Monday 15 December 2008

China's New Undersea Nuclear Deterrent: Strategy, Doctrine, and Capabilities

China's New Undersea Nuclear Deterrent: Strategy, Doctrine, and Capabilities Toshi Yoshihara

and James R. Holmes 1 The past few years have witnessed a lively debate among Western

strategic thinkers over China’s emerging force of fleet ballistic-missile submarines and

what it portends for Beijing’s overall strategy of nuclear deterrence. One influential

school of thought prophesies a relatively static model for Chinese nuclear development,

assuming that the rudimentary land-based missile force that served Beijing’s needs in the

past will continue to do so. Others dispute such benign prognoses, pointing to the

introduction of next-generation, land-based mobile ballistic missiles, the rapid buildup of

China’s navy in general, and improvements to the navy’s submarine and ballistic-missile

forces in particular. If so, the coming years will see China put to sea a force more

symmetrical with the U.S. Navy, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Moreover, it

will abandon its traditional stance of “minimum deterrence,” assuming a nuclear posture

better described as “limited deterrence.” We take issue with both of these projections

of Chinese nuclear strategy, doctrine, and undersea capabilities. We assess China’s

undersea deterrent purely at the strategic level, leaving aside other important questions

such as how Beijing might use fleet submarines to support coercion against Taiwan or in

other contingencies. Our chief finding: that a larger, more advanced, more capable flotilla

of fleet ballistic-missile submarines (FBM, or SSBN) does not necessary signal a break with

China’s tradition of minimalist nuclear strategy. Indeed, a modest undersea deterrent

would reinforce minimum deterrence as Beijing conceives of it. 2 We first examine historical

precedents for Chinese ballistic-missile submarine development, revealing some parameters

for China’s likely future in this domain, then attempt to project the likely size and

deployment patterns for Chinese SSBNs. With apologies to Yogi Berra, it’s tough to make

predictions, especially about the future. This is nonetheless an exercise worth undertaking

as the United States and other powers with a stake in Asian politico-military affairs shape

their own strategies and forces. Historical Models for China’s Undersea Deterrent Five

countries have deployed undersea nuclear deterrent forces: the United States, the Soviet

Union and its successor, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China itself. Though it may seem

counterintuitive, the China of past decades is the least relevant of these historical

models. For one thing, Mao Zedong scoffed at nuclear weapons, describing them as a “paper

tiger,” and was famously indifferent to the seas beyond China’s coastal waters. For

another, the purges Yoshihara/Holmes - 1accompanying China’s Great Leap Forward and

Cultural Revolution devastated the nation’s scientific and engineering sectors, depriving

the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy, or PLAN) of the expertise it needed for

submarine development and construction. Accordingly, Chinese shipbuilders and weapons

scientists never managed to construct the reliable fleet ballistic-missile submarine the

nation needs to furnish an invulnerable second-strike capability. 3 For the sake of

parsimony, then, we will set aside the China of the Mao era. By examining the remaining four

historical models, we can glimpse possible futures for China’s sea-based deterrent. 4 The

United States and the Soviet Union are obvious choices, given Beijing’s much-discussed

rise to world power status and the prospect that it will follow the path taken by the

superpowers. At the risk of ruffling feathers, we will consider the French and British cases

together. Similar incentives and disincentives—notably misgivings about the reliability of

the U.S. nuclear guarantee during the Cold War—induced Paris and London to develop modest

nuclear arsenals of their own and to deploy ballistic missiles in nuclear-powered

submarines. Some China-watchers, moreover, predict that Beijing will settle for regional

power status in Asia, akin to the status the United Kingdom and France have enjoyed in

Europe and its environs since the 1950s. This commends the independent NATO-European

deterrents to our attention. United States. In the early Cold War, successive U.S.

administrations concluded that the United States depended on a large nuclear force

structure. The rationale for a large arsenal underwent several phases. At first, in the

1950s, this was largely a matter of exploiting the U.S. lead in nuclear weapons. The

Eisenhower administration saw nuclear forces as a way to offset enormous Soviet advantages

in geography and manpower, especially in the crucial NATO-European theater. President Dwight

D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, briefly flirted with a

doctrine of “massive retaliation” to respond to all communist efforts at expansion,

however minor. 5 By the Kennedy years, massive retaliation had lost credibility—the notion

of using nuclear weapons against, say, an insurgency in the Third World was

unpersuasive—and Washington was scrambling to plug the “missile gap” that seemed to

have opened with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. In the 1960s and 1970s,

strategists developed and refined a doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD. No

sane leader on either side would risk nuclear war, maintained proponents of MAD, knowing

that this would bring on an automatic, devastating second strike. 6 And so the Western

debate over nuclear strategy went. According to the scholar Lawrence Freedman, though,

“the weapons never left center stage.” Dominant perceptions held that a large arsenal

was essential to counter an adversary that commanded overwhelming conventional supremacy and

a potent nuclear stockpile of its own. Neither the vagaries of academic debate nor

intermittent efforts at arms control and disarmament overcame that fundamental conviction. 7

