China’s military this week conducted a flight test of a new submarine-launched missile capable of hitting the entire United States with a nuclear warhead, according to Pentagon officials.
The Chinese test comes amid heightened concerns North Korea is preparing its own long-range missile launch, possibly as early as Wednesday.
The test firing of China’s new JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile took place Sunday in the Bohai Sea off the coast of northern China, from a submerged Jin-class ballistic missile submarine, said two defense officials familiar with reports of the launch who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The missile firing was monitored by U.S. intelligence satellites and other platforms from a position in the same sea and was monitored on a flight path westward.
No other details of the launch were disclosed, including whether the missile test was successful.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. David W. Eastburn said he had no information on the launch.
The Chinese launch followed reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are on alert for an anticipated long-range missile test by North Korea.
North Korea’s government has announced it was planning to conduct some type of provocative action coinciding with the Christmas or New Year’s holiday.
A U.S. official said the Trump administration is prepared to take harsh action against North Korea if Pyongyang ends its moratorium on long-range missile tests. The official did not elaborate.
That U.S. message, however, was conveyed last week to North Korea’s main Asian patron — China — during talks in Beijing between U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun and Chinese officials.
The JL-3 is part of a major building of Chinese strategic nuclear forces that includes the new submarine missile, new land-based missiles, including the multi-warhead DF-41, and development of a new strategic bomber and upgrading of older nuclear-capable aircraft.
Sunday’s test was is at least the fourth launch of the JL-3 in the past two years, an indication China — referred to formally as the People’s Republic of China or PRC — is rapidly developing the weapon.
The first JL-3 test launch took place in December 2018 and successive tests were carried out in June and October.
Like Sunday’s test, the October JL-3 firing took place from the Bohai Sea and flew westward to an impact zone in the Gobi desert.
The test launch from a Jin-class submarine indicates the new JL-3 may be retrofitted into China’s six deployed Jin-class submarines.
The JL-3 is a new missile system with an estimated range of 5,600 miles. By contrast, the currently deployed JL-2 has a range of 4,350 miles.
Retired Navy Capt. James E. Fanell said the flight test just before Christmas, if confirmed, “is not only a demonstration of the advances the PLA Navy has made in SLBM technology, but is a statement to the USA, and world, of Beijing’s strategic intention to hold the USA at risk from PRC nuclear blackmail.”
“Operationally speaking, this launch is not a surprise and demonstrates the perfidy of the PRC’s Oct. 1 national day parade of the JL-2 missile as representing the ‘maximum’ extent of PLA Navy missile technology,” Capt. Fanell said. “The reality is the PRC represents the same existential threat to global peace and security that the USSR presented to the world 30 years ago.”
China’s state-run media has made no secret of its plans to use submarine-launched missile attacks on the U.S.
The jingoistic Communist Party of China newspaper Global Times in 2013 published a report outlining plans for submarine-launched nuclear missile strikes on the Western U.S. that the newspaper estimated would kill up to 12 million Americans through a combination of blast and radiation.
The report, using maps showing potential blast zones, stated that JL-2 nuclear missiles would target areas in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles that would spread radiation as far east as Chicago.
“In general, after a nuclear missile strikes a city, the radioactive dust produced by 20 warheads will be spread by the wind, forming a contaminated area for thousands of kilometers,” the Global Times report said at the time. “Based on the actual level of China’s one million tons TNT equivalent small nuclear warhead technology, the 12 JL-2 nuclear missiles carried by one Type 094 nuclear submarine could cause the destruction of 5 million to 12 million people, forming a very clear deterrent effect.”
China is known to use its missile tests to send political signals.
Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command, revealed during remarks earlier this year at the Aspen Security Forum that China had conducted a flight test of a new nuclear ballistic missile within 24 hours of a June 2 speech that Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe had given during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Without mentioning the JL-3, Adm. Davidson was referring to the June test by China of the new submarine-launched missile.
The four-star admiral also described Gen. Wei’s speech in Singapore as “chilling” for the general’s assertion that China is seeking to dominate Asia and the Western Pacific.
The latest JL-3 launch took place four days after China’s most powerful military leader, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Gen. Xu Qiliang, met in Beijing with visiting Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono.
Japan is a major rival of China and has been a target of threatening rhetoric by Chinese military leaders in the past.
The Pentagon said in its latest annual report on the Chinese military that the JL-3 was expected to be deployed aboard the next generation missile submarine, known as the Type 096, to be built beginning in the early 2020s.
Current Jin-class submarines are armed with the JL-2 missiles, a less capable variant of China’s land-based DF-31 intercontinental-range ballistic missile.
The operational status of the JL-3 has not been disclosed by the secretive Chinese military. However, the JL-2 was showcased in October as one of the major strategic weapons systems on parade in Beijing.
“Equipped with the [JL-2] submarine-launched ballistic missile, China’s four operational JIN-class [ballistic missile submarines] represent China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the Pentagon’s annual report on China said. “China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN reportedly will be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, which will likely begin construction in the early-2020s.”
The Jin-class submarine is considered to be relatively “noisy” in underwater warfare terms, meaning that it is difficult to hide from American attack submarines.
The new JL-3 will have great range giving it the capability of striking targets as far away as Florida and the and follow on Type 096 is expected to be quieter and more difficult to track.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.
Following the June flight test of the JL-3, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Sr. Col. Ren Guoqiang said that “it is normal for China to conduct scientific research and tests according to plan.”
“These tests are not targeted against any country or specific entity,” Col. Ren said. “China follows a defense policy which is defensive in nature and an active defense military strategy, and our development of weapons and equipment is to meet the basic demand of protecting China’s national security.”