March 1, 2006  

Trouble below

China’s submarines pose regional, strategic challenges

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States faces a resurgent submarine challenge from a state that is seeking to challenge American pre-eminence in Asia, and likely beyond. China is making a large-scale investment in the building up and sustaining of its submarine force, along with impressive investments in submarine weapons, surface warship, combat aircraft and space assets to complement its submarine force. Since the early World War II Battle of the Atlantic, when Germany’s relatively small SSK fleet nearly knocked the U.S. out of the war, the U.S. has never let its strategic interests be so threatened by a foreign submarine fleet.

The submarine pre-eminence enjoyed by the U.S. today requires continued investment in both weapons and personnel, especially given China’s determined buildup.

China is building up its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) not only to achieve regional military dominance in Asia, but also to give Beijing increasing options for the global exercise of military power. For the remainder of this decade, the most important element of the PLAN’s buildup will be its nuclear and conventional submarines.

It is noteworthy that current PLAN Commander Adm. Zhang Dingfa is a nuclear submariner. Until the growth of carrier aviation in the next decade, submarines will remain at the core of China’s developing naval doctrines, which serve to achieve the strategic objectives of the state.

Through the 1990s, which saw the formation of doctrinal and industrial advances that are now propelling the transformation of the PLAN’s submarine force, that force remained wedded to largely defensive naval doctrines and operations in coastal areas. The operational focus that was developed during the 1990s, and which will remain during the medium term, is to prepare for possible conflict to subdue Taiwan, and along with that, prevent the U.S. Navy from defending Taiwan if there is a decision to attack. Initially, the PLAN’s goal is to join nuclear submarines (SSNs) and conventional submarines (SSKs) with ships and new aircraft, all equipped with new missiles, to operate in conjunction with PLA Air Force and even new 2nd Artillery ballistic missile forces, to attack enemy ships and their bases. This has led to the development of new classes of submarines and their weapons but has also propelled the PLAN to exploit new information technologies under the doctrinal goal of “informationalization.” In addition, with the launching of the PLAN’s first second-generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in June 2004, the submarine force will quickly assume nuclear deterrent and attack missions.


Of particular concern to the U.S. and its allies is the speed of the PLAN buildup of new modern nuclear and conventional submarines. The PLA Navy submarine force started this decade with about 70 conventional and nuclear submarines and is likely to end the decade with roughly the same number. What is changing is the number of first- and second-generation Type 033 Romeo and Type 035 Mings, which are being replaced in the active force at a nearly 1-for-1 rate by third- and third-plus-generation submarines. According to U.S. government sources, from 2002 to mid-2005 the PLA Navy built 14 submarines. These included the first Type 094 Jin second-generation SSBN, two Type 093 Shang SSNs, the first Yuan-class SSK and 10 Type 039A Song SSKs. In 2006, the PLA Navy is expected to launch its third Shang and will finish taking delivery of eight Russian Kilo 636M SSKs. If this rate is sustained, China could produce and purchase about 40 new submarines this decade.

This acquisition surge follows a substantial investment in submarine development, production and logistic support capability. Nuclear submarine production facilities in Huludao were modernized in the late 1990s to enable the series production of both SSNs and SSBNs that is now underway. In 2003, China started building its new Type 039A Song-class submarines at a second conventional submarine yard at the Jiangshan shipyards Shanghai, while the traditional yard at Wuhan started construction of the new Yuan-class SSK in addition to the Song. For its 2002 order of eight new Kilo 636M submarines, China invested in the revival of two additional Russian submarine yards to accelerate delivery. Foreign sources also note that the PLAN is building up to five “new” submarine bases, though PLA sources note some of these new facilities are expansions of current bases. New foreign technologies, to include modern welding robots from Russia and computer-aided design systems from Europe, have been critical to the success of China’s submarine production expansion. There has also been a vigorous exchange in dual-use fuel cell technology between German and Chinese engineers, with many of the latter coming from PLAN institutes.

U.S. sources point to substantial cooperation between Russia and China. The Type 093 has often been described as having performance similar to the Project 671 (Victor III) SSN, and Russia has provided particular assistance to China’s naval nuclear propulsion development. In recent years, however, as the prospect of European competition has loomed, Russia has relaxed previous limits on the level of military technology sold to China, and it stands to reason that Russia may be selling China ever more modern nuclear and conventional submarine technologies. In a 2004 unclassified publication, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) projected that the Type 094 SSBN would have a submarine-launched ballistic- missile (SLBM) “farm” that is strikingly similar to that projected for the Russian fourth-generation Project 955 Borei SSBN. This raises the possibility that some Russian fourth-generation submarine technologies are also migrating to China.


In June 2004, the PLA launched its first second-generation Type 094 Jin class SSBN. In contrast to the long-gestating and troubled Type 092 Xia-class, the Type 094 is expected to constitute China’s first reliable nuclear second-strike force within the next year or two. In the mid-1990s, reports emerged that Russia’s Rubin Bureau was assisting China’s nuclear submarine effort. It is curious that Rubin is the lead designer for the new Project 955 SSBN, an upgraded version of the Project 667BDRM (Delta IV). ONI has adjusted its projection for the Type 094 from 16 JL-2 SLBMs to 12, the same number as projected for the Project 955. It is variously estimated that China will build four to six new SSBNs.

