China reportedly deployed its first-ever submarine nuclear deterrence patrol. What does it mean?
During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was ultimately perceived to be an effective way of keeping tensions between the Warsaw Pact and NATO from exploding into war. Although much of the rhetoric surrounding Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) disappeared along with the Soviet Union, nuclear states still keep sizable arsenals to dissuade others from attacking them.
A central part of having a credible nuclear response option is to develop a so-called “nuclear triad.” This consists of having ground-, air- and sea-based nuclear capabilities, in order to retain a “second strike” capability in case an opponent launches its nukes first. Submarines and small, mobile land-based launch platforms armed with nuclear ballistic and so-called Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) are crucial to a second strike capability, since they are difficult to detect and target.
China has recently achieved some important milestones with regards to both these capabilities. According to IHS Jane’s, U.S. military officials confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has deployed a Type-094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic submarine on a nuclear deterrence patrol. If true, this represents the first time that China has deployed a sub on this kind of mission.
Due to the secrecy surrounding China’s military in general, it is impossible to confirm whether this boat is actually armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. However, U.S. four-star Admiral Cecil Haney is assuming so: “Have they put the missile we’ve seen them test, in for a package that is doing strategic deterrent patrols? I have to consider them today that they are on strategic patrol.”
Furthermore, China also recently tested one of its land-based ICBMs. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the Second Artillery Corps successfully fired a long-range Dongfeng-41 ICBM on December 4. The latest flight test demonstrated the use of MIRVs. The missile launch and dummy warheads were tracked by satellites to an impact range in western China.
It was the second flight test this year of the DF-41 and the fifth since 2012, when the missile was tested for the first time. U.S. intelligence assessments suggest that the missile will be capable of carrying between three and 10 warheads. The two most recent missile flight tests took place August 6, also with two dummy warheads, and just over a year ago, on December 13. As Franz-Stefan Gady has previously reported, the DF-41 has a reported range of between 12,000-15,000 kilometers, which covers all of the United States and most of Russia. Gady notes,“The most recent U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report notes that the missile could be already deployed this year; however, a 2018-2020 time frame appears much more likely, according to independent experts.”