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The Strategic Support Force: China’s Information Warfare Service

This piece was originally published by the Jamestown Foundation. It is republished here with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By John Costello

Gao Jin (高津) is the PLASSF’s Commander. Note that he was promoted to major general in June 2006 and to lieutenant general occurred in July 2013. (Xinhua)

On December 31, 2015, Xi Jinping introduced the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF; 火箭军), Strategic Support Force (PLASSF; 战略支援部队), and Army Leadership Organ. The move came just within the Central Military Commission’s deadline to complete the bulk of reforms by the end of the year. Most media coverage has focused on the Rocket Force, whose reorganization amounts to a promotion of the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) to the status of a service on the same level of the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force. However, by far the most interesting and unexpected development was the creation of the SSF.

According to official sources, the Strategic Support Force will form the core of China’s information warfare force, which is central to China’s “active defense” strategic concept. This is an evolution, not a departure from, China’s evolving military strategy. It is a culmination of years of technological advancement and institutional change. In the context of ongoing reforms, the creation of the SSF may be one of the most important changes yet. Consolidating and restructuring China’s information forces is a key measure to enable a number of other state goals of reform, including reducing the power of the army, implementing joint operations, and increasing emphasis on high-tech forces.

The Strategic Support Force in Chinese Media

Top Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping and Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun have not provided significant details about the operational characteristics of the SSF. Xi has described the SSF as a “new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA’s combat capabilities” (MOD, January 1).

On January 14, the SSF’s newly-appointed commander, Gao Jin (高津) said that the SSF will raise an information umbrella(信息伞) for the military and will act as an important factor in integrating military services and systems, noting that it will provide the entire military with accurate, effective, and reliable information support and strategic support assurance (准确高效可靠的信息支撑和战略支援保障) (CSSN, January 14). [1]

Senior Chinese military experts have been quick to comment on the SSF, and their interviews form some of the best and most authoritative insights into the role the new force will play in the Chinese military. For instance, on January 16th, the Global Times quoted Song Zhongping (宋忠平), a former PLASAF officer and a professor at the PLARF’s Equipment Research Academy, who described SSF as as a “fifth service” and, contrary to official reports, states it is not a “military branch” (兵种) but rather should be seen as an independent military service (军种) in its own right. [2] He continues by stating that it will be composed of three separate forces or force-types: space troops (天军), cyber troops (网军), and electronic warfare forces (电子战部队). The cyber force would be composed of “hackers focusing on attack and defense,” the space forces would “focus on reconnaissance and navigation satellites,” and the electronic warfare force would focus on “jamming and disrupting enemy radar and communications.” According to Song, this would allow the PLA to “meet the challenges of not only traditional warfare but also of new warfare centered on new technology” (Global Times, January 16).

By far the most authoritative description of the Strategic Support Force comes from People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo (尹卓). As a member of both the PLAN Expert Advisory Committee for Cybersecurity and Informatization (海军网络安全和信息化专家委员会) and the All-Military Cybersecurity and Informatization Expert Advisory Committee (全军网络安全和信息化专家委员会, MCIEAC) formed in May 2015, Yin is in the exact sort of position to have first-hand knowledge of the SSF, if not a direct role in its creation.

In an interview published by official media on January 5th, 2016, Yin stated that its main mission will be to enable battlefield operations by ensuring the military can “maintain local advantages in the aerospace, space, cyber, and electromagnetic battlefields.” Specifically, the SSF’s missions will include target tracking and reconnaissance, daily operation of satellite navigation, operating Beidou satellites, managing space-based reconnaissance assets, and attack and defense in the cyber and electromagnetic spaces” and will be “deciding factors in [the PLA’s] ability to attain victory in future wars” (China Military News, January 5).

Yin also foresees the SSF playing a greater role in protecting and defending civilian infrastructure than the PLA has in the past:

“[The SSF] will play an important role in China’s socialist construction. Additionally, China is facing a lot of hackers on the internet which are engaging in illegal activities, for example, conducting cyber attacks against government facilities, military facilities, and major civilian facilities. This requires that we protect them with appropriate defense. The SSF will play an important role in protecting the country’s financial security and the security of people’s daily lives” (China Military News, January 5).

Yang Yujun, MND spokesman, also suggested that civilian-military integration will form a portion of the SSF’s mission, but stopped short of clarifying whether this meant the force will have a heavy civilian component or will be involved in defending civilian infrastructure, or both (CNTV, January 2).

Yin noted that the SSF will embody the PLA’s vision of real joint operations. In Yin’s view, military operations cannot be divorced from “electronic space,” a conceptual fusion of the electromagnetic and cyber domains. The SSF will integrate “reconnaissance, early warning, communications, command, control, navigation, digitalized ocean, digitalized land, etc. and will provide strong support for joint operations for each military service branch.” Indeed, this view was also echoed by Shao Yongling (邵永灵), a PLARF Senior Colonel who is currently a professor at the PLA’s Command College in Wuhan. She suggested that the SSF was created to centralize each branch of the PLA’s combat support units, where previously each service had their own, resulting in “overlapping functions and repeat investment.” Consolidating these responsibilities in a central force would allow the military to “reduce redundancies, better integrate, and improve joint operational capabilities” (China Military News, January 5).

Taken together, these sources suggest that at its most basic, the SSF will comprise forces in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains. Specifically, sources indicate the SSF will most likely be responsible for all aspects of information in warfare, including intelligence, technical reconnaissance, cyber attack/defense, electronic warfare, and aspects of information technology and management.

Force Composition

Rear Admiral Yin’s comments in particular suggest that at a minimum the SSF will draw from forces previously under the General Staff Department’s (GSD) subordinate organs, to include portions of the First Department (1PLA, operations department), Second Department (2PLA, intelligence department), Third Department (3PLA, technical reconnaissance department), Fourth Department (4PLA, electronic countermeasure and radar department), and Informatization Department (communications).

The “Joint Staff Headquarters Department” (JSD) under the Central Military Commission will likely incorporate the 1PLA’s command and control, recruitment, planning, and administrative bureaus. Information support organs like the meteorology and hydrology bureau, survey and mapping bureau, and targeting bureau would move to the SSF.

The GSD’s intelligence department, the 2PLA will likely move to the SSF, although there is some question as to whether it will maintain all aspects of its clandestine intelligence mission, or this will be moved to a separate unit. The Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB), responsible for the GSD’s overhead intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission will most likely form the center of the SSF’s space corps. The 2PLA’s second bureau, responsible for tactical reconnaissance, will also move to the SSF. This will include one of its primary missions: operating China’s long-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).[3]

The SSF will unify China’s cyber mission by reducing the institutional barriers separating computer network attack, espionage, and defense, which have been “stove-piped” and developed as three separate disciplines within the PLA. The 3PLA’s technical reconnaissance and cyber espionage units will likely move, including the national network of infamous technical reconnaissance bureau’s (TRB), the most famous of which is Unit 61398. The 4PLA’s electronic countermeasures mission will likely form the core of a future electronic warfare force under the SSF, and the its secondary mission of computer network attack (CNA) will also likely also move under the SSF.

Finally, the entirety of the Informatization Department will likely move to the SSF. This will unify its mission, which has expanding over the years to include near all aspects of the support side of informatization, including communications, information management, network administration, computer network defense (CND), and satellite downlink.

