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Chinese Nuclear Submarines Will Shift The Asian Balance Of Power

May 24, 2021
Via Chinese media.

President Xi Jinping’s visit to a navy dock on April 24 served as a reminder of his vision for China’s PLAN. Now considered the largest in the world by number of hulls, China’s naval fleet is still expanding at an unprecedented rate. The April 24 visit was for the commissioning of one Type 075 amphibious ship, one Type 055 missile destroyer, and one Type 094 nuclear submarine designed to carry ICBMs. The cumulative tonnage of these vessels may reach an unprecedented 70,000 tons that’s far beyond the growth of other Asian navies. The last vessel in the trio is considered part of the Jin-class; it’s an SSBN model that completes China’s own nuclear triad of ground-launched, air-launched, and submarine-launched ICBMs.

In terms of firepower, role, and technology the single Jin-class being commissioned on April 24 was the most significant vessel at the event. Detailed analysis of this nuclear missile submarine remains scarce although its existence has been known since the late 1990s when China’s naval shipbuilding began to pick up speed. From a US perspective, the Jin-class submarines of the PLAN are a threat it can’t ignore–their armaments are a dozen launchers for the JL-2 SLBM–because these are able to carry out a second strike on North America if a nuclear war ever breaks out across the Pacific Ocean. The US intelligence community along with the Department of Defense (DOD) are convinced the next generation of Chinese submarine-launched ballistic missiles or SLBMs to replace the JL-2 are now being readied for testing and eventual deployment.

What the DOD’s intelligence assessment of the PLAN submarine fleet haven’t determined is exactly how many hulls will be added this decade. When it comes to the Jin-class SSBN the current estimate is a maximum of eight submarines by 2030. In its annual report on the Chinese military last year the DOD asserted a new batch of “Type 093B” nuclear attack submarines or SSNs are going to be assembled and launched in the 2020s. These are additions to the existing Shang I/Shang II SSNs now in service and will likely be optimized for carrying large numbers of subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles. The labeling of these nuclear submarines matters a lot; the SSBNs carry nuclear missiles exist as a deterrent against other world powers while the SSNs or nuclear attack submarines are long endurance vessels for conventional naval warfare even if they too can have nuclear missiles in their inventory. It’s important to point out that China isn’t accountable under the New START treaty between Russia and the USA nor does it have any binding agreements limiting its nuclear capable weapon systems.

Different organizations within the US military have their own perspective on Chinese naval power and the importance of the PLAN submarine fleet. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), for example, sees the PLAN submarine fleet as a mainly conventional force reliant on diesel-electric vessels or SSKs such as the Type 039/039A or Yuan-class submarines–these are deemed similar to the Russian Kilo-class submarine. Figures collected by the ONI segregates the PLAN submarine fleet in 2020 as comprising 55 SSKs, seven SSNs, and just four SSBNs. The ONI’s figures differ from those of the DOD whose annual report on the Chinese military indicates the PLAN submarine fleet has 50 SSKs, six SSNs, and now six SSBNs. Whatever the actual figures China’s naval strength in the Asia-Pacific is inarguable whatever the metric used for measuring its effectiveness.

An important consensus within the US military’s intelligence assessments of China’s military power is its speed in shipbuilding. When it comes to the PLAN submarine fleet, the DOD expects one SSK to be launched each year until 2030, with SSNs launched every two years until 2030, and two SSBNs to be launched by 2030. This means the current PLAN submarine fleet will grow by 15 to 17 vessels in the space of a decade.

The two surface vessels at the April 24 commissioning ceremony are significant too. The warship docked next to the Jin-class SSBN is the impressive Type 055 guided missile destroyer whose dimensions and tonnage qualifies it as the largest surface combatant in Asia. The first Type 055 was launched in 2017 at a shipyard in the Yellow Sea. It’s believed two Type 055’s are assembled each year and eight are now in service with the PLAN with 20 more on the way if construction is maintained until 2030. The real eyecatcher at the event was the enormous Type 075 amphibious assault ship, also known as a Landing Helicopter Dock or LHD, whose size is comparable to the US Marine Corps’ Wasp-class LHDs. Two Type 075 LHDs have been launched since 2019 and if this output is maintained the PLAN will have 10 amphibious assault ships by 2029.

The PLAN’s continuous enlargement poses a clear and immediate threat to countries who are locked in territorial disputes with China. Being able to send its forces abroad and exercise coercive diplomacy reveals the form and nature of Beijing’s power once it’s in violent competition–rather than economic, such as today–against the US. The tabulation below is from the DOD’s 2020 China Military Power Report (download it here) and provides comparative figures for the US Navy based on open sources.

Total Defense Budget (2020)$ 252 Billion$ 738 Billion
Amphibious Assault Ships (LHD)2 (est.)9
Amphibious Transports (LPD)3723
Amphibious Combat Vehicles600+ (est.)2,000+ (est.)
Fighter Aircraft100< (est. J-16)1,000+ (est. F/A-18 Hornets, F-35 A/B/C)
Attack/Bomber AircraftN/A100+ (est. AV-8B Harrier VTOL)
Attack HelicoptersN/A100+ (est. AH-1Z gunship)
Utility Helicopters50< (est.)1,100+ (est.)
Aircraft Carriers211 (1 Ford-class, 10 Nimitz-class)
Cruisers (Type 055)122 (Tyconderoga-class)
Destroyers3273 (Arleigh Burke-class, Zumwalt-class)
Minesweepers30 (est.)8
Fast Attack Craft86N/A
Submarines – Conventional55-60N/A
Submarines – Nuclear10 (SSN, SSBN)71 (SSN, SSBN)

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