China tests new sub-launched ballistic missile that will raise the stakes in a nuclear war with the US

Robertus Pudyanto/ Getty Images
  • China tested a new JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile in late November, moving closer to strengthening its sea-based nuclear strike capabilities.
  • The new missiles are expected to be carried by Type 096 submarines, which will replace the older Type 094 Jin-class submarines, China’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.
  • With a longer range than the current JL-2 missiles, these new missiles could give China the ability to strike the US mainland from Chinese coastal waters.

China recently conducted the first known test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, a significant development as Beijing attempts to bolster its nuclear forces.

The test, first reported by The Washington Free Beacon and confirmed by The Diplomat, involved the new JL-3 missile, which analysts speculate could potentially carry multiple warheads. While China has yet to confirm the test, it was reportedly monitored by the US.

The test was carried out in the Bohai Sea in late November using a modified conventional submarine, but the new weapon is expected to be operationally deployed on the new Type 096 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, which are still in development.

“China’s four operational JIN-class SSBNs represent China’s first credible, seabased nuclear deterrent,” the Department of Defence wrote in its 2018 report of Chinese military power, referring to the Type 094 submarines. “China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, reportedly to be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, will likely begin construction in the early-2020s.”

The current Type 094 submarines carry JL-2 missiles, naval variants of the land-based DF-31s. A report from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center argued last year that “this missile will, for the first time, allow Chinese SSBNs to target portions of the United States from operating areas located near the Chinese coast.”

The JL-3 is believed to have a far superior range to the JL-2, which has an estimated range of around 7,000 kilometers. The Diplomat, citing US intelligence estimates, suggested that the full range of the newer missile could be in excess of 9,000 km. The Free Beacon, however, put the range between 11,000 and 14,000 kilometers. During the most recent test, the missile was not fly to its full range, perhaps because the test was a systems verification evaluation

Either way, the extended range of the JL-3 gives China the ability to take aim at targets on the US mainland without venturing far from China’s coast into waters where the submarine might be more vulnerable to attack in the event of a confrontation.

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