China’s advancing undersea force reflects
the increasing boldness of its maritime strategy
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
Vulnerabilities in operating on the surface of
the ocean are driving China’s People’s
Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to field a
smaller but more modern submarine force that is venturing more frequently into blue water.
“Limitations in air-defense capabilities for surface
combatants as well as the inherent challenges of anti-submarine warfare compelled the Chinese leadership
to focus much of its military modernization effort on
the submarine force,” said Scott Bray, deputy senior
intelligence officer for China in the U.S. Navy’s Office
of Naval Intelligence.
The increased reliance on submarines and blue-water operations are, in part, reflective of China’s
desire to extend the reach of its forces in pursuit of its
political and economic goals, which include ensured
access to trade routes and oil supplies and rapprochement with an independent-minded Taiwan. The
PLAN, the naval branch of the People’s Liberation
Army (PLA), is bolstering other naval forces with the
deployment of new destroyers and, potentially, the
operation of a carrier within two decades. But the more
intriguing of PLAN’s recent advances are the improvements in range and lethality of its submarines.
China’s push for extended reach
has become manifest in recent years
with deployments of its submarines
outside Chinese coastal waters. In
2004, a Han-class nuclear-powered
attack submarine intruded into
Japanese territorial waters. And in
October 2006, a Song-class diesel
submarine was encountered by the
USS Kitty Hawk Carrier Strike
Group conducting routine exercises
operating in the Western Pacific.
The significance of these encounters
is their former rarity.
Though the Chinese government
dismissed it, the encounter with the
Song was no accident, in the judgment of a former
high-ranking U.S. Navy submariner.
“It was calculated to show themselves and others
that they don’t believe we’re invincible,” he said.
And of the Han intrusion: The Chinese want “to
demonstrate that they are somebody to be reckoned
with and they want other people in the region to
understand that,” he said.
“The growing technological capabilities of the
PLAN submarine force and China’s evolving maritime
strategy … create the conditions for Beijing to opt
for an increased submarine presence in the Western
Pacific Ocean east of the Ryukyu Island chain,”
“In order to counter long-range cruise-missile
strikes or carrier-based aviation strikes, the (PLAN)
sought ways to extend its reach beyond the littoral
regions in a manner that offered the potential to counter a modern navy’s advanced assets,” he said.
The PLAN currently operates about 55 attack submarines, according to Bray, a decline from the 1980s
when China deployed approximately 85 submarines
and the “People’s War at Sea” concept called for large
numbers of low-technology combatants to overwhelm
China is modernizing its submarines to extend the reach of its
■ Over the next 50 years, life for surface vessels will become
■ Newer classes of subs are equipped with antiship cruise missiles.
■ One expert: China is “looking way past Taiwan” toward continued growth as an economic superpower.
■ The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander wants a better gauge for
Chinese motivations. “I don’t consider them a threat.”