On October 27, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency released a slideshow showing what the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) touted as the country’s first nuclear ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN). Though the “unveiling” of China’s Type 092 Xia-class SSBN comes as no surprise, Beijing’s open display of the submarine, coupled with technical improvements to the Chinese JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), raises the question of whether China is approaching a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Although the Xia-class SSBN received much fanfare in both Chinese and Western sources alike, the PLAN envisions the Type 094 Jin-class submarine as playing the primary role in China’s sea-based nuclear-deterrence strategy. Even Xinhua has admitted that the Xia-class SSBN does not comprise a viable nuclear second-strike force. According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, China maintains three operational Jin-class SSBNs and is currently constructing two more, all five of which will be outfitted with twelve JL-2 SLBMs. According to U.S. defense officials, the Jin-class SSBN is expected to begin sea patrols as early as 2014.
For China to acquire a credible survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent, the country must overcome two technical challenges that the country has been unable to surmount since first launching an SLBM from a submarine in 1988. China must build a submarine stealthy enough to avoid U.S. antisubmarine warfare (ASW) assets and design a JL-2 SLBM capable of penetrating US ballistic missile defense (BMD) with high probability.
Both the Xia-class and Jin-class SSBNs are not quiet enough to avoid detection by U.S. ASW assets. The Jin-class SSBN design if fundamentally flawed in that the large missile compartment at the rear of the vessel and the flood openings below the missile hatches create a detectable sonar signature. A 2009 U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence report comparing the low-frequency noise level for China’s SSBN force to that of Russian 1970s-era SSBNs found that out of the twelve submarines profiled, the Xia-class SSBN was the most detectable and the Jin-class SSBN the fourth-most detectable. China’s JL-2 SLBM has repeatedly failed launch tests and it is still unclear whether the PLAN successfully tested the SLBM on August 16, as it claimed.
Even if China acquires the technical capacity necessary for a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent, the highly centralized PLA has no operational experience in maintaining deterrence patrols on the open seas. China has traditionally relied exclusively on its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for deterrence and thus has never confronted the existential question of whether to predelegate SLBM launch authority to submarine commanders in case of crisis.
China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) has traditionally delegated comprehensive nuclear-arsenal command and control authority to the Second Artillery Corps, and it is unlikely that the CMC will undergo the structural transformation necessary to devolve launch authority to PLAN commanders. China’s inexperience in maintaining secure communications between SSBNs and land-based command means that a U.S. decapitation strike on command and control systems could potentially render a Chinese sea-based nuclear deterrent ineffective.
Even if technical improvements are made to the Jin-class SSBN that allow the vessel to allude sophisticated ASW capabilities, the U.S. BMD system will likely be able to engage most JL-2 SLBMs capable of reaching the continental United States from the Jin-class SSBN’s assumed launch points on the Bohai Gulf and South China Sea. Once a Jin-class SSBN launches a JL-2 SLBM, Aegis radars deployed near China’s coastal waters will immediately detect the missile launch, triggering the launch of SM-3 interceptors five seconds thereafter. In addition to already deploying additional SM-3 interceptors off the U.S. coast and ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in California and Alaska, the Pentagon is expected in 2018 to deploy the next-generation SM-3 Block IIA system the can engage all Chinese JL-2 SLBMS capable of reaching the continental U.S.
While neither the Xia-class nor the Jin-class submarines give China a survivable, credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, it is undeniable that the US will eventually have to respond to a China that possesses two legs of the nuclear triad. The PLA is experimenting with deploying more SLBMs bearing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) aboard stealthier SSBNs. Several Chinese sources have claimed that the JL-2 SLBM is capable of carrying between three to nine warheads. Given that the JL-2 SLBM has a 7,200 km range, a JL-2 SLBM carrying multiple warheads launched from the coastal waters near Hainan could potentially evade U.S. defenses. A 2010 U.S. Department of Defense report on Chinese military capabilities noted that China is currently developing a Type 096 Zhou-class SSBN capable of deploying sixteen newer generation SLBMs.
When China reaches the technical and operational capacity for a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent, Washington will be forced to decide whether or not to accept mutual nuclear vulnerability with China. However, by continuing to publicly deny a sea-based nuclear second-strike capability for China, irrespective of reality, Washington avoids the tough dialogue that would have to take place to reassure allies in the Asia Pacific. Given that the “pivot to Asia” thus far amounted to nothing more than rhetoric, and regional allies like Japan are already becoming constitutionally more offense-oriented, public acceptance of U.S. mutual nuclear vulnerability with China is unlikely to assuage the security concerns of regional allies like Japan, South Korea or the Philippines. Accepting a China with a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent may require the U.S. to redefine the perceptions of extended deterrence and its nuclear umbrella in the Asia Pacific.
Washington policymakers may temporarily delay the day of reckoning by accepting mutual vulnerability with China in a classified military-postural sense. However, Washington will eventually have to craft nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture to account for mutual nuclear vulnerability with China in the Asia Pacific. The question is whether the U.S. will respond to the prospect of mutual nuclear vulnerability with denial, by uniformly investing in retaliatory naval capabilities, or with acceptance, by reexamining what extended deterrence means in the Asia Pacific.
Christian Conroy is a Washington-based researcher that writes on issues of nuclear weapons and East Asian regional security.