China builds nuclear vessels for the first time, but they’re probably not the tool it’s looking for

In a stuttering wake-up call to the maritime world, China’s first nuclear-powered submarine surfaced off the coast of Vietnam on Wednesday and was quickly boarded by Vietnamese naval officers, as it refueled in the…

China builds nuclear vessels for the first time, but they’re probably not the tool it’s looking for

In a stuttering wake-up call to the maritime world, China’s first nuclear-powered submarine surfaced off the coast of Vietnam on Wednesday and was quickly boarded by Vietnamese naval officers, as it refueled in the Bay of Bengal, according to Chinese state media.

Though the submarine’s journey across the Indian Ocean was not covert, it was still a sharp reminder of the challenges that lie ahead for China and its regional neighbors when it comes to land-based nuclear vessels.

China’s only nuclear submarine is a brand new 610,000-ton Jin class, state-of-the-art, stealth “hairy cat”, designated as “Liuha 3” in its home port of Jining, in the Shandong province. According to reports, the Russian-made vessel was scheduled to arrive on Chinese soil in 2017. At least part of the approximately $70 million price tag was covered by U.S. government subsidies for Chinese military technology that is supposed to boost U.S. national security. But there is significant debate in China about whether the submarines—who are nearly 20 feet longer than America’s Navy’s newest, Nimitz-class supercarriers—are strategically beneficial.

It is assumed that China’s third Jin class submarine, the so-called “Jiufeil,” which would effectively replace its aging first and second class vessels, would be equipped with nuclear weapons. Yet China’s current nuclear deterrent is nonnuclear and based only on the country’s land-based missiles, such as China’s DF-21D Dongfeng ballistic missile, and its H-6K nuclear strategic bomber fleet.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s white- and gray-hulled small arms fleet is what China can count on to fight a war against it. Vietnam has the Southeast Asian Navy’s most advanced small-diameter-ballistic-missile-launching Soviet-built inter-diction and anti-submarine detection platform—an Integral Fast Vessel (IFV) named Sea Buffalo.

Beijing, however, has not given up hope on the so-called “supra-range” weapon, in the form of a low-altitude and targeted cruise missile that can reach over 2,500 nautical miles from the mainland. This is said to be one of the critical facets of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. The most prevalent Chinese military research project, dubbed the DF-21D, is a missile of this type.

Should a Chinese fighter pilot or a J-15 fighter plane encounter a Chinese high-altitude missile being launched by an enemy, Beijing can launch either its DF-21D or a variant of the DF-21D, said Xi Jingping, the general chief of staff, on February 7 during a news conference in Beijing.

“The enemy can only launch a high-altitude attack, which is impossible to spot,” said Xi. “China’s missiles are also suitably bright.”

China is planning to develop new-generation platforms to match these advanced Chinese missile carriers, including Jin class submarines, J-15 fighters, and new carrier groups with the aim of eventually keeping maritime rivals on the short end of the stick in case of a conflict, with the ultimate aim of winning the ultimate defense shield.

But Chinese analysts seem less than confident that China can actually field a much-needed strike-second-generation fourth-generation anti-submarine vessel, just as the U.S. Navy’s LAV-3V is not performing admirably for the Americans in the Gulf or the Russian Yars and Kilo-class warships are not as useful as they could be.

History may yet repeat itself.

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