Sleepless in Seattle: Chinese Nukes At Sea
China is rapidly developing the capability to strike American cities with warheads launched from nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. This is no secret. Simulations of such attacks – including an infamous one featuring a direct hit on the Statue of Liberty – have been repeatedly and patriotically broadcast on Chinese state media.
Just what is America’s largest trading partner trying to signal with public media behavior that seems abhorrent from a Western point of view? That’s a good question, and any answer must begin with this observation:
The concept of nuclear deterrence rests, first and foremost, on the reliability of a country’s “second strike” capabilities. To wit: If I can strike your major cities back with a devastating salvo of nuclear missiles after you strike my cities first, you will be far less inclined to launch that first strike to begin with.
Consider first the American side of this nuclear deterrence ledger. This is where radio talk show host and Republican loyalist Hugh Hewitt tried to ensnare the more moderate Donald Trump in a “gotcha moment” during the last GOP presidential debate. In that debate, Hewitt made a jargoned reference to “the triad” – not the Chinese mafia in this case but rather the three-legged stool of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, long range bombers, and nuclear-powered submarines that America relies on for its second-strike capability.
Of the three, it is America’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that provide the most assured destruction in America’s deterrent triad. This is because in today’s high tech Global Positioning Satellite world, America’s land-based missiles can now be far more easily destroyed in their fixed silos by precision strikes. At the same time, America’s aging bomber fleet has become more and more vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated air defense systems.
In contrast, America’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet suffers from no such vulnerabilities. With their supreme stealth capabilities and concomitant ability to travel long distances without surfacing, America’s SSBNs are able to lurk in deep waters, well within range of any country that may think about sending a first nuclear strike America’s way.
One looming problem, however, is that America’s SSBN fleet of Ohio-class subs are set to begin retiring within the next decade. As Commander Bud Cole of National Defense University notes:
The U.S. nuclear powered submarine feet as far as I know is far superior to the Chinese, anything the Chinese Navy can put to sea. On the other hand, the numbers within the U.S. nuclear powered submarine fleet are decreasing; and by 2020, we're only going to have forty or so submarines available, Navy-wide, not all of which of course will be in the Pacific fleet. So while a U.S. submarine is going to be far more capable than a Chinese submarine, numbers do count in the final analysis.
While America’s second-strike sub capabilities may well soon be declining, China’s are on the distinct uptick. This is not as it has always been.
Historically, China has been unable to field a modern nuclear submarine fleet and thus has lacked a credible, sea-based second strike. However, this strategic calculus radically changed in 2014 when China began deploying its new Jin-class ballistic missile submarine. Longer than a football field, this Type 094 sub is capable of launching up to 16 Ju Lang-2 missiles with a range of up to 7,500 miles.
China may have as many as five Jin-class submarines operational. If each of their 16 Julang-2 missiles can deliver up to four warheads each as some analysts suggest, this would give China a combined ability to deliver over 300 nuclear warheads to American soil – thus giving the phrase “sleepless in Seattle” a whole new twist.
As for the credibility of this SSBN threat, George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni has dismissed China’s naval arsenal in general as “junk” and discounts their submarines as “very loud.” In a more clinical fashion, Christian Conroy claims the Jin-class boats create “a detectable sonar signature” while Professor T.X. Hammes of America’s National Defense University just calls them “pretty noisy.”
A newer and quieter Tang class 096 model is, however, already in development – so China’s newfound ability to field a credible second-strike capability should therefore not be underestimated. As Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute warns: Although their submarines are not as good as ours, they're inventive, imaginative, ingenious and excellent at copying; and I expect that they will turn out better and better boats in the future.
The broader strategic question for the 2016 presidential campaign is whether China’s plans to nuke American cities – as broadcast on Chinese state media – is merely a second strike capability aimed at keeping the peace? Alternatively, and more ominously, will China’s SSBNs serve as a nuclear shield to keep American forces at bay should China seek to reclaim its so-called “renegade province” of Taiwan, wrest the Senkaku Islands from Japan, or seize additional land features and reefs in the South China Sea from neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam?
On this latter possibility, Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace believes that “despite the presence of secure second strike capabilities on both sides, China and the United States could well find themselves in a serous military conflict in the years to come; and the risk of such conflict arises because China has now steadily acquired the capabilities to prevent the United States from coming to the assistance of its friends in Asia if Chinese political objectives demand such a campaign.”
Echoing this concern, Professor Toshi Yoshihara warns that “having nuclear weapons does not necessarily ensure that there will be no war. It simply opens up different avenues for different kinds of wars.” That is why the arrival of China’s SSBNs may indeed radically expand the possible theaters of war in Asia.
So let the presidential debate on this issue begin. What say ye Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton? And where do you stand Senators Sanders, Rubio, and Cruz – all of whom have been part of the systematic shrinking of the US naval fleet in their roles in Congress.