Hence the powerful U.S. submarine force, the core of the U.S. second-strike capability. By

the late Cold War, eighteen Ohio-class SSBNs armed with Trident II C-4 or D-5 SLBMs

constituted the U.S. undersea deterrent. 8 American submariners are famously closemouthed

about SSBN Yoshihara/Holmes - 2deployment practices, as befits their mission of keeping the

nation’s second-strike capability invulnerable. Telegraphing the locations of U.S.

submarines’ patrol grounds or their habits while on their 77-day patrols might render the

submarine force vulnerable to an adversary’s antisubmarine-warfare efforts. Successive

U.S. administrations have developed elaborate command-and-control procedures to guard

against an unauthorized release of nuclear weapons. For instance, even a thirty-minute loss

of communications with an SSBN on patrol warrants intensive efforts to restore connectivity

between U.S. Strategic Command, the parent command for all U.S. strategic forces, and these

crucial assets. 9 Political and military leaders are clearly mindful of the repercussions

that would follow a mistaken release of SLBMs from U.S. strategic submarines. 10 Yet they

also seem comfortable allowing individual skippers to roam their patrol grounds without

tight political supervision, and without the luxury of having attack submarines or

land-based platforms nearby to defend them from enemy action. The U.S. approach to sea-based

nuclear deterrence, then, seems offensive in nature, confident in U.S. submarines’

capacity for concealment, and unfettered by geographically based conceptions that safe

havens are necessary to protect American SSBNs. If Chinese leaders follow the U.S. template,

and once the supporting technologies mature, the coming years may see PLA Navy SSBNs range

throughout the Pacific Ocean basin. Soviet Union/Russia. Like the United States, the Soviet

Union seemed convinced that it needed to hold a maximum number of its adversary’s

assets—cities or, technology permitting, military forces—at risk in order to ensure

deterrence. Accordingly, the Soviet Navy put to sea a sizable fleet of nuclear-powered

submarines armed with the latest nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Technology—especially

range limitations on the early generations of Soviet missiles—imposed constraints on

Soviet SSBNs’ deployment patterns, compelling Soviet commanders to send these boats into

Atlantic waters, where they could threaten American cities. Indeed, U.S. naval planners

worried that the presence of Soviet SSBNs in the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water

crisscrossed by vital sea lanes connecting North America with NATO-Europe, would conflate

the SLOC defense and antisubmarine-warfare missions—severely complicating the wartime

tasks assigned the U.S. and allied navies. 11 Soviet naval strategists seem to have come to

the same realization, while advances in technology allowed the Soviet preference for a

defensive stance at sea to reassert itself. By the 1970s, a growing body of evidence

suggested that the increasingly capable Soviet Navy was reverting to defensive deployment

patterns. Soviet weapons engineers had improved the ranges of the navy’s

submarine-launched ballistic missiles while adding capabilities such as multiple,

independently targeted warheads. 12 Rather than venturing into the Atlantic, Soviet SSBNs

were patrolling Arctic waters, where they could still range U.S. targets while enjoying the

advantages that came with proximity to Soviet naval bases. This insight drove the thinking

behind the U.S. Maritime Strategy of the Reagan years, which envisioned U.S. Navy task

forces’ seizing the initiative in wartime, steaming northward into the Norwegian Sea to

threaten Soviet strategic forces in their Yoshihara/Holmes - 3icy northern “bastions.”

Should Beijing follow Moscow’s naval strategy of the 1970s and 1980s, PLAN SSBNs would

shelter within such geographic redoubts as the Bohai Sea or, perhaps, the waters within the

“first island chain” that parallels the Chinese coastline. 13 Britain/France. It is

worth saying a few words about the British and French approaches to undersea deterrence, if

only because they could offer a third model for a China content with regional influence and

a second-strike capacity far more modest than those of the United States or the Soviet

Union/Russia. London and Paris developed independent submarine deterrents out of concerns

that the U.S. nuclear umbrella would prove flimsy in wartime. That is, Washington might

prove unwilling to expose the American homeland to a nuclear counterattack for the sake of

NATO-European allies. Preserving the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the

USSR—and thereby supplementing the U.S. security guarantee—helped them hedge against

possible American waffling. Keeping sea-based nuclear forces modest in size was imperative

in light of the meager budgets available to these middle-rank economic powers and the

competing demands for preparedness in continental Europe. Asymmetrical undersea forces

appeared sufficient to British and French officials, not only in strategic but in budgetary

terms. The United Kingdom and France, then, made do with SSBN forces dwarfed by those of the

superpowers. It is worth noting that, numbers aside, SSBN deployments patterns seemingly

resembled those of the U.S. Navy. The entire French SSBN force was based at the Atlantic

port of Brest, while for obvious reasons submarines based in the British Isles patrolled the

Atlantic and the North Sea. Neither of these governments adopted a strategy requiring its

FBM submarines to stay within confined geographic regions or within range of land-based

military forces for support. Should China adopt this approach, it will continue its

tradition of maintaining a small nuclear arsenal but permit its submarine commanders to

patrol widely in the Pacific, the South China Sea, or the Indian Ocean, subject only to

staying within firing range of the targets they are assigned to threaten. Targets for

