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David E. Faherty III Midshipman, United States Navy
Adviser: Maochun Yu Associate Professor, United States Naval Academy
13 December 2005 History Honor’s Thesis

Ensign David E. Faherty III graduated number JOO from the Naval Academy with the Class of 2006. At the Academy, he was an Honor’s History Major and a Bowman Scholar. After completing a Masters Degree at Naval Post Graduate School in Joint C41, he is headed to Nuclear Power School, and then on to the Submarine Service.

Beach Award Background
Since 2001, the Naval Historical Foundation has presented an annual prize to the U.S. Naval Academy midshipman demonstrating outstanding scholarship in the field of naval history. The 2002 prize was presented by author, submariner and long-time Foundation Board member Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr., USN (Ret). With the passing of Captain Beach in December of that year, the Foundation received permission from the Naval Academy Superintendent to rename the annual prize for Captain Beach. The Captain Edward L. Beach Naval History Prize, jointly administered with the U.S. Naval Institute (who enjoyed a long and productive relationship with authors Captain Beach and his father and whose offices are in Beach Hall) consists of a plaque, life membership in the Foundation, Foundation and Naval Institute Press naval history publications and a book by Ned Beach presented in his name by his wife Ingrid Beach .
When the Chinese Communists had successfully driven the Chinese Nationalist forces off the mainland to Taiwan, they faced numerous challenges as they attempted to establish authority over the new country. One of the most serious questions was the issue of sea power. During these formative years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) developed a naval strategy that integrated modem advances with the ideology of the People’s War. The end result was a navy that was peculiarly Chinese, containing both elements of Soviet naval theory and traditional Chinese teachings. The political forces that drove the creation of the Chinese Navy concentrated on the deployment of submarines. Within only three decades, this Submarine Force would be composed of more than one hundred submarines. While the country has steadily increased the potential and quality of this force, China has continually reaffirmed its belief in sub-surface naval power over the past five decades. This study seeks to trace the origin of China’s Submarine Force and analyze the major impetuses for the landmark developments of this force from the earlier Soviet-inspired prototype to China’s acquisition of subsurface nuclear strategic deterrence.

In the early years of the PRC, despite the need for a navy, it took several years for the Communists to consolidate the power necessary to develop one. By 1953, the leaders grasped the importance of defending such a large coast line and felt ready to address the issue of maritime strategy. At the time, the new government had three options. First, in an effort to maintain ideological continuity, the PRC could have chosen to establish a People’s fleet by arming junks with mines and small guns. The second option was for China to follow the teachings of Mahan and create a large surface fleet centered on the aircraft carrier. Finally, China could have chosen to follow the example of Russia and adopt the Young School of maritime strategy. In this school of naval thinking, the submarine assumed the role of capital ship, supported by land based aircraft and small patrol boats. Using inherently offensive weapons, the Young School espoused the virtues of an active defense.
The first option had some realistic appeal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) high command. As the Communists drove the Nationalists from the mainland, there were times when the use of maritime forces became necessary. From river crossings to island invasions, the People’s Liberation Anny (PLA) used small naval vessels in very ingenious ways. There were accounts of the Communists welding hundreds of barrels together, forming giant rafts that they disguised as islands. They would then make hardened shelters for artillery pieces and mortars. These vessels were designed to aid invasion forces transported onjunks. However, creativity could not overcome professionalism, as the Communist Chinese frequently suffered attacks from Nationalists forces based in Taiwan. Thus, from 1948 until 1954, the Chinese Communist Navy underwent a period of building maritime force from scratch. During this time, Communist forces had acquired through surrender or capture 57 ,986 gross tones of former Nationalist vessels. Initially, this fleet of mostly outdated western vessels2 formed the core of China’s fleet.
In addition, there were innumerable junks available along China’s coast. Forming a navy out of these boats would have created a maritime force most similar to the People’s Liberation Anny, where quantity of personnel and simplicity of weapons were paramount. Indeed, large numbers of motor junks armed with only a few mines could effectively defend China’s coast; its ground forces could prepare to “lure the enemy deep.” As late as 1956, the US Intelligence cited China’s strongest defensive weapon to be the junk’s nearly unlimited mining capacity.
These vessels could be employed offensively as well. As the Communists advanced against Hainan in southern China, indigenous vessels made up the bulk of the invasion forces. Armed with rockets and artillery, and carrying boarders, the PLA managed to drive the Nationalists out of their island strongholds and secure access to the sea. Though not entirely successful, junks contributed to this effort. In the end, the Communist Chinese organized their coastal fishing vessels to stop peasants from fleeing the country. Stringent rules were put in place that prevented fishermen from exodus. They were required to fish in groups, and family members were forced to stay on shore as hostages.
Although junks played a vital role in the early PLA successes, controlling junks was a component of societal integration that was occurring throughout China, including the historically independent coastal regions. Junks were not to form the core of the PRC’s new navy. Although indigenous vessels satisfied some of China’s defensive goals, they were not adequate. They neither conferred the prestige of large warships, nor possessed the capabilities of modern platforms.