Drawing the bulk of the SSF from former GSD organs and subordinate units is not only remarkably practical, but it is also mutually reinforcing with other reforms. Firstly, it reduces the power and influence of the Army by removing its most strategic capabilities. Previously the PLA Army was split into two echelons, its GSD-level headquarters departments (部门) and units (部队) and Military Region-level (MR; 军区) operational units. GSD units did not serve in combat or traditional operational roles, yet constituted some of China’s most advanced “new-type” capabilities: information management, space forces, cyber espionage, cyber-attack, advanced electronic warfare, and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. The creation of the Army Leadership Organ effectively split the Army along these lines, with lower-echelon forces forming the PLA Ground Forces and the higher-echelon units forming the Strategic Support Force.

Secondly, separating these capabilities into a separate SSF allows the PLA Army to concentrate on land defense and combat. Nearly all personnel staffing the supposedly joint-force GSD units were Army personnel and by-and-large these units were considered Army units, despite serving as the de facto joint strategic support units for the entire PLA military. Giving the SSF its own administrative organs and personnel allows the PLA Army to concentrate solely on the business of ground combat, land defense, and fulfilling its intended roles in the context of China’s national defense strategy.

Finally and most importantly, separating the second, third, fourth, and “fifth” departments—as the Informatization Department is sometimes called—into their own service branch allows them to be leveraged to a greater degree for Navy Air Force, and Rocket Force missions. More than anything, it allows them to focus on force-building and integrating these capabilities across each service-branch, thereby enabling a long-sought “joint-force” capable of winning wars.

In many ways, taking GSD-level departments, bureaus, and units and centralizing them into the Strategic Support Force is making official what has long been a reality. GSD-level components have nearly always operated independently from regional Group Army units. Separating them into a separate service is less of an institutional change and more of an administrative paper-shuffle.

Integrated Information Warfare

The Strategic Support Force will form the core of China’s information warfare force, which is central to China’s strategy of pre-emptive attack and asymmetric warfare. China’s new military reforms seek to synthesize military preparations into a “combined wartime and peacetime military footing.” These “strategic presets” seek to put China’s military into an advantageous position at the outset of war in order to launch a preemptive attack or quickly respond to aggression. [4] This allows China to offset its disadvantages in technology and equipment through preparation and planning, particularly against a high-tech opponent—generally a by-word for the United States in PLA strategic literature.

These presets require careful selection of targets so that a first salvo of hard-kill and soft-kill measures can completely cripple an enemy’s operational “system of systems,” or his ability to use information technology to conduct operations. Achieving this information dominance is necessary to achieve air and sea dominance, or the “three dominances.” [5] A PLA Textbook, The Science of Military Strategy, (SMS) specifically cites space, cyber, and electronic warfare means working together as strategic weapons to achieve these ends, to “paralyze enemy operational system of systems” and “sabotage enemy’s war command system of systems.” [6] This includes launching space and cyber-attacks against political, economic, and civilian targets as a deterrent. The Strategic Support Force will undoubtedly play a central role as the information warfare component of China’s warfare strategy, and will be the “tip of the spear” in its war-plans and strategic disposition.

Remaining Questions

Despite what can be culled and answered from official sources and expert commentary, significant questions remain regarding the structure of Strategic Support Force and the roles it will play. For one, it is unclear how the Strategic Support Force will incorporate civilian elements into its ranks. Mentioned in 2015’s DWP and the more recent reform guidelines, civilian-military integration is a priority, but Chinese official sources have stopped short in describing how these forces will be incorporated into military in the new order (MOD, May 26, 2015). Previously, the General Staff Department research institutes, known as the “GSD RI’s,” acted as epicenters of civilian technical talent for strategic military capabilities. If the Strategic Support Force is primarily composed of former GSD units, then these research institutes will be ready-made fusion-points for civilian-military integration, and may take on a greater role in both operations and acquisition. Even so, the civilian piece is likely to prove vital, as they will undoubtedly serve as the backbone of China’s cyber capability.

Secondly, it is unknown specifically what forces will compose the Strategic Support Force, or the full extent of its mission. When official sources say “new-type” forces, they could mean a wide range of different things, and the term can include special warfare, intelligence operations, cyber warfare, or space. At a minimum, a consensus has emerged that the force will incorporate space, cyber, and electronic warfare, but the full extent of what this means is unclear. It is also unknown, for instance, if the space mission will include space launch facilities, or whether those will remain under the CMC Equipment Development Department, a rechristened General Armament Department. Where psychological operations will fall in the new order is also up for debate. Some sources have said that it will be incorporated into the SSF while others have left it out entirely.

Finally, although it is clear that the SSF will act as a service, it remains unclear if the CMC will also treat it as an operational entity, or how the CMC will operationalize forces that are under its administrative purview. It is unlikely that the military theaters will have operational authority over strategic-level cyber units, electronic warfare units, or space assets. These capabilities will likely be commanded directly by the CMC. This logic flies in the face of the new system, which requires that services focus on force construction rather than operations and warfare. The solution may be that the SSF, as well as the PLARF, act as both services and “functional” commands for their respective missions.


Ultimately, the strategic support force needs to be understood in the broader context of the reforms responsible for its creation. On one hand, the reforms are practical, intending to usher China’s military forces into the modern era and transform them into a force capable of waging and winning “informatized local wars.” On the other hand, the reforms are politically motivated, intending to reassert party leadership to transform the PLA into a more reliable, effective political instrument.

The Strategic Support Force, if administered correctly, will help solve many of the PLA’s problems that have prevented it from effectively implementing joint operations and information warfare. The creation of an entire military service dedicated to information warfare reaffirms China’s focus on the importance of information in its strategic concepts, but it also reveals the Central Military Commission’s desire to assert more control over these forces as political instruments. With the CMC solidly at the helm, information warfare will likely be leveraged more strategically and will be seen in all aspects of PLA operations both in peace and in war. China is committing itself completely to information warfare, foreign nations should take note and act accordingly.

John Costello is Congressional Innovation Fellow for New American Foundation and a former Research Analyst at Defense Group Inc. He was a member of the U.S. Navy and a DOD Analyst. He specializes in information warfare, electronic warfare and non-kinetic counter-space issues.


1. A Chinese-media report on Gao Jin’s military service assignments can be found at <http://news.sina.com.cn/c/sz/2016-01-01/doc-ifxneept3519173.shtml>. Gao Jin’s role as commander of the SSF is noteworthy in two respects: One, he is a career Second Artillery officer, so his new role muddies the waters a bit in understanding whether the SSF will be a force composed of Army personnel but treated administratively separate from the Army—not unlike the former PLASAF-PLA Army relationship—or will be composed of personnel from various services and treated administratively separate from all forces. Secondly and more important to this discussion, before his new post as SSF commander, Gao Jin was head of the highly-influential Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) which besides being the PLA’s de facto think-tank (along with the National Defense University), is responsible for putting out the Science of Strategy, a wide-reaching consensus document that both captures and guides PLA strategic thinking at the national level. The most recent edition published in 2013 was released under his tenure as commandant of AMS and many of the ideas from that edition have found their way into the 2015 defense white paper, December’s guide on military reforms, and many of the changes made to China’s national defense establishment. His new role could be seen as CMC-endorsement of SMS’s views on China’s strategic thought.

