Is This the Future of Chinese Submarine Power?
There are hints that China might pursue foreign basing for its submarine force.
Between major decisions on a new deployment to Afghanistan and a wholly new Persian Gulf crisis, not to mention the boiling crises in Syria and North Korea, Washington strategists can be forgiven for putting China’s naval buildup on the back burner. As Beijing fills the “near seas”—and now the “far seas”—with new frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers, the orientation and larger strategy guiding its future submarine force remains an open question that this column has tried to focus on. Moreover, the tendency of Washington analysts has been, rather predictably, to exaggerate the potential threat posed by China’s naval buildup; this columnist has repeatedly argued against that tendency.
Objective assessments of China’s rapid naval modernization must be based on the best possible information regarding the Chinese Navy’s objectives and future plans. An early 2017 paper published as the lead article in a prestigious naval research journal and written by research personnel at the Qingdao Submarine Academy [海军潜艇学院] provides such a baseline document to evaluate Beijing’s developing undersea ambitions. Some of the revelations detailed below are sure to exhilarate Washington’s many hawks, such as the declared imperatives for Chinese submarines as “offensive forces [进攻性兵种]” to operate on “exterior lines [外线兵种]” to “actively defend the ‘Belt and Road’ [积极维护 ‘一带一路’],” to mix it up with adversary ASW forces to gain intelligence [侦察] about enemy doctrine and capabilities, not to mention hints regarding the future overseas supply [海外保障] of Chinese submarines and expected emphasis on developing nuclear submarine capabilities as an “assassin’s mace” [杀手锏] for far-seas operations.
Yet before broaching these points, one should stop and sincerely congratulate the Chinese Navy for so openly discussing such issues. The paper under discussion here represents a significant stride forward for Chinese military transparency, and most Western naval strategists would admit that such a document, while quite unusual in the Chinese context, would not be out of place in U.S. Navy doctrinal statements. In other words, China is hardly the only country to have grandiose undersea ambitions—even if they are still fairly new to the game.
With a nod to the history of the PLA Navy and its unique experience with submarines, the Qingdao Submarine Academy (hereafter QSA) authors assert that a new era requires new thinking, and so they wish to promote transformative concepts and innovation. They suggest that two major ideas from the past need to be shelved and replaced. One idea that dates from the PLA Navy’s strategy of “coastal defense [近海防御]” is the notion that submarines are primarily defensive platforms that have the primary mission of “watching the house and guarding the courtyard [看家护院].” Another dated strategic idea that the QSA authors wish to dispense with is the strategic concept that Chinese submarines should only operate “near to the island chain [岛连附近活动].” Instead, this piece advocates strongly for an expansive, even global submarine strategy, as implied by the research paper’s title: “Several Thoughts on Advancing the Submarine Force to the Far Seas [推进潜艇兵力走向远洋的几点思考].”
As for developing a rationale for this expanding role, the article reliably cites the pronouncement of the Eighteenth Party Congress that China should become a maritime power [海洋强国]. Also predictably, it includes discussion of China’s booming maritime trade and the new requirements to protect this trade. “As national maritime interests are expanding continuously, the ocean’s significance for the survival of the Chinese nation is more and more important,” the QSA authors explain. Without mentioning the “Malacca Dilemma” explicitly, the vulnerability of China’s lengthy maritime “strategic energy corridor [能源战略通道]” is outlined. They assert, moreover, that China faces a definite external threat and must therefore expand it maritime strategic space, observing: “At bases in both Northeast Asia and in Southeast Asia, as well as the base on Guam, the US has deployed advanced air and sea forces in order to control our country’s maritime passages out into the Pacific. By constructing strategic arcs to contain our country, our space for maritime activities has been strictly confined.”
It is, moreover, asserted that the United States and Japan have developed an elaborate antisubmarine system that aims to a “permanent blockade [永远地封锁]” of Chinese submarines within the first island chain. At this point, the authors state emphatically: “[China’s] submarine forces must not only go the Asia-Pacific, [but] they must also go to the Indian Ocean, and then they must go to the Atlantic and to the Arctic Oceans. In this way, the current operational problems of submarine operations can be alleviated and it will also provide a vast maritime strategic space for our country’s rise […可有效缓解我国当面海区潜艇兵力活动困难, 也能为我大国崛起提供广阔的海洋战略空间].” Elsewhere, I have pointed out the likelihood that Chinese periscopes will soon be found in the Atlantic, and here is rather concrete evidence of such intentions directly from the Chinese submarine force itself.
