Friday, October 5, 2007

China's New SSBN Fleet


China's first entry into the seaborne nuclear deterrent realm was the Type 092 Xia-class SSBN, a solitary vessel plagued by problems and a short range SLBM. For the first time, imagery analysis has discovered the presence of multiple hulls of a new class of SSBN, the Type 094 Jin-class. This evidence signifies the new commitment to a seagoing nuclear deterrent force by China, changing the nuclear warfighting dynamic in that region of the world.

TYPE 092

Produced as a solitary example, the Type 092's primary drawback as a strategic deterrent was the lack of an adequate SLBM. The JL-1, China's first SLBM and the weapon employed on the sole operational example of Type 092, the Xia, suffered from a lack of intercontinental range. The JL-1 had a range of 2500 km. If the Xia operated close to the Chinese mainland in waters that could be secured by other PLAN assets, then the deterernt value of the Type 092/JL-1 combination would be severely limited, making it only truly effective in a regional conflict.

The following image depicts the area covered by the Type 092's JL-1 SLBM, postulating a deterrent patrol 50 kilometers offshore from the Xia's homeport near Qingdao:

The short range of the JL-1 meant that the Xia would have to operate much closer to the United States in order to mount an effective deterrent patrol outside the Far East theater of operations. Given the limited number of land-based ICBMs available to the Chinese military at the time, it is possible that in the event of serious hostilities the Xia would be intended to operate in just such a fashion.

The following image depicts the area covered by the Type 092's JL-1 SLBM, postulating a deterrent patrol XX kilometers from the western coastline of the United States, with ICBM fields in the central United States being the primary target:

The above image demonstrates the close proximity that the Xia would have to come to the United States in order to launch any serious strike against military targets. The 500 kT warhead of the JL-1 precludes its ability for being used in a strike against major population centers; this role is better suited to the DF-5 ICBM. The JL-1, therefore, is most likely suited for a counterforce strike, or a preemptive strike against strategic assets, a role which would be enhanced due to the limited reaction time thanks to the close proximity of the launching SSBN. The main problem, however, is the aforementioned proximity. The Xia must penetrate American waters and evade detection and attack by interloping 688-class SSNs. Such a dangerous proposition would likely preclude the use of the solitary Xia against the mainland United States. It is most likely, therefore, that the JL-1/092 combination was intended to provide a deterrent against Japan and South Korea, as well as US military forces in the region, as both nations are well within the range of the JL-1.

Another possibility is the forward deployment of the Xia to strike against the Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but this again places the Xia at a higher risk as it would operate further from protected Chinese waters.

TYPE 094

The answer to China's seagoing deterrent capability is the new Type 094, or Jin-class SSBN. The Type 094 SSBNs will be armed with the new 8000 km range JL-2 SLBM, which is currently undergoing testing. The advantage of the JL-2 is that the longer range allows for a much wider range of deployment options.

The most interesting concept would be to position the Jin-class SSBN fleet in the Bohai Gulf, in close proximity to the Type 094's homeport of Xiaopingdao. This would keep the SSBN fleet very well protected from attack, and allow for a significant seagoing deterrent capability. A Bohai-based Jin would be able to range as far West as Europe and the Middle East.

The following image depicts the area covered to the west of a postulated protected deployment in the Bohai Gulf:

Where the Xia had to close within 1000 kilometers of the American coastline to strike targets deep inside the United States, the Jin could remain 3500 kilometers offshore and range the entire nation, from West coast to Eastern seaboard. A patrolling SSBN in the north Pacific is much harder to localize and engage than an SSBN which has continuously proceeded towards the American coastline, allowing for far more opportunities for detection and tracking, especially given the passing of Hawaii and associated antisubmarine warfare systems.

While the PLAN was satisfied for a time with the solitary Xia SSBN, probably due to operational problems which have plagued the vessel, a whole fleet of Type 094 SSBNs is planned. For the first time, China will have a sustainable seagoing nuclear deterrent force. While the lead Type 094 SSBN has been seen in photographs for some time now, the first evidence of a large-scale production program has recently been uncovered in satellite imagery.

The following image depicts two Type 094 submarines pierside at Huludao shipyard in northern China, where the Type 094 SSBNs are constructed:

A single hull previously identified is still visible at Xiaopingdao, as seen in the image below, suggesting that for the first time China has at least two new SSBNs, indicating that the program will not end with a one-for-one replacement of the aging Xia:

Further analysis of the available imagery would seem to suggest that there are in fact now three distinct examples of Jin-class SSBNs in existance. The two submarines at Huludao are riding higher in the water than the example at Xiaopingdao, suggesting that they are newer hulls still in the process of being fitted out, while the Xiaopingdao hull is in a near-operational state as evidenced by its greater gross weight denoted by the fact that it is riding lower in the water. The presence of various items pierside of the two Huludao hulls would suggest that this specific pier is designated for the fitting out of newly-produced submarines, an interesting fact to note for further analysis in the future when newer imagery of the area becomes available.

Further analysis of the Huludao shipyard appears to depict a third Type 094 hull in the area. What appears to be the rear end of a submarine hull can be seen jutting out of one of the main assembly halls. This object has a diameter of 11.8 meters, which would match up well with the 11.28 meter measurement taken from the visible hull of one of the two pierside 094s in the shipyard. A submarine out of water would obviously have a greater visible diameter as part of the hull is obscured from view under water when the vessel is seaborne. By employing Google Earth's overlay feature and adjusting the image opacity, it can also be seen that the hull contours of the unfinished hull match up nearly perfectly with the rear of the two 094 hulls pierside at Huludao. This hull would represent the fourth Type 094 SSBN, provided that the earlier analysis of the presence of three distinct hulls is accurate.

The following image depicts the unfinished Type 094 hull at Huludao:


The presence of multiple new SSBNs in China will enable the Chinese military to develop new nuclear deterrence postures and tactics, changing the warfighting dynamic in the region. Where the Xia only represented a minimal threat, a fleet of Type 094 SSBNs will enable China to rely more and more on the seaborne nuclear deterrent, a far more dangerous warfighting tool than land-based weapons thanks to their significantly greater elusiveness and therefore survivability.


-SLBM ranges used to construct the range rings were taken from the website

-All overhead imagery provided courtesy of Google Earth.


Unknown said...

Hi Sean,

First I'd like to say that I enjoy reading your site, it's very insightful.

now to business:

From what I know of submarine construction, they are built as a series of cylinders that are welded together.
The object that is jutting out of the hangar in the image seems to have part of it's bow missing. This is more likely an old submarine being dismantled than a new one being constructed.


Anonymous said...

No Way, Rotem.

They might chop it up in a dry dock, not in a covered building.

There would be no reason to hide and old submarine.

I suspect these subs are being created to keep America on the side lines, as China aquires natural resources.