Taiwan's intelligence chief told a parliamentary committee earlier this week that China is yet to deploy its newest ballistic missile submarine (Type 094) and the intercontinental-range missile (JL-2) which is intended be its primary armament. This is despite the fact that the first of four or five Type 094 was launched in 2004. According to Sinodefence.com, the JL-2 has also had a protracted development.
This raises a couple of thoughts about Chinese military strategy.
First, it's a reminder that, despite the dramatic changes to China's conventional military forces, China's nuclear arsenal remains modest, and Beijing doesn't seem to be in any great hurry to expand it.
Second, this long gestation period for the Type 094 reflects the modest level of success China can boast in its development of modern submarines, as opposed to surface ships. Based on open source information, at least, China's submarines are still considered far inferior to the best of the West. Yes, there have been substantial improvements, but in nuclear-powered submarines in particular, progress continues to be slow. By contrast, China seems to be having more success at building first-rate surface ships like the Type 052C class of destroyers (pictured).
This presents a paradox: we hear a lot of talk among Western analysts about China's 'anti-access' strategy, which is intended to make it impossible for adversaries to operate safely around China's waters. Such a strategy requires large numbers of anti-ship missiles, strike aircraft, and above all, submarines. What it does not require are large surface combatants. Yet from outside appearances, the weight of China's maritime weapons development does not completely match the anti-access strategy.
So what's going on? Is anti-access just a figment of Western imaginations? Unlikely, since the Chinese themselves seem to talk about it a lot. It could be that submarines are just harder to build than modern surface ships (happy to hear from the experts on that). Or perhaps we just don't know as much about China's submarine modernisation, so our assessment is skewed due to uneven information. Last, it could be that China has enough resources that it doesn't have to have an exclusive focus on anti-access. It is employing an anti-access strategy, but sees a requirement for a powerful ocean-going surface fleet too.
Image courtesy of Sinodefence.