China conducted the first known flight-test of its JL-3 solid-fuel, submarine-launched ballistic missile last month, according to The Diplomat, citing US government sources with knowledge of the test. The test took place in the Bohai Sea from a modified conventional submarine, according to the Washington Free Beacon, which first reported the test this week.
The JL-3 will include advanced precision guidance technology as well as anti-jamming capabilities, utilizing a "photonic-crystal optic-fiber gyroscope" as well as other guidance systems described as "terminal boost, stellar guidance and scene matching guidance." According to the Beacon, the JL-3 will include missile-defense penetrating features such as variable trajectory, a stealth warhead which evades radar, and motors which burn quickly and early in order to reduce the heat signature detected by US warning satellites. Furthermore, the JL-3 will feature "water-exit" technology that will optimize underwater ejections from launch tubes.
To launch the new missiles, Beijing is developing a "Type 096" nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) which is expected to begin sea trials in 2021 - 2022.
The test on November 24 did not see the JL-3 fly to its full range. The first flight test likely verified the system’s proper cold ejection from the submarine-based launch tube. The missile’s full range is likely to be in excess of 9,000 kilometers, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.
The JL-3, along with the Type 096, will mark the modernization of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, which became operational only recently. Currently, Beijing is known to operate at least four, but possibly as many as six, Type 094 SSBNs armed with the JL-2 SLBM—an SLBM based off the land-based DF-31 solid-fuel intercontinental-range ballistic missile.
The JL-3 is expected to offer a considerable range extension over the JL-2, which has been estimated by U.S. military intelligence to possess a range of just over 7,000 kilometers. That means the SSBNs carrying these missiles would be out of range of continental United States-based targets.
The range of the JL-3, meanwhile, would allow Chinese submarines to strike at continental U.S. targets from further away, increasing their survivability by reducing the need to navigate into contested waters in the Western Pacific in a conflict, for example. -The Diplomat
"China’s four operational JIN-class SSBNs represent China’s first credible, seabased nuclear deterrent," according to the US Department of Defense in their 2018 report on Chinese military power.
"China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, reportedly to be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, will likely begin construction in the early-2020s."
Given the expected life-spans of both the operational Type 094 and the next-generation Type 096, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy is likely to operate both types of SSBNs concurrently. All of China’s operational Type 094 SSBNs are based at a base near Yulin on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. -The Diplomat
Chinese authorities have not publicly confirmed the test, however it is believed that Beijing is focusing on shifting towards the Type 096 / JL-3 over the next few years.
Disclosure of the flight test followed internet reports last year that China deployed a Type-032 auxiliary submarine that is the likely test bed for JL-3 launches.
Private sector China analysts who examined photos of the Type-032, now located at a port on the Bohai Sea in northeast China, say the submarine's tower contains missile launch tubes that appear to have been enlarged for JL-3 tests.
The Type-032 was used in the past for tests of the shorter-range JL-2 missile, a variant of the DF-31 land-based missile. -Free Beacon
"With wide applications of new materials and technologies, the development [of submarine-launched missiles] is accelerating," said military commentator Wang Qiang, as quoted by the Free Beacon.
China's current sea-based nuclear force includes four Type-094 missile submarines, each outfitted with 16 missiles. Internet reports from China have stated that the future Type-096 will carry up to 24 missiles—similar to numbers at one time carried by Navy Ohio-class missile submarines. Current U.S. missile submarines carry 20 missiles each.
"So it is possible that the Type 096 SSBN could be equipped with hundreds of nuclear warheads," Fisher said.
By contrast, the next generation U.S. missile submarine, the Columbia-class, will carry 16 missiles. -Free Beacon
According to China military analyst Rick FIsher, "China is headed for a period of rapid buildup in its intercontinental nuclear warhead numbers."