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Are nuclear powered attack submarines valuable and effective weapons in today’s security environment? Since the end of the Cold War, old missions have changed and new ones continue to be developed. Nevertheless, attack submarines have been vulnerable to budget reductions. Especially as the new administration reviews our defense posture and expenditures, it is important to emphasize the submarine’s unique contributions to our national security strategy. The SSN has certain characteristics and capabilities that broaden and deepen America’s ability to discourage conventional conflict. This argument is affirmed by contemporary security challenges, particularly in the Taiwan Strait. In that case, U.S. submarines create a dilemma for Chinese military planners and preserve a tenuous peace.

The People’s Republic of China and the United States have a profitable but problematic relationship. Trade relations improve and expand, but significant tensions remain. According to a recent RAND study, the most dangerous questions involve China’s claims to territory it does not truly control. 1 Taiwan is the most prominent “unsatisfied claim” and a potential catalyst for conflict. This issue has multifaceted military and political dimensions, but we focus on the military possibilities, neglecting others. Within the limited scope of this essay, we make three critical assumptions: I) America will intervene to defend Taiwan; 2) Outside powers will not militarily support China; and 3) Although militarily feasible, some of the options discussed may not be politically advisable. Nevertheless, Chinese defense planners must consider the full range of potential American military responses. It is in the minds of China’s planners and national leadership that deterrence is forged.

It is rewarding to examine how American military capabilities constrain China’s strategy. In fact, America’s power is so uniquely advanced and asymmetric that it may even deter Chinese aggression. America’s Submarine Force is particularly capable and unmatched. This analysis will contrast the attack submarine’s capabilities with China’s limited counter force. Three Defense Department scenarios for China-Taiwan conflict will then be presented. Finally, submarines will be introduced into each scenario, demonstrating how they complicate China’s ultimate goal of enforcing sovereignty over Taiwan.

The fast attack submarine is a stealthy, multi-mission platform. Its captain and crew can remain submerged for an indefinite period of time. The nuclear plant allows sustained high speeds, while sound absorbing technology and sound tactical operation can make the boat practically invisible to most acoustic sensors. Silence is important for survivability and these nuclear powered subs are among the quietest in the world. 2 Submarines can detect, track and destroy targets above and below the surface with torpedoes and missiles. Furthermore, the boat can also attack land targets from great ranges with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

By comparison, China is weak at sea and even weaker under-neath the sea. Most of the ships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are obsolete and lack adequate anti-sub sensors and weapons.3 Even China’s newest acquisitions, the Russian Sovremelllly class destroyers, are optimized for surface rather than subsurface warfare. China’s submarines have limited combat capabilities and a short operational radius. 5 The PLAN’ s submarine service has a few nuclear boats and about 30 antiquated Romeo class diesel boats. The SSNs are both loud and unreliable, 6 while the older diesel subs are “mostly inoperable. China has fielded newer Kilo class diesel submarines purchased from Moscow, but reports indicate that the PLAN is “unwilling to invest in proper training or maintenance. Clearly, American attack boats would have practically unimpeded access to the Chinese seas.

How are submarines directly relevant to Taiwan’s defense? In February 1999, the Department of Defense released a report on the cross-Strait balance of power. The Security Situation in the Taiwan strait compared China and Taiwan’s military capabilities and then evaluated them in the context of three different contingency situations: sea denial operations, limited missile and air strikes, as well as full scale invasion. 9 The Hong Kong media have reported that China’s National Defense Newspaper discusses similar “blockade”, “attack”, and “land on” options for “solving the Taiwan issue by force” .10 The Defense Department concludes that in each situation China would succeed in defeating an unaided Taiwan, forcing its return. Considering submarines in the context of a coordinated American response, these contingencies will be reevaluated. With submarines playing a vital and unopposed role, the United States can foil China’s objective of aggressively reasserting sovereignty over Taiwan. If Beijing similarly evaluates our capabilities and their own liabilities, American’s deterrent value is particularly high.

It is important to establish what son of deterrence submarines can provide in each scenario. Patrick M. Morgan. a security strategist, defines two different kinds of deterrence: general and immediate. General deterrence applies to situations where a potential opponent is not expected to launch an attack.11 America’s peacetime military posture rests upon general deterrence. It is a credible force, but is not directed at any particular threat and can react to evolving situations. Submarines contribute towards a robust general deterrence, especially against an adversary who is blind beneath the waves. Beijing must always assume that one or more boats may be offshore or only hours away. The first two contingencies are likely to be most influenced by general deterrence.

Immediate deterrence is practiced when one country prepares an attack while another readies its specific retaliatory capabilities to prevent it. Desen Shield established retaliatory capabilities in Saudi Arabia, transforming American deterrence towards Iraq from general to immediate. Deploying two carrier battle groups to the waters around Taiwan during China’s bellicose 1996 exercise can also be interpreted as preparing a retaliatory capability. Immediate deterrence is most relevant to an invasion scenario.


According to The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait, “the primary intent behind a blockade of the island would be to cripple Taiwan economically and isolate it internationally.” 13 The report anticipates that increasingly severe restrictions would be placed upon Taiwanese shipping by establishing exercise zones outside of major ports and stopping merchants in the Strait. Sheer numbers, rather than technological advantage, would allow China to quarantine the island. The Hong Kong press asks, “How long can the isolated Taiwan, being short of natural resources, hold out?” 14 Challenging China’s attempt to restrict freedom of navigation, the United States could keep Taiwan’s ports and sea lanes open.

