China’s Submarine Forces

China currently possesses an aging force of Romeo- and Ming-class diesel submarines, as well as five nuclear-powered Han-class (SSN) submarines. China deploys only one Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), which carries twelve Julang-1 (JL-1) submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Xia is assumed to be patrolling only in its own regional waters, though theoretically, it would be capable of coming to the U.S. coast to launch its missiles, which could then reach into the western United States.

To modernize its forces, China has turned to both foreign suppliers (Russia) and its own development and production for new, more capable submarines. Improvements sought include increased stealth, more capacity to carry submarine-launched ballistic missiles, enhanced survivability for nuclear weapons, and the ability to project naval force globally.


One place China has turned for help improving its submarine force is Russia, from which it has ordered a total of four Kilo-class submarines. The Kilo is a medium-range diesel-powered attack submarine, used primarily for anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare. Russia delivered the first Kilo in February 1995, the second in October 1995. Both were the 877EKM model, an export version. Two additional Kilos of a more advanced design were ordered as well. The first arrived in January 1998 and second was sent in late 1998. These Kilo-636 submarines had not previously been exported. They are among the most quiet diesel submarines in the world. Their weapons package includes both wake-homing and wire-guided acoustic homing torpedoes. The Kilo can carry up to 18 torpedoes, which are fired from 6 tubes in its bow. While it does not carry ballistic missiles, the submarine could be upgraded to carry an anti-ship cruise missile system. These Kilo acquisitions, in addition to filling out its force, will help China to improve sonar design and quieting technologies for its own submarines.

China has also been busy constructing several new classes of submarines itself. The first Song-class diesel attack submarine is in sea trials, and two more are under construction. The Song has a quieter propeller and more hydrodynamic hull than the Ming-class submarine it succeeds. In order to enhance their sophistication, these indigenously-produced submarines will incorporate Russian technology. The Song-class submarine is expected to be the first Chinese submarine capable of firing a submerged-launch anti-ship cruise missile.

In addition, China is designing a Type 093 nuclear-powered guided missile submarine (SSGN), the launch of which is expected in the next century. It will supplement China’s five existing Han-class nuclear submarines. The type 093 will be a multi-purpose nuclear attack submarine with enhanced quieting, weapons, and sensor systems. It will carry torpedoes, possibly anti-submarine warfare missiles, and a submerged-launch anti-ship cruise missile, probably a follow-on to the C-801.

China’s most ambitious project is a new nuclear-fueled submarine that will carry ballistic missiles. The first Project 094 SSBN is expected to enter service early in the next century. This submarine, the largest ever constructed in China, will be a significant improvement over the Xia-class submarine, featuring better quieting, sensor systems, and propulsion. It is likely to carry sixteen Julang-2 (JL-2) ballistic missiles, which are the longer-range follow-on to China’s current stock of Julang-1s. China’s new SSBN would be able to target the entire United States; however, Chinese timelines from concept to deployment have historically been very long, so it is uncertain when this capability will actually come on line.


The importance of these submarine developments lies in the prospect of China projecting its naval force regionally and deploying nuclear missiles. The former capability will enable China to threaten sea lanes or Taiwan; the latter will enhance China’s strategic standing and the survivability of its nuclear forces.

China currently relies upon the Julang-1 (JL-1/CSS-N-3) as its sole nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missile. Twelve are deployed on its Xia-class submarine. The JL-1 is a single-warhead, two-stage missile, which has a range of 1700 km and carries a payload of 600 kg. With a diameter of 1.4 m, a weight of 14.7 tons, and a length of 10.7 m, the JL-1 is the first Chinese missile to use only solid fuel. The yield of its warhead is reported to be in the 200-300 kiloton range. China is estimated to have produced at least 50 JL-1s.

China is in the process of developing a follow-on, the Julang-2 (JL-2/CSS-N-4) submarine launched ballistic missile. The JL-2 is reported to be a three-stage solid fuel missile with a range of over 4,000 nautical miles. It is derived from the DF-23 road-mobile, solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (which was later named the DF-31). China successfully test fired the rocket engine for the missile at the end of 1983 and flight tested the land variant (DF-31) of the missile in May 1995 for the second time. According to one report, the test flight included multiple reentry vehicles, suggesting the missile will carry multiple warheads. It is estimated the warheads will yield 200-300 kilotons each. With these missiles, China will be able, for first time, to target parts of the United States from submarines operating near the Chinese coast.

In another significant development, the recent report of a select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Representative Christopher Cox (the Cox Committee), indicates that China stole secret design information from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid-1980s on the W-88 nuclear warhead that tops the U.S. Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. The information is said to include general, but secret information about the warhead’s weight, size, explosive power, and configuration. Although China has not developed a weapons system using the W-88 information, U.S. analysts believe it tested a warhead with similar characteristics in the mid-1990s. The stolen information could help China develop a smaller, more mobile, potentially MIRVed nuclear missile and reduce the research and design time necessary to do so. In combination with China’s drive to modernize its submarine force, the theft poses a significant threat to U.S. and Asian security.