The past few years have witnessed a lively debate among Western strategic thinkers over Chinas emerging force of fleet ballistic-missile submarines and what it portends for Beijins 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 Beijings 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 Chinas navy in general, and improvements to the navys 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 Chinas
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
Chinas tradition of minimalist nuclear strategy.
Indeed, a modest undersea deterrent would reinforce minimum deterrence as Beijing conceives of it. We first examine historical precedents for Chinese ballistic-missile submarine development, revealing some parameters for Chinas likely future in this domain, then attempt to project the likely size and deployment patterns for Chinese SSBNs. Its tough to make predictions, especially about the future. This is nonetheless an exercise worth undertakingas the United States and other powers with a stake in Asian politico-military affairs shape their own strategies and forces. Historical Models for Chinas 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 coastal waters. For another, the purges Yoshihara/Holmes - accompanying China Great Leap Forward and
Cultural Revolution devastated the nations scientific and engineering sectors, depriving
the People 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.
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 sea-based deterrent. The United States and the Soviet Union are obvious choices, given Beijings 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. 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 gapa that seemed to have opened with the Soviet Unions 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. 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.
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
nations 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 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. Political and military leaders are clearly mindful of the repercussions that would follow a mistaken release of SLBMs from U.S. strategic submarines.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 adversarys 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 navys submarine-launched ballistic missiles while adding capabilities such as multiple,
independently targeted warheads. 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 Moscows 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.
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
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.Judging from these historical cases, several indices are
worth taking into account when appraising China 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
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.
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 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.
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
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. Chinas 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, Chinas 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
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. Wang Zhongchun, a professor at Chinas National Defense University and a senior colonel in the People Liberation Army (PLA), asserts succinctly, China nuclear strategy is mainly defensive, directional, passive and limited. Such nuclear minimalism has exerted significant influence on
China 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
Chinas 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 arsenals survivability, reliability and penetrability, and a limited program of research, development and testing. Another, more recent analysis concurs: Chinas 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. 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. 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. 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 Chinas 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 Chinas 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.
Similarly, the 2006 version envisions the PLA Navy enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterattacks. 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, how 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 Beijings calculus concerning the proper force mix and tradeoffs between its
land-based, mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the DF-31s, and the
Each leg of the dyad presents distinct advantages and disadvantages that will surely influence the PRCs cost-benefit analysis. In terms of survivability, both land- and sea-based options enhance Chinas ability to escape a disarming first strike. The mobility of the DF-31s will allow the PLA to exploit Chinas geographic depth, while the next-generation Type 094 SSBN currently under development will impose additional targeting, tracking, and other intelligence challenges on any adversary. Ideally, an interactively survivable nuclear dyad would greatly increase the versatility of Chinas 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 Chinas nuclear forces.
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. 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. 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 promisesto 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 Chinas no-first-use policy, reducing the risk of a sudden escalation to the nuclear level.
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. 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 engineering challenges of building a SSBN are already well documented.
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. 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. 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 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 Chinas nuclear arsenal.
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. 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. According to the director of the DefenseIntelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the 8,000+ kilometer range JL-2likely will be ready for deployment later this decade. The Pentagons most recent assessment of Chinese military power speculates that the JL-2 will achieve initial operational capability in the 2007-2010 timeframe.The U.S. Navys Office of Naval Intelligence believes that the Type 094 may enter service as early as 2008 and that afleet 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.
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 Chinas strategic forces tend to agree with the U.S. intelligence community. The Council on Foreign Relations, for example, believes that the first ballistic-missile submarine will not be in
service before 2010.Janes Strategic Weapons speculates that China will ultimately build four to six Type 094 submarines. The latest Janes Fighting Ships places the expected number of commissioned hulls at four by 2014. The Congressional Research
Service, which regularly tracks U.S. analyses of Chinas navy, places the number of Type 094s at four to five. Other studies have drawn a more alarming picture. One study projects five to six vessels before the end of this decade. Two analysts from the U.S.
Naval War College cite sources predicting the availability of two to three strategic submarines by 2010 and place the final number of SSBNs at twelve. 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 Bureaus intelligence report, which claimed that the Type 094 had completed sea trials and would be in service in the near future. Simply put, the future size of the fleet is still anybodys guess. Some parameters and assumptions embedded in the historical models set forth previously
provide useful guidance for estimating the likely size of Chinas 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 Chinas 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 liatory 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 Chinas 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 decadesay, by making the oceans transparent to U.S. sensors and ASW weaponry. Since theend of the Cold War, furthermore, Americas nuclear attack-submarine fleet and ASW aviation squadronsthe most potent counters to an undersea threathave 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 Chinas 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, Beijings 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 thumbfamiliar to U.S. naval plannersis 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 ASWa generous estimate in view of SSBNs capacity for concealment and quiet operationsonly 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. Navys 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 Chinas needs under these circumstances. Potential Deployment Patterns Beyond force sizing, China would also need to consider a range of possible
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 Unions experience in this regard.China could seek to replicate the Soviet
model by turning the geographical features of the Asian coastline to its advantage. Beijing could, for instance, concentrate its SSBNs within the protective confines of the Bohai and Yellow seas. 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 Chinas 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
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.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 confined 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.
As an alternative to the bastion strategy, the strategic submarines could operate more freely along Chinas 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. 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. 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 Chinas entry into Asian waters as a dramatic change in the threat environmentespecially 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.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States developed extensive and highly effective undersea detection networksmost notably the Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUSto 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 JMSDFs 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.
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. 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 optionsthe bastion strategy, coastal patrols, and
open-ocean patrolsare 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 Chinas willingness to retain its minimalist posture could come under significant pressure in the future.There has been considerable speculation in the U.S. policy community about the prospects of a shift in Chinas deterrent posture from minimum to limited deterrence for at least a decade. 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, Chinas ongoing refusal to acknowledge the utility of an adversarys 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 Chinas deterrent.
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.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, Chinas 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 Beijings 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 Chinas outlook. 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 Chinas 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 Chinas 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 Chinas nuclear forces during a Taiwan contingency could force Beijing to abandon its no-first-use pledge. He asserts that, If Chinas 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 than use them as true means of deterrence. 68 In other words, if the effects of Americas conventional attacks are indistinguishable from a disarming nuclear strike, then Chinas no-first-use policy would quite sensibly become untenable.Shens conclusion seems consistent with Chinas 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, Chinas 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 Chinas 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.
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 Beijings 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 bilateralties. As long as Washington and Beijing refuse to embark on a Cold War-style rivalry,radical shifts in Chinas nuclear posture are nonetheless improbable.