As China continues its multifaceted military modernization, one of the most closely watched programs has been China’s slow, but steady march toward developing an effective class of ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Consistent with Chinese nuclear doctrine and defense white papers, Chinese strategic nuclear forces are meant to comprise a “lean and effective deterrent force” for the “flexible use of different means of deterrence” for “safeguarding national sovereignty and security.”
If China adheres to its declared “no first use” policy and “self-defensive nuclear strategy,” its nuclear arsenal must be able to survive a first strike. China’s ballistic missile submarine force is likely meant to augment its solid-fuel, road-mobile, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which can be readily hidden in the vastness of China’s territory. Given the survivability of its land-based ICBM forces, some argue that SSBNs might be an expensive insurance policy. Beijing may not share this view, and is working to field a credible SSBN force. To do so China must make strides in terms of command, control, communications, and quieting technologies.
The challenges of fielding a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent for China are threefold. First, Chinese SSBNs must have operational stealth, meaning they must be difficult to find in order to evade detection and tracking by adversaries. Second, China must have a reliable long-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of striking a target at intercontinental ranges with a nuclear payload. Third, there must be a reliable and survivable communications, command, and control system in place to ensure that China’s national command authority can communicate with its SSBNs after the country has suffered a first strike.
What role do ballistic missile submarines play in China’s nuclear deterrent?
Nuclear deterrence relies on the belief that nuclear attack can be prevented by a reliable means of retaliation with a nuclear weapon combined with the political will to do so. A secure second-strike capability requires that some portion of a country’s nuclear forces survive an enemy’s first strike. By virtue of being able to hide in the vastness of the ocean, SSBNs have been an essential component of U.S., Russian, British and French nuclear strategy. Their mobility is an advantage because it allows their missiles to be launched from azimuths that can avoid national missile defenses. Detection is a key vulnerability of submarines. If a country can successfully detect and track an enemy SSBN, the SSBN’s ability to survive a first strike is weakened dramatically.
China’s first attempt at an indigenous SSBN resulted in a single Xia-class submarine that suffered from limited missile range and high sound emissions. The vessel allegedly never left port with nuclear weapons on board. The successor Jin-class (Type 094), which carries the JL-2 SLBM, represents a significant improvement. A recent Office of Naval Intelligence report notes that the Jin-class marks China’s “first credible at-sea second-strike nuclear capability.” Similarly, the Department of Defense’s 2016 Annual Report to Congress on China’s military states that the Jin-class/JL-2 platform “represents China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent.”
The basic theory of an SSBN is that it can hide in the vastness of the ocean and therefore it is almost impossible to predict where it may be or it may not be possible to detect it at all.
– Michael McDevitt
Choke points can be exploited to maximize the ability to detect and track enemy SSBNs. In order to strike the continental United States with its JL-2 missiles, China’s SSBNs must have the ability to sail from their home base through several crucial chokepoints and reach the mid-Pacific Ocean without being detected.1 The Office of Naval Intelligence reports that it is likely that at least five Jin-class submarines are necessary to maintain a continuous peacetime presence.
According to Department of Defense’s 2019 China Military Report, there are four Jin-class SSBNs currently operational and another two being outfitted at Huludao Shipyard. The effort and cost associated with the development of the Jin-class signals that China’s leaders believe that to maintain the country’s nuclear capability “at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security” requires a survivable seaborne deterrent to complement their land-based nuclear force.2
The United States and Russia have relied on a triad composed of long range bombers, land based ICBMs and SSBNs to serve as a survivable first and second strike capability. With its Jin-class submarines each carrying 12 JL-2 missiles, China has recently joined this exclusive club.3 It has a nascent nuclear triad, but one that remains limited primarily by range, arsenal size, and operational experience. China’s estimated 50 H-6K bombers, with a range of about 2,000 miles, are only able to deliver a payload to targets in nuclear weapons states as Russia, U.S. territory Guam, and the Indian subcontinent.4 Aerial refueling would only marginally extend bomber range because China does not have tanker aircraft deployed outside of the Chinese mainland; however, tankers staged from newly constructed Spratly Island airfields in the South China Sea could change this equation.
China currently fields approximately 50 to 60 ICBMs, including an estimated 24 solid-fueled, road-mobile CSS-10 Mod 2s (DF-31A). The CSS-10 Mod 2 has a range exceeding 11,200 km and can reach most locations within the continental United States.5 These rely upon hardened silos, road mobility, and according to some reports underground railways to ensure their survivability. In addition to its fleet of 14 Ohio class SSBNs, the U.S. nuclear triad boasts 20 B-2A and 70 B-52H long-range bombers, and at least 450 ICBMs.6 Russian nuclear forces include 13 SSBNs of various classes and 78 Tu-160 and Tu-95 long-range bombers, and at least 332 ICBMs.
How does China’s Type 094 ballistic missile submarine compare to other SSBNs?
Many of the technical characteristics of China’s Type 094 Jin-class SSBN are not available in unclassified sources. Analysts estimate from publicly available satellite imagery that the Type 094 is approximately 137 meters long.7 Its displacement remains uncertain but is likely much smaller than the 170-meter U.S. Ohio-class SSBN and the 170-meter Russian Borei-class, which displace 18,750 and 24,000 tons submerged, respectively.8
The Jin-class is equipped with 12 missile tubes, each capable of firing the JL-2 SLBM, which carries between one to three nuclear warheads to an estimated range of 7,200 km. As a point of comparison, the Russian Borei carries 16 Bulava SLBMs and the U.S. Ohio-class carries up to 24 Trident II missiles. The Type 094 Jin-class is more similar in size and vintage to the French Triomphant class, at 138 meters long, which carries up to 16 missiles. Literature on the JL-2’s development and operational status notes that the missile’s deployment was significantly delayed, likely due to technical difficulties. According to the Department of Defense, China will probably conduct its first SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol sometime in 2016.
