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Developing US-Chinese Nuclear Naval Competition In Asia

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 16th, 2005

Recent revelations from Washington that China has launched its first second generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) point to the revival of a very Cold War style of military competition. As it did versus the former Soviet Union and does to a lesser extent against Russia today, the United States can be expected to counter China’s SSBN build up. So too can the Japanese, the Koreans, the Russians, the Indians, and others who are directly threatened. Chinese actions to date suggest that it may attempt to use its growing nuclear naval assets to enforce highly dubious territorial claims in her neighborhood, setting the stage for future naval "incidents," or even clashes.

China’s Submarine Build-Up

On December 3 the Washington Times revealed that in late July this year China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had launched the first of its long-awaited second generation SSBN, called the Type 094.[1] The first Type 094 followed the launching of only two second generation Type 093 nuclear attack submarines (SSN), indicating that after decades of preparation, China has accumulated the technologies and methods to begin series production of new modern nuclear submarines. The Type 094 is believed to be an extension of the Type 093, but with section containing 16 tubes for the new JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

Both submarines are believed to incorporate significant foreign technology, especially from Russia. Russia’s Rubin design bureau was reported to have assisted in the design of the Type 093[2], which would have in turn influenced the Type 094. It is also reported that Russia has aided the PLAN with nuclear reactor propulsion technology[3], an area where China needed help. Occasionally there have been suggestions, mainly in the Russian press, that the PLA would purchase new Russian SSNs like the very capable Akula-class, or the 24 large anti-ship missile carrying Oscar-class cruise missile submarine (SSGN). By purchasing either the PLA would be accelerating the capabilities of its nuclear submarine fleet.

A 1997 U.S. Navy projection of the Type 094 SSBN, the first of which was launched in July 2004. Photo credit: U.S. Navy

In terms of performance, the Pentagon has described the Type 093 as comparable to the Russian Victor III SSN.[4] This would present a remarkable advance over China’s first generation Type 091 Han class SSN-four of which are in PLAN service. The latter has a reported diving depth of 300 meters while the Victor III may be able to dive to 600 meters.[5] The Victor III has also been described by the U.S. as nearly as quiet as early U.S. SSN 686 Los Angeles class SSN. Diving depth and stealth are among the key measures of submarine capability, conferring the tactical advantages needed to attack first or to avoid detection and stay alive. It is likely that China has also incorporated advanced Russian technology in the areas of sonar, combat systems and weapons on to both of its new nuclear submarines. The remaining Type 091 SSNs are suspected of having been improved by Russian nuclear propulsion and combat system technologies.

While no one suggests that the Type 093 or Type 094 are as capable as modern U.S. submarines, like the just-launched SSN 701 Virginia-class SSN or the Ohio class SSBN, China can be credited for having significantly closed the gap in nuclear submarine capabilities. But this achievement combined with the projected numbers of new Chinese submarines points to period of growing stress for the U.S. attack submarine fleet. In late 2003 China started building its third Type 093 SSN and some sources predict that six 093s and five to six 094s could be build by 2010. If true, this constitutes a rapid build-up of nuclear submarines.

On the left, an early 2004 internet-source image of what appears to be the sail of a new Type 093 SSN. On the right, from the PRC magazine Modern Ships, a potentially accurate Chinese artist’s projection of the new Type 093 and Type 094 SSBN. The 093 in the rear is launching a cruise missile.

Non-Nuclear Sub Build-Up

But this is only half the story; China’s build-up of new non-nuclear submarines is proceeding faster. This year the PLAN is expected to take delivery of the first of eight new Russian Kilo 636M non-nuclear submarines, that will be armed with the unique 220km range Novator Club anti-ship missile. These are expected to be delivered by 2007. This is in addition to four Kilos already delivered, three of which reportedly will also be back fitted with the Club. This year China started producing in a second shipyard its indigenous Type 039A Song non-nuclear submarine. While the prototype experienced early difficulties, these were solved by the end of the 1990s, and series production now stands at about 11, and could easily reach 20 by 2010.

