China rushing to enhance SSBN capabilities

From a social media account of China Central Television
A Jin-class strategic nuclear submarine whose participation in a drill in the South China Sea was made public in late September by the Chinese military

BEIJING/WASHINGTON — The Chinese military is steadily improving the capabilities of its fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which are capable of carrying strategic missiles. With its eye on China’s medium- to long-term rivalry with the United States, Beijing is hurrying to develop a new type of submarine, efforts that the United States is watching closely.

At the end of September, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) reported on a drill in the South China Sea that involved a Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. It is unusual in China for such drills to be put on public display.

The ballistic missile submarines, also known as SSBNs, are part of the three pillars of the country’s strategic nuclear TRIAD, which provide striking power from land, sea and air. Because they can conduct covert operations underwater, SSBNs will serve as a “second strike capability,” to retaliate with nuclear missiles in response to a preemptive nuclear attack.

The TRIAD includes ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers.

To prevent all their nuclear forces from being destroyed in the event of a first strike by an enemy nation, the United States and other nations have been developing nuclear capabilities in these three areas since the Cold War period, thus enhancing their deterrence.

China has positioned its SSBNs as a force that will ultimately guarantee nuclear deterrence against the United States and has kept its actions strictly secret. A diplomatic source in Beijing said, “China may have been showing off its improved capabilities before the Communist Party Congress, in which Chinese President Xi Jinping’s third leadership term will be confirmed.”

The SSBN that participated in the drill was the latest model and went into commission in April last year. The Jin-class SSBN can carry up to 12 SLBMs, which can carry nuclear warheads, and the latest model can carry SLBMs with a longer range than the older model. Improvements are being made to make it easier for the missiles to reach the U.S. mainland.


The Yomiuri Shimbun

The South China Morning Post, a leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, reported in late September that two new wharves are under construction, based on an analysis of satellite photos taken in mid-September of the Chinese military’s submarine base in Hainan Province.

The base has been undergoing expansion work for the past several years, and three Jin-class SSBNs and one Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, whose primary mission is to attack surface ships and submarines, were confirmed to have been docked there. The attack submarine is also known as SSN.

“The expansion work is being done in anticipation of an increase in the number of nuclear submarines in operation,” said a source privy to the internal affairs of the Chinese military. The Yellow Sea and the East China Sea are shallow, and the Chinese military uses the base in Hainan Province, which faces the vast, deep South China Sea, as a base for SSBNs.

The U.S. administration led by President Joe Biden is increasingly concerned about China’s strengthening of its nuclear capabilities, stating in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) — mid-term guidelines for nuclear weapons strategy released in March this year — that “maintaining a nuclear deterrent and extended deterrence commitments (the nuclear umbrella) remains a top priority” for the country.

Assuming that the United States will develop its nuclear capabilities with China in mind, the Xi administration is promoting the enhancement of the capabilities of SSBNs as part of building up nuclear capabilities that can compete with the United States.

The Chinese military currently has at least six Jin-class SSBNs. However, there is a problem with their stealth, and a source close to the matter said, “A new type is being developed under the direction of Xi.”

According to several Chinese military-related websites, the new type under development is capable of navigating at a maximum speed of 32 knots (about 60 kph) and a depth of 600 meters. It is said to be able to carry 16 to 24 JL-3 (or Giant Wave-3) missiles, a new type of SLBM that has a range of about 12,000 kilometers.

For a Jin-class SSBN carrying JL-2 missiles (or Giant Wave-2s, which have a range of 8,000 kilometers) to strike the U.S. mainland, it would have to operate in waters far from the Chinese mainland, for instance, by going beyond the first island chain line linking the Nansei Islands and the Philippines, which would involve a higher risk of being detected.

The newer model is believed to be capable of hitting the U.S. mainland with a missile launched from the South China Sea, which would further heighten nuclear deterrence against the United States.

However, a source said: “It will cost at least 10 billion yuan (about ¥200 billion) to build one Jin-class submarine. It will cost 20 billion yuan to build a newer one. SSBNs are extremely expensive and difficult to mass-produce.”

“It may take more than 10 years for the new model to go into commission,” the source said.