The Chinese Navy has deployed three ballistic missile submarines at sea capable of striking the United States with nuclear missiles, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command said Tuesday.
Adm. William Gortney, the commander, said the submarines are a "concern" and will be able to strike the United States when fully deployed with missiles and warheads.
The missile submarines are deployed in the South China Sea at a base on Hainan Island, according to a defense official.
"They’ve not loaded their missiles or begun strategic patrols," the official said. "But we believe they are likely to begin this year."
Gortney also stated explicitly that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea is capable of mounting a small nuclear warhead on its new road-mobile KN-08 intercontinenta
In a wide ranging interview with reporters at the Pentagon, the admiral also disclosed that Russia is engaged in political "messaging" by sending long-range nuclear bombers near the United States and will probably follow through with promises to fly Tu-160 Blackjack bombers near the southern U.S. coast.
On the Chinese sea-based nuclear threat, Gortney said: "They have put to sea their sea-launched ballistic missile submarines. I believe they have three in the water right now."
Gortney said any time a nation has nuclear weapons and delivery systems that can reach the U.S. homeland, "it’s a concern of mine."
It was the first time a senior U.S. military official voiced worries about Chinese nuclear missile submarines.
The four-star admiral in charge of the Colorado-based Northern Command in charge of homeland military defense said Chinese missile submarines are watched very closely.
"And you know, their very long-range capability is a function of how far do they reach," he said. "So even from their own waters, they can reach part of our homeland. Hawaii is part of our homeland and they can reach Hawaii. And then the farther east they go, they can reach more and more of our nation."
Asked if they have conducted sea patrols near U.S. coasts, Gortney suggested Chinese submarines could conduct underwater operations near U.S. shores in the future.
"We haven't seen those patrols just yet, but it doesn't mean that those patrols can't exist in the future," he said.
China in January conducted a flight test of the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile that is deployed on what the Pentagon calls China’s new Jin-class submarines.
A congressional commission reported that the JL-2 appears to have reached initial operating capability.
"The JL-2’s range of approximately 4,598 miles gives China the ability to conduct nuclear strikes against Alaska if launched from waters near China; against Alaska and Hawaii if launched from waters south of Japan; against Alaska, Hawaii and the western portion of the continental United States if launched from waters west of Hawaii; and against all 50 U.S. states if launched from waters east of Hawaii," the U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission stated in its latest annual report.
Jin-class submarines can carry up to 12 JL-2 missiles, each of which is expected to have multiple warheads.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee Feb. 3 that the first missile submarine patrols were expected this year.
"In 2014, China twice deployed submarines to the Indian Ocean," Stewart said. "The submarines probably conducted area familiarization to form a baseline for increasing China’s power projection."
Gortney said he is not alarmed at the evolution of Chinese nuclear forces from silo-based ICBMs to road-mobile missiles and now missile-firing submarines.
"It doesn't surprise me that they're doing it," he said. "We do the same thing. We've done that for years."
China also has adopted a policy of not being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict that Gortney said "gives me a little bit of a good news picture there."
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said that Chinese missile submarine patrols have been expected for years. The missile submarine patrols, when launched, will mark "the end of China's 40-year quest to build a submarine-based nuclear second-strike capability," said Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Fisher said China also is building more advanced missile submarines and possibly a longer-range version of the JL-2.
"It is conceivable that China eventually will deploy six to 10 SSBNs with slightly less than or over 100 submarine-launched ballistic missiles," he said. SSBN is the acronym for a ballistic missile submarine.
On North Korea’s nuclear missile threat, Gortney provided the most detailed explanation to date of U.S. assessments of Pyongyang’s nuclear missile capability.
"Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland," Gortney said, referring to North Korea’s six road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles.
"We haven't seen them test the KN-08 yet and we're waiting to do that," he added.
Asked if the assessment was based on excess caution, he said: "No, I think it's a prudent decision by my assessment of the threat, and the threat to the nation."
The assessment that the KN-08 could be armed with a nuclear warhead was made in the last one or two years, he said.
Gortney voiced confidence that U.S. missile defenses currently deployed on ships in Asia and at bases in Alaska and California can stop a North Korean missile attack.
"As the person that owns the trigger … I have high confidence that it will work against North Korea," he said.
Gortney said he is "very concerned" by North Korea’s new KN-08 truck-mounted ICBM that can be moved on roads and hidden in shelters and caves.
"It's a re-locatable target set that really impedes our ability to find, fix, and finish the threat," he said.
"And so, as the targets move around, if we don't have the persistence there and the persistent [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance], which we do not have over North Korea at this time, that re-locatable nature makes it very difficult for us to be able to counter it."
However, if the North Koreans fire one of the missiles at the United States, "I'm confident that we'll be able to knock it down," he said.
The KN-08 is deployed on Chinese-made transporter-erector launchers that were shipped to North Korea in violation of U.N. missile sanctions.
The Northern Command is preparing for Russia to conduct provocative strategic bomber flights along U.S. southern coasts.
Moscow announced last year that it would begin conducting bomber flights in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
"The one that we expect would be either Blackjack bombers or large jet bombers, not the Bears that we see them flying elsewhere," Gortney said.
"It wouldn't surprise me that they do that," he said. "We're prepared for it, you know, to intercept them, should we need to, should we choose to."
The Russians are conducting the flights as part of nuclear forces exercises and as political signals, he said.
"They're messaging us, showing us that they have a long-range conventional reach or nuclear reach with their manned bombers," he said.
Gortney said Russia under Putin has developed a far more capable military than the very large military of the former Soviet Union, and has a new military doctrine to go along with the buildup.
"You're seeing that bear out. You’re seeing them employ that capability and that doctrine in the Ukraine," he said. "At they same time they are messaging us … that they're a global power."
The aggressive flights were conducted with great frequency following the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine in July. At the time, Russian bombers were conducting flights near Canada, Alaska, and the English Channel.
Two Russian naval vessels also have been sailing near the United States. An intelligence gathering ship recently left Venezuela and another logistics ship sailed to Cuba.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic affairs policymaker, said the admiral is correct about Russia planning Blackjack flights for political messaging.
"The Russian message is nuclear intimidation," Schneider said. "There is no reason to fly bombers that far south when they carry nuclear cruise missiles with ranges of thousands of kilometers. They do this because they know the intimidation factor will be higher if the bombers come close to the United States."
The same rationale is behind recent, large-scale Russian nuclear forces exercises near Crimea and Kaliningrad, where Moscow is deploying nuclear-capable Iskander M short-range missiles and Backfire bombers, along with recent nuclear threats by a Russian ambassador directed at Denmark, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threatening language regarding Ukraine.
"They want to scare us but not so much that we take measures to enhance our nuclear deterrent," he said. "As long as we do little or nothing in response, these threats will continue to escalate."
On the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) terrorist group, Gortney said the threat that IS fighters will infiltrate through porous U.S. borders is less a worry than the current "very sophisticated" social media campaign being used by the group to recruit terrorists here.
"That’s how they are trying to attack us," he said.
U.S. borders could be used, however by enemies that seek "seams" in defenses.
Gortney also said he is not in favor of building a third ground-based missile defense interceptor on the U.S. East Coast. He would prefer to spend the limited money available for missile defenses on other elements of missile defenses, such as sensors and other equipment.
"Our current approach is on the wrong side of the cost curve," he said.
UPDATE 5:38 P.M.: An earlier version of this article stated that the Chinese missile submarines had begun patrols. Though defense officials report that they have been deployed at sea, the submarines have not yet loaded missiles or begun strategic patrols. The article has been updated to reflect the distinction.