The second option, i.e., the Mahanian approach, would pose serious challenges to the CCP high command. In the nineteenth century, Alfred Thayer Mahan preached the importance of sea power. He argued that the capital ship established control of the sea, which was a prerequisite for establishing an empire. Battleships had been the capital ships in Mahan’ s time. After the Second World War, it became clear that the aircraft carrier superseded the battleship. These large flotillas had proven to be effective weapons in the previous great war. Japan’s explosive empire had been carried upon such vessels. A large surface force centered on aircraft carriers was the age’s mark of an influential nation.
However, to the CCP, this method of securing maritime dominance was inadequate for several reasons. To the leaders of the PRC, Mahanian capital ships represented imperialism. Naval power was seen as inherently bourgeois. On the propaganda front, sailors were said to protect the sinews of capitalism and trade, while the proletariat struggled on land to achieve real improvements in society. It was ideologically incorrect for the PRC to emulate the implements of an ideology that it had rejected. In reality, China lacked the resources and knowledge necessary to build such a fleet. The cost of procuring, maintaining, and deploying a fleet of surface vessels was prohibitively expensive for a country recovering from decades of war. Finally, China’s leaders did not want to play a game of catch-up with western powers. It was argued that imitation would not result in anything but second rate success. Instead, the PLA Navy (PLAN) would build a navy that could provide for the nation’s defense and enhance its reputation. At the same time, China would keep an eye to the future, ready to incorporate any potential advances in naval technology.

This leads to the third option available to the CCP. The solution was related to the Young School of maritime strategy. Rooted in partisan warfare, the Young School was developed in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. The paratlels to China are quite apparent:
emerging from revolution, the Soviet Russia and Communist China, both large, land oriented countries, sought a new method by which to defend their sea borders. However, the priorities of these inexperienced governments were focused on their land defense. With this interior orientation, the Young School subordinated the navy to the army. Army control of Naval Forces was especially important in China, where most of the capable mariners came from the Nationalist forces and required reeducation after surrendering former Nationalist vessels. Very few of China’s most experienced naval officers possessed enough political clout to influence the shape of the new navy. China’s naval forces and strategies were conceived by men who had displayed proficiency in fighting on land.

Nevertheless, a PRC navy had to be built and building a Young style navy was by far a cheaper alternative to a great Mahanian fleet. Since it required less manpower, infrastructure, and material, strategists preferred the stealthy submarine to the expensive aircraft carrier as the fleet’s primary offensive strike weapon. The navy was tasked with developing an active defense in contrast to Mahan’s command of the sea strategy. The tactics that submarines were to employ while defending against an invader more closely resemble those used by the People’s Liberation Army in its defeat of the Nationalists on land. Moreover, army-generated tactics such as feints, surprises, and degrees of mobility were dramatically enhanced by naval operations prosecuted underwater.