Chinese SSBNs would include U.S. bases in the Pacific, as well as less obvious sites in

India and the Russian Far East. 14 Judging from these historical cases, several indices are

worth taking into account when appraising China’s emerging submarine deterrent: • Nature

of the Regime. Regimes exhibit certain distinct strategic and operational preferences. Like

their authoritarian counterparts, Western liberal governments with nuclear capacity

institute elaborate precautions and stringent command-and-control arrangements to prevent

unauthorized releases of nuclear weapons. They nonetheless evince a fair degree of comfort

with SSBN skippers’ operating far from their shores, in an offensive manner and beyond

land-based support. Deployment patterns reflected this, with U.S., British, and French SSBNs

enjoying considerable latitude to cruise independently within range of Soviet targets. By

comparison, authoritarian regimes—particularly those driven by ideologies such as

communism, which place great weight on loyalty to the regime and go to elaborate lengths to

enforce it—are ill-disposed to permit Yoshihara/Holmes - 4 naval officers this degree of

control over strategic assets. As became apparent in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet leaders

preferred to keep FBM submarines closer to home, under their watchful gaze. Whether Chinese

leaders will incline to one of these approaches or fashion one of their own remains to be

seen. • Strategic Culture. During the 1970s, Western strategic thinkers waged a lively

debate over whether there was a peculiarly Soviet way of thinking about and executing

nuclear strategy. They formerly assumed not. But accumulating evidence indicated that,

contrary to the logic of mutual assured destruction, Moscow was pursuing the capacity to

fight and prevail in a nuclear conflict. Long-held assumptions among scholars and

practitioners of nuclear strategy held that the same logic of nuclear deterrence would

govern decision-making in all countries. If such assumptions were false, however, U.S. and

Western nuclear strategy and force structures designed for mutual assured destruction might

have been dangerously misguided. Spurred by the debate over Soviet nuclear strategy,

strategic thinkers began taking into account the effects of national traditions, history,

and culture on the making of policy and strategy. 15 This recognition did not come easy. The

Soviet approach—holding SSBNs back and deploying general-purpose naval and land forces to

defend them—defied offensively minded Western sensibilities. At one briefing in 1981,

reports John Hattendorf, Adm. Thomas Hayward, the chief of naval operations, “found the

concepts of Soviet strategy so completely different that he expressed disbelief that the

Soviets could possibly operate their navy in such a manner.” 16 But they did. If the

Soviet Union and other powers displayed distinctive styles in submarine warfare, the

People’s Republic of China probably will as well. • Threat Perceptions. How Beijing

views the threat from prospective adversaries will shape its SSBN doctrine. Generally

speaking, the historical models surveyed here involved putting to sea submarine forces able

to counter a single threat. For the most part, the Soviet Union and United States sought to

deter each other, keeping their opponent from gaining a nuclear advantage that would allow

it to wage war without fear of a disastrous counterstrike. Britain and France tried to deter

the Soviets and guard against U.S. abandonment by deploying sufficient nuclear forces. China

clearly faces a more complex geometry, since it must worry about not only about, say, a U.S.

effort to knock out the Chinese ICBM force in a Taiwan contingency, but also about India, a

new nuclear neighbor with which China shares a long border and a history of at-times violent

competition. China and Russia also have a tumultuous past. Despite their cooperation of

recent years, Russian sites will almost certainly find themselves on the target list for

Chinese submarines. How these competing considerations will affect the size and operations

of the PLAN SSBN force remains to be seen. Yoshihara/Holmes - 5 Technology Dependence. As

seen from this survey of Cold War precedents, technology at times imposed certain

constraints on SSBN deployment patterns that were at odds with political and culturally

derived strategic and operational preferences. The Soviet Navy seemed to prefer a defensive

stance leveraging geographic and land-based defenses, but early on, Soviet SSBNs were forced

to venture into the Atlantic to meet their objectives. Western submarines, similarly, were

compelled to patrol in range of their targets, limiting their liberty of action. Once

technological constraints eased, however, normal strategic and operational preferences

grounded in political and strategic culture reasserted themselves. Soviet boats were limited

to geographically defined bastions, while U.S., British, and French boats carried on

open-ocean patrols. China will undoubtedly confront similar technical challenges as it

attempts to construct and use its first effective SSBN flotilla. Once it meets these

challenges, it too may pursue SSBN operations in keeping with Chinese strategic traditions

and preferences. China’s Nuclear Posture To test the applicability of the undersea

deterrent models postulated above to China, it is necessary to assess the evolution of

broader Chinese nuclear doctrine and force posture. Over the past four decades, China has

carved out a rather unique niche among the five declared nuclear weapon states. Since China

demonstrated its ability to fire ballistic missiles at intercontinental ranges in 1980, its

nuclear posture has remained surprisingly modest and remarkably resistant to change. China

maintains what many Western analysts consider a doctrine of minimum deterrence, which calls

for: 1) a strictly defensive posture, 2) a small arsenal, 3) a pledge not to be the first to

use nuclear weapons, and 4) a commitment not to attack or threaten non-nuclear states.