2. Song’s description of the SSF contradicts official-media descriptions of the service, which had suggested that the service will occupy a similar echelon to that of the PLASAF before it was promoted to full military service status equal to the other branches.

3. Ian M. Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities and Operational Capabilities,” 2049 Institute, March 11, 2013. p. 14.

4. The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], 3rd ed., Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013. p. 320.

5. Ibid. p. 165.

6. Ibid. p. 164.

Featured Image: Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capablities during a visit to the unit in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

South Sea Fleet: Emerging Lynchpin of China’s Naval Power Projection in the Indo-Pacific

This article was originally posted at the National Maritime Foundation. It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read the piece in its original form here.

By Gurpreet S. Khurana

In December 2015, China commissioned Hefei (174) – the third Type 052D guided-missile destroyer into its navy.  The warship represents the most advanced surface combatant ever operated by the PLA Navy, comparable to the best in the world. It is armed with potent long-range missiles like the HHQ-9 (anti-air), the YJ-18 (anti-ship), and the CJ-10 (land-attack).[ii] This seems incredible considering that until barely a decade ago, China’s navy did not even possess a credible fleet air defence missile system, let alone a land-attack capability.

Type 52 head on
First in class, Type 052D destroyer, Kunming, DDG-172 underway after its commissioning in March 2015. Photo Credit: Jeff Head.

Notably, all three Type 052D destroyers are based in PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet (SSF).[iii] This is among the latest indicators of the growing salience and strength of this fleet. The SSF is fast becoming the ‘sword arm’ of the PLA Navy. It is rapidly amassing distant power-projection capabilities with major geopolitical and security ramifications not only for the China’s immediate maritime neighbours in the South China Sea (SCS), but also for the littorals of the Indian Ocean region (IOR). This essay attempts to discern the trends since the rise of China’s naval power in recent decades, and the implications for the Indo-Pacific[iv] region.

Circa 1995-2005: Focus on ESF

Until the 1980s, the PLA Navy was merely a ‘brown-water’ coastal force. Beginning in the mid-1990s, China’s naval power witnessed a quantum jump with the acquisition of the Russian Kilo-class submarines and Sovremenny-class destroyers. The Kilos were considered to be the quietest submarines in the world, whereas the Sovremennys were armed with the lethal S-22 Moskit anti-ship missile – dubbed ‘aircraft-carrier killer’
– whose supersonic speed gives little reaction time to the victim warship to defend itself.

AORs of of the PLA Navy’s three fleets. Photo Credit: India Strategic.

All four Sovremennys[v] and eight Kilos[vi] were added to the East Sea Fleet (ESF). At this time, China’s strategic focus was directed towards its eastern seaboard, primarily to prepare for any adverse contingency involving Taiwan (in light of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis). In 1999, China began the indigenous development of its Song-class conventional submarines. The first of these new-generation boats commissioned between 2001 and 2004 were also inducted into the ESF.[vii]

Circa 2005-2010: Focus on the South Sea Fleet

About a decade after the Taiwan Strait crisis, China’s strategic focus began to shift from Taiwan to its maritime-territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS). The reason for the shift is unclear. It could be attributed to Beijing’s successful ‘Taiwan policy’ that led to a reduced probability of a military conflict across the Taiwan Strait. It is also possible that Beijing had always considered the SCS as its priority, but was ‘biding its time’ due to various geopolitical and capability constraints. All the same, China’s intent became apparent through the increasing ‘capabilities’ being allocated to the SSF, such as those enumerated below.

  • 2004-05: SSF inducts two each of Type 052B and 052C destroyers, the first-ever world-class indigenous warship designs.[viii]
  • 2005: China begins refurbishing the erstwhile Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag for power-projection in the SCS (that later joined SSF as Liaoning).
  • 2006-07: SSF inducts four additional Kilo-class submarines procured from Russia.
  • End-2007: SSF inducts the first Type 071 Yuzhao-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD), which provided China a distant sealift capability.[ix]
  • Mid-2008: Satellite-based reports carried pictures of China’s new Yalong Bay base in southern Hainan, indicating entrances to the underground submarine pens and a Jin-class (Type 094) new-generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).
  • 2007-08: Extension of Woody Island airstrip (Paracels) to 8,100 feet. The airstrip was now capable of operating heavier aircraft like bombers, transports and aerial-refuellers.[xi]

Most of these developments were analysed in 2008-2009 by this author and a few other analysts like James Bussert. However, these writings received little attention. Interestingly, China’s ‘intentions’ became clearer within a couple of years when Beijing declared in 2010 that the SCS was its “core interest” of sovereignty. Two years later, in 2012, China upgraded Sansha City on Woody Island from county-level to a prefecture-city level[xv] to facilitate the administration of all the island groups in SCS claimed by China. It also established a military command in Sansha City under Hainan provincial sub-command within the Guangzhou Military Command. While these were largely ‘administrative’ and ‘defensive’ policy measures, these reinforced China intent with regard to its “core interest” of sovereignty.

Recent Developments: Reinforced Focus on SSF

Recent developments clearly indicate that China has persevered with its southward-oriented military-strategic intent. The latest of these is China’s January 2016 redeployment of its Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981) oil rig in disputed waters with Vietnam, which created a major diplomatic rift between the two countries in mid-2014.  A CSIS report released in January 2016 notes an “accelerated…frequency of its (China’s) coercive activities and pace of its island-building in the… South China Sea.”[ The report adds that “the PLA in the near future will be operating well beyond the First Island Chain and into the Indian Ocean.” If such predictions are substantive, what precisely may be among the enabling capabilities?

A Vietnamese fisheries surveillance ship enforcing law in the area near the Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig that China has deployed illegally in Vietnam’s 200-nautical continental shelf since early May 2014. Photo: Doc Lap.
A Vietnamese fisheries surveillance ship enforcing law in the area near the Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig that China deployed in Vietnam’s 200-nautical continental shelf since early May 2014. Photo: Doc Lap.

Aircraft Carrier Task Force

In 2012, Varyag was commissioned as Liaoning, and soon after sea-trials, it was based in the SSF. China is building an indigenous carrier, which is also likely to be based in the SSF for patrols in the disputed South China Sea. These carriers have potent escort combatants. In addition to the Type 052D destroyers, most of the PLA Navy’s latest Jiangkai II class frigates are also based in the SSF. The carrier(s) – along with these escorts – would provide versatility to the SSF to conduct missions in the IOR and SCS across the spectrum of conflict, ranging from humanitarian missions and counter-piracy to flag-showing, and supporting maritime expeditionary operations to military coercion.

Liaoning carrier CSG
PLA Navy Liaoning carrier battle group.

Notably, both Jiangkai II frigates – Liuzhou (573) and Sanya (574) – that participated in India’s International Fleet Review-2016 (IFR-16) at Visakhapatnam in early-February 2016 are based at SSF. The two ships – part of PLA Navy’s 21st anti-piracy task force – made a ‘goodwill’ port call at Chittagong and conducted combined naval exercises with the Bangladesh Navy, before participating in IFR-16. In the coming years, the availability of the carrier in its task force will provide the PLA Navy more operational options, enabling it to undertake other types of missions in the IOR as well.