Yet realistically speaking, with all of the advantages that can be attributed to the Young school, it must be made clear that this was really the only viable option for China to advance beyond its fleet of junks and battle-weary foreign vessels. At this formative time, China was completely reliant on Russian aid and expertise. The Soviets provided everything necessary to copy their navy. In addition to submarines, the Young School also relied on a combination of small surface vessels, torpedo boats, and land based aircraft. The USSR supplied all of these vital components, and nearly everything that it possessed. Unable to build aircraft carriers and other large surface vessels, the bounds of China’s navy were set back in Russia. For this reason, China could ask only for more of a certain type of vessel and not for a different variety. There were no options available had China desired some other form of naval armament. Thus, China applied its most abundant resource to Russia’s generous gift, with manpower voraciously devouring everything that the Soviets offered. Politicians beckoned for more aid as technicians requested exposure to more knowledge.
In this spirit of eternal friendship, the USSR transported supplies and material over Siberia’s railways. This same conduit carried forth from Russia prefabricated pieces of ships and submarines, and as well, the Soviet technicians who then assembled them. These ships replaced the captured vessels of the Nationalists. However, most of these imported vessels were of pre-World War II designs.
As China was acquiring these new weapons, Mao gave the Chinese Navy three strategic goals on December 4th, 1953. They were: to eliminate Nationalist naval interference and thereby ensure maritime safety in navigation and transport, to participate in the recovery of Taiwan at an appropriate time, and to oppose imperialist aggression from the sea. 9 The goals expressed by Mao Zedong energized programs that strengthened China’s coastal defenses, went about acquiring modem weaponry, and formed the organizational structure of the PLA Navy. Providing the impetus for the creation of a navy, Mao wanted the PLAN to conform to the image of the army with guiding principles of the People’s War such as protracted waifare and concentration of forces. Transferring these ideas to the sea for the sake of ideological purity resulted in a navy different from any other. Although China received Soviet tools, it would not employ them in the same manner.
In July of 1953, the PRC received its first submarine from the USSR. By the fall of 1954, Russia had sent one “M” class shortrange submarine and two “S-1” class long-range submarines. The single “M” class submarine was permanently stationed at the Chinese naval base at Tsingtao. It only occasionally got underway in the harbor. US intelligence believed that it was used as training and familiarization platform. The other two vessels, both long range “S-1” class submarines, were believed to be fully operational and had been observed underway outside the harbor at Tsingtao. All three vessels flew the Chinese Communist naval ensign, and thus were in the possession of the PLAN.’0 It was with these first vessels that China acquired a taste for submarines.

Soviet assistance, which began as the outright transfer of warships, included technical advisors that directed the Chinese on warship construction and the expansion of shipyards. Indeed, the aid that the USSR provided was unprecedented. During the late l 950’s, Russia for the first time allowed Soviet designed warships to be built outside of the country. In 1956, the year that China first built its own submarine, the PLAN possessed thirteen submarines, four long range, four medium-range, four costal, and one non-operational training submarine. 11 In obedience to Mao’s doctrines of concentration of forces and mobility of forces, these submarines were grouped at three strategic locations, Tsingtao, Shanghai, and the Choushan lslands.
In a short period of time, China began to realize its first goal. These few vessels were to provide for the defense of mainland China. Smaller gunboats and surface ships dealt with the Taiwanese menace, but submarines were aligned against the United States, the leading capitalist nation at the time, thus developing a pattern of naval strategy that would continue for decades.
The number of Soviet advisors present in China during this period, over five hundred altogether, gives testament to the fundamental influence of the USSR. The Soviet Naval Advisory provided naval experience, methods, and technical skills to the Chinese. They imparted their expert knowledge to every major subordinate command and installation. Before the Chinese gained any practical experience, every ship in the PLAN was tutored by a representative of the Soviet Union. 13 These advisors laid the strong foundation upon which China’s navy was built. Chinese engineers assimilated their expertise and imitated their techniques.
It was obvious that China valued its submarines over its surface ships. They learned quickly, for the first home built submarine ushered in the arrival of many more within a short period of time. By the end of 1956, the Chinese had constructed four submarines, with four or five additional submarines on the way.14 American intelligence identified these submarines to be of the long-range Whisky (W) class. Secrecy has always been an essential component of Chinese military doctrine. Such a high priority was given to the construction of W class submarines that they were produced in the heavily guarded Kiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, with construction shielded by tall bamboo screens. These preventative measures made it difficult for foreign ships to observe building activity associated with submarines. In contrast, the production of the Riga class surface ship took place openly in the Hutung Shipyard, where it was easily photographed by passing merchant traffic. These observations reveal the relative importance of the two types of vessels. US intelligence counted sightings of submarines fitting out or in sea trials in order to determine how many submarines the PRC was producing. The information gathered led American analysts to believe that it took China approximately twenty months from the laying of the keel to the delivery of an operational unit.
China’s preponderant emphasis on naval, particularly submarine, development created swift international response, especially from the United States. Many US intelligence reports were created during the 1950’s and early 60’s that focused on China and its early naval development. These reports paid a great deal of attention to developments within this new communist nation. Indeed, this interest in Chinese affairs demonstrated American concern. In less than a decade, China was to make advances that harkened of greater things to come. There was little that the United States could do, but to watch as Chinese submarines quickly grew in number and quality. Under the guidance of Soviet advisors, the People’s Republic of China had emerged as a sizeable naval power in Asia by 1958. In only a few short years, the Chinese had learned enough to construct warships of their own.

