Asia Defense

China’s Nuclear Submarine Distraction

Recent Features

Asia Defense

China’s Nuclear Submarine Distraction

Appearing to be powerful can sometimes distract from building the capability that generates power.

China’s Nuclear Submarine Distraction
Credit: Ash Carter

The People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is presently undertaking a substantial modernization effort. This process has been the center of significant analysis for the better part of twenty years. Although it is quite clear that the development of a modern navy is a core component of Chinese government policy, this initiative is presently stuck between competing efforts. On the one hand, the People’s Republic is attempting to develop a naval capability that is modern and maximizes China’s present advantages. On the other, sits a desire to have a navy of a great power.

In many ways these efforts channel into the same programs. For example, China’s successful efforts to produce long production runs of surface combatants is widely recognized. But not every decision that the PLAN faces is absent a tradeoff between the development of capability and accumulation of prestige.

This is not the first time that a Chinese government has faced this sort of decision. During the self-strengthening movement of the late nineteenth century, the Qing Dynasty developed one of the largest fleets in the world. It was the fleet of a great power, consisting of large battleships and cruisers. The Qing government developed this fleet with the expectation that the prestige it conferred was representative of capability. The United States itself used its fleet of battleships to announce its presence on the world stage in the early twentieth century. However, the Beiyang Fleet, when tested, was soundly defeated by a better managed but less powerful Japanese fleet. Essentially, Qing Dynasty China had produced a very sharp tip of the spear while neglecting to actually develop the shaft.

This struggle between prestige and capability is not a uniquely Chinese problem. When Gustavus Adolphus had the warship Vasa built it was designed to be a symbol of Swedish power. The ship capsized less than a mile into its maiden voyage – it was too top heavy. One only really needs to look at the popular discussions that surround aircraft carriers today and the battleships of the past to see that appearing as powerful can sometimes distract from building the capability that generates power.

The tradeoffs between these variables can be seen in the PLAN’s efforts to develop undersea capability. This process began in 1993 when Beijing purchased four Russian Kilo Class submarines. These submarines gave the PLAN access to a level of technological capability that it could apply to future native designs. However, China made the decision to transition from depending on Russia for its ships to the development of locally produced designs.

To build an effective modern undersea capability, China will have to produce a large-scale production run of a native design or continue to purchase from Russia. The first option requires the PLAN to reverse a long history of building not particularly capable nuclear submarines. In 1971, China produced the Type 91 Submarine, a platform notorious for its noise and poor radiation shielding. In 1981, the PRC produced the Type 92. There is an open question as to how many were made, with rumors that a second was lost to an accident. In either case, the platform never entered into large-scale production.

Since that time China has struggled to produce a capable nuclear-powered attack submarine. The PLAN suffers from a very limited capability to engage in effective antisubmarine warfare. This compounds the need for Beijing to develop a strong platform in that space. The PLAN presently fields significantly more diesel submarines but converting this capability into a modern force of nuclear-powered attack submarines still appears to be a distant dream. Efforts to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines have not resulted in a platform that Beijing has been prepared to produce in the sort of numbers one would expect of a successful design. For example, the Type 93 nuclear powered attack submarine will probably be limited to a run of five and is considered to be louder than 1970s-era Soviet nuclear submarines. The replacement for the Type 93, the Type 95 is estimated to be louder than a Russian Akula built 25 years ago. This makes the Type 95 an unlikely candidate for mass production as well.

Concurrent with these frustrating realities is the PLAN’s efforts to produce a domestic nuclear ballistic missile carrying submarine force. Hans M. Kristensen finds it puzzling that Beijing would seek to field such a force, even though it is presently attempting to do so. Kristensen points to the fact that Chinese submarines would be vulnerable to the United States Navy and that Beijing has already invested significant resources hiding its nuclear deterrent on land. In spite of this, China is investing significantly in producing ballistic missile submarines. Kristensen is right that this decision is not rational, that China has no history of running long-range nuclear deterrent patrols, and that the submarines are not all that capable.

Yet the same is true of the PLAN’s aircraft carriers. The explanation is also the same: prestige. The Soviet Union and the United States operated ballistic missile submarines and their deployment is the mark of a great power. A strict effort to focus on capability would produce different priorities but the PLAN exists not just to be a navy but to be the navy of a great power. This desire might have a negative impact on PLAN and its modernization program, but naval procurement policy is not always rational.

What this means is that while China is attempting to develop the navy of a great power, other states are gaining on it. Vietnam has purchased Kilo Class submarines from Russia. Japan is also midway through the production of its Soryu-class of attack submarine. Most importantly, the United States has been stepping up production of its Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. The PLAN has produced substantial numbers of less capable diesel submarines, but it remains a long way short of closing the undersea gap with the United States.

Analysts predict regularly that China is seeking to develop its undersea capability and that it has the potential to produce a modern navy. Both of these statements might be true, but it could equally be argued that China’s ambition to develop the navy of a great power is getting in the way of its efforts to build a modern navy.

Robert Potter is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. Previously he was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and took part in a research  program in North Korea and China in 2013. This piece previously was previously published at Indrastra.