Unsinkable’ Aircraft Carriers in the SCS

China is likely to continue upgrading its airfields in the Paracels and Spratlys. On Woody Island, satellite imagery revealed that since 2007-08, China has added a wide array of aviation infrastructure to the main airstrip, including aircraft hangers, air traffic control buildings and radars, fuel depots, crew accommodation, and berthing facilities for larger warships. This would provide a force-multiplier effect to the PLA Navy’s carrier operations, enabling China to effectively exercise sea control and power-projection in the SCS. It would also enable China to enforce an ADIZ over the SCS, if Beijing were to promulgate it.

New-Generation Submarines

In mid-2015, the PLA Navy commissioned three modified Shang-class SSNs (Type 093A/ 093G). Like Type 052D destroyers, these are likely to be armed with the vertical-launch YJ-18 anti-ship and CJ-10 land-attack missiles. In a few years, China is likely to develop the advanced Jin-class (Type 096) SSBN, which could provide China a more credible nuclear deterrence and first strike capability. Although Yalong Bay (Hainan) may be home base for these nuclear-propelled platforms, their virtually unlimited endurance will enable the PLA Navy to project submarine-based maritime power eastwards far beyond the second island chain, and westwards into the IOR.

China’s latest conventional submarines, the Song-class and the Yuan-class with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), are also based at Yalong Bay.[xxiv] Notably, all submarines that the PLA Navy has deployed so far in the IOR are based in the SSF. These include the Song-329 that docked in Colombo in September-October 2014[xxv] and the Yuan 335 that spent a week in Karachi harbour in May 2015.

PLA Navy Song class conventional submarines.
PLA Navy Song class conventional submarines.

Expeditionary Forces

In 2011-12, two more Type 071 LPDs (Jinggang Shan and Changbai Shan) joined the first LPD (Kunlun Shan) in the SSF. In mid-2015, the SSF inducted the PLA Navy’s first Landing Platform (MLP). Based on the novel submersible roll-on/ roll-off (RO-RO) design developed by the United States, MLPs would be able to transport PLA Navy’s heavy Zubr-class air-cushion landing craft to distant littorals.

This enhanced distant sealift capacity would not only enable the SSF to undertake humanitarian missions in the SCS and the IOR, but also provide the fleet a nascent expeditionary capability. Interestingly, the 15,000-men Chinese Marines – who have traditionally trained for amphibious assaults – have lately begun to exercise in continental locales of Mongolia and Xinjiang, which is a pointer to China’s intention to be involved in out-of-area expeditionary missions.

PLA Navy Type 071 LPD.
PLA Navy Type 071 LPD.

Logistic Ships

The PLA Navy is also developing ‘longer legs’ through the introduction of high-endurance logistic vessels meant to provide underway replenishment (UNREP) to its principal warships far away from Chinese home bases. Since 2005, it has commissioned six advanced Type 903A (Fuchi-class) UNREP vessel with a full-load displacement of 23,000 tons. Although these are equally divided among the three PLA Navy fleets, the sequence of allocation and other developments indicate a focus on the SSF. In 2015, China launched a new rather massive 45,000 tons logistic vessel of the Qinghaihu-class, which is likely to be allocated to the SSF.

PLA Navy Qinghaihu-class logistics vessel.
PLA Navy Qinghaihu-class logistics vessel.


In tandem with China’s overall power, the capabilities of the PLA Navy’s SSF is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades, notwithstanding transient ‘hiccups’ in its economic growth. However, China’s geographically expanding economic interests into the IOR and beyond will soon overstretch its resources. Ostensibly, Beijing is well aware of this prognosis, and adopting necessary measures as part of a comprehensive long-term strategy.

Among the two overwhelming imperatives for China is to shape a benign environment in its north-eastern maritime periphery. Towards this end, in March 2013, Beijing amalgamated its various maritime agencies to form the unified Coast Guard under the State Oceanic Administration. Reportedly, China has also been trying hard to resolve its maritime boundary dispute with South Korea.

The second imperative is to sustain its naval forces in distant waters of the IOR. Towards this end, China is developing military facilities in the IOR,  dovetailed with its increasing hardware sales to the regional countries. Through its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR) initiative (2013), China seems to have effectively blunted the theory of ‘String of Pearls’ (2005). Djibouti may be only the beginning. Similar facilities – supplemented by PLA Navy’s long-legged and ‘sea-based’ assets based in the SSF – would enhance China’s military-strategic and operational options manifold. Such emerging developments – and their extrapolations – need to be factored by the national security establishments of the Indo-Pacific countries.

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.


[i] ‘New missile destroyer joins South China Sea Fleet’, at http://eng.mod.gov.cn/DefenseNews/2015-12/14/content_4632673.htm

[ii] The CJ-10 (also called DH-10 or HN-2) is known to feature terrain contour matching (TERCOM) and data from the Chinese Beidou Navigation Satellite System for its guidance. 

[iii] PLA Navy is divided into 3 fleets (equivalent of naval commands in India). The North Sea Fleet (NSF) adjoins the Yellow Sea/ Korean Peninsula, the East Sea Fleet (ESF) faces the East China Sea/ Taiwan, and the South Sea Fleet (SSF) overlooks the South China Sea. 

[iv] The term refers to the region stretching from East Africa and West Asia to Northeast Asia, across the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation’, Strategic Analysis, Vol 31(1), January 2007, p139-153.

[v] All four Sovremenny-class destroyers were acquired between 1999 and 2006.

[vi] These refer to the eight Kilo-class submarines acquired between 1995 and 2005.

[vii] It refers to pennant numbers 321, 322, 323, 324, 325 and 314. The sole exception was the first Song (320) commissioned in 1999, which was inducted into the SSF, possibly since the waters off Hainan were deep enough for its dived test.

[viii] While more warships of the Type 052 not built, the Type 052C (dubbed ‘Chinese Aegis’) provided the PLA Navy for the first time, a long-range fleet air-defence capability. It is equipped with vertical-launch 90 km range HHQ-9 surface to air missiles (SAM) cued by the AESA phased-array radar with all-round coverage. The Type 052C warships commissioned later were based at the ESF.

[ix] Since long, the SSF has been home to a significant proportion of amphibious vessels and two Marine brigades, but the PLA Navy never possessed distant sealift capability. It may be recalled that China could not even contribute to the multi-nation humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) mission following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004. Ostensibly, this provided the trigger for China to build the Type 071 LPD for the SSF.

[x] Although China’s plans to build Yalong bay base was known for some years, the report was the first to provide its details. Richard D Fisher Jr, “Secret Sanya – China’s new nuclear naval base revealed”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 15 April 2008, at http://www4.janes.com/subscribe/jir/doc_view.jsp?K2DocKey=/content1/janesdata/mags/jir/history/jir2008/jir10375.htm@current&Prod_Name=JIR&QueryText

[xi] Called Yongxing Dao by the Chinese, Woody Island is located 150 nautical miles south-east of Hainan, and is the largest island of the Paracel group. In the 1980s, it accommodated a mere helicopter pad. In 1990, China undertook land reclamation to construct a 1,200-feet airstrip to operate jet fighters.

