Despite notable progress over the past few years, the sea-based leg of the Chinese nuclear triad will remain significantly constrained by geographical and technological factors.
In the last week the Chinese media have provided unprecedented coverage of the shadowy Chinese nuclear submarine force. During a slew of media reports and interviews, numerous Chinese military analysts have emphasized that China’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines are now capable of conducting extended deterrent patrols.
This news is not entirely surprising. In its 2012 draft to the U.S. Congress circulated in November 2012, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission indicated that China was on the cusp of attaining a credible nuclear triad.
The report came at a time when the U.S. Department of Defense had emphasized Chinese military progress, including the projected fielding of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile by 2014. While it is important to highlight such Chinese advancements, limiting factors must be kept in mind as well. For now, China must rely on its land-based nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against the West.
China’s ambition to build a three-pronged nuclear capability, specifically by bolstering its submarine-launched nuclear missile arsenal, is tied to its desire to enhance its deterrent potential against other nuclear powers, especially the United States, Russia and India.
With continuing advancements in the precision and potency of the U.S., Russian and Indian nuclear arsenals, the Chinese are all the more determined to strengthen their own nuclear deterrent. Maintaining a credible sea-based nuclear arsenal will greatly enhance China’s ability to respond to a nuclear first strike (i.e., its second-strike capability). A sea-based deterrent is also a matter of prestige for Beijing, since only a few countries have such a capability.
China has seen significant progress in the development of its sea-based strategic nuclear deterrent but still lags considerably behind leading powers, especially the United States. The first Chinese submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-1A, which has a range of approximately 2,500 kilometers (nearly 1,600 miles), is believed to still be the Chinese nuclear submarine force’s main missile.
By comparison, the U.S. Navy’s primary submarine-launched ballistic missile has more than four times the range (the exact figure is classified). China is currently developing a second-generation missile that is supposed to have an operational range of 7,000-8,000 kilometers, but little is known about it except that it is expected to be operational in a limited capacity by 2014.
China also lags in nuclear submarine technology. Aside from a single submarine, the Type 092 Xia class that is used largely for test purposes, the Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine force consists entirely of the Type 094 Jin class. Three or four vessels of the Jin class have reportedly been completed since the first was launched in 2004.
The Type 094 is a clear improvement over the Type 092 but still underwhelms in many areas, especially in quieting technology, a critical variable when it comes to a submarine’s survivability. According to a report by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the Jin class is even more detectable than the Soviet Delta III class submarines from the 1970s.
Problems of Geography
Despite technological improvements, Chinese nuclear submarines would still need to safely bypass the “first island chain” into the open waters of the Philippine Sea to truly possess a global sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Even when the early versions of the second-generation submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the JL-2, enter service, Chinese submarines operating in the East China Sea or within the first island chain will not be able to target the continental United States or Western Europe.
The most likely route for Chinese submarines into the wider Pacific Ocean is through the Luzon Strait, which is situated between Taiwan and the Philippines and provides direct access into the Philippine Sea.
The Luzon Strait is a safer access point than those that lie north between Taiwan and Japan because the Philippines does not have an anti-submarine warfare capability and Taiwan’s anti-submarine capability is relatively limited, especially when compared to Japan’s. Furthermore, U.S. conventional forces are not stationed in Taiwan or the Philippines like they are in South Korea and Japan.
Still, the Luzon Strait is not perfect, especially in the event of conflict with the United States. First, Taiwan is making a concerted effort to improve its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. By August 2015, Taiwan will have inducted a dozen P-3C Orion aircraft suitable for anti-submarine warfare in an airfield in the south, ideally positioned to monitor the Luzon Strait.
Given that the Type 094 is a relatively noisy submarine, U.S. nuclear attack submarines patrolling the Luzon Strait would also be well positioned to detect and track the Chinese vessels.
These limitations are the principal reason the People’s Liberation Army Navy has seemingly elected to adopt a modified “bastion strategy” around the South China Sea. So far, the Chinese have positioned their nuclear ballistic submarines with the North Sea and South Sea fleets.
The North Sea Fleet includes the single Type 092 and reportedly another Type 094, while other Type 094s appear to have been deployed with the South Sea Fleet. In addition, the construction of the Sanya submarine base on Hainan Island means the infrastructure is mostly in place to support expanded nuclear submarine operations in the South China Sea.
There are a number of advantages that the South China Sea offers the Chinese in terms of nuclear ballistic submarine operations. First, unlike the East China Sea or Yellow Sea, the South China Sea is distant from the very capable South Korean and Japanese anti-submarine assets as well as the U.S. forces stationed in those countries.
The South China Sea also gives Chinese submarines considerable room to maneuver compared to the more constricted waters immediately east of China. Finally, unlike the East China Sea, the South China Sea provides multiple access points to the wider oceans.
In other words, while the South China Sea could offer a reasonably safe operating area for the Chinese navy, it also provides considerable potential for breakout operations in the future, whether through the Luzon Strait or other passageways such as the Sulu Sea or the Karimata Strait.
Operating from the East China Sea, South China Sea or Yellow Sea, Chinese submarines will soon have a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent against Russia and India. But the Chinese submarine fleet will still need to access the open waters beyond the first island chain to maintain a sea-based deterrent against Western Europe and the United States.
Until China builds a nuclear submarine fleet (with well-trained crew and support) stealthy enough to routinely attempt access into the Philippine Sea, or submarine-launched ballistic missiles with enough range to target the continental United States, it will have to rely on its land-based strategic nuclear forces as the primary nuclear deterrent against the United States.