Hong Kong: Submarines, often termed "silent killers", are secretive but vital assets for any self-respecting navy. It is certainly the case for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China, which has been prioritizing modernization of its underwater fleet.

Recent revelations - including a senior US Navy official declaring that new submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) have been fielded, plus indications of construction of a new type of nuclear-powered submarine, and new submarine infrastructure on Hainan Island - all reinforce this assessment of the PLAN's submarine fleet.

Admiral Sam Paparo, head of the US Pacific Fleet, told reporters at a conference in Washington DC last week that the PLAN's six Jin-class submarines are now "equipped with JL-3 intercontinental ballistic missiles".

Reported by news outlets such as Bloomberg, this revelation came from nowhere, for there has been no chatter from open-source analysts that this might be the case. Indeed, this is the first official confirmation from the USA that the JL-3 missile has been operationalized. Moreover, it was expected that the new SLBM would only appear with the advent of future Type 096 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).

These current aforementioned Jin-class vessels, also known as Type 094 SSBNs, have hitherto been armed with JL-2 SLBMs. However, the JL-3 brings new capabilities such as greater range, such that these half dozen submarines could launch nuclear warheads at the USA from much farther away.

It is extremely unlikely that sufficient JL-3s have been produced to outfit every Type 094, though. Paparo added that the JL-3s "were built to threaten the United States", but he added, "We keep close track of those submarines."

The incumbent JL-2 has an estimated range of 7,200km, meaning that Chinese Type 094s would need to sail to the north or east of Hawaii to bring the USA's east coast within range of missiles. However, Paparo refused to say whether Chinese SSBNs have conducted deterrence patrols deep in the Pacific Ocean or near Hawaii. The JL-3 has an estimated range of more than 10,000km.

In March 2022, Admiral Charles Richard, head of the US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the JL-3 would permit China to target the US mainland "from a protected bastion within the South China Sea".

This came on top of the Pentagon's comments last year: "As the PRC fields newer, more capable and longer-ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLAN will gain the ability to target the continental United States from littoral waters, and thus may consider bastion operations to enhance the survivability of its sea-based deterrent. The South China Sea and Bohai Gulf are probably the PRC's preferred options for employing this concept."

Given a range of 10,000km, a JL-3 fired from the South China Sea would not have the legs to reach the continental USA. It could do so from the Bohai Sea, however, which is closer to the Korean Peninsula and Japan. However, given Richard's comments, this night indicate that the USA actually estimates the JL-3's range to significantly surpass 10,000km.

The US Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated in its Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report that, "In late November 2018, China tested a new JL-3 in the Bohai Sea." China has not officially admitted that the JL-3 even exists, but this is unsurprising given the paranoia that surrounds China's military. The JL-3 will also have multiple warheads to multiply its deterrence value and increase the odds of warheads making it past defenses in any nuclear strike.

Richard also pointed out: "They're now capable of continuous at-sea determined patrols with their Jin-class submarines," and that "more are coming. They have a true nuclear command and control system." There is further evidence that China's construction of new types of nuclear-powered submarines is already well underway.

In February 2021, satellite imagery showed what may have been a first hull section of a new nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) or an SSBN. Specifically, it was a tail section seen at a relatively new site near the Bohai shipyard in Huludao where all nuclear-powered submarines are constructed. The hull section was some 30-32m long, and had a diameter in the vicinity of 11-12m.

While the hull section might be a version of the Type 093 Shang class optimized for YJ- 18 cruise missiles fired from vertical launchers, it could well be for a Type 095 (a new Chinese SSN comparable to the US Navy's Virginia class) or, even more likely, for a Type 096 SSBN.

Yet more evidence has emerged from more recent satellite imagery. Photos taken in October 2022 showed sections of submarine pressure hulls at the same shipyard. What is significant is that these sections had a sizably greater diameter than those of current Shang- and Jin-class boats. The latter are generally around 9-10m in diameter, but the new under-construction hull sections are about 12m in diameter.

If all the above speculation is correct, the presence of the hull sections are confirmatory signs of construction of the new Type 096 SSBN. These long-awaited new submarines will be larger, quieter and more capable. The pressure hull needs to be larger in order to provide space to insulate the steel hull from machinery vibrations. The Type 093 is noisy and, although the 093A is better, it is still not on par with an American Los Angeles-class boat. The greater diameter of hull sections is evidence that the PLAN's new boats will be quieter than ever before.