[xii] Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘China’s South Sea Fleet Gains Strength: Indicators, Intentions & Implications, India Strategic, Vol. 3(10), October 2008, p.48, at http://www.indiastrategic.in/topstories183.htm

[xiii] James C Bussert, ‘Hainan is the Tip of the Chinese Spear’, Signal, June 2009, at http://www.afcea.org/content/?q=hainan-tip-chinese-navy-spear

[xiv] Edward Wong, ‘Chinese Military Seeks to Extend Its Naval Power’, The New York Times, 23 April 2010, at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/24/world/asia/24navy.html?_r=0

[xv] These refer to the hierarchal levels of China’s administrative divisions: Province (first level), Perfecture City (second level) and County (third level).

[xvi] ‘Sansha new step in managing S. China Sea’, Global times, 25 June 2012, at http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/716822.shtml

[xvii] Mike Ives, ‘Vietnam Objects to Chinese Oil Rig in Disputed Waters’, The New York Times, 20 Jan 2016, at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/world/asia/south-china-sea-vietnam-china.html?_r=0

[xviii] ‘Asia-Pacific rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence and Partnerships’, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Report , 20 January 2016, p.VI, at http://csis.org/files/publication/160119_Green_AsiaPacificRebalance2025_Web_0.pdf

[xix] ‘China defence: Work starts on second aircraft carrier’, BBC News, 31 December 2015, at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-35207369

[xx] ‘Beijing Plans Aircraft Carrier Patrols in Disputed South China Sea’, Sputnik International News, 29 January 2016, at http://sputniknews.com/asia/20160129/1033950259/aircraft-carrier-south-china-sea.html

[xxi] ‘21st Chinese naval escort taskforce wraps up visit to Bangladesh’, China Military Online, 2 February 2016, at http://english.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2016-02/02/content_6885175.htm

[xxii] Carlyle A. Thayer, ‘Background Briefing: China’s Air Strip on Woody Island’, C3S Paper No.2055, 20 October 2014, at http://www.c3sindia.org/uncategorized/4568

[xxiii] Jeremy Bender, ‘China’s New Submarines Could Create Problems for the US Navy’, Business Insider, 7 April 2015, at http://www.businessinsider.in/Chinas-new-submarines-could-create-problems-for-the-US-Navy/articleshow/46844459.cms

[xxiv] AIP enhances the operational effectiveness of a conventional submarine substantially by enabling it to remain submerged up to as long as three weeks.

[xxv] Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘PLA Navy’s Submarine Arm ‘Stretches its Sea-legs’ to the Indian Ocean’, National Maritime Foundation , New Delhi, 21 November 2014, at https://independent.academia.edu/khurana

[xxvi] Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘ China’s Yuan-class Submarine Visits Karachi: An Assessment’, National Maritime Foundation , New Delhi, 24 July 2014, at https://independent.academia.edu/khurana

[xxvii] The fourth Type 071 LPD Yimengshan (988) commissioned in February 2016 was inducted in the East Sea Fleet. Andrew Tate, ‘The PLAN commissions fourth Type 071 LPD’, IHS Jane’s Navy International, 3 February 2016, at http://www.janes.com/article/57683/the-plan-commissions-fourth-type-071-lpd

[xxviii] Mike Yeo, ‘China Commissions First MLP-Like Logistics Ship, Headed For South Sea Fleet’, USNI News, 14 July 2015, at http://news.usni.org/2015/07/14/chinas-commissions-first-mlp-like-logistics-ship-headed-for-south-sea-fleet Also see, Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘Sea-based’ PLA Navy may not need ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean’, Centre of International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 12 August 2015, at https://cimsec.org/sea-based-pla-navy-may-not-need-string-pearls/18053

[xxix] In 2014, the Marines conducted the first such training in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, followed by the second one in December 2015 in the deserts of Xinjiang. The latter came in wake of Beijing passing a new unprecedented legislation that permits the PLA to undertake counter-terrorism missions overseas. Michael Martina and Greg Torode, ‘Chinese marines’ desert operations point to long-range ambitions’, Reuters, 14 January 2016, at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-military-marines-idUSKCN0US2QM20160114

[xxx] Wu Jiao and Pu Zhendong, ‘Nation merging maritime patrol forces’, China Daily, 11 March 2013, at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013npc/2013-03/11/content_16296448.htm

[xxxi] In 2014, China and South Korea agreed to initiate a dialogue to delineate their maritime boundary outstanding for two decades. The preliminary talks were held in December 2015. ‘South Korea, China Discuss Fisheries and Boundary Conflict’, Maritime Executive, 22 December 2015, at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-12/14/c_134916062.htm

China’s Middle East Balancing Act

This article originally featured at the Conference of Defense Associations Institute, and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adam MacDonald, an independent scholar on Canadian foreign policy and Asia-​Pacific security, examines China’s role in the Middle East.

Turmoil in the Middle East has motivated most of the world’s major powers to become increasingly involved in stabilizing the region while progressing their own geopolitical agendas. Both the United States, trying to foster local solutions that would allow them to reduce their involvement and refocus energies elsewhere, and a Russia that senses an opportunity for increased influence in a theatre long outside its reach, have a number of strategic and security interests in the region. But it is China which has the most to lose (and gain) from a stable Middle East. Despite the strategic importance of the Middle East, Beijing has been cautious in engaging the region – an approach informed by higher level considerations underpinning their global engagement strategy as a whole.

China’s increasing reliance on Middle Eastern oil imports is becoming the Achilles Heel of Beijing’s energy security interests, owing to the disruption risks associated with ongoing regional volatility and the fact oil shipments travel on lengthy Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). Despite diversification efforts (including closer energy partnerships with Russia and Central Asia), China receives 51 percent of its imported oil from the Middle East, with estimates projecting this value to increase to 60 percent by 2030. China is currently taking advantage of current low oil prices to build up its National Strategic Reserve, resulting in major shortages in storage capacity. Of course, Beijing also assesses supply disruptions as a realistic concern, and is cautiously beginning to become more diplomatically involved in strengthening relations with major oil suppliers as well as supporting conditions maintaining the general stability of the region writ large.

China’s Middle East engagements have stressed the importance of peaceful resolutions to conflicts and political tensions, fearing that a region-​wide conflict would paralyze desperately needed oil supplies and justify foreign interventions to remove regimes friendly to Beijing. China’s foreign policy privileges incumbent governments (regardless of the ways in which they access, wield, or maintain power) and pledges ‘non-​interference’ in their internal affairs, offering a counter-​balance (along with Russia) to regional players wary of Western calls for democratic development and political pluralism. Western powers have been frustrated by Russian and Chinese vetoing of numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) to end the Syrian civil war, but these obstructions largely stem from their experiences in supporting UNSCR 1973 in 2011 that imposed a No-​Fly Zone over Libya but quickly morphed into a military régime change campaign.

China and Russia, thus, only agreed to the latest UNSCR pertaining to Syria when explicit assurances were made that the Assad régime could remain in power until elections are scheduled. Within such negotiations China has played a supportive role, allowing Russia (which whom they share many broad strategic and regional interests), to be the face of opposition to the West. Beijing, however, has taken the initiative on some fronts, such as offering to host cease-​fire talks. As it pertains to the Iranian nuclear deal, Beijing has also played a low-​key diplomatic role but emphasized the need to reach a peaceful resolution to reduce the likelihood of conflict between Tehran, a major oil partner, and the West.

