A Frightening Thought: China Erodes America's Submarine Advantage

August 17, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAmericasubmarines

A Frightening Thought: China Erodes America's Submarine Advantage

"The PLA Navy is poised to make a major push to improve its heretofore weak ASW capabilities."

In January 2011, the cover of the Chinese naval magazine 现代舰船  [Modern Ships], which is published by giant state-owned shipbuilding conglomerate CSIC, carried a simple and elegant headline: “056来了” [ The 056 has arrived ]. In an impressive display of shipbuilding muscle, Beijing has proceeded in the 4.5 years that followed in building nearly 20 of this new type of light frigate or corvette. 

For an interesting comparison, the U.S. Navy has launched less than half that number of its own small surface combatant, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) over a longer span of time.  Never mind that LCS still lacks for an anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), so it is quite clearly “out-sticked” by the Chinese variant. But what is really impressive about the Type 056 is its ability to fill in a much needed niche-capability in China’s naval arsenal:  the requirement for a small, cheap, versatile, rugged and well-armed patrol ship to show the flag in proximate maritime disputes.  One obvious lesson from the conspicuous buildup described above is to watch the cover of 现代舰船  [Modern Ships] carefully.

Last year, two covers of that magazine were dedicated to “coming attractions” in naval aviation:  new anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters are in the pipeline and may well even enjoy prioritized development.  One cover (4A) showed a modernized, ASW-optimized version, likely called “Z-18F,” of a large workhorse of Chinese naval aviation, the Z-8.  Another somewhat more shocking design gracing the cover of Modern Ships last year (2A) was designated as “Z-20,” and seemed to be a near carbon copy of the SH-60 Sea Hawk , the frontline naval helicopter operated by the U.S. Navy in a variety of roles, including ASW. 

This edition of Dragon Eye will survey some recent developments in Chinese ASW development, emphasizing the surprisingly noteworthy future roles of the two new helicopter variants mentioned above.

But returning momentarily to our theme of Modern Ships magazine covers, yet another issue (3B) from early 2014 shows an illustration of a Type 056 from the stern quarter deploying a prominent variable depth sonar (VDS) as it hunts a nearby adversary submarine.  A variety of sources took note of this major design adjustment for the Type 056 with the first of these ASW-optimized light frigates, featuring the much larger aperture in its stern for the VDS, appearing in late 2013. 

It is true that Beijing has been experimenting with towed arrays since the 1980s.  But most new surface vessels have deployed with long linear-type passive towed arrays.  The new VDS will give the 056 additional active sonar capabilities (along with the bow array) that can “ping” more effectively from within or below thermal layers.  According to the Modern Ships rendering, surface ships that “用主动模式工作,让潜艇无所遁形” [employ active sonar methods of operation will render submarines unable to hide].  Coupled with the possibility of new weapons, such as “火箭自导弹”[ homing depth bombs ] or even “新型反潜导弹”[a new type of ASW missiles], these forces promise a much more formidable challenge.  Let’s not forget, moreover, that even as the Chinese Navy has been upgrading the sonars and ASW weaponry in its surface fleet, it has also been pushing ahead with an ambitious program to set up fixed sonar arrays on the sea bed in its proximate waters as well.

Undoubtedly, a Chinese move toward more regularized “far seas operations”—quite visible in a variety of realms—will require a renewed emphasis on airborne ASW.  Quite simply, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft make for highly potent ASW platforms because of their speed, range, search rate and near invulnerability to submarine-launched weapons.  Despite these advantages, aerial ASW has long been an Achilles heel of the Chinese Navy—a fact widely acknowledged in Chinese naval circles.

A decade ago, the PLA Navy may have had as few as a couple of dozen large Z-8 helicopters, progenitor of the new Z-18F.  However, production was radically increased in the 2004-07 time frame, according to the 2014 covers story in Modern Ships , indicative of a new priority for naval aviation.  The same article highlights the much more prominent surface search radar on the new helicopter’s chin.  This radar is said to be capable of picking up submarine masts and periscopes at ranges of at least 40-70 km.  A rather detailed article on the Z-18F appeared in another prominent defense magazine, 航空知识 [Aerospace Knowledge] in late 2014.  This report seems to confirm a graphic that accompanied the Modern Ships report, which had previously suggested that the Z-18F could heft up to four ASW torpedoes—a significant improvement over its predecessor, the Z-8.  Perhaps some skepticism is warranted on this point given perennial difficulties with Chinese helicopter engines. The same report also suggests that the Z-18F will likely have more sonobuoy dispensers than the U.S. Navy’s SH-60 Sea Hawk .  The author says its size may imply that only the European EH-101 has comparable range and capabilities.  According to this report, the Liaoning aircraft carrier is planned to have a complement of six Z-18Fs.  More interesting still is the suggestion that each new Type 055 cruiser will carry two Z-18Fs.  That may partially explain that vessel’s expected large displacement.