World War III: Could China Employ Germany’s Unrestricted Submarine Warfare?

April 2, 2021 Topic: China Navy Region: AsiaEurope Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: China NavySubmarinesGerman NavyMilitary

World War III: Could China Employ Germany’s Unrestricted Submarine Warfare?

China has been studying Germany’s world war experiences.


Here's What You Need to Remember: If efforts continue apace to build an “Indo-Pacific” alliance akin to NATO, Beijing may just feel sufficiently threatened to build submarines “like sausages” in order to meet ambitious war-fighting objectives. This would be an escalatory step China has so far refrained from taking.

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.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear)

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.  

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War Japan Should Fear

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.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear)

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.

This Chinese analysis also considers the important fact that the German Navy command initially viewed submarines as defensive weapons, suitable mainly for protecting the German coastline. As the author explains, German submarines were deployed at the start of the war so that “每艇间隔5海里的距离布防” [each submarine was spaced along distances of five miles for defense]. Less than a third of Germany’s 37 active submarines in 1913 were apportioned to offensive operations in the North Sea. Along with the theme of adaptation in war-time, another prevalent theme in this series of Chinese articles concerns the very prominent role of submarine mine-laying in German doctrine and construction plans. Fawning attention is given to Germany’s development of “远洋布雷潜艇” [distant ocean mine laying submarines] beginning in 1915, as a response to England’s “geographical advantage.”

An American reader might wish to see a bit more attention in these lengthy Chinese articles to the fact, as is noted all too briefly, that the “German General Staff had predicted that the war would be resolved within three months,” but what of Lusitania? After 124 Americans died in the May 1915 disaster, “…威尔逊总统表示强烈抗议” [President Wilson made an intense protest].

Revealing of the strategic debate in Berlin, this Chinese article relates how German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg suggested in the wake of Lusitania that the German submarine campaign should “受到约束”[be kept within bounds]. However, as this account relates, German military leaders countered that the submarine campaign represented “合法报复” [legitimate retaliation] for Britain’s blockade of Germany and “this view was supported by the Kaiser.” There is some recognition in the final segment of the Chinese analysis that the move to unrestricted submarine warfare “underestimated [the impact] of America’s entry into the war … [and was] ultimately a decisive error in Germany’s strategic decision-making.”

It is good to see that Chinese naval strategists are cognizant of such strategic mistakes, of course, but this could not be called a major theme of this series of articles, regrettably. On the other hand, a prevalent theme actually seems to be the failure of German shipyards to produce the requisite number of submarines for the strategy of strangling Britain to succeed. Indeed, the article provides a lengthy study of German force requirements (in 1916) and concludes that the Imperial German Navy required no less than 483 submarines of various types, but in reality fell 350 boats short.

The conclusion of this Chinese analysis that Germany’s submarine campaign was nearly successful, but could not ultimately deploy enough submarines into combat because of inadequately focused preparation combined with the inability of its shipyards to ramp up and sustain production could be somewhat disturbing to Western observers of China’s on-going naval modernization. If efforts continue apace to build an “Indo-Pacific” alliance akin to NATO, Beijing may just feel sufficiently threatened to build submarines “like sausages” in order to meet ambitious war-fighting objectives. This would be an escalatory step China has so far refrained from taking.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Editor’s Note: The following is part fourteen of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all back articles in the series here.

This article first appeared in 2015.

Image: Reuters.