The JL-3, China’s latest submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), is designed for use in China’s future Type 096 SSBN .
TYPE 096 SSBN
The Type 096 is likely to be a larger derivative of China’s existing Type 094 SSBN. Larger in part to accommodate 12-16 longer and/or larger diameter JL-3s. The 096 will also be larger as it will likely have a larger, quieter, longer fuel life nuclear reactor all pointing to a longer, heavier, reactor space. The 096 may be launched and commissioned in the mid 2020s with integration of JL-3’s taking an extra 2-3 years. Hence China may have a mature 096 - JL-3 weapon system by 2028 (or later).
THE JL-3 SLBM
In contrast to the JL-2’s range of around 7,200 km the JL-3 may have a range more than 10,000 km. One US source estimates a longer JL-3 range of 12,100 km - although that figure may be an effort to claim that the JL-3 (with presumably reduced load - maybe one warhead) has a longer range that the US Trident D5’s 12,000+ km range (with reduced load - maybe one warhead).
It is expected the JL-3’s
range will be insufficient to hit the US mainland (contiguous 48 states) from a
South China Sea launch point. However, from 096s operating out of China's Southern Theater naval bases (see map below) in the South China Sea JL-3s could hit 3 of China's potential enemies. That is provide a secure second strike capability against India and Russia and also psychologically threaten Australia.
China Military Power Report 2020 page 49.)
094s already operate from Yulin, Hainan SSBN base, Southern Theater Navy, providing access to the South China Sea. In a “bastion” naval strategy these 094s are protected by Chinese air and surface ship bases, SSNs and SSKs in Southern bases. These defenses are augmented by sensors sited on and between China's newly built islands. Future 096s operating in the South China Sea will continue to get this protection, particularly if they are noisy, like the 094s.
China also recognises its current submarine bases continue to be hemmed in by the First Island Chain sensors and forces, including Western fixed sensors (SOSUS open sea and smaller chokepoint nodal sensors) and mobile sensors (aircraft, ships, subs and satellites which still patrol and dominate).
To permanently break through the First Island Chain China would need a "forward operating base" for some of its SSBNs or a neutralised ex-Western alliance archipelago. A base in the eastern Philippines or a neutralised Philippines archipelago might be ideal. Only after breaking through to the Pacific east of the Third Island Chain will a 096 - JL-3 combination be able to hit all 50 of the United States.
In part assisted by a quicker COVID recovery, by 2028, as China's nominal GDP begins to surpass the USA's, China will be able to afford the 096, JL-3 and new bases. China then will approach dominance regionally in the Western Pacific, while US naval power is diluted by US global responsibilities.