August 6, 2016

China's current SSBNs limited by their SLBMs - Part Three

This, to scale diagram, permit comparison between the US Ohio and Chinese "Jin class" Type 094 SSBNs. Diagram courtesy China Power (an interesting source in itself on China's SSBNs).


China's SSBNs are only effective through their missiles, SLBMs. The latest developed missile, the JL-2, suffers from inadequate range (perhaps 8,000 km with a light payload - one 500 kg warhead). The main inadequacy is the inability, from "bastion waters" (protected by Chinese defence forces) to  hit targets in the continental US.

China also lacks the opportunities to fully test (with sufficient secrecy) the JL-2 over its full, estimated 8,000 km range.  China lacks Russia's long national length and the US's California to distant Pacific testing range facilities.

Lack of full range testing also prevents the JL-2 being tested for accuracy, as measured by CEP. Lack of CEP assurance denies China knowledge of whether its missiles can destroy enemy missiles in their silos. Computer modelling provides only partial assurance.

As illustrated below the USN and Pentagon appear to continually over-estimate the operational numbers, maturity and capabilities of Chinese SSBNs and SLBMs. Perhaps justification of a high tempo building program for US SSNs and SSBNs comes into this.

It is relevant that the total number of very likely inferior JL-2s mounted by China's four known Type 094s (Jin class) is 48. In comparison only two of the USN's superior Ohio class SSBNs are needed to mount a total of 48 (superior) Trident II D5s.


The following is an extract from Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris Chinese nuclear forces, 2015 (July 2, 2015) which was published on The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

"Submarines and sea-based missiles

China has built two types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), the JL-1 and JL-2, which were developed for two types of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

The 1,700-km-range, two-stage JL-1 (CSS-NX-3) SLBM developed for a single old Xia-class (Type 092) submarine first entered service in 1986 and is not considered operational. The Xia is based at the North Sea Fleet base near Qingdao in the Shandong province. The submarine underwent a lengthy shipyard overhaul in 2005 and 2006 but appears to have stayed in port since then. The Xia/JL-1 weapon system is expected to be retired soon.

Development of the new JL-2 (CSS-NX-14) SLBM for the second-generation Jin-class (Type 094) submarine is nearing completion. The US intelligence community has predicted for several years that the missile was about to become operational, only to see further delays. After several setbacks, China appears to have overcome technical difficulties and successfully test-launched the JL-2 in 2013.

The JL-2 is a modified version of the DF-31. Equipped with a single warhead and possibly penetration aids, the JL-2 has never been flight tested to its full range but is estimated to have a range of 7,000-plus km. The 2015 Pentagon report estimates the range as 7,400?km (Defense Department, 2015: 10). Such a range is sufficient to target Alaska, Guam, Russia, and India from waters near China—but, unless the submarine carrying the weapon sails significantly eastward, not the continental United States.

Four Jin-class submarines are operational (without missiles) and all homeported at the South Sea Fleet base on Hainan Island, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015: 20). There is some uncertainty about how many nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) China plans to build. The ONI predicted nearly a decade ago that China might build five Jin SSBNs (Kristensen, 2007 12). That projection was repeated in 2013 when ONI estimated that there would be four to five boats by 2020 (Kristensen, 2014b 17). The 2015 Pentagon report appears to agree with that projection, saying “up to five may enter service” before China begins work on a next-generation SSBN (Defense Department, 2015 10).

Yet in early 2015 other government sources began suggesting that China might produce more Jin SSBNs. In his prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2015, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that China “might produce additional JIN-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines” (Clapper, 2015 6). And in April 2015 Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, commander of US Pacific Command, told the same committee that “up to five more [Jin SSBNs] may enter service by the end of the decade” for a total of eight Jin submarines (Locklear, 2015 19).

The reason there are different estimates of how many Jin-class SSBNs China plans to build is unclear. The higher number seems strange given that China is already expected to proceed to development and production of a third-generation (Type 096) SSBN over the next decade.

With 12 missile-launch tubes per submarine, four operational Jin SSBNs could carry 48 missiles with as many warheads—a significant increase from the 12 SLBMs that the sole Xia-class submarine was equipped with.

The Pentagon asserts that the Jin/JL-2 weapon system “will give the PLA [Chinese] Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent” (Defense Department, 2013 9). Yet the Chinese SSBN fleet faces several doctrinal, technical, and operational constraints. Under current doctrine, China’s Central Military Commission does not allow the military services to have warheads deployed on missiles under normal circumstances. Handing over custody of nuclear warheads to deployed submarines in peacetime would constitute a significant change of Chinese doctrine.