The buildup and basing of China’s second-generation SSBN force will also create strategic pressures for the United States, its friends and its allies. In early 2005, the PLA deployed a Type 091 Han class nuclear attack submarine to its South Sea Fleet base at Yulin, on the southern end of Hainan Island. Some Asian military officials believe that in 2006 the PLAN will begin operations at a new nuclear-submarine base beside Yulin that will become a new base for PLAN SSBNs and SSNs. This base was constructed to give near-immediate access to waters for deep water patrols, which is not possible in the shallow Bohai Gulf, the current base area for the solitary Type 092. But to hit targets in the United States with their new 5,000-plus-nautical-mile-range JL-2 SLBMs, these SSBNs will have to travel between the Philippines and Taiwan. This will mean that the PLAN’s focus of operations will shift to the south to support SSBN access, requiring that additional ship and aircraft resources be deployed south.


Following a lengthy development program that started in the 1970s, the PLA launched its first second-generation nuclear attack submarine in December 2002. A second was launched in late 2003, with a third under construction, and the first was expected to enter service in 2005. Designated the Shang class by the U.S. Navy and known as the Type 093 in the PLA Navy, it is widely believed to constitute a major technological advance over the first-generation Type 091 Han class SSN. The 2003 Pentagon report on the PLA noted, “The Type 093-class will compare to the technology of the Russian Victor III SSN and will carry wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes, as well as cruise missiles.” However, the only known picture of the Type 093 shows its sail is a consistent development from the Type 091: thin, with diving planes in the U.S. fashion. If the Type 093 were to approach the acoustic performance of the Project 671RTM (Victor III), it would be superior to early SSN 688 Los Angeles class SSNs. Though not as good as the latest SSN 21 Seawolf and SSN 774 Virginia, the Type 093 would constitute a remarkable advance over the widely acknowledged poor acoustic performance of the Type 091.

Barring conjecture that the Type 093 may incorporate unknown elements of Russian fourth-generation nuclear submarines that may further improve its acoustic and combat performance, it can be expected that the PLA will aggressively pursue improvements for the Type 093 or even rapidly develop follow-on classes in the next decade. China can be expected to develop or seek Russian assistance with new large spherical sonar arrays, quieting technologies, propulsors, advanced underwater communications, vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles, and canted torpedo tubes. It is also likely that China will seek to follow the U.S. example and incorporate unmanned underwater vehicles and energy weapons on to its new SSNs.

To replace its more numerous and less sophisticated Type 033- and 035-class conventional attack submarines, the PLA is taking delivery of three new SSK types. The U.S. Navy was reported to have been surprised by the launching of a new type of Chinese SSK at the Wuhan yard in July 2004. Dubbed the Yuan class by the U.S. Navy, it has since been in testing at the Northern Fleet submarine development complex at Qingdao. While the Chinese have released virtually no data on this submarine, many Internet source photos confirm its broad similarity to the new Rubin-class Project 667 Lada/Amur-class SSK, although the Yuan may be similar in size to the larger Kilo. The Yuan exhibits modern anechoic tiling, and the “step” deck that Rubin has used to develop vertical cruise missile launch tubes aft the sail for future versions of the Lada. If, as suspected, there has been substantial Russian input, it would be safe to project that the Yuan also incorporates advanced quieting technologies and better automated combat-and-control systems, and, in the future (if not already) will incorporate new Russian or Chinese-designed air-independent propulsion systems.

Russia already has made a substantial contribution to the PLAN’s new submarine capabilities through the sale of 12 Rubin-designed Kilo class SSKs. The first two Project 877EM export models introduced the PLAN to modern SSK technology and led the PLA to order two of the more capable Kilo 636 model. Following initial challenges absorbing these ships, most are now stationed with the East Sea Fleet nearest Taiwan. The latest batch of eight new Kilo 636M submarines appears to be divided between the East Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet.

In addition to improvements in quieting and automation, the Kilo 636M also features the Novator Club-S series of three missiles. These include the 220-kilometer-range 3M-54E anti-ship cruise missile, which uses a unique supersonic second stage to defeat close-in weapon system defenses. The 91RE1 fires a purpose-designed lightweight torpedo out to a maximum range of 50 kilometers. And the 3M-14E is a 300-kilometer-range subsonic terrain-following land-attack cruise missile. Russian sources have told the author that China has purchased all three of these missiles for its new Kilos. Also, the Kilos allowed the PLAN to have access to other modern Russian submarine weapons to include their latest homing and wake-homing torpedoes, and new mobile mines. In late 2003, there were Russian press reports of the nation considering selling China the rights to co-produce up to 20 Kilos, a prospect that seems less likely should the Yuan prove successful. However, it cannot be discounted that China may order more Russian-built Kilos, having already invested in substantial production expansion.

