China’s navy is expected to begin the first sea patrols next year of a new class of strategic missile submarines, highlighting a new and growing missile threat to the U.S. homeland, according to U.S. defense officials.
"We are anticipating that combat patrols of submarines carrying the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile will begin next year," said one official familiar with recent intelligence assessments of the Chinese strategic submarine force.
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China’s strategic missile submarine force currently includes three new Type 094 missile submarines each built with 12 missile launch tubes.
The submarine patrols will include scores of new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on the Type 094s. The submarines are also called Jin-class missile boats by the Pentagon.
The missile submarine patrols, if carried out in 2014, would be the first time China conducts submarine operations involving nuclear-tipped missiles far from Chinese shores despite having a small missile submarine force since the late 1980s.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported in August that China carried out a rare flight test that month of the JL-2, a missile analysts say will likely be equipped with multiple warheads.
That test was carried out in the Bohai Sea near the northeastern coast of China, according to officials familiar with reports of the test.
Defense officials said the JL-2 poses a "potential first strike" nuclear missile threat to the United States and is one of four new types of long-range missiles in China’s growing strategic nuclear arsenal.
The Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center earlier this month published a report on missile threats that identified the JL-2 a weapon that "will, for the first time, allow Chinese SSBNs to target portions of the United States from operating areas located near the Chinese coast." SSBN is a military acronym for nuclear missile submarine.
The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on China’s military stated that Beijing’s Navy has placed a high priority on building up submarine forces.
In addition to the three Type 094s currently deployed, China will add at least two more of the submarines before deploying a new generation missile submarine dubbed the Type 096, the report stated. It was the first time the Pentagon has revealed the existence of the follow-on strategic missile submarine.
"The JIN-class and the JL-2 will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent," the Pentagon report said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told Congress in May that he was not worried by the Chinese naval buildup, including the new missile submarines, but that it is a development that needs to be watched.
Greenert boasted during a House defense appropriations subcommittee hearing that "we own the undersea domain."
The Chinese navy is "not there yet" in terms of undersea power despite deploying a current force of 55 submarines, both diesel and nuclear powered, Greenert said.
"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.
On China’s next-generation missile submarine, Fisher said the Type 096 could have an longer-range "JL-3" missile capable of hitting targets throughout the United States.
Thomas M. Skypek, a national security analyst, stated in a 2010 paper that China over the next 10 years could build several types of strategic missile forces, ranging from a modest force of four Type 094 submarines, to a force with two Type 094s and up to eight Type 096s, each armed with 24 JL-3 missiles fitted with multiple warheads.
"In its drive to develop a credible at-sea nuclear deterrent, Beijing will look to field stealthier submarines with more MIRVed ballistic missiles, providing far greater capability than the first- and second-generation SSBNs and SLBMs could offer," Skypek stated.
Skypek said China’s military has encountered problems with the Type 094 JL-2. However, he added the Chinese navy’s "current trajectory suggests that China is on the cusp of a significant leap in capability and will soon deploy a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent."
"Once fully operational, the [Chinese] SSBN fleet, even with a modest number of boats, will enhance China’s strategic strike capabilities and strengthen Beijing’s overall deterrence posture by providing enhanced range, mobility, stealth, survivability, penetration, and lethality."
Japan’s government warned in a defense white paper made public earlier this month about the threat posed by the JL-2. "Once the JL-2 reaches a level of practical use, it is believed that China’s strategic nuclear capabilities will improve by a great margin," the white paper stated.
Chinese Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, a researcher, suggested in May that U.S. efforts to increase missile defenses in Asia will produce a buildup of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
"The current development, especially the deployment of missile-defense systems in East Asia would be, in Chinese eyes, would be a very, very disturbing factor having implications for the calculation of China's nuclear and strategic arsenal," said Yao Yunzhu, a senior researcher at China's Academy of Military Science.
Yao also said joint U.S. missile defenses in Asia have "implications for China." The Pentagon is working closely with Japan on joint missile defenses to counter the threat posed by North Korean missiles.
The Wall Street Journal, quoting "Chinese experts," reported in May that U.S. military moves in Asia were unlikely to affect China’s nuclear force buildup, including the launch of missile submarines in 2014.
However, the number of nuclear warheads and strategic missiles could be "adjusted" based on U.S. military plans in Asia.
The Obama administration has launched a "pivot" to Asia that includes a buildup of U.S. military forces in the region and an increase in exercises with Asian allies and friends.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced in April that the Navy will deploy a fourth nuclear-powered attack submarine in Guam by 2015.