China accuses Australia of being a “threat to regional peace and security” because of its plans to build nuclear-powered submarines. But satellite photos reveal its racing ahead with its own new designs.
The dry-docks at China’s nuclear submarine facility at Huludao, Liaoning province, show increased activity. New construction halls are primed. Another dry dock is ready to go.
International analysts point to this as evidence Beijing is gearing up for the mass production of a new generation of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines.
“The development of weapons and equipment aim to serve the basic needs of safeguarding China’s national security,” China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) insists.
That doesn’t apply to others.
“The nuclear-powered submarine deal under AUKUS is a blatant, irresponsible act of nuclear proliferation,” asserts China’s ambassador to the UN, Wang Qun.
But Beijing is itself contributing towards an accelerating arms race.
The chief of the US Pacific Fleet told a conference in Washington DC last week that China had retrofitted its fleet of ballistic missile submarines with a new class of intercontinental missile.
“They were built to threaten the United States,” he said. “We keep close track of those submarines.”
Reportedly, that’s not all that hard.
China’s current generation of nuclear-powered submarines is said to be very noisy. This makes tracking them easier. And it’s a weakness that has limited them to lurking in waters protected by Beijing’s South China Sea island fortresses.
But its next-generation Type 095 attack and Type 096 ballistic missile submarines will have learnt from these mistakes.
Do as we say, not as we do …
“China always adheres to a national defence policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy of active defence,” Beijing’s Ministry of National Defense spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in 2019. He was speaking after the test launch of a prototype JL-3 nuclear-tipped ballistic missile designed for submarines.
But Ambassador Wang accuses AUKUS countries of “double standards”.
“(It) is an act of nuclear proliferation under the pretext of naval nuclear propulsion,” he told the Global Times.
It’s an argument being actively pursued under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations.
But Canberra hopes it has found a loophole.
Under the AUKUS technology sharing agreement, Australian submarines will have self-contained nuclear reactors. These will be of a type that will not need refuelling during their designed lifespan.
This, advocates argue, bypasses non-proliferation fears. Canberra won’t be able to harvest weapons-grade plutonium from the reactors. And the power plants will be returned to their supplier at the end of their useful lives.
The submarines also will not carry nuclear-tipped weapons, as China’s do.
In September, AUKUS leaders issued a combined statement: “We are steadfast in our commitment to Australia acquiring this capability at the earliest possible date.”
Nuclear-powered submarines have one significant strength: they can stay underwater for as long as their food and air supply hold out.
That’s a significant capability for a nation with global ambitions. Or one with an enormous shoreline.
But attack submarines also need to be fast. And ballistic missile submarines quiet.
“Type 094 is reported to be two orders of magnitude louder than current US and Russian boomers,” reads a Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) report. “The Type 094 is noisier than the Delta III SSBN first launched by the Soviet Union in 1976.”
Also known as the Jin-class, the Type 094 ballistic missile submarines entered service in the late 2000s. Six have so far been built.
Until recently, these carried 12 Julang-2 (JL-2) ballistic missiles with an assessed range of about 7200km.
“If launched from waters near China, the JL-2 would have sufficient range to strike nuclear states in the region, such as Russia and India,” CSIS states. “But (it) would be unable to reach the continental United States. It could, however, threaten Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska.”
But they have now been replaced.
The new JL-3 can reach the continental US “from a protected bastion within the South China Sea,” US Strategic Command chief Admiral Charles Richard said earlier this year. “They’re now capable of continuous at-sea determined patrols with their Jin-class submarines. More are coming.”
Great power competition
“China is currently working on its next generation of SSBNs, the Type 096, which could further strengthen the PLA’s sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the CSIS report assesses. “By 2030, the (Department of Defence) assesses that China could field up to eight SSBNs consisting of Type 094s and Type 096s operating concurrently.”
Very little is known about China’s new nuclear submarine program. Other than their designation and roles, it’s mostly speculation and propaganda.
That’s why analysts are scouring commercial satellite photos for clues on the grounds between Huludao shipyard’s construction halls. Such glimpses of submarine components are the only chance they have to infer details.
Many apparent submarine hull sections appear to be about 9 to 10 meters across. That’s in the ballpark of existing Chinese submarines. But a few seem to be about 12 meters. These could only be part of a new, larger design.
But Beijing is annoyed at all the attention.
“By hyping China’s normal national defence development, the US military has ulterior motives of seeking more presence in the Asia-Pacific region,” China’s state-controlled media declares.
Citing an unnamed Beijing-based expert, the commentary went on to say: “They will not proactively threaten or attack anyone, but will deter nuclear blackmail from other countries”.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel