U.S. intelligence suggests that China’s Navy will begin sea trials of its new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) next year, according to a report this week by Bill Gertz, which appeared in the Washington Free Beacon, a right-leaning U.S. publication.
“We are anticipating that combat patrols of submarines carrying the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile will begin next year,” Gertz quotes an unnamed U.S. Defense Official as saying.
According to Missile Threat, a website jointly run by the George C. Marshall and Claremont Institutes, the JL-2 is a three-stage solid propellant SLBM designed off of the mobile land-based DF-31 ballistic missile. It has a “minimum range of 2,000 km, a maximum range greater than 7,200 km, and carries a payload of 1,050 to 2,800 kg.” Many others site its range as 8,000 km.
It can also be equipped with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), which allows it to carry between 2-8 warheads on a single missile.
The JL-2 will be deployed on China’s Type-094 (Jin-Class) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Currently, China fields three Type-094 SSBNs but is in the process of acquiring two more, before turning to its next generation SSBN, the U.S. Department of Defense said in its annual assessment of China’s military capabilities.
Each Jin-Class SSBN has 12 missile launch tubes.
The same report concluded that “the PLA Navy places a high priority on the modernization of its submarine force,” and the “the JIN-class and the JL-2 will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”
This isn’t for lack of trying. Indeed, while both China’s nuclear weapon program and its SSBN program both began around the same time in the mid-to-late 1950s, their trajectories differed widely. The nuclear bomb program under the leadership of Nie Rongzhen was remarkable successful, with China conducting its first nuclear test in 1964, three years ahead of schedule.
By contrast, the SSBN and SLBM programs, also under Nie’s stewardship, stalled, especially during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Thus, the SLBM would miss its target date of 1973 and a SBLM wasn’t successfully tested until 1982. It would be another six years until the PLA Navy successfully tested a SLBM from its first-generation SSBNs; a full 15 years after the initial target date of 1973.
Even then the JL-1 was limited in many ways. A two-stage, solid-propellant SLBM, its range was only some 1,700 km, which would force China’s SSBNs to venture well outside Chinese waters to strike at the United States. Furthermore, it could only carry a single, 600 kg warhead, and its circular error probable (CEP) was 700 meters.
In the end, this mattered little as China’s first SSBN, the Type-092 or Xia-class SSBN, was so plagued with problems it is believed by many to have never actually carried out a single deterrent patrol, but rather usually remained stationed in its home port at Qingdao.
Still, looking at the SLBMs alone, the JL-2 is a considerable improvement on its predecessor. Modeled off the land-based DF-31, the program to develop the JL-2 and its land variant missile began in the 1980s. Although it has faced considerable delays like the JL-1, it has over four times the range and payload size of its predecessor. With a CEP of 300 m, the JL-2 is also more than twice as accurate.
Gertz’s report on the JL-2 comes on the heels of The National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s (NASIC) report on foreign missile programs, which said that “China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world.”
The NASIC bills itself as the Pentagon’s “primary source for foreign air and space threats.”
The NASIC report also went on to say that “The number of Chinese ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 15 years.” Like DOD’s annual assessment on China’s military capabilities, it did not specific an exact estimate for when the JL-2 would enter into service.
As Project 2049’s Mark Stokes explains to Gertz, one of the more interesting things to watch when it is deployed is “is which organization controls, stores, and ensures the readiness of the nuclear warheads that ostensibly would be mated with the SLBMs on patrol.”
“The [Central Military Commission] has traditionally entrusted only the Second Artillery Corps with centralized control over nuclear weapons…. The CMC granting the PLA Navy the power to develop and maintain its own independent infrastructure for warhead storage and handling would be a significant departure from past. This kind of decentralization would have implications well beyond the navy.”