However, the material and technological component of the PLAN was not the exclusive area of improvement. Impressive changes had taken place that advanced the skills and competency of Chinese sailors. In 1955, the PRC instituted a new system of conscription. The reforms standardized ranks, enhanced the prestige of the officer corps, and delineated terms of service. New laws allowed naval officers to wear insignia for the first time. For enlisted personnel in the navy, the term of service was set at five years. This was the longest term set for enlisted men of all branches of the military, presumably because of the more specialized training that sailors required. The establishment of academies to train a cadre of officers had greatly increased the efficiency of the navy in only a few years!
Imbued with tremendous energy, activity, and a sense of purpose, Chinese workers and technicians had quickly overcome tremendous hindrances.It was this same high morale that forced the analysts of a hypothetical clash between the naval forces of Taiwan and the PRC to predict a Communist victory despite the Red’s technological inferiority. Energy and enthusiasm helped China overcome its major challenges to modernization.
However, analysts neglected to mention that these attributes also made China’s population all the more susceptible to propaganda and control. The challenges facing the PLAN were formidable, which included illiteracy, a lack of skilled work force, and inadequate transportation. 20 As a result, although many improvements appeared on paper, the quality of the industrial goods produced was questionable. The successes that China experienced in building submarines during this period came about mainly as a result of Russian aid. Nevertheless, the combination of Chinese high spirit and Soviet expert knowledge created the beginnings of an effective Young style navy. By the decade’s end, China had built up a land based coastal defense, where torpedo boats, small submarines, and aircraft made up the effective components of China’s Navy.
Yet equally clear to the Chinese was that China was far from being a first class naval power. In 1957, the PRC defense minister admitted that China had a long way to go in this regard. He stated that the effective defense of China’s entire coastline required 300 submarines. By any standard, this estimate was numerically high, which was perhaps an indication of army influences, where masses compensated for technological inferiority. The PLAN possessed by this time 21 W class submarines and a few more out-dated models. In July 1959, an American naval aircraft tracked a Chinese Communist W Class submarine in the Yellow Sea. The US aircraft shadowed the snorkeling submarine for a total of fifteen minutes. At no time did the Chinese submarine use its periscope. Additionally, its depth control was erratic and the submarine did not seem to realize the presence of their observers. 23 In May of 1960 a Chinese submarine sank in Yangtze River. U.S. Naval Intelligence speculated that the casualty occurred after the submarine had completed a refit. Some sort of technical error might have made it impossible for the submarine to properly rig for dive.
The intelligence on the weaknesses of the PLAN Submarine Force had a curious effect on the American war planners, which was clearly indicated by the tone of relief on the part of analysts in some of the reports. Indeed, there were ample reasons for such a relief because there had been great uncertainty as to what the future held for China as the Communist giant was going through a phase of ideological intoxication manifested in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. For a while, this proletariat stringency armed with a growing naval force had been making a radical regime all the more threatening. Now, the signs of a Chinese submarine’s weaknesses confirmed the beliefs of the American analysts that, although China had produced numerous submarines, it still had very little practical experience in their operation and that the PRC seemed to put more emphasis on the quantity of submarines produced rather than their operational capability. This would seem to mesh with the western understanding that the PLAN existed in no small part to enhance China’s international prestige. It was also believed that China had to occasionally stage a show of the flag in order to inspire other third world countries. 25 Yet, one must conclude that although China certainly had a long way to go if it were to ever compete with western navies, the progress was indeed impressive. In less than a decade, it had created the largest indigenous navy in Asia. This was both an article of pride and the beginnings of an effective defensive force.

