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Panel: China Expanding Submarine Capabilities

People's Liberation Army Navy Type-92 submarine. PLAN Photo

People’s Liberation Army Navy Type-92 submarine. PLAN Photo

China is constantly improving underwater operations and investments in platforms, sensors, and even oceanographic research, said Thomas Mahnken of Johns Hopkins School of Advance and International Studies during a Monday panel at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Mahnken says that interest in underwater operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans should be viewed “as part of an ongoing competition” that involves not only the United States and China but other nations in the region that are looking at power projection and sea denial.

Nations have a growing dependence on underwater infrastructure—cables for communications of all sorts, and for mineral and fuel extraction, prompting interested in the military undersea.

Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation added that in its recently revised military strategic guidance China recognizes its “maritime regions are blue soil” and China is as unlikely “to give up as Tibet or Hong Kong.”

China is not standing still in its broad-based military modernization—developing stealth technologies; new armor; ballistic missiles; submarines; fast-attack craft; surface combatants; and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), he said.

“China’s submarines [numbering 50 to 60 vessels and now operating for the first time in the Indian Ocean] will not fight alone,” Chen said.

Those investments are part of China’s “new historic mission” to defend areas it considers important to its economic center of gravity and the shifting of its manufacturing centers from the nation’s mountainous interior to its coast, Cheng said. He noted that the Chinese word for deterrence can also mean coercion.

China’s coast also is more vulnerable to attack by air, he said, explaining the investments in anti-access area denial (A2/AD) technologies.

Taiwan, an island just 100 miles off the coast of China, “occupies an unenviable position” in regards to military action by the mainland—from air and missile attack to maritime blockade, said Evan Montgomery of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“Submarines were once considered the weapon of the week” for defense and deterrence, he said, but noted that Taiwan only has four—two of them leftover American submarines from the 1940s, now primarily used for training. The other two are diesel-powered subs (SSKs) built by the Netherlands in the 1980s.

Although the United States more than a decade ago agreed to build eight diesel-powered submarines for Taiwan, no American shipyard builds those kinds of vessels any longer, and Europeans have been reluctant to build them for Taipei at the risk of upsetting relations with China.

Montgomery said that while the Taiwanese say they are considering building them on their own, that raises questions of cost. To build four now would cost about $5 billion, at a time when Taiwan’s personnel costs are rising in a switch to an all-volunteer force. He also questioned whether Taiwan would be effective in a struggle with China and whether the Taiwanese could grow its submarine crews fast enough and give them the competency to operate skillfully in combat.

The vessels would “carry relatively small payloads and would not likely be able to reload because of damage to its ports” in any attack on the island.

Montgomery said to better defend Taiwan wise investments might be made in midget submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles.

“How in the world do you [Taiwanese] think you’re going to sustain a submarine industry? The Indian experience should be an example,” Cheng said.

By trying to build attack submarines and ballistic-missile submarines in its own yards in Mumbai and other ports with foreign designs and assistance, the Indian programs have fallen a decade off schedule, said Iskander Rehman, also of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

India, while recognizing the growing presence of China’s nuclear-powered submarines in the Indian Ocean, considers neighboring Pakistan its main military competitor, Rehman added. Pakistan has five operational submarines, but it is trying to buy six more from China. Even though India’s naval strategy calls for 24 submarines, its navy remains one committed to “carrier-centric warfare.” Today’s Indian Navy has “11 boats deemed operational. No new submarines have been inducted for 15 years.”

Rehman added that by trying build its own tow-arrayed sensors, the Indian navy has none for its surface combatants and also reports a severe shortage of antisubmarine warfare helicopters.

“India’s sub-surface challenge is likely to increase in the future,” he said.

“No one has fought a naval war in 30 years,” Cheng said.
“This should caution us in what we think naval warfare will look like,” Cheng said. “I am not sure what reality will look like until the torpedoes start buzzing away.”