If China tried to blockade Taiwan, how might the United States intervene? American forces can coerce China to completely lift its blockage. A 1999 RAND study, The Use of Air Power as a Coercive Instrument, provides a framework for assessing steps taken to compel an opponent to cease military aggression. Successful coercion must: 1) Defeat enemy strategy, 2) Demonstrate escalation dominance, and 3) Magnify third party threats.” Although coercion is only possible when deterrence has failed, Chinese planners must consider American reactions. Because America would likely defeat Chinese efforts to militarily isolate Taiwan, China should be deterred.

Against a blockade, fast attack submarines can potentially contribute to each of the three conditions of coercion. The U.S. can unleash submarines against blockading forces. China can then either restrict its actions or suffer some losses. Both choices defeat their strategy. Anti-blockade operations present significant opportunities for retaliatory escalation. American escalation dominance could be demonstrated by broadening the scope of attacks. Submarines could escalate horizontally, attacking targets outside of the primary theater of operations. Transportation infrastructure and exposed coastal shipping essential to the movement of natural and defense resources within China could be inviting targets for a submarine 1000 miles north of Taiwan concealed beneath the Yellow Sea.16 If planners are concerned about American horizontal escalation, China might dedicate forces to other regions, leaving fewer for cross-Strait operations. Any action by American submarines distracts and diminishes China’s focus on sustaining the blockade, enhancing Taiwan’s own ability to more aggressively defend itself. With the help of submarines, China can be coerced to lift a blockade.


“High-volume, precision strikes against priority military and political targets,” are the hallmarks of the Defense Department’s second contingency. 17 Large numbers of rockets and aircraft would overwhelm Taiwanese defenses. This sort of attack would aim to disable or destroy Taiwan’s seaports and airfields. Executing the “attack” option, China would hope to economically isolate Taiwan, while leaving it vulnerable to continued or future attacks. China hopes Taiwan sees capitulation as its only option. This scenario is the most complicated one for the United States to solve and the solution would rely upon delivering massive amounts of weapons to targets like air bases or rocket launchers within China and would also test American’s ability to supply and rebuild Taiwan in trying conditions.”

Although submarines qualify for neither mission, they could still help fulfill the three conditions of coercion. TLAM strikes from hidden submarines against air defense sites could precede larger air attacks. Furthermore submarines could help defend the numerous ships required to keep Taiwan provisioned. Through these and other actions, SSNs contribute to the defeat of China’s aims. Just as in the blockade scenario, submarines could broaden the theater commander’s options for vertical or horizontal escalation. The Silent Service would play a tangential role in magnifying Taiwan’s threat to China. Achieving the first two conditions of coercion would facilitate the reestablishment of an indigenous Taiwanese fighting force. but only after significant time and effort. General deterrence is again important; America needs no unusual preparations to handle this contingency.

It is important to stress that in operations against China the attack submarine would be more than just an additional TLAM shooter. Consider the platforms that accurately attack land targets with standoff and other munitions. Surface ships are easier to locate and track while aircraft are, to a certain degree, vulnerable to Chinese air defenses.19 Consequently, the SSN’s relative invulnerability increases both the attack’s surprise and its chance of success. Both benefits capitalize upon the submarine’s asymmetric advantages and give critical capabilities to a theater commander.

Land On

The Defense Department report considers an amphibious invasion, “a highly risky and most unlikely option for the PLAN”. 20 Lacking adequate amphibious lift, airmobile forces would have to seize a port and possibly an airfield to secure an entry point for soldiers aboard numerous combatant and noncombatant vessels. A successful invasion would require the PLAN to conduct a large. complicated and coordinated operation that would be costly in many ways.

An assault on Taiwan would have to be handled differently from the first two contingencies. Although China has obstacles to overcome, a well and quickly executed assault would shock Taiwan and the world. If China lands ground forces. its desired fair accompli is achieved. Once the troops hit the beach, countering assault forces would become a defense priority, limiting U.S. ability to attack more strategically valuable targets. America’s technological superiority and strategic flexibility would be trumped by brazen Chinese action. The United States cannot let a Chinese invasion begin.

Instead of general deterrence and coercion, this scenario demands intelligence and immediate deterrence. Fast attack boats can provide both. By virtue of their stealth, submarines can conduct covert surveillance of an opponent, complementing other intelligence assets and creating a more complete picture of preparations and movements. With accurate intelligence, policymakers can make a more informed decision about American’s next move. Furthermore, having already lost strategic surprise, Beijing could not be certain that it would even have much tactical surprise. If immediate deterrence is called for, submarines can be dispatched to the theater along with other men and weapons. If American forces are deployed in sufficient numbers, Beijing confronts an enlarged initial retaliation threat that could cripple assault capabilities and damage critical national defense elements. Submarines introduce surprise and uncertainty to Chinese assessments of the size and concentration of American strength. Again, Chinese military planners and national leaders cannot ignore American attack submarines in their cross-Strait calculations.

Against the People’s Republic of China, and other countries lacking comprehensive subsurface warfare capabilities, the nuclear powered fast attack submarine is an advanced and asymmetric weapon. The submarine diversifies and multiplies American military options, ensuring victory. As a result, a potential opponent will hesitate to challenge the United States and its allies. Attack submarines compound an opponent’s planning dilemma and conventionally deter conflict. It is therefore imperative that fast attack boats remain a security and budgetary priority.

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