Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate
THIS WEBSITE IS SPONSORED BY PROGENY, A CORPORATE MEMBER OF THE NSL

THE MODERNIZATION OF CHINA’S SUBMARINE FORCES

Lieutenant Commander Kim tr a Ph.D candidate at the University of Hull. He recently published an article on the Influence of Gorbachev’s Reasonable Suffciency on the Russian Navy (1996).

The Chinese realized that with an accelerated force modernization program, they would be the only ones to fill the power vacuum which now exists in Southeast Asia as a result of the end of the Cold War. During the 1980s, furthermore, three incidents helped speed up the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) doctrinal change to one designed to deal with local, limited or peripheral wars in the south and which involves the use of combined-arms forces offensively. The first two were heightened tensions along the Sino-Indian border in the Spring of 1987 and Sino-Vietnamese border tensions the same year. The third was more serious, when Chinese and Vietnamese frigates clashed in the Sepratly Islands in the South China Sea on 8 February 1988. On 14 March, another naval eagagement took place in which 120 Vietnamese sailors were killed. 1 The PLA has been pushing to acquire more up-to-date weaponry since 1989.

At the fourth session of the 7th National People’s Congress (NPC), which was held in March 1991, proposals for the advancement of military modernization were raised in successive speeches by representatives elected to the Congress from the military. This trend was influenced by appropriate lessons from the defeat of Iraq’s Chinese-style army by the West’s superior technology in the Gulf War. During 1991, the first warship-home helicopter force began operations as a formal detachment of the Navy. In February 1992, furthermore, the NPC passed The Territorial Water Law defining China’s maritime boundaries, which reasserted its claims to the Spratly and Parcel Islands, as well as the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands. It is represented by¬∑ China’s neighbors as evidence of aggressive expansionism, and could be seen as an attempt to draw a line In the water in response to developments like the angry Taiwanese/Japane.se exchanges over the Seokaku Islands in 1991 and growing charges of piracy and disorder in the East China Sea. In April 1992, a Chinese Navy Deputy Commander was quoted in the Chinese press as saying that it was high time China readjusted its maritime strategy and made more efforts to recover the oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. 2 Recently, there is no doubt that, as a result of the Spratly situation, the Navy figures prominently in military modernization. But even more significantly, the PLA Navy’s capability to protect sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) and its power projection capability will make the Navy a key element in future Chinese military strategy.

Maritime Strategy

During the 1980s, the Chinese eave up the Maoist doctrine of people’s war, which relies on ill-equipped man power to go against any enemy invasion. In June 1985, the Chinese changed their military strategy from a focus on general war to fight local and limited wars around their strategic borders. Chinese military officials have known that .. wars for the remainder of the century would be small and intensive, would increase due to the growing military strength of regional power and would be located around China’s periphery”. 4 Since 1987, China’s military strategy focused on five types of limited wars, two of them are important: (1) small-scale conflicts restricted to contested border territory; and (2) conflict over territorial sea and islands. Thus, they are trying to build up the Navy and Air Force, and concentrate on technology and quick-strike forces.’ In the end, China has claimed sovereignty over all the islands, bays, sandbars, banks, and islets in the South China Sea. China has not only used violence to support its claims and national interests but also made clear that it will pursue them.

China appears committed to improving its naval force structure in order to prosecute its territorial claims in the South China Sea and to support its other interests. Its PLAN currently possesses only coastal (or near-coastal) capabilities, but relaxation of tensions with Moscow has allowed the Navy to build toward a blue-water navy. Concomitantly, the Navy has developed a new offshore deference doctrine, intended to effectively control territorial waters extending to the boundaries of its 200 mile EEZ, “although it stretches to more than 1,000 km in the South China Sea if the Spratly are included”.. In April 1992, Admiral Zhang Xusan, the Navy Deputy Commander-in-chief, publicly outlined a shift in military strategy when he said that it was “high time” for China to readjust its naval strategy and make greater efforts to recover South China Sea oil and as disputes. Admiral Zhang added that his forces were ready to “offer assistance to the economic development” of the area, including the disputed Spratly Islands.