Then in June the PLAN launched the first of a brand new type of non-nuclear submarine, dubbed the Yuan class by the U.S. Navy.[7] Suspected of incorporating technologies from Rubin’s new Amur class non-nuclear submarine, the Yuan appears to feature Russian-style double-hull construction which greatly aids combat survival. Internet-source photos of the Yuan also indicate it may incorporate a modern Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system.[8] Modern AIP systems can extend the underwater endurance of a non-nuclear sub by two or more weeks, reducing its vulnerability to detection by having to surface to recharge batteries. This confers the same tactical advantages of nuclear propulsion for much less cost. Operating silently and for weeks at a time, the Yuan would offer an inexpensive platform able to ambush more expensive U.S. SSNs or newly converted Ohio class cruise missile carrying submarines (SSGNs). The latter can carry up to 154 Tomohawk-class land-attack cruise missiles, and thus would be a major target for PLA submarines.

An early 2005 internet-source image of the PLAN’s new “Yuan” class conventional attack submarine. First seen in the summer of 2004, two reportedly have been completed.

By 2010 the U.S. could be facing a new PLAN submarine fleet of about 10 SSNs, 5-6 SSBNs, and assuming the production of 5 Yuans, about 27 new very capable non-nuclear submarines. In addition, the PLAN may retain most of about 20 older but still effective Type 035 "Ming" class non-nuclear submarines, for a potential total approaching 50 to 60 attack submarines alone. Today the U.S. Navy only has 55 attack submarines to cover its global security commitments. Shockingly, there were suggestions from within the Navy in early 2004 that this fleet could be reduced to 37 in order to pay for newer submarines.[9] While three Los Angeles class SSNs have been moved to Guam, this is only sufficient to support one submarine continuously deployed. According to some sources budget cutters apparently reduced this number from six. However, China’s projected submarine fleet build-up makes the current U.S. SSN fleet of 55 SSNs seem inadequate.

China’s Possible SSBN Bastion Strategy

China now has two choices for employing its SSBNs. It can sail them out to deep sea as single stealthy combatants, U.S.-style, or keep them close to base and build a navy to protect them. It was the latter doctrine that was pioneered by the former Soviet Union; it build a navy designed to protect "Bastions" within its geographically restricted seas which sought to ensure that SSBNs could carry out their mission to launch their missiles against the U.S., NATO or China. This bastion doctrine deftly sought to turn unfavorable geography into an advantage as well as compensate for the inferiority of its submarines compared to the Americans. The Soviet Navy was made submarine-heavy, with surface warships and land-based bombers designed to cooperate with them to defend SSBN operating areas in the Bering Sea and in the Sea of Okhotsk near the Kamchatka Peninsula. When the Soviet Navy built aircraft carriers for vertical take-off fighters in the 1970s, and then for conventional take-off aircraft in the 1980s, they too were designed principally to defend SSBNs. This doctrine was intended to ensure the Soviet leadership a secure nuclear second-strike capability.

China’s Army-dominated military leadership faces challenge and opportunities similar to those faced by the Soviets. The opportunity is presented by the emergence of the new JL-2 SLBM, which the U.S. Department of Defense in 1998 estimate would have a range of 7,500 nautical miles[10], or 13,890km. As the Cox Report noted in 1999: "The long range of the JL-2 submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile will allow the PRC to conduct patrols close to its base, and under the protective cover the PLA Navy and Air Force."[11] The PLAN’s current major nuclear submarine base is at Huludao on the Yellow Sea, which is surrounded mainly by Chinese territory. In areas near Chinese territory, the Yellow Sea is rarely deeper than 50 meters, but drops to 100 meters closer to the Korean peninsula. Even if all the PLA intends to do is let their SSBNs rest on the sea-bed mud, this is rather shallow for SSBN operations. The PLA would have to devote considerable resources to defend the Yellow Sea or fight forces that would bloc PLA SSBN access to deeper waters in the East China Sea.

The JL-2 SLBM will enable new Type 094 SSBNs to simply patrol in the Bohai Sea, surrounded by PRC territory. However, this is also a shallow sea and will require heavy defenses, to include many mines, surface ships and fighters.

This unfavorable ocean topography may be one reason why the PLA has decided to build a second nuclear submarine base in the South. Sources in three Asian governments have told the author that this new nuclear submarine base will be at the existing sub base at Yulin, on Hainan Island, while a PLA source notes it is merely an expansion of the existing base.[12] Going Southeast of Hainan a Type 094 SSBN can quickly find deep operating zones that go beyond 1,000 meters. This base would reduce the time needed for surface ships to defend SSBN access to deep water, and when there Type 093 SSNs could more effectively combat U.S. SSNs. Basing Type 094s at Yulin would ensure "second-strike" coverage for India but may only allow limited JL-2 coverage of the U.S.