Things were to change dramatically in the l 960’s. Due to a fierce ideological dispute between the Soviet Union and China, primarily over the issue of war and peace, the generous flow of aid from the Soviet Union ceased at the beginning of the decade. Internal disruption caused by the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution further hampered naval development. It was a challenging time within China, the entire population being forced to participate in numerous political struggles against real but mostly imagined capitalist roaders and bourgeois reactionaries. It was also a time of dramatic upheaval and change. Radical youths known as Chairman Mao’s Red Guards struck out at and replaced professionals in the fields of education and medicine. In addition, millions of people died from starvation brought on by fanning innovations. This caused great uncertainty and disruption to China’s weapons programs.

Besides the internal discord, it was the evaporation of Russian aid that became the largest challenge China’s submarine program was to encounter. In late 1957, the eternal friendship between the two Communist juggernauts began to unravel. Both countries were making appeals that the other was unwilling to grant. Significantly, many of these requests revolved around submarines. Although on October 15’\ 1957 Russia agreed to provide a prototype nuclear weapon to China, it refused to share information on its nuclear powered submarine, a program about which the Chinese felt very strongly. Worse yet, the refusal of providing a nuclear powered submarine led to increasing acrimony and suspicion between Moscow and Beijing, which in turn led to Russia’s refusal to honor its previous promise to provide nuclear weapons to China.
Breeding further ill-will, the USSR wanted to install long wave radio antennas on Chinese soil, so that it could communicate with its submarines in the Pacific Ocean. The PRC saw this request as attempt to spy on and control Chinese intelligence. Additionally, the Soviets proposed that the two nations create a joint submarine flotilla. The second suggestion inflamed China’s understanding of an autonomous state. To China, an acceptance of such an offer would forsake the values that energized the nation and drove the revolution. It was an attempt to undermine China’s freshly established self-rule.27 Mao made this quite clear when in response to the Soviet proposals, he declared that this idea was an “insult to our national pride and our sovereignty!” The Sino-Soviet break clearly showed that China was more concerned with self-determination and independence than with uniting the world’s proletariat. It was therefore believed that there had been ulterior motives governing Soviet generosity for which the Chinese could not stand.
Consequently, the Soviet Union ceased sending aid to the PRC, and the camaraderie eventually deteriorated into open hostility and bloodshed. Although on the one hand Soviet aid had been a tremendous boon for the Chinese, it established tight boundaries upon the course of naval development. With all the free services rendered, it would have been nearly impossible for the Chinese not to accept the material and wisdom of their benefactors. In 1960, these constraints fell away and thus allowed China the opportunity to reevaluate the type of navy that it wanted to build. No longer would Soviet expertise guide the development of China’s military. Rather, all efforts to build a navy would have to rely on the experience gained in the previous years of partnership and on the goals laid out by China’s leaders. However, it must be stated that despite being given this chance to alter the course of its naval development, China continued to build the implements of the Young School of maritime strategy.

