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

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“I would just say that I’m vigilant,” he said in response to questions about the Chinese submarine buildup. “I would hate to say that I’m worried, yet, because I’m not necessarily worried. Very vigilant and we need to pay attention and understand the intent. And challenge them on that intent.”

David Helvey, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, told reporters in May that the Chinese are investing heavily in undersea warfare programs and submarines.

Still, the Chinese have not yet conducted an underwater test firing of a submarine-launched missile, Helvey said. “We see China investing considerably in capabilities for operations in this area,” he said.

A 2008 report produced for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said there are indications China is planning to deploy an anti-satellite missile on its missile submarines.

That missile includes the last stage of a ground-launched “direct-ascent” ASAT missile on top of a JL-2. The commission report quoted a 2004 article by Liu Huanyu of the Dalian Naval Academy as saying “by deploying just a few anti-satellite [missile] nuclear submarines in the ocean, one can seriously threaten the entire military space system of the enemy.”

Mark Stokes, a Chinese military affairs analyst, said the first Chinese ballistic missile submarine patrols next year would not be surprising.

“The most significant question is which organization controls, stores, and ensures the readiness of the nuclear warheads that ostensibly would be mated with the SLBMs on patrol,” said Stokes, with the Project 2049 Institute.

China maintains tight secrecy over its nuclear forces, such as how many are deployed, how they are controlled and stored, over fears that any public discussion would undermine their deterrent value.

“The [Central Military Commission] has traditionally entrusted only the Second Artillery Corps with centralized control over nuclear weapons,” Stokes said. “The CMC granting the PLA Navy the power to develop and maintain its own independent infrastructure for warhead storage and handling would be a significant departure from past. This kind of decentralization would have implications well beyond the navy.”

Richard Fisher, an expert on Chinese military affairs, said the commencement of missile submarine patrols would fulfill the ambitions of Chinese Communist Party leaders since Mao Zedong in the early 1960s.

“With three Type 094 SSBNs now called ‘operational’ by the Pentagon, it is possible that one Type 094 could be maintained on constant patrol,” said Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

“Three Chinese SSBNs versus 14 for the U.S. Navy may not seem to be cause for concern, but if one assumes the JL-2 has a 8,000-kilometer (about 5,000 miles) range akin to its closely related DF-31 ICBM, then the Type 094 could handily cover critical Alaskan air and missile defense bases from protected areas in the Yellow Sea, and from the eastern coast of North Korea, could cover the U.S. Navy’s SSBN base at Kitsap Island in Washington state,” he said.

Fisher warned that Obama administration plans to cut U.S. nuclear forces could increase the risk of a future Chinese first-strike attack.

“Should the Obama administration be successful in its goal of reducing U.S. nuclear warheads down to about 1,000, then it is conceivable that the Kitsap Base could become responsible for a much larger proportion of the U.S. nuclear retaliatory capability,” he said. “Such a move could result in a significant increase in risk for the United States.”

Considering the “uncertainties” about the actual levels of China’s current and future nuclear arsenal, “it would be most unwise to consider further nuclear reductions, and that could threaten a robust U.S. nuclear triad of ICBMs, SSBNs and bombers,” Fisher said.

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