China's Hopes For Its First Nuclear-Powered Missile Submarine Quickly Sank

Kyle Mizokami
·1 min read

Key point: While China’s first ballistic-missile submarine was meant to be a real, operational submarine and part of China’s nuclear deterrent, the obstacles encountered during construction forced lower expectations.

During the early 1980s, the People’s Republic of China attempted to modernize its nuclear deterrent force. One concrete results of the effort was the construction of a single nuclear ballistic missile submarine, a “boomer” in arms-control parlance. Constructed at enormous cost, the Xia class of submarines was such a disappointment that a follow-on class was not fielded for twenty years.

For a country with a population of more than a billion, the People’s Republic of China has a remarkably small nuclear force—and a restrained nuclear policy. The country detonated its first nuclear device in 1957, and its first thermonuclear device in 1964. The country’s nuclear weapons, under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, are estimated to total approximately 260 weapons, equipping both land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

China’s nuclear policy is a pragmatic one, largely anchored in the country’s former poverty. Rather than pursue a first-strike capability and thousands of nuclear weapons, something it could not afford during the Cold War, the country largely pursues a countervalue strategy that places an emphasis upon survivable weapons that can stage devastating revenge attacks against enemy cities. As a result, land-based missiles dominated the PLA during the early years.

(This first appeared in January 2017.)

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