Red tide: China deploys new class of strategic missile submarines next year

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China’s navy is expected to begin the first sea patrols next year of a new class of strategic missile submarines, highlighting a new and growing missile threat to the U.S. homeland, according to U.S. defense officials.

“We are anticipating that combat patrols of submarines carrying the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile will begin next year,” said one official familiar with recent intelligence assessments of the Chinese strategic submarine force.

China’s strategic missile submarine force currently includes three new Type 094 missile submarines each built with 12 missile launch tubes.

The submarine patrols will include scores of new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on the Type 094s. The submarines are also called Jin-class missile boats by the Pentagon.

The missile submarine patrols, if carried out in 2014, would be the first time China conducts submarine operations involving nuclear-tipped missiles far from Chinese shores despite having a small missile submarine force since the late 1980s.

The Washington Free Beacon first reported in August that China carried out a rare flight test that month of the JL-2, a missile analysts say will likely be equipped with multiple warheads.

That test was carried out in the Bohai Sea near the northeastern coast of China, according to officials familiar with reports of the test.

Defense officials said the JL-2 poses a “potential first strike” nuclear missile threat to the United States and is one of four new types of long-range missiles in China’s growing strategic nuclear arsenal.

The Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center earlier this month published a report on missile threats that identified the JL-2 a weapon that “will, for the first time, allow Chinese SSBNs to target portions of the United States from operating areas located near the Chinese coast.” SSBN is a military acronym for nuclear missile submarine.

The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on China’s military stated that Beijing’s Navy has placed a high priority on building up submarine forces.

In addition to the three Type 094s currently deployed, China will add at least two more of the submarines before deploying a new generation missile submarine dubbed the Type 096, the report stated. It was the first time the Pentagon has revealed the existence of the follow-on strategic missile submarine.

“The JIN-class and the JL-2 will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the Pentagon report said.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told Congress in May that he was not worried by the Chinese naval buildup, including the new missile submarines, but that it is a development that needs to be watched.

Greenert boasted during a House defense appropriations subcommittee hearing that “we own the undersea domain.”

The Chinese navy is “not there yet” in terms of undersea power despite deploying a current force of 55 submarines, both diesel and nuclear powered, Greenert said.

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