Chinese Jin-SSBNs Getting Ready?

Two of China’s new Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines were photographed at Xiaopingdao in late-March 2011, possibly in preparation for missile test launches. (Click for larger picture).

By Hans M. Kristensen

Two of China’s new Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines have sailed to the Xiaopingdao naval base near Dalian, a naval base used to outfit submarines for ballistic missile flight tests.

The arrival raises the obvious question if the Jin-class is finally reaching a point of operational readiness where it can do what it was designed for: launching nuclear long-range ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon reported a year ago that development of the missile – known as the Julang-2 (JL-2) – had run into developmental problems and failed its final test launches.

The Long March to Operational Capability

Even if the Jin subs are in Xiaopingdao to load out for upcoming missile tests and manage to pull it off, the submarines are unlikely to become operational in the sense that U.S. missile submarines are operational when they sail on patrols.

Chinese ballistic missiles submarines have never sailed on a deterrent patrol or deployed with nuclear weapons on board. Chinese nuclear weapons are stored on land in facilities controlled by the Central Military Commission (CMC), and the Chinese military only has a limited capability to communicate with the submarines while at sea.

It is possible, but unknown, that the two submarines are the same two boats that have seen fitting out at the Huludao shipyard for the past several years. One submarine was also seen at Jianggezhuang naval base in August 2010 (see below). Prior to that a Jin-class SSBN was seen seen at Xiaopingdao in March 2009, and at Hainan Island in February 2008. The first Jin-class boat was spotted in July 2007 on a satellite photo from late-2006.

One of the Jin-class SSBNs was seen at Jianggezhuang in August 2010, the first time commercial satellite images have shown a Jin-class submarine at China’s northern fleet submarine base.

And Then What?

Indeed, it is unclear how China intends to utilize the Jin-class submarines once they becomes operational; they are unlikely to be deployed with nuclear weapons on board in peacetime like U.S. missile submarines, so will China use them as surge capability in times of crisis?

Deploying nuclear weapons on Jin-class submarines at sea in a crisis where they would be exposed to U.S. attack submarines seems like a strange strategy given China’s obsession with protecting the survivability of its strategic nuclear forces. The Jin-class SSBN force seems more like a prestige project – something China has to have as a big military power.

Whether it makes sense is another matter.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

7 thoughts on “Chinese Jin-SSBNs Getting Ready?

  1. Of course it makes sense. China will do what everyone does, send their noisy XIA and JIN-class submarines on patrol. Now, the deployment of the JL-2 is another story. This will require a serious review of China’s nuclear posture and doctrinal issues to determine who holds command and control. Let’s be creative and intuitive (especially in regards to China)…they DO want to have solid second-strike capabilities and play with ambiguity (Deterrence 101). ONI get ready to see those tubes loaded with JL-2s.

    Reply: But that’s just the thing; China hasn’t always done what everyone does: it has had the ability to deploy multiple warheads on its missiles, yet hasn’t done so; it has had the ability to delegate nuclear weapons to the services, yet hasn’t done so; and it soon will have the capability to deploy its SSBNs “on patrol,” but will it do so? Your comment acknowledges that sending nuclear JL-2s “on patrol” would be a significant break with the past. Apart from the use-control issues, the loss of a nuclear-armed SSBN in a crisis or war – whether to anti-submarine warfare or an accident – could potentially force the Chinese leadership into a consideration to use nuclear weapons. The SSBNs are too few and too noisy to be a “solid” second-strike capability (except on paper), and since China already has a “solid” second-strike capability in the form of its mobile land-based ICBMs, what is it gaining – other than the prestige of having SSBNs? HK

  2. [Edited] How how does the author know the submarines are unlikely to become operational in the sense that U.S. missile submarines are operational when they sail on patrols?
    How does the author know the Chinese military only has a limited capability to communicate with the submarines while at sea?
    How does the author know they are unlikely to be deployed with nuclear weapons on board in peacetime like U.S. missile submarines?
    Which is it: capability or intent?

