The Next Big U.S.-China Military Challenge: Beijing's Underwater Nukes

If America can credibly threaten China's nuclear deterrent, Beijing’s paranoia might become more risk-acceptant, rather than less. However, the Cold War might offer some perspective. 

How vulnerable are China’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs, or boomers), and what does that vulnerability mean for US strategy?

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has devoted considerable time and expense to developing a maritime nuclear deterrent. The United States Navy, on the other hand, has forty years of experience in hunting down Russian boomers. Chinese boomers present no major problem.

But the paradox of nuclear weapons is that one player’s insecurity can make the other player less secure. If the United States can credibly threaten the Chinese nuclear deterrent, Beijing’s paranoia might become more risk acceptant, rather than less. This makes the decision to exploit the vulnerability of China’s boomers fraught with danger.

Fortunately, the United States faced a similar dilemma in the Cold War, when U.S. attack boats (SSNs) hunted Soviet boomers in the arctic. That experience, and the debates that flowed from it, can help inform U.S. decision-making today.

Recap:

In the latter stages of the Cold War, the United States Navy (USN) came to the understanding that the Soviet Union did not intend to use the bulk of its surface and submarines units on interdiction in the North Atlantic. For most of the Cold War, the U.S. and the United Kingdom had assumed that the USSR would use its submarines (and later its surface ships) much like Germany had used them in both World Wars; as part of an effort to destroy the commercial and military linkages between North American and Western Europe. The USN and the Royal Navy (RN) developed their anti-submarine doctrine around this assumption.

However, it became clear by the 1970s that the Soviet Union considered the protection of its SSBN force a more critical need than interdiction. The Soviets built their surface fleet, and much of their submarine fleet, around the idea of creating “bastions” that would allow the SSBNs to patrol, unmolested by U.S. and British attack submarines. Even Soviet carriers concentrated on this mission, at the expense of offensive capabilities.

Eventually, the USN decided upon an offensive strategy, designed to force the Soviets to allocate ships and submarines to defending the bastions. Strategic anti-submarine warfare (or ASW directed against strategic targets) had obvious escalatory implications.  If the Soviets came to believe that the United States intended to sink its maritime deterrent, Moscow might become paranoid enough to use the submarines before it lost them. Conversely, a significant threat to the bastions might force the Kremlin to the peace table.  Either way, Soviet ships and subs devoted to the bastions could not create mischief elsewhere.

A 1987 study by Ronald O’Rourke worked through the upsides and pitfalls of offensive strategic ASW. The study concentrated on the question of whether the Soviets would perceive attacks against the bastions as dangerously escalatory, explaining the Navy’s view that such an offensive strategy would not likely incur a nuclear Soviet response. Of course, given the enormous advantages that the Soviets enjoyed in the arctic, this plan was probably impracticable in any case, but may have had considerable value as a bluff designed to tie down the Soviet Navy.

Bastions of the South China Sea?

NATO and the Warsaw Pact never went to war, so we never got to work out the implications of threatening the USSR’s most precious strategic assets. The Sino-American naval competition differs in many ways from its Cold War antecedent, but some parallels endure. The SSBNs of the PLAN have yet to undertake a deterrent patrol, and so Chinese nuclear strategy remains uncertain. However, several factors point to the likelihood of a bastion strategy, including the relative noisiness of Chinese boomers.

If the U.S. and China went to war, how might the escalatory logic of attacks against Chinese boomers (and Chinese boomer bases) differ from that of the Cold War? Key variables include:

- The vulnerability of the subs themselves

- The robustness of the “bastions”

- The security of the other legs of the deterrent triad

- The paranoia of the leadership

- The effectiveness of USN ASW efforts

By almost all accounts, Chinese SSBNs are noisier in absolute terms than their Soviet counterparts. This suggests that they could conduct independent deterrent patrols only at great risk, and that in time of war American SSNs could hunt them with significant hope of success.  The Chinese also have far fewer SSBNs (less than 10, versus 40+) than the Soviets operated during the Cold War, making the overall deterrent more vulnerable. Projected attrition of the Chinese SSBN force would happen much faster than the Soviet, telescoping the Chinese response process.

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