China is slowly beginning to augment bilateral diplomatic relations with regional partners, moving beyond collective action as part of their role as a permanent member on the UNSC. President Xi’s recent trip to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese president since 2009, included visits to its three largest trading partners in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran), signing dozens of new economic deals, particularly with Tehran. Sino-​Iranian relations in particular have been strengthened, with Tehran now named a ‘great neighbour’ in Chinese foreign policy – a term denoting a state which shares similar economic, political, and strategic interests with Beijing. China, however, must balance its interests in Iran with those in Saudi Arabia, their largest oil partner, particularly as tensions have been rising dramatically with both powers supporting opposing sides in various regional conflicts. One can also add the cessation of diplomatic relations between the two, when Saudi Arabia’s Iranian embassy was sacked following Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shia Cleric.

Beijing remains reluctant to fully engage in the region, especially on the military front. Much of this apprehension stems from the United States’ expected reaction of more comprehensive Chinese involvement in an area historically defined by heavy American influence. Despite protests for Beijing to become more of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in providing public security goods in support of the international system, China believes the deployment of military forces, regardless of their composition or purpose, would create anxiety in Washington, thereby drawing their strategic focus towards them vice their current fixation with Russia and its recent activities in Ukraine and Syria.

Chinese concerns regarding the lack of influence over their SLOCs including oil supply routes from the Middle East has motived the military, particularly the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to focus towards expeditionary operations under the new mandate of ‘Open Seas Protection’ as opposed to their traditional role of coastal defence. The PLAN will continue to remain mostly active and focused in their immediate environment but have begun operating abroad in new theatres, most recently in the Bering Sea which drew much interest (and concern) in the US media. Beijing, wanting to avoid the strategic gaze of the West, has been surgical in employing them abroad, especially the Middle East. To date, Chinese military deployments have focused on protection of commercial traffic from piracy in the Gulf of Aden; assisting in the evacuation of citizens (and other foreign nationals) from conflict zones such as Yemen; and non-​combat units participating in UN peacekeeping missions. China, therefore, despite their fury following the execution of a Chinese journalist by ISIS, will most likely not deploy military assets in any large measure to the region anytime soon, especially in a combat role.

Beijing has pursued a low-​profile role in the region’s complicated political environment to avoid comprising other aspects of their foreign policy, not least relations with other major powers, most importantly the United States. Chinese leaders have and will avoid calls from some within the region, such as Egypt (which admires and wants to emulate Beijing’s successful development model of economic modernization without political pluralism), for a greater Chinese presence and leadership role to counterbalance the West. China does not necessarily lack the capacity to assume such a role (even if it lacks experience in global leadership) but will continue to play more a supporting role and rely on the other major powers to do the heavy lifting in maintaining regional stability.

Throughout this process, Beijing will continue to position itself in a supportive and non-​threatening role, allowing Russia to assume the mantle of the geopolitical ‘destabilizing other’ displacing American leadership and influence in the region. China will continue to expand its diplomatic engagements throughout the region, specifically on a bilateral level with Iran and Saudi Arabia, but these shall not result in any comprehensive change in Beijing’s current regional strategy. Assisting (but not leading) in regional stability efforts; building strong and reliable economic partnerships; and avoiding the entanglements of great power competition over influence and leadership between Russia and the United States will remain Beijing’s main objectives in the Middle East.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments, and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He can be reached at adampmacdonald@gmail.com. (Image courtesy of Reuters.)

Declassified: US Nuclear Weapons At Sea

This piece was originally published by the Federation of American Scientists.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

ASROC nuclear test.
ASROC nuclear test.

Remember during the Cold War when US Navy warships and attack submarines sailed the World’s oceans bristling with nuclear weapons and routinely violated non-nuclear countries’ bans against nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime?

The weapons were onboard ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and supply ships. The weapons were brought along on naval exercises, spy missions, freedom of navigation demonstrations and port visits.

Sometimes the vessels they were on collided, ran aground, caught fire, or sank.

Not many remember today. But now the Pentagon has declassified how many nuclear weapons they actually deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we review this unique new set of declassified Cold War nuclear history. 

The Numbers

The declassified documents show that the United States during much of the 1970s and the 1980s deployed about a quarter of its entire nuclear weapons stockpile at sea. The all-time high was in 1975 when 6,191 weapons were afloat, but even in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were 5,716 weapons at sea. That’s more nuclear weapons than the size of the entire US nuclear stockpile today.

The declassified data provides detailed breakdowns for weapons in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean for the 30-year period between 1961 and 1991. Prior to 1961 only totals are provided. Except for three years (1962, 1965 and 1966), most weapons were always deployed in the Atlantic, a reflection of the focus on defending NATO against the Soviet Union. When adding the weapons in the Mediterranean, the Euro-centric nature of the US nuclear posture during the Cold War becomes even more striking. The number of weapons deployed in the Pacific peaked much later, in 1987, at 2,085 weapons.

Click to view full size

The declassified numbers end in 1991 with the offloading of non-strategic naval nuclear weapons from US Navy vessels. After that only strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) have continued to deploy with nuclear weapons on board. Those numbers are still secret.

In the table above we have incorporated our estimates for the number of nuclear warhead deployed on US ballistic missile submarines since 1991. Those estimates show that afloat weapons increased during the 1990s as more Ohio-class SSBNs entered the fleet.

Because the total stockpile decreased significantly in the early 1990s, the percentage of it that was deployed at sea grew until it reached an all-time high of nearly 33 percent in 2000. Retirement of four SSBNs, changes to strategic war plans, and the effect of arms control agreements have since reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed at sea to just over 1,000 in 2015. That corresponds to nearly 22 percent of the stockpile deployed at sea.

The just over 1,000 afloat warheads today may be less than during the Cold War, but it is roughly equivalent to the nuclear weapons stockpiles of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea combined.

Mediterranean Mystery

The declassification documents do not explain how the numbers are broken down. The “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” regions are not the only areas where the U.S. Navy sent nuclear-armed warships. Afloat weapons in the Indian and Arctic oceans, for example, are not listed even though nuclear-armed warships sailed in both oceans. Similarly, the declassified documents show the number of afloat weapons in the Mediterranean suddenly dropping to zero in 1987, even though the U.S. Navy continued so deploy nuclear-armed vessels into the Mediterranean Sea.

During the naval deployments in support of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in early 1991, for example, the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) deployed with its nuclear weapons division (W Division) and B61 nuclear strike bombs and B57 nuclear depth bombs. The W Division was still onboard when America deployed to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean in 1992 but had been disbanded by the time it deployed to the Mediterranean in 1993.

B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.
B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.

As ships offloaded their weapons, the on-board nuclear divisions gradually were disbanded in anticipation of the upcoming de-nuclearization of the surface fleet. One of the last carriers to deploy with a W Division was the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), which upon its return to the United States from a Mediterranean deployment in 1992-1993 ceremoniously photographed the W crew with the sign: “USS John F. Kennedy, CV 67, last W-Division, 17 Feb. 93.” The following year, the Clinton administration publicly announced that all carriers and surface ships would be denuclearized.

The last nuclear weapons division on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) is disbanded in February 1993. The following year the entire surface fleet was denuclearized.

