Beijing’s submarine fleet is not as big or powerful as US military planners once feared. Have its blue-water ambitions been overstated?
It was the US Navy’s biggest jolt in years. On October 26, 2006, a Chinese Song-class attack submarine quietly surfaced within nine miles of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk as the 80,000-ton-diplacement vessel sailed on a training exercise in the East China Sea between Japan and Taiwan.
The Song-class vessel, displacing 2,200 tons, was close enough to hit the Kitty Hawk with one of its 18 homing torpedoes. None of the carrier’s roughly dozen escorting warships detected the Song until it breached the surface.
The Song’s provocative appearance was, for the Americans, ‘as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik,’ one NATO official told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, referring to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first-ever space satellite in 1957. ‘This could well have escalated into something that was very unforeseen,’ said Adm. Bill Fallon, then commander of US Pacific forces.
The incident underscored the then explosive growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s undersea force, as well as Beijing’s apparent intention to wrestle the Western Pacific away from the once-dominant US Navy. ‘The Chinese are building a credible submarine force which will make it very difficult for the US Navy to maintain sea control dominance in or near coastal waters off of China,’ warned Rear Adm. Hank McKinney, former commander of the US Pacific Fleet’s submarine force.
Of particular concern to American defence officials was the projected introduction, over the coming decade, of up to 20 new nuclear-powered attack submarines, known as ‘SSNs,’ that are an order of magnitude more capable than the Song class. ‘The acquisition of increasing numbers of SSNs would give it (the PLAN) the ability to contest US naval forces farther from China’s shores,’ Thomas Mahnken wrote in China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force, edited by Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson and published in 2007.
Yet nearly five years later, McKinney’s and Mahnken’s alarm has been proved false. The PLAN still possesses a tiny number of nuclear-powered submarines. The Songs and other short-range diesel boats remain the backbone of China’s undersea force. Beijing’s production of new submarines has declined andthe PLAN’s overall undersea fleet is likely to contract in coming years. ‘I don't think they know whether they want to make the full-up commitment it would take to do this (submarine) thing right,’ Owen Cote, Jr., an analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says of the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the US Navy and its Pacific allies have crafted plans to stabilize or even grow their own submarine fleets. In 2006, Western observers feared the undersea balance of power in the Pacific would tilt. In a sense, they were right. It has tilted – back towards the United States and its allies.
How that happened speaks volumes about China’s evolution as a regional power.
Crunching the Numbers
In early 2011, the PLAN possessed ‘more than 60 submarines,’ according to the Pentagon’s Congressionally-mandated annual report on Chinese military capabilities.
That force included five nuclear-powered attack submarines: three of the 1980s-vintage Type 091 Han-class SSNs that are rapidly reaching the ends of their service lives, plus two Type 093 Shang-class boats. The next-generation Type 095 SSN is due to enter service around 2015, according to Pentagon estimates.