As China becomes more powerful, its military can be expected to expand its reach. This will be most visible in the Chinese navy, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) becoming more capable and belligerent.
Most recently, China tried to dispatch what it claimed to be a research vessel, the Shi Yan 6, to Sri Lanka for a marine research program. China reportedly requested permission for its ship to dock in Sri Lanka in the third week of August. Due to Indian concerns, Colombo did not take an immediate decision. Sri Lanka apparently had some of its own concerns regarding “the ship’s potential espionage capabilities.” This led to the ship being given “a limited timeframe for research activities, with local scientists and researchers onboard, along with monitoring by the Sri Lanka navy.”
India’s security concerns regarding China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, especially in Sri Lanka, are not new. There have been repeated incidents when China docked spy ships under the guise of “research activities” in Sri Lanka. Things are not different this time. In fact, the Shi Yan 6 has been involved in “extensive surveys” of the Indian Ocean and the data will be of enormous importance for China’s submarine operations.
Indian Navy Commodore Anil Jai Singh, commenting on the issue, said that while the PLAN has stayed out of the Indian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) since 2019, the Chinese “continue to operate in the eastern Indian Ocean, conducting seemingly benign activities such as seabed mapping and resource assessment. However, their actual focus lies in collecting hydrographic data, including temperature, pressure, and salinity profiles, which is crucial for submarine operations.”
Beyond the Shi Yan 6, China’s nuclear submarines are also progressing. According to a new report from the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, China is now developing the Type 095 nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGN) and Type 096 ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). The authors reportedly used a mix of sources such as Chinese military publications and speeches by senior military officers to develop their analysis of Chinese submarine progress. Satellite imagery-based analyses have also been used in tracking the changes and progress made in submarine building. For instance, the report talked about the rolling out of Type 093B submarine from a new construction facility at the Huludao shipyard in January 2023.
According to the new research, the United States and its allies will find it “more difficult” to notice the movements of Type 096 SSBNs. These submarines are likely to be very quiet. The report said the new submarines will have “significant improvements over its predecessor, with the potential to compare favorably to Russia’s Dolgorukiy class SSBN in the areas of propulsion, sensors, and weapons, but more like the Improved Akula I in terms of quieting. If this analysis is correct, the introduction of the Type 095 and Type 096 would have profound implications for U.S. undersea security.”
The implications of this for India and other Indo-Pacific partners could be significant as well. Commenting to the media, Christopher Carlson, one of the authors of the report, said, “The Type 096s are going to be a nightmare. They are going to be very, very hard to detect.”
These submarines are in the early stages of development and are expected to enter service in 2030. News about Type 096s appeared earlier in a Reuters report in April 2023. It is thought that because these submarines are sufficiently quieter, they are undertaking strategic deterrent patrols on a more regular basis.
In a statement before the House Armed Services Committee on Strategic Forces on March 8 this year, Anthony J. Cotton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said that China’s current Jin-class submarines are armed with the more advanced and long-range JL-3 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), putting the continental United States within its reach. The JL-3 SLBMs are thought to have a range of nearly 10,000 kilometers. It can be assumed that the new Type 096s may carry even longer range missiles.
There is also attention on another new submarine, the Type 093B nuclear attack submarine. According to the latest China Military Power Report, China has “launched two SHANG III (TYPE 093B)-class guided-missile nuclear attack submarines (SSGN) between May 2022 and January 2023 and could have three hulls of this class operational hulls by 2025.” The upgrade on this submarine will “enhance the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles (LACM).”
Until now, much of the focus of the PLAN nuclear force was on their Type 094 Jin-class submarines. China operates six Type 094 SSBNs and these submarines can carry 12 JL-2 SLBMs. These SLBMs have a range of 7,000 km. An important drawback with the Type 094s was that they are noisy, but now with the fast progress that China is making with its submarines, that will not be a problem anymore.
China’s upward mobility with submarines is a cause for concern for all the major Indo-Pacific powers. Military analysts note that keeping track of Chinese submarines is “increasingly an international effort,” with the Japanese and Indian militaries working with other Indo-Pacific powers including the United States and Australia. The trilateral Malabar series of naval exercises, which has included Australia continuously for the last three years, have augmented anti-submarine warfare aspects in their maneuvers. These countries have also been deploying submarine hunting aircraft in the broader Indo-Pacific. Minilateral partnerships involving other maritime powers such as France are likely to be strengthened in the coming years, with a particular focus on tracking China’s SSBNs and the PLAN’s augmented naval arsenal.