China's New Ballistic Missile Subs Could Strike The U.S. Without Sailing Into The Pacific

The ability to launch their ballistic missiles from the South China Sea or Bohai Sea would be a huge capability increase for China's SSBN force.

A Chinese Type 094 nuclear ballistic missile submarine.
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

By now, it's no secret that the Chinese government is in the midst of a significant expansion of its strategic nuclear arsenal. This includes the unexpected construction of hundreds of new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles and the more novel development of a fractional orbital bombardment system that utilizes a hypersonic glide vehicle. A new Pentagon report has highlighted progress on a much more expected, but nevertheless significant capability. This is the development and fielding of longer-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles that could be fired from less vulnerable "bastions" closer to the mainland, maybe even while in port. 

The Pentagon released the unclassified version of its annual report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments earlier today. The review, which is just over 190 pages long, covers a wide variety of developments that are not strictly limited to nuclear deterrence. This includes a first-ever mention of the Chinese development of a next-generation "tactical bomber," along with the H-20 advanced strategic bomber, bringing it in line with a public Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report from 2019. China continues to build large numbers of other combat aircraft, as well as ships and ground-based weapon systems, as it expands and modernizes its conventional forces.

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

A truck carries a JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile during a parade in Beijing in 2019.

Still, significant space is devoted to China's nuclear weapons programs, including the aforementioned silos and the potential for the country to have 700 warheads by 2027 and 300 more by 2030. That assessment is an increase from the one the Pentagon included in its China report last year, which said the officials in Beijing might be aiming for 400 warheads in the coming years. All of this is a significant increase over the estimated size of the current Chinese stockpile, which remains "in the low-200s," according to the Pentagon.

There is no mention of China's in-development fractional orbital bombardment system that was reportedly tested twice earlier this year, with the glider completing a full orbit before coming back down to Earth in at least one of these experiments. This makes some sense given that "this report covers security and military developments involving the PRC until the end of 2020," according to the document's preface.

The report includes some new details about China's submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and its nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleets, as well as how the Pentagon expects the Chinese to field those capabilities in the future. At present, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has six Type 094 SSBNs, also known as the Jin class, each of which carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs. A new Type 096 SSBN is now in development, as is a new JL-3 SLBM. The Pentagon had already publicly assessed last year that the PLAN's existing SSBN fleet armed with JL-2 represented "the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent."

"Type 096 SSBN reportedly will be armed with a follow-on SLBM, and it will likely begin construction in the early- 2020s," according to the Pentagon's latest China report. "Based on the 40-plus-year service life of the PRCs first generation SSNs [nuclear attack submarines], the PRC will operate its Jin and Type 096 SSBN fleets concurrently."

"The current range limitations of the JL-2 will require the Jin to operate in areas north and east of Hawaii if the PRC seeks to target the east coast of the United States," it continues. The exact maximum range of the JL-2 is unknown, but publicly available estimates put it at between 8,000 and 9,000 kilometers, or between 4,970 and 5,592 miles. The PLAN's Yulin Naval Base, where the bulk of the Type 094s are based, is some 5,000 miles from Alaska, nearly 6,000 miles away from the Hawaiian islands, and more than 7,000 miles from the West Coast of the contiguous United States.

Google Earth

A satellite image showing two Type 094 SSBNs, along with another type of submarine at the northernmost visible pier, docked at China's Yulin Naval Base in March 2020.

"As the PRC fields newer, more capable, and longer ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLAN will gain the ability to target the continental United States from littoral waters, and thus may consider bastion operations to enhance the survivability of its sea-based deterrent," the Pentagon's latest China report adds "The South China Sea and Bohai Gulf are probably the PRC’s preferred options for employing this concept."

This may seem like a simple and obvious thing, but SSBNs inherently represent a highly flexible and survivable nuclear deterrent capability, especially for use in a second-strike role to ensure an ability to retaliate after an initial enemy onslaught. Those attributes are only increased if the future JL-3, which could have a range of up to 7,500 miles, enables launches against the United States from China's own littoral areas, or even Chinese ports. The latter tactic is something the Soviet Union demonstrated during the Cold War and is something the Russian Navy reportedly still trains to do today.

"Bastions" where the PLA could work to keep opponents out, at least for a time, using its extensive array of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) assets, would present additional challenges. While the South China Sea remains contested, despite Beijing's efforts to declare the entire region as its sovereign territory, the Bohai Gulf, also known as the Bohai Sea, is shielded on three sides by the Chinese mainland. The first reported test of the JL-3 took place in the Bohai Sea in 2018.

Google Maps

A map showing the general locations of the Bohai Sea, to the north, and the South China Sea, to the south. The Pentagon has identified these bodies of water as potential "bastions" where future Chinese SSBNs armed with longer-range SLBMs could operate under a greater protective umbrella, while still being able to hold targets in the United States at risk.

It can take even the fastest nuclear submarines days to cross the Pacific. So, a Type 094 or Type 096 being able to launch from much closer to the Chinese mainland significantly shortens the total time necessary between the decision to launch, or even just get into position to do so, and a missile potentially leaving their launch tubes. Similarly, being able to carry out those launches from denied areas that an opponent has a limited ability to monitor further limits available early warning options while providing additional protection for friendly SSBNs.

Keeping SSBNs closer to home could help ease command and control requirements and otherwise simplify operational and logistical demands for the PLAN, which still has limited experience conducting nuclear deterrent patrols. 

It's unclear when China might reach an operational capability with the JL-3 together with the new Type 096. Past reports have said Type 096s armed with JL-3s could be in service as early as 2025. The PLAN might also be looking to integrate the missiles onto its older Type 094s

Of course, Chinese SSBNs, regardless of their capabilities, will also continue to be just one part of an increasingly robust and diverse Chinese nuclear arsenal. "The PRC has possibly already established a nascent 'nuclear triad' with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improvement of its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities," the Pentagon's new China report says.

At the same time, while other Chinese nuclear developments have garnered significant attention, the country is getting ever closer to a more capable and survivable second-strike deterrent in the form of its SSBNs able to conduct launches from the safety of waters closer to home. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com