U.S. intelligence agencies believe that China will finally start combat patrols of its SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear powered boat, also called "boomers") next year, something China has never done before despite decades of effort. This prediction comes despite Taiwanese intelligence officials revealing early this year that China’s Type 94 SSBNs had not yet been commissioned into service. But at the same time a Type 94 class sub was seen recently undergoing what appeared to be sea trials. Taiwanese officials also stated that the JL-2 SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles) that the Type 94 is designed to carry is still undergoing testing.
It’s no secret that China is eager to actually send one of its SSBNs out on a combat patrol. And it’s not just because, to date, China has never been able to do this. America, Russia, Britain, and France have all done so and still do. The U.S. has had SSBNs going out with nuclear armed, and ready to fire, missiles for over half a century. What is going on with China? There appears to be a combination of technical and political problems. Some of these problems are no longer state secrets but are being discussed in the state controlled media.
What is known is that China has already produced two generations of SSBNs. In the early 1980s, the Type 92 SSBN was launched but had a lot of problems and never made it into service. It only went out for training in Chinese coastal waters. Only one was built. In 2006 and 2007, satellite photos first spotted three the Type 94 SSBNs. This was believed, in the West, to be the Chinese SSBN that would go on patrol. This has not happened, at least not yet. Turns out that the Type 94 also had technical problems and Chinese workers have been seen working on Type 94s for years and only three have been built. The Type 94 seemed like it would enter service because it is simply a variant of 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 94 SSBN 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 by taking their new Type 93 SSN and creating a larger Type 94 SSBN boat of 9,000 tons displacement. Priority was apparently given to construction of the Type 94, as having nuclear missiles able to reach the United States gives China more diplomatic clout than some new SSNs. The first Type 94 was completed at least six years ago. But it still has not gone to sea equipped with nuclear missiles.
This may be because after the first two new, 7,000 ton, Type 93 class SSNs went to sea, China apparently found their performance was not impressive at all. Not much more was expected from the Type 94s, except that they might be reliable enough to make a few combat patrols, just for the record. The 93s were too noisy and had a long list of more minor defects as well. It is unclear how many 93s will be built, probably no more than six (four appear to exist). More resources are apparently being diverted to the next SSN class, the 95, and the next SSBN, the Type 96. The first Type 95 is under construction and not expected to enter service until 2015. The U.S. recently revealed that it believed the Type 96 was under construction as is at least one Type 95 SSN.
The Type 93 and Type 94 were both over a decade in development and construction. Work began on the 94 class in the 1990s. For years all that was known was that the Chinese were having technical problems with the new design. The Type 94 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. That may still be the case and the Type 94 seen at sea may be testing new technology meant for the Type 96.
But there are other problems. The Chinese government is apparently uneasy with sending off an SSBN, armed with twelve or more SLBMs, each with one or more nuclear warheads. Western nations carefully select the officers and crews of their SSBNs and use a host of codes and procedures (PAL or "Permissive Action Links") to insure that a single madman cannot use any of those SLBMs. Russia also screened crews and had PAL codes but also had, in effect, representatives of the secret police on the SSBN, whose main job was to insure that the SLBMs were used as the government back in Moscow commanded. China has always been much less trusting of the armed forces when it comes to nuclear weapons. China also appears to lack the advanced PAL technology found in the West. All this doesn't get much mention in the West but it is very real inside China. So, when the Type 96 shows up, sometime late in this decade, it will be revealing to see if the Chinese have overcome their reluctance to trust a crew of Chinese sailors with all those nukes.