China's Nuclear Missile Submarines: A Threat to America?

David Axe

Key Point: A reliable fleet of nuclear subs could mean less land-based nuclear missiles and an overall decline of China's nuclear arsenal. But they'd also be more deadly.

China for decades has struggled to develop nuclear ballistic-missile submarines. The country finally might be on the cusp of deploying reliable boomers.

An effective Chinese ballistic-missile submarine fleet over the long term could have a stabilizing influence on the world's nuclear balance. But in the short term, it might heighten tensions. Especially if Beijing lets popular fervor drive its build-up.

That’s the surprising conclusion of a new report from Tong Zhao, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

“A fleet of survivable nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) would reduce China’s concerns about the credibility of its nuclear deterrent and lessen the country’s incentives to further expand its arsenal,” Tong writes.

“Such benefits, however, will be tempered by vulnerabilities associated with Beijing’s current generation of SSBNs. In the near to mid-term, developing an SSBN fleet will require China to substantially enlarge its previously small stockpile of strategic ballistic missiles, possibly exacerbating the threat perceptions of potential adversaries and causing them to take countermeasures that might eventually intensify an emerging arms competition.”

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