China’s growing fleet of attack and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines is shrouded in a haze of mystery to a large extent, given the lack of available detail about their technologies and performance parameters.
PLAN of Submarine Attack
What is known is that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) has been deploying its newest attack submarine around Taiwan for military exercises, the most recent one taking place during U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, according to an August, 2022 report in “The Mirror.”
Very little information seems available about China’s new Type-039C Yuan submarines, yet it does seem apparent that the PRC is working intensely to challenge U.S. Navy undersea superiority, according to multiple Pentagon reports in recent years.
In 2021, the Pentagon’s annual China military report stated that, at that time, China operated six Jin-class SSBNs, or nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, armed with JL-2 missiles, yet the People’s Liberation Army is preparing to produce a far more lethal, longer-range JL-3 nuclear armed ballistic missile variant.
“As the PRC fields newer, more capable, and longer ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLAN will gain the ability to target the continental United States from littoral waters, and thus may consider bastion operations to enhance the survivability of its sea-based deterrent,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
Unlike the JL-2 which fires at more limited ranges, the now-in-development JL-3 will reportedly operate with an ability to travel as far as 5,600 miles. This means Jin-class submarines will not need to operate closer to shore to hold the continental U.S. at risk.
“The current range limitations of the JL-2 will require the JIN to operate in areas north and east of Hawaii if the PRC seeks to target the east coast of the United States,” the Pentagon report states. The JL-3 changes this substantially.
The PRC now operates six JIN SSBNs, equipped to carry up to 12 JL-2 missiles, yet the range of these weapons restricts or limits the operational envelope, should the boat seek to hold specific high-value U.S. targets at risk. This means Chinese commanders have less geographical flexibility and might operate with a higher chance of being detected.
This range extension with the JL-3 is quite significant because, should its reported range of 5,600 miles be accurate, the newer Chinese submarine-launched nuclear missiles may outrange the U.S. Trident II D5s, reported to operate at ranges up to 4,000 miles. A quick look at a map shows inland portions of mainland China as being roughly 10,000 km or so from the California coast. Simply looking at the math, the JL-3 missiles will likely bring an ability for Chinese nuclear-armed submarines to attack California or other parts of the U.S. from almost anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.
Could Chinese submarine-fired nuclear-armed ballistic missiles outgun or outrange their U.S. equivalents? That may likely remain an open question given that the Pentagon’s life extension plan upgrades to the Trident II D5 increase reliability and performance. Furthermore, the U.S. plans to operate as many as 12 new nuclear-missile-armed Columbia-class submarines. This clearly expands the geographical scope of where they can quietly and secretly operate to hold major high-interest targets at risk.