A Chinese Seabased Nuclear Deterrent?

An article in USNI, which carries this photo of USS Hartford (SSN-768) damaged in a recent collision, discusses China’s ballistic missile submarines.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The magazine U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings has an interesting article about China’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines written by Andrew S. Erickson and Michael Chase from the U.S. Naval War College. And I’m not just saying that because they reference several of my publications about China, but because they provide an interesting discussion of the possible motivations for China’s emerging sea-based nuclear force.

I, for one, have always wondered why, if China’s current strategic modernization is intended to reduce the vulnerability of its long-range nuclear deterrent, would China want to cluster a significant portion of its missiles on a few submarines and send then out to sea where U.S. attack submarines can hunt them down?

In theory a sea-based nuclear deterrent is invulnerable because it can hide. But given that the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy in the 1980s was explicitly designed to find and sink Soviet ballistic missile submarines before they could launch their missiles, how secure will China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent actually be? Or how would China react in a crisis, if one of the submarines went missing due to an accident?
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6 Responses to “A Chinese Seabased Nuclear Deterrent?”

  1. david korkia June 1, 2009 at 11:53 am #

    After the first Landsat mission returned from orbit aboard the shuttle, NASA held a news conference. One of the astronauts inadvertently blurted out, we could see everything, even subs. Since this mission was carried out decades ago, we may assume that the technology has improved greatly. Radar imaging of others planets allows us to see the surface even though in some cases, it is hundreds of miles below atmospheres 60 times as dense as earth and certainly not as clean. It is therefore logical to assume that submarines can be seen underwater or even polar ice caps. The question is how far underwater, but this might be one reason why U.S. ballistic missile subs have abandoned the Atlantic as a patrol area and Russia may have done the same.

    Reply: Extraordinary theories require extraordinary evidence. What exactly did the astronaut say? Is there a link to a reference? LANDSAT does not have high enough resolution. I haven’t seen anything that suggests a space-based radar technology capable of seeing submarines under water or ice. And U.S. SSBN have certainly not abandoned the Atlantic; six are homeported at Kings Bay in Georgia from where they conducted 15 patrols in Atlantic waters last year. HK

  2. dylan June 4, 2009 at 5:19 am #

    Two thoughts:
    1) The ‘vulnerability’ thesis is predicated on an assumption that the Jin’s are only conceived of in the context of US-PRC relationship. In fact, it is arguable they may have a role to play (in the PRC conception) in deterring/warfighting other players who do not pose the all-encompassing ASW threat of the USN, including India and a potential future nuclear armed Korea or Japan. The 092s of course, were conceived of as directed against the USSR, not the US, which is one clear reason why the class was never continued (given that by the time the 092 was possibly ready for service, the USSR had evaporated).
    2) One possible role for PLAN aircraft carriers would be to help protect an SSBN ‘bastion’. While this is less fashionable for outside theorists to postulate on, as it doesn’t have the allure of power projection, it would match Soviet-era plans for hulls like the Varyag. Carriers do not just have to carry strike aircraft, they can also be a platform for hordes of ASW helicopters and aircraft.

  3. WU Riqiang June 4, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    As a Chinese, I don’t agree with Hans’ opinion.
    1) China’s SSBNs can stay at a secure ‘bastion’, maybe protected by aircraft, as dylan said, deployed with long-range SLBMs. U.S. attack submarines cannot hunt them down.
    2) China’s SSBNs may be not so clean that they can be tracked by US anti-submarine forces, but you cannot conclude that China should not develop SSBNs. On the contrary, my conclusion is that China should develop cleaner SSBNs.
    3) China can be more transparent if it has a credible deterrent capability, like Britain and France. The root of this issue is that US cannot accept that China has a credible deterrent capability. US cannot request not only vulnerability and transparency from China.

  4. Distiller June 5, 2009 at 7:21 am #

    Principal problem that always arises as soon as the ratio of SSN vs SSBN gets too high, esp if the SSBNs can be tracked from the very moment they come out of the harbor, or have to pass certain choke points.

    China is not a country geography favors for SSBN operations against CONUS. They have a serious problem trying to break out of the WestPac barrier island chain (Japan – Formosa – Philippines – Sundas) to reach deep water. Either they build massive SLBM to be able to launch from inside a South China Sea bastion (Russian style), or have to get real good sneaking out and float well behind the Marianas and Solomons to reach a launch point close enough to hit anything in CONUS. If they really wanted to increase their attack vector options they would have to float to the left or right coast of South America, which is a looong way for a patrol. (Though one should watch the development of their bases in Burma and Pakistan as possible SSBN staging points, it is highly unlikely China would put SSBN into a foreign port).

    Agree only partially on the Indian and Russian angle “dylan” mentions. Against these two road/rail/river mobile ICBM launcher would be more than sufficient. And re the aircraft carrier: All of the South China Sea lies within max 90 flight minutes of mainland China. No need for a carrier there. The carrier plans are for the Indian Ocean and ops towards Africa, Indonesia and Australia.

  5. 3.1415 June 5, 2009 at 9:08 am #

    Distiller,

    The Russian model seems most efficient for the Chinese. But the DOD keeps predicting that JL-2 has a 7200km+ range. What are the technical barriers to increase the range from 8000km to 13000km? Does 094 seem like the kind of boat that can carrier 12 SLBMs with 13000km range?

  6. Armando June 10, 2009 at 4:13 am #

    >reduce the vulnerability of its long-range nuclear deterrent,
    I dont think a sub would carry 13000km missile. The chinese have DF 31 & 5 to do that. Or is that not logical?

    Today the issue is Taiwan, it should be SRBMs that the US should be worried about. It is highly likely that the first wave of srbms will overwhelm US Command & Control centres in that region..If US subs loose track of one sub…then would the US escalate?

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