China's Nuclear-Powered Submarines: A Game-Changer in Global Defense

China's Nuclear-Powered Submarines: A Game-Changer in Global Defense

In a significant development, China has unveiled its first nuclear-powered guided missile submarines, marking a historic milestone. The revelation comes from a recent Pentagon report, solidifying China's position as the third country in the world, following the United States and Russia, to achieve this remarkable feat.

This groundbreaking advancement, outlined in the Pentagon's latest report on China's military, signifies a pivotal moment in global defense capabilities. It grants China a newfound ability to conduct both land and sea precision strikes, a capability previously associated primarily with US and Russian vessels.

The Pentagon report, released on October 20, provides the first public confirmation that the modified submarines observed in Chinese shipyards over the past 18 months are the advanced Type 093B guided missile submarines. This confirmation comes after Reuters, in May 2022, had already hinted at the possibility of these submarines, with satellite images from the Huludao shipyard in northeast China suggesting the existence of a new or upgraded class of submarines, possibly equipped with vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles.

In the short term, the report suggests that the Chinese navy will possess the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets, leveraging its submarines and surface combatants armed with land-attack cruise missiles. This enhancement substantially bolsters China's power projection capabilities, signifying its readiness to assert itself on the global stage.

These nuclear-powered guided missile submarines, known as SSGNs (conventionally armed missile submarines), have their origins in the Cold War era, developed initially by the Soviet Union as a means to target U.S. aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy later developed its version by converting ballistic missile boats to carry large numbers of land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles. Cruise missiles, unlike ballistic weapons, are known for their precision and the ability to fly at low altitudes or skim the surface of the sea.

One significant historical event of note is the combat deployment of the USS Florida, an American SSGN, which fired 93 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Libyan air defenses in 2011. This event was closely studied by Chinese strategists, providing valuable insights into the capabilities of these submarines.

Analysts predict that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy is likely to deploy these advanced SSGNs as a powerful addition to its naval arsenal. These submarines can serve not only as an extra weapon against aircraft carriers but also as a potent land-attack platform, enabling long-range strikes far beyond the capabilities of smaller attack submarines in the Chinese fleet.

China's Nuclear-Powered Submarines: A Game-Changer in Global Defense

The Pentagon's report anticipates that three of these new SSGNs may become operational as early as next year, part of a broader expansion of China's submarine fleet. This expansion encompasses both nuclear and diesel-powered submarines, with the potential to reach 65 vessels by 2025.

Notably, the Chinese defense ministry has yet to respond to inquiries from Reuters, maintaining a degree of secrecy surrounding this significant development. This revelation unfolds amid a growing submarine arms race, with China actively constructing a new generation of nuclear-armed boats as part of its evolving deterrent force.

Tracking China's submarines at sea has become a core focus for the U.S. Navy and other militaries across the Indo-Pacific region. This intensifying competition underscores the strategic importance of these submarines in contemporary global defense dynamics.

Collin Koh, a security scholar based in Singapore, highlights the significance of these SSGNs, particularly their core armament of cruise missiles. He notes that this new capability allows China to conduct saturated land and anti-ship attacks at standoff ranges, complicating the strategic calculations of its rivals.

Furthermore, China seems to have drawn lessons from the Russian experience in using SSGNs to threaten U.S. aircraft carriers. With SSGNs, China can launch strikes from standoff ranges, providing a substantial advantage compared to typical attack submarines with more limited weapon options.

Research discussed at the U.S. Naval War College in May suggested that the PLA was on the verge of breakthroughs in making its nuclear-powered submarines quieter and more challenging for the U.S. and its allies to track. However, it remains uncertain whether these breakthroughs have been incorporated into the newly launched SSGNs, as the upgrades are expected in nuclear-powered submarines set to launch before the end of the decade.

The cautious approach to deployment stems from the need for certainty regarding improvements in these submarines. Nevertheless, it is evident that the PLA navy regards its submarine force as a strategic priority, emphasizing China's steady progress in this critical aspect of its defense capabilities.

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