In the April 1988 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, Commander Richard Compton-Hall, RN(Ret.) gave a fascinating and insightful account or his recent visit with the Submarine Command of the People’s Republic of China. I am concerned, however, that this “inside look” at the Chinese submarine fleet may have inadvertantly left the reader with a false impression of China’s submarine force. Commander Compton-Hall spent a fair amount or time in his article detailing the shortcomings of the Chinese built ROMEO-class diesel-electric attack submarine which he toured. As a result, he concluded that although Chinese submariners are “very good indeed,” Chinese submarine hardware “is poor.” This focus on the obsolescent ROMEO-class design overlooks the significant quantitative and qualitative strides achieved by the Chinese submarine fleet since its humble beginnings.
Quantitatively, Compton-Hall states that the Chinese informed him that their submarine fleet consists of only 81 units, vice the 120 reported in the 1987-88 edition or Janes’ Fighting Ships. Even it this is true, the Chinese submarine force remains one of the world’s largest. Only the United States and the Soviet Union maintain submarine fleets that are larger. Moreover, if we consider only the Pacific basin, the Chinese submarine fleet is comparable — at least in terms or sheer numbers — to the submarine components or both the U.S. and Soviet Pacific Fleets.
More important than the size of the Chinese submarine fleet is the fact that it is deploying indigenously produced nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed units. The significance of this technologi-cal development should not be overlooked in the West. According to Janes’ and other open sources, the People’s Republic of China bas deployed a force of seven nuclear-powered submarines — three HAN-class attack submarines (SSNs) and four XIA- class ballistic missile units (SSBNs). The indi-genous development and production of nuclear-powered submarines is a feat thus far accomplished by only four other powers — the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France. (In addition, India has obtained a nuclear-powered submarine from the USSR, Canada has declared its intention to procure several SSNs from the United Kingdom, and Brazil has announced an indigenous SSN development program.) Furthermore, although considerably smaller than their U.S. and Soviet counterparts, the Chinese nuclear-powered subma-rine fleet is only marginally smaller than those or the UK and France.
The HAN-class SSN has an ALBACORE hull and an overall length of 300 feet. It has a submerged displacement of approximately 5,000 metric tons. The HAN has a single nuclear power plant, and is estimated in the West to have a maximum submerged speed of 30 knots. As Compton-Hall pointed out, the lead unit of the class took ten years to complete and was not launched until 1972. This was apparently due to problems in developing the nuclear power plant. However, the subsequent units were completed more expeditiously.
The lead unit of the XIA-class SSBN was laid down in 1978 and launched in mid 1981. The XIA has an overall length or 394 feet and a submerged displacement of about 8,000 metric tons. It has a single pressurized-water reactor and an estimated maximum submerged speed of 22 knots. The XIA-class units appear to have 12 ballistic missile launch tubes for the Chinese CSs-N-3 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). (Different open sources have declared the XIA as having between 12 and 16 missile tubes, however the latest Jaoes’ estimates 12.)
Of equal significance to the development of nuclear-powered submarines is the indigenous Chinese development of SLBMs. Only three other nations have attained this technological capabili-ty — the United States, the Soviet Union, and France. The CSs-N-3 is a two-stage missile with a maximum range of approximately 2,800 kilometers. It is estimated to have been developed from the Chinese CSB-2 intermediate range ballistic missile. If so, it likely carries a similar payload, probably a single thermonuclear warhead with a yield of from 200 kilotons to two megatons.The css-N-3 was first launched from a submerged pontoon in the Yellow Sea in 1982. In September 1985, it was successfully launched from a sub-merged XIA-class SSBN in the Pacific Ocean.
In conclusion, although Commander Compton-Hall is quite correct in asserting that the People’s Republic of China has a long way to go in bridging the “thirty year chasm” between Western and Chinese submarine technologies, we should not discount the Chinese submarine fleet. It is rela-tively large and deploys both nuclear-powered and ballistic missile equipped units. In short, the Chinese submarine fleet is a force to be reckoned with. It has the potential, should the Chinese political leadership choose to employ it, to play major role in any maritime hostilities in the North Pacific and adjacent seas.