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.
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.
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The submarine-launched, nuclear armed Trident II D5 ballistic missile will live to fight another day...many days in fact … as the Pentagon is now finalizing a Life-Extension Program for the weapon which will ensure its reliability and use well into the 2040s.
“The W76-1 LEP was completed under budget and ahead of schedule, strengthening the Nation’s safety and security by extending the warhead’s service life from 20 years to 60 years,” The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan – Biennial Plan Summarystated.
In service for decades, often tested and repeatedly upgraded, the three-stage Trident II D5 ballistic missile can travel a nominal range of 4,000 nautical miles and carry multiple independently targeted reentry bodies, according to Navy and Lockheed information.
In recent years, the Navy has been working with Lockheed on a number of key technical upgrades to both modernize and sustain the nuclear weapon. Some of these are ongoing, and others have made sufficient progress, laying the foundation for next-stage sustainment efforts, Navy officials have told The National Interest. These have included work on the weapon’s electronic modules and refinements of the missile’s Mk-6 guidance system.
Hans Kristensen, Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Warrior last year that the D5LE variant increases precision and targeting by using two stars for navigation - instead of one. “This provides more flexibility with regard to the submarine’s precise position.”
At some point in the coming decades, the Trident II D5 will need to be replaced with a new weapon, yet this service extension program for the existing missile will help afford developers the necessary time and developmental trajectory to explore the question. Certainly the aim is to ensure that a credible, potentially catastrophic, second strike threatexists to prevent any kind of major nuclear attack on the U.S. U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarines, armed with Tridents, quietly and secretly patrol the dark depths of the undersea to hold potential adversaries at risk, operating within potential striking range of high-threat targets such as major cities to guarantee a massively destructive response in the event of nuclear attack.
“The Trident II D5 is also single purpose. While it can carry different types of reentry bodies (W76s & W88s), it has one single purpose - strategic nuclear deterrence with assured second strike capability. It’s not tactical. It’s not conventional. So its sole purpose, that is the missile, is to carry reentry bodies,” a Public Affairs Officer for the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs told Warrior last year.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.