions as it seems China has not entirely given up on its much-maligned first-generation SSBN. Indeed, as Hans Kristensen has observed, the Xia recently underwent a multi-year overhaul at the PLAN’s Jianggezhuang Naval Base. This presumably represents a substantial investment, but the purpose for which China’s navy plans to use the boat remains unclear at this point (Strategic Security Blog, August 3, 2008).
Perhaps the most important question at the moment is how China will employ its new Type-094 SSBNs when the long-awaited JL-2 is finally available. As Hans Kristensen writes, “it is unclear how China intends to utilize the Jin-class submarines once they become operational.” Potential patrol locations (a bastion strategy or further out in the Pacific Ocean), number of simultaneously deployed boats, and weapons load-outs remain critical unknowns. The biggest question of all may be whether the PLAN will conduct routine peacetime deterrence patrols with nuclear weapons. Some skeptics suggest the Jin-class boats “are unlikely to be deployed with nuclear weapons on board in peacetime like U.S. missile submarines” (Strategic Security Blog, June 2, 2011). Instead, China could “use them as surge capability in times of crisis.” Nonetheless, other observers think it is much more likely that China will deploy its new SSBNs loaded out with their nuclear-armed SLBMs to conduct deterrence patrols on a regular basis .
In all, after decades in search of a modern sea-based nuclear deterrent capability, it appears China’s undersea deterrent finally is taking shape. Although a number of key questions remain unanswered, the PLAN’s gradual progress has by now prepared the region and the world for the likelihood that Beijing will soon possess an underwater nuclear deterrent as a complement to the SAF’s land-based nuclear missile forces. When China resolves its technical difficulties with the JL-2, the PLAN will be positioned to immediately deploy a near-constant sea-based nuclear deterrent presence, subject to the desires of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA leaders. The deployment of such a capability has the potential to strengthen China’s strategic position by contributing to its desire for a more “effective” nuclear force to support a credible second strike deterrent posture, but it could also further complicate the already complex strategic dynamics in the region .
- Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012, Department of Defense, p. 24.
- Lyle Goldstein and Bill Murray, "From Humble Origins: China’s Submarine Force Comes of Age," Undersea Warfare, Winter 2004, https://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_21/humble.htm
- Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, NASIC-1031-0985-09, April 2009, p. 25.
- “Seapower Questions on the Chinese Submarine Force,” Office of Naval Intelligence, December 20, 2006, www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/ONI2006.pdf.
- Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010, Department of Defense, p. 34.
- Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012, Department of Defense, p. 23.
- China’s National Defense in 2010, State Council Information Office, 2010.
- “Seapower Questions on the Chinese Submarine Force,” Office of Naval Intelligence, December 20, 2006.
- See, for example, Lin Changsheng, “The Combat Power of China’s Nuclear Submarines,” World Aerospace Digest, No. 103, September 2004, p. 33; and Jian Jie, “The Legend of the Virtuous Twins,” World Outlook, No. 448, August 2002, p. 23.
- China’s National Defense in 2008, State Council Information Office, 2008.
- Zhang Yuliang, ed., Zhanyixue [Science of Campaigns], Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006, pp. 616–628.
- Thomas M. Skypek. "China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent in 2020: Four Alternative Futures for China’s SSBN Fleet," in A Collection of Papers from the 2010 Nuclear Scholars Initiative, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010.
- This desire can be traced to the 1980s. For a more contemporary discussion, see, Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, eds. Zhanlüexue [The Science of Strategy], Beijing, China: Military Science Press, 2001.
The views presented in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.