Through all of this turmoil, the PLAN persisted in building submarines after only a brief hiatus. It is important to note that the Chinese had learned enough from their benefactors to continue the assembly of submarines in their absence. However, there was a two year delay as Chinese engineers tried to solidify their knowledge. By September of 1961, China had outfitted two of the four submarines that it was unable to finish assembling immediately after the withdrawal of Soviet aid. Eventually, all four were assembled, which the analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency saw as “significant that in the face of this withdrawal, the outfitting of four submarines was completed.
This event was significant for two reasons. Chinese engineers had absorbed enough technical knowledge to complete assembly without the presence of Soviet advisors. Moreover, enough momentum existed within China to continue with the outfitting of submarines. PRC leaders desired the relatively cheap defensive capabilities that submarines provided. An increasingly large flotilla engendered more respect. Over the long haul, it was also important to keep resources flowing to maintain this valuable infrastructure. This moment marked a decision on the part of China’s leaders to continue building a Young style navy. What the Soviets had given, now became China’s own.

Although China had demonstrated that it could assemble submarines effectively, many challenges quickly appeared. China had yet to master the complexities of operations beneath the sea, let alone the subtleties of employing boats as useful, coordinated weapons. During the 1960’s, operational readiness was always a concern. It was hampered throughout the decade by internal economic difficulties and the absence of advisors. American intelligence indicated that in 1961, of the few submarine units that were operational, even these were unable to submerge. This same document concluded that a Soviet presence would have resulted in better readiness within the Chinese navy.
Yet it is a mistake to assume that China’s submarine development would witness a precipitous decline in the years to come. Curiously, though, it was during this time that the slowed pace of advancement within China resulted in a changed attitude and focus of American intelligence. Attention shifted away from Chinese naval development. Where these reports once indicated concern of a strengthening enemy, over time they would superciliously begin to dismiss the gradual advancements of a third world nation. A strange and unsubstantiated assumption crystallized between the lines of American reports, that China’s limited abilities indicated curtailed ambitions. These reports seemed to forget that the PLAN was conceived in an offensive spirit and guided by a school that preached an active defense. Remote as ever, these energies remained the driving force of naval development.
Nevertheless, in 1962 the status of China’s Navy continued to deteriorate. In order to survive a shortage of fuel and other resources several naval units were forced into service as fishing vessels. Submarine operations were limited to relatively shallow depths of approximately 20 to 40 fathoms. The frequency of training evolutions was minimal. None of China’s submarines had undergone an overhaul since leaving the building slipways. The most activity that US Naval Intelligence could report was the transit of a submarine from the Northern Fleet area in Tsingtao back to Shanghai for repairs. Intelligence described 1962 as a dismal year for China’s submarines.
In 1964, American intelligence reported that the four year slowdown in submarine construction had come to an end. Moreover, the PLAN had used plans that Soviets had left behind in 1960 to design two additional classes of submarines. The new submarine designs were the Romeo class long-range submarine and the Golf class missile submarine. The R class was an improved version of the aging W class submarine. Slowly Romeo’s replaced Whiskey’s. China would continue building Romeo class submarines through the 1980’s, producing more than 80 of that class.

Right before Sino-Russian relations soured in 1959, the USSR leased to the Chinese the equipment, components, and technical data for the Golf class submarine.3 ‘ It took five years for the submarine to appear tied up next to a pier in American aerial reconnaissance, and another two years were needed for the submarine to begin training missions. There was speculation among American analysts about the existence of a second Golf submarine. These rumors were discounted after several attempts to verify them failed in 1965. 36 The Chinese primarily used the Golf submarine as a platform with which to test submarine-launched missiles for its planned nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). It was considered to pose no threat to the United States.
This appearance of the Golf class submarine caused a bit of a stir in the United States. Demonstrative of this were the numerous reports that analysts generated. There existed two different types of assessment concerning this event. Some reports predicted that China would continue building these submarines. Other estimations more accurately testified that one Golf was enough for the Chinese because of its relative ineffectiveness.
The PRC began the 1960’s with a fleet of32 relatively new attack submarines. Because of external circumstances these numbers remained much the same for the rest of the decade. Then towards the end of the decade, without external help, China once again undertook an aggressive construction program. The Chinese took the knowledge that they already possessed and applied it. The Kiangnan and Wu-chang shipyards began to show signs of life in 1964. As these dockyards produced the newer Romeo class submarines, the PLAN scrapped Russia’s aging gifts. The replacement rate kept the number of submarines in the low thirties for the rest of the decade.

