Shortcomings Persist in China's Submarine-Based Nuke Force: Report

China's ballistic missile submarine force lacks the ability to mount a major counteroffensive following a potential nuclear strike against the nation, the Straits Times reported on Monday (see GSN, June 1).

The limitation stems from the vessels' inability to coordinate with their control centers, as well as the storage of launch vehicles and their warheads at separate locations under an oversight system providing insufficient control to navy commanders.

"The [People's Liberation Army] has only a limited capacity to communicate with submarines at sea, and [the PLA navy] has no experience in managing a [submarine] fleet that performs strategic patrols with live nuclear warheads mated to missiles," the U.S. Defense Department said in 2010.

It is possible to ultimately address the first of the two issues, but the second concern lacks a viable solution, according to one observer.

"It would require a major change in Chinese nuclear policy and practice for Beijing to deploy a second-strike nuclear capability at sea," said Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. "This goes both for deploying nuclear weapons on a military platform, something which the [Chinese Central Military Commission] has never to my knowledge ever allowed, and sailing SSBNs [ballistic missile submarines] on patrols, which they have never done.

"They would also have to resolve the complex issue of how to maintain reliable command-and-control with a nuclear-armed submarine at sea," Kristensen added.

"Even if one assumed that the Chinese leadership would, in a crisis, release warheads to the navy, deploying them raises all the thorny issues of how they would react in a crisis if an SSBN went missing or they couldn't communicate with it," he said. "Would they assume it had been sunk and therefore consider it an attack on China, leading them to launch nuclear weapons?"

In addition, the predicted 4,600-mile maximum flight distance of China's developmental JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile raises complications in targeting the United States.

"If strategy and survival were the issues, then China would focus its nuclear retaliatory capability on (mobile) land-based missiles that it can hide deep inside its vast territory," Kristensen said (Robert Karniol, Straits Times, June 4).

The United States intends "of necessity" to field three-fifths of its naval forces in the Pacific Ocean by the end of the decade, the Associated Press on Sunday quoted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying (Eric Talmadge, Associated Press I/ABC News, June 3).

Panetta said Washington and Beijing "both understand the differences we have, we both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military) relationship" (Lolita Baldor, Associated Press II/Google News, June 2).

Panetta's statement prompted a fairly limited Chinese response on Monday, Reuters reported.

"At present, the grand trend and broad aspiration of the Asia-Pacific region is towards seeking peace, fostering cooperation and encouraging development," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said. "All sides should strive to preserve and promote regional peace, stability and development. The approach of artificially stressing military security, enhancing military deployments and strengthening military alliances is out of keeping with the times" (Chris Buckley, Reuters, June 4).

June 4, 2012

China's ballistic missile submarine force lacks the ability to mount a major counteroffensive following a potential nuclear strike against the nation, the Straits Times reported on Monday.