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SSBNs are unnecessary and destabilising


This post is part of the Sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.


7 August 2014 17:18

This post is part of the Sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

A Chinese Type 094 (Jin-class) SSBN. (Wikipedia.)

Regarding the Chinese and Indian ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) programs and their impact on international security, my arguments are: (1) they are not necessary; (2) noisy SSBNs are destabilising and should not be deployed; and (3) China's SSBNs are still far from being operational.

Chinese and Indian SSBNs are unnecessary because China-India and China-US strategic relations are stable, and will probably remain so in near future. While the Indian nuclear weapons program is driven by China's nuclear capability, it is America that drives China's nuclear development. Neither China nor India has first-strike capability against the other side, and neither side is seeking such capability. Some American nuclear and conventional strategic capabilities, such as missile defences and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS), do pose a big challenge of China's nuclear deterrent, but China can deal with these threats and restore strategic stability with its land-based nuclear missiles, which are relatively cheap and technologically mature compared to sea-based nuclear weapons.

So why are China and India developing SSBNs? The probable answer is that they are doing it for technology demonstration, national prestige, or bureaucratic competition purposes.

It is sometimes argued that SSBNs are a stabilising force, but this is the case only when the SSBN in question is quiet. Quiet SSBNs are difficult to find, giving leaders confidence that they will always have the ability to strike back should they be attacked, whereas noisy SSBNs are easy for an adversary to track, locate and destroy, encouraging a 'use it or lose it' mentality in times of crisis.

A declassified US Office of Naval Intelligence report from 2009 stated that China's Type 094 SSBN is so noisy that it is not survivable. China can use the Type 094 for technology demonstration or training purposes, but should not deploy it. India has yet to commission its Arihant-class SSBN, so we have no idea of its noise level. But if it too proves to be noisy, India should not deploy it either.

Furthermore, given China's lack of experience running an SSBN fleet, it needs to solve several problems in order to operate the Type 094s:

  1. Missile range: the range of the JL-2 sea-launched ballistic missile, which will arm the Type 094, is 7400km, not enough to hold the continental US at risk if launched from China's coastal waters. The Type 094 will have to get through the first island chain to target America, which would be dangerous, given its high noise level.
  2. Alert status: for land-based ballistic missiles, China separates nuclear warheads from their boosters in peacetime. Will China change this practice for SSBNs? Will China maintain a continuous-at-sea deterrent?
  3. Will China deploy a permissive action link (PAL)-like coded arming control device in its SSBNs? The advantage of the PAL-like system is to avoid unauthorised launch; the disadvantage is that the crew might be unable to launch missiles should the national command  authority or the communication system be destroyed.
  4. Deployment mode: will China deploy its SSBNs in 'bastions' protected by friendly forces, along China's coastal waters, or in open seas?

In sum, there are many problems for China to solve, all of which are complicated. China is unlikely to solve these problems in 10 to 20 years. I believe the current purpose of China's SSBN fleet is (and should be) to develop submarine-building technology and to train submariners in how to run an SSBN fleet. It is however too early to discuss the security influences of the Type 094.

The Lowy Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for this Interpreter debate, which is part of a broader research, dialogue and outreach project on strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia.

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