Grappling With New Capabilities and Concepts
China’s burgeoning SSBN fleet and the ways other countries respond will have far-reaching consequences for strategic stability in the Asia Pacific. In some respects, perceptions matter nearly as much as material capabilities. After all, how China conceptualizes strategic stability and how all relevant actors formulate and articulate their threat perceptions will profoundly shape the security ramifications of these far-reaching changes.
China’s Fast-Growing SSBN Capabilities
On September 29, 2015, according to a PLA Daily report, China’s Central Military Commission awarded the Forty-First Crew based at the Yalong Bay naval base on Hainan Island the prestigious First-Class Merit Medal.1 Many analysts believe that the team received this award for conducting the first successful patrol on China’s second-generation SSBN, the 094 class.2 Either way, two years before that, this same Forty-First Crew reportedly received another award for successfully test launching China’s second-generation submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the JL-2.3 These successes were the result of decades of persistent efforts.
China’s SSBN program can be traced back to 1958, when the country’s leaders decided to start developing nuclear submarines.4 By the late 1980s, China had commissioned its first-generation 092-class SSBN, but that ship did not conduct any patrols.5 It was reportedly too noisy and might have had other safety and reliability issues. Moreover, the missiles it carried had very short ranges. The introduction of the JL-2 and the first patrol by the 094-class SSBN—mean that China has obtained, for the first time, a demonstrably operational underwater nuclear capability. This represents the start of a new era for China’s sea-based nuclear forces.
China’s burgeoning SSBN fleet and the ways other countries respond will have far-reaching consequences for strategic stability in the Asia Pacific.
The Pentagon has indicated that China has already deployed four 094-class SSBNs, according to a 2018 annual report to Congress on Chinese military activities.6 The 2016 version of this report stated that China would build up to five 094-class SSBNs in total before moving on to build a third-generation SSBN, the 096 class, which might be armed with the new JL-3 SLBM.7 A top senior U.S. military official and some civilian experts, however, have suggested that China’s plans might be more expansive. For example, when he testified to Congress in 2015, then commander of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Samuel Locklear implied that China might build up to eight 094-class SSBNs.8
Although the Chinese government itself has not revealed any details about the total planned size of its SSBN fleet, some retired senior Chinese military officers have argued that China should build up this force significantly. For example, retired Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo stated in 2014 that, within the next eight to twelve years, China will need at least eight SSBNs.9 Retired Major General Zhu Chenghu went even further and argued that, to deter any country from launching a nuclear first strike against China, Beijing will need to maintain three to five SSBNs on patrol constantly.10 If that is the case, China would need to possess about eight to fifteen SSBNs, given the constraints imposed by maintenance requirements. If China were to follow the advice of these experts, it would end up with a substantially larger SSBN fleet than the United Kingdom (UK) and France and might even surpass the size of the U.S. and Russian fleets.
Since China’s first 094-class SSBN reportedly achieved initial operational capability in the late 2000s,11 the relative significance of China’s sea-based nuclear force has grown rapidly. Now Chinese SLBM launchers constitute a plurality (48 percent) of all Chinese ballistic missile launchers that could potentially launch strikes against the continental United States, as figure 1 illustrates.12 Construction on China’s 096-class SSBN may start by the early 2020s.13 The size of China’s SSBN force and the rapid pace of its development indicate that it is a top priority for China.
China’s Understanding of Strategic Stability
The rapid growth of China’s SSBN fleet and other countries’ responses to it will profoundly affect the strategic stability of the Asia Pacific. Strategic stability is a term that originated in Western strategic thinking and whose definition varies from author to author. For the purposes of this report, strategic stability consists of two basic components: crisis stability and arms race stability.14 Crisis stability can be assumed to exist when there is a low risk of an incident during peacetime inadvertently sparking a military crisis and when a country does not have incentives to use nuclear weapons first during a conventional military crisis. Meanwhile, arms race stability is when a country lacks incentives to build up nuclear and related supporting and enabling conventional capabilities. Theoretically, a highly survivable nuclear force would contribute to both crisis and arms race stability by reducing the incentives for countries to act preemptively in a crisis or to build a bigger arsenal in peacetime.
