Two More Chinese SSBNs Spotted

China appears to have launched two more SSBNs.

By Hans M. Kristensen (BLOG UPDATED OCTOBER 10, 2007)

China appears to have launched two more ballistic missiles submarines from the Bohai shipyard at Huludao approximately 400 km east of Beijing. This could bring to three the number of Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) launched by China in the past three to four years.

The two submarines were discovered during analysis of newly published commercial satellite images on Google Earth. This is the second time in three months that FAS has discovered new Chinese ballistic missile submarines on commercial satellite images. The first time was in July 2007, when the first Jin-class was disclosed on the FAS Strategic Security Blog.

The submarines on the new image have the same dimensions as the previous submarine.

So How Many Do They Have?

Whether China has now launched two or three Jin-class SSBNs is still unclear. The image of the first SSBN discovered at Xiaopingdao in July 2007 was taken on October 17, 2006. The new image of the two SSBNs at Huludao was taken six and a half months later on May 3, 2007. One possibility is that the Xiaopingdao SSBN returned to Huludao for repair or further adjustment and was captured on the 2007 photo together with the second SSBN. Another possibility is that the two Huludao SSBNs are indeed the second and third boats of the new Jin-class SSBN.

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated in December 2006 that “a fleet of probably five TYPE 094 SSBNs will be built in order to provide more redundancy and capacity for a near-continuous at-sea SSBN presence.” China has not stated how many SSBNs it plans to build and there is no authoritative information available in the public that confirms that China plans to build five SSBNs. It might, but it might also build less if it decides that three or four are sufficient.

Some Implications

The new Jin-class SSBNs add to the single and unsuccessful Xia-class (Type 092) that China launched in 1982. The Xia has never conducted a deterrent patrol and its operational status is in doubt. The rapid launch of two or three Jin-class SSBNs indicate that the Chinese navy feels confident it has overcome at least some of the technical problems that curtailed the Xia.

Comparison of Chinese SSBN Images

Comparison of Chinese SSBNs discovered on commercial satellite images made available on Google Earth since 2005 show clear differences between the Xia-class (Type-092) and the new Jin-class (Type 094). The roughly 23-meter missile compartment on the Xia (top) has been extended to about 34 meters on the Jin-class. The Jin-class photographed at Xiaopingdao (second from top) and the two at Huludao have the same dimensions, indicating that China has launched at least two boats. To download larger image, click on the image above or here.

Each Jin-class appears to have 12 launch tubes for the new Julang-2 sea-launched ballistic missiles that are currently under development. If Julang-2 and three Jin-class SSBNs become fully operational, it would enable China to deploy up to 24 ballistic missiles at sea, assuming one boat would be in overhaul at any given time (and the Xia is still not operational). The range of the Julang-2 is estimated by the US intelligence community at more than 8,000 km (4,970+ miles), which brings Hawaii and Alaska (but not the continental United States) within reach from Chinese territorial waters.

Despite many rumors on the Internet about multiple warheads on Julang-2, the long-held assessment by the US intelligence community is that the Julang-2 will be a single-warhead missile.

Whether China plans to deploy a continuous sea-based deterrent is unknown. It appears doubtful because it would break with the Chinese practice of not deploying fully operational nuclear missiles. Nuclear warheads for China’s land-based missiles are believed to be stored separate from the missiles, although this has never actually been verified for the entire force. If the submarines deployed into the Pacific (like U.S. and to a smaller extent Russian SSBNs) it would also break with Chinese policy of not deploying nuclear weapons outside Chinese territory. An alternative would be to operate the SSBNs as a surge capability, intended to deploy in a crisis.

Background: Other Blogs About China

12 thoughts on “Two More Chinese SSBNs Spotted

  1. UJ: Why doesn’t China deploy fully operational warheads? Is it simply for appearances?

    Reply: That is not entirely clear, although it is normally thought to be a result of a combination of China’s nuclear policy of no-first-use and the fact that most Chinese nuclear ballistic missiles are liquid-fueled and not the safest place to have nuclear warheads.

    But one existing missile, the DF-21, is a solid-fueled missile that has been deployed since the early 1990s, although this has not led to reports that warheads were mated with the missile.

    China is now starting to deploy a new generation of long-range missiles, DF-31, DF-31A and Julang-2, all of which are solid-fueled. The question is whether they will be deployed with or without their warheads installed. HK

  2. Tam: Can you tell me what is the dating of the current Xiaopingdao image? You may have not noticed, but it has been changed and updated as well. The color hue has changed, and the positions of some of the ships have changed.

    The Xiaopingdao sub is fully fitted, nearly or is already operational. That is one reason from both images, why the sub sinks lower in the water than the two new subs in Huludao. Being stationed in Xiaopingdao is also indication of an operational status, because if the sub is in trials, it won’t go far from the Huludao base.

