The JL-3: the new missile ‘raising the cost’ of a US fight with China

Kristin Huang
·4-min read

It has already been tested three times but so far China is saying nothing.

The JL-3, the country’s most advanced submarine-launched long-range missile, is projected to be fully integrated with the PLA’s next generation of submarines in 2025, but China has not officially confirmed that it is even under development.

Nevertheless, it is still a threat and one of a number of missiles that could put the People’s Liberation Army within striking distance of the continental United States, according to an American military report.

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Observers say that threat will give China a credible nuclear deterrence effect and second strike power against rivals.

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When the JL-3 is up and running on Chinese submarines, it should be able to deliver multiple warheads – including nuclear – and have a range of more than 10,000km (6,200 miles).

That is the conclusion of the US Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Centre (Nasic) in its Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report, released this month.

In the report, the centre said China was developing and testing offensive missiles, as well as upgrading others.

“In late November 2018, China tested a new JL-3 [submarine-launched ballistic missile] in the Bohai Sea ... The JL-3 has a greater range than the JL-2,” the report said, referring to the missile’s earlier version.

The report said the number of warheads on Chinese missiles capable of threatening the United States was expected to grow in the next five years to well over 100, up from the 16 of its most powerful land-based equivalent, the DF-41, that China has now.

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The conclusion is largely supported by the Federation of American Scientists, which came out with its own report on January 19 saying the JL-3 was a major advance on the JL-2 missile still in service.

“The biggest news in the China section of the Nasic report is that the new JL-3 ... will be capable of delivering multiple warheads and have a range of more than 10,000km. That is a significant increase in capability compared with the JL-2,” the FAS report said. The JL-2 has a range of about 7,200km.

Despite this increased range, even the best Chinese submarine would not be able to hit the US mainland with a JL-3 from the South China Sea, the federation said. To do that, the vessel would have to launch the missile from the Bohai Sea, an area closer to South Korea and Japan, giving Chinese submarines less chance of going undetected.

The JL-2 submarine-launched missiles can hit targets up to 7,200km away. Photo: AP
The JL-2 submarine-launched missiles can hit targets up to 7,200km away. Photo: AP

Malcolm Davis, a senior security expert from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China’s missile developments gave it a “survivable retaliatory capability” that could be deployed quickly, giving China greater chance of fighting back.

“The development of more advanced sea-launched ballistic missile capabilities such as the JL-3 is important, especially given China’s desire for a secure second strike capability,” Davis said.

But he also said JL missiles had to be launched farther away from China’s coast to attack the US east coast.

“As the JL-3 needs to be operated from the Bohai Sea to deliver warheads against the western continental US, or deeper out towards the second island chain to reach the US east coast… it would be challenging for the Chinese to deploy their [ballistic missile submarines] that far out without detection,” he said.

The DF-41 is a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile. Photo: Reuters
The DF-41 is a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile. Photo: Reuters

Timothy Heath, a security specialist from the US think tank Rand Corporation, said the JL-3 was a fearsome weapon, which along with the DF-41, gave China an “effective means of targeting the continental US from extremely long distances, which increases the survivability of the Chinese missiles”.

Heath said this would help deter the US from interventions close to China.

“Together, the PLA’s conventional and nuclear capability raises the risk and cost of any US fight with China,” he said.

“The goal is to convince the US that such a fight is not worth the risk, allowing China to ‘win’ its confrontations with neighbours like Taiwan ‘without fighting’ the US.”

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