Official Chinese documents have repeatedly reaffirmed these minimalist principles. 17 In the

most detailed articulation of Chinese nuclear policy to date, China’s authoritative and

most recent Defense White Paper forcefully states: China remains firmly committed to the

policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances. It

unconditionally undertakes not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against

non-nuclear-weapon states….China upholds the principles of counterattack in self-defense

and limited development of nuclear weapons, and aims at building a lean and effective

nuclear force….It endeavors to ensure the security and reliability of its nuclear weapons

and maintains a credible nuclear deterrent force. 18 Wang Zhongchun, a professor at

China’s National Defense University and a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army

(PLA), asserts succinctly, “China’s nuclear strategy is mainly defensive, directional,

passive and limited.” 19 Such nuclear minimalism has exerted significant influence on

China’s nuclear posture, suppressing the size and readiness of the force structure.

According to a RAND study: Yoshihara/Holmes - 6One of the most intriguing aspects of

China’s nuclear weapons program has been its quantitatively and qualitatively limited

nature over time. These limitations are characterized in practice by a relatively small

number of warheads, technically and numerically limited delivery vehicles, an overwhelming

reliance on land-based systems, persistent concerns over the arsenal’s survivability,

reliability and penetrability, and a limited program of research, development and testing.

20 Another, more recent analysis concurs: China’s small but effective nuclear

counterattacking force—comprising around eighty operationally deployed nuclear warheads

that are stored separately from their land-based ballistic missiles and intended for

retaliatory mission—is significantly smaller, less diverse, and less ready to conduct

actual operations than any of the arsenals maintained by the other four nuclear powers

recognized under the NPT. 21 While there is an ongoing debate in China and in the West on

the merits of rejecting minimum deterrence, authorities in Beijing appear unswervingly

committed to existing policy. As nonproliferation expert Jing-Dong Yuan notes, “China will

continue to view nuclear weapons as largely political and psychological instruments in the

contest of will, not usable weapons. Beijing will remain satisfied with the small size of

its nuclear force as long as a comfortable margin of survivability of its nuclear arsenal

can be assured.” 22 Rather than speculate on a nuclear posture not yet in existence, then,

one reasonable baseline for analysis is to assume that China will hew closely to its

minimalist posture well into the next decade. 23 Such a benchmark would at least provide

policymakers and analysts with some basis to measure the degree of change should China

decide at some future point to depart from minimum deterrence. It is important to note,

however, that minimalism does not equate to immutability. Qualitative and quantitative

changes are clearly underway in China’s nuclear posture as Beijing seeks to shape and

respond to the dynamic security environment. It is within this context of apparent restraint

that the new generation of undersea deterrent force has entered into China’s strategic

calculus. Successive Defense White Papers, for example, stress the need to improve nuclear

deterrence at sea. The 2004 issue observes that, “Preparation for maritime battlefield

[has] intensified…and the capability of nuclear counter-attacks [has been] enhanced.” 24

Similarly, the 2006 version envisions the PLA Navy “enhancing its capabilities in

integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterattacks.” 25 Beijing is clearly eyeing a

larger role for its undersea deterrent. Sufficiency Goes to Sea Defense planners in Beijing

face several basic but crucial questions regarding the future of undersea deterrence. What

types of force structures would Beijing consider viable? What factors might tend to favor a

greater reliance on the nascent ballistic-missile submarine fleet? In short,

Yoshihara/Holmes - 7how much is enough? Sizing the fleet is both an analytical exercise and

an art, not least because of the political ramifications of deploying the most destructive

single platform known to mankind. A large SSBN fleet will not only impose a substantial

financial burden but could very well trigger competitive responses from potential

adversaries. Thus, China faces a delicate balancing act that seeks to meet strategic

requirements without unduly alarming other great powers. An important intervening variable

is Beijing’s calculus concerning the proper force mix and tradeoffs between its

land-based, mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the DF-31s, and the

sea-based component. Each leg of the dyad presents distinct advantages and disadvantages

that will surely influence the PRC’s cost-benefit analysis. In terms of survivability,

both land- and sea-based options enhance China’s ability to escape a disarming first

strike. The mobility of the DF-31s will allow the PLA to exploit China’s geographic depth,

while the next-generation Type 094 SSBN currently under development will impose additional

targeting, tracking, and other intelligence challenges on any adversary. 26 Ideally, an

interactively survivable nuclear dyad would greatly increase the versatility of China’s

nuclear forces. In other words, if the DF-31s suffered unacceptable losses in a first

strike, the Type 094s would still guarantee a retaliatory option. Modest quantitative

increases in both the land- and sea-based arsenals, then, would go a long way to enhance the

survivability of China’s nuclear forces. 27 Some factors unique to an undersea strategic

force magnify the relative importance of SSBNs vis-� -vis their land-based counterparts. A

ballistic-missile submarine distinguishes itself even from a road- or rail-mobile ICBM by

