China's Submarine Challenge

Report Asia

China's Submarine Challenge

March 1, 2006 6 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

Sea-power trends in the Pacific Ocean are ominous. By 2025, China's navy could rule the waves of the Pacific. By some estimates, Chinese attack submarines will outnumber U.S. submarines in the Pacific by five to one and Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines will prowl America's Western littoral, each closely tailed by two U.S. attack submarines that have better things to do. The United States, meanwhile, will likely struggle to build enough submarines to meet this challenge.

A misplaced diplomacy leaves some U.S. Navy commanders reluctant to admit publicly that China's rapidly expanding submarine force in the Pacific is a threat, but if the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the latest Pentagon "Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China" (MPPRC Report) are any indication, they are undoubtedly thinking it. In a speech sponsored by the Asia Society in Washington earlier this month, for example, Admiral Gary Roughead, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, commented,

I'm always asked about the Chinese threat and I say, 'It's not a threat,' because you have to have two things to have a threat, and that's capability and intent. There is no question that the PLA navy is modernizing and building its capability and is moving very quickly, but what is the intent?

The Pentagon has already begun to answer this question, but it has yet to do so in a way that shows it takes this threat seriously.

China's Intent

The QDR addresses the question of China's intent:

Chinese military modernization has accelerated since the mid-to-late 1990s in response to central leadership demands to develop military options against Taiwan scenarios. The pace and scope of China's military build-up already puts regional military balances at risk. China is likely to continue making large investments in high-end, asymmetric military capabilities, emphasizing electronic and cyber-warfare; counter-space operations; ballistic and cruise missiles; advanced integrated air Defense systems; next generation torpedoes; advanced submarines; strategic nuclear strike from modern, sophisticated land and sea-based systems; and theater unmanned aerial vehicles…

According to the MPPRC Report's executive summary, China's specific intent is to "build counters to third-party, including potential U.S., intervention in [Taiwan] Strait crises." The report continues, "Deterring, defeating, or delaying foreign intervention ahead of Taiwan's capitulation is integral to Beijing's strategy." To this end, China is expanding its "force of ballistic missiles (long-range and short-range), cruise missiles, submarines, advanced aircraft, and other modern systems."

China's Sea-Power Goals

If they are curious about China's intent, Pentagon planners might look to comments by General Wen Zongren, Political Commissar of the Chinese People's Liberation Army's elite Academy of Military Science. The MPPRC Report quotes General Wen as asserting that China must "break" the "blockade [by] international forces against China's maritime security… Only when we break this blockade shall we be able to talk about China's rise… [T]o rise suddenly, China must pass through oceans> and go out of the oceans> in its future development." In fact, it is the explicit goal of the Chinese Communist Party to "increase the comprehensive strength of the nation."

The Chinese navy-and its submarine fleet, in particular-is a key tool in achieving that goal. The September 2004 promotion of Admiral Zhang Dingfa, a career submariner, to Chief of Staff of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and a full seat on the Central Military Commission was a clear signal of the primacy of submarine warfare in China's strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.

Growing Submarine Force

Admiral Zhang led PLAN's submarine modernization program and oversaw the acquisition of four modern Russian-built KILO subs, including the stealthy Type-636. Orders for eight more are on the books, with the first new boats to be delivered this month. That three Russian shipyards are at work to fill China's orders for new submarines betrays this build-up's urgency.

Admiral Zhang isn't relying solely on the Russians. He has also increased production-to 2.5 boats per year-of China's new, formidable Song-class diesel-electric submarine. China is also testing a new diesel-electric that the Defense intelligence community has designated the "Yuan." The Yuan is heavily inspired by Russian designs, including anechoic tile coatings and a super-quiet seven-blade screw. The addition of "air-independent propulsion," which permits a submarine to operate underwater for up to 30 days on battery power, will make the Song and Yuan submarines virtually inaudible to existing U.S. surveillance networks-and even to U.S. subs.

These new submarines will be more lethal when armed with Russian SKVAL ("Squall") torpedoes, which can reach 200 knots. There are reports that the SKVAL is already operational on some Chinese subs. As well, Russia has also transferred the Novator 3M-54E three-stage anti-ship cruise missile to China's submarine fleet for use against aircraft carriers. Each Chinese KILO is armed with four of these missiles.

