China has boosted its submarine force over the last 20 years, building a modern, flexible force that now has more total ships than the US. The force currently numbers 56 subs – four nuclear-powered missile subs, five nuclear-powered attack subs, and 47 diesel-powered attack subs – and is likely grow to between 69 and 78 subs by 2020, according to the Pentagon. Nuclear attack submarines are nuclear-powered, but they do not carry nuclear weapons, whereas nuclear strategic submarines do. Since the mid-1990s, China has built 13 Song-class diesel-electric attack subs and bought 12 Russian-made Kilo-class subs – eight of which can fire anti-ship cruise missiles.
China is building more nuclear-armed submarines to stay one step ahead of the U.S. and other adversaries. That’s the assessment from an arms control think tank, which believes China’s leaders are leaning toward basing their nuclear weapons at sea to prevent their destruction in a surprise attack. Although China will not likely built more nuclear weapons, it will likely build more submarines to conceal a larger and more effective second strike capability beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
China’s newest nuclear attack sub, Type 094A, is based in an undersea submarine base at Yulin in Hainan, similar to that in Subic, complete with underground shelters. It has supreme stealth capability, just like the US Ohio-class SSBNs. The Type 094A is armed with a 12 JL-2A multiple-warhead nuclear missiles, with a range of 11,200 kilometers. JL-2, the ‘tsunami missile’, stands for the Mandarin word for ‘Big Wave’.
China’s has already deployed Type 094 Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), that are equipped as planned with JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles, will for the first time enable Chinese SSBNs to target parts of the United States. The Type 094s displace about 11,000 tons submerged, capable of launching a nuclear warhead some 7,500 kilometers. China has already commissioned four JIN-class SSBNs and will build at least another one of these vessels. According to pentagon reports, China will begin fielding its next-generation SSBN, the Type 096, sometime in the coming decade, and these shall have twenty-four launch tubes armed with the JL-3 SLBM.
This also marks China’s acquisition of a viable nuclear triad for the first time. Submarines are one of deadliest weapons which are hardest to detect, literally a pile of submerged nuclear weapons ready to unleash widespread destruction with single command. In case of a nuclear war the stealthy submarines have a greater chance of surviving the first strike. Submarine-launched missiles have another benefit. They make it difficult for an enemy to predict where a missile strike may come from. This could make it harder for the enemy to intercept the missiles. Once on high alert the boats can leave their bases stay undetected for months and can carry and fire missiles that could sink even the sturdiest ship and flatten entire cities.
A new report from the Carnegie Center for Global Policy states that Beijing is seeking an unknown number of new nuclear submarines. The exact number is unknown, but the rule of thumb that a nuclear power needs four submarines to keep one on station suggests China would need to double its missile sub fleet from four to eight to see concrete improvements in the number of missiles it keeps at sea. This is because the other three submarines would need to undergo regular maintenance and crew training or would be on their way to or from patrol areas. Submarines need frequent and regular maintenance. In particular, refueling submarine reactors is a time-consuming, expensive process, which typically involves cutting the submarine open.
Since the mid-1990s, China has built 13 Song-class diesel-electric attack subs and bought 12 Russian-made Kilo-class subs – eight of which can fire anti-ship cruise missiles. Kilos are conventional diesel subs, which means they need to surface periodically. “Even with that, they’re a good, sturdy, reliable submarine that carries long-range anti-ship missiles,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments. On a shorter operation where a Kilo-class sub “can avoid snorkeling, it could … sneak up on you with a long-range attack, so that’s a concern for the US.” China has also built 17 Yuan-class diesel-electric, air-independent-powered attack subs over the past two decades, a total expected to rise to 20 by 2020, according to the Pentagon
“China’s navy has evolved from a littoral force to one that is capable of meeting a wide range of missions, including strike missions, Jin will be able to strike Hawaii, Alaska and possibly western portions of CONUS [continental United States] from East Asian waters,” according to an assessment of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Naval modernization is part of Beijing’s “growing emphasis on the maritime domain,” the US Defense Department said in its annual report on Chinese military power.
China is building World’s largest submarine factory capable for construction of four submarines simultaneously—out of sight from military enthusiasts and spy satellites alike. According to Popular Science, Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industrial Corporation is building the plant in Huludao, Liaoning Province. The place will have two parallel assembly lines. The gigantic hall reportedly is where China will begin construction on is latest attack submarine, the Type 095.
