China keeps a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine constantly at sea.

According to the Chinese military’s assessment, the Chinese fleet of six Jin-class ballistic missile submarines conducts “almost continuous” patrols from Hainan Island to the South China Sea. According to analysts, equipped with a new, longer-range ballistic missile, they can reach the continental United States.

When it was released in late November, the 174-page report received less attention. Four regional military attachés with experience in naval operations and five other security specialists say this still demonstrates significant growth in China’s military might.

Although the AUKUS deal will allow Australia to have its first nuclear submarines in the next two decades, China’s continued ballistic missile patrols at sea will strain the resources of the United States and its allies, which will intensify their war-style deployments.

Security expert Christopher Twomey of the US Naval Postgraduate School in California said, “We’re going to want our SSNs to try to track them… so the additional demands on our assets are clear.” 

SSN is the American designation for a nuclear-powered attack submarine. “But the thing here is that the information – the almost continuous patrols – has changed so quickly that we don’t know what else has changed.”

The new patrols imply improvements in many areas, such as logistics, command and control, and weaponry. They also show China beginning to operate its ballistic missiles submarines like the United States, Russia, Britain, and France have done for decades, according to military attachés, former submariners, and security analysts.

As a result of their “deterrence patrols,” they may still threaten a nuclear counterattack, despite the loss of their missiles and ground assets. As the classical nuclear doctrine states, this prevents the enemy from launching a first strike.

Chinese submarines are being equipped with a third-generation missile, the JL-3, General Anthony Cotton, commander of the US Strategic Command, testified at a congressional hearing in March.

According to the Pentagon study, China may now strike the United States mainland from Chinese coastal seas with the JL-3, which has a range of over 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) and can carry multiple warheads.

Previous reports had claimed that deployment of the JL-3 was not expected until China launched its Type-096 new-generation submarines in the coming years.

According to the Pacific Fleet, the US Navy maintains some two dozen nuclear attack submarines throughout the Pacific, including Guam and Hawaii. Under AUKUS, US and UK nuclear submarines will deploy from Western Australia starting in 2027.

These submarines are the primary weapon for hunting ballistic missile submarines, supported by surface ships and P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft. The United States also has sensors on the seabed along major shipping lanes to help detect submarines.

US forces could certainly handle the current situation, according to Timothy Wright, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, but they will need to devote more resources in the next 10–15 years after patrols begin—Type-096 covert aircraft.

He added that the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear forces means that US strategists will have to face two “similar nuclear adversaries” for the first time in addition to Russia.

“This will be a concern for the United States, as it will expand its defenses and endanger more targets, which will have to be met with additional conventional and nuclear capabilities,” he said.

China keeps a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine constantly at sea.

COMMAND AUTHORITY

For years the Chinese Navy was thought to have the ability to conduct deterrent patrols, but command, control, and communications problems have slowed its deployment, military attachés and analysts say. 

Communications are crucial and complex for ballistic missile-launching submarines, which must remain concealed as part of their mission. The Jin-class submarines, which are expected to be replaced by Type-096s in the next decade, are relatively noisy and easy to track, according to military attachés.

“Something about command authority must have changed as well, but we don’t have very good opportunities to talk to the Chinese about this kind of thing,” Twomey said.

According to the Chinese military, President Xi Jinping’s Central Military Commission is the only entity authorized to issue nuclear orders. Hans Kristensen, head of the Federation of American Scientists’ nuclear information project, recently remarked that he thought problems with command and communications were still a “work in progress.”

“Although China has likely made progress in establishing secure and operationally significant command and control between the Central Military Commission and the SSBNs, it seems unlikely that the capability will be completed or necessarily battle-hardened,” he said, using the Designation letters for a nuclear ballistic missile submarine.

Two researchers from a Chinese navy training institute in Nanjing warned in a 2019 submarine warfare magazine of poor organization and command coordination among submarine forces. The document also called for improving submarine-launched nuclear strike capability.

The Navy should “strengthen ballistic missile-launching nuclear submarines on patrol at sea to ensure they have the means and capabilities to conduct secondary nuclear counterattack operations when necessary,” the researchers wrote.

 THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

With the arrival of the JL-3 missile, Kristensen and other analysts hope Chinese strategists will keep their ballistic missile submarines in the deep waters of the South China Sea – which China has fortified with a series of bases – rather than risk patrolling in the Western Pacific.

According to security analyst Collin Koh of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, China has a “bastion” of safe waters around its coastlines where it can maintain its ballistic missile submarines.

“If I were the planner, I would want to keep my strategic deterrent assets as close to me as possible, and the South China Sea is perfect for that,” Koh said.

Three analysts have concluded that Russia bases the majority of its eleven ballistic missile submarines in forts off its Arctic coast, whereas the United States, France, and Britain allow their vessels greater freedom of movement.

Kristensen said that the increased number of Chinese submarines deployed has caused the armies of the People’s Liberation Army and the United States to “rub closer together,” increasing the chances of an accidental conflict.

“The Americans, of course, are trying to peek into that stronghold and see what they can do and what they need to do, so that’s where the tension can build, and an incident can happen,” he said.

Greg Torode and Eduardo Baptista