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(The author, Commander Compton-Hall, recently spent a month in China, at the invitation of the People’s Republic of China’s Navy, lecturing to Chinese submariners, the Naval HQ Staff and Procurement Officials on lessons learned in submarine warfare from World War II onwards. The invitation probably arose from several international books Compton-Hall has written on submarine warfare, the latest of which (with Captain John Moore) is SUBMARINE WARFARE TODAY & TOMORROW, which is now required reading for Chinese submariners! Compton-Hall is Director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport, England, and was Ops Analysis Officer of COMSUBDEVGRU TWO from 1958-60.)

It was a single and surprising honour for a retired submarine commanding officer, to be invited to lecture to submariners in the MarxistLeninist-Maoist People’s Republic of China. But i~ was even more surprising to find an extraordinary degree of openness and willingness to debate in a Communist country. Granted, it took a couple or days to break the ice: but thereafter the atmosphere was warm and very similar to senior NATO Starr Colleges or Submarine Command Courses — notably the British “perisher”, where arguments and wild accusations are flung back and forth, while putting the world to rights, without overmuch regard for accuracy or personal feelings. There was absolutely no reserve at Qingdao and no secretiveness save, of course, where unavoidably sensitive subjects such as nuclear safety or SSN noise-reduction problems were introduced.

All this was entirely unexpected. Others who had visited China warned that audiences would be formal, cautious, impassive — and that there would not be many laughs. In the event, reactions were quite the reverse and all concerned seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly. Submariners are the same everywhere — except, perhaps, in a Soviet podyodnaya lodka where the Comrades are not always prone to be very comradely — but that is another subject about which a great deal was learned in China.

The pace was typically brisk, especially at the Submarine Academy, Qingdao, where lectures started at 0740 every morning, including Saturday, going on with group discussions until the late evening and informal meetings at any time over a mug of tea in the spacious hotel suite assigned. There was no let-up on a Sunday either: some activity was arranged and searching questions from students continued even, for example, when climbing Mount Laoshan accompanied, as always, by two “minders”, two lady-officer interpreters, a lady doctor (lugging a heavy medical pack), a chauffeur, an organizer, a guide — and, like it or not, a gentleman from the Soviet KGB somewhere in the background. (Future visitors might care to note that, if they have no Flit repellent handy, a camera directed at a suspected KGB attendant works equally well).

The point about longish hours is made not simply to warn anybody who follows that some fairly hard work is involved (the Chinese Navy hopes for more lectures on various subjects in the future) but to emphasize the extreme keenness of their submariners to learn all they possibly can from Western experience. They gladly work very hard — often far into the night — and are outstandingly intelligent. Admiral Rickover would have loved them although they have started, very recently (and not least because of Limey contacts) to show a degree of flexibility as well as a healthy skepticism and an inclination to question technical and tactical dogma which might not have found favour with the late Admiral.

Their dedication is channelled towards a single-minded aim which was also the ultimate purpose of the lectures — to bridge the technological and operational gap between the PLA(N) and the principal Western submarine services as quickly as possible. Although the bridge is fast being built it has to cross a thirty-year chasm.

Submarine Numbers

Janes’ Fighting Ships and most other naval references for 1987/88 list the People’s Republic submarine Order of Battle as 4 SSBNs, 1 SSB, 3 SSNs, 3 SSGs and 104 SSKs or the “improved MING”, “lUNG”, “WHISKEY V” and an overwhelming preponderance of “ROMEO” types. This Order of Battle was one of the things which gave rise to hilarity amongst the students: they said (having first checked that this information was unclassified) that the total number of hulls is 81, and, furthermore, that “very many are retired”. In other words, the operational force is nothing like so great as the West imagines. The word “retired” means, of course, in reserve. The Chinese are extremely proud, and rightly so, of building their SSBNs and SSNs. as well as their latest SSKs. in their own shipyards “down to the last nut and bolt” (a mild exaggeration); but they admit that the penalty of keeping the work “in house” implies very long building times. The first SSN took ten years and they are not optimistic about speeding up the process. Formal Soviet technical assistance was withdrawn in August 1960 (but there have probably been significant exchanges of information since then) and, although considerable help and advice has been given by other nations (perhaps with the French predominating until recently) it seems to have been scattered. One result of this, evidently, is that weapon system integration is unknown — a matter which was repeatedly discussed during the lecture forums.

