Nuclear-powered submarines carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear payloads that could accidentally vaporize Hong Kong in an instant, visit Victoria Harbour as often as giant rubber ducks.
But that could change quickly as China’s nuclear-armed long-range subs go into service.
Today, China has one of the world’s biggest attack-sub fleets, with five nuclear models and at least 50 diesel models, said the Wall Street Journal.
It also has four boomers—subs equipped to launch fully armed nuclear missiles that have the range to hit Hawaii and Alaska from East Asia and the continental US from the mid-Pacific.
(For comparison, the United States has 14 boomers—Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines that carry 24 missiles per boat. China’s Jin-class 094 carries 12 missiles.)
Jeremy Page of WSJ reports that these subs are a strategically crucial part of China’s nuclear deterrent.
Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with nuclear warheads significantly reduce the possibility that an enemy could destroy all of a nation’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack. This ensures a credible threat of a second strike, increasing a nation’s nuclear deterrence.
Should all hell break loose, China’s small ballistic missile submarine fleet is likely the most survivable component of its nuclear arsenal. (The Federation of American Scientists estimates the number of China’s land-based warheads at 240, hidden in a network of underground tunnels.)
“Nuclear power enables ballistic missile submarines to stay submerged for weeks and even months, the only limiting factor being food for the crew,” wrote Andrew Erickson in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force.
It’s this submerged endurance that allows them “to patrol quietly in locations known only to commanders, greatly complicating the tracking problem” for those who seek them out.
For China, for better or worse, this nuclear capability has been a long time coming.
In 1956, Mao Zedong declared that “China will make intercontinental missiles within 10 years”.
Three years later, perhaps realizing the need for a stealthy, mobile launch platform for increased range, he added, “We will [also] have to build nuclear submarines even if it takes us 10,000 years!”
“This is a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified,” China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, wrote of the country’s missile-sub fleet in a Communist Party magazine, according to WSJ. “It is a strategic force symbolizing great-power status and supporting national security.”
Page of WSJ said despite media attention to China’s expanding military arsenal, including its first aircraft carrier and stealth fighter, “subs are more strategically potent weapons: A single one can project power far from China and deter other countries simply by its presence”.
“Even a few functional Chinese boomers compel the US to plan for a theoretical Chinese nuclear-missile strike from the sea,” said Page. “China’s boomer patrols will make it one of only three countries—alongside the US and Russia—that can launch atomic weapons from sea, air and land.”
While the PLA Navy has not made an official announcement, it sounds like the Jin-class nuclear ballistic submarines will begin patrols by year’s end.
According to WSJ, three of them were seen recently at a base opposite a resort in China’s Hainan province. I’m guessing, probably wrong, that each of the boat’s crew of about 120 were on shore leave.
Just to make world order more complex and give everyone even more to worry about, both the United States and China are flight-testing hypersonic cruise missiles, delivery vehicles capable of penetrating any existing defense system with nuclear warheads before they can react.
In theory, hypersonic missiles would travel at least five times the speed of sound (about 3,800 miles per hour) and hit targets thousands of miles away in less than an hour.
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