updated 12/3/2004 9:45:16 PM ET 2004-12-04T02:45:16

China has launched the first submarine in a new class of nuclear subs designed to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

The submarine is, at a minimum, months away from having missiles installed and going on a cruise, one official said, discussing foreign weapons developments only on the condition of anonymity. Still, it is further evidence of China’s intentions to expand both its nuclear weapons and submarine forces, officials say.

It was widely known that China was building the new class of nuclear-missile submarine, called the “Type 094,” but the launch is far ahead of what U.S. intelligence expected, one official said.

The launch was first reported in The Washington Times. The newspaper reported that U.S. intelligence spotted the sub at a shipyard 250 miles from Beijing.

It would be China’s first submarine capable of launching nuclear weapons that could reach the United States from the country’s home waters, officials said.

Unclear whether missiles are ready for deployment
The Chinese military has also been developing a new class of submarine-launched ballistic missile, called the JL-2, that is expected to have a range in excess of 4,600 miles. The Type 094 submarine would carry these missiles, but it is not clear whether the missiles are ready for deployment.

Previously, China has had only one submarine capable of launching nuclear missiles, called the Type 092, or Xia, class. In 2001, a Pentagon report said the Xia was not operational. Its missiles were of an older class that could fly only 600 miles.

Successful cruises by the Type 094 would give China a new strategic deterrent against the United States, no longer limited to land-based ICBMs and weapons carried on aircraft. But U.S. defense officials say China lags behind the United States in its ability to hide submarines from sophisticated sonars and other sensors.

Land-based missile capabilities
China is also modernizing its land-based nuclear missile force, replacing its estimated 20 ICBMs with more modern versions. In a report on China’s military issued last May, the Pentagon said China’s cache of ICBMs could increase to 30 by next year and 60 by 2010.

Although considered unlikely in the near term, the most likely avenue for conflict between the United States and China is over Taiwan, which China regards as a rogue province. Taiwan is seeking high-tech weaponry from the United States, including diesel submarines and anti-submarine aircraft.

The United States, France, Russia and the United Kingdom all have submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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