Has China "secretly built a major underground nuclear submarine base that could threaten Asian countries and challenge American power in the region"? Thomas Harding, writing in the London Daily Telegraph early this month, has declared that it is.
According to Hardy, "Satellite imagery, passed to The Daily Telegraph, shows that a substantial harbour has been built which could house a score of nuclear ballistic missile submarines and a host of aircraft carriers."
The threat from Chinese submarines, long touted by "hard liners" in the West, now includes the ballistic missile submarine base and protective tunnels for the craft being constructed at Sanya on the southern tip of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
The report comes almost simultaneously with word that a Chinese Type 094 (NATO Jin-class) ballistic missile submarine was sighted at the base in satellite images. Also visible was a newly constructed pier that appears to be a demagnetization facility for submarines. Demagnetization is conducted before a submarine deploys to remove residual magnetic fields to reduce the craft's vulnerability to magnetic mines.
The satellite image was taken by the QuickBird commercial satellite on 27 February 2008, and purchased by the Federation of American Scientists from DigitalGlobe.
China is believed to have completed two Jin-class SSBNs with at least one more unit under construction. (An older SSBN is also in service; see below.) The U.S. Intelligence Community estimates that China would probably build five SSBNs if it wants to have a near-continuous deterrent at sea. Each Jin-class SSSBN will carry 12 JL-2 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. A "score" of such submarines -- as reported in some newspaper accounts -- seems highly unlikely.
While some Western defense analysts as well as journalists are touting this new Chinese capability, it should be noted that there have been submarine tunnels in southern Hainan for probably two decades or more and that similar (albeit smaller) tunnels are also found at the Northern Fleet's Jianggezhuang naval base. Indeed, China has long constructed tunnels for military (and civilian) purposes in the even of a nuclear conflict. This writer visited some of those near the base complex of Dairen, near the Soviet-Russian border.
Further, while submarines could be "hidden" in the tunnels, they could be observed by U.S. reconnaissance satellites as they enter and leave the tunnels. This possibility, coupled with the likely noise level of the Jin-class SSBNs would increase their vulnerability to U.S. detection and surveillance methods.
Also, in wartime, any submarines in the tunnels at the outbreak of hostilities would be vulnerable to the tunnels being easily blocked by U.S. conventional or nuclear weapons.
Certainly the Chinese Navy is being modernized, although it is significantly smaller than it was during the Cold War era. The slow development pace of China's SSBN force, the failure of the first Chinese SSBN, the Type 092 (NATO Xia) completed in 1988, to have ever made a deployment, and persistent reports that a ballistic missile for the SSBNs is not yet available, raise major questions about this aspect of the "Chinese threat."