The U.S. government is reporting that China, after decades of trying, is on the verge of fielding a true underwater leg of its nuclear deterrent, with new long-range missiles tipped with nuclear weapons on board its fleet of new long-range submarines. And that could transform the Pacific into a tense militarized zone reminiscent of the Atlantic during the Cold War.
On November 14 the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission will release its annual report to Congress, and that report will contain some sobering language about new Julang-2 missiles China plans to field in two years. (Drafts of the report, created by a Congressional mandate, have already been leaked.)
According to the report, JIN-class submarines, two of which have already been put to sea, would carry nuclear tipped missiles. Naval intelligence documents estimate five such submarines will be ready for service. The submarines and the JL-2 missile combination will give Chinese forces “a near-continuous at-sea strategic deterrent,” according to the report, and Beijing is “on the cusp of attaining a credible nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-dropped nuclear bombs.”
The Pentagon has watched warily as China has ramped up its submarine fleet, which helps the nation secure its economically vital sea lanes and protect its coastlines from incursion. China has quiet, diesel–electric submarines to lay mines and shoot missiles during combat close to their shores. But the larger, nuclear-powered subs are a newer acquisition, and arming them with nukes poses a different kind of threat to the United States and global powers such as Russia and India.
Sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are hard to spot until they shoot, making them the ideal second-strike weapon in a nuclear exchange. The Pentagon knows where all of China’s ICBM silos are and could wipe them out in a preemptive nuke strike if the nations came to blows. But subs need to be identified, tracked, and sunk. So, having submarines with nukes in their firing tubes makes China a more credible nuclear threat. That threat backs up every diplomatic, geopolitical, and military action of the government—a government whose goals are often at odds with those of the U.S. government.
What will the U.S. do about this new threat?
There will be some underwater cat-and-mouse games played in the Pacific. U.S. submarines will likely be waiting when American satellites spot a Chinese sub leaving the port. (Those subs will be visible in the shallows between Yulin Naval Base and deep water.) “Some U.S. attack submarines probably will follow the Chinese submarines if and when they deploy,” says Hans Kristensen, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. “Part of those operations will be to learn more about noise level and operational patterns.”
The range of the JL-2 is about 4500 miles. That means the sub’s missiles can’t target the continental United States from the Chinese coast. They could hit Los Angeles from a position 1000 miles west of Hawaii, while Washington, D.C., would be in range only if the submarine could sneak its way to a position about 1500 miles from the West Coast.
That’s the trick for these subs: surviving outside Chinese waters. Japan and America have assets in the Pacific that could detect submarines; a Chinese skipper would have to hide from them to get close enough to take a shot at the continental United States. And Christensen cites Office of Naval Intelligence reports that say the JIN submarines are less stealthy than Russian submarines built two decades ago. “They are too noisy to slip through U.S. antisubmarine networks,” he says. “The U.S. submarine community trained for more than 60 years to track nuclear-powered ballistic submarines . . . Given that record, I’d be surprise if China’s would live for long in a war. To me, they would be sitting ducks.”
However, American antisubmarine capabilities have waned since the Cold War. The United States will be decreasing its number of attack submarines, but those that remain will be operating in the Pacific—the Pentagon has already deployed more attack subs to Guam and Hawaii. The Littoral Combat Ship, a troubled Navy program, is expected to have antisubmarine capabilities, but those ships (as the name implies) are made to dominate shallow water.
Furthermore, last week news leaked that the Navy plans to cut nearly one-quarter of its highly specialized multi-intelligence aircraft in the next few years, including the P3C Orion sub-hunting airplane. It does have sub-tracking replacements coming online, such as the P-8A Poseidon, a converted 747 that can drop sonobuoys to detect subs, and torpedoes to sink them. But coverage may be thin. The Navy will have only about 50 P-8As to do the job formerly done by 200 P-3Cs.
During the Cold War, the Navy tracked Soviet subs using a network of underwater microphones called the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). This is still functioning, albeit with fewer sensors, in the Pacific. The Pentagon is working on next-generation tracking technology that could help mitigate the China sub threat. The Distributed Agile Submarine Hunting program, run by DARPA, is creating a maritime version of a satellite. These robotic listening posts could operate in shallow or deep water, and possibly follow enemy subs once they’d been detected.
The last-ditch defense against these missile threats are ground-based interceptors in Alaska, built to thwart an ICBM launch from North Korea. They could target the warheads fired from a submarine, Kristensen says, if the warheads were launched from far enough away.