China deploys new submarine-launched ballistic missiles

May 11, 2023 at 11:32 AM

China is equipping its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines with advanced JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) that are capable of targeting the continental United States, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

The deployment comes earlier than expected. Previous U.S. reports estimated that China would deploy the JL-3 missile along with the country’s next-generation ballistic missile submarine, the Type 096, which is believed to be still under construction. (See ACT, June 2021.)

China’s six Jin-class ballistic missile submarines “are now being equipped with the new third-generation JL-3 SLBM” capable of reaching the continental United States, said Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, during a March 8 congressional hearing.

The JL-3, which was tested first in November 2018, has an estimated range of more than 10,000 kilometers and is expected to be capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads. The new missile is a significant improvement over its predecessor, the
JL-2, which has a range of about 8,000 kilometers. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

The JL-2 is also capable of striking the United States, but the missile’s limited range would require China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy to sail farther into the Pacific Ocean where Chinese submarines are more vulnerable to U.S. anti-submarine defenses.

According to the Pentagon’s 2022 report on Chinese military power, the JL-3’s extended range allows the Chinese navy to target the United States from the safety of “bastion” waters near China’s coast, such as the South China Sea and Bohai Gulf. This new capability will enhance the survivability of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, the report says.

The Type 096 submarine is expected to be much quieter than the existing Jin-class, or Type 094, submarines, which the Defense Department considers to be China’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Given the estimated 30- to 40-year service life of China’s ballistic missile submarines, the Type 094 and the Type 096 are expected to operate concurrently, which could bring China’s total number of ballistic missile submarines to 8 to 10 over the coming years, according to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Pentagon also has confirmed that China’s Jin-class submarines are “conducting continuous at-sea deterrence patrols” for the first time. (See ACT, January/February 2023.) The patrols will ensure that at least one Chinese nuclear-armed submarine will be at sea at all times.

China has long adhered to a policy of minimum deterrence by which it maintains a relatively small nuclear force capable of a retaliatory second strike. But China’s recent expansion of its nuclear capabilities indicates that the country deems its current nuclear deterrent insufficient and intends to achieve strategic parity with the United States perhaps achieving 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030. (See ACT, April 2023.) (ACA)