The Buzz

China's 'Boomers': Should America Fear Beijing's Underwater Nukes?

The gradual, but steady development of China’s ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) program has been closely monitored by international observers. China is the last of the Permanent Five members of the United Nations Security Council to establish an operational SSBN force. A recent report by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) says that China’s Jin­­-class SSBN represents the country’s “first credible at-sea second-strike nuclear capability.” That goal remains a long way off, however. Although the Jin­-class is a potential step forward for China’s nuclear deterrent, its nascent SSBN program continues to face considerable challenges.

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 the potential to be an essential component of China’s nuclear second-strike capability. A reliable long-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), capable of striking a target at intercontinental range with a nuclear payload, is critical to this strategy. The JL-2 SLBM carried by the Jin­-class can deliver between one to three nuclear warheads to an estimated range of 7,400 km. The relatively short range of the JL-2 requires China’s SSBNs to travel undetected through several crucial chokepoints into the Pacific Ocean in order to strike the continental United States.

This shortcoming requires China to rely on the stealth of the Jin­-class to sail the submarine into firing position. However, available information suggests that theJin-class is detectable by foreign Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) assets.  According to a 2013 report in The National Interest, the Jin­-class may have fundamental flaws that create a detectable sonar signature. Evidence of this vulnerability can be found in a 2009 ONI report, which compared the low-frequency noise of China’s SSBN force to Russian/Soviet submarines, and revealed that the Jin­-class was the noisier than Russian Delta III-class SSBNs that were first commissioned in the mid-1970s.

China also faces the technological and bureaucratic hurdles of establishing effective command and control (C2) with its SSBNs. Reliable C2 communication with decision makers on the mainland and firing protocols for when an SSBN loses contact with its national command authority are critical to ensuring that an SSBN only fires when it is absolutely necessary. Contacting an SSBN when it is submerged requires advanced communications technology.  Salt water only permits radio waves to penetrate a short distance into the ocean, requiring communication stations to use Very Low Frequency (VLF) or Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radio waves to signal a submarine. An alternative option for relaying information to submarines comes from aircraft like the U.S.-E-6B TACAMO that trails a several-miles-long antenna to signal submarines at shallow depths. Little is publicly known about China’s communications infrastructure; however the Chinese navy maintains VLF facilities at Changde and Datong.

China may seek to improve its infrastructure on reclaimed land features in the SCS to help secure safe passage for its SSBNs to the Pacific Ocean. Establishing control of the waters within the nine-dashed-line could potentially lessen the drawbacks of the current submarine base on Hainan Island, as submarines operating out of the base are exposed to ASW forces of the United States and other countries. The placement of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island with a range of 125 miles, which could be deployed on other land features, may empower China to counter foreign ASW aircraft during a crisis. China’s own ASW forces may also play a key role. Establishing airbases for its emerging aviation-ASW program might eventually enable China to counter enemy attack submarines charged with tracking China’s SSBN fleet.