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China's New Undersea Nuclear Deterrent: Strategy, Doctrine, and Capabilities

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Journal article

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Over the past few years, Western strategic thinkers have debated what Chinas emerging force of fleet ballistic missile submarines SSBNs portends for Beijings overall nuclear strategy. One influential school of thought assumes that the rudimentary land-based missile force that has served Beijings needs in the past will continue to do so. Others dispute this static model, pointing to the introduction of next-generation, land-based mobile ballistic missiles and improvements to the Peoples Liberation Army Navy PLAN submarine and ballistic missile forces. They predict that China will soon put to sea an SSBN fleet more symmetrical with the U.S. Navy in terms of both quality and quantity. Moreover, it will abandon its traditional stance of minimum deterrence, assuming a more assertive nuclear posture better described as limited deterrence. The authors take issue with both of these projections of Chinese nuclear strategy, doctrine, and undersea capabilities. They assess Chinas undersea deterrent purely at the strategic level, leaving aside other important questions such as how Beijing might use fleet submarines to support coercion against Taiwan or in other contingencies. Their chief finding is that a larger, more advanced, more capable flotilla of fleet ballistic missile submarines does not necessarily signal a break with Chinas tradition of minimalist nuclear strategy. Indeed, a modest undersea deterrent would reinforce minimum deterrence as Beijing conceives it. The authors first examine four historical precedents for ballistic missile submarine development the United States, USSRRussia, Great Britain, and France. These precedents reveal some possible futures for Chinas sea-based deterrent. They then review strategic considerations, specifically the nature of the regime, strategic culture, threat perceptions, and technology dependence. Finally, they attempt to project the likely size and deployment patterns for Chinese SSBNs.

Subject Categories:

  • Government and Political Science
  • Submarine Engineering
  • Nuclear Warfare
  • Underwater-Launched Guided Missiles

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