By David Axe, The National Interest
The Chinese navy has tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, one that could eventually allow Chinese ballistic-missile boats, or “boomers,” to threaten the continental United States from waters that are close to China’s shores, and thus safer for the boomers.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy tested the JL-3 missile on Nov. 24, 2018, The Diplomat reported, citing unnamed U.S. government sources.
“Modernization of China’s submarine force remains a high priority for the PLAN,” the U.S. Defense Department explained in its 2018 report on Chinese military capabilities. The force is on track to achieve parity with America’s own fleet of undersea missile boats.
The Chinese test reportedly took place in the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea in the Western Pacific. According to The Diplomat, the test focused on the missile’s “cold-launch” capability. In other words, its ability to boost from the submerged launching vessel and out of the water before igniting its rocket booster.
The JL-3 represents an improvement over the JL-2 SLBMs that arm the Chinese navy’s current Type 094 boomers and an even greater improvement over the JL-1, China’s first submarine-launched nuclear weapon, pictured at top. The JL-1 possessed just enough range — a thousand miles or so — to threaten countries close to China.
The single Type 092 boat that carried the JL-1 never completed a front-line deployment after entering service in 1987. “It was reportedly too noisy and might have had other safety and reliability issues,” Tong Zhao, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, explained in a 2018 study
The Type 094s, by contrast, have been a relative success in service. In 2015, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence described the type’s imminent first front-line deployment “perhaps the most anticipated development in China’s submarine force.”
Each armed with a dozen JL-2s, Type 094s began to enter service around 2006. A Type 094 apparently conducted China’s first undersea deterrence patrol in 2015. “This represents the start of a new era for China’s sea-based nuclear forces,” Tong wrote.
The Type 094s represent “China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the U.S. Defense Department stated. A JL-2 can range as far as 5,000 miles, experts estimate. By contrast, a U.S. Navy Trident SLBM can travel as far as 7,500 miles.
To target California, a Type 094 might have to sail past Japan. Ideally for Beijing, its boomers would be able to remain close to mainland China and under the protection of the Chinese fleet while still credibly threatening the United States.
The JL-3 could help the Chinese navy to fulfill this ambition once it, and the Type 096 submarines that will carry it, enter service. The Pentagon’s China report projected that construction of the first new boomer would begin in the early 2020s.
It’s unclear how many Type 096s Beijing plans to build. “To maintain a continuous peacetime presence, the PLAN would likely require a minimum of five … SSBNs,” ONI reported in 2015.
Beijing might already possess five boomers. By carefully analyzing commercial satellite imagery, in late 2018 Catherine Dill, a researcher with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, managed to count five Type 094s. It’s possible additional boats exist but weren’t visible during Dill’s count.
Beijing plans to build eight Type 094s by 2020, Dill asserted.
It’s possible that the Chinese Communist Party plans to deploy Type 096s alongside Type 094s, allowing it to expand the boomer fleet beyond the five that the Americans have determined are necessary for a around-the-clock deterrence, and even beyond the eight that Dill claimed were planned.
The U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio-class boomers. It’s building 12 new Columbia-class boats to replace them starting in the 2020s. While China might never deploy a dozen boomers, it could get close to that number.
And once the Type 096s enter service with their JL-3 missiles, the Chinese boats could possess an at-sea nuclear deterrence that, in size and power, is roughly similar to America’s own deterrence.
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