its stealth and unlimited mobility and endurance, which generate virtually infinite

possibilities in terms of launch locations. 28 As a Chinese study on nuclear submarines

written by a senior nuclear engineer declares, “the ballistic missile submarine is thus

far the most ideal ‘nuclear weapons armory.’” 29 The author identifies three key

factors that make the SSBN the ultimate weapon: 1) survivability (as high as ninety

percent); 2) offensive power; and 3) destructive power. The survivability of SSBNs promises

to reduce the temptation for Beijing to adopt a destabilizing land-based posture that

undermines crisis stability and escalation control, including increased dispersion and

decentralized command and control. Jing-Dong Yuan concludes that a “sea-based deterrent

would be less vulnerable to preemption and could reinforce China’s no-first-use policy,

reducing the risk of a sudden escalation to the nuclear level.” 30 However, the

persuasiveness of abstract strategic and operational benefits of an undersea strategic force

likely will not convince the Chinese leadership to lean decisively in favor of SSBNs over

ICBMs. Foremost in the thinking of any political leadership is command and control of its

nuclear arsenal. It is unclear whether Beijing would be willing to delegate operational

control of a nuclear-armed submarine to a tactical commander. 31 Practical considerations

such as technical feasibility and steep financial costs, moreover, could impose burdens that

the PRC may be unwilling to carry. The enormous technological, scientific, and

Yoshihara/Holmes - 8engineering challenges of building a SSBN are already well documented.

32 The very troubled history of the first-generation Xia-class SSBN is a testament to the

tremendous hurdles that the Chinese had to overcome to master a craft involving

extraordinarily high barriers to entry. In terms of costs, the pricetags of modern U.S.

SSBNs provide a rough sense of the financial liabilities that Beijing confronts. The average

per-unit cost of an Ohio-class SSBN, measured over ten years from 1981 to 1991, was an

estimated $1.2 billion in 1994 dollar terms. 33 Relying on similar estimates of U.S.

expenditures on SSBNs and SSNs, Chinese observers have also commented on the prohibitive

costs of nuclear-powered submarines. 34 Land basing, then, still appears to have significant

financial advantages. In theory, a relatively modest number of survivable ICBMs and SSBNs

should reduce the probability that “bean counting” would prompt a competitive response

from the United States. In other words, Beijing will likely favor a force configuration that

demonstrates restraint in order to maintain a stable deterrent relationship with Washington.

However, accurately determining a quantitative ceiling of ICBMs and sea-based ballistic

missiles that would buttress deterrence while precluding a countervailing U.S. response is a

delicate affair. For example, Zhang Baohui observes that if China possessed four Type 094s

carrying sixteen JL-2 ballistic missiles armed with three warheads each, then Beijing’s

undersea deterrent would boast 192 warheads. 35 If China deployed six SSBNs with six

multiple warheads atop each JL-2, the number of warheads would jump to 572. These figures

exclude the ongoing introduction of DF-31s and DF-31As that could also be armed with

multiple warheads. Such a dramatic increase would likely raise concerns in Washington, even

assuming the United States continues to enjoy commanding quantitative and qualitative

advantages over China’s nuclear arsenal. 36 While a classic arms race resembling the Cold

War would not ensue as a result of such a shift in the nuclear balance, it is unlikely that

U.S. defense planners would respond passively to this hypothetical orders-of-magnitude

increase in the Chinese nuclear inventory. 37 At present, the forecast number of Chinese

SSBNs remains a subject of contention. The U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon

believe that both the JL-2 ballistic missiles and the strategic nuclear submarine will not

enter service until the end of the decade. 38 According to the director of the Defense

Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, “the 8,000+ kilometer range JL-2…likely

will be ready for deployment later this decade.” 39 The Pentagon’s most recent

assessment of Chinese military power speculates that the JL-2 will achieve initial

operational capability in the 2007-2010 timeframe. 40 The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval

Intelligence believes that the Type 094 may enter service as early as 2008 and that “a

fleet of probably five TYPE 094 SSBNs will be built in order to provide more redundancy and

capacity for a near-continuous at-sea SSBN presence.” 41 The open-source literature

provides even more disparate estimates concerning the number of SSBNs that the Chinese plan

to, or will be able to, build. Conservative assessments of China’s strategic forces tend

to agree with the U.S. intelligence community. The Council on Foreign Yoshihara/Holmes - 9

Relations, for example, believes that the first ballistic-missile submarine will not be in

service before 2010. 42 Jane’s Strategic Weapons speculates that China will ultimately

build four to six Type 094 submarines. 43 The latest Jane’s Fighting Ships places the

expected number of commissioned hulls at four by 2014. 44 The Congressional Research

Service, which regularly tracks U.S. analyses of China’s navy, places the number of Type

094s at four to five. 45 Other studies have drawn a more alarming picture. One study

projects five to six vessels before the end of this decade. 46 Two analysts from the U.S.

