A Glimpse of Chinese Ballistic Missile Submarines
Tucked away on the southern edge of Hainan Island sits one of China’s most important military facilities—Yulin Navy Base. Located near the beachfront resorts of picturesque Sanya, the eastern portion of the base houses China’s fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), commonly known as “boomers.” Unlike aircraft carriers, destroyers, and other large surface vessels, submarines spend much of their time out of sight, making them much harder to track and analyze.
Commercial satellite imagery from July 8, 2021, captured one of China’s Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs returning to port at Yulin. Although partially obscured by clouds, at least one other Type 094 is also visible at the submarine facilities. Clearer imagery from July 15, shows two Type 094s—along with two Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs)—docked along four piers, which are protected by a nearby surface-to-air missile site.1
The Type 094 is the only vessel in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) dedicated to launching nuclear weapons. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the platform represents China’s “first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”
China has built four Type 094 SSBNs, as well as two Type 094A variants, which feature several incremental upgrades. The hulls of the first Type 094s were laid down in the early 2000s and commissioned into the PLAN several years later. The most recent Chinese boomer to enter service was commissioned in April 2021 at a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping. The same event witnessed a Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) and a Type 055 destroyer—two of the PLAN’s most advanced surface combatants—officially join China’s growing fleet.
The Type 094 (and Type 094A) carry up to 12 Julang-2 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), each of which is believed to carry a single nuclear warhead and possess a range of between 7,200 and 9,000 kilometers (km). 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, but would be unable to reach the continental United States. It could, however, threaten Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska.
Although the Type 094 represents a notable improvement over China’s first SSBN, it suffers from significant shortcomings. The Type 094 is reported to be two orders of magnitude louder than current U.S. and Russian boomers, and according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, the Type 094 is noisier than the Delta III SSBN first launched by the Soviet Union in 1976. The Type 094A variant is believed to feature design improvements aimed at reducing the submarine’s detectability.
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 Type 096 is expected to be armed with the JL-3 SLBM, which is not yet operational. The new SLBM is estimated to have a range exceeding 9,000 km and to potentially carry multiple warheads on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). By 2030, the DOD assesses that China could field up to eight SSBNs consisting of Type 094s and Type 096s operating concurrently.
Efforts to enhance the SSBN program are part of a broader push by China to strengthen its nascent nuclear triad—the ability to launch nuclear weapons from land, sea, and air domains. Possessing a nuclear triad greatly enhances the survivability of a country’s nuclear deterrent and provides its military leaders with several different delivery options. In conjunction with a sizable and sophisticated arsenal of land-based missiles and an emergent air-based nuclear deterrent, China’s SSBN forces are bringing the country closer to possessing a full triad like those of the U.S. and Russian militaries.
Despite China’s progress in modernizing its nuclear forces, the Type 094 faces serious challenges. To credibly threaten locations further away from China, the Type 094 must traverse critical chokepoints, which (due to its noisiness) may expose it to adversarial anti-submarine forces. Doctrinal limitations also inhibit Chinese boomers from regularly performing deterrent patrols with nuclear warheads on board. The Chinese military has long been reluctant to deploy warheads in peacetime, choosing instead to keep them separated from their delivery systems until needed. Chinese military leaders must also wrestle with maintaining safe, secure, and reliable command and control technologies and procedures—a challenging feat even for militaries with decades of experience operating SSBNs.
With the establishment of a credible sea-based deterrent, the Type 094 is a crucial element of China’s ongoing nuclear weapons modernization efforts. Nevertheless, more progress is needed before Chinese SSBNs are on par with those of other leading navies.
Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab and senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is a senior fellow for imagery analysis (non-resident) with the CSIS iDeas Lab and Korea Chair. Brian Hart is an associate fellow with the CSIS China Power Project.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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1 It is not possible to say with accuracy whether the submarines in these images are Type 094 or 094A variants.