    Reply: The first one is an assessment that flows from what we know about the status and history of China’s nuclear doctrine.
    The second one is a conclusion based on – among other factors – the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military capabilities.
    The third one is an assessment based on how CMC manages control of its nuclear weapons.
    It is both capability and intent, not one or the other, and there are other factors too. Part of analysis is to makes assessments based on what is known. HK

  3. Why is it unlikely that China will deploy weapons on the submarine in peacetime? Is it to keep the weapons under strict government control? Even though I agree that tight control has been a central feature of China’s nuclear doctrine, it seems strange that will not let the boat undertake deterrent patrols, as this would potentially drastically enhance China’s second strike capability.

    Reply: Yes, it appears to be to keep the nuclear warheads under central control. Deployment of nuclear warheads on missiles onboard SSBNs would constitute a significant change in Chinese nuclear policy. So why build the SSBNs? People who know more about Chinese politics than I do suggest that part of the reason might be rivalry between the services, which Beijing accommodates to some extent by allowing the navy to build the SSBNs. HK

  4. 1. Can you find any China’s VLF station for submarine communication from Google Earth? It should be a big one.
    2. Do you think China’s deployment of land-based mobile ICBM already means some changes in the central control of warhead? I mean the mobile ICBMs should be mated with nuclear warheads when they are moving.

    Reply: 1. Haven’t found it yet.
    2. No, at least I don’t think it is necessary. China has had mobile missile for decades, so that is not new, and it has had ICBMs for decades, so that is not new either. The 5,400-plus km range DF-4 that was first deployed in 1980 is mobile (or at least moveable) but didn’t result in changes (as far as I am aware). The new DF-31 and DF-31A are much more mobile and solid-fuel and can be launched quicker once the order is given. But they would probably not be dispatches until China was under threat of attack, at which point they would likely have been equipped with warheads anyway. Beijing seems reluctant to relinquish too much operational control to the services. HK

  5. [Edited] There are three more subs at 38°49’11.65″N, 121°29’44.22″E near the other two.

    Reply: Yes but they are not SSBNs but appear to be two Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines and the Golf-class diesel-electric submarine that is used for missile tests. HK

  6. 1. I believe the 2 hulls at Huludao were new constructions. This gives a total of 4 094’s.

    2. At about the same time of this GE image, 2 091’s, 1 092, and 3 093’s can be seen at Qingdao, and 1 093 can be seen at Sanya. This indicates 4 093’s.

    3. Jane’s Fighting Ships 2011-12 gives the 1st 093 pennant 407 and the 1st 094 pennant 411, indicating 4 093’s (407 thru. 410).

    Reply: Thanks for the estimates. It is possible that 4 Type 094 SSBNs have been launched, but I’m always looking for more than “I believe” to pin it down. Available commercial satellite images first show a 094 arriving at Xiaopingdao (a base used for fitting out subs for ballistic missile tests) in September 2006. When two 094s were seen at Huludao on May 3, 2007, no 094 was visible at Xiaopingdao (it could have gone back to Huludao for repairs or gone elsewhere). So there could have been 2-3 094s at that time. In February 2008, a 094 showed up at Yulin base on Hainan Island and a 094 was seen at Xiaopingdao one year later with two missile tube hatches open. Perhaps the same sub as in 2007 or perhaps another, but the two 094s at Huludao had not moved much by early 2010. One 094 was at the Northern Fleet base at Jianggezhuang near Qingdao in August 2010, and two 094s were present at Xiaopingdao in March 2011. So a conservative estimate is that two 094s have been completed (but without operational missiles) and 1-2 others are under construction. HK

  7. My take is that the 093/094’s were built 2 at a time, with very close launch dates. This building pattern applies to recent DDG/FFG launches.

    According to Jane’s, 2 093’s 2002/2003, 2 094’s 2004/2006, and 2 094’s 2009/2010. The gap year 2007/2008 could be for another 2 093’s that “can” explain the GE image I mentioned earlier.

    Yes there seemed to be no movement of the 2 094’s at Huludao between 2007 and 2010, and no apparent progress on the boats, comparing the GE images. No movement at all in 3 years is strange, though. They could simply be 2 newer boats, with similar states of completion as the other 2 3-years before.

    More updates in GE in the future should shed more light on the Chinese SSN/SSBN building programs.

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