China’s nuclear submarines: The end of “No First Use?”

By Richard Woolgar-James | November 19, 2015


China has a consistent history of publicizing its policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons. But China has one of the world’s most secretive nuclear weapons programs, so why is this doctrine understood as a sincere description of China’s attitude toward its ever-increasing nuclear arsenal? Why should the international community believe China’s promise not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in anger?

The answer lies in the fact that some characteristics of the Chinese nuclear arsenal align with China’s “No First Use” proclamation: Nuclear warheads are not routinely mated with missiles, and nuclear weapons do not sit in a state of high alert with pre-programmed targets. Instead they are stored in a central location, to be released as part of a second strike under authorization from the very top of the Chinese hierarchy. On the other hand, China’s nuclear weapons program has been progressing in a direction that raises questions about the integrity of “No First Use.” In its search for a more credible second-strike capability, China will soon add Type 094 ballistic missile submarines armed with JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles to its arsenal. Once it has achieved this, it’s likely that China will begin deep-water deterrence patrols, putting the continental United States within range of Chinese submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Why submarines are a game changer. Ballistic missile submarines can act as first- or second-strike weapons. Because submarines are hard to detect, they can be used to launch a first strike with little or no warning. As a second-strike weapon, they are more likely than land-based missiles to survive an enemy first strike and be able to retaliate. But regardless of whether they are intended to fulfill a first- or second-strike role, ballistic missile submarines deployed on deep-water deterrence patrols are not compatible with China’s current nuclear posture and will contravene the very foundations of China’s “No First Use” pledge: The storage of warheads will be decentralized; warheads will be mated with missiles; missiles will be on a higher level of alert than other components of the nuclear arsenal; and targeting data will be stored onboard the submarines.

However, submarine-launched ballistic missiles are arguably the most efficient way of deploying nuclear weapons for any country that wants a credible deterrent. All of the legally recognized nuclear powers except China possess and deploy nuclear-armed submarines, and other nuclear states are increasingly looking to submarines to provide the foundations of their nuclear deterrent. Even the United States has argued that its submarine forces are so effective that they alone could counter the Russian nuclear threat. China is looking to field five Type 094 submarines in the very near future, each armed with a dozen missiles and deployed in a similar fashion to the United Kingdom’s Continuous At Sea Deterrence program, which always has at least one submarine on patrol. Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis calculates that each Chinese sub is able to conduct patrols lasting approximately 60 days, or about 300 days total for all five submarines, which provides near-continuous at-sea deterrence (the time required to refit each submarine after its patrol may hinder year-round coverage). This would ensure a high survivability rate of nuclear weapons (even while taking account of claims that the Type 094 is not the quietest submarine) and a force comparable with other states’ recognized survivable forces.

As a late developer, in comparison with the other four legally recognized nuclear states, China knows that survivability is measured on perception. If China aligns its nuclear forces with other states’ forces, it will benefit from the same perception of survivability. China’s arms race is a search for parity based on quality rather than quantity. China’s doubt about whether its force is survivable or not has long plagued its modernization and development decisions, and ballistic missile submarines are the best insurance policy against unknown future threats, especially from rising nuclear powers such as India. Like other nuclear states, China will rely heavily on ballistic missile submarines to provide a large proportion of its nuclear deterrent. However, China will also continue to develop nuclear, conventional, and dual-use weapons outside of this “ultimate” insurance policy.

The military application of nuclear weapons. This leads to the most important result of China’s nuclear submarine deployment: Not only will it be able to deter a first strike, but it will also prevent a conventional conflict from escalating into a nuclear exchange. This is crucial for China, which wants to be able to use its conventional forces and dual-use weapons without running the risk of receiving a nuclear strike in retaliation. This brings thousands of conventionally armed ballistic missiles into play, giving China greater anti-access/area denial capabilities and greater coercive power in resolving sovereignty issues that plague international relations in the Pacific region.

Chinese nuclear-armed submarines will also aid in deterring a debilitating first strike by the United States using conventional means (for example, cruise missiles or future conventional weapons such as Prompt Global Strike). Without a Chinese submarine deterrent, China's nuclear forces could be vulnerable to a first strike from US conventional forces as well as US nuclear forces. A Chinese retaliation using conventional weapons, including ballistic missiles, could prompt a much broader and comprehensive US counterstrike, but the threat of a Chinese nuclear force that is survivable and effective dispels these concerns. This is the primary non-political logic behind Chinese efforts to ensure the survivability of its nuclear forces through an expensive but prestigious measure: China will be able to use its ever-developing conventional military against its enemies if it so wishes, knowing that the opposing force will be deterred by its nuclear weapons. This rings especially true in the current climate—in which mutually assured destruction has evolved away from images of a Cold War nuclear holocaust and toward a situation in which the United States might consider even one nuclear weapon detonating on US soil as unacceptable damage.

Nuclear doctrinal change with conventional implications. The policy of ensuring a survivable strategic nuclear threat allows for the continued militarization of the Chinese state and for its expansion of influence in the Pacific. This expanded influence is made further possible by a post-Cold War, casualty-averse environment in which even the largest of nuclear arsenals can be deterred by a truly “lean and effective” force. Ballistic missile submarines are the realization of China’s dream of a nuclear force that protects China not only from nuclear exchange, but also from conventional coercion: Finally, a true minimum deterrence will be reached—the quality and quantity of Chinese nuclear weapons will be enough to deter its adversaries from initiating a first strike. It is a level of deterrence that is recognized not only by the rest of the world but also by China itself. Some Chinese nuclear developments—such as the continued modernization of the DF-5 A and B missiles, whose silo locations are widely known and would not survive a first strike—are questionable on strategic ground, but the deployment of ballistic missile submarines on deterrent patrols is nothing but a logical progression for a nuclear armed state.

At the same time, however, this deployment weighs against the evidence supporting a Chinese policy of “No First Use.”

Unfortunately, the threat from below has repercussions that are larger and more tangible than its implications for "No First Use." China is refusing to separate its nuclear forces from its growing conventional forces—not only continuing to obscure the nature of China’s nuclear arsenal, but also guaranteeing the utility of its conventional weapons. China’s 260 nuclear warheads should now be looked upon as having a real military function, rather than dismissed as a small force developed for political purposes only.

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