Moreover, no Chinese ballistic missile submarine has ever sailed on a deterrent patrol so China’s navy and the Central Military Commission have essentially no experience in operating a submarine force during realistic military operations. Developing this capability will require development of new command and control technologies and procedures.

But even if China deployed warheads on the SSBNs and sent them to sea in a crisis, where would they sail? For a JL-2 to reach the continental United States, for example, a Jin SSBN would have to sail through the East China Sea and well into the Pacific Ocean, through dangerous choke points where it would be vulnerable to hostile antisubmarine warfare5(see Map below). 

Figure 1. Potential Julang-2 SLBM launch areas for targeting continental United States

The map indicates why (with the JL-2s limited range) Type 094 "Jin" SSBN need to dangerously sail east away from Chinese protected "bastion" waters of the "South Sea Base" (South China Sea) or from the "North Sea Base" Yellow-Bohai Seas.

China’s main concern is making sure that its minimum nuclear deterrent would survive a first strike, and for that reason it spends considerable resources on modernizing and hiding its land-based missiles. This makes its submarine program puzzling, for it is much riskier to deploy nuclear weapons at sea, where submarines can be sunk by unfriendly forces, than to hide them in caves or forests deep inside China’s extensive territory (Kristensen, 2014a 16)."

See the whole article  Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris Chinese nuclear forces, 2015 (July 2, 2015). 


Nicky K.D Chaleunphone said...

Hi pete,
The only problem with China's SSBN fleet is that it's far too limited. They would have to make their way past several countries in order to make it to the Open pacific to launch their Missiles. Even then it would be a suicide mission for them because the US and her allies would have roaming SSN and SSK's hunting them down before they ever reach the Pacific ocean.

I wonder Pete, if the Chinese have followed the Soviets/Russians on the Boomer Bastions aka Boomer Banks where they keep the SSBNS in a curtain area under constant guard and constant patrol by a roving SSN or SSK.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,

Could you do an article on Taiwan's new Submarine program? I have yet to see much of an article written on the USA SUBIC Combat Management System used by the Canadians, the Dutch and maybe the Taiwanese. There is very little information out there about this system compared to DCNS' Subtic and Atlas Elektronik's ISUS 100 Combat System.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Nicky

China has made quite rapid progress, when comparing China moving from:

- Russian designs like the Romeo SSKs in the 1950s

- to where China is now, with second generation SSBN and SSNs.

This is compared to the US building viable SSKs 100 years ago, in the 1900s.

China improving the range of its JL-2 by 3,000 kms to become 11,000 km range JL-3s is very likely China's quickest way to make its SSBNs effective. 11,000 km from protected South China Sea and Bohai Sea waters would put most of the continental US in range.

China being surrounded-by-hostile-island geography is probably its main obstacle. The Philippines under an increasingly unpopular President Duterte dictatorshp could offer China's best opportunity to sieze (or negotiate) territory to provide a much more effective SSBN base. That base might be Subic Bay, a US base for 90 years from about 1899-1992

Or perhaps a Pacific Island (like the US has Guam Naval Base) might be similarly acquired by China.

Perhaps from 2040 Subic Bay with easy access to the open ocean (where SSBN like to roam) will become a Chinese Base. By 2040 Chinese SSBN would have caught up in quietness and won't need to be bastion protected.


Peter Coates said...

Of Pacific Islands most likely to be large enough, anti-Western enough, and hence most susceptable to Chinese Naval Base suggestions see .

US, from nearby American Samoa, may have its work cut out making it otherwise.

Nicky K.D Chaleunphone said...

Hi Pete,
I am wondering, if the Chinese ever followed the Soviets/Russians in the Boomer Bastion concept. I have heard that the Chinese have been known to use the Bohai Sea as a Boomer Bastion. Are the Chinese following the Soviet navy model of being submarine heavy?

Here's a link to this article where I am referring to:
Developing US-Chinese Nuclear Naval Competition In Asia

Peter Coates said...

Hi Nicky

Thanks for a 2005 article - which strengthens my point that US analysts have long over-rated the pace of Chinese SSN and SSBN improvements.

In article case it wonders, even as early as 2005, if:
- China's Type 094s have 16 SLBMs (11 years later they still only have 12 SLBMs)
- whether the JL-2 (the paper assumed it is developed - in 2016 it still lacks full testing) has a range of more than 13,000 km! (range still less than 8,000 km from US DoD figures), and
- wonders if Russia will sell Akula SSNs to China (never happened - parly because Russia considers China a strategic threat in the nuclear area).

