Strategic Weapons: Chinese SLBM Triumph


June 16, 2021: In April China celebrated the 72nd Anniversary of Communist China’s Navy and in doing so revealed details of some recent accomplishments. This included details of improved Chinese SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) and the two types of SLBMs (sub launched ballistic missiles) available for their SSBNs. The older SLBM is the 42-ton JL(Julang)-2, which is 13 meters (43 feet) long and two meters (6.5 feet) in diameter with a range of 7,200 kilometers. The warhead can carry one large (megaton yield) nuclear weapon or three to eight smaller warheads each programmed to hit a different target. The more recent JL-3 has a longer range (about 10,000 kilometers) and was not much larger or heavier than the JL-2. This was accomplished by using a lighter version of the JL-2 warhead (carrying up to three warheads) with redesigned rocket motors and missile casing to achieve longer range without a significantly larger or heavier missile.

China also revealed that all six of its Type 94 SSBNs were built as, or upgraded to, the latest Type 94A standard and the last of these was put into service just before the navy anniversary celebration. Most of the 94A improvements were known but now China revealed that one of those upgrades involved modifying the sixteen 94A missile silos so they could handle either the JL-2 or JL-3. It was also disclosed that this feature was developed in part so the new Type 96 SSBNs under construction could carry 24 JL-2s or JL-3s. That was necessary because China has had a lot of problems developing reliable and longer range SLBMs. Most of these reliability problems were solved about five years ago, enabling work on the JL-3 to proceed. The Type 96 SSBNs were always meant to carry the longer range JL-3 but it wasn’t until some fundamental Chinese SLBM reliability problems were solved that the Type 96 was certain of having the JL-3. The first Type 96 is nearly completed and should be entering sea trails in the next year or so.

The Type 96 will have all the improvements developed for the 94A plus some new ones. The 94A SSBNs differ from the first two Type 094s to include a different shaped sail containing improved equipment. The aft (rear) ends of the 94As now have storage space for a towed sonar array. This type of passive (listen-only) sonar can be deployed behind the sub via a cable that supplies power and links the sonar with the onboard computers and digital libraries of known underwater sounds. The towed sonar operates in an environment where there are no noises from the sub to muddle the sounds detected and improve the SSBN’s ability to detect other subs, particularly American Virginia class SSNs that might be tracking them or trying to. Another potential threat is quieter diesel-electric Japanese or South Koreans subs that can stay underwater for weeks at a time searching for Chinese surface ships and subs. The Type 94A upgrades included more powerful computers and additional data storage. There were also upgrades to the torpedo tubes and torpedo control systems as well as a long list of minor mechanical and electronic upgrades throughout the sub.

Two 094s under construction were completed in 2019 as Type 94A while the last two (of six) Type 94a were built as 94As to see if the upgrades worked. For years it was known that some of the earlier four Type 94s were being upgraded and now it has been confirmed that all of them were.

The Type 94 is an 8,000-ton (on the surface) sub that is 138 meters long. Construction on one of the new Type 96 SSBNs was confirmed as under construction and nearly completed. A year ago, it was unclear if the first Type 96 was being built. This is because Chinese nuclear subs are built in sheds making satellite photos impossible. Even so, by 2020 it was believed that the first Type 96 would be in service by the end of the decade.

The Type 94A is comparable to American Franklin class SSBNs that entered service in the late 1960s. These served into the 1990s when they were replaced by the much-improved Ohio class. China seems to be seeking to make a similar leap with the Type 96 SSBN, which will build on all China has learned about SSBNs in the last few decades.

The second generation Chinese SSBN, the Type 94, entered service in 2007 but was limited by its poor performance and the persistent problems with the JL-2 SLBM it was designed to carry. China apparently hopes to avoid all this partial success with the Type 96 SSBN and Jl-3 SLBM. That approach often works for the Chinese, who are persistent in these matters and are willing to keep at it even after decades of partial successes.

The Type 94 SSBNs carry twelve JL- 2 SLBMs. The missile has had a lot of problems as have the SSBNs that carry them. The JL-2 enabled China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 class SSBN cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. China concluded that putting their SSBNs that far out into the Pacific was impractical as the United States and its Pacific allies had submarine detection aircraft and other submarine detection systems on surface ships or submarines that could detect SSBNs seeking to get close to North America with shorter range JL-2 SLBMs. The JL-3 enables Chinese SSBNs to operate more safely in the Western Pacific. One reason for Chinese efforts to take control of the South China Sea and other waters off the coasts of Japan is to make it safer for their SSBNs to operate undetected. During the Cold War Russia established a similar protected “Bastion” off its arctic north coast. American SSNs were able to penetrate the Bastion but with difficulty and these penetration operations were not frequent.

JL-2s are naval versions of the existing land-based 42-ton DF-31 ICBM. The JL-2 was supposed to have entered service by 2015 but kept failing test launches. China decided that JL-2 was reliable enough and ordered it installed in all six of the Type 94 SLBMs. Now there is also an improved SLBM, the JL-3, which is more reliable because of recent reliability improvements developed for the JL-2.

