China’s Nuclear Sub Needs

Rumours of a radiation leak from a Chinese nuclear submarine highlight the challenges of nuclear deterrence.

The past couple of weeks have seen a number of reports over a rumoured radiation leak from a 094 type Chinese nuclear submarine stationed near Dalian port. The incident is said to have occurred as electronic equipment was being installed on the sub.

Did it really happen? While some newspaper reports certainly seem to suggest so, officials have clamped down on discussion of the issue. This is hardly surprising since China has never been open about its nuclear assets (unless proudly displaying them during its national parades) and this would be especially the case over failures in these systems during regular research and development and deployment. This means that until there’s greater overall transparency in Chinese official reports, such alleged incidents remain simply rumours.

However, the news highlights the broader issue of nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear tipped missiles, and the growing importance of a sea-based dimension to nuclear deterrence. It’s well understood that deployment of strategic weapons at sea meets the criterion of survivability much better than other nuclear delivery options. And survivability of the nuclear arsenal is critical for credible nuclear deterrence. This is even more so in the case of countries that have a no first use nuclear doctrine. Since they have declared that they wouldn’t be the first to use nuclear weapons, the credibility of their ability to absorb a first strike but still have a sufficient arsenal to cause unacceptable damage to an adversary assumes high importance.

It’s therefore natural that China places special focus on acquiring an operational sea-based deterrent capability. Acknowledging the vulnerability of its few land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles to a US  first strike, Adm. Liu Huaqing had concluded even before the start of this millennium that: ‘In the face of a large scale nuclear attack, only less than 10 percent of the coastal launching silos will survive, whereas submarines armed with ballistic missiles can use the surface of the sea to protect and cover themselves, preserve the nuclear offensive force and play a deterrent and containment role.’ In the 1980s, China had developed the type 092 SSBN. But this never truly became operational because of numerous technical problems. Of course, it served as a great learning experience and the new Jin class is a derivative of that.

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For the moment, the sea leg of the Chinese nuclear triad is likely to rest on Julang 2 (JL-2), a second generation SLBM that is to be deployed on the indigenous 094 nuclear-powered submarine. This is believed to be ready for deployment, and so could have been undergoing some work towards its operationalization when the radiation leak is suspected to have happened. Whatever the details of the matter, though, the point that needs to be highlighted is that as long as countries decide to retain nuclear weapons, and base national security on credible nuclear deterrence, nuclear submarines will continue to be built and deployed. 

Indeed, many of the nuclear weapon states are actually moving towards relying solely on sea-based deterrent. The UK maintains only nuclear submarines for nuclear delivery. Arguing that nuclear deterrence was still needed as ‘an insurance policy in an uncertain world,’ the British parliament decided in 2007 that the country would build new nuclear submarines to replace the Vanguard submarines likely to be obsolete by the mid-2020s. France, too, had dismantled its land-based missile silos in 1996, and since maintains a dyad of submarines and aircraft as nuclear delivery platforms.

There’s little doubt that China considers the development of the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad as critical for the credibility of its nuclear doctrine of no first use, and Beijing is moving steadily towards operationalization of its new Jin class of subs. Still, it would do well to acknowledge that new dangers will accompany the new capability. In anticipation of these, and given that China can’t afford the loss of one of its nuclear subs – materially, politically, psychologically or environmentally – it’s critical that the nation develop a clear understanding of the challenges and potential dangers.  A certain amount of transparency, including when things go wrong, will help alleviate unnecessary misperceptions and misunderstandings in the region and beyond.