In the Pentagon’s latest report on the Chinese military, it has been revealed that China has taken a significant step by launching its first nuclear-guided missile submarines. This development has granted China the capability to conduct both land and sea-based attacks, a power that was previously exclusive to American and Russian vessels.
The Pentagon’s report, which was released on October 24, confirms that the modified submarines observed in Chinese shipyards over the past year and a half are the Type 093B guided-missile submarines. Earlier in May 2022, Reuters had already reported on satellite images from the Huludao shipyard in northeastern China, showing what appeared to be a new or improved class of submarine, possibly equipped with vertical tubes for launching cruise missiles. Additional satellite images from 2022 provided further confirmation that a probable nuclear-powered attack submarine was being worked on in a dry dock in northeast China.
The significance of this development is that the Chinese navy will soon have the capacity to carry out long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarines and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles. This marks a considerable improvement in China’s power projection capabilities.
These submarines, known as SSGNs (Ship Submersible Guided Missile Nuclear), were originally developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War as a means to target American aircraft carriers. In response, the U.S. Navy developed its own version by converting ballistic missile boats to carry a substantial number of Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. Cruise missiles, unlike ballistic weapons, are known for their ability to fly at low altitudes or skim the sea surface.
A noteworthy example of their effectiveness is the USS Florida submarine, which fired 93 Tomahawks at Libyan air defenses in 2011. This marked the first combat strike by a U.S. SSGN and garnered close attention from Chinese strategists.
Some analysts speculate that the People’s Liberation Army Navy will likely deploy these submarines to counter aircraft carriers and as a platform for land attacks. This would significantly extend their operational range compared to smaller attack submarines in the Chinese fleet.
The Pentagon report also indicates that three of these new SSGNs may become operational in the coming year as part of China’s broader expansion of its nuclear and diesel submarine fleet. By 2025, China’s submarine fleet could potentially comprise up to 65 vessels.
This confirmation is taking place in the context of an escalating undersea arms race as China continues to build a new generation of nuclear-armed ships as part of its evolving deterrent force. Tracking Chinese submarines at sea has become a key driver for increased deployments and contingency planning by the U.S. Navy and other militaries in the Indo-Pacific region.
Collin Koh, a security expert based in Singapore, emphasizes the importance of these SSGNs for the Chinese navy. With their core armament of cruise missiles, they can potentially conduct ground and anti-ship attacks from a significant standoff range, making strategic calculations more complex for China’s rivals.
In light of China’s progress in making its nuclear submarines quieter and harder to track, there is some uncertainty about whether these advances have been incorporated into the recently launched SSGNs. Nonetheless, improvements in nuclear-powered ships are expected in the near future.
Despite potential improvements, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is expected to be cautious in their initial deployment of these submarines. Nonetheless, the submarine force remains a priority for China’s leadership, underlining its commitment to enhancing its naval capabilities.