China Submarine Capabilities

Xia Class SSBN

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People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently operates one of the largest submarine fleets in the world, consisting of five nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and more than fifty diesel-electric attack submarines. [1] According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the PLA is currently operating four Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs. [2] Up to five Types may enter service before the PLA begins to develop and field its next generation of SSBNs, the Type 096. [3]

Despite its already impressive size, the PLAN submarine fleet is one of the fastest growing and modernizing forces in the world, with the ONI estimating that the submarine force will eventually expand to include 75 vessels. [4] Other reports indicate that China's submarine fleet totals up to 70 boats, with plans to add 20 more within the next 10 years. [5] This growth reflects a response to the rapidly changing security situation in and around China. Whereas China previously concerned itself primarily with coastal defense against its immediate neighbors, like the Soviet Union and Taiwan, it has in the last decade begun rapid expansion and modernization of its Naval forces, including its submarine force, to support the increasing blue-water requirements of its Navy as part of the larger regional and international role China is assuming.

From the 1960's, when China acquired its first submarines through purchases from the Soviet Union, until the mid-1990's, China had few reasons for developing nuclear powered submarines other than prestige, given its regionally based naval strategy. However, as the Soviet Union weakened and eventually collapsed, China's naval strategy began to evolve from focusing on coastal defense to off-shore defense, with considerable focus placed on Taiwan contingencies. With this evolution, the Chinese military, and specifically the PLAN, has undergone many changes, with the most important being the promotion of its commander to the most important policy-making committee for the military, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Central Military Commission (CMC). This promotion, while not greatly affecting the mission of the PLAN, clearly signaled the new priority position of the PLAN within China's military strategy. [6] Since the mid 1990's, in addition to organizational changes implemented in the PLAN, China has made significant efforts to strengthen its forces in the East Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet, which would likely provide the majority of forces in any confrontation with Taiwan. Specifically, many of the most recently acquired Kilo submarines have been placed in those two fleets where they are expected to play an important role in area-denial to U.S. forces in the event that a Taiwan confrontation does occur.

Since the mid 2000's China has continued its attempts to modernize and expand its nuclear powered submarine force. There are two main reasons for this expansion: First, as China begins to look beyond Taiwan and its local waters, the long-term capability to secure sea-lines of trade, especially for oil and natural gas, are becoming a larger priority. [7] Secondly, out of a desire for a survivable second-strike capability and the prestige that comes along with it, China desires an operational nuclear triad. Though the PLAN did previously commission the Type 092 Xia-class SSBN in 1987, the vessel never completed a successful nuclear deterrent patrol, and was subsequently replaced by the Type 094 Jin-class SSBN. The Department of Defense has repeatedly predicted that the Jin-class will complete an inaugural deterrent patrol, but it has not yet done so. Its most recent assessment is that the PLAN will deploy a Jin-class SSBM in 2016. [8] The failure to launch a patrol sooner is believed to be closely related to developmental delays of the JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). [9] The Department of Defense believes, though, that the Jin-class and its associated JL-2 SLBM are now fully operational. [10]

These developmental delays along with the following set of larger issues have plagued the PLAN and its ability to launch its first deterrent patrol:

  1. its difficulty in developing a professional cadre of submarine officers;
  2. continued problems with the design and production of high quality technical endeavors like nuclear powered submarines
  3. difficulties in establishing a robust command and control infrastructure given continued communications issues with submarines at sea. [11]

While it is clear that the PLAN is making strides towards correcting these issues, the capabilities of China's nuclear powered submarine fleet remain in a process of maturity. Even if the PLAN were to deploy Jin-class on deterrent patrols, there are doubts that this would provide China with a secure second-strike capability. Jin-class submarines are loud enough that American anti-submarine warfare assets could likely find and track the Chinese patrols. [12]

The PLAN's nine operational nuclear-powered submarines include three 1st generation Type 091 Han-class SSNs, two 2nd generation Type 093 Shang-class SSNs, and four Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs. [13] The single Type 092 Xia SSBN has never conducted any strategic deterrent patrols, and after a round of successful JL-1 SLBM tests in 1988, the Chinese leadership decided to move toward developing more advanced Type 094 SSBNs and JL-2 SLBMs. The Type 092 SSBN was reportedly so noisy during initial sea trials that its crews couldn't sleep. [14] While the PLAN is currently developing newer Type 095 SSNs and Type 096 SSBNs, the Department of Defense believes that China will build four more Type 093 SSNs and one more Type 094 SSBNs before moving onto constructing the newer varieties. [15] In April 2015, the PLAN commissioned three upgraded Type 093 B Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. The Type 093B offers improvements in speed, noise, and the addition of a vertical launch system. [16] The vessels are fitted with YJ-18 anti-ship ballistic missiles that have a range of 400 kilometers (or 250 miles). Some experts argue that the Type 093B is approaching the quality of the U.S. Los Angeles-class, but heavy classification makes assessing the full capabilities of both classes difficult. [17]

Like Russia, China possesses both a nuclear-powered submarine fleet and a robust diesel-electric submarine fleet. China has begun to develop its own indigenous fleet of diesel-electric submarines, based on Russian designs, and has continued to purchase Kilo-submarines as recently as the early 2000s. The PLAN also possesses around 13 Type 039 Song-class and twelve Type 041 Yuan-class submarines. [18] The Type 041 is the PLAN's first class of diesel-electric submarines to be equipped with an air-independent propulsion system (AIP), and was designed in an indigenous submarine design competition that demonstrates higher quality innovative submarine designs. [19] In addition to modern diesel-electric submarines, like the Song, Yuan, and Kilo, the PLAN possesses around twenty Type 035 B/G Ming-class submarines, based on Soviet diesel-electric submarine designs from the 1950s. [20]

