China will probably begin conducting naval nuclear-deterrence patrols this year, the U.S. Defense Department said on Thursday.
Beijing has never before had a credible submarine force that would give it the capability to launch submerged long-range nuclear missiles. The Asian power last year was officially assessed to be fielding three Type 094 Jin-class strategic submarines. However, a fleet comprising at least four nuclear-armed submarines is generally understood to be the minimum quantity necessary for a country to be able to maintain around-the-clock deterrence patrols.
In a congressionally mandated annual report on the People's Liberation Army, the Pentagon concludes "China is likely to conduct its first nuclear deterrence patrols with the JIN-class SSBN in 2014."
The 87-page report notes the Chinese navy "places a high priority on the modernization of its submarine force." The Pentagon estimates that China could expand its Type 094 fleet to as many as eight vessels before it starts constructing a next-generation Type 096 vessel.
The Jin-class submarines are understood to be armed with the new JL-2 long-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of nearly 4,600 miles. A November 2013 report by a congressionally established committee forecast that the JL-2 missile could be put into initial operational use before the year was over.
The Defense Department report does not offer a specific estimate of the current size of China's nuclear arsenal. Independent experts have placed the number at around 250 warheads. The Pentagon does note, however, that China is expanding the size of its mobile intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile with the addition in recent years of the Dongfeng 31A missile. A more capable version, the Dongfeng 41, is still being developed, according to the document.
The combination of the expected start of naval nuclear-deterrence patrols and the growth in its mobile ICBM arsenal "will force the [People's Liberation Army] to implement more sophisticated command-and-control systems and processes that safeguard the integrity of nuclear release authority for a larger, more dispersed force," the Pentagon says.
The department report briefly touches on China's development of countermeasures against U.S. ballistic missile defenses, which include [multiple independent reentry vehicles], decoys, chaff, jamming, and thermal shielding."
Beijing publicly opposes Washington's efforts to build an integrated regional missile shield with allies Japan, South Korea and Australia. Chinese cyber hackers were reported last year to have stolen the designs of a number of U.S. missile defense systems in use in East Asia. Experts believe the hacks were aimed at learning how to better foil the antimissile technology.