China’s growing SSBN force may affect crisis stability in several ways. For instance, command-and-control challenges associated with the country’s SSBN force might affect top policymakers’ capability to maintain high situational awareness during a crisis. Bad situational awareness and concerns about losing control of these strategic capabilities could make policymakers more prone to thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios and lead them to use such weapons earlier than necessary. Depending on China’s specific deployment strategies, the country’s growing SSBN capability might reinforce (or undermine) the existing firewall between nuclear and conventional weapons, making a future conventional military conflict less (or more) likely to escalate to the nuclear level. Existing Chinese SSBNs would depend heavily on conventional general-purpose forces for their survivability. This raises the question of what kind of signals the country’s deployment and employment of such support forces during a crisis might send to an adversary and how those signals could affect escalation.
With regard to arms race stability, if China’s SSBNs significantly contribute to the credibility of its overall nuclear deterrent, China would have less of an incentive to further enlarge its nuclear arsenal. That said, the survivability of its current generation of SSBNs is in question because of various technical and operational uncertainties. Moreover, foreign countries may view Chinese efforts to build up its SSBN fleet as part of a worrying trend of nuclear expansion that some observers worry could culminate in a Chinese sprint to parity with the United States and Russia (which, today, have much larger nuclear arsenals than China). Other countries may, therefore, react to China’s SSBN development in ways that intensify the existing nuclear competition. To complicate matters further, there is uncertainty about whether China’s SSBN development program has been guided by a clear strategic goal, or whether it is instead primarily driven by resource availability and/or parochial bureaucratic interests. If the program lacks a clearly defined strategic goal, then it may be more difficult for China to demonstrate that it will not keep expanding its SSBN force beyond what is needed for a minimum deterrent capability.
The rapid growth of China’s SSBN fleet and other countries’ responses to it will profoundly affect the strategic stability of the Asia Pacific.
The implications of China’s SSBN force for conventional arms races more generally also deserve serious attention. To protect its SSBNs, China needs to significantly increase its conventional general-purpose forces and may need to shift from a sea-denial to a sea-control deployment strategy in some parts of its coastal waters. Such an expansion of conventional forces and military goals would almost inevitably raise concerns in the region, especially among the states involved in serious maritime territorial disputes around the South China Sea.
For various reasons, China has not paid much attention to how its military developments—including its sea-based nuclear weapons—may affect strategic stability. The most important reason is that this Western term was only introduced to the Chinese strategic community in recent decades. In traditional Chinese parlance, strategic stability is a much broader concept that refers to a general state of balance between countries along various dimensions, including security, military power, alliance relations, and economic strength.15 This general, abstract approach to strategic stability has long prevented Chinese analysts from thoroughly examining the potential impact of their military developments on crisis and arms race stability.
That said, as they interact with Western counterparts more, Chinese nuclear and strategic experts are becoming increasingly familiar with the Western concept of strategic stability, and they have started to use it as an analytical framework in their own research.16 At the same time, as China’s relative global power grows and as the country becomes a key stakeholder on regional and international security issues, it is increasingly in Beijing’s interest to prevent unnecessary crisis escalation and contain potential arms races.
Up until now, China’s traditional emphasis on its own political intentions may have been preventing the country from fully appreciating the significance and impact of its own actions on strategic stability. Chinese experts view the country’s development of SSBNs as driven exclusively by the defensive goal of reinforcing its second-strike nuclear capabilities, so they view this endeavor as fully justified, totally normal, and entirely legitimate. Confident that Beijing has no offensive or aggressive intentions, these experts rarely realize that other countries might interpret China’s SSBN program differently.
To the extent that Chinese experts have examined China’s development of SSBNs through the framework of strategic stability (in the Western sense), they have generally concluded that Chinese SSBNs have a positive impact. They reason that, by allowing China to keep a credible nuclear deterrent, the country’s SSBN fleet helps maintain a relationship of mutually assured destruction between China and the United States and reduces the likelihood of a nuclear conflict.17 This view is certainly true under certain conditions, but this simplified perspective does not consider the risk of unintended negative consequences.
Against this backdrop, the major implications—positive and negative—of China’s growing SSBN force for strategic stability deserve careful attention. China’s own conception of the impact its SSBNs will have on strategic stability can inform a systematic analysis of the much broader and more complex impact of such capabilities on both crisis stability and arms race stability. A key variable for assessing strategic stability in this respect is Chinese SSBNs’ survivability, both in terms of the inherent survivability of China’s SSBN fleet and how different operational strategies may affect it.