    The two new Huludao subs are high in the water line indicating they are not fully fitted yet.

    Reply: The cloud patterns and boat wakes indicate that the date of the Xiaopingdao image is October 17, 2006. Yes something has changed about the image, and the submarine is significantly more grainy than the first one I downloaded.

    Well, the Xiaopingdao sub appears to be further along in the outfitting than the two new subs, but how far toward full operational status is anyones guess. I think three subs too, but had to at least raise the hypothetical uncertainty. HK

  3. JF: If the range of JL2 is only 8000 km, the 094s would have to travel very far to hit CONUS targets. Then there is a need for “strategic patrol”, which even the Chinese leadership would be quite wary. The patroling boat would have to have nuclear warheads mated to the missiles, if the patrol is to carry any threat. But, once the boat is gone, it might go to the other side(s) as well, with its nukes!

    How much more difficult is it to make a SLBM with 13000 km (incidentally 8000 miles) range, instead of 8000km? There are various reports on the internet that say JL2 has a range of 8000 miles. If so, there is no need for patrol and the war heads can be mated when there is a need. The sea water is simply used as a cover for the subs. That may be why the Chinese is willing to show their subs so openly.

    Reply Only the Chinese know the actual range. The 8,000 km number comes from the US intelligence community; the estimate presented in the 2007 DOD report on Chinese military forces is “8,000+ km” (p. 42). But other elements of the intelligence community has given other ranges. The uncertainty probably reflects the fact that the missile has not been flight tested at full range.

    There’re a lot of unsubstantiated rumors on the web about Chinese nuclear forces. The 13,000 km range is for the DF-5A. Not even the US can squeeze 13,000 km into a SLBM. An 8,000 km range Julang-2 would be significant enough and a considerable improvement over the 1,770+ km of the Julang-1.

    If the US maritime strategy of the 1980s is any indication, any Chinese SSBN – regardless of missile range – trying to slip out of port in crisis would face a rough time being hunted by US attack submarines. HK

  4. Hallo: I have always though that nuclear weapons do not technically belong to then 2nd Artillary but rather to general armament department.

    The basis for separate deployment of warhead and missiles may be attributed to better authorization control and maybe also due to factional differences between the different branches of PLA.

    What’s interesting is that the bottom sub has an unknown box shaped object on the tail….

    Reply: Good points. So you think the separation of warheads and missiles might be beaucratic rather than policy related?

    I studied the shaft also, but concluded that it might be that neither the propellor nor the rudder has been installed yet and that the “box” is part of the separation of the two. The image of the Xianpingdao sub also shows an extension after the hull, although it appears less box-like, but that may be because the submarine is lower in the water. HK

  5. Andrew: Is there evidence that the SSBNs even use a propellor; that boxlike projection could be a pumpjet style unit.

    Reply: I have seen references to the Russians using that, but never the Chinese. HK

  6. Manoj: Re comment on [not] fully operational warheads [e.g. warheads stored separately from missiles]. One additional reason can be the need to ensure political control. [edited, ed.]

  7. OB: In regards to their policy of not deploying warheads outside of mainland China, could we be seeing steps to change that? With the Chinese starting to modernize their forces may we be seeing steps to change the status quo in order to improve survivability of nuclear forces, like the changes made to their northern missile forces and the improvements to their mobile launchers, could they be considering deploying warheads forward to put more pressure on US targets besides the outlying states and territories? Perhaps they intent to use these vessels to move around at sea to provide another mobile, harder to target launch platform.

    Do we have any idea of the CEP of the new submarine-launched missiles? Are they able to provide anything close to a “hard-kill” capability, or are they more tailored towards targeting cities?

    Reply: I haven’t seen anything credible on the accuracy of the Julang-2, although it is reasonable to assume that the missile is probably more accurate than its predecessor the Julang-1.

    As for hard target kill capability, there are reports that China is improving the accuracy of its short-range conventional missiles, but I don’t see that as a goal for the current Chinese nuclear modernization.

    The question of deployment outside China’s territory is, as I mention in the blog, one of the implications of a sea-based deterrent. Whether China plans to deploy nuclear weapons on SSBNs on deterrent patrol like the other old nuclear powers do or simply have it as a surge deployment option is not known. Given the extraordinary vulnerability of relatively noisy Chinese SSBNs, it is hard to see what China would gain in its posture by deploying nuclear weapons at sea. Right now, China may simply be trying to see if they can develop a fully operational SSBN – something they failed to demonstrate with the Xia. HK

  8. Choong: I always surf Chinese military website. I found that the bloggers always say the Julang 2 has multiple warheads instead of having only one. Besides using U.S intelligent source, how do you confirm the Julang-2 has only one warhead? And, I have seen the picture of type 093 in Chinese military website, how real of this photo?

