China’s Submarine Procurement & Its Implications

By Chris Mclachlan

Chinese Kilo in service

Chinese Kilo-class submarine in service. China continues to purchase and develop fast attack diesel electric submarines. Source: Wikimedia user Tool-ranch, used under a creative commons license.

According to numerous recent media reports, Russia and China are in talks to finalize the largest arms deal between the two countries since 2002, with new submarines as the centerpiece of the arms package. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s interest in purchasing the Lada-class submarines demonstrates that China does not intend to pursue expanded blue water naval capabilities without first ensuring strong capabilities within the first island chain. China’s continued procurement and development of diesel electric submarines is evidence that it desires to strengthen existing capabilities for a “Near Seas” anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment. While analysts can form broad judgments about China’s naval capabilities by examining the types of platforms the PLAN is purchasing and/or developing, understanding China’s overall naval strategy and intentions is far more difficult given the opacity of the PLAN and the limited availability of reliable open-source information.

With over 60 conventional submarines (SSKs), China maintains one of the world’s largest submarine fleets. China’s continued investment in conventional submarines suggests that the PLAN will maintain its current force structure for some time. Compared to its fleet of SSKs, China’s fleet of nuclear powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is very small — as of 2012, China operated 5 SSNs and 4 SSBNs. By comparison, the U.S. Navy currently operates 53 SSNs and 14 SSBNs. If China wishes to pursue more substantial blue water capabilities, it would likely have to alter its force structure to something more comparable to that of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet. Yet, the PLAN continues to invest heavily in SSKs. The purchase of the Lada-class would give China access to advanced noise dampening technology and new sonar systems such as advanced bow, flank arrays, and towed array sonars.

China’s potential acquisition of the Lada-class is a sign that China is working to further hone its A2/AD capabilities within the “Near Seas.” Unlike SSNs, which do not have to refuel for decades due to their nuclear reactors, SSKs are limited by how much fuel they can hold. The Lada-class has a range of about 6,000 miles submerged dieseling speed and about 650 miles submerged at a cruising speed of 3 kt. This range is more than adequate for operating within the first island chain where Chinese ports are within easy reach. SSKs are very capable, quiet, and agile weapons platforms when operating within the first island chain, as the shallow waters allow them to excel at mine laying, anti-surface warfare and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) missions. Yet the Lada-class and China’s SSK fleet generally are less ideal in blue water operations that take subs far away from resupply ports.

The limitations of China’s submarine fleet signal that, at least in the near future, the PLAN may have difficulty operating aircraft carriers beyond the “Near Seas.” Due to the SSK’s range limitations and China’s small number of SSNs, the PLAN has limited anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. In the event of a conflict, the handful of Chinese SSNs might not be able to deploy with aircraft carrier battle groups if they are needed for conducting anti-surface warfare operations against Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and U.S. Navy surface ships operating in range of the first island chain. Without adequate ASW capabilities, the PLAN would be taking a substantial risk deploying its new carrier during wartime, particularly outside the first island chain. These constraints suggest the PLAN may restrict its carrier operations to within the first island chain, where it is less susceptible to submarine attacks because it is under the cover of land based airpower and within the umbrella of China’s ballistic missile forces.

China’s potential purchase of the Lada-class submarine does not signify that China intends to challenge U.S. global naval preeminence but rather desires to become a regional naval power within the first island chain. For the time being, China’s carrier and fast attack SSNs, appear to be tools to cultivate national pride rather than meaningful blue water naval capabilities. Still, China’s regional naval ambitions should serve as a rallying cry for U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific to strengthen their respective military ties with the United States—and with each other—as the best means for deterring possible future Chinese aggression.

Mr. Chris Mclachlan is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. [Update: Post was revised at 21:34 EST 10/21/2013 to remove a reference to China’s SSBNs in the concluding paragraph.]


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