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Is the Navy talking up China's nuclear submarine threat?

By Marko Beljac - posted Friday, 12 September 2008

The Federal Government is currently in the process of drawing up a defence white paper, due to be released early next year. A number of interesting leaks have appeared providing some insight into internal deliberations, perhaps the most revealing thus far being the airing of Navy concerns about the modernisation of China's Navy, especially its strategic nuclear submarines. This class of submarine, known affectionately as boomers, is generally designed to launch strategic nuclear warheads while on patrol at sea. The author freely admits that Crimson Tide is his favourite movie so let us stick with the term boomers.

The Australian reported:

… concern in Australian defence circles about China's naval expansion is real and rising but it is also kept firmly behind closed doors. While politicians and diplomats speak glowingly about Australia's relations with China, the burgeoning trade links and shared interests, a small team of defence planners in Canberra is planning how best to handle China's naval challenge to the region. The new defence white paper to be released at the end of the year will be framed with China's naval expansion prominent in the minds of the authors.


Comments by the Prime Minister on the ABC's Lateline (September 10, 2008) about protecting Australia's sea lanes of communication tend to confirm this sentiment.

The article demonstrates that a key concern is Chinese boomer modernisation:

… at present China's submarine fleet is used almost exclusively as a coastal defence force but Washington suspects the ultimate aim is to develop a near-continuous sea-based force of nuclear-armed submarines that would pose serious dangers for the US Pacific fleet.

This debate is of the utmost significance for Australia. At its heart lies competing visions for the future of Australia's role in the region for the logical corollary of these arguments is to enmesh Australia more closely into an incipient strategy directed at the containment of China. In other words, should the Australian Defence Force be structured and sized for going to war against China as an appendage of US Pacific Command?

Whatever one feels is the appropriate answer to this question we all surely would agree that this debate should not be "kept firmly behind closed doors". Towards this end, it will help to put China's boomer modernisation in context by focusing on two questions. First, what capability do China's new boomers, the Jin-class, possess? Second, why should Beijing be interested in sending its strategic deterrent to sea?

Hitherto the capabilities of China's strategic nuclear missiles have been rudimentary, with its deterrent force mostly focused on land-based nuclear missiles. In fact China's older boomer, the Xia-class, never conducted a deterrent patrol given its limitations, nor was deployed with operational missiles. China's leaders never calculated the Xia-class as a real part of its nuclear deterrent.


A patrol is an extended voyage at sea well away from home port. Last year China only conducted six patrols for all classes of submarine. To have a continuous nuclear patrol capability, as the above article alleges China desires, would require multiple Jin-class submarines (China only had one Xia-class boomer). US naval intelligence alleges that China seeks to develop five Jin-class boomers in order to have one boat continuously at sea, but the latest Pentagon report on Chinese military power does not include this assertion. China has three Jin-class boomers. Thus far no Jin-class submarine has conducted a patrol, although China has constructed a de-magnetisation facility that suggests that such a capability may be desired by planners.

China's land based missiles, which are of vintage design, are currently being modernised by developing more capable solid fuelled and road mobile missiles such as the DF-31. Beijing's modernisation of its boomer force is the sea leg basis of this program of modernisation. This modernisation is focused on developing a new class of submarine, the Jin-class as noted above, and a new sea launched ballistic missile, the JL-2. The JL-2 is roughly comparable to the US Trident C-4, not the more capable Trident II D-5 and is actually a variant of the DF-31. Thus far no JL-2 missile has been test launched from a Jin-class boomer.

This concurrent modernisation suggests to us that this modernisation might not be a reflection of a strategy of regional dominance backed up by nuclear firepower but an upgrade of vintage and increasingly unreliable technology. Furthermore, even if China does develop a patrol capability a one boomer continuous patrol means that China would have at sea only 12 strategic nuclear warheads, assuming (shared by US intelligence) that China will not employ multiple warheads on the JL-2.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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