Western observers have likely underestimated the number of Chinese nuclear submarines in development, but overestimated how many are operational, a new analysis suggests. In particular, only half of China’s nuclear-armed SSBNs appear to be in operation.
Photos of the Bohai Shipyard and the Longpo Naval Facility produced by Planet Labs suggest that “China does not yet have a credible sea-based deterrent,” said Catherine Dill of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Two of China’s four JIN (or 094)-class subs “appear to not be in operation and are undergoing maintenance or repairs at the Bohai shipyard, suggesting to us that credibility is still in question.”
The Bohai Chinese Naval facility, displaying two JIN class submarines, taken on November 16th, 2018, courtesy of Planet Labs.
But Dill and colleague Jeffrey Lewis also found that China had one more nuclear submarine in development than previously believed. They observed a total of five hulls in production, three at Longpo and two at the Bohai shipyard, suggesting that China is well on its way to meeting its goal of eight.
“China is continuing to modernize its nuclear weapons program, broadly,” Dill said. “There’s a big emphasis on the SSBN program because all of their deliverable nuclear weapons are on land-based systems. Expanding into these SSBNs gives China more flexibly and credibility.”
She added, “These observations would not have been possible without the high cadence of the Planet imagery, which gave us 244 days of exploitable imagery to monitor from July 2017 to November 2018.”