America's Endangered Submarine Supremacy

In February 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented that the size of the Chinese fleet could surpass the United States Navy's within a decade. "It is an issue that the department thinks about and is concerned about and is attentive to." Indeed, the U.S. Navy will hold a series of major naval exercises in the Pacific this summer that will involve four aircraft carrier battle groups, including a carrier normally based on the U.S. East Coast. This will be the first time the Navy has deployed an Atlantic Fleet carrier to a Pacific exercise since the Vietnam War.

However, there is little indication that the Pentagon is taking the Chinese submarine challenge seriously. If it were, the QDR issued earlier this month would have recommended that the erosion of the U.S. submarine fleet come to an end.

But the QDR envisions a "return to a steady-state production rate of two attack submarines per year not later than 2012 while achieving an average per-hull procurement cost objective of $2.0 billion." This means that the U.S. sub fleet will continue to decline for another six years, during which time America's industrial base for constructing subs will further diminish and the per-unit cost of submarines will jump past $2 billion, impelling further cuts in the fleet.

Of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's 35 submarines (including three nuclear attack submarines based in Guam during 2006), about a dozen are underway at sea on operational duties at any one time. Under the QDR's most optimistic estimates, Pacific Command's sub fleet will diminish to about 30 by 2025.

Electric Boat (EB), the nation's preeminent submarine contractor, has announced plans to lay off 900 of its 1,700 designers and marine draftsmen engineers over the next three years. This is a crisis. It will mark the first time in 50 years that the U.S. has not had a new submarine design on the drawing board. EB laid off nearly 200 submarine engineers and machinists in early February-and EB is the only shipbuilder in the nation that maintains submarine designers. As the build-rate for subs collapsed, EB used maintenance and repair work to pay designers' salaries and maintain its staff of highly-skilled steelworkers. But without new orders, EB will lay off almost half of its workforce of over 5,000 over the next three years

U.S. Navy combatant commanders already require 150 percent of the attack submarine days currently available, and these requirements will only increase as the submarine force dwindles. If the United States allows production to dwindle further, expertise will be lost and costs will skyrocket for any new classes of submarines contemplated for the post-2012 period.

Meanwhile, China's fleet of modern attack submarines is growing: China already has ten Song/Yuan/Kilo submarines in the Pacific today, over 50 older Ming-class and Romeo boats, five Han class nuclear attack submarines, and one Xia-class ballistic missile submarine. In addition, China has 25 new boats under contract now; 16 are under construction today, including a new class of nuclear attack submarine designated the Type-093 and a new nuclear ballistic missile sub, the Type-094.

The U.S. has three submarines under construction today. Although the Navy's new 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for 48 nuclear attack submarines in the fleet by 2035, the Navy's top submarine commander, Vice Admiral Charles L. Munns, has testified before Congress that the Navy needs at least 54 boats to fulfill current critical missions. This number will rise as China's navy expands.

If the Navy does not start launching new subs at the rate of two per year until several years after 2012, the force would dip to a low of 40 in 2028, or 17 percent below the Navy's stated needs. And that rate will not even permit the Navy to reach its sub-minimal target of 48 attack submarines until 2034. All of this assumes that the Navy does not decommission ships faster than expected due to expanded operations in coming years.

Recommendations for the Administration and Congress

The United States must return to building at least two, and preferably two-and-a-half, new attack submarines per year beginning in FY 2009. The U.S. must begin procurement for long lead-time components, such as nuclear reactors, in FY 2007 and 2008. These steps are necessary just to hold U.S. subsurface strength steady.

The Administration should also work with key strategic partners in Asia to bolster their fleets. Japan and India are potential submarine warfare partners. Japan must also be encouraged to upgrade its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and surveillance systems.

Congress should hold hearings into reports on the editorial pages of DefenseNews (February 13, 2006) and Jane's Defence Weekly (February 15, 2006) that the U.S. Navy has sabotaged Taiwan's efforts to procure modern diesel-electric boats from U.S. shipyards by hyper-inflating prices in order to keep U.S. yards from building anything but nuclear boats. A robust Taiwanese fleet would be a welcome relief as the U.S. Navy attempts to counter increasing Chinese sub-surface fleet pressures in Asian littoral waters. The United States and Japan also need an enhanced partnership with Taiwan in airborne and subsurface ASW reconnaissance and surveillance in waters under Taiwanese administration.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow