The U.S. seems to have underestimated China’s nuclear submarine strength while also overestimating the subs under operation. According to latest reports, only half of the country’s nuclear-armed SSBNs (Submersible Ships with Ballistic missles, Nuclear powered) seem to be operational.
More nuclear subs
Long-term observations of satellite imagery suggest that Beijing is building five nuclear subs, one more than the U.S. estimated. Of the five hulls in production, three were discovered to be at the Longpo Naval Facility and two were being developed at Bohai shipyard.
“China is continuing to modernize its nuclear weapons program, broadly… There’s a big emphasis on the SSBN program because all of their deliverable nuclear weapons are on land-based systems. Expanding into these SSBNs gives China more flexibility and credibility,” Catherine Dill of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said to Defense One.
China also seems to have only two 094 nuclear submarines in operation, contrary to the U.S. Defense Department’s claim that four 094s were operational. The remaining two submarines are undergoing maintenance at the Bohai shipyard. The reason why China is seeking more nuclear submarines is pretty simple — Beijing is afraid of new non-nuclear technologies like precision strike weapons.
These new weapons are so sophisticated and accurate that they could cripple China’s nuclear arsenal if any other country decides to attack first. This has Beijing worried, which is why the military is trying to develop and induct additional nuclear submarines as fast as they can.
Theoretically, China will need at least 4 nuclear submarines in order to keep one deployed all the time since the remaining three would need to undergo scheduled maintenance. So, if Beijing believes that it requires two nuclear subs active at all times, then it will need a fleet of eight subs.
Beijing is also developing advanced submarine technologies with the aim of exceeding American capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) electric powered jet propulsor is said to be quieter than any existing submarine propulsion system in the West. This makes the submarine much harder to detect.
“This is one of our work team’s first world-leading projects, which has been used on [China’s] next-generation nuclear submarines… [Our technology] is now way ahead of the United States, which has also been developing similar technology,” Ma Weiming, PLAN Rear Admiral, said in an interview with China Central Television (The National Interest).
The Chinese military is strongly focusing on modernizing its submarine fleet by making changes to existing ones and developing new ones. The upcoming generation of submarines, the 095 attack submarines and 096 ballistic missile submarines, are expected to feature the new propulsion technology.
“The PLAN is rapidly retiring legacy combatants in favor of larger, multi-mission ships equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors. This modernization aligns with China’s ongoing shift from ‘near sea’ defense to a hybrid strategy of ‘near sea’ defense and ‘far seas’ protection, with the PLAN conducting operational tasks outside the so-called ‘first island chain’ with multi-mission, long-range, sustainable naval platforms that have robust self-defense capabilities,” said a U.S. Defense Department report.
As of late 2018, the U.S. Navy operates 56 attack submarines. Navy officials have indicated to the government that it will require 10 more submarines to add to the fleet.