China’s first submarine-launched ballistic missiles put the West Coast of the U.S. within striking range.
Bloomberg reports that the Pentagon has confirmed the Type 094 ballistic missile submarines have upgraded their JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles to the more capable JL-3.
According to an interview published by Bloomberg, the U.S. Strategic Command commander told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the missiles could target the mainland United States “from a safe bastion within the South China Sea.”
The fleet of six Type 094 submarines carries 72 missiles, as each has 12 missile launchers.
Many of these submarines, maybe all of them, are stationed on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and patrol the area as part of China’s nuclear deterrent force.
China hopes to exploit the South China Sea as a bastion where its air and naval forces can keep opposing anti-submarine forces at bay and safeguard its submarine fleet.
In 2016, the JL-2 made its debut aboard Type 094 submarines. The JL-2 missile could travel 4,394 miles and carried a single thermonuclear bomb with a 200 to 300 kilotons yield.
It used both China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system and its own in-built Astro-inertial navigation system, which uses the orientation of the stars to determine their location.
The newest JL-3 can travel a distance of 6,213 miles. According to a report from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center in 2020, the JL-3 can transport multiple warheads.
Such a system would allow a single missile to hit several objects. It would make the nuclear defense of the United States more difficult by requiring the Alaska-based U.S. missile defense troops to intercept multiple oncoming warheads.
The JL-3’s potential impact on the United States continental territory is more nuanced. It has been reported that the missile can go over 10,000 kilometers (or over 6,213 miles).
However, the only places in the United States that can be reached by a JL-3 missile launched from the South China Sea are Hawaii and Alaska, where the Ground Based Interceptor missile system is located.
Could the JL-3 go any further in range? Yes. If China’s missile submarines expanded their patrol zones to cover the Bay of Bohai, most of North and South Dakota, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, and California, would be within their firing range.
In order to strike the rest of the United States, Chinese submarines would have to go to the Western Pacific, beyond Japan and Taiwan, where they would be unprotected by Chinese air and naval forces from opponent anti-submarine warfare forces.
Chinese submarines are not as quiet as American missile subs…yet.
The JL-3’s deployment won’t change the strategic balance between the U.S. and China. Chinese efforts to catch up to the United States regarding sea-based nuclear weapons are highlighted by the quick replacement of the JL-2 with the JL-3.
China plans to construct a new-generation missile submarine with a range comparable to American subs in the Western Pacific. If not two decades, at least ten will pass before that happens.