China’s latest test of nuclear-capable sub-launched missile shows rapid development, but should the U.S. worry?

By Jonathan Davis

I’ve written recently about the rapid modernization of the Chinese navy, including the development of aircraft carriers and technologically advanced surface combatants.

But the People’s Liberation Army Navy is also dramatically improving its undersea warfare capability, and in particular, it’s sub-launched nuclear missiles.

The PLAN conducted a third test of its new JL-3 in the Bohai Sea off the coast of northern China, from a submerged Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

The Washington Times reported:

The JL-3 is part of a major building of Chinese strategic nuclear forces that includes the new submarine missile, new land-based missiles, including the multi-warhead DF-41, and development of a new strategic bomber and upgrading of older nuclear-capable aircraft.

Sunday’s test was is at least the fourth launch of the JL-3 in the past two years, an indication China — referred to formally as the People’s Republic of China or PRC — is rapidly developing the weapon.

The first JL-3 test launch took place in December 2018 and successive tests were carried out in June and October.

Like Sunday’s test, the October JL-3 firing took place from the Bohai Sea and flew westward to an impact zone in the Gobi desert.

The test launch from a Jin-class submarine indicates the new JL-3 may be retrofitted into China’s six deployed Jin-class submarines.

The missile reportedly has a range of about 5,600 miles; that’s farther than the currently deployed JL-2, which has a range of roughly 4,350 miles.

According to retired U.S. Navy Capt. James E. Fanell, the test “is not only a demonstration of the advances the PLA Navy has made in SLBM technology, but is a statement to the USA, and world, of Beijing’s strategic intention to hold the USA at risk from PRC nuclear blackmail.”

“Operationally speaking, this launch is not a surprise and demonstrates the perfidy of the PRC’s Oct. 1 national day parade of the JL-2 missile as representing the ‘maximum’ extent of PLA Navy missile technology,” he added.

“The reality is the PRC represents the same existential threat to global peace and security that the USSR presented to the world 30 years ago.”

Maybe. And maybe not.

Clearly, the Chinese have strategic ambitions, but I’m not sure they have the same global ambitions that the former Soviet Union has. Not yet, anyway.

China is much more interested in dominating its own part of the world. Taiwan’s existence is like an open, weeping wound that the Communist Party’s leadership wants to heal through unification, by force if necessary.

Also, the Chinese have a rising great power — India — as a neighbor that will challenge them for dominance, as well.

China certainly has global interests and its navy will play a role in securing those interests. But to claim that Beijing will become this era’s Soviet Union seems to be a stretch.

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