Recently, the Chinese have considered the Navy as a major element for protecting their sea channels, and unassuming greater significance for national security and economy. In addition, the development of naval power, which Chinese analysts considered a weakness for China’s defense, is being naive priority compared to those of land and air power in order to not only keep the Spratly Islands, which are covered by other Southeast Asian countries but also protect their underlying natural resources. The Navy’s missions can be divided into four areas as follows: sea denial and control; the protection of SLOCs; projection of its power and presence; and a peacetime instrument of foreign policy means. In a major war or peacetime, the Navy will be heavily engaged in their performance of four overlapping missions.

The History and Modernization of Submarines

The naval forces of the PLA have improved their capabilities substantially, with annual budget increases. The build-up of China’s naval capabilities is a stronge indication of military strategy designed to back up its territorial claims in the South China Sea. China’s strategic perspective for defense modernization in the 1990s aims at equipping its naval force with modern technology in order to win local and limited wars in the next two decades. Even though the Navy possess brown water capabilities, it is today successfully developing blue water capabilities, especially in respect to nuclear submarine strength. Furthermore, sea denial and naval pronounce capabilities will influence China’s effort for economic and maritime modernization in the next two decades as they concentrate on improving their SSBNs, SSNs and patrol submarines. So that the Navy can develop a better strategic force as well as improved ASW capabilities which a modern patrol submarine fleet would possess.

The development of China’s submarines depended on Soviet technology in the 1950s, but Beijing moved to have a capability of making their own way into the nuclear age. They launched their first SSN of the HAN class in 1972 and 20 years later deployed five. About 100 meters long, they displaced some 4,500 tons surfaced and could reach maximum 25 knots underwater on power supplied by a pressurized water reactor. This submarine enabled the Navy to keep one SSN in an operational status and gave it a theoretical capability for sustained long range interdiction and surveillance operations.

The Navy continued to place development of its submarine forces as a top priority. The modernization program was marked by further progress in October 1982, when a submarine-launched ballistic missile designed for the new SSBN made a successful test flight amid much public concern. The Chinese submarine force is the third largest in the world. There are an estimated 90 submarines, including two strategic missile submarines (one Xia class SSBN and one Golf class SSB); five Han class (SSN) attack submarines; one cruise missile submarine (SSG); and 80 patrol submarines which include 27 reserves. The details for the modernization of submarines are as follows

Nuclear Powered Submarines

The Navy has one Xia class SSBN (Type 092, 6500 tons). This class represents a considerable improvement over the Golf construction of the first XIA begun in 1978 and completed in 1987. A milestone in development was the successful launch of a Juilong (JL)-1 (Sea Dragon) SLBM from the submerged XIA in September 1988. The Navy bailed the launch as an important step towards an operational, sea-based deterrent, although it is believed to be the only test firing of the JL-1 so far. Navy officials say the XIA can carry up to 20 missiles with an underwater endurance of three months, although Western analysts count only 12 missile tubes on the submarine. Some analysts believe, however, that the Chinese have limited production of the XIA, which is able to accommodate a more powerful multiple-warhead SLBM, expected to begin production in the mid 1990s.. The first of a new class (Type 093) is expected to start being built in 1996/1997 but this may be delayed. This class baa a larger displacement than Type 092.

The Han class (SSN), which entered service in August 1974, marked a major boost in China’s submarine capabilities. Its range and endurance almost double the Romeo class. At the end of 1985, a Han sailed submerged for more than 20,000 nautical miles and 84 days to test its maximum endurance capability. 9 Although it was proudly noted that this surpassed the record of the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus, it only emphasized that the Han lags some 2S years behind U.S. and Soviet technological levels. Because of serious technological and safety problems, including radiation leakage, the Hans have been largely limited to short voyages. Only three of these early generation Hans were built between the 1970s and the early 1980s. so Subsequent improvements to iron out major problems saw the resumption of production in the latter half of the 1980s, with two improved Hans believed to have been built, the newest vessel being commissioned in 1991. Over the next two decades, China will continue to develop nuclear powered submarines with initial work under way on a follow-on to the five-strong Han class of attack submarines and a follow-on to the single Xia class SSBN.

