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Chinese submarines are fast developing new abilities to hold the continental U.S. at risk of catastrophic nuclear attack from submarines, according to a Pentagon report.
China already operates six Jin-class SSBNs, or nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, armed with JL-2 missiles, yet the People’s Liberation Army is preparing to produce a far more lethal, longer-range JL-3 nuclear-armed ballistic missile variant.
“As the PRC fields newer, more capable, and longer-ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLAN will gain the ability to target the continental United States from littoral waters, and thus may consider bastion operations to enhance the survivability of its sea-based deterrent,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
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JL-2 and JL-3 Missiles
Unlike the JL-2 which fires at more limited ranges, the now-in-development JL-3 will reportedly operate with an ability to travel as far as 5,600 miles. This means Jin-class submarines will not need to operate closer to shore to hold the continental U.S. at risk.
“The current range limitations of the JL-2 will require the JIN to operate in areas north and east of Hawaii if the PRC seeks to target the east coast of the United States,” the Pentagon report states. The JL-3 changes this substantially.
The PRC now operates six JIN SSBNs, equipped to carry up to 12 JL-2 missiles, yet the range of these weapons restricts or limits the operational envelope should the boat seek to hold specific high-value U.S. targets at risk. This means Chinese commanders have less geographical flexibility and might operate with a higher chance of being detected.
This range extension with the JL-3 is quite significant because, should its reported range of 5,600 miles be accurate, the newer Chinese submarine-launched nuclear missiles may outrange the U.S. Trident II D5s reported to operate at ranges up to 4,000 miles. A quick look at a map shows inland portions of mainland China as being roughly 10,000kms or so from the California coast. Simply looking at the math, the JL-3 missiles will likely bring an ability for Chinese nuclear-armed submarines to attack California or other parts of the U.S. from almost anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.
Could Chinese submarine-fired, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles outgun or outrange their U.S. equivalents? That may likely remain an open question given that the Pentagon’s life extension plan upgrades to the Trident II D5 increase reliability and performance. Furthermore, the U.S. plans to operate as many as 12 new nuclear-missile armed Columbia-class submarines. This clearly expands the geographical scope of where they can quietly and secretly operate to hold major high-interest targets at risk.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.