The 2002 order for the Kilo is often linked to problems that China had with its Type 039 Song SSK, but its protracted development issues of the 1990s were largely solved by the time the latest Kilo contract was signed. According to a European submarine industry source, the Type 039’s problems stemmed from the inability of Israeli consultants to meld disparate foreign technologies. By 2005, however, an estimated 12 to 14 Songs had been launched, with reports noting that at least three more are under construction. And the decision to expand production of this submarine to a second shipyard constitutes a vote of confidence in its design. Since 2004, the PLA has marketed the Type 039, and Pakistan could emerge as an early customer for this type.

Roughly similar in size and appearance to the French Agosta-class SSK, the Type 039 or 039A Song is a clear improvement over the Type 035 Ming, in turn a development of the 1950s Russian Romeo design. The Song uses an Agosta-style sail with diving planes, and Chinese TV coverage shows it makes ample use of digital command-and-control systems, indicating some degree of automation. Internet source photos of Song construction in Shanghai also show it employs sophisticated two-level anechoic covering. The Song is also armed with a sub-launched version of the 40-kilometer-range YJ-81 anti-ship missile, in addition to Chinese-made torpedoes.

While the numbers of Type 033 Romeo and Type 035 Ming SSKs may be declining in the active force, it is possible that many will be retained for training or combat reserve missions. As part of its still-relevant “People’s War” doctrines, the PLA is averse to simply discarding weapons that still work, regardless of whether they are obsolete. Some PLAN writers have identified missions for these older submarines to include laying mines, transporting special forces and acting as decoys to expose more capable, but less numerous, U.S. submarines.


PLAN submarines typically have not been deployed far from their bases. While there have been rumors for some time of aggressive movements by PLAN submarines during the March 1996 confrontation over Taiwan, the most visible PLA use of its submarines occurred in November 2004. Destroyers and P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force tracked Han-class SSN No. 405 for several hours as it briefly clipped Japanese territorial waters. No. 405 was on its way back from circumnavigating Guam, and apparently had been tracked by the U.S. Navy since it left its Northern Fleet base at Qingdao. Such sorties, designed to test U.S. and Japanese reactions, are likely to become more frequent as the number of new PLAN submarines continues to grow.

In addition, as the focus of its nuclear second-strike capability moves south, it can be expected that Beijing will become more belligerent regarding its territorial claims in the South China Sea. After three decades of a hot-cold military-diplomatic campaign to seize and build up small island bases in the South China Sea, Beijing is now in a lull period. But as it builds up its strategic nuclear presence in Hainan, China will be tempted to undertake military operations to capture Taiwan’s island holdings at Itu Aba, the Pratas, and possibly as far as the Peng Hu Islands in the middle of the Taiwan Strait in order to ensure no opposing force can use them to prosecute PLAN SSBNs. China may demonstrate high sensitivity to future U.S. and Japanese naval activities in this region, increasing the chances of naval incidents. The April 2001 EP-3 incident offers just a foretaste of the PLA’s resistance should the U.S. move to shadow and contain Hainan-based SSBNs.

Also, before the end of the decade, new Type 093 SSNs are likely to be able to carry out small-scale but politically powerful power-projection missions for the Chinese leadership. This will follow from the expectation that the Type 093 SSN will be the only PLA platform that can carry a version of the PLA’s new land-attack cruise missile (LACM) to the world’s littoral areas. These LACMs are expected to have a range of 1,000 kilometers to 2,000 kilometers and to be cued and guided by an initial space constellation of imaging and communication, expected to be in place by the end of the decade. It is not inconceivable that by early in the next decade China could be using these LACMs to intervene in distant countries to favor political factions loyal to Beijing.

China’s commitment to increasing both the numbers and the capabilities of its submarine forces comes at a time of increasing fiscal constraint for the U.S. Navy’s submarine and anti-submarine forces. It has long been reported that budgetary pressures could have dire consequences should U.S. SSN production decline to less than one per year, with SSN numbers seen as falling to between 30 and 40 by the end of the next decade. This would clearly be unacceptable given the global strategic commitments supported by the U.S. submarine fleet and the expected rapid rise in PLAN submarine numbers. Should there be a conflict in which the U.S. would choose to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack, Washington simply may not have sufficient submarines to hold the line long enough. Despite projections of continuing U.S. technical superiority, the nation simply may not be able to withstand a superior number of China’s Russian-influenced third- or third-plus-generation submarines.

Other Asian democracies will face pressures from China’s submarines. The PLA’s 2002 order for eight more upgraded Kilo 636M SSKs sought to match the U.S. 2001 commitment to sell Taiwan eight SSKs. The PLA will have its new submarines by 2006, whereas, because of politics in Taipei, it remains undecided whether or when Taiwan will receive theirs. In addition, barring a significant increase in defense spending, Japan is expected to sustain its fleet of 15 to 16 SSKs. Though modern, and manned by highly professional crews, Japan’s submarine fleet would be overwhelmed by the PLAN’s sub fleet in the event of a Sino-Japanese war, such as a conflict over resource claims in the East China Sea.