A Conversation With Michael McDevitt
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- 0:07 – What kind of training and operational skills does China have to develop to field an effective submarine nuclear deterrent?
- 1:16 – Are SSBNs consistent with China’s historical approach to deterrence? Do they represent a shift from a minimal to a maximal credible deterrent capability?
- 2:39 – To what extent do SSBNs enhance China’s second-strike capability?
- 4:15 – How was the arrival of the Jin-class SSBN forced other nuclear powers to reassess their nuclear deterrence strategy against China?
- 6:00 – Is it possible that China might use a bastion strategy, like the Soviet Union employed during the Cold War, in the South China Sea?
- 8:33 – What are some of the challenges that China faces in terms of command and control with its SSBNs?
To be assured second strike capability, an SSBN must avoid detection. Reportedly, the effectiveness of the Jin-class may be compromised by the amount of radiated noise it generates while operating. Modern antisubmarine warfare prioritizes the detection and tracking of adversary SSBNs. According to a 2013 report in The National Interest, the Jin-class SSBN design may have fundamental flaws that cause the large missile compartment at the rear of the vessel and the flood openings below the missile hatches to create a detectable sonar signature. Furthermore, a 2009 U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence report compared the low-frequency noise of China’s SSBN force to Russian/Soviet submarines and found that, of the 12 submarines examined, the Xia-class and Jin-class SSBN were the first- and the fourth-most-detectable submarines, respectively.
How will China manage the challenge of SSBN command and control?
Effective command and control is essential for an effective sea-based deterrent. The Department of Defense defines command and control as “The exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission.” SSBNs require explicitly defined protocols, advanced communications technologies, and strict chains of command to ensure that when they need to fire, they absolutely fire, and when they should not fire, they absolutely do not. As with all nuclear weapons, robust command and control of all SSBN operations is imperative to avoid a catastrophic mistake, or failure to complete its mission at a critical juncture.
Different countries have different protocols for launching nuclear weapons from submarines. The United Kingdom’s Trident missile system, for example, requires orders from the prime minister, or if he is dead, a personally appointed decision maker; activation by both the ship’s executive and weapons engineering officers; and firing orders from the submarine commander. On a U.S. SSBN, a launch must be confirmed by the commanding and executive officers and then manually authorized by key launch personnel. Each person involved in the process must authenticate the launch with a key stored in a safe accessible by combination lock known only by that person.
China is a newcomer to the world of SSBNs, yet inferences about its launch policies can be made from the military’s stated policy toward land-based nuclear ballistic missiles. According to PLA doctrine, the ballistic missile command-and-control network consists of four components: the commander in chief, the command organizations of the military departments, the missile bases, and the firing units. This doctrine emphasizes the need for encrypted communications and that the executive (tongshuaibu—“supreme commander” or “commander-in-chief”) is the only person able to unilaterally authorize the use of nuclear force.
With a proper communications infrastructure, China could maintain this chain of command with SSBNs. Where it will likely encounter problems is with its traditional security procedure of keeping its weapons and delivery systems unmated and under separate commands. Although nuclear weapons were traditionally under the command of the Second Artillery, with overall launch authority held by the executive or Central Military Commission, China’s recent military reforms replaced the branch-level Second Artillery with a new service called the Rocket Force, purportedly responsible for all three legs of China’s nuclear triad, including sea-based nuclear forces. It is still unknown how the nuclear release chain of command will function under this new organization.
An SSBN fits in with the image that the Chinese have of themselves. After all, they are the only member of the Perm 5 in the United Nations that does not have an operational SSBN capability.
– Michael McDevitt
Communication is another major challenge for maintaining an SSBN fleet. Contacting an SSBN when it is submerged requires large facilities, advanced technology, and complex encryption. Salt water only permits radio waves to penetrate a short distance into the ocean. Penetrating water with radio waves to signal a submarine requires using Very Low Frequencies (VLF) to penetrate to shallow depths or Extremely Low Frequencies (ELF) to reach operational depths. The former requires expansive several kilometers-wide antennas to broadcast text messages to a depth of up to 20 meters. The latter can slowly relay text messages hundreds of meters deep but doing so requires an extremely large transmitter. The Russian ZEVS transmitter located near Murmansk uses an antenna approximately 60 km long to contact submerged Russian submarines. A third option for relaying launch data or hailing submarines comes from aircraft like the U.S.-E-6B TACAMO (TAke Charge And Move Out) that trails a several-miles-long antenna to communicate with submarines at shallow depths. Little is publicly known about China’s communications infrastructure; however the Chinese navy maintains VLF facilities at Changde and Datong.
A final component for SSBN command and control centers on a key operational question: what should an SSBN do if it loses contact with its national command authority? The existing SSBN powers respond to this challenge in different ways. For the United Kingdom, “letters of last resort” are issued to each SSBN leaving port. These letters are only to be opened after a British SSBN loses contact with British or allied forces. Each letter details the appropriate course of action to be taken by the SSBN. U.S. protocol is classified, but it is believed that U.S. SSBNs cannot launch their missiles unless they receive the appropriate codes from the president or a designated alternative. China states consistently in its white papers that it employs a no-first-use policy, which it wants to avoid nuclear arms races with other countries, and that it maintains an active nuclear self-defense strategy. It remains to be seen what China’s policy will be in terms of lost communication, or even firing protocol. From existing Chinese policies it can be inferred that firing authority will likely be centralized in the executive, that SSBNs will probably not have launch authority if they lose contact with the homeland, and that renovations to traditional command-and-control models may be needed in order to field a credible sea-based deterrent force.