Yep, I have been arguing all week in Parts One, Two and Three (above) that China's technical and geographical problems mean that China's SSBNs have to rely on Bastion (especially aircraft top-cover) protection. The Soviets/Russia's relatively noisy, and coralled (mainly in the Arctic Ocean) by geography SSBN and SSNs have relied on similar Bastion top-cover since the 1950s-60s.



Josh said...

Pete: China basing SSBNs outside China seems very unlikely for a wealth of reasons. First, it seems unlikely that a country that doesn't even mate its warheads to its missiles in peacetime would forward deploy nuclear weapons outside its territory. Two, it seems unlikely however pro China/anti US a country is that it would want to take on *that* responsibility - outside NATO nations with dual key arrangements I'm unaware of countries hosting foreign nuclear weapons. Historically the Soviets did this as well, but they kept exclusive control and more or less ruled the client states where this occurred with the possible exception of Cuba in 61-62. Finally, you could expect the US to respond very harshly to such a basing, both to the host countries and to China. Taiwan would likely find the weapon spigot opened and the US might openly declare that it was OK with a nuclear armed Japan. There could be other economic and military pressures as well but those two pop out as the least amount of effort for maximum shock value.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous [at 7/8/16 2:35 PM]

Taiwan's submarine story seems to remain Taiwan only being prepared to pay seed money toward a new submarine program. Taiwan always seems to hope the US will pay for and politically broker a new sub deal.

My 2015 article on Taiwan still seems up to date because little has changed.

Best to surf the net to see what provider companies say about their Combat System products. You may find this interesting . Australia may well select the new sub Combat System Integrator (LockMart vs Raytheon) this year.



Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh

Yes even the US basing SSBNs (Squadron 15) at Guam Naval Base for 18 years (1963-81) seemed very unlikely but the US did so. see

Americans seem in denial that Chinese nuclear doctrine can undergo change, out to the timeframe I'm talking about - which, you'll see from my comments above, is 2040.

NATO is highly irrelevant to the South China Sea theatre under discussion - here, now and in the future.

The US has less power than in its Subic Bay years when it underwrote the Philippines Marcos dictatorship.

Duterte, who is shaping up to be a new dictator, Death Squads and all, will be an unpopular American ally even under a rightwing Trump Administration. While the US, under Trrump will lose legitimacy in Asia a Duterte Dictorship may well create a Filipino power vacuum. A renewal of Aquino People Power may be exploited by near superpower China.

An isolationist Trump trend?

A dual-use Chinese military-commercial sub base at Subic Bay by 2040?


Josh said...

Guam is US territory. There were no political or economic ramifications for the US outside perhaps annoying its strategic competitor the USSR, which almost no economic relationship to leverage and no military capability to reply in kind. Where as China basing SSBNs in a foreign nation would be an extremely antagonistic move against its largest trading partner and a global military power.

NATO isn't relevant to the Pacific; I only used them as almost the sole example of a country basing its nukes in foreign nations' territory as way of pointing out how rare that situation is.

It is very possible that the local region will turn to China if the US begins a strategic withdrawal. It is even possible some nations will go that way even if the US maintains its current posture. That said, accepting someone else's nukes is a huge political step that I think no one in the region can afford to take - the US would be the 2nd largest economy in 2040 in any likely scenario. I can't see any nation in the region being willing to close off that market even if they were willing to accept Chinese security guarantees.

Its also worth noting that one way China can cause a isolationist US policy to do an about face in the Pacific is basing nuclear weapons outside its borders in a nation previously allied with the US.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh [at 10/8/16 1:11 AM]

Yes Guam indeed became US territory from 1898 when the US seized by conquest Guam, the Philippines and other Spanish colonies.

The will of islanders and Filipinos was simply disregarded in this exchange of colonial masters. Things became even more ugly for Filipinos in the Philippine–American War against them . Most Americans don't know about that.

Things became more ugly for Pacific Islanders when some were forcibly removed from their ancient island homelands to make way for US H-Bomb tests. Many Islanders can never return due to ongoing radiation. The US became the last master standing

In that context China buying a SSBN base on a Pacific Island, by 2040 (noting China's longer term sense of time) may look reasonable. It may also provide MAD assurance rather than a Chinese hair-trigger nuclear anxiety.

The risk to all of us from Trump, or subsequent demagogues, is becoming a problem shared by many.