Copycat: Is Germany's Fearsome Submarine Past China's Future?

China’s naval architects reflect on the German Imperial Navy’s prowess in undersea warfare.

With the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania at hand, the anniversary of this tragic event has produced a non-fiction best-seller, but little serious reflection among strategists.

This is curious given that the submarine has emerged in the early 21st century as the naval weapon of choice. Putting aside the major powers for a moment, middle powers such as Australia and Vietnam, have fixated on the submarine as the ultimate defense elixir for coping with rising regional tensions. Even poor countries, such as Bangladesh, are planning on investing hefty sums in undersea warfare.

It has been clear now for more than a decade that Beijing views submarines as one of several main lines of effort in defense technology development. The recent brazen English–language announcement in China Daily that China has already floated three Type 093G-class nuclear attack submarines with vertical-launch system (VLS) capabilities that will be armed with the YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile may represent an attempt at increasing transparency, but no doubt will be troubling to many following the Asia-Pacific maritime balance. I have recently considered the Type 093G and related weaponry in some depth in another forum.

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It is difficult to overstate the scope of China’s present effort in undersea warfare. This does not mean that China is launching a dozen nuclear submarines per year as Moscow did during the crest of its naval buildup back in the 1970s. Beijing’s approach is not rash, but rather careful and deliberate. Above all, China seems intent on building the institutional and intellectual foundations of a world-leading undersea force, and this will take time as well as resources.

A small part of this effort has been on display through several fall 2014 issues in the Chinese naval magazine Modern Ships (published by the giant Chinese naval ship builder CSIC), as a Chinese submarine expert explores in excruciating detail the pioneering developments of the German Imperial Navy in the domain of submarine development during the years prior to and during the First World War.

Undoubtedly, this series of articles pays much greater attention to Germany’s gradual refinements of its submarine engines than to the sinking of 卢西塔尼亚” [Lusitania], but Chinese strategists are also not oblivious to the insights arising from the advent of the submarine in naval warfare, as well as the various dilemmas confronted by the Kaiser’s admirals in the world’s first attempt to deploy submarines to achieve grand strategic effects.

USN submariners may be somewhat relieved to note that Chinese strategists do, indeed, give credit to the American John Holland as the “现代潜艇之父” [father of the modern submarine], and it is explained that the German Navy acquired one of Holland’s designs shortly after the turn of the century. The Chinese analysis also underlines the role of British and particularly French design innovation in improving early German models.  

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Perhaps one lesson that Chinese specialists will draw from this history is that a country’s initial prowess in weapons’ design may nevertheless enable other countries to gain an edge in operational deployment of those same weapons. This pattern is, of course, familiar from the pioneering British development of the tank, which was obviously superseded by the superior organizational and doctrinal initiatives in Germany’s approach to armored warfare.

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The very first German submarine taken in late 1906 into the naval service U1 (42m in length/238 tons displacement/crew of 22/ maximum diving depth of 30m) is no doubt an object of fascination and even reverence for naval architects world wide—not just those in China. However, the outline of this hull design is displayed in this magazine series (along with myriad other U-boat designs) at no less than eight separate angles, suggesting not a little veneration.   

Chinese strategists may take other significant lessons from this extremely detailed rendering of early German submarine development. Such lessons may concern the inevitability of accidents: considerable time is spent dissecting the loss and subsequent rescue of many of the crewmembers of Germany’s U3 in 1911.

An even more interesting theme taken up in this analysis is the opposition of the German naval high command to the development of the submarine force. At several points in the narrative, the Chinese author notes that the major architect of the German Navy Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz [提尔波茨], a military leader of nearly unparalleled influence in the pre-war period, was himself intensely skeptical of submarine development. Here, Chinese strategists may be confronted with the irony that, even in the seemingly most professional and efficient of armed forces, senior leaders sometimes utterly fail to predict major changes in the character of warfare.