NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
China has begun patrols with nuclear missile submarines for the first time, giving Beijing a new strategic nuclear strike capability, according to the U.S. Strategic Command and Defense Intelligence Agency.
U.S. intelligence and strategic nuclear officials, however, remain uncertain whether China’s four Jin-class missile submarine patrols are being carried out with nuclear-tipped JL-2 missiles on board.
DIA and Strategic Command representatives said this week that there were no changes to DIA’s assessment earlier this year that China would begin the nuclear missile submarine patrols this year.
The problem for officials in declaring the Jin-class submarines a new Chinese strategic nuclear threat is a lack of certainty that Chinese Communist Party leaders have agreed to the unprecedented step of trusting operational submarine commanders with control over the launching of nuclear missiles.
Navy Capt. Pamela S. Kunze, Strategic Command spokeswoman, elaborated on comments by Adm. Cecil Haney, the Strategic Command commander, and confirmed that the nuclear submarine patrols were taking place.
She told Inside the Ring: “Given China’s known capabilities and their efforts to develop a sea-based deterrent, in absence of indicators to the contrary, it is prudent to assume that patrols are occurring.”
Adm. Haney said in October that he was not waiting for China to announce its first nuclear missile patrols because, as with most other issues related to Chinese nuclear forces, the capabilities of the submarines remain hidden by military secrecy.
“The Chinese have had these submarines at sea this year, so I have to look at it as operational capability today,” the four-star admiral said. “And [I] can’t think that when those submarines are at sea that they aren’t on patrol.”
The real question, the Stratcom leader said, is: “Have they put the missile we’ve seen them test, the JL-2, in for a package that is doing strategic deterrent patrols? I have to consider them today that they are on strategic patrol,” he said, meaning the submarines were equipped with nuclear missiles.
For the U.S., that means “there’s another capability that’s out there having nuclear capability of ranges that can strike the United States of America,” the admiral said.
The patrols mark a significant turning point for the Chinese. In the past, Beijing stored all nuclear warheads separately from its missiles, in part to demonstrate what China calls its policy of “no first use” — that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict and would use them only in retaliation for hostile nuclear attacks.
Another reason warheads are kept separate is the Communist Party’s near-paranoid obsession with political control. Separating warheads from missiles allows for a greater centralized control over the nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to be 300 warheads but is likely far larger.
Chinese authorities fear giving a submarine commander control over the launch of nuclear missiles and worry that one of the military’s hawks could ignore the party’s nuclear chain of command and order a nuclear strike on his own.
Patrols by Jin-class submarines with nuclear-armed JL-2s, if confirmed, mark a new stage in Communist Party trust with the People’s Liberation Army.
Sending the Jin submarines on patrol without nuclear missiles or warheads would be viewed as a hollow gesture and undermine the intended message behind the capability to launch stealthy underwater missile attacks.
China is extremely secret about its nuclear forces. However, PLA missile submarines appear to be different. In 2013, state-run Chinese media published details on contingency plans to attack the western United States with submarine-launched missiles, an attack that would kill what the Global Times newspaper estimated would be up to 12 million Americans.
The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its annual report made public last month, said the missile submarine patrols will mark China’s “first credible at-sea second-strike nuclear capability.” The Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported in September that the first nuclear submarine patrols had taken place.
The commission report quoted PLA Navy Commander Adm. Wu Shengli as saying: “This is a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified. It is a strategic force symbolizing our great-power status and supporting national security.”
Recent Chinese military enthusiast websites have posted photographs of suspected Chinese submarine tunnels. One was shown Oct. 7 at a naval base on Shangchuan Island, along the southern Chinese coast near Hong Kong. In May, photos posted online showed the opening of a nuclear missile submarine cave at an undisclosed location.
ISLAMIC STATE EXPANDS IN LIBYA
The Islamic State terrorist group is expanding operations inside Libya, in addition to moving into other regions such as Afghanistan and Southeast Asia from Syria and Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
One alarming indicator of increased Islamic State activities is a slew of reports from Libya indicating that Islamic State terrorists are training to fly commercial airliners, raising fears that the group is planning high-profile suicide attacks using hijacked airliners.
U.S. intelligence estimates put the number of Islamic State jihadis in Libya at 4,000 to 5,000. Information on the use of a flight simulator in the Libyan city of Sirte was provided to U.S. intelligence agencies recently and triggered concerns that the group was preparing for attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment.
Officials confirmed U.S. concerns about the flight training after details were disclosed in Arabic press reports. Libyan military sources told the Arabic-language British newspaper Alsharq al-Awsat last week that airstrikes were carried out by Libyan government forces to try to destroy the flight training facility near the Sirte airport.
Sirte, located on the Gulf of Sidra halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, is under control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, which is expanding its activities in the North African state.
The flight simulator was seized by Libyan terrorists who have conducted numerous attacks on airports in the war-torn country, which is battling several terrorist groups including the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Last year, intelligence officials said there were reports that Islamist militias had seized nearly a dozen commercial jetliners in August following militia attacks on Tripoli’s international airport. Libya’s government, however, claimed that all commercial aircraft of the Libyan state airline were accounted for.
A Libyan military official told Alsharq al-Awsat that investigators initially suspected the simulator in Islamic State hands was stolen, but newer information indicated that the car-sized training simulator was new and had come from outside the country.
Reports also stated that the Islamic State had also obtained a military flight simulator recently.
Libyan government forces attempted to destroy the simulators in Sirte but were unable to succeed. As a result, the equipment was moved to another location.
The Islamic State training center was said to be near the Sirte international airport, about 20 miles south of the city in an area captured by Islamic State terrorists in May. Three damaged civilian aircraft and three helicopters are at the airport.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement Monday that a U.S. airstrike in Libya killed senior Islamic State leader Abu Nabil in Darnah, a town east of Benghazi, on Nov. 13.
“Nabil’s death will degrade ISIL’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya, and planning external attacks on the United States,” Mr. Cook said in an earlier statement.
DUNFORD VS. CARTER
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, voted with his presence — or rather, his absence — in opposing the Obama administration’s decision to open military combat slots to women.
Defense officials said Gen. Dunford, who as Marine Corps commandant was opposed to women in front-line infantry combat units, was initially scheduled to appear at a news briefing with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter Dec. 3 to announce the policy.
However, when it came time for the briefing, Gen. Dunford declined to take part.
Asked why the chairman was not present, Mr. Carter provided his best spin for reporters: “I’m announcing my decision. I was the one who took this decision. I’m announcing my decision.”
Mr. Carter said he had “talked to [Gen. Dunford] extensively” about the issue and “he will be with me as we proceed with implementation.”
The secretary did not deny there was opposition from Gen. Dunford. He acknowledged that he drew “different conclusions” from studies about whether women in front-line combat units would harm war-fighting capabilities.
Capt. Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Gen. Dunford, said: “The decision and the announcement were ones the secretary made. The latter was an opportunity for him to express it.”
Capt. Hicks said Mr. Carter answered questions about the absence of Gen. Dunford. “The chairman’s responsibility now is to implement the decision,” he said.
⦁ Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.