Since nuclear weapons clearly deployed to the Mediterranean Sea after the declassified documents showing zero afloat nuclear weapons in the area, perhaps the three categories “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” refer to overall military organization: “Atlantic” might be weapons under the command of the Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT); “Pacific” might refer to the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT); and “Mediterranean” might refer to the Sixth Fleet. Yet I’m not convinced that organization is the whole story; the Atlantic numbers didn’t suddenly increase when the Mediterranean numbers dropped to zero.

The declassified afloat numbers end in 1991. After that year the only nuclear weapons deployed at sea have been strategic weapons onboard ballistic missile submarines. Most of those deploy in the Atlantic and Pacific but have occasionally deployed into the Mediterranean even after the declassified documents list zero afloat weapons in that region, and even after the surface fleet was denuclearized.

In 1999, for example, the ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) conducted a port visit to Souda Bay on Crete with it load of 24 Trident missiles and an estimated 192 warheads. The ship’s Command History states that the port visit, which took place December 12-16, 1999, occurred during the “Alert Strategic Deterrent Patrol in support of national tasking” that included a “Mediterranean Sea Patrol.”

Risks of Nuclear Accidents


Deploying nuclear weapons on ships and submarines created unique risks of accidents and incidents. Because warships sometimes collide, catch fire, or even sink, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear weapons they carried were threatened, damaged, or lost. This really happened.

During night air exercises on November 22, 1975, for example, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) collided in rough seas 112 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sicily. The carrier’s flight deck cuts into the superstructure of the Belknap setting off fires on the cruiser, which burned out of control for two-and-one-half hours. The commander of Carrier Striking Force for the U.S. Sixth Fleet on board the Kennedy issues a Broken Arrow alert to higher commands stating there was a “high probability that nuclear weapons (W45 Terrier missile warheads) on the Belknap were involved in fire and explosions.” Eventually the fire was stopped only a few meters from Belknap’s nuclear weapons magazine.

The fire-damaged USS Belknap (CG-26) after colliding with USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) new Sicily in 1975. The fire stopped a few meters from the nuclear warhead magazine.

The Kennedy also carried nuclear weapons, approximately 100 gravity bombs for delivery by aircraft. The carrier caught fire but luckily it was relatively quickly contained. Another carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), had been less fortunate six years earlier when operating 112 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A rocket on a F-4 Phantom aircraft exploded puncturing fuel tanks and starting violent fires that caused other rockets and bombs to explode. The explosions were so violent that they tore holes in the carrier’s solid steel deck and engulfed the entire back of the ship. The captain later said: “If the fire had spread to the hangar deck [below], we could have very easily lost the ship.” The Enterprise probably carried about 100 nuclear bombs and was powered by eight nuclear reactors.

The nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burns off Hawaii on January 14, 1969. The carrier could have been lost, the captain said.

Dozens of nuclear weapons were lost at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost. On December 5, 1965, for example, while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered. The Department of Defense reported the accident took place “more than 500 miles [805 kilometers] from land” when it revealed the accident in 1981. But Navy documents showed the accident occurred about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, approximately 250 miles (402 kilometers) south of Kyushu Island, Japan, and about 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Okinawa. Japan’s public policy and law prohibit nuclear weapons. (For a video if B43 aircraft carrier handling and A-4 loading, see this video.)

An A-4 Skyhawk with a B43 nuclear bomb under its belly rises on an elevator from the hangar deck to the flight deck on the USS Independence (CV-62) in an undated US Navy photo. In December 1965, a B43 attached to an A-4 rolled off the elevator on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) while the carrier was on its way to Yokosuka in Japan.

Three years later, on May 27, 1968, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffered an accident and sank with all 99 men on board in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 644 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of the Azores. The Department of Defense in 1981 mentioned a nuclear weapons accident occurred in the Atlantic in the spring of 1968 but continues to classify the details. It is thought that two nuclear ASTOR torpedoes were on board the Scorpion when it sank.

The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) photographed in the Mediterranean Sea in April 1968, one month before it sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy later located and photographed the wreck (inserts).

Risks of Nuclear Incidents

Another kind of risk was that nuclear weapons on board US warships could become involved in offensive maneuvers near Soviet warships that also carried nuclear weapons. Sometimes those nuclear-armed vessels collided – sometimes deliberately. Other times they were trapped in stressful situation. The presence of nuclear weapons could significantly increase the stakes and symbolism of the incidents and escalate a crisis.

Some of the most dramatic incidents happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 where crisis-stressed personnel on Soviet nuclear-armed submarines readied nuclear weapons for actual use as they were being hunted by US naval forces, many of which were also nuclear-armed. At the time there were approximately 750 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Less serious but nonetheless potentially dangerous incidents continued throughout the Cold War. In May 1974 the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pintado (SSN-672) collided almost head-on with a Soviet Yankee I-class ballistic missile submarine while cruising 200 feet (60 meters) below the surface in the approaches to the Petropavlovsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The collision smashed much Pintado’s bow sonar, jammed shut a starboard side torpedo hatch, and damaged the diving plane. The Pintado, which probably carried 4-6 nuclear SUBROC missiles, sailed to Guam for seven weeks of repairs. The Soviet submarine, which probably carried its complement of 16 SS-N-6 ballistic missiles with 32 nuclear warheads, surfaced immediately and presumably limped back to port.


On August 22, 1976, for example, US anti-submarine forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had been tracking a Soviet nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Echo II-class attack submarine for ten days. The Soviet sub partially surfaced alongside the US frigate USS Voge (FF-1047), then turned right and ran into the frigate. The collision tore off part the Voge’s propeller and punctured the hull. The Voge is thought to have carried nuclear ASROC anti-submarine rockets. At the time there were around 430 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The Soviet submarine suffered serious damage to its sail and some to its front hull section. (For a US account of the incident, see here; a Russian account is here.)

Even toward the very end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, nuclear-capable warships continued to get involved in serious incidents at sea. During a Freedom of Navigation exercise in the Black Sea on February 12, 1988, the cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-48) and destroyer USS Caron (DD-970) were bumped by a Soviet Krivak-class frigate and a Mirka-class frigate, respectively. Both U.S. ships were equipped to carry the nuclear-capable ASROC missile and the Caron had completed a series of nuclear certification inspections prior to its departure from the United States. Yet the W44 warhead for the ASROC was in the process of being phased out and it is possible that the vessels did not carry nuclear warheads during the incident. The declassified data shows that the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in the Mediterranean dropped to zero in 1987. The Soviet Krivak frigate, however, probably carried nuclear anti-submarine weapons at the time of the collision.

The nuclear-capable USS Caron (DD-970) and USS Yorktown (CG-48) are bumped by Soviet frigates during Freedom of Navigation operations inside Soviet territorial waters on February 12, 1988. For a video of the Caron collision, see here, and the Yorktown collision, see here.

Nuclear Diplomacy Headaches

In addition to the risks created by accidents and incidents, nuclear-armed warships were a constant diplomatic headache during the Cold War. Many U.S. allies and other countries did not allow nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime but the United States insisted that it would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere. So good-will port visits by nuclear-armed warships instead turned into diplomatic nightmares as protesters battled what they considered blatant violations of the nuclear ban.

The port visit protests were endless, happening in countries all over the world. The national governments were forced to walk a fine line between their official public anti-nuclear policies and the secret political arrangements that allowed the weapons in anyway.

Public sentiments were particularly strong in Japan because it was the target of two nuclear weapon attacks in 1945. Japanese law banned the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory and required consultation prior to introduction, but the governments secretly accepted nuclear weapons in Japanese ports.

