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China’s New Submarine Missile Puts the U.S. Within Striking Distance

Popular Mechanics 1/11/2023 Kyle Mizokami
  • China has replaced its older submarine-launched missiles with the new, improved JL-3.
  • The JL-3 theoretically can reach as far as Utah, sparing the continental United States east of Salt Lake City.
  • Although the missile is limited in range, it shows China is working to improve its nuclear missile capabilities.

China has deployed a new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, for the first time placing the West Coast of the United States within credible striking range. The new Ju Lang-3 (JL-3) missile replaces the older JL-2 on China’s ballistic missile submarines. However, Chinese submarines cannot reach the continental U.S. from their existing patrol areas, and China would have to switch things up to hit targets as far as Salt Lake City.

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According to Bloomberg, the Pentagon has determined China’s Type 094 ballistic missile submarines have replaced their JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles with the new, improved JL-3. Bloomberg quotes the head of U.S. Strategic Command informing the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the missiles could strike the continental United States “from a protected bastion within the South China Sea.”

There are six Type 094 submarines, each with 12 missile launchers, for a total of 72 missiles for the entire fleet. At least four, if not all, of the submarines are based at Hainan Island in the South China Sea, and the submarines reportedly patrol the sea as part of China’s nuclear deterrent force. China plans to use the South China Sea as a stronghold, where its air and naval forces could protect the submarines by keeping enemy anti-submarine forces at bay.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 094 Jin-class submarine. The raised area behind the sail can accommodate 12 JL-3 ballistic missiles. © MARK SCHIEFELBEIN - Getty Images A People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 094 Jin-class submarine. The raised area behind the sail can accommodate 12 JL-3 ballistic missiles.

The JL-2 first went to sea on Type 094 submarines in 2016. The JL-2 missile had a range of 4,394 miles and was equipped with a single 200- to 300-kiloton thermonuclear warhead. It was guided both by an internal astro-inertial navigation system, which references the position of the stars to determine the missile’s location, and China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system.

The new JL-3 has a range of 6,213 miles. A 2020 report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center claims the JL-3 can also carry more than one warhead. This would allow a single missile to strike multiple targets. It would also force Alaska-based U.S. missile defense forces to intercept multiple incoming warheads, complicating nuclear defense of the homeland.

As for the JL-3 striking the continental United States, it’s a little complicated. The missile’s range is reported to be 10,000+ kilometers, which works out to 6,213+ miles. But from the South China Sea a JL-3 missile can only hit Hawaii and Alaska, the home to America’s Ground Based Interceptor missile system.

Here’s the American equivalent, the Ohio-class submarine USS West Virginia, launching a Trident D-5 ballistic missile.

Replay Video

Could the JL-3 reach even farther? Yes. If China’s missile subs changed their patrol areas to include the Bay of Bohai, most of North and South Dakota would fall into range, as well as Montana, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, and California. Targeting the rest of the United States is possible but would require Chinese submarines to move into the Western Pacific, beyond Japan and Taiwan, where Chinese air and naval forces could not protect them from enemy anti-submarine warfare forces. Unlike American missile submarines, Chinese submarines are not quiet enough to survive on their own…yet.

The deployment of the JL-3 isn’t a game-changer for the strategic balance between the U.S. and China. However, the rapid replacement of the JL-2 with the JL-3 shows that China is racing to catch up to the United States in sea-based nuclear weapons. China’s next step is to build a next-generation missile submarine capable of ranging as far into the Western Pacific as American submarines. That step is easily a decade, if not two decades, away.

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