China’s military has launched the first of a new class of ballistic missile submarines in what defense officials view as a major step forward in Beijing’s strategic weapons program.
The new 094-class submarine was launched in late July and when fully operational in the next year or two will be the first submarine to carry the underwater-launched version of China’s new DF-31 missile, according to defense officials.
“When fully operational, it will represent a more modern, more capable missile platform,” said one official familiar with reports of the new submarine.
A second intelligence official said building submarines is a top priority of the Chinese, and the Type 094 will be “China’s first truly intercontinental strategic nuclear delivery system.”
The new Type 094 was spotted by U.S. intelligence agencies at the Huludao shipyard, located on the coast of Bohai Bay, some 250 miles northwest of Beijing.
The submarine is in the early stages of being outfitted and is not yet equipped with new JL-2 submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
The submarine is believed to be based largely on Russian nuclear submarine technology, the officials said.
A CIA report made public last week stated that Russia was a major supplier of technology to China’s naval nuclear propulsion programs.
The launching of the new missile submarine appears ahead of schedule. A Pentagon report on Chinese military power made public in May stated that the new Chinese missile submarine would not be deployed until around 2010.
A Defense Intelligence Agency report produced in 1999 and labeled “secret” stated that the new submarine is part of a program by China of “modernizing and expanding its missile force.”
“Mobile, solid-fuel missiles and a new ballistic missile submarine will improve the force’s ability to survive a first strike,” the report said, “while more launchers, on-board penetration aids, and possibly multiple warheads will improve its ability to penetrate missile defenses.”
The DIA report stated that China is expected to field one new ballistic missile submarine by 2020.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman had no immediate comment.
In a related development, U.S. intelligence officials said the Chinese suffered a setback in their JL-2 missile program when a test flight of the JL-2 missile failed over the summer.
The JL-2 missile program was delayed by the test failure but is continuing to be developed, the officials said. China conducted tests of the JL-2 in 2002 and last year.