PLA sources confirm that the PLA Navy is building new facilities for nuclear submarines at Yulin base, on the Southwest of Hainan Island. This base will allow PLAN nuclear submarines rapid access to deep waters in the South China Sea.

Given that there is an active lobby within the PLA and the Chinese government to build conventional take-off aircraft carriers, it remains to be determined whether the Chinese leadership will build a pro-SSBN navy or one more suited to conventional power-projection. Nevertheless, China is now rapidly building three new classes of modern air defense destroyers and the PLA Navy Air Force is buying two new types of advanced fighter-bombers that will give it the option of combining sub, surface and land-based airpower to defend potential Bastions in the Yellow or South China Seas. And looking to the future, the PLA is also investing in new advanced ship-based sonar anti-submarine warfare (ASW) systems. These include modern towed-array sonar, which consist of hundreds of transducers embedded in a flexible tube, technology the U.S. has perfected for prosecuting deep-sea submarines. Such sonar would allow future PLA Navy destroyers and frigates to move SSBN operations to deeper sea areas near China.

But at the same time the PLA Navy may be refurbishing the old Soviet-era carrier Varyag, which has resided in Dalian port since 2002. The irony is that this carrier was originally designated for the Soviet Pacific Fleet-to fulfill bastion defense missions. It is known that the architect of China’s current naval build-up, former Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Liu Huaqing, was an ardent admirer of Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov, who ran the Soviet Navy with an iron hand for 30 years and led it to its independent nuclear mission. Liu very likely admired Gorshkov’s wisdom in justifying a naval build up around a pro-nuclear mission that would then lay the groundwork for a larger power-projection Navy that would serve to defend more distant future interests.[13]

It is likely that the PLA will become more "aggressive" about defending peripheral areas that may become potential Type 094 SSBN operating areas. In October 1994 a Type 091 SSN came close to the carrier USS Independence when it entered the Yellow Sea. When the carrier sent S-3 Viking ASW aircraft to shadow the SSN, PLA Navy fighters were sent to shadow the U.S. aircraft. And in 2001 and 2002, PLA Navy forces harassed the survey ship USS Bowditch as it surveyed areas in the Yellow Sea.[14] On April 1, 2001 a PLA Navy Shenyang J-8II fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic intelligence aircraft, killing the Chinese pilot, but leading to Chinese exploitation of the EP-3 which made an emergency landing on Hainan. And then from October to early November 2004, U.S. and Japanese naval forces monitored the voyage of a Type 091 SSN, which circumnavigated Guam, before making a brief but high-profile incursion into Japanese territorial waters. Such sorties are likely to increase as Type 093 SSNs enter service.

To support SSBN and SSN operations it is likely that there will be a general PLA naval and air build-up around the Yellow Sea and on Hainan. PLA Air Forces and Naval Air Forces being focused on Taiwan could easily be shifted North to support pro-submarine operations in the Yellow Sea. This area will also likely see intensive distribution of naval mines, a weapon in which the PLA Navy has invested heavily. Taiwanese sources expect that a future unit of PLA Navy Su-30MKK2 fighter-bombers will be based on Hainan Island. The PLA can be expected to further build up its based in the Paracel Island chain, especially its airbase on Woody Island. In addition, both areas will benefit from new maritime patrol aircraft the PLA intends to purchase. These may include up to 10 Russian Beriev Be-200 turbofan-powered amphibious transports outfitted for patrol missions.[15]

Will The US Respond As It Has Done Before ?

During the Cold War the U.S. Navy did not let the Soviet Navy rests secure in its Bastions, a message that the PLA should heed well. During the 1980s the Reagan Administration’s "Maritime Strategy" sought to take a future war into the Soviet submarine bastions in order to defend the U.S. from Soviet SLBM strikes.[16] U.S. nuclear attack submarines stressed sonar and stealth capabilities so as to excel in anti-submarine warfare. The SSN-21 Seawolf epitomized the U.S. quest for the most quiet, deep diving and well armed nuclear attack submarine for the mission of prosecuring Soviet SSBN bastions. It is likely that the U.S. Navy continues to undertake SSN patrols near potential Russian SSBN operating areas; it was rumored that a U.S. Los Angeles class SSN was nearby when the Russian Oscar-class SSBN Kursk suffered a fatal internal explosion in August 2000.[17]