Weapon Systems

It is difficult to agree that Chinese weapon systems can really be dignified by that name. They appear either to be basic in the extreme -similar to early USN “GUPPIES” or British “Tconversions” — or assembled piece-meal from whatever source had been willing to supply them. Torpedo angling and depth-setting is mechanical similar to the old British torpedoes. However, it must be emphasized that the People’s Republic is truly defensive in character and is primarily concerned with repelling amphibious forces rather than engaging in advanced submarine-versussubmarine warfare. Despite the fact the Chinese submarines are, in the main, equipped with no better than straight-running steam torpedoes of Russian design — equivalent to USN MARK 14s or British MARK VIIIs — they may be perfectly adequate for the prime purpose. Acoustic homers are known, and the Chinese would like to acquire British Marconi TIGERFISH, but there is reason to think that the home-grown smart weapons are of rather dubious value. Some extraordinarily advanced torpedo types — are portrayed in the Military Museum in Beijing (of all places) but an objective observer is forced to suspect that most exist only as wishful thoughts.

As an aside, an enormous amount was learned about Soviet methods during the lecture tour because the Chinese submariners (and indeed most of the armed services) are modelled slavishly on Russian ways and means. If the Soviets have not radically changed their methodology there is good reason to think that, despite awesome material advances, they conform to the rigid, inflexible practices which some of us have always thought to be their weakness. Nor, by inference, are their anti-ship tactics aggressive to our way of thinking. For example, the idea of an SSK boring in at high speed to a large force or convoy, shooting down any interfering escorts on the way if necessary, came as something of a revelation to students schooled to the Russian way of thinking: the thought that once within a group of surface ships, a submarine is not only able to take out ship after ship (admittedly if given luck, but then fortune always favours the brave) but is also relatively safe — to hell with the battery state, worry about that later — provoked comments to the effect that this was a wholly new idea. Tactics in the Soviet Navy (unless quite recently revised) appear to insist on a much more cautious approach; and if the book says “do such and such” you do precisely that and do not deviate one tiny bit from the established rules. Nor, judging from attack-teacher instances, shall anybody question the commanding officer’s assessment: if he says that the target angle-on-the-bow is 30 degrees it would apparently be unthinkable to query the estimate whatever the plot and calculator may suggest. Again derived from Soviet principles, the Chinese seem very keen on coordinated tactics; but these still further rigidify operations by all accounts and common sense.

Operational shortcomings like these will change, and change swiftly, in the Chinese Navy which is adopting a fresh, refreshing and pragmatic approach — but we might wonder whether the Russians can ever become capable of achieving the flexibility which American and British submariners believe to be so essential for success in war.

There were too many snippets of information about Soviet practices to list in full, but, inter alia, it was learned that all standard (i.e. nonsmart) Soviet torpedoes are fuelled by alcohol: however, the Soviet Navy has not taken the precaution of deliberately contaminating the spirit (as the USN did with the MAHK 1~) and Russian sailors — conscripts who are allowed no booze — drink the stuff to lessen the tedium or an arduous, depressing and thoroughly uncomfortable life below.


The relatively new Chinese-built HOMEO “GHEAT WALL No. 15” (PLA submarines are all numbered “GREAT WALLS”) was said to be typical or the SSK force. It has the most appalling controlroom/attack center layout imaginable. Based on the Russian design, it could well be that it is deliberately intended that the left hand must not know what the right hand is doing. This, again, would conform to what some of us believe to be true of the Soviet Fleet. The plot/chart table is in a tiny office by itself; the torpedo control calculator at the after end of the control room faces aft and is not visible to the Command Team; the sonar, in a cramped and inaccessible room with no external communications, is the HERKULES Soviet type with a frequency centered higher than ten Kilohertz and a miniature PPI display; there is no space for a Time Bearing Plot; and the attack periscope (with horribly awkward controls mounted on the tube and not on the handles) is so positioned that the Captain can scarcely get his body between it and the port bulkhead — so viewing to starboard is, to say the least, difficult. The hydroplane controls — one man, two buttons — are situated forward where the operator can not be easily overseen. Somehow, the Chinese overcome these and other problems which would be thought quite intolerable in the West.