If that’s not a big enough bombshell (or depth charge), this document contains another hint that China might pursue foreign basing for its submarine force. This column has drawn attention recently to other bits of Chinese evidence suggesting this possibility. Here, the QSA researchers argue: “Currently, our submarine base ports are all located along our ocean borderline, which is rather far from the distant seas submarine operational sea areas. Moreover, the speed of the submarine force is relatively slow, especially conventional submarines, so that the submarines’ actual operating time is too short. This significantly diminishes the actual impact of the submarine force going to the distant seas.” Interestingly, a similar argument is often made regarding U.S. submarine-force basing patterns with respect to transit times and time on station.
Then, the Chinese analysts make the rather startling assertion that “as the submarine force ‘goes out,’ it is necessary to insist on overseas support, and also the principle of economizing the force. The Navy command should secure equipment and logistics for the submarine force abroad for the purpose of increasing the time of the submarine force in the distant seas [潜艇兵力 ‘走出去’ 必须坚持海外保障, 节约兵力的原则, 海军指挥机关应能实现在海外对潜的装备和后勤保障, 才能有效地提高潜艇兵力在远海大洋的存在时间].” On the one hand, this language permits a simple continuation of current practices, wherein the Chinese submarine force makes ever more frequent port visits abroad. However, the notion of “overseas support” [海外保障] and the plausible rationale of simply trying to save on fuel, wear and tear, and so on does seem to open the door to the semipermanent basing of Chinese submarines in distant countries.
Yet another fascinating and innovative part of this exposition of future Chinese submarine doctrine is the twin emphasis on realistic training, as well as the more sensitive guidance regarding intelligence gathering and interactions with adversary forces. The authors advise that Chinese submarines operating in the distant seas must “drill for real combat [实战训练],” undertaking training for submarine-versus-submarine battle, as well as clashes of submarines against surface ships and, not surprisingly, submarines against aircraft carrier battle groups too. Somewhat less obvious, however, is the recommendation to practice submarines laying mines [潜艇布雷], submarine defense against enemy ASW aircraft [潜艇对敌反潜飞机防御], submarine delivery of special forces [潜艇输送特种兵] and submarine intelligence gathering [潜艇侦察]. They must be prepared, according to the analysis, to penetrate enemy harbors and operate near straits. In one of the most interesting passages, the authors underline the importance of gathering “temperature and climactic data, so that our environmental databases and our tactical sonar databases have a main foundation for wartime target discernment and thus provide the information guarantee for future combat.” In another surprising candid passage, they explain: “In the course of undertaking far seas operations, there well may be close interactions that are intentional and involve potential adversaries, for example track and trail operations, or evading tracking operations, etc. Such contacts could also involve familiarization with adversary weapons systems, basic tactics, and anti-submarine patterns [可有意识地与作战对手进行接触, 跟踪与摆脱等, 熟悉其武器性能, 基本战法, 反潜样式].” These operations “may help to accumulate experience with [near] combat [conditions], creating a basis for future defensive combat in the far seas.”
A final illuminating point from this Chinese naval analysis concerns the future mix of conventional and nuclear submarines and their respective roles in far-seas operations. The authors note that the current Chinese submarine force looks like neither the American model (all nuclear boats), nor even the Russian model (nuclear and conventional with an emphasis on the former). The Chinese submarine force has, like Russia, both types of submarines, of course, but the main force is comprised of increasingly quiet and stealthy diesel-electric (conventional) submarines [常为主]. The article states clearly that both types of submarines have certain advantages that Chinese naval strategists must study and implement into its undersea strategy. However, there is a revealing recommendation: that China must avoid having nuclear submarines that constitute a “large effort put to small use [大材小用]” and conventional submarines that are “kept constantly on the run [疲于奔命].”
In other words, there is a strong suggestion here that China will begin a reorientation of its submarine force toward prioritizing nuclear-submarine deployments to meet new far-seas mission requirements. Indeed, the penultimate sentence of the QSA analysis asserts emphatically that nuclear submarines will form “the ‘assassin’s mace’ force of our navy’s expansion into the deep oceans for defense combat.”
This Chinese naval analysis, undertaken by the Qingdao Submarine Academy, offers firm evidence of China’s evolving and increasingly global undersea ambitions. For American strategists, there certainly are troubling implications—for example, the likelihood that a military conflict that ignited in the Western Pacific could spread rapidly into the Atlantic sea area, a theme I explored in more detail recently using an additional, credible Chinese evidentiary source. More obvious still are the dangers inherent in the increased intensity of cat-and-mouse games, which are set to become ever more common across the world’s oceans. Such dangerous interactions could cause tragic accidents, and also fuel crises and rivalry in unpredictable and costly directions.