China makes ‘big progress’ on nuclear strike range with new submarine-launched missile

  • Navy carried out a flight test in the Yellow Sea late last month, though its range of 9,000km is still far behind that of the American and Russian submarine-launched ballistic missiles
  • Analysts say China wants to show its deterrent capability, not enter into an arms race
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 3:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 5:01am

China has carried out a flight test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile in the Yellow Sea, as the navy seeks to develop its nuclear deterrent and counter-attack capabilities.

The Chinese navy tested the JL-3 missile in the Bohai Bay late last month, a source familiar with the matter told the South China Morning Post.

The new missile has a flight range of about 9,000km (5,600 miles), which is less than the 12,000km (7,500-mile) range of the American Trident II and Russian Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

But the source said the successful flight test still represented a significant advance for the PLA since its predecessor, the JL-2, had a flight range of only 7,000km (4,350 miles).

“It’s still big progress, although it’s still far less powerful than the Trident or the Russian Bulava … their flight range means they can reach any targets in the world,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The JL SLBMs have a shorter range because the Chinese military has so far failed to make any significant technology breakthroughs in developing nuclear-powered submarines,” the source added.

Citing US intelligence sources, the news site Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday reported that the flight test was conducted on November 24 and was launched from a modified conventional submarine.

The JL or Julang series – meaning “big wave” in Chinese – are intercontinental ballistic missiles designed for China’s nuclear-powered submarines, as part of the People’s Liberation Army strategy to extend the country’s nuclear deterrent capabilities from land to sea.

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Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said those capabilities would be given a significant boost when the JL-3 achieved its full flight range.

China’s land-based ICBM has a flight range of 12,000km and could potentially hit any target on the US mainland within an hour.

“If China can improve the strike capability of the JL-3, it will give it more bargaining power on military, diplomatic and economic issues,” Li said.

That could happen in four years, when China’s next-generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are launched, according to Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping. He said with those submarines in service, the JL-3 would be able to reach its full potential.

“But China really just wants to show its nuclear deterrent capability – that’s Beijing’s long-held nuclear strategy. It won’t get involved in a nuclear arms race with the US and Russia by developing thousands of expensive nuclear warheads and SSBNs,” said Song, a military commentator with Phoenix Television, referring to nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

“Beijing will only develop a small number of SSBNs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles because its main focus is to make sure the PLA has the most effective and powerful second strike counter-attack capability in the event that the country is hit by nuclear weapons.”

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Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming also said China would not catch up in terms of quantity but would instead focus on improving its technology to narrow the gap with the US and Russia on nuclear-powered submarines and missiles.

“The JL-3 can hit the US, but not the whole country,” he said. “It’s a fact that the US and Russia have far more advanced technology for their nuclear-powered submarines and ballistic missiles.”

China has four nuclear-powered submarines, each outfitted with 16 JL-2 missiles, but the Type 096 next-generation submarines will be able to carry up to 24 JL-3s, according to an annual Pentagon report to the US Congress about China’s military build-up.

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Meanwhile, the US Navy has 18 Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines, with 14 capable of carrying up to 24 powerful Trident I missiles. But it is also developing its next-generation Columbia-class submarines, which will carry 16 of its most advanced Trident II missiles.

Western media estimate the Russian navy has 10 nuclear-powered submarines, with three of its new-generation Borei-class vessels capable of carrying 16 Bulava missiles each. Moscow is expected to finish work on five more upgraded Borei-class submarines by 2020, according to Russian United Shipbuilding Company.