China’s U.S. Sub Hunter?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

China’s U.S. Sub Hunter?

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The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has a new maritime patrol plane apparently optimized for finding and destroying submarines. But whose submarines? And how effective will it be?

The first pictures of the Y-8F-600 patroller, a derivative of the Soviet-designed An-12 cargo plane, appeared online last week. Sources indicate the PLA has taken possession of two of the patrol planes, apparently for testing. The PLA traditionally builds large numbers of new warplanes only after extensive trials and design changes.

The patroller appears to be equipped with a surface search radar, an infrared sensor, a magnetic boom for detecting submerged submarines and a bomb bay for torpedoes and other weapons.

“The appearance of the new Y-8 platform indicates that China is expanding its ASW ambitions,” Aviation Week journalist Bill Sweetman notes. “Building an aircraft is only a small part of the ASW battle. It also requires sensor and processing technology…and human expertise.”

Developing and sustaining an effective open-ocean anti-submarine capability, of the sort that can deter or defeat large, powerful nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) in deep water, is a daunting challenge. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force evolved complex Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) systems involving P-3 patrol planes, underwater sensors, surface vessels and their own submarines. The goal was to find and if need be sink Soviet subs before they could threaten U.S. and Japanese shipping.

In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Japan have shifted their sub-hunting focus towards China and its large force of diesel-powered submarines. Both countries have produced new patrol planes: the U.S. P-8 Poseidon and the Japanese P-1.

“Since this [the Y-8] is only a second generation ASW aircraft, it’s probably a generation behind P-8 Poseidon in terms of the platform and sensors,” notes “Feng,” a blogger from the highly-regarded website Information Dissemination.

For that reason, it’s likely the Y-8 patroller is meant to track the less-sophisticated submarines belonging to countries such as Vietnam and Taiwan – and only when they're close to shore where other Chinese forces can help.

“China has very limited ASW capabilities and appears not to be making major investments to improve them,” explains Owen Cote, Jr., an analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The ASW capabilities it does have appear focused on coastal defense, and on the threat posed by the diesel submarines of potential regional adversaries as opposed to American SSNs.” 

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