In Asia, during the length of the Cold War, the U.S. stationed air and naval forces in Japan that also could have prosecuted Soviet SSBNs stationed with the Soviet Pacific Fleet operating bases in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka. These included an aircraft carrier, nuclear attack submarines and Lockheed-Martin P-3 Orion ASW patrol aircraft assigned to the 7th Fleet. But U.S. Air Force strike aircraft based in Japan and South Korea would also have attacked Soviet naval forces, both submarines and the ships designed to support them.

Partially in response to the PLA Navy submarine build-up, the U.S. Navy has revived its interesting ASW, which had been flagging during the 1990s. Over the last decade the U.S. had decided to mothball its Spruance class destroyers, perhaps one of the best ASW ships ever built. The Navy also ended the ASW mission of the S-3 Viking in 1998 and will not even replace this platform when it is withdrawn from service in about two years. Perhaps more alarming are budget driven pressures to reduce the overall numbers of the U.S. SSN fleet. The U.S. Navy now has 55 attack submarines, but in mid-2004 the Navy considered reducing this to 37 in part to help pay for new Virginia-class SSNs.[18] To compensate, the Navy was considering basing up to 9 SSNs at Guam. And in early 2005 U.S. defense budget reductions have raised concerns that the Navy can afford the new Boeing-737 based Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft selected in 2004 to replace P-3C ASW aircraft.[19] The Navy may also be forces to relinquish two planned Virginia-class SSNs.[20]

Current defense budget cutbacks threaten the Navy’s Boeing Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft, which is slated to replace the aging P-3C ASW patrol aircraft. Credit: Boeing Photo

Near-term pressures on the U.S. Navy come from the need to maintain carriers deployed in the Persian Gulf to support Coalition forces in Iraq, but also from a potential requirement to be able to immediately respond to a PLA attack on Taiwan, and to counter future PLA SSBNs. The Taiwan requirement is in part spurring the U.S. Navy and Air Force to build up forces on Guam. But looking toward the future the U.S. must also respond to the rapid build up of PLA SSBN and SSN forces. As during the Cold War, sustaining a capability to prosecute PLA SSBNs constitutes a form of missile defense for the American people. In addition, the ability to threaten the PLA’s nuclear second-strike platforms serves to degrade Chinese leadership confidence in their nuclear forces, which can reduce the incentives for these leaders to use force against the U.S. or its allies.

However, building a credible capability to defend against new PLA SSBNs will require a sizable investment. It would be very unwise to consider deep cuts in U.S. SSN numbers at this time or in the future. Indeed, it is correct to consider that the U.S. may have to increase SSN numbers, to include building more than the current three Seawolf-class SSNs. The Seawolf is more expensive than the Virginia, but can also dive deeper and carry more weapons: 50 vs. 38. The Navy also needs a new carrier-based long-range ASW aircraft to counter the ability of PLA submarines to launch the 220km-range Russian Club anti-ship missile. Absent such a new ASW aircraft, then the Navy’s Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft takes on greater urgency, as its greater speed will make it more survivable in PLA bastion areas sure to be defended by many PLA jet fighters. This turbo-fan powered jet transport based aircraft will be faster and more survivable than the slower turboprop powered P-3C, and must be available to offer a successor to other P-3 users.

There is also a need to invest in new technologies that can increase ASW capabilities without necessarily increasing personnel commitments. For example, some of the new ASW aircraft could be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with data links to ships and aircraft. In addition, to penetrate possible PLA SSBN bastions, the U.S. might develop new large unmanned underwater combat vehicles. These might simply be stationed on the seabed near PLA SSBN bases for years, to be activated during times of tension. In addition, there should be an additional effort to develop space based surveillance systems able to penetrate shallow waters around PLA nuclear sub bases. Platforms like the Virginia SSN and the Boeing Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft will also be essential to the employment of future long-range unmanned weapons.

