nuclear weapons

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent: Incremental Advances and Perennial Limitations

Written by Renny Babiarz.

According to recent media reports, China may have initiated its first sea-based nuclear deterrence patrols with Jin-Class ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBNs). If true, this operational deployment demonstrably improves the credibility of China’s strategic nuclear deterrent. While some may characterize China’s sea-based nuclear deterrence patrols as a new security threat, China’s emergent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability has long been expected. It represents a significant technical advance, but not an alarming one. Facing geographic and technical constraints, the submarines’ activities in the Pacific Ocean will remain limited in the near term.

The historical trajectory of China’s nuclear weapons program, including the development of an SLBM capability, reflects an incremental approach to strategic nuclear weapons development and modernization. China initiated its SLBM research during 1958 with the code name ‘1060’ (later renamed Julang Yihao, or JL-1, in 1964), and received technical assistance and equipment from the Soviet Union. Budgetary constraints, historical events (such as the Great Leap Forward, the Sino-Soviet split, and the Cultural Revolution), restricted access to oceans, and periodic strategic reassessments limited the development of this system throughout the Mao era. It was not until 1982 that China successfully test-launched a JL-1 missile from a submerged SSBN. China’s first generation of operational SSBNs, the Xia-Class (or Type 092), began development in the mid-1960s and entered into service in the 1980s; yet the Type 092 reportedly never conducted a nuclear deterrence patrol on account of the high level of noise the submarine generated while sailing.

China’s current generation of SSBN, the Jin-Class (or Type 094), began development in the mid-1980s and was designed to carry the longer-ranged JL-2 missile. After extensive missile ejection system testing, the Type 094 entered into service around 2014. If true that Type 094 SSBNs have conducted their first nuclear deterrence patrol, this has come approximately 60 years after the initiation of China’s SLBM program, 35 years after China’s first successful test launch of a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine, and about 30 years after the initiation of the Type 094 SSBN program. This time scale underscores the incremental pace of development for China’s SLBM capability. In contrast, the United States initiated its own SLBM program (Polaris) in the mid-1950s and first deployed the Polaris system about 5 years later in 1960. Further, China’s research and development of a SLBM capability has been well documented since at least the mid-1990s, and China’s recent possible SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol has been long anticipated by Western defence communities. While China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent may have achieved a new operational status, this development does not by itself constitute a ‘new’ security threat.

According to multiple sources of information, China’s Type 094 SSBN is probably a ‘plug’ design fitting a Type 093 nuclear attack submarine with 12 ballistic missile tubes towards the stern of the main sail. This gives the Type 094 a visible topside ‘hump’ shape, and may increase the vessel’s noise while sailing. Recent reports suggest the development of new variants of the Type 094, with changes in the sail and front top of the vessel that may be intended to reduce the noise of the vessel while sailing. The Type 094 is designed to vertically carry 12 JL-2 missiles, each with a range of approximately 7,200 kilometers, according to conservative estimates. There are probably about four Type 094s currently in service, and the U.S. Department of Defense estimates there could be a total of eight in service by 2020. A number of Type 094 SSBNs are most likely stationed nearby the Yulin Naval Support Base on Hainan Island as part of China’s South Sea Fleet.

However, China faces interrelated geographic and technical limitations that probably constrain the deployment of its SSBNs to the Pacific Ocean in the near term, thereby limiting strategic nuclear deterrence patrol options. Geographically, China’s access to the Pacific Ocean is generally limited to routes through the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where U.S. naval forces have deployed anti-submarine assets. In terms of technical limitations, China’s Type 094 SSBN has been reported as ‘noisy,’ a vulnerability that allows for easier tracking. Taken together, these factors probably constrain operational deployments for the Type 094, leading some to suggest that China may deploy its SSBNs according to a ‘bastion’ strategy that keeps them close to China’s shores (within the so-called First Island Chain). This may protect Type 094s from detection and attack, but could also limit the range of the JL-2 missile, reducing the system’s strategic deterrent value.

According to nuclear deterrence theories, a country’s nuclear deterrent is considered secure if its nuclear forces are capable of surviving a nuclear first-strike with enough weapons to retaliate. Given the difficulty of targeting a submarine at sea, an SLBM system offers one of the most secure nuclear retaliation capabilities. The difficulty of maintaining efficient command and control of these submarines on deterrence patrols, however, limits the role of SLBM systems to strategic deterrents, effective against nuclear first-strikes but ineffective tactical nuclear war-fighting platforms.

These patrols, then, do not constitute a new threat to Western security communities, and probably remain limited by certain geographic and technical constraints in the near term. China will most likely work to overcome these challenges, reportedly developing a quieter SSBN class (Type 096), a longer-ranged version of the JL-2 (the JL-2A), and constructing military bases on disputed areas of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. These military bases would provide expanded areas of protection and support for Type 094 patrols. However, discredited claims about China’s secretly expansive nuclear forces and plans aside, China’s emergent SLBM capability is in keeping with generally accepted norms of nuclear deterrence strategy. In short, it reflects China’s history of incremental improvements to its strategic nuclear deterrent.

Renny Babiarz (rennyb@gmail.com) received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD on the basis of research concerning China’s nuclear weapons program. He has published on the historical development of China’s nuclear weapons program, served as a geospatial analyst for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and currently works as a research analyst for AllSource Analysis. You may contact him with questions or comments. Image Credit: CC by Michael Cory/Flickr.