Naval War College cite sources predicting the availability of two to three strategic

submarines by 2010 47 and place the final number of SSBNs at twelve. 48 The degree of

uncertainty over the operational status of the Type 094 was on full public display in Taiwan

as politicians openly disputed the veracity of the National Security Bureau’s intelligence

report, which claimed that the Type 094 had completed sea trials and would be in service in

the near future. 49 Simply put, the future size of the fleet is still anybody’s guess.

Some parameters and assumptions embedded in the historical models set forth previously

provide useful guidance for estimating the likely size of China’s future SSBN fleet.

First, an underlying principle of minimum deterrence is that as long as the number of

surviving retaliatory weapons after a disarming first strike is not zero, then the posture

is credible. As in the British and French models, the threshold for sufficiency would be

quite low for China. In theory, even if all of China’s land-based deterrent were destroyed

in a first strike, only one SSBN armed with multiple re-entry warheads would need to survive

a “bolt from the blue” to conduct a retaliatory strike. Second, the only power with the

capacity to inflict a disarming preemptive attack on Chinese nuclear forces on land and at

sea simultaneously for the foreseeable future will be the United States. This reduces if not

eliminates China’s requirement to conduct deterrent patrols against lesser nuclear powers

such as India and perhaps even Russia. In other words, the SSBN would only have to cope with

one threat vector across the Pacific. Third, this study assumes that the United States’

ability to degrade the survivability of an SSBN will not improve radically over the coming

decade—say, by making the oceans transparent to U.S. sensors and ASW weaponry. Since the

end of the Cold War, furthermore, America’s nuclear attack-submarine fleet and ASW

aviation squadrons—the most potent counters to an undersea threat—have atrophied in

numbers, at rates that many believe will take decades to reverse. Nor is U.S.

ballistic-missile defense in its current state any match against submerged launched

missiles. A counter-SLBM capability might be decades away from deployment. Under such

circumstances, even if all of China’s land-based deterrent was destroyed in a first

strike, only one SSBN armed with multiple re-entry warheads would need to survive a “bolt

from the blue” to conduct a highly destructive retaliatory strike. Fourth, Beijing’s

high degree of comfort with the ambiguity surrounding the survivability of its nuclear

forces, a longstanding hallmark of Chinese nuclear strategy, would further reduce the need

for absolute numerical guarantees. Yoshihara/Holmes - 10 These factors suggest that the

lower-range estimates from the analysts discussed above would likely suffice for China. The

rule of thumb—familiar to U.S. naval planners—is that three aircraft-carrier

expeditionary groups are needed to keep one fully operational at sea at any given time. Of

the remaining two groups, one will be in an extended maintenance period, probably in a

shipyard, while the other will be undergoing training and workups for deployment (and its

availability will thus be reduced). Assuming China adopts similar operating procedures, a

minimum deterrent posture would not demand too much in terms of quantity. Assuming fifty

percent of the at-sea SSBNs fell prey to enemy ASW—a generous estimate in view of SSBNs

capacity for concealment and quiet operations—only two Chinese SSBNs would need to be at

sea at any given time to ensure that one survived a first strike. Based on the rotating

deployment cycle described above, then, China would need six SSBNs to fulfill the basic

demands of minimum deterrence. Depending on the eventual technical quality, reliability, and

characteristics of the Type 094, furthermore, Beijing may not even need six boats. If the

PLA Navy adopted an arrangement similar to the U.S. Navy’s Blue and Gold crew system,

which alternates crews after each deterrent patrol with a short maintenance period in

between, it might even make do with a two-for-one ratio of boats in port to at sea. Four

fleet boats would serve China’s needs under these circumstances. Potential Deployment

Patterns Beyond force sizing, China would also need to consider a range of possible

deployment patterns. Recently, speculation concerning the logic of a “bastion strategy”

for China has emerged among U.S. analysts. 50 The Chinese themselves seem intrigued by the

Soviet Union’s experience in this regard. 51 China could seek to replicate the Soviet

model by turning the geographical features of the Asian coastline to its advantage. 52

Beijing could, for instance, concentrate its SSBNs within the protective confines of the

Bohai and Yellow seas. 53 Nuclear attack submarines, shore-based fighter aircraft, and

surface combatants could be poised as “palace guards” to quickly respond against hostile

forces seeking to hold China’s SSBNs at risk. The bastion approach would offer sanctuaries

within which high-value SSBNs could operate. In theory, sea- and shore-based assets would be

able to identify and hold at bay hostile forces operating near or in the Bohai or Yellow

Seas. The shallowness and complex acoustic environment of littoral waters, moreover, would

pose serious challenges to high-speed American hunter-killer submarines designed for open-

ocean operations during the Cold War. However attractive it seems, a bastion strategy would

entail certain risks. Keeping the undersea deterrent in the Bohai area would: 1) constrain

patrol patterns, thereby increasing the likelihood that the submarines would be detected by

enemy forces; 2) forego much of the inherent stealth and mobility of an SSBN; and 3) keep

certain targets out of reach due to the longer distances that the missiles would have to

traverse. 54 To overcome such obstacles, China would have to build large, capable naval

forces to protect the SSBNs lurking within the bastion and to enable the boats to stage a

breakout should hostile forces seek to bottle then up and hunt them down in Yoshihara/Holmes