US Geographic-Maritime Imperatives

The rise of the Chinese SSBN challenge serves to reemphasize enduring Asian maritime imperatives for Washington. As the lack of access to Western Pacific bases lengthened the U.S. war against Japan after 1941, access to Japanese and Philippine bases served to constrain Soviet Cold War naval ambitions in Asia, and allow for Reagan’s successful Maritime Strategy against Soviet SSBN bastions.[21] Should the U.S. decide as a matter of contributing to strategic missile defense, to contest future PLA SSBN operating zones, then Washington will also have to make sure its allies accept this new mission as part of normal alliance cooperation.

As it sought during the 1990s to prevent U.S. missile defense cooperation in Asia in the face of its growing missile forces, as its nuclear naval forces grow, Beijing can be expected to put political pressure on Japan Australia and Singapore to constrain their naval cooperation with the U.S SSBNs. Access to Japanese and Australian bases for U.S. forces, in addition to their acceptance of increasing U.S. forces at Guam, will provide protection to our Asian allies from PLA nuclear-armed SLBMs.

By its location Taiwan serves to sever the sea lines of communication between the Straits of Malacca, through which nearly all Asian energy supplies pass, and Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. It also lies between the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet nuclear submarines. Access to Taiwan’s harbors, in case of conquest or unification, would place the PLA in a position to threaten key Sea Lines of Communication, for example by Type 094s operating from deep seas off of Taiwan’s East Coast, and control energy supplies to all of Asia to the north. Or, to deter the United States, the PLAN could conduct SSBN patrols further east of Taiwan to allow JL-2 SLBMs to cover all of the United States.

Taiwan as future SSBN base: Should it conquer Taiwan the PLA is sure to move SSBN bases there to exploit Taiwan’s quick access to deep-water operating areas, in dark blue, that can also be defended by land-based aircraft.

For these reasons, it makes sense for Taiwan to have submarine and ASW capabilities. Furthermore, given the increasing utility of conventional submarines, it probably makes sense for the U.S. Navy to consider moderating is taboos, and cooperating, say with the Japanese, so that we can master the rapidly advancing technology of conventional, ultra-quiet, AIP submarines. Given European unwillingness to cooperate, the best option is for the US and Japan to develop a world-beating conventional submarine of their own, and put the others out of business.

[1] Bill Gertz, "China Tests Ballistic Missile Submarine," The Washington Times, December 3, 2004

[2] "Russia Helps China Take New SSNs into Silent Era," Jane’s Defence Weekly, August 13, 1997, p. 14.

[3] Gertz, op-cit.

[4] Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, ANNUAL REPORT ON THE MILITARY POWER OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. July 28, 2003, p. 27,, hereafter referred to a "DoD PLA Report."

[5] "Victor III (Project 671RTM(K))," IMDS 2003, International Maritime Defense Show, St. Petersburg 25-29 June 2003.

[6] Interviews, Taipei, November 2004.

[7] Bill Gertz, "Chinese produce new type of submarine," The Washington Times, July 16, 2004.

[8] Internet-source pre-launch pictures of the Yuan hull show engine-area openings that may be consistent with AIP cooling ports.

[9] Bryan Bender, "Navy eyes cutting submarine force," The Globe, May 12, 2004.

[10] "Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat," Department of Defense, 1998, cited in Report of the Select Committee On U.S. National Security And Military/Commercial Concerns With The People’s Republic of China, Submitted by Mr. Cox of California, Chairman, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999, p. 187, Footnote 26, p. 256.

[11] Report of the Select Committee…op cit., p. 193.

[12] Interviews, 2002 to 2004.

[13] See author, "China’s Carrier Of Chance," China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, March 14, 2002,

[14] "US, China in new naval dispute," MSNBC, September 19, 2002.

[15] "Chinese BE-200," Flight International, November 23-29, 2004, p. 24.

[16] For a thorough examination of the evolution of the U.S. Maritime Strategy in the 1980s, see, John B. Hattendorf, The Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986, Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1999,

[17] Some reports note a PLA Navy officer also perished on the Kursk.

[18] Bryan Bender, "Navy eyes cutting submarine force," Globe, May 12, 2004.

[19] David A. Fulghum and Robert Wall, "About-Face," Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 3, 2005, p. 20.

[20] William Matthews, Gopal Ratnam, and Megan Scully, "DoD Cuts Not What They Seem," Defense News, January 10, 2005, p. 6.

[21] For a recent review of enduring maritime strategic imperative for the U.S., see Robyn Lim and James Auer, "The Maritime Basis Of American Security In Asia," Naval War College Review, Winter 2001,

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