This effort was not limited to the production of conventional submarines. It also sought other means by which to support and improve China’s fleet. In 1965, evidence appeared of the first Chinese submarine tender.39 Once effectively deployed, this vessel would allow China to send its submarines on much farther missions. New ship model testing facilities allowed for advanced hull designs to be scrutinized. In 1965, such a complex began tests on a hull profile similar to that of the American USS BARBEL and the nuclear powered USS SKIPJACK.40 This type of advance would allow for swifter, more capable vessels. These events clearly demonstrated that China intended to advance its abilities in order to better realize its goals.
THE AGE OF ACTIVE DEFENSE, 1970’s and 1980’s
The first major change in China’s maritime strategy occurred after Deng Xiaoping assumed power in the late 1970’s following Mao’s death. More a pragmatist than an ideologue, Deng Xiaoping had been purged in 1960′ s during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution for amongst other things saying that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white; any cat that catches mice is a good cat.”41 His ascension to power after Mao’s death brought on an era of changing focuses in China. Rather than rely on its masses in future combat, Deng wanted China to develop more effective weapons. He publicly asserted that quality took precedent over quantity. While China began to modernize its forces, Deng saw little chance of China entering a major conflict in the next few decades. Thus, the PRC could peacefully concentrate on nurturing its economy and military. Deng Xiaoping commanded the manner in which China should pursue these objectives by saying, “let us conceal our abilities and bide our time.”
This statement is most telling. During this time, China claimed a redoubled economic effort and a scaled back military budget. However, amidst these statements China saw an explosive growth in the number of its submarines. The degree of inconsistency between public policy and reality is startling in its deception. By 1971, China had increased the number of submarines to more than forty, and it had begun construction of its first nuclear powered attack submarine.43 Three years later, the count was approaching sixty. Some of the older submarines were retired when Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power in the late 1970’s, but the number was still greater than fifty. Under his leadership this number doubled in ten years. In 1986, Jane’s Fighting Ships reported that the Chinese submarine fleet numbered 110 boats.
This was the fastest pace of submarine construction that had ever occurred within China. At the time, the country possessed the largest concentration of subsurface forces in Asia. All this occurred quietly, in tandem with pronouncements of China’s diverting of energies to domestic economic efforts. PRC leadership drew attention away from weapon procurement by announcing dramatic shifts in financial policy. Rather than changing its naval development under new leadership and in a time of increased prosperity, China’s leaders once again made clear their support for the submarine’s role. Whatever the goal, China’s strategy called for a quiet buildup of submarines while shifting global attention to its fiscal policy changes.
Large numbers of diesel submarines were the People’s War equivalent to China’s enormous armies. However, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping correctly predicted that China would avoid major conflict for a long period of time. Strategic planners within China must have grasped the rapidly approaching obsolescence of the Romeo class submarine. In spite of this, the PRC churned out dozens of submarines of little value for an unforeseen war. Entrenched paranoia or institutional momentum may have compelled China to build so many vessels. Perhaps, China’s leaders did not believe what they publicly stated, expecting China to enter very quickly into a large war after all. If this was the case, a large number of submarines provided relatively economical insurance against foreign naval intervention. Certainly, a great deal of effort and many resources had focused on submarines.
The most logical explanation for this odd confluence of events is that China merely wished to practice. The Communist Party had frequently gained knowledge by means of brute force. Manpower was the country’s most readily available resource, and China regularly bartered away this commodity to make up for what it lacked in skilled labor. By feeding this industrial machine and encouraging it to produce less war-worthy weapons, China invested in a long term strategy. The rapid construction of submarines reinforced and improved the PLAN’s industrial complex. These actions once again showed that China sought increased military potential.
In spite of this massive build up, China’s strategic situation changed very little. The PRC’s many submarines were effective only in a defensive posture. During the 1970’s, the PLAN achieved the capacity to produce its own surface ships and submarines that could sustain an actual deployment. This effectively changed China’s strategy from land-based to sea-based coastal defense.46 Demonstrative of this new ability, the PLAN expanded its submarine deployments southward. In 1971, for the first time, American intelligence observed a Chinese submarine in the vicinity of Hainan, the southernmost province of China.

