Pentagon Sees China Progressing on SLBM

Marcus Taylor and Eric Tamerlani

China is moving closer to fielding a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of striking the United States, according to a new Defense Department report on China’s military capabilities.

Released May 6, the Pentagon report says that Beijing’s newest SLBM, the Julang-2 (JL-2), is poised “to reach initial operational capability in 2013.” Once deployed on Beijing’s Jin-class ballistic missile submarine, the JL-2 “will give the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the report says.

The Defense Department is required by law to submit an annual report to Congress on China’s military capabilities and force modernization.

The 2013 report indicates China’s progress in upgrading certain elements of its nuclear forces. In the 2011 version of the report, the Defense Department described the operational status of the first-generation JL-1 SLBM as “questionable,” and it is widely believed that the Xia-class submarine on which that missile is carried has never been deployed on a strategic patrol outside Chinese regional waters. Independent analysts from China have described the JL-1 and the Xia-class submarine as a “failure,” according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

China conducted a successful test of the JL-2 on Aug. 16, 2012.

Beijing has three operational Jin-class submarines and another two under construction in different stages of completion. The Jin-class submarines are expected to carry 12 JL-2 SLBMs each, according to an April report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on Chinese naval modernization. The submarines are based on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and will be capable of conducting deterrence patrols from that base, according to the Defense Department report.

Military Role Seen in Chinese Cyberattacks

China’s military and government are directly behind some of the intrusions into many of the computer systems around the world, including the U.S. government’s, according to the most recent edition of an annual report to Congress by the Defense Department.

The May 2013 report marks the first time that the Pentagon has linked the Chinese government and military to the thousands of cyberattacks against the United States. According to the report, these attacks are focused on extracting information and giving Chinese military planners “a picture of U.S. network defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.”

Last year’s report concluded that many of the computer intrusions around the world “originated within China” and that “China’s persistent cyber intrusions indicates the likelihood” that Beijing is using cybernetwork operations to “collect strategic intelligence.” But it did not specifically state that the government or military were responsible.

The 2013 report says China’s cyberwarfare capabilities could help the Chinese military in several areas. The intrusions could be used to collect data to constrain or slow an adversary’s response time during conflict by targeting communications, logistics, and commercial networks and could be used in conjunction with traditional warfare.

In February, the private computer security firm Mandiant released a report that said a particular unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Unit 61398, was responsible for many of the cyber intrusions and data thefts in U.S. government agencies and private companies. The unclassified version of the 2013 Pentagon report did not go as far as naming a specific PLA unit.—TIMOTHY FARNSWORTH

    That report says that China possesses 50 to 75 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Beijing’s ICBMs are believed to be armed with a single nuclear warhead each.

    The 2013 report says China has approximately 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan, but it does not estimate how many may be nuclear tipped. Independent estimates put China’s total nuclear force at about 240 warheads of all types, of which 180 are considered to be nondeployed, or in reserve.

    In the report, the Defense Department says it expects the JL-2 to have a range of 7,400 kilometers. Given the range of the JL-2, the Jin-class submarine could launch an attack reaching targets in Alaska from Chinese waters, targets in the western half of the U.S. mainland from “mid-ocean locations west of Hawaii,” and “targets in all 50 states from mid-ocean locations east of Hawaii,” the CRS report says.

    However, according to that report, the Jin-class submarines produce a great deal of noise. This makes them “relatively easy” for the U.S. Navy to detect and will make deployment away from Chinese-protected waters a risky endeavor, possibly constraining Beijing’s ability to threaten the U.S. mainland, the CRS report says.

    The Defense Department report says that once Beijing begins patrols with ballistic missile submarines, the PLA will have to “implement more sophisticated command and control systems and processes that safeguard the integrity of nuclear release authority.”

    In a May 13 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said it is unlikely that control of the nuclear warheads will be handed over to the PLA Navy during peacetime, meaning that the Jin-class submarines would be fitted with nuclear warheads only during a crisis, not during routine patrols. The mating of the JL-2 missile and warhead during peacetime would be a “significant change in Chinese nuclear policy” and remains unlikely, Kristensen said.

    According to the Pentagon report, China is expected to begin development of a third generation of ballistic missile submarines over the next decade.

    The report also says that China is developing a “new generation of mobile missiles, with warheads consisting of MIRVs [multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles] and penetration aids.” Penetration aids are designed to increase the likelihood that a ballistic missile can penetrate defense systems by obscuring the identity of the real nuclear warhead. The MIRVs and penetration aids are intended to counter U.S. and, to a certain extent, Russian precision strike capabilities and improvements in ballistic missile defense technology, according to the report.

    Beijing is performing research on advanced penetration aids such as maneuverable re-entry vehicles, decoys, thermal shielding, and radar jammers, according to the Pentagon report. The report says these efforts, combined with recent combat simulation exercises focusing on ICBM maneuverability and concealment, show an increased focus on the survivability of Chinese nuclear forces. According to the report, “[T]hese technologies and training enhancements strengthen China’s nuclear force and enhance its strategic strike capabilities.”

    China has taken several steps to develop an indigenous ballistic missile defense system, including the flight test of a land-based missile interceptor Jan. 28. (See ACT, March 2013.) According to the report, Beijing is researching and developing a “missile defense umbrella” to intercept ballistic missiles during the midcourse phase—a technique used by the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense—utilizing a so-called kill vehicle and a kinetic “hit-to-kill” warhead.