    Reply: Although we have seen recently that U.S. intelligence can make serious mistakes, I prefer their assessment over the many rumors that circulate on the internet about Julang-2…that is, unless the rumors are backed up by something. They tend not to be. Good analysis is one thing, but simply stating something as a matter of fact is quite another. Ask any one of the bloggers how they know it is multiple warheads.

    There is no way other than U.S. intelligence assessments that I know of to “confirm” that the Julang-2 has only one warhead. U.S. intelligence monitors the test flights and can “see” what the Chinese fly on their missiles during development. It is presumably based on that type of intelligence – as well as spying inside China – that they make their assessment.

    But why would China deploy multiple warheads on their SLBMs? China has so far not demonstrated a serious interest in doing so, even though they’ve had the capability to load multiple warheads on the DF-5 for years. It also wouldn’t fit well with the relaxed posture that China has deployed up till now. Moreover, doing so would put a lot of eggs in a very vulnerable basket, so to speak, and increasing the vulnerability of the force – not decreasing it – is China’s current priority.

    I can only see missile defense as a potential justification for China to consider deploying multiple warheads on their missiles, but even then it might only be multiple reentry vehicles, not necessarily warheads. The difference being that if a missile defense system forces Chinese planners to chose between loading 2-3 warheads on a missile and loading 1 warhead plus a handful of penetration aids and decoys to ensure the warhead can get through the defenses, then I guess they would probably chose the latter option. If I were to speculate beyond that, I think multiple warhead capability is more likely to occur on China’s non-nuclear ballistic missiles in the future.

    As for the picture of the Type 093, I’ve seen several pictures that claim to be the new attack submarine. Which picture are you talking about? HK

  9. Chong: [asks about images on three sites:]

    Type 093: site 1 and site 2

    Comparison between type 094 and 092: site 3

    What is your comment about these internet pictures? Bloggers always mentioning PLA has not only one Type 092 SSBN, but that there are a number of 092s in the inventory. This is because PLA is using the same Hull number (406) but different subnumber. For example, such as 406A for one submarine, 406B for another. However, they display the same hull number when shown publicly. The purpose is very obvious: To confuse intelligence analysis. So, is that real? [edited]

    Reply: You’re certainly right that there are many claims on the internet about Chinese submarines. Part of the problem is that China doesn’t make factual information about its submarine fleet available to the public.

    The sub images on the first two sites you listed show the Type-093 class, called the Shang-class by the U.S. intelligence community. Sea trials began in 2005 and several boats reportedly have been launched, although I haven’t seen a “solid” number yet. Type-093 is expected to replace the five noisy Han-class (Type 091) submarines during the next years. Retirement of the first Type-091 has already begun. Whether China will replace the Type-091s with Type-093s on a one-for-one basis or build more is unknown.

    As far as I know, there is only one Type-092; the Xia. There were reports in the 1980s and early 1990s that a second Type-092 had been launched, but that rumor died. The U.S. intelligence community only lists one Type-092. But the Xia was modified a couple of years ago and the “new look” may have given rise to rumors when bloggers compare old and new pictures.

    As for the numbers painted on the hull, I agree with you that they can be confusing and not necessarily be used as “proof” of more subs. Generally speaking, when making assessments about these matters, it is good not to rely on a single image but consult many sources over a longer period. HK

  10. Interesting… China’s development of a manned deep-sea submersible may also be consistent with possible future deployment of SSBNs with operational warheads beyond Chinese territorial waters.

    Obviously one risk in such deployment, from Cold War experience, is loss of a boat through accident – with the wreck then being salvaged by another nation. A Chinese deep submergence capability (cf. the US Deep Submergence Systems Project, prompted by the loss of the USS Thresher) would seem to be a prerequisite for such a deployment, to mitigate that risk.

    Reply: Military subs can’t dive deeper than approximately 300-700 meters, so a submersible with a 7,000-meter capability doesn’t in and of itself suggest a link to SSBN operations. One possibility, as you suggest, although that is not clear from the article, is that the submersible could have a secondary mission to check on military subs that might sink in deep water. Another mission could be to rescue sailors from sunken subs, but that requires the submersible to be designed to attach to the hull. So I think it is too early to say whether the submersible is linked to military sub operations. HK

  11. China DOES deploy nuclear-armed missiles, as do other states. Without nuclear weapons deployed on the missiles, its nuclear arsenal would be much less survivable.

    And given that this was written in 2007, it is now certain that China has far more than 2 Jin class SSBNs, in addition to the 1 Xia class boat. Moreover, China is now building a sixth Jin class boat and is developing a new SSBN class, the Type 096.

    Already, its 5 Jin class boats and one Xia class boat give it the capability to provide continous at-sea deterrence throughout all of a calendar year except 6 days. A 6th Jin class boat would increase that capability further.

    Reply: What is the evidence that China has six Jin-class SSBNs? HK

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