In recent days, there have been several reports that the Chinese navy (PLAN) has, for the first time in the country’s history, reached a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Defense News reports that the China’s JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is expected to reach initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2014. The source of the report is a forthcoming report by a U.S. congressional commission on China. The reports are in line with analyst expectations for China’s SSBN program.
According to the report, the PLAN’s sea-based deterrent will have a range of 4,000 nautical miles, lending it a comfortable position against targets on the North American western coastline. The deterrent will be delivered via the much-discussed Type 094 Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), three of which are in active operation by the PLAN. China is also pursuing more advanced SSBNs: the Type 095 is expected to be a guided-missile attack submarine, and the Type 096 is expected to be a next-generation successor to the Type 094, reinforcing its “range, mobility, stealth, and lethality.” The aging Type 092 Xia-class submarine was largely a failure and is expected to be retired soon.
The Type 094 Jin-class submarine is additionally what is known as a “boomer,” capable of launching both 12 to 16 JL-2 missiles with a "range of about 8,700 miles, covering much of the continental U.S. with single or multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicle warhead,” according to The Washington Times. The Congressional report also states that U.S. facilities on Guam will soon be within conventional missile range.
Last month, The Diplomat reported on the publication of boastful articles in China’s Global Times, touting the ability of China’s SSBNs. These latest reports about a credible sea-based deterrent nearing IOC by the end of 2014 lend credence to the Chinese reports. According to the Washington Times, the Global Times said "Our JL-2 SLBMs have become the fourth type of Chinese nuclear missiles that threaten the continental United States, after our DF-31A, DF-5A and DF-5B ICBMs.”
Nuclear-equipped SLBMs are widely understood to be the pinnacle of a robust “nuclear triad” deterrent system. The United States and Russia have been the only “nuclear triad” powers to date, maintaining a robust arsenal deliverable by land, sea, and air. India, with its indigenously-developed nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, is expected to field a triad deterrent soon as well. However, the deadliness of SLBMs is such that both France and the United Kingdom – two of the original nuclear powers – have a deterrence strategy based squarely around SSBNs (France maintains a small air-based deterrent).