Strategic Weapons: How China Weaponized Patience


January 12, 2019: In December 2018 Chinese media announced that China had successfully tested a new JL-3 SLBM (sub launched ballistic missile) in November that apparently worked and demonstrated it had a range of 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles). That is nearly 30 percent farther than the earlier, than the less reliable JL-2. The JL ((Julang) 3 may be the first Chinese SLBM reliable enough to use regularly in Chinese SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) and allow them to operate at sea frequently and reliably. Then again maybe not. The first sub based JL-3 test also used the modified Type 32 diesel-electric sub to launch from. The single Type 32 entered service in 2010 to replace the elderly (and smaller) Type 31s modified for testing new sub-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. When these modifications are noted (usually from space) it indicates a new missile is ready for testing.

In 2017 it was noted (via satellite photos) that the Type 32 sub was being modified for a larger SLBM that turned out to be the JL-3. A year later satellite photos confirmed that two new Chinese 094 class SSBNs were recently (late October 2018) launched and are now docked for months of additional work before they are completed and ready for sea trials. Currently, only four 094s are available for duty and those are still crippled by older JL-2 SLBMs that do not work reliably. In addition, there are still problems with basic o94 sub design, which is considered too noisy to stay hidden from American efforts to locate and follow. Two more 094s are under construction with a number of improvements. The second four are being called the 094A class and the existing 094s are apparently being upgraded. For the moment, though, China still does not have an operational SSBN force and after decades of trying, probably won’t have one until the 2020s. For China, this is how it works. That was also why China, for a long time, played down its efforts to build and operate nuclear-powered subs. The Type 94A improvements are apparently meant to test design concepts that seek to make the next generation SSBN, the Type 96, much quieter. The Type 96 was designed to carry a larger SSBM, which is apparently the JL-3. The first Type 96 won’t enter service until the early 2020s.

Meanwhile, the success of the JL-3 may be good news for the troublesome JL-2. Either the JL-2 is going to get more reliable or the improved Type 94 SSBNs are going to be modified to carry a small number of JL-3s. 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 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. The DF-31 was first test fired in 1983 and in 1985 it was decided to develop an SLBM version of the DF-31. This version was first tested with a submarine launch in 2001 using a Type 31 (a modified Russian Golf diesel-electric ballistic missile sub or “SSB”). Russia retired the last of its 24 Golf boats in 1990 but China kept a few of its Type 31s around for SLBM testing. The second SSB JL-2 test in 2004 failed. There were several successful tests between 2005 and 2008. In 2009 there was a successful test from one of the new Type 94 SSBNs, which had been built to use the JL-2. There were test launches of JL-2 between 2012 and 2015 that were called “successful” but there were apparently still some problems with performance and reliability.

Development problems also delayed the first Chinese SLBM, the JL-1, from entering regular service for a long time. Work on the JL-1 began in the late 1960s and it was designed as a 14.5 ton sold fuel ballistic missile with a range of 1,700 (later 2,500) kilometers. It carried one nuclear warhead. It first test launch at sea occurred in 1982 (from a Type 31f SSB). 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, 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 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.

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.

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 148 of these missile launches 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 successfully completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. That made 11 successful Bulava test firings out of 18 attempts. The last two missiles make five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava has been accepted into service, with a development test firing success rate of 61 percent, but some last minute glitches led to more tests and Bulava entering 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. It takes time, but the Chinese are willing to be patient.




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