A new Chinese nuclear submarine designed to carry missiles that can hit the U.S. will likely deploy before year’s end, the Pentagon said, adding to Obama administration concerns over China’s muscle-flexing in Asia.
China’s navy is expected this year to conduct the first patrol of its Jin-class nuclear-powered submarine armed with JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a statement. It declined to give its level of confidence on when the new boat will be deployed or the status of the missile.
“The capability to maintain continuous deterrent patrols is a big milestone for a nuclear power,” Larry Wortzel, a member of the congressionally created U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said in an e-mail. “I think the Chinese would announce this capability as a show of strength and for prestige.”
The submarines are part of an effort to modernize China’s military under President Xi Jinping, who will be in Washington Thursday and Friday for a state visit with U.S. President Barack Obama. U.S.-China defense cooperation and competition will be among the topics discussed by the two leaders. The Pentagon and DIA had previously predicted the patrols would start last year.
“Don’t discount the likelihood of threat inflation by the Pentagon because of the shift toward the Asia-Pacific in the revised maritime strategy,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
China set out its ambitions for a bigger naval presence far from its coasts in its 2015 defense white paper released in May this year, saying it would add “open seas protection” to “offshore waters defense” to a list of core naval missions.
Wortzel said his commission’s 2015 report probably will include a comment from PLA Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli, who said the submarine-missile combination is “a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified.”
China’s increased naval might, as well as its assertion to territory in the contested South China Sea and East China Sea, has helped spur the region’s largest military buildup in decades and caused disquiet in the U.S. about its role as the region’s peace keeper.
“The United States is a Pacific power,” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in a speech on Sept. 21. “We’ve been the guarantor of stability in the region for the past 70 years. President Obama has made it clear that we have vital interests in Asia and the Pacific, and a good part of our foreign policy has been focused on our rebalance to Asia.”
China currently has at least four Jin-class submarines. Fifty-one years after the country carried out its first nuclear test, patrols by the new submarines will give Xi greater agility to respond to a nuclear attack, according to analysts.
“Of all the PLA strategic deterrence capabilities, the sea- based link is the most closely guarded secret because it is meant to be the most secure of the deterrents for China,” said Koh, who studies China’s naval modernization.
Sending the submarines on patrol is a significant step because JL-2 missiles have a range of about 4,598 miles (7,398 kilometers.) The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has said the missiles could reach Alaska if launched from waters near Japan and all 50 U.S. states from waters east of Hawaii.
“The chances of getting a submarine east of Hawaii at a time when tensions are high, would be relatively low,” said Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “But it’s not a possibility you can completely discount.”
Xi earlier this month announced plans to cut 300,000 troops and vowed never to seek “hegemony or expansion.” While the move represents the largest cut to the People’s Liberation Army in almost two decades, it may only accelerate the arms buildup in the Asia-Pacific region.
The move will speed the PLA’s transition from a large, land-based army built over decades of invasions, civil war and border conflicts to a modern, mechanized force able to defend China’s territorial integrity and growing interests abroad.
“The more modern their weapons, the fewer personnel needed,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor, who served as a commissioner on the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “Less money spent on personnel means more money for airplanes, submarines, frigates, missiles.”
The JL-2 “has nearly three times the range” of China’s current sea-launched ballistic missile “which was only able to range targets in the immediate vicinity of China,” the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence said in an April report on China’s Navy. The JL-2 “underwent successful testing in 2012 and is likely ready to enter the force,” it said. “Once deployed it will provide China with a capability to strike targets” in the continental U.S., it said.
Koh said reports indicate the PLA may still be conducting JL-2 tests. “If the missiles aren’t operational yet, there is no reason to send them out on patrol,” he said.
There is speculation that China is developing a new 096 Tang class nuclear-powered submarine that may be able to carry as many as 24 ballistic missiles, twice as many as the Jin-class 094 submarines, Koh said.
“So the most likely scenario is that the JL-2 is likely to be in the final stages of testing, and has been deemed successful, otherwise they wouldn’t be going ahead with the development of the 096,” said Koh.
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