China’s new ballistic missile submarine could change its prospects in nuclear war

It's stealthier, with a range long enough to attack the United States from Chinese waters.

New photos of China’s latest nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the “Jin” Type 094A, hints at a much-improved vessel—one that is larger, with a more pronounced “hump” rear of the sail that lets it carry 12 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

First seen in late November 2016, the Type 094A differs from the previous four Type 094 SSBNs, what with its curved conning tower and front base that’s blended into the submarine hull, possibly to reduce hydrodynamic drag. The Type 094A’s conning tower has also removed its windows. Additionally, the Type 094A has a retractable towed array sonar (TAS) mounted on the top of its upper tailfin, which would make it easier for the craft to “listen” for threats and avoid them.

Old and New

The newer Type 094A (top) has a bigger missile payload bay and stealthier features. While an improvement over the Type 094 SSBN, it’s still a stopgap feature until the next generation Type 096 comes online.

While the original Type 094 is considered to be nosier (and thus less survivable) than its American counterpart (known, by the way, as the Ohio SSBN), the Type 094A is likely to include acoustic quieting technologies found on the Type 093A. More importantly, the Type 094A carries a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (speculated to be the JL-2A), which has a 11,200-kilometer range—a significant improvement from its predecessor missiles.

Provided the JL-2A has this kind of range, the new missile could reach virtually the entire United States without leaving the heavily defended Yulin Naval Base (itself complete with underground shelters and docks for submarines) in Hainan Island.

The Future of Tsunamis

The JL-2 (JL stands for the Mandarin word for “Big Wave) submarine-launched ballistic missile is based on the DF-31. Longer ranged variants, like this putative JL-2C variant, can carry multiple nuclear warheads with global reach.

This vessel’s ability to reach global targets while lurking in heavily defended coastal waters will significantly boost China’s second strike capability (that is, the ability of a nuclear power to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack even after suffering a devastating conventional or nuclear attack).

Previously, this tech was not considered very survivable, due to the combination of shortcomings in anti-submarine warfare technology, noisy nuclear propulsion technology, and insufficient range. China’s improved submarine launched second strike capability is part of a boarder Chinese strategic modernization that includes early warning satellites, long-range missile defenses, stealth bombers, and heavy ICBMs.

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