While the PLAN continues to develop its nuclear powered submarine capability, China's diesel electric submarine fleet remains the backbone of its submarine forces. The PLAN commissioned, 31 new diesel-electric submarines between 1995 and 2005. [21] The Kanwa Defense Review suggests that the PLAN main nuclear-powered submarines remained idle for the majority of 2014. The 3 main nuclear-powered submarines (the Type 094 and 093) spent over two-thirds of the year at their bases. The report concluded that having spent little time on active duty, these vessels have become an easy target for precision missiles. [22]

China has also negotiated a deal to sell electric-diesel submarines to Pakistan. In 2015, the two governments officially approved the purchase of 8 Chinese submarines. [23] Pakistan will most likely purchase Yuan class submarines, although some earlier reports have suggested that Pakistan may also be interested in purchasing Qing class submarines. [24]

To support the rapid expansion of the PLAN's submarine fleet, China contributed significant resources toward the construction of new submarine facilities in the cities of Sanya and Xiaopingdao. The naval facility in Sanya is capable of accommodating a mixture of SSNs, SSBNs, and surface combatants; the base also includes underground facilities, and allows PLAN submarines to have direct access to vital international sea-lanes in the South China Sea. [25] Additionally, the base in Xiaopingdao, appears to be capable of accommodating two Jin-class SSBNs, with the capability to outfit the submarines with JL-2 SLBMs. [26]

Despite the moderate expansion of the PLAN's nuclear powered submarine force, the rapid growth of the diesel electric submarine fleet suggests that submarines will play an important role in China's navy. As the mission of the PLAN expands, nuclear powered SSNs and SSBNs with better endurance and range will grow in importance. Although the PLAN has not made extensive use of its nuclear-powered submarine fleet yet, the PLAN will likely continue to devote significant resources to developing a modern submarine force and shipbuilding industry.

Sources:
[1] "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment - China" IHS Jane's, February 17, 2014, www.janes.com.
[2] Office of Naval Intelligence, "The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century," April 9, 2015, p.18, www.oni.navy.mil.
[3] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2015," Office of the Secretary of Defense, May 8, 2015, pg. 9, www.defense.gov.
[4] "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment - China" IHS Jane's, February 17, 2014, www.janes.com.
[5] Bruce Einhorn, "Submarines: Asia's Underwater Arms Race," Bloomberg, April 23, 2015, www.bloomberg.com.
[6] "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment - China" IHS Jane's, February 17, 2014, www.janes.com.
[7] Eric A. McVadon, "China's Maturing Navy" China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force, (Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 14.
[8] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2015," Office of the Secretary of Defense, pg. 9, www.defense.gov; Julian Borger, "China to send nuclear-armed submarines into Pacific amid tensions with US," The Guardian, May 26, 2016, www.theguardian.com.
[9] "Strategic Weapons Systems - China" IHS Jane's, February 14, 2014, www.janes.com.
[10] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2016," Office of the Secretary of Defense, April 26, 2016, www.defense.gov.
[11] Eric A. McVadon, "China's Maturing Navy" China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force, (Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 5-7.
"Strategic Weapons Systems - China" IHS Jane's, February 14, 2014, www.janes.com.
[12] Bonnie Glaser and Matthew Funaiole, "Submerged Deterrence: China's Struggle to Field an SSBN Fleet," CSIS, May 9, 2016, amti.csis.org.
[13] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2015," Office of the Secretary of Defense, pg. 9, www.defense.gov.
[14] Jeffrey Lewis, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 70.
[15] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2013," Office of the Secretary of Defense, 6-7, www.defense.gov.
[16] Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, "First Picture of China's Secretive New Submarine," Popsci, June 23, 2016, www.popsci.com.
[17] Dave Majumdar, "Why the US Navy Should Fear China's New 093B Nuclear Attack Submarine," The National Interest, June 27, 2016, www.nationalinterest.org.
[18] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2010," Office of the Secretary of Defense, 3, www.defense.gov.
[19] "World Navies - China" IHS Jane's, February 17, 2014, www.janes.com.
[20] The International Institute for Strategic Research (IISS), The Military Balance 2012: The annual assessment of global military capabilities and defense economics (London: IISS, 2012), 235.
[21] Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, "China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force - Insights from Chinese Writings" China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force, (Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 182.
[22] CAN, "China nuclear submarines vulnerable to attack", China Post¸ May 8, 2015, www.chinapost.com.tw.
[23] Usman Ansari, "Pakistan, China Finalize 8-Sub Construction Plan," Defense News, October 11, 2015, www.defensenews.com.
[24] Qasim Nauman and Jeremy Page, "Pakistan to Buy Eight Chinese Submarines," The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2015, www.wsj.com.
[25] U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2010," Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2, www.defense.gov.
[26] Hans M. Kristensen, "Chinese JIN-SSBNs Getting Ready?" FAS Strategic Security Blog: from the Federation of American Scientists, http://blogs.fas.org.

July 15, 2016
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The submarine proliferation resource collection is designed to highlight global trends in the sale and acquisition of diesel- and nuclear-powered submarines. It is structured on a country-by-country basis, with each country profile consisting of information on capabilities, imports and exports.

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.