Washington Times on July 23, 2013, reported that China’s navy is expected to begin the first sea patrols next year of a new class of strategic missile submarines, highlighting a new and growing missile threat to the U.S. homeland, according to U.S. defense officials.
“We are anticipating that combat patrols of submarines carrying the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile will begin next year,” said one official familiar with recent intelligence assessments of the Chinese strategic submarine force.
China’s strategic missile submarine force currently includes three new Type 094 missile submarines each built with 12 missile launch tubes.
The submarine patrols will include scores of new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on the Type 094s. The submarines are also called Jin-class missile boats by the Pentagon.
The missile submarine patrols, if carried out in 2014, would be the first time China conducts submarine operations involving nuclear-tipped missiles far from Chinese shores despite having a small missile submarine force since the late 1980s.
Defense officials said the JL-2 poses a “potential first strike” nuclear missile threat to the United States and is one of four new types of long-range missiles in China’s growing strategic nuclear arsenal.
The Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center earlier this month published a report on missile threats that identified the JL-2 a weapon that “will, for the first time, allow Chinese SSBNs to target portions of the United States from operating areas located near the Chinese coast.” SSBN is a military acronym for nuclear missile submarine.
The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on China’s military stated that Beijing’s Navy has placed a high priority on building up submarine forces.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told Congress in May that he was not worried by the Chinese naval buildup, including the new missile submarines, but that it is a development that needs to be watched.
Greenert boasted during a House defense appropriations subcommittee hearing that “we own the undersea domain.”
The Chinese navy is “not there yet” in terms of undersea power despite deploying a current force of 55 submarines, both diesel and nuclear powered, Greenert said.
David Helvey, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, told reporters in May that the Chinese are investing heavily in undersea warfare programs and submarines.
Mark Stokes, a Chinese military affairs analyst, said the first Chinese ballistic missile submarine patrols next year would not be surprising.
“The most significant question is which organization controls, stores, and ensures the readiness of the nuclear warheads that ostensibly would be mated with the SLBMs on patrol,” said Stokes, with the Project 2049 Institute.
China maintains tight secrecy over its nuclear forces, such as how many are deployed, how they are controlled and stored, over fears that any public discussion would undermine their deterrent value.
“The [Central Military Commission] has traditionally entrusted only the Second Artillery Corps with centralized control over nuclear weapons,” Stokes said. “The CMC granting the PLA Navy the power to develop and maintain its own independent infrastructure for warhead storage and handling would be a significant departure from past. This kind of decentralization would have implications well beyond the navy.”
Richard Fisher, an expert on Chinese military affairs, said the commencement of missile submarine patrols would fulfill the ambitions of Chinese Communist Party leaders since Mao Zedong in the early 1960s.
“With three Type 094 SSBNs now called ‘operational’ by the Pentagon, it is possible that one Type 094 could be maintained on constant patrol,” said Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Fisher warned that Obama administration plans to cut U.S. nuclear forces could increase the risk of a future Chinese first-strike attack.
Considering the “uncertainties” about the actual levels of China’s current and future nuclear arsenal, “it would be most unwise to consider further nuclear reductions, and that could threaten a robust U.S. nuclear triad of ICBMs, SSBNs and bombers,” Fisher said.
On China’s next-generation missile submarine, Fisher said the Type 096 could have an longer-range “JL-3” missile capable of hitting targets throughout the United States.
Japan’s government warned in a defense white paper made public earlier this month about the threat posed by the JL-2. “Once the JL-2 reaches a level of practical use, it is believed that China’s strategic nuclear capabilities will improve by a great margin,” the white paper stated.
The Wall Street Journal, quoting “Chinese experts,” reported in May that U.S. military moves in Asia were unlikely to affect China’s nuclear force buildup, including the launch of missile submarines in 2014.
However, the number of nuclear warheads and strategic missiles could be “adjusted” based on U.S. military plans in Asia.
The Obama administration has launched a “pivot” to Asia that includes a buildup of U.S. military forces in the region and an increase in exercises with Asian allies and friends.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced in April that the Navy will deploy a fourth nuclear-powered attack submarine in Guam by 2015.