Other important variables complicate this picture. For instance, there are competitive interactive dynamics between the United States’ strategic anti-submarine-warfare (ASW) capabilities and possible Chinese countermeasures to protect its SSBNs: certain anti-submarine and pro-SSBN capabilities and tactics may impact strategic stability. Moreover, new technologies—particularly unmanned systems—might change the strategic stability equation in the future. Finally, to help reduce the risk of China’s SSBN forces and U.S. ASW assets sparking instability in the region, there are a number of cooperative and reciprocal confidence-building measures that Beijing and Washington should pursue. Apart from that, China has a few unilateral steps that it should take to ensure that the growth of its SSBN fleet is as undisruptive as possible to regional security dynamics and to its own security interests.
1 Wang Lingshuo (王凌硕) and Gao Yi (高毅), “Celebration Assembly Held for Central Military Commission’s Awarding of First-Class Merit Medal to Forty-First Crew of a Submarine Base of the South Sea Fleet” [中央军委给南海舰队某潜艇基地41艇员队记一等功庆功大会举行], PLA Daily (解放军报) September 30, 2015.
2 That said, the U.S. Department of Defense stated in April 2016 that “China will probably conduct its first SSBN nuclear deterrence patrol sometime in 2016,” implying that China had not yet done so. One possible explanation for this disparity is that China and the United States define SSBN patrols differently and that the speculated patrol in 2015 did not meet the U.S. definition. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2016).
3 “Foreign Media: China Sent Its Nuclear Submarine for First Combat Patrol” [外媒：中国派遣核潜艇进行首次战斗巡航], Reference News (参考消息), October 04, 2015.
4 Ling Xiang (凌翔), “Birth of China’s Nuclear Submarine” [中国核潜艇诞生记], Modern Weapons (现代兵器), no. 11 (2001).
5 Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, April 4, 2008); Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Matthew G. McKinzie, “Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning” (Washington DC: Federation of American Scientists/Natural Resources Defense Council, 2006).
6 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2018 (Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018).
7 The JL-3 reportedly would have a longer range than the existing JL-2 but may not become operational in the immediate future. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2016.
8 There is some debate about whether Locklear meant that China will deploy five 094-class SSBNs in total or five additional submarines. If he meant the latter, his implication that China will deploy eight 094-class SSBNs by the end of this decade is considerably higher than the usual assessment of four to five submarines provided by the Pentagon in its more recent annual reports to Congress. Samuel J. Locklear, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea, Hearing Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 113th Cong. (2015) (statement of Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, April 16, 2015).
Some U.S. scholars also predict that China will deploy eight 094-type SSBNs. See, for example, China’s Military Reforms and Modernization: Implications for the United States, Hearing Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 115th Cong. (2018) (testimony by Michael S. Chase entitled “PLA Rocket Force Modernization and China’s Military Reforms” (Washington, DC: February 15, 2018).
9 “Today’s Focus” (今日关注), China Central Television (央视网), December 24, 2014.
10 Qiu Yue (邱越), “Risk Still Exists for Our Nuclear Submarine Far Sea Patrols: Two Methods to Break Through Island Chain” [我国核潜艇远洋巡航仍存风险 两种方式可穿越岛链], People.cn (人民网), http://military.people.com.cn/n/2015/0206/c1011-26518293.html.
11 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2009 (Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2009).
12 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2018,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74, no. 4 (2018): 289–295.
13 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2018.
14 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2017).
15 See, for example, Wang Jin and Li Wensheng, “The Controversies Over the Two Plus Two: The Missile Defense and Strategic Weapons of the United States and Russia”
[‘2+2’的‘是非题’ 美俄反导及战略武器], Ordnance Knowledge, no. 5 (2008); Xu Nengwu (徐能武), “The Threats and Challenges to Outer Space Security Posed by the Adjustment of the U.S. Strategic Deterrent System” [美国战略威慑体系调整对外层空间安全的潜在威胁与挑战], National Defense Science and Technology, no. 2 (2013).
16 See, for example, Lu Yin, “Establishing New China-U.S. Strategic Stability: Opportunities and Challenges,” Program On Strategic Stability Evaluation (Posse), 2012.
17 Comments made by Chinese experts at a workshop organized by the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy on February 11, 2015. The workshop, entitled Confidence-Building and Maritime Strategic Stability in the Asia-Pacific, was attended by military and civilian experts from think tanks and research institutes.