- 11confined waters. The main risk of such an all-consuming strategy of deterrence is that

excessive investment in protecting SSBN forces would detract from broader maritime

priorities such as Taiwan-related contingencies, sea-lane defense, and secure access to

overseas energy supplies. 55 As an alternative to the bastion strategy, the strategic

submarines could operate more freely along China’s long coastline under the protective

cover of naval and land-based aviation forces on the mainland. Recent studies have

postulated that China has already embarked on an ambitious plan to create “contested

zones” along its maritime periphery. 56 Premised on the concept of sea denial, Beijing

would be able to exercise local superiority roughly within the first island chain stretching

from the Japanese archipelago to the northern Philippines. Under this scenario, China might

be confident enough to permit SSBN patrols along the Asian mainland, particularly in the

Bohai, Yellow, East China, and South China seas and the Taiwan Strait. Given that China

confronts several deterrent relationships in Asia, including India, one analysis argues that

the presence of SSBNs in the South China Sea would help shore up deterrence on the southern

flank. 57 This sort of “expanded bastion” strategy would clearly open up new options for

the PLA, albeit at greater risk. Most ambitiously, China could deploy its submarines out to

the Pacific in forays reminiscent of the U.S.-Soviet undersea competition during the Cold

War. One analyst speculates that China might base its SSBNs in the South China Sea, enabling

them to slip into deeper Pacific waters undetected. 58 Forward deployment would place a much

larger number of U.S. targets within the range of the JL-2 missiles. Assuming China manages

to develop very capable and quiet submarines, Chinese patrols in the Pacific would pose the

greatest challenges to U.S. defenders seeking to detect and track lurking SSBNs. Forward

patrols would also force the United States to devote more of its attack boats to shadow

Chinese submarines in open waters, thereby diverting American SSNs that might otherwise be

available for a Taiwan contingency or some other flare-up. The PLA Navy would incur

strategic and operation risks by permitting such free-ranging deployments. From a political

standpoint, active patrols within the first island chain or in the Pacific could prove

highly provocative to the United States and would almost certainly stimulate a competitive

response. U.S. naval planners would likely see China’s entry into Asian waters as a

dramatic change in the threat environment—especially given the lack of Russian deterrent

patrols in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War. Given that the Xia-class SSBN “has

never conducted a deterrent patrol,” 59 even a modestly forward-leaning deployment pattern

could signal a sea change in Chinese nuclear strategy that might significantly heighten

American threat perceptions. From an operational standpoint, submarine patrols along the

mainland littoral or in the Pacific would expose PLA Navy boats to U.S. and allied ASW

measures. 60 Throughout the Cold War, the United States developed extensive and highly

effective undersea detection networks—most Yoshihara/Holmes - 12notably the Sound

Surveillance System, or SOSUS—to track the location of Soviet submarines. In the Pacific

theater, U.S. submarines aided by SOSUS monitored every movement of Soviet SSBNs in waters

off the Kamchatka Peninsula. In the 1980s, American and Japanese naval forces raised ASW to

an art form, cooperating closely to bottle up Soviet forces operating in the Seas of Okhostk

and Japan. These “legacy” systems and well-developed tactics would lend themselves

readily to ASW against Chinese SSBNs. The ability of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

(JMSDF) to track a Chinese Han-class submarine that had breached Japanese territorial waters

reaffirmed the JMSDF’s high level of ASW readiness. Commenting on the Han incident, a

former JMSDF chief of staff boasted that Chinese submarines would be unable to slip into the

deep waters of the Pacific through the Ryukyu island chain, to the north or south of Taiwan,

or through the Bashi (Luzon) Strait without being detected by U.S. and Japanese ASW forces.

61 Given such potent risks, China will probably avoid coastal and blue-water patrols,

especially during the initial stages of deployment when training, tactical skills, and

doctrine are still immature. 62 Additionally, Beijing simply might not have enough SSBNs to

contemplate riskier, more forward-leaning options. As noted above, China may be content with

two boats conducting deterrent patrols at any given time. If so, then secondary

considerations such as patrols in the South China Sea aimed at India, could be viewed as a

diversion from the primary mission of deterring the United States. Unless the range of the

JL-2 is sufficient to reach the continental United States from any location within the first

island chain, which seems unlikely, operating farther from American shores may be deemed

counterproductive. These factors suggest that submarine deployment patterns will be rather

constrained. Beijing will likely favor protection over effectiveness during the early phases

of SSBN deployment and will thus rely on some type of bastion strategy. Over time, if the

vessels are operationally capable of extended patrols far beyond the Chinese coastline, then

China might be willing to relax its protectiveness and permit more forward patrols. It is

important to note that the deployment options—the bastion strategy, coastal patrols, and

open-ocean patrols—are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that the Chinese may keep

open variations of the three choices and alternate between them as security conditions

change. Beijing may be content to rely on the bastion strategy during peacetime, when no

immediate threat is evident. In times of crisis or conflict, China may permit more active

coastal patrols or slip its SSBNs into open waters to signal resolve or to counter potential

nuclear coercion by an adversary. In sum, even a small undersea deterrent would give Beijing

multiple options across a spectrum of contingency scenarios. Potential Stimuli for a Larger

Undersea Deterrent While a restrained Chinese nuclear posture is a more likely outcome at

present, it is nevertheless worth exploring how China’s willingness to retain its

minimalist posture could come under Yoshihara/Holmes - 13significant pressure in the future.

