Jeffrey LewisChinese SSBN launched … or not.

Bill Gertz reports that China has launched its new Type 094 SSBN. The story, however, doesn’t make much sense. Gertz claims that the “new Type 094 was spotted by U.S. intelligence agencies at the Huludao shipyard […], is in the early stages of being outfitted and is not yet equipped with new JL-2 submarine-launched nuclear missiles.”

If the SSBN remains in the shipyard awaiting oufitting, has it been launched? Maybe he was in a rush, because he also mischaracterizes a public DIA report:

A Pentagon report on Chinese military power made public in May stated that the new Chinese missile submarine would not be deployed until around 2010.

That isn’t what the report, Chinese Military Power says. Here is the relevant passage:

China also is developing two follow-on extended-range versions of the DF-31: a solid-propellant, mobile ICBM and a solid-propellant submarine- launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, which will be deployed on a new ballistic missile submarine by decade’s end.[Emphasis mine]

The missile (not the submarine) will be be deployed by (as in “not after”) 2010. Chinese Military Power doesn’t have an estimate about the submarine. In 2002 Congressional testimony, DIA Director Thomas Wilson said the SSBN and JL-2 would “likely will be developed and tested later this decade.” That statement is consistent with the submarine being under some stage of construction now.

The story, ostensibly about the SSBN, devotes roughly one-third of the words to the JL-2 missile:

  • Gertz reports “U.S. intelligence officials said the Chinese suffered a setback in their JL-2 missile program when a test flight of the JL-2 missile failed over the summer.” Chinese sources of uncertain repute tell ArmsControlWonk that the JL-2 program is under-funded.
  • Gertz cites purloined intelligence documents about the DF-31/JL-2 program—except on the question of how many warheads the DF-31 can carry. On that question, he cites super-hack Rick Fisher (who says multiple) instead of the CIA (which says one). That’s called cherry picking.
  • Gertz claims China’s “current ballistic missile submarine known as the Xia, which is equipped with medium-range missiles.” At least two intelligence estimtes DIA’s Chinese Military Power and the National Air Intelligence Center’s Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat claim the missiles are not deployed aboard the submarine.

Late, Late Update: A colleague helpfully points out:

… the use of the term “launch,” in naval contexts, doesn’t imply anything like what we would call operational capability. At launch, most ships are just shells waiting for their full load of electronics, weapons and (not infrequently) propulsion systems. There’s a bit of an element of scaremongering in Gertz’s statement: “launch” is essentially a meaningless term, if we don’t know how long it takes to fit out a ship. It’s just a phase of construction.