The Chinese have just added two new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to their Navy, bringing the total number of so-called SSBNs in the force up to six. While the U.S. operates twice as many, the growing number of Chinese nuclear-deterrence submarines massively expands the ability of Beijing to hold the continental U.S. at substantial risk.
Nuclear-armed submarines are intended to ensure a second-strike catastrophic response in the event of a nuclear attack, essentially ensuring complete destruction of the attacking country. They quietly and secretly patrol at great depths in undisclosed locations to function as a large deterrent force against a first-strike nuclear attack.
As recently as May of 2020, two additional “Type 094 SSBNs, had entered service,” according to a Congressional Research Service Report called “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities.” The newest type of SSBN, according to the Navy report, is armed with 12 JL-2 nuclear-armed, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the CRS report explains. They are also armed with Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles, wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes and mines. Perhaps of greater concern, the Chinese have already test-fired an emerging JL-3 nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile with a reported range of more that 5,600 miles, according to a 2018 CSIS report. The missile is solid fueled.
China clearly appears to be expanding its nuclear-armed submarine reach on a global scale, as there have been several news reports of Chinese SSBNs seen in various hot-spots around the globe.
The CRS report estimates that, by this year, the Chinese are operating 55 diesel-electric submarines and seven nuclear-powered submarines.
Overall, the Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that China may operate as many as 70 submarines, according to the CRS assessment; in addition, the CRS report estimates that China will have as many as 8 SSBNs and 76 submarines overall by 2030. Most of China’s submarines are non-nuclear, and according to the CRS’ reference to the Office of Naval Intelligence, “China’s submarine force continues to grow at a low rate, though with substantially more-capable submarines replacing older units. Current expansion at submarine production yards could allow higher future production numbers.”
While there is likely little known about the exact technological make-up of the emerging Chinese Jin-class SSBN, it may not rival the emerging U.S. Columbia-class submarines. The new, now-in-development Columbia class may be the quietest undersea boat ever to exist. It uses a quiet, efficient electric-drive and a differently configured X-shaped stern.
What is known about the Chinese Jin-class is that it will be armed with an extremely lethal, 5,600 mile range nuclear armed ballistic missile, the JL-3. For instance, a 2018 CSIS report says the Chinese have already test fired the weapon which, by any estimation, could easily hold the continental U.S. at great risk.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.