MissileThreat.com and Hans Kristensen are wrong to understate the Chinese nuclear threat

A recent MissileThreat.com article inexplicably and wrongly downplays the Chinese missile and submarine threat significantly, which is a stain on the previously almost impeccable credibility of the MissileThreat website, which has normally been a very credible information source.

The article informs the reader that the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warns in its report that China is “on the verge” of acquiring a credible continous at-sea nuclear deterrent and that China supposedly already has 2-3 SSBNs; hence, the Commission says, the US should enter into arms limitation talks with Beijing.

But the ESR Commission and the MissileThreat website are actually understating the Chinese military threat. Anti-nuclear, pro-disarmament hack Hans Kristensen (a Danish pacifist activist working in the US) understates it even worse.

Firstly, China had 2-3 Jin class SSBNs (plus one Xia class submarine) 5 years ago, in 2007. Since then, it has grown to 5 Jins and the one Xia class boat, as documented here. A mere 2-3 Jin class boats is what China had in 2007. Common sense and logic alone should tell us that China has only increased its SSBN fleet since then, and has has had plenty of time (5 years!) to do so.

And indeed, China has 5 Jin class SSBNs today, with a sixth one under construction. This is consistent with the Office of Naval Intelligence’s 2006 statement that China would need at least 5 Jins to maintain a continous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Secondly, contrary to what the article (and the MissileThreat website, in its profile of the missile) claims, the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (the principal armament of the Jin class) has a range of 8,000 kms, not 7,200. That range makes a Jin class boat capable of targeting the entire US West Coast while being positioned just east of the 150E meridian, just east of Japan and well west of Hawaii. It does not need to sail close to, let alone east of Hawaii as the article wrongly claimed.

Even if the JL-2’s range was “only” 7,200 kilometers, that would still give a Jin enough range to target the entire US West Coast while being positioned at the 160E meridian, still well west of Hawaii. In fact, if a Jin boat were positioned just slightly east of Hawaii, its JL-2 missiles could hit any target anywhere in the US, including even Maine. (A Chinese YouTube video claims that the JL-2 has a range of 7,400 kms, and the SinoDefence website says it has a range of between 7000 and 8000 kms.)

Kristensen and MissleThreat also falsely claim that Chinese SSBNs would be vulnerable shortly after leaving their bases. This is false, at least regarding the Yulin Naval Base near Sanya (which is quoted in the article), on the South China Sea, and possibly also false with regard to the Jianggezhue Naval Base near Qingdao. The entrance to the Yulin Naval Base is partially underwater and the water in front of that entrance, and in the entrance lane itself, is so deep that a submarine entering or leaving that base can do so while being fully submerged, as reported by the Daily Telegraph here. So the ony way for the USN to know when a sub would be leaving the base would be to permanently have an American sub positioned near the entrance and monitor it as Chinese subs enter and exit the base, then track a Jin class sub leaving the base.

MissileThreat and Kristensen also mock the Jin class’s survivability, saying that it’s noisy and might not survive in the Pacific. The Jin class is noisy to be sure (as the ONI confirms), but it won’t matter in the congested waters of the East China and South China Seas or in the Sea of Japan. Nor will it matter in the vast swathes of the open Pacific, where the only way of detecting a Jin boat is to know where to look for it. But because a Jin can exit its base unseen, and because the Pacific Ocean is so vast, the USN would never know where to look for the Jin class.

Moreover, as MissileThreat itself admits, America’s ASW capabilities have dwindled dramatically since 1991. The fleet of P-3 Orion ASW aircraft is old, worn out, and dwindling, planned orders for replacement P-8 Poseidon aircraft are small, S-3 Viking carrier-borne ASW aircraft have been retired, the submarine fleet is dwindling and overcommitted, and so is the surface combatant fleet, not all of which is equipped with sonars. It would therefore be very easy for a Jin class boat to exit one of its subs unseen and then vanish in the vast swathes of the Pacific, only to threaten the US.

Kristensen, of course, desiring to mislead the public about China’s military capabilities and to lull the public into a false sense of security, falsely claims that “in a war with the United States, China would not last long”. What utter garbage.

In fact, China’s nuclear arsenal is very survivable. Its DF-5 ICBMs sit in hardened siloes, it has built many decoy siloes, while its DF-31 and DF-41 ICBMs (like their DF-21 MRBM and their SRBM and GLCM counterparts) are road-mobile (a rail-mobile version of the DF-31 is reportedly under development). Its nuclear strike aircraft are dispersed around many bases around the country, and nuclear-capable Q-5s and JH-7s are mostly based in hardened or underground and under-mountain hangars. Jin class submarines, of course, being submarines, are even more survivable, like other SSBNs.

Looking at China’s entire portfolio of military capabilities – not just the nuclear ones – it is clear that China’s military is catching up with the US military quickly and that, as things stand today, Beijing would actually win a conventional war with the US in Eastern Asia.

This is because the US military today is poorly prepared for wars in anti-access/area-denial environments. Its sole bombers capable of penetrating Chinese airspace are its 20 B-2 bombers. Its cruise missiles could be easily intercepted by Chinese air defense systems. The bases of its short- and medium-range aircraft are all within easy reach of Chinese SRBMs (DF-11, DF-15, B-611), MRBMs (DF-21, DF-3), and GLCMs (CJ-10, DH-10). Its ASW skills and assets, as stated above and admitted by MissileThreat, have dwindled disastrously since 1991. Its submarine and surface combatants are dwindling, too, and will do so even if sequestration is averted completely. It has only 14 mine countermeasure ships, most of them committed to the Persian Gulf, while China has 100,000 naval mines. Its carriers are at risk from Chinese ASCMs and ASBMs. Its carrier-borne aircraft have a short range.

Thus, in a war with the US, China would simply need to use its SRBMs, MRBMs, and cruise missiles to destroy American bases in the region (and the aircraft parked there), while Chinese DF-21D ASBMs would sink any American carrier within 2,700 kms of China’s coast.

Alas, it is the US, not China, that would not last long in a war between Washington and Beijing.

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