Much has been said about compartmentation in Russian boats but there is little evidence of that in a ROMEO. However, externally there are no less than fourteen main ballast tanks, six of which are fitted with Kingston valves. So far as damage control is concerned there seem to be adequate pumps but the principle feature is a multiplicity of medical chests. Every boat carries a doctor and again, by inference, there is a medical doctor in all Soviet submarines as well.


The Chinese officers and men encountered were absolutely first-class by any standards. Admittedly, they were probably the cream; and men for a course of this kind, as well as for the submarine service in general, are drawn from volunteers who hugely outnumber those finally selected; but their IQ, quick-wittedness, smartness, determination — and, come to that, their personalities — were remarkable and admirable. Host seemed able to write software and construct equations as a matter of course; all were meticulous in insuring that they got to the heart of the matter; there were none who would not be a credit to our own services — and, very likely, a Chinese submariner would be both popular and respected if he transferred on loan, exchange or whatever.

Having said that, management is a serious problem throughout the People’s Republic. The Captain and Deputy Captain. Political Officer and Deputy Political Officer turn to with the rest every morning to clean ship. Things are much the same in civilian employment and the result is superficially sparkling (although the heads, always smelly in Russia and China, were kept locked in No.15) but this is really not the way to run a railroad or a submarine. To avoid the appearance of undue niggling, the point was made by showing students at work on a nearby building site where there was no foreman because everybody was equal — of course. The score of labourers on the site were working from dawn to dusk at full belt: but the inefficiency and wasted efforts were alarming — and doubtless frustrating to those involved. For instance, the concrete mixer was 100 meters away from a new stretch of concrete and barrows had to be wheeled over broken bricks to reach it: there was simply nobody to suggest either moving the mixer or laying planks across the rubble — and exploding a string of good-joss fire-crackers after each stretch of concrete was completed, hardly substituted for a managerial inspection.

Strict quality control in the Chinese Navy is an admitted unknown to a large extent. Suffice it to say that there have been “problems” with the nuclear program but students were not pressed to expand on these.

Until now, new equipment and new tactics have been tested ad hoc in (more or less) operational submarines. Clearly, results have by and large, been disappointing: Western suppliers and advisers testify to that and the Chinese themselves have expressed some disillusionment with what they have been offered. Those of us who have been involved in trials of one kind or another can readily understand what has happened. The answer suggested to, and probably accepted by, the Chinese Submarine Service is to form a Submarine Development Squadron — smaller than the USN activity at New London but run on the same lines. If this solution is indeed adopted, developments should be much more rapid than hitherto. The establishment of a Devron would also make it very much easier for the West to give assistance. For one thing, foreign observers need only see a limited number of submarines and hence national security, which the Chinese are paranoiac about, would not be unduly jeopardized; for another, selected crews would be accustomed to evaluations which, as we all know, are seldom successful and not popular in a normal running boat.

The Chinese are continually promising to adopt a rank structure. At present the officers all wear the same simple blue uniform without badges of rank, and they include what we would call Chief and Petty Officers in their number. It is a far from satisfactory system and the Chinese recognize this; but the snag lies in deciding whom amongst the Old Comrades (meaning very old in some cases) should be Admirals, Vice Admirals, Captains or nothing in particular. Face can not be lost; and the hurdle seems to be substantial if not insurmountable.

In short, although the Chinese submariners markedly follow the Soviet system in many ways there are two crucial differences between them and the Russians: Chinese hardware is poor but allimportant software — meaning personnel — is very good indeed. If the Chinese Navy wishes its submarine force to become a first-line fighting arm it can certainly achieve that aim in a few years given continuing help from the West. There are those who might agree that the considerable effort involved in providing meaningful assistance would be rewarding and well worthwhile.

Commander Richard Compton-Ball, MBE, RN(Ret.)

Naval Submarine League

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