The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] has begun replacing its small and aging fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, i. e., five Han-class nuclear-powered attack boats (SSN) and one Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying submarine (SSBN). The first in a new class of SSNs, the Type- 093 Shang-class was launched in 2002 and commissioned in 2006; one additional Type-093 has since also entered service, and some sources estimate that up to eight boats in this class could be built, though other analysts expect that the PLAN will field more advanced Type-095s instead. The PLAN has also launched two new SSBNs of the Type-094 Jin-class, each intended to carry 12 JL- 2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 7,000 kilometers (three times greater than that of the JL-1 SLBM carried by the Xia) once the JL-2 enters operational readiness.
The Type 094 “Jin” class, is expected to be much more capable overall platform. Similar to other nuclear submarines of Chinese design, this class also experienced reactor problems at first. Four boats are reportedly operational, but are expected to remain without ballistic missiles until the ongoing trials of the intercontinental-range JL-2 ballistic missile system are completed. This missile is predicted to have a range of 7,000-8,000 km and could reach targets in Alaska or India from positions in the Yellow or South China Seas. However, due to the missile’s unknown operational status as of October 2014, it is not entirely clear whether China already has a fully functioning sea-based nuclear deterrent capability in place. Given the Cold War era SSBN requirements listed above, providing the necessary technologies is obviously only a minor part of the conditions that need to be fulfilled to reach this goal. Rigorous crew training, regular exercises, and extended global patrols would need to be continuously demonstrated in order for China to match the criteria set by the U. S. Navy.
Compared to other types of warships, reliable information about technical performance data on Chinese nuclear submarines is even harder to come by through open sources. In order to arrive at plausible estimations regarding the maximum level of quieting reached by a submarine design, photographic evidence can be used at least to some degree. Bell describes a method of `visual qualitative analysis comparison’ for making noise level estimations of the Type 094 class: The proper approach involves breaking down the images into separate hydrodynamic design categories. By looking at obvious design factors, including shape, skin friction (sail/surface), flood openings, and propellers a better assessment can be made. […] In addition, utilizing estimated speed to complement these factors would help narrow the sound estimate. Overall, many design features found on acquired technologies from advanced submarine builders, such as the French and Russians, should be considered in use on the Type 094. When discussing these features separately, Bell concludes that “[t]he additional height needed for the JL-2 missile certainly imposes noise penalties.” The shape of the submarine is not optimal as a result of a need to accommodate the missile. All in all, Bell expects the Type 094 class to be markedly more noisy than e. g. the U. S. Ohio class SSBN:
Overall, based on visual qualitative analysis comparison, the Type 094 is likely much louder than the super quiet Ohio. It has a large sail, deviates from the ideal shape, and includes vents. An advanced propeller will mitigate, but not eradicate these problems. However, this is not to say that the Type 094 is going to be a loud platform overall; it is likely a small step ahead of the Delta III SSBN. It is important to consider that the average speed of an SSBN on station is less than five knots; comparisons made in terms of attack boats, which travel in excess of 15 knots have limited applicability. According to reports, the Delta III registered between 125-130 dB at 4-8 knots, the likely speed of an SSBN on patrol. Considering modern propeller design, this correlates with certain Chinese reports, which argue that the Type 094’s acoustic signature was 120 dB (Bell 2009: 34-35).
Regarding a classification of noise levels, Bell notes: “According to E.V. Miasnikov, Senior Research Scientist [. . .] at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a very quiet submarine registers about 100 dB, a quiet submarine about 120 dB, and a loud submarine about 140 dB. If the Type 094 puts out 120 dB at sea, it will be very difficult to track. When the limitations of using one platform (SSNs) to track the Type 094 are considered, the United States Navy will have to make adjustments”
Given the practical difficulties of tracking SSBNs en route, the Type 094 class is thus likely to be a relatively capable and quiet submarine that will effectively provide China with a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent if adequate training and mission competency can be achieved. Moreover, according to Bell, the submarine was “released at the opportune moment in United States anti-submarine warfare (ASW) decline”. After the end of the Cold War, ASW skills in many countries including the U. S. gradually deteriorated due to decreasing emphasis and practice. Citing Christopher McConnaughy, Chief of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Quality Assurance at the United States Strategic Command, Bell notes that nuclear attack submarines are the only platforms capable of continuously tracking SSBN at sea. He further adds:
Once at sea there are a limited number of platforms capable of finding and tracking an SSBN on patrol. There is no guarantee that these platforms will actually find the SSBN, only a probability. The more assets and efforts used, the higher the probability of detection and tracking.
Effective tracking, moreover, requires the integrated use of cues from very diverse sources of information such as “satellite imagery, antisubmarine aircraft, and fixed, passive underwater acoustic arrays”.
Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why the Chinese leadership decided to build a submarine base at Hainan island that provides nuclear submarines with direct access to deeper waters from underwater tunnels drilled into the rock. It is also apparent why China did not publicly announce the building of that base before it was discovered in satellite images published by Jane’s in 2008 (cf. `Secret Sanya’ 2008). The strategic advantages of such a base for China’s nuclear submarines are obvious: “[I]f China bases the Type 094 from this Island, in port satellite imagery becomes impossible”
According to latest source, 094 SSBN armed with JL-2 missiles began deterrent patrol in 2015. The United States Department of Defense believes the missile will give the PLA Navy “its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”
As of 2017, 48 JL-2 launchers are deployed on submarines. As of 2018, China is developing the JL-3 as a future replacement.
China continues to produce the JIN-class SSBN, with four commissioned and at least one other under construction. China’s JIN SSBNs, which are equipped to carry up to 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) SLBMs, are the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent.
The problems resulting from China’s narrow and shallow territorial waters are most relevant for submarine operations but also affect naval surface vessels, at least to some degree. The defining characteristic of the submarine as a naval weapon system is, after all, its ability to hide from enemy view. This ability is compromised in shallow waters, at least for transiting submarines, because “[t]he deeper the submarine can go the bigger the volume of sea it can hide in”. Shallow waters are also difficult terrain to navigate safely, especially for larger submarines such as China’s giant new Jin class SSBN. At over 130 m in length, its hull diameter must be large enough to accommodate the JL-2 missile, which is about 13 m long. Shallow waters therefore not only make such vessels vulnerable to detection, but also to accidental grounding.
China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, reportedly to be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, will likely begin construction in the early-2020s. Based on the 40-plus-year service life of China’s first-generation SSNs, China will operate its JIN and Type 096 SSBN fleets concurrently.