The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is continuing an aggressive build-up of its nuclear submarine forces, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power.
According to the report, made public Tuesday, submarine modernization remains a high priority within the overall nuclear and conventional forces build-up that has been underway for the past four decades.
Beijing is adding two more ballistic missile submarines to its current force of four Jin-class “boomers,” as missile submarines are called. Six nuclear-powered attack submarines have also been built to complement 50 diesel power attack submarines.
“The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis,” the report said.
The Chinese navy also is building new conventional submarines that will be armed with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles.
Since the mid-1990s, China purchased 12 Russian-made Kilo submarines armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and produced domestically 13 Song-class and 17 Yuan-class submarines. The Yuan uses a diesel-electric engine and is equipped with air independent propulsion — a system that allows for stealthier operations without surfacing. A total of 25 more Yuan submarines are being built in the next five years.
Nuclear missile submarine forces include 12 submarines built in the past 15 years — two Shang I class and four Shang II class boats and the six Jin-class submarines, two of which were awaiting entry into service in 2019.
“Equipped with the [JL-2] submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the PLAN’s four operational Jin-class [submarines] represent the PRC’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the report said.
But that’s not all. A new missile submarine is under development, known as the Type 096. Construction on that submarine is expected to begin in the next few years and will be outfitted with a new submarine-launched ballistic missile that was not identified in the report but is believed to be the JL-3.
Both types of missile submarines will operate together and by 2030 the Pentagon estimates the PLAN will have up to eight missile submarines.
“This would align with [Chinese President Xi Jinping’s] 2018 directive for the SSBN force to achieve ‘stronger growth,’” the report said, using the naval code for missile submarines.
The Pentagon has not said whether China’s nuclear missile submarines have conducted at-sea patrols with nuclear-tipped missiles. Beijing in the past separated nuclear warheads from all its strategic missiles.
Chad Sbragia, U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary for China, declined to comment on whether China’s Jin-class ballistic missile submarines are conducting armed patrols.
“Certainly the Jin is a submarine that does goes to sea from time to time,” Mr. Sbragia said at a forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. “And what their capacities are and how they’re loaded out and what their readiness is just not something I can dive into too deeply.”
A nuclear submarine patrol without warheads would not be a real deterrent, analysts say.
By the mid-decade, China also will have a new guided missile nuclear-powered attack submarine called the Type 093B, a variant of the Shang-class submarine.
“This new Shang-class variant will enhance the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles,” the report said.
To counter U.S. submarine forces, the Chinese military is also bolstering its anti-submarine warfare capabilities with new warships and special mission aircraft.
PLA ‘nonwar’ operations
The PLA is engaged in two types of military operations — war and “nonwar” — activities that can involve the suppression of domestic unrest and the enforcement of maritime rights, according the latest China military power report from the Pentagon.
Nonwar operations concepts have been discussed in Chinese military writings, and can also include humanitarian and disaster relief.
The idea is that army’s nonwar military activities serve political purposes for the ruling Chinese Communist Party. These can include “the threat of violence or the use of violence from low levels to levels approaching war,” the report said.
These nonwar activities are used as strategic tools for the PLA military and are intended to serve Chinese interests and bolster Beijing’s effort to expand global interests.
Nonwar operations “can notably include operations in which the PLA uses coercive threats and/or violence below the level of armed conflict against states and other actors to safeguard the PRC’s sovereignty and national interests,” the report said.
The operations also blend military and law enforcement functions as part of China’s efforts to take control over the disputed South China Sea, where China is claiming 90% of the waterway that the United States and other regional powers regards as open international waters.
The Pentagon report said that the Chinese military is developing what President Xi Jinping calls an “informatized” military that will dominate all networks.
“The PLA considers information operations (IO) as a means of achieving information dominance early in a conflict, and continues to expand the scope and frequency of IO in military exercises,” the report said. “The PRC presents a significant, persistent cyber espionage and attack threat to an adversary’s military and critical infrastructure systems.”
China laundering currency hacks
The Justice Department revealed recently that North Korean government hackers have conducted financial attacks on virtual currency exchanges with the help from Chinese money launderers.
In a civil forfeiture complaint made public Aug. 27, the department charged that the North Koreans have stolen “millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency and ultimately laundered the funds through Chinese over-the-counter (OTC) cryptocurrency traders.”
The complaint, U.S. officials say, is further evidence of covert Chinese support to North Korea criminal activities, in this case efforts to help Pyongyang obtain hard currency in circumvention of international sanctions.
“This case underscores the department’s ongoing commitment to counter the threat presented by North Korean cyber hackers by exposing their criminal networks and tracing and seizing their ill-gotten gains,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
In two cyberattacks, North Koreans hacked nearly $250 million worth of cryptocurrencies in late 2018 and $48.5 million in 2019.
“Over the subsequent months, the funds were laundered through several intermediary addresses and other virtual currency exchanges,” the department said.
The complaint quoted from a report by a United Nations panel of experts that said the North Korean financial hacking is a hard-to-trace method for obtaining money for the regime.
The U.N. report said many of the North Korean hackers operate under the direction of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a civilian intelligence service, to “raise money for the country’s weapons of mass destruction programs, with total proceeds to date estimated at up to $2 billion.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.
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