There has been considerable speculation in the U.S. policy community about the prospects of

a shift in China’s deterrent posture from minimum to limited deterrence for at least a

decade. 63 Western analysts have long predicted that China will make the transition to a

more flexible capacity to engage in a broader range of nuclear “warfighting” missions,

requiring substantial increases in the numbers and types of nuclear weaponry. So, too,

Chinese analysts and policymakers have exhibited greater willingness to reconsider and

question the basic merits of minimum deterrence. Although official policy remains firmly

rooted in the status quo, three key factors could challenge the logic of minimalism. First,

China’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge the utility of an adversary’s nuclear

first-strike option, which is central to the concept of minimum deterrence, depends in part

on whether the United States wants to submit to the logic of assured (but minimal)

retaliation vis-� -vis China. There is evidence that some U.S. strategists have dismissed

such a mutual vulnerability, asserting that the United States should direct its

ballistic-missile defenses specifically to negate China’s deterrent. 64 Reflecting such an

attitude, one advocate of missile defense argues that should Beijing continue to exhibit

hostile intent toward Washington, particularly with regard to Taiwan, then the United States

“may simply have no choice” but build defenses against China. 65 If Washington overtly

seeks to deny China a retaliatory option, then Beijing will almost certainly respond with a

larger and faster buildup, including a buildup of its undersea strategic forces. Second,

China’s more leisurely approach to bolstering its nuclear posture could come under strain

with the emergence of strategic technical advances or surprises. For instance, more capable

missile-defense systems deployed by the United States in the coming decades could shake

Beijing’s confidence in its retaliatory options. It is conceivable (although highly

improbable in the near term) that the advent of space-based lasers and other advanced

capabilities could radically reshape China’s outlook. 66 The track record of the

missile-defense program to date suggests that such radical breakthroughs are highly unlikely

over the next decade. But, should such technological leaps occur, then SSBNs might emerge as

a strategic trump card. 67 Third, the reconnaissance/precision-strike complex that the

United States boasts could alter China’s exclusively retaliatory posture. In July 2005,

Major Geneal Zhu Chenghu caused a sensation when he declared to the foreign press that “If

the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition onto the target zone on

China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.” He argued that

if China faced the prospect of defeat in a conventional conflict over Taiwan, then Beijing

would have no choice but to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike against American cities.

Similarly, in a candid assessment of how Chinese calculations might change, Shen Dingli

argues that precision conventional strikes against China’s nuclear forces during a Taiwan

contingency could force Beijing to abandon its no-first-use pledge. He asserts that, “If

China’s conventional forces are devastated, and if Taiwan takes the opportunity to declare

de jure independence, it is inconceivable that China would allow its nuclear weapons to be

destroyed by a precision attack with conventional munitions, rather Yoshihara/Holmes -

14than use them as true means of deterrence.” 68 In other words, if the effects of

America’s conventional attacks are indistinguishable from a disarming nuclear strike, then

China’s no-first-use policy would quite sensibly become untenable. 69 Shen’s conclusion

seems consistent with China’s longstanding aversion to nuclear blackmail. In this context,

a much larger SSBN fleet might be perceived as the only viable insurance policy against a

conventional and/or a nuclear disarming first strike. Clearly, China’s next generation

undersea deterrent would give Beijing the strategic option to hedge against sudden shifts in

the international security environment. However, it is important to acknowledge that SSBNs

are not China’s only answer to the strategic dilemmas noted above. Beijing is actively

developing a range of alternative countermeasures to shore up the credibility its deterrent

forces. For instance, the PRC boasts a rather comprehensive set of programs designed to

defeat U.S. ballistic-missile defenses. 70 The recent anti-satellite test by the Chinese is

perhaps the most vivid demonstration of its determination to possess multiple options,

ensuring that missile defenses will not have a debilitating impact on Beijing’s deterrent

posture. Conclusions This study demonstrates how China can make significant qualitative and

quantitative leaps in its nuclear posture without fundamentally overturning the type of

minimalism (at least at the strategic level) that has characterized its nuclear strategy. It

appears that China has redefined the parameters of minimalism in tune with the fluid

security environment. China will have a more effective and credible nuclear deterrent with

the deployment of the Type 094s, even as technical and doctrinal advances by the U.S.

military have introduced elements of nuclear instability. Such a balancing trend should not

be surprising for a rising power like China and augurs well for a more stable nuclear

relationship with the United States. Mutual ambivalence continues to characterize bilateral

ties. As long as Washington and Beijing refuse to embark on a Cold War-style rivalry,

radical shifts in China’s nuclear posture are nonetheless improbable. Yoshihara/Holmes -


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