During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was ultimately perceived to be an effective way of keeping tensions between the Warsaw Pact and NATO from exploding into war. Although much of the rhetoric surrounding Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) disappeared along with the Soviet Union, nuclear states still keep sizable arsenals to dissuade others from attacking them.
A central part of having a credible nuclear response option is to develop a so-called “nuclear triad.” This consists of having ground-, air- and sea-based nuclear capabilities, in order to retain a “second strike” capability in case an opponent launches its nukes first. Submarines and small, mobile land-based launch platforms armed with nuclear ballistic and so-called Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) are crucial to a second strike capability, since they are difficult to detect and target.
China has recently achieved some important milestones with regards to both these capabilities. According to IHS Jane’s, U.S. military officials confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has deployed a Type-094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic submarine on a nuclear deterrence patrol. If true, this represents the first time that China has deployed a sub on this kind of mission.
Due to the secrecy surrounding China’s military in general, it is impossible to confirm whether this boat is actually armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. However, U.S. four-star Admiral Cecil Haney is assuming so: “Have they put the missile we’ve seen them test, in for a package that is doing strategic deterrent patrols? I have to consider them today that they are on strategic patrol.”
If this were to be the case, it would represent a new development for Beijing’s nuclear strategy. As previously reported by Tong Zhao for The Diplomat, Chinese nuclear warheads have usually been kept apart from their missiles during peacetime. A part of the reason for this is to demonstrate what China calls its policy of “no first use” — that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict and would use them only in retaliation for hostile nuclear attacks.
Another reason warheads are kept separate is the Chinese Communist Party’s need for political control over its strategic military assets. Separating warheads from missiles allows for a greater centralized control over the nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to number around 300 warheads. Chinese authorities fear giving a submarine commander control over the launch of nuclear missiles and worry that one of the military’s hawks could ignore the party’s nuclear chain of command and order a nuclear strike on his own. Although keeping the warhead and missile separated on a submarine nuclear deterrence patrol is rather impractical, this deployment also shows a new level of trust given by Beijing to its naval commanders.
The missiles in question are in all likelihood the Julang-2 (CSS-NX-5,) the sea-based version of the Dongfeng-34 (CSS-9.) The JL-2 has been under development since at least 1983 and has a reported maximum range of 8,000 – 9,000 kilometers, according to Globalsecurity.
Furthermore, China also recently tested one of its land-based ICBMs. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the Second Artillery Corps successfully fired a long-range Dongfeng-41 ICBM on December 4. The latest flight test demonstrated the use of MIRVs. The missile launch and dummy warheads were tracked by satellites to an impact range in western China.
It was the second flight test this year of the DF-41 and the fifth since 2012, when the missile was tested for the first time. U.S. intelligence assessments suggest that the missile will be capable of carrying between three and 10 warheads. The two most recent missile flight tests took place August 6, also with two dummy warheads, and just over a year ago, on December 13. As Franz-Stefan Gady has previously reported, the DF-41 has a reported range of between 12,000-15,000 kilometers, which covers all of the United States and most of Russia. Gady notes,“The most recent U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report notes that the missile could be already deployed this year; however, a 2018-2020 time frame appears much more likely, according to independent experts.”
As Zachary Keck over at The National Interest has written, there are plenty of reasons to worry about China’s nuclear development (click here and here.) The new Jin-class nuclear patrol necessarily has a nuclear-armed coastal state in mind (India or the United States, most likely) while the MIRV-armed DF-41 might trouble Russia. While Russia is trying to modernize its conventional forces, it is still dependent on its massive nuclear arsenal to deter NATO and China from infringing on its interests. Beijing’s development and testing of its MIRV-armed DF-41 probably isn’t winning any points in Moscow.
Ironically, today’s situation is similar to the Cold War, when China was desperately attempting to acquire nukes to dissuade the Soviet Union and the United States from any military adventurism.
How does that old saying go again? “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”