No Chinese SSBN has ever gone on a long-range combat cruise to the East Pacific because these boats, as well as the SLBMs, have been very unreliable. Initially the JL-3 was called the JL-2A and was supposed to be a more reliable JL-2. It turned out that the JL-2A was the JL-3, a different design but similar in size to the JL-2 for the reasons recently revealed. China is also sending some SSBNs on long range combat patrols towards Hawaii just to test the effectiveness of the American SSBN detection and tracking capabilities.

The current American Ohio class SSBNs are 171 meters long and displace 15,600 (on the surface) tons. They are being replaced with the new Columbia class SSBNs, which will be about the same length as the Ohios but about 5 percent larger in diameter and displace 18,500 tons. The Ohios were based on 1980s technology and, although upgraded over the years, are showing their age. The Ohios entered service between 1981 and 1997. Originally there were to be 24 Ohios but only 18 were built. With the end of the Cold War in 1991 even fewer were needed and four were converted to SSGNs (carrying cruise missiles instead of SLBMs), a process that was completed in 2008. Originally built to last 30 years, it was later realized that this service life could be extended to at least 42 years. That means the Ohios will begin reaching retirement age in 2023 and the entire class will be gone by the late 2030s. If no replacement class of SSBNs is built the SSBNs will be gone.

The first American SSBNs were the five 6,000-ton boats of the George Washington class. These were basically an SSN design that was enlarged to add a missile compartment for 16 Polaris missiles. The first of these boats entered service in 1960 and was soon joined by five of the 6,900-ton Ethan Allen class, which was designed from the start as an SSBN. These entered service in the early 1960s. Basically, this was an improved George Washington class. Next came nine 7,200-ton Lafayette class boats, with the first entering service in 1963, and the last one decommissioned in 1994. The next two classes (James Madison and Benjamin Franklin) were similar, with incremental improvements. The incremental improvements were not trivial. The Benjamin Franklins had much quieter machinery, better electronics and enough room to handle the Trident 1 missile. The last of the Franklins was decommissioned in 2002, after over 30 years of service, leaving just the Ohios.

In their first fifty years, U.S. SSBNs have made nearly 4,000 deployments (gone to sea for 11-12 weeks at a time). By 2009 the Ohios completed their 1,000th deployment. After the late 1990s, the number of deployments each year declined by about half in large part because the need (potential for nuclear war) greatly decreased.

One area where China was way behind was the design and construction of SLBMs but they have worked hard to close the gap with American SLBMs. Chinese media announced successful tests of JL-3 SLBM in late 2020. What was still unknown until recently was if the JL-3 was larger than the JL-2 to the point where it would not fit in the Type 94A SSBNs. The JL-3 may be the first Chinese SLBM reliable enough to use regularly in Chinese SSBNs and allow them to operate at sea frequently and reliably.

Development problems also delayed the first Chinese SLBM, the JL-1, from entering regular service. Work on the JL-1 began in the late 1960s and it was designed as a 14.5-ton solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 1,700 (later 2,500) kilometers. It carried one nuclear warhead. Its first test launch at sea occurred in 1982. Meanwhile, work was underway on the first Chinese SSBN, the Type 92, which was not a success. The single Type 92 was built in 1981 and entered service with JL-1 SLBMs in 1987. Neither the Type 92 nor its JL-1 SLBM ever performed well and the Type 92 only made one voyage beyond Chinese coastal waters. The Type 92 is technically still in service but has spent most of its time tied up at a pier and reportedly serving as a testbed for new submarine technologies. The JL-1 also served on Chinese Type 31 diesel-electric SSBs but never went far from Chinese coastal waters. The JL-1 was also modified to operate as the land-based DF-21 and that was a much more successful missile.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is upgrading and refurbishing its current Trident II SLBMs so that these weapons will still be effective until 2040. There have already been upgrades to the electronics and mechanical components in the guidance system. Upgrades are underway to the reentry body (heat shield and such that gets individual warheads to the ground intact). Some of the upgrades are classified and details on all of them are kept secret for obvious reasons.

The Trident II is one of those rare complex systems that consistently perform flawlessly. They do exist. For example, test firings of production models of the Trident II have never failed. There have been 150 of these missiles launched each involving an SSBN firing one of their Trident IIs, with the nuclear warhead replaced by one of similar weight but containing sensors and communications equipment.

The test results for the Trident while in development were equally impressive, with 87 percent successful (in 23 development tests) for the Trident I and 98 percent (49 tests) of the Trident II. The Trident I served from 1979-2005, while the Trident II entered service in 1990 and may end up serving for half a century.

Trident II is a 59-ton missile with a max range of 7,200-11,000 kilometers (depending on the number of warheads carried). Up to eight W76 nuclear warheads can be carried, each with the explosive power equal to 100,000 tons of high explosives. Trident IIs cost about $31 million each.

The success of the Trident is in sharp contrast to the problems Russia and China have had developing SLBMs. The latest Russian SLBM, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30), was almost canceled because test flights kept failing. The Bulava finally completed its test program and entered service in 2013. But since then, there have been failures during test launches. The Russians have no choice but to accept the less reliable Bulavas for their new class of SSBNs. China has tried to avoid the mistakes the Russians made and adopt the methods employed by the Americans. The Chinese are often successful at this but it is not an instant process. China often has to develop (or steal) new technologies and learn how to manufacture new components reliably. This takes time, but the Chinese are willing to be patient.




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