China's growing submarine force is 'armed to the teeth' - and the rest of the Pacific is racing to keep up
CHRISTOPHER WOODYMAR 21, 2018, 02.28 AM
REUTERS/China DailyChinese sailors on a submarine during the fleet's review of a joint China-Russia naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, April 26, 2012.
Countries in East Asia, led by China, have been pursuing a military buildup for years.Submarines, flexible platforms with strategic uses, have been a particular focus.Uncertainty about the balance of power in the region has stoked countries' pursuit of military hardware.
In October 2006, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric submarine capable of carrying torpedoes and antiship missiles surfaced within firing range of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
"Some navy officers interpreted it as a 'Gotcha!' move," journalist Michael Fabey wrote in his 2018 book, "Crashback." It was "a warning from China that US carrier groups could no longer expect to operate with impunity."
Almost exactly nine years later, China again demonstrated its growing naval prowess, when a Kilo-class diesel-electric attack sub shadowed the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan near southern Japan.
The US still "owns the undersea realm in the western Pacific right now and is determined" to maintain it, Fabey told Business Insider in a February interview. But "China has grown - in terms of maritime power, maritime projection - more quickly than any country in the region," he added. "The growth has been incredible."
That expansion has prompted similar moves by its neighbors, who are asking whether China will abide by or remake the rules of the road.
'Armed to the teeth'
US Navy photoThe Virginia-class attack sub USS North Dakota.
Since 2002, China has built 10 nuclear subs: six Shang I- and II-class nuclear-powered attack subs - capable of firing antiship and land-attack missiles - and four Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs, according to a 2017 US Defense Department assessment.
"China's four operational JIN-class SSBNs represent China's first credible, seabased nuclear deterrent," the assessment notes. Documents accidentally posted online by a Chinese shipbuilder also revealed plans for a new, quieter nuclear-powered attack submarine as well as a separate "quiet" submarine project.
The brunt of China's undersea force, however, is its diesel-electric subs. It has access to 54 diesel-electric subs, but it's not clear if all of them are in service, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which said China's current operational diesel-electric fleet was likely 48 subs.
The Defense Department believes China could have about 70 subs by 2020. While it looks unlikely to build more nuclear subs by then, adding 20 Yuan-class diesel-electric subs "seems to be entirely reasonable," IISS says.
That expansion would require more investment in training and maintenance, but diesel-electric subs are potent, Fabey said.
ReutersA Chinese sub at Ngong Shuen Chau Naval Base in Hong Kong.
"The submarine force [China is] putting out there is substantial, and partly because they have a lot of diesel-electrics and nuclear forces," he told Business Insider. "Those diesel-electrics especially are ... armed to the teeth. They're armed with antiship missiles that really can give anyone, including the US forces, serious pause."
China's subs are also stretching their legs.
In May 2016, a Chinese nuclear-powered attack sub docked in Karachi, Pakistan - the first port call in South Asia by a Chinese nuclear attack sub, according to the Defense Department. (Chinese subs previously made port calls in Sri Lanka, much to India's chagrin.)
In January 2017, a Chinese attack sub returning from anti-piracy patrols in the western Indian Ocean stopped in a Malaysian port on the South China Sea, over which Beijing has made expansive and contested claims. A Malaysian official said it was the first time a Chinese sub had visited the country.
In January 2018, a Chinese Shang-class nuclear-powered attack sub was detected in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea - the first confirmed identification of a Chinese sub that area. That wasn't the first unannounced maneuver by Chinese subs in the East China Sea, but those islands are disputed, and Japan protested the sub's presence in that zone.
"You're seeing Chinese submarines farther and farther and farther away" from China, Fabey said. "Chinese subs now make routine patrols into the Indian Ocean ... This is a very big deal, just in terms of what you have to think is out there."
'Driving the Chinese absolutely crazy'
Japanese Ministry of DefenseA Chinese Shang-class nuclear attack submarine in the contiguous zone of the Senkaku Islands
US Navy Adm. Harry Harris, head of Pacific Command, has said his command has half the subs it needs to meet its peacetime requirements. Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, has also saidmaintenance backlogs could hinder efforts to deploy additional subs in the event of a conflict.
A sub shortfall was expected in the mid-2020s, as production of new Virginia-class attack subs was reduced after production of new Colombia-class ballistic-missile subs started in 2021. But the Navy has said US industry can continue to build two Virginia-class subs a year, even after starting to build one Columbia-class sub a year in 2021.
The 2018 budget included also money for increased production of Virginia-class subs - which are "the creme de la creme," Fabey said.
China's neighbors are also racing to add subs, looking not only for a military edge, but also to keep an eye on their turf.
Diesel-electrics are relatively cheap, and countries like Russia and Chinaare willing to sell them, Fabey said. "So you have this big proliferation of diesel-electric subs, because with just the purchase of a few diesel-electric subs, a nation can develop a strategic force