China now has a larger submarine fleet than that United States, a U.S. admiral said on Wednesday. Speaking to the House Armed Service Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee (which oversees the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps), Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy said that China is building some “fairly amazing submarines,” both diesel- and nuclear-powered. Mulloy is the deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources.
According to Reuters, Mulloy told the subcommittee that China is “out experimenting and looking at operating and clearly want[s] to be in this world of advanced submarines.” He also noted that China is increasing the geographical area of deployment for its subs, as well as the length of time per deployment.
Last year, two Chinese submarines paid separate visits to Sri Lanka, the nuclear-powered, Han-class Changzheng-2 in November and the diesel-powered, 039 Song class submarine in September. At the time, foreign experts (particularly in India) expressed concern about the emergence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean.
In the 2014 edition of the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments, the Department of Defense said that China had “more than 60 submarines.” A spokesman for the U.S. Navy told Reuters that the U.S. has 71 commissioned submarines; the Pentagon must estimate that China’s number has now climbed into the low 70s at least. Still, Mulloy made sure to point out that, while China has surpassed the U.S. in quantity, it remains behind in quality.
Mulloy also said that the U.S. military analysts don’t believe that China currently equips its submarines with nuclear missiles, although it has been testing such missiles. The 2014 DoD report, however, noted that China’s Jin-class submarines (of which three are currently operational) will eventually carry China’s “new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile,” giving “the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”
Submarines and anti-submarine warfare are generally seen as a weakness for the Chinese military. The PLA Navy is well aware of this and is focusing efforts on improving China’s capabilities in this regard. The DoD report also noted that “[t]he PLA Navy places a high priority on the modernization of its submarine force.”
Nuclear-power submarines are a particular area of emphasis as China looks to improve its ability to conduct military operations outside its own near seas. China is continuing to produce Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and is expected to introduce new models over the next decade (the Type 096 SSBN and Type 095 guided-missile attack submarine or SSGN). For now, however, the DoD reports that diesel-powered subs are still “mainstay of the Chinese submarine force.”