Fri, May 10, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The China Challenge: China’s submarine activity puts Pentagon to test

Hainan Island is said to be vital to China’s submarine-launched nuclear deterrent and islands it has built on in the South China Sea are part of efforts to keep eyes off its relatively noisy fleet

By Greg Torode and David Lague  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

Illustration: Mountain People

Recent visitors to the bay surrounding a submarine base on the southern coast of China’s Hainan Island describe a curious nocturnal phenomenon. Powerful spotlights are sometimes trained directly on the ocean frontages of neighboring hotels at night, making visibility out to sea virtually impossible. Some of the lights are mounted on land and others on passing naval patrol boats.

“The effect is incredible,” one recent visitor said. “The glare is so great you can hardly stand it on the balcony. You go inside and draw the curtains tight.”

The blinding lights cannot obscure something of intense interest to the world’s military intelligence agencies: evidence that China has made a breakthrough in its drive to rival the US and Russia as a nuclear arms power.

Satellite imagery reveals the regular presence of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines at the strategic base near the resort city of Sanya. Specialized surface warships and aircraft designed to protect the subs are prowling key waterways off the coast. Facilities at the base appear to have been built to store and load ballistic missiles. Antenna arrays that support the hunt for foreign submarines have appeared on Chinese-held islands in the hotly contested South China Sea. And a veteran submariner has been appointed to command Chinese forces in the south of the nation.

Taken together, this means China has a force of missile submarines that can launch nuclear attacks from beneath the waves and now appear to be heading out on patrols, according to serving and retired naval officers, diplomats and security analysts.

That gives Beijing something it has until recently lacked: a more reliable “second strike” capability if its land-based nuclear arsenal comes under attack.

After six decades of battling to master complex and challenging subsea military technologies, China has joined the US, Russia, the UK and France in the nuclear ballistic missile submarine club.

In its most explicit assessment so far of this Chinese capability, the Pentagon in its latest annual report on China’s military, published in August last year, said that Beijing now has a “credible” and “viable” sea-based nuclear deterrent.

An effective fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines, known as SSBNs, marks a dramatic boost to China’s nuclear capabilities. Each of China’s four Jin-class submarines is armed with up to 12 ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead with an estimated range of 7,200km, according to the Pentagon.

That would put the US within striking distance from the Western Pacific.

Analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate these missiles could fly at least 8,000km.

The US believes China has up to 100 nuclear missiles based on land.

Beijing’s enhanced nuclear capability is one of the hallmarks of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ambitious revamping of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the world’s largest fighting force.

China’s nuclear submarine fleet has added to the challenge that the increasingly powerful Chinese military poses to US dominance in Asia, Western strategists say.

“The opposing side can never be exactly sure that it knows where all of the submarines are,” said Peter Horobin, a retired Australian submarine commander and veteran of the Cold War battles to detect and monitor Soviet subs.

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