During the 1970s and early-1980s, opposition to nuclear ship visits grew in New Zealand and in 1984 culminating in the David Lange government banning visits by nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels. The Reagan administration reacted angrily by ending defense cooperation with New Zealand under the ANZUS alliance. Only much later, during the Obama administration, have defense relations been restored.

The nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed attack submarine USS Haddo (SSN-604) is barraged by protestors during a port visit to Oakland in New Zealand in 1979.

The treatment of New Zealand was partially intended to deter other more important allies in Europe from adopting similar anti-nuclear legislation. But not surprisingly, the efforts backfired and instead increased opposition. In Denmark the growing evidence that nuclear weapons were actually being brought into Danish harbors despite its clear prohibition soon created political pressure to tighten up the ban. In 1988, this came to a head when a majority in the parliament adopted a resolution requiring the government to inform visiting warships of Denmark’s ban. The procedure did not require the captain to reveal whether his ship carried nuclear weapons, but the conservative government called an election and asked the United States to express its concern.

The crew of the nuclear-armed destroyer USS Conyngham (DDG-17) uses high-pressure hoses to wash anti-nuclear protestors off its anchor chain during a standoff in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1988.

Across the Danish Straits in Sweden, the growing evidence that non-nuclear policies were violated in 1990 resulted in the government party deciding to begin to reinforce Sweden’s nuclear ban. The policy would essentially have created a New Zealand situation in Europe, a political situation that was a direct threat to the US Navy sailing its nuclear warships anyway it wanted.

These diplomatic battles over naval nuclear weapons were so significant that many US officials gradually began to wonder if nuclear weapons at sea were creating more trouble than good.

After The Big Nuke Offload

Finally, on September 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced during a prime-time televised address that the United States would unilaterally offload all non-strategic nuclear weapons from its naval forces, bring all those weapons home, and destroy many of them. Warships would immediately stop loading nuclear weapons when sailing on overseas deployments and deployed vessels would offload their weapons as they rotated back to the United States. The offload was completed in mid-1992.

Two years later, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, decided that all surface ships would lose the capability to launch nuclear weapons. Only selected attack submarines would retain the capability to fire the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM/N), but the weapons would be stored on land. Sixteen years later, in 2010, the Obama administration decided to retire the TLAM/N as well, ending decades of nuclear weapons deployments on ships, attack submarines, and on land-based naval air bases.

After the summer of 1992, only strategic submarines armed with long-range ballistic missiles have carried U.S. nuclear weapons at sea, a practice that is planned to continue through at least through the 2080s. These strategic submarines (SSBNs) have also been involved in accidents and incidents, risks that will continue as long as nuclear weapons are deployed at sea. Because secrecy is so much tighter for SSBN operations than for general naval forces, most accidents and incidents involving SSBNs probably escape public scrutiny. But a few reports, mainly collisions and groundings, have reached the public over the years.

USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) after collision with tanker Sealady.

During a strategic deterrent patrol on August 9, 1968, the USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) was struck by a submerged tow cable while operating submerged about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the southern coast of Spain. As it surfaces, the submarine collides with the tanker Sealady, suffering damage to the superstructure and main deck (see image right). The submarine carried 16 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with 48 nuclear warheads.

Two years later, on November 29, 1970, a fire breaks out onboard the nuclear submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-34) at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland. Two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) and USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)) were moored alongside Canapus. The Francis Scott Key cast off, but the Polk remained alongside. The fire burns out of control for four hours killing three men. The submarine tender carried nuclear missiles and warheads and the two submarines combined carried 32 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with a total of 96 nuclear warheads.

Four years later, in November 1974, after having departed from its base at Holy Loch in Scotland, the ballistic missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) collides with a Soviet submarine in the North Sea. The collision left a nine-foot scrape in the Madison, which apparently dove onto the Soviet submarine, thought to have been a Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. The Madison carried 16 Poseidon (C3) ballistic missiles with 160 nuclear warheads. The Soviet submarines probably carried nuclear rockets and torpedoes. Madison crew members called the incident The Victor Crash. Two days after the collision, the Madison enters dry dock at Holy Loch for a week of inspection and repairs.

The missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) in dry dock in Scotland in 1974 only days after it collided with a Soviet Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in the North Sea.

After nuclear weapons were offloaded from surface ships and attack submarines in 1991-1992, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines have continued to run aground or bump into other vessels from time to time.

On September 24, 1993, for example, after conducting a medical evacuation for a suck crew member, the ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN-738) ran aground at Port Canaveral, Florida. The submarine was on a strategic deterrent patrol with 24 missiles onboard carrying an estimated 192 warheads. The Maryland eventually pulled free and continued the patrol two days later.

On March 19, 1998, while operating on the surface 125 miles (200 kilometers) off Long Island, New York, the ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) was struck by the attack submarine USS San Juan (SSN-751). The Kentucky suffered damaged to its rudder and San Juan’s forward ballast tank was ruptured. In a typical display of silly secrecy, the Navy refused to say whether the Kentucky carried nuclear weapons. But it did; the Kentucky was in the middle of its 21st strategic deterrent patrol and carried its complement of 24 Trident II missiles with an estimated 192 nuclear warheads.

In 1998, the USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) carrying nearly 200 nuclear warheads collided with an attack submarine less than 230 miles (378 kilometers) from New York City.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Obama administration has made an important contribution to nuclear policy by declassifying the documents with official numbers of US nuclear weapons deployed at sea during the Cold War. This adds an important chapter to the growing pool of declassified information about the history of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The new declassified information helps us better understand the extent to which nuclear weapons were involved in day-to-day operations around the world. Every day, nuclear-armed warships of the US and Soviet navies were rubbing up against each other on the high seas in gong-ho displays of national determination. Some saw it as necessary for nuclear deterrence; others as dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Many of those who were on the ships submarines still get goosebumps when they talk about it and wonder how we survived the Cold War. The tactical naval nuclear weapons were considered more acceptable to use early in a conflict because there would be few civilian casualties. But any use would probably quickly have escalated into large-scale nuclear war and the end of the world as we know it.

The declassified information, when correlated with the many accidents and incidents that nuclear-armed ships and submarines were involved in over the years, also helps us remember a key lesson about nuclear weapons: when they are operationally deployed they will sooner or later be involved in accidents and incidents.

This is not just a Cold War lesson: thousands of nuclear weapons are still operationally deployed on ballistic missile submarines, on land-based ballistic missiles, and on bomber bases. And not just in the United States but also in Britain, France, and Russia. Some of those deployed weapons will have accidents in the future. (See here for the most recent)

Moreover, growing tensions with Russia and China now make some ask if the United States needs to increase the role of its nuclear weapons and once again equip aircraft carriers with the capability to deliver nuclear bombs and once again develop and deploy nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines.

Doing so would be to roll back the clock and ignore the lessons of the Cold War and likely make the current tensions worse than they already are.

Instead, the United States should seek to work with Russia – even though it is challenging right now – to reduce deployed nuclear weapons and jointly try to persuade smaller nuclear-armed countries such as China, India, and Pakistan from increasing the operational readiness of their nuclear forces. That ought to be one thing Russia and the United States could actually agree on.

Background information:

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.