Conventional Submarines

Even the Romeo class has been updated since it was completed in 1962, these submarines still remain an increasingly outmoded 1950s design. Their maximum endurance is limited to 7000 nautical miles and 35-45 days at sea. The Ming class (SS), first launched in 197S, was intended to improve upon the Romeos. Since 1975, China bas been producing two kinds of indigenously designed conventional submarines, such as the Ming and the advanced Ming which are built with 1950s technology, displacing 1594 tons surfaced.

Recently, the modernization of conventional submarines is based on two main categories: purchase of Kilo class submarines from Russia and an upgrade program for the Song and Ming class submarines. Acquisition of advanced arms from Russia has accelerated this process, highlighted in February 1995 by the delivery of the first of four Kilo class diesel electric submarines, known as Type 877 EKM, including the transfer of technology methods and production to China. u In March 1995, furthermore, China decided to purchase six Kilo class submarines from Russia. Thus, the Navy’s submarine service will be able to fully exploit the potential of these submarines through deployment at the Zhanjian South China Sea Fleet base. 12 Some reports contend that China may ultimately obtain up to 22 Kilos, but sources with a closer knowledge of the program dismiss this. The number is likely to stay at six and ten Kilos.

The second category of the submarine modernization plan covers an upgrade of the Ming class (Type 035) patrol submarines, of which 11 are active. These submarines are equipped with few electronics and primitive mountings for the main machinery. The upgrade program has been undertaken with the help of Israel. Israel may also be involved with the Song class program that should form the major Chinese conventional submarine in the future. This ship is expected to include technology from both the Kilo and the Israelis; the first of which was launched at the Wuhan Shipyard in May 1994 and started sea trials in August 1995. This class is the first new diesel electronic design to be developed by China in over two decades. The Song class is also expected to be able to fire anti-ship missiles when submerged.” This class will eventually replace the Romeo and Ming classes.

While the Chinese have mastered the basics of conventional and nuclear submarine design, the pace of development of tactical models appears to have been slowed in the 1980s. On the other hand, the Navy has approached several countries in an attempt to remedy shortfalls in modern submarine systems. In 1985, for example, the Navy bought a French DUUX-S sonar which is in the Han class SSN, Ming and Romeo classes SSs. Over the next two decades, the Navy will continue to place development of its submarine force as top priority with a new generation of major surface combatants and an aircraft carrier plan. At the tactical level, it believes that its submarines can help achieve a relatively large operational radius of action, reaching the first islands of the South China Sea. At the strategic aspect, the nuclear submarine force is regarded as the PLA’s most reliable second strike deterrent.

Conclusion

China continues to improve its military capability, particularly its Navy. It is now foreseeable that submarines will be the key to Chinese sea power.” After reviewing a naval exercise and a military review in 199S, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, also Chairman of the Central Military Commission, stressed the importance of improving the Navy and accelerating its modernization to ensure coastal defenses. He also said that, .. The current situation bas placed new requirements on consolidating the Navy.”16 Recently, Chinese interest in acquiring modern attack aircraft carriers remains a priority with military professionals. In addition, China is interested in the acquisition of frigates, corvettes and surveillance systema for maritime patrol boats and warships, submarines and ASW technology.17 For example, China’s defense budget has been increased for consecutive years to 13.8 percent. Furthermore, Chinese military acquisition and modernization strategies will make easy power-projection operations and help establish a blue water navy.

Over the next two decades, China will pose the most complex submarine challenge outside of Russia as a result of its commitment to increased training, the steadily expanding scope and complexity of its exercises, and an active acquisition program targeted at modern technology.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League