6 April 2017
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 Julong 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, 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 five years later in 1960. Further, China’s research and development of SLBM capability have been well documented since at least the mid-1990s, and China’s recent possible SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol has been long anticipated by Western defense 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 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. 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.