Chinese Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine Surfaces In Taiwan Strait

A Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) surfaced today in the Taiwan Strait, prompting the Taiwanese defense ministry to issue a reassurance that it has a “grasp” of the situation. The appearance of the submarine follows recent activity by People’s Liberation Army aircraft and vessels around Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland. However, while uncommon, all signs point to the submarine’s presence in the strait as being part of a transit back to port.

The Taiwanese media published photos of the SSBN that are said to have been taken by a Taiwanese squid boat at around dawn on Tuesday. At that time, the submarine was reported to be around 125 miles off Taiwan’s western coast.

Another view of the Type 094 Jin class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in the Taiwan Strait early this morning. via X

A report in the Taiwanese media claims the fishermen were surprised when the submarine suddenly surfaced, at which point it was joined by an unidentified warship, which then continued to escort it as it headed toward the Chinese mainland.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence, at this point, to suggest that the Chinese submarine had some kind of technical problem, a possibility that has been raised in some Taiwanese reports of the incident. The idea of a supposed malfunction seems to originate from the fact that the SSBN was moving on the surface, although there are other more plausible explanations for that, which we will come to later.

The submarine is a Type 094 SSBN, also known as the Jin class, of which the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently operates six examples. With a submerged displacement of around 11,000 tons, each of these boats can carry up to 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), making them a critical part of China’s nuclear forces, offering a strategic second strike capability. The Pentagon previously assessed that the PLAN’s existing SSBN fleet armed with JL-2 represented “the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent.”

new Type 096 SSBN is now in development, together with a new JL-3 SLBM. You can read more about the significance of the small but growing Chinese SSBN fleet in this previous TWZ story. Boats of this kind would not play any significant direct role in any Chinese military campaign launched against Taiwan.

A new type 094A Jin-class nuclear submarine Long March 10 of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province on April 23, 2019. - China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its navy by showing off its growing fleet in a sea parade featuring a brand new guided-missile destroyer. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP via Getty Images)
A Type 094 Jin class SSBN of the PLAN participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the service on April 23, 2019. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP via Getty Images MARK SCHIEFELBEIN

In more routine activity, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense said Tuesday morning that it had also detected 20 Chinese military aircraft and seven vessels around the island in the previous 24 hours.

When asked about the submarine in particular, the Taiwanese Minister of Defense Wellington Koo said the military had a “grasp” of the intelligence situation but provided no further details. Clearly, the Taiwanese military will have been monitoring the situation, likely using both surface and sub-surface assets as well as maritime patrol aircraft.

Notably, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) has a fleet of 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft that operate from Pingtung North Air Base in southern Taiwan, from where they routinely monitor the southern part of the Taiwan Strait, where submarine activity is common.

A US-made P-3C anti-submarine aircraft takes off during a Taiwanese Air Force exercise at Taitung Air Force base on January 30, 2024. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP) (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)
A ROCAF P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft takes off during an exercise at Taitung Air Base on January 30, 2024. Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP SAM YEH

At the very least, the presence of the Chinese SSBN in the strait presents an important opportunity to gather information on the capabilities of this boat and PLAN operating practices.

While the highly strategic Taiwan Strait sees regular activity by a wide range of People’s Liberation Army aircraft and vessels, the appearance of an SSBN remains less common.

However, PLAN ballistic missile submarines have been sighted in these waters before, likely during transits to the maintenance drydock at Huludao much further to the north for major work. At least one other similar SSBN movement was documented in 2021, for example.

It’s also worth noting that the Luzon Strait between the southern end of Taiwan and the Philippine island of the same name is the main corridor through which Chinese submarines based at Hainan Island, and especially SSBNs, reach the greater Pacific. As such, the waters between the northern end of the South China Sea and the southern end of the Taiwan Strait are of great strategic significance to the People’s Liberation Army Navy and are also heavily monitored.

As to why the Jin class was moving on the surface, this is likely due to the fact the strait is relatively shallow overall, with an average depth of much less than around 300 feet. The only slightly deeper waters are meanwhile found in areas that are not relevant to navigating for transit of this kind.

