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.
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.
The early post-war Soviet Navy lacked much in the way of serious anti-submarine capabilities. However, during the 1960s the Soviets began to pursue ASW with much greater seriousness, introducing a variety of ASW specialized surface vessels and aircraft-carrying ships. China has yet to pursue ASW with the same degree of enthusiasm, although Chinese ASW has reportedly improved in the last decade. Overall, however, the ability of the PLAN to protect its bastions is probably less than that of the Soviet Navy during its heyday.
By the 1970s the Soviets had deployed large numbers of bombers and ICBMs, easily capable of providing secure second strike capability. While a surprise U.S. attack might decapitate the Soviet leadership, the Americans could not hope to destroy the entire Soviet second strike capability on the ground. And while China’s nuclear forces have taken a step forward in the past decade, they do cannot yet match the robustness of Soviet nuclear forces in the latter part of the Cold War. Attacks on Chinese SSBNs would attrite the entire Chinese nuclear deterrent at a faster rate than the Soviet.
During the Cold War, the Soviet leadership exhibited spectacular paranoia about the prospect of a decapitating strike against the Kremlin. Various systems, including stealth aircraft and land-attack cruise missiles, threatened to detach the leadership from the broader Soviet military machine. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, has accepted nuclear vulnerability for at least fifty years, relying instead on a minimal deterrent posture combined with the exploitation of superpower tension. Thus, we can hope that the CCP will react in measured fashion to the loss of its nuclear deterrent.
What of the effectiveness of USN attack submarines? U.S. SSNs have never stopped monitoring Russian SSBN deployments, but they have increasingly taken on other missions, such as the launch of land-attack cruise missiles. Modern Seawolf and Virginia class submarines surely exceed the capabilities of the boats deployed during the late Cold War, however.
Taken together, these factors suggest a strategic situation that differs in important ways from the late Cold War balance. Even protected by bastions, China’s boomers will suffer greater vulnerability than did their Soviet cousins. At the same time, the Chinese leadership has historically accepted a greater degree of nuclear vulnerability than the Soviets entertained at any point past the 1950s. Consequently, there is some reason to hope that attacks against China’s boomer bastions would not result in nuclear escalation.
Notwithstanding the differences between the respective undersea competitions with the Russians and the Chinese, the United States needs to think very carefully about whether and how it will pursue the PLAN’s SSBN in case of war, or even heightened tension. Operators have a laudable tendency to push the borders of the possible; if Chinese boomers can be hunted, then why not hunt them, and hunt them well? But these operations need a strategic logic to animate them. Threatening Chinese boomers may serve U.S. strategic interests better than attacking them; refraining from threatening behavior could convey an interest in restraint.
In any case, if the United States and China go to war, or even draw close to war, both sides will pay a great deal of attention to the PLAN’s boomers. The best case for the United States would probably be for China’s SSBNs to remain safe and sound behind an elaborate set of air, sea, and surface defenses, thus drawing considerable forces away from more critical theaters of action. Posing a threat that is credible, but not too credible, is the problem that faces the silent service of the USN.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as an Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Owly K