China’s plan to use artificial intelligence to boost the thinking skills of nuclear submarine commanders
The operational demands of 100 to 300 people working in their canister in deep, dark water for months, leads to the rising stress level that could affect the commanding officers’ decision-making powers, even leading to bad judgment. An AI decision-support system with “its own thoughts” would reduce the commanding officers’ workload and mental burden, according to the researcher.
Zhu Min, lead scientist in China’s deep-water exploration program and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Acoustics, said AI weaponry was the next step for China’s military but warned that the systems must be programmed carefully to safeguard from a “runaway submarine with enough nuclear arsenals to destroy a continent.” “This is definitely a risk the authorities should consider when introducing AI to a sub,” he said.
China Resumes Production of Its Quietest Attack Submarine
China has apparently resumed construction of Type 039B Yuan-class diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK) after a three year hiatus, IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly reported. Images posted on Chinese online forums reportedly show three Type 039B Yuan-class boats in various stages of completion being out fitted out at the Wuchang Shipyard in Wuhan, central China. The last of the three subs, built by China State Shipbuilding Industrial Corp (CSIC), was purportedly launched on December 12.
The Yuan-class is purportedly one of the quietest submarine classes in the inventory of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The original Type 039A Yuan-class (also known as the Type 041) made its first public appearance in 2006 as the successor of the Type 039 Song-class of diesel-electric attack submarines. Analysts have identified a total of four Type 039 Yuan-class variants, with the Type 039B boats as the latest iteration of the SSK class. Both the Song- and Yuan-class attack submarines are equipped with German-made state-of-the-art diesel engines — the 396 SE84 series — designed by MTU Friedrichshafen GmbH of Friedrichshafen, Germany.
The Type 039B boats with a length of 77 meters (254 feet) and a beam of 8.4 meters, displace around 2,700 tons surfaced and 3,600 tons when submerged and hold a crew of 38. Type 039B boats feature a modified hull and redesigned conning tower, as well as a flank sonar array. “The hulls of the Yuan class are clad with anechoic tiles, to minimize any return echoes when pinged by active sonars,” according to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.Type 039B subs are also reportedly fitted with the Kockums Stirling AIP technology, which increases the boats’ submerged endurance from days to weeks.
The PLAN currently operates a fleet of 13 to 15 Yuan-class subs with a total of 20 boats of the class planned for production, according to a 2016 Pentagon study.
Type 094 Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN)
The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine has been already deployed, according to reports. It shall be able to hide better from U.S.’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites and high-altitude drones, such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk because it can stay beneath the waters for a long period of time. Their noise levels will decide how vulnerable they are to early detection and attrition, especially if they had to deploy to distant patrol areas in order for the missiles to be able to reach important targets.
A single Jin-class submarine can carry 12 JL-2 missiles. The JL-2 has a far greater range than its predecessor, this three-stage solid-fuel stellar-inertial guided missile can travel over 4,320 n miles (8,000 km). It can carry a single 1 MT nuclear warhead or can be equipped with 2-8 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads on a single missile. The JL-2 is also much more accurate than the JL-1 with a circular error probable (CEP) of 300m compared with 700m for its predecessor.
The Type 094A differs from the Type 094 in the former’s curved conning tower and a retractable towed array sonar mounted atop its upper tailfin. The array makes it easier for the sub to listen for threats. The Type 094A, which was first seen in November 2016, is also far quieter than the noisier Type 094.
Russian military expert Vasily Kashin believes the South China Sea is the only place where the Type 094A can fire its SLBMs at the USA in relative safety. The main base for China’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines is Hainan Island on the South China Sea.
Next generation Type 096 SSBN
Jin-class shall be augmented with its next-generation SSBN (Type 096) over the next decade. Reports vary widely on the design parameters and expected deployment dates, but it will undoubtedly be larger, quieter, and carry more missiles with more warheads.
It was also rumored the Type 096 will carry 24 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) compared to 12 in the Type 094. These SLBMs for the Type 096 might either be the Julang-3 (JL-3) or the JL-2A. JL-3 has an estimated but unconfirmed range of 12,000 kilometers, which, if accurate will place most of the continental United States within range of this SLBM. JL-2A has a range of 11,200-kilometers, also sufficient to hit the U.S. from the South China Sea.
China’s nuclear-defense strategy is engineered to provide a retaliatory capability in the event of attack from nuclear powered nations as far away as the U.S. and also from Russia and India, according to Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. However, analysts don’t expect China to modify its longstanding “no-first-use” nuclear policy that states its weapons will only be used if China comes under nuclear attack.