“Near the Penghu Islands, where the pictures were apparently shot, the depth is around 50 meters [164 feet],” Alex Luck, a journalist who closely follows the PLAN, told TWZ. “This is somewhat similar with submarines navigating other narrows such as the Danish Straits (where they are required by Danish law to transit surfaced), i.e., submerged transit I think would be unsafe and certainly undesirable for such a large hull.”

With that in mind, it’s likely that only conventionally powered PLAN submarines would routinely operate submerged in the strait.

Meanwhile, if the PLAN had wanted to keep the Type 094 submerged, it could have sailed around Taiwan.

XIAOPINGDAO NAVAL BASE, CHINA-JANUARY 17, 2013: Xiaopingdao Naval Base, also referred to as the 62nd Submarine Training Base, is located on the Yellow Sea just outside of Dalian in Liaoning Province, 450 kilometers east-southeast of Beijing, China. The base is operated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) North Sea Fleet and is believed be used to prepare submarines for ballistic missile testing. This January 17, 2013, satellite image shows one Type 094 Jin Class (SSBN) submarine, one possible Qing Class (SSB) submarine and two Type 041 Yuan Class (SSK) submarines at the base. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images via Getty Images)
A January 17, 2013, satellite image shows a Type 094 Jin class SSBN submarine, one possible Qing class auxiliary submarine, and two Type 041 Yuan class diesel-electric submarines at Xiaopingdao Naval Base, located on the Yellow Sea just outside of Dalian in Liaoning province, China. DigitalGlobe via Getty Images DigitalGlobe

“In conclusion, I think this is a standard operational procedure,” Luck added. “Any signaling would be coincidental rather than be the motivation. The boat also remained reportedly on the western side of the notional Median Line.”

The so-called Median Line in the Taiwan Strait serves as a de facto boundary between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. Chinese violations of the Median Line are not uncommon, notably by aircraft.

Whether explicit or not, an SSBN publicly traveling through a highly sensitive area sends a message, something The War Zone regularly highlights with regard to announcements about the movements of U.S. Navy Ohio class boats. Taiwanese officials themselves have pointed to the Type 094’s presence in relation to so-called ‘gray zone tactics’ — pushing the limits of normal peacetime operations toward the threshold of armed conflict, often using unconventional and non-military means.

In recent months, this has notably also included China launching high-altitude balloons over and around Taiwan. This has led officials in Taiwan to accuse China of psychological warfare as well as threatening international aviation safety in the region.

A graphic showing shows the flightpaths of Chinese balloons launched toward Taiwan in December 2023 and January 2024. Graphic by @detresfa_

Speaking today, Taiwanese Minister of Defense Koo said:

“We must be fully alert to China’s continued military harassment and gray zone threats and must always understand China’s constant salami-slicing attempts to unilaterally change the status quo.”

“We must be alert at all times, but not panic nor be apathetic, and calmly deal with the situation in the strait,” Koo added. “We won’t be the one provoking and call on China not to be a troublemaker.”

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te (C) and Defence Minister Wellington Koo arrive on a visit to inspect military troops in Taoyuan on May 23, 2024. Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te said he will "stand on the front line" to defend Taiwan, speaking on May 23 as China held war games around the self-ruled island days after he was sworn into office. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP) (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)
Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te (center) and Minister of Defense Wellington Koo arrive on a visit to inspect military troops in Taoyuan on May 23, 2024. Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP SAM YEH

Overall, while the SSBN was most likely returning to port for maintenance, the fact remains that any overt PLA activity in the strait is likely to garner attention, especially when a nuclear-capable asset like this is involved.

After all, the narrow strait has long been a source of tension and an area in which Beijing can undertake military activities that reinforce its claims over the island, including dress rehearsals for future campaigns that might be launched against Taiwan.

The PLAN’s submarine force is growing rapidly, with Taiwan also now making some significant advances in underwater warfare. A future confrontation between Taiwan and the mainland is therefore certain to involve a submarine component. The shallow depth of the strait essentially limits it to combat operations by conventionally powered submarines, although, with China’s SSBN force set to grow, the appearance of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines in these waters is only likely to become more common in the future.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.