Who is Winning the Submarine Game?
The U.S. Navy May Soon be Outnumbered, but not Outclassed
Here's What You Need to Remember: China has big plans. Can it build a bigger navy as fast as it wants?
The Chinese navy’s submarine force isn’t getting much bigger. But it is getting a whole lot better. That’s the conclusion of the U.S. Congressional Research Service’s latest report on Chinese military power.
“China has been steadily modernizing its submarine force, and most of its submarines are now built to relatively modern Chinese and Russian designs,” the CRS stated in the April 2020 edition of its China report.
But in terms of hull numbers, the overall undersea force actually isn’t growing very quickly. The Chinese sub fleet could grow from 66 boats in 2020 to 76 in 2030, the CRS estimated, citing figures from the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.
Changes in the mix of vessels, however, could boost the capability of the force. The Chinese undersea fleet in 2020 includes four nuclear-powered ballistic-missile “boomer” submarines, seven nuclear-powered attack submarines, and 55 diesel-electric attack submarines.
Based on recent production trends, the 2030 force could include eight ballistic-missile boats, 13 nuclear attack boats and the same number of diesel boats: 55.
Adding boomers obviously expands China’s nuclear deterrent. For conventional warfare, the doubling of the nuclear attack submarine forces is more significant. SSNs, as they’re known in U.S. Navy parlance, can sail farther and remain on station longer than can smaller diesel-electric SSK boats.
And while the Chinese SSK force is likely to remain the same size over the coming decade, it probably will boast more of the most modern types. The Chinese navy in 2020 operates around 34 of the latest Type 039 SSKs. As additional SSKs enter the fleet, they’re supplanting obsolete Type 035 boats that basically are copies of Soviet Romeo-class boats dating from the early 1960s.
“Qualitatively, China’s newest submarines might not be as capable as Russia’s newest submarines,” the CRS explained, “but compared to China’s earlier submarines, which were built to antiquated designs, its newer submarines are much more capable.”
Contrast the modernization and slow growth of the Chinese submarine fleet with the modernization and contraction of the American undersea fleet. Beijing is commissioning more subs than it decommissions. Washington is commissioning fewer subs than its decommissions.
American submarines still are more sophisticated than Chinese subs are. But the American boats increasingly are outnumbered.
The U.S. fleet in 2020 possesses 56 Los Angeles-, Seawolf- and Virginia-class attack submarines and Ohio-class cruise-missile submarines plus 14 Ohio-class boomers. Under the latest planning, that number would drop to a low of 42 attack boats and 13 boomers in 2028 before expanding back to current levels sometime in the 2030s.
It could get worse. The administration of Pres. Donald Trump in its 2021 budget submission asked for just one new Virginia instead of the two the Navy expected, meaning the American SSN force actually could bottom out at just 41 boats at around the same time that the Chinese SSN force reaches a new peak of 68 boats.
David Axe was defense editor at The National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.