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Lost At Sea
by James Dunnigan
January 27, 2012

While the Chinese government has said nothing, there's been lots of unofficial buzz from China indicating that several JL (Julang) 2 SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile), were recently test fired. One media report showed what appeared to be missile components that a Chinese fisherman had brought up in his nets. Taiwanese defense officials confirmed that some launches had taken place in December. The JL-2 needs some tests, especially successful ones.

The 42 ton JL-2 has a range of 8,000 kilometers, and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 class SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. Each 094 boat can carry twelve of these missiles, which are naval versions of the existing land based 42 ton DF-31 ICBM. China had lots of problems with the JL-2, which was supposed to have entered service four years ago, but kept failing test launches. If the recent JL-2 tests actually took place, and were successful, that would have been the kind of good news worth releasing. In China, bad news is no news at all.

In part because of the lack of a reliable SLBM, no Chinese SSBN has ever gone on a combat cruise. But the SSBNs have been very unreliable as well.  China has so far produced two generations of SSBNs. In the early 1980s, the Type 92 SSBN was launched, but had lots of problems and never made a patrol. It only went out for training in Chinese coastal waters. Only one was built. In the last decade, the Type 94 showed up. This was believed, in the West, to be the Chinese SSBN that would go on patrol. Never happened. Turns out that the Type 94 also had technical problems.

This all began with the Type 93 class SSN (nuclear powered attack sub), which looks a lot like the three decade old Russian Victor III class SSN design. The first Type 93 entered service in 2006. The Type 93 was the basis for the Type 94 SSBN, which looks like a Victor III with a missile compartment added. Taking a SSN design and adding extra compartments to hold the ballistic missiles is an old trick, pioneered by the United States in the 1950s to produce the first ever SSBNs. The Chinese appear to have done the same thing with their new Type 93 SSN, creating a larger Type 94 SSBN boat of 9,000 tons displacement. Priority was apparently given to construction of the 94, as having nuclear missiles able to reach the United States gives China more diplomatic clout than some new SSNs. The first 94 entered service three years ago. But it has still not gone to sea equipped with nuclear missiles.

Having already sent the first two new, 7,000 ton, 093 class SSNs to sea, China was apparently underwhelmed by their performance. Not much more is expected from the 94s. The 93s were too noisy, and had a long list of more minor defects as well. It's unclear how many 93s will be built, probably no more than 3-6. More resources are apparently being diverted to the next SSN class - the 95, and the next SSBN, the Type 96.

The Type 093 and Type 094 were both over a decade in development and construction. Work began on the 094 class in the 1990s. For years, all that was known was that the Chinese were having technical problems with the new design. The 094 is a modern SSBN, using technology bought from Russia, plus what was developed by the Chinese in their earlier nuclear submarine building efforts. While the Chinese have had a hard time building reliable and quiet nuclear subs, they are determined to acquire the needed skills. You do that by doing it and eating your mistakes. U.S. intelligence experts believe that China is now concentrating on the design of the new Type 96s.

 


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