Expect new Chinese boats to have anechoic coatings on their hulls to improve stealth too. A bigger boat also enables a larger crew, and this could enable longer underwater patrols. Expansion at the Bohai yard since 2014 allows greater production rates, with a new construction hall and dry dock established on reclaimed land. The hall, finished in 2017, contains three construction bays with sufficient space to build two submarines.

A launch barge has been supplied too, which transfers completed hulls from the hall to the water. In other words, China now has all the infrastructure in place to build Type 095s and/or 096s. China will need to replace three Type 091 Han-class SSNs dating from the 1980s, since these first-generation submarines are approaching the end of their natural lives. Otherwise, the PLAN relies on the Type 093 Shang class that entered service in 2006.

Interestingly, the USA also refers what it calls Type 093B SSNs arriving by the mid-2020s. The Pentagon predicted: "This new Shang-class variant will enhance the PLAN's anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land attack cruise missiles." There is development in terms of infrastructure for Chinese nuclear submarines too. Yulin Naval Base on the southern tip of Hainan Island, touching the South China Sea, is home to China's nuclear-submarine fleet.

Satellite imagery from late July shows that two new submarine piers are being built there, on top of four already in existence. One pier that is 175m long and around 20m wide is to the north, and the other in the south is about 238m long. They both connect to newly reclaimed land at the base. Construction and reclamation has taken place sometime since February 2022.

In the same satellite imagery, three Type 094 submarines were berthed there, as well as one Type 093 SSN. This Yulin facility also has a cavern tunneled inside the adjacent mountain to protect and hide activity related to strategic submarines.

At the same base, China has constructed another large pier capable of accommodating the Shandong aircraft carrier. A massive new dry dock able to fit a carrier is also under construction there. In its most recent report on developments in the PLA, the Pentagon in the USA acknowledged that "the PLAN has placed a high priority on modernizing its submarine force, but its force structure continues to grow modestly as it works to mature its force, integrate new technologies and expand its shipyards".

As of last year, the PLAN possessed six SSBNs, six SSNs and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines. The US predicts: "The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis." The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in the USA gave a slightly different figure, expecting China's submarine fleet to grow from around 66 boats today to 76 by 2030.

Describing the Jin-class, the USA said these "represent the PRC's first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent". Each Type 094 SSBN can carry up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs. It also stated: "The PRC's next-generation Type 096 SSBN, which likely began construction in the early 2020s, will reportedly carry a new type of SLBM. The PLAN is expected to operate the Type 094 and Type 096 SSBNs concurrently and could have up to eight SSBNs by 2030. This would align with Chairman Xi Jinping's 2018 directive for the SSBN force to achieve 'stronger growth'."

It is already known that China is snowballing its inventory of nuclear warheads. This is most dramatically seen in land-based weapons, with massive silo fields for DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles being constructed deep inside China. The Pentagon estimates that the PLA will have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027, and 1,000 just three years after that.

The US Department of Defence commented, "The PRC is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land-, sea- and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces." It is not just nuclear submarines receiving attention either. By 2025, the PLAN will likely have 25+ Yuan-class conventional submarines, a type that has been undergoing continual spiral development.

For example, the PLAN commissioned a new Yuan-class variant in July, allocating it to Daxie Dao Submarine Base of the East Sea Fleet, which faces Taiwan. The new design is perhaps called the Type 039C or D. It is distinguished by a faceted sail featuring a chine along its length, and quite likely the design helps reduce the submarine's cross-section when it is running on the surface.

This boat had been built in Wuhan and was fitted out in Shanghai. It took less than a year to be commissioned, which is remarkably fast for a new design. As well as carrying torpedoes and YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, it possesses a towed-array sonar mounted at the rear. Undoubtedly, the submarine has an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system that permits the boat to stay submerged for longer periods.

China is also using deception to hide the identity of its SSBNs too, by giving the same pennant number to different hulls, for example, or not disclosing a number whatsoever. In photos, the PLAN might also photoshop details to hide identifying features.

As can be seen, the status of China's submarine force remains something of an enigma. However, there is no doubting that Chinese underwater boats are becoming more capable, and that new designs and relevant weapons are being developed and manufactured.