Why the U.S. Navy Shouldn't Fear China's 'Hunt for Red October' Missile Submarines

Chinese sailors salute on top of a submarine during the fleet's review of the China-Russia joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea April 26, 2012. Chinese and Russian warships concluded a live ammunition exercise on Thursday, following a no-weapon joint war game earlier the same day. Xinhua News Agency reported. REUTERS/China Daily

The game’s afoot.

Word has it that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has staged a breakthrough in submarine propulsion. At any rate, that’s the word from marine engineer Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a specialist in electromagnetic systems. Admiral Ma recently reported on state-run CCTV that shipwrights are installing shaftless rim-driven pumpjets in China’s “next-generation nuclear submarines,” meaning attack or ballistic-missile boats. (Click here for a layman’s description of pumpjet technology.) Ma crowed that Chinese engineers are “now way ahead of the United States, which has also been developing similar technology.”

If Admiral Ma is playing it straight—rather than hyping promising but yet-to-be-proven gadgetry—then the PLA Navy is poised to overcome a technological and tactical defect that has plagued it since its founding. American submariners long lampooned Soviet and Chinese nuclear boats for being noisy and easy to detect. PLA Navy boats remained backward long after the Cold War. Ultraquiet propulsion, though, would put an end to unquestioned U.S. acoustic supremacy, opening up new operational and strategic vistas before the PLA Navy while ushering in a deadlier phase of U.S.-China strategic competition.

The rim-driven pumpjet is an electrically driven “propulsor” that simplifies and thus quiets an engineering plant. Older technology typically uses gears to connect the elements of a drive train. Steam spins the innards of high-speed turbines. Turbines spin far too fast for any main propulsion shaft or propeller, however, so ships outfitted with traditional engineering plants have “main reduction gears” that step down the speed of rotation drastically, to speeds useful for the shaft that turns the screw and impels the hull through the water. Gears are noisemakers. Pumpjet technology dispenses with them, simplifying and silencing plant operations.

The design also reduces cavitation—bubbles churned up when a propeller turns rapidly underwater, leaving low-pressure zones behind the blades where water can boil. Cavitation emits noise that enemy sonar operators may hear. Thus it can alert hostile anti-submarine-warfare (ASW) forces, helping them find, track and target the emitter. Hence the allure of novel technology that suppresses cavitation.

Now, there are ample grounds for skepticism toward Admiral Ma’s claims. New technology remains a hypothesis until tested out in real-world operations. But at the same time it’s doubtful Ma was simply showboating for Chinese TV viewers. Rising competitors have caught up with established navies before, or even leapfrogged them in certain areas. The Imperial Japanese Navy defied expectations, devising the Long Lance torpedo that it deployed to devastating effect at Pearl Harbor. The Soviet Navy concocted antiship missiles and torpedoes that give the U.S. Navy fits to this day. Thus it behooves us to ask what if: what if China pulls off a technological leap of similar magnitude?

Set aside the question of whose submarines are quieter than whose. Boastfulness—the urge to be the biggest, best and most of everything, and to have others acknowledge it—forms a strand in China’s cultural DNA. Ma is indulging in it. But no one is going to hold a contest to measure noise given off by U.S. Navy and PLA Navy boats, and award victory to the quietest fleet. Combat is the true arbiter of military effectiveness—and undersea combat hinges on whether “hiders” or “finders” prevail. It pits a sub’s capacity for silent running against the acuity of ASW sensors and operators trying to ferret it out.

In other words, if American hiders remain quiet enough to evade Chinese finders, they hold the advantage of stealth. If acoustics has befriended the PLA Navy, then American finders have a problem. And if both submarine services can elude ASW hunters, then both they and surface fleets are in dire peril. “Peer” submarines could engage one another at close proximity in the deep, or strike against surface vessels without warning. Indeed, the surface of embattled oceans could verge on no-go territory. That prospect makes this thought experiment about the future of subsurface warfare worthwhile.