In order to better understand the purpose for which China intended its submarines, one must analyze China’s actions in its several naval engagements in since 1953. Although China placed a great deal of emphasis on the development and procurement of submarines, the PRC has never used the capital ship of its navy in battle. In seven major naval engagements from 1955 to 1988, the Chinese almost never utilized the potential of their submarines. Only once, in 1955 during the battle of Yijiangshan Island, did the Chinese have a submarine ready to use against enemy forces.48 Two additional engagements with the Taiwanese, both in 1965, did not draw out a single one of China’s thirty submarines. Instead, the PLAN dispatched gunboats and torpedo boats against Nationalist ships. In the 1974 and 1979 naval skirmishes with Vietnam over the South China Sea’s Xisha Islands, China’s submarine force was curiously absent. These islands are located near Hainan, easily within range of China’s Romeo class submarines. On neither occasion did China send out its submarines. It once again relied upon its quick and agile surface forces. In another territorial dispute with Vietnam that was China’s last naval conflict of the century, China used frigates, rather than submarines, to secure its claim of the Nansha (Spratly’s) Islands in 1988.49 It must be reiterated that by this time China possessed over one hundred submarines. Vast resources had been exploited in their construction, yet it appeared that these boats were going to waste.
The best available intelligence indicates that a Chinese submarine has never joined in battle. so Perhaps, PLAN leaders deemed the use of submarines to be too risky, and it may have been deemed not worth the risk. Training deficiencies may have prevented submarines from getting underway. Shallow waters may have made submarines ineffective. Chinese army leaders may have been ill at ease with a weapon platform with which communications was difficult and at times impossible.
But the most logical explanation may involve the fact that submarines are considered as a weapon for a larger naval engagement of strategic importance. These naval engagements were merely small clashes over territorial claims. That China only employed its surface forces to resolve these disputes indicates that submarines were set aside for major conflicts. While the PRC has been capable of only defensive operations, the only event that would draw out the PLAN’s submarines was major aggression from a foreign power. Regardless of improved relations between the United States and China, America has been the only power capable of projecting naval power potent enough to threaten the ambitions of the PRC. Therefore, China’s submarines have always been aligned in a defensive posture against the United States. These weapons existed to prevent an American naval intervention. Their increased production under Deng Xiaoping therefore hints at unmentioned fears.

In 1974, the Office of Naval Intelligence produced a document called The Role of the Submarine in PRC Naval Strategy. This report made several insightful observations about China’s national objectives. It asserted that the military development that had occurred over the past twenty years was directed towards establishing territorial security, achieving superpower status, and making China identifiable as the leader of the Third World. With this in mind, the author predicted that China would continue to quietly build a large number of diesel powered submarines. Smaller diesel submarines operate very effectively within I 00 miles of the Chinese mainland, where the depths rarely reached 500 feet. These shallow conditions generally negate the increased abilities of fast nuclear powered submarines (SSN). Diesel submarines would adequately provide for China’s coastal defense. Therefore, this report predicted that China would not focus on deploying nuclear attack submarines. Rather, the PRC would concentrate its resources on designing a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).
Grandiose yearnings provided the strong motivation for an SSBN. Rather than continuing with the production of the Golf class missile submarine, which was merely diesel powered and Soviet designed, China sought the prestige that resulted from the successful deployment of an indigenous nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine.
The leaders of the PRC anticipated that such a weapon would help them achieve superpower status and enhance its reputation among smaller nations. Certainly, for China to be respected as a world power it had to possess its own nuclear deterrence capabilities. Moreover, an SSBN would dramatically enhance its standing among other third world nations. The Communist Party had for years conceived of such a weapon as a bargaining chip of immense power that engendered respect and bestowed prestige.
An SSBN patrolling the Indian Ocean or the Central Pacific equipped with a ballistic missile with a range of2000 nautical miles is able to reach the European Russia and the west coast of America respectively. The diesel powered Golf would have difficulty traveling for such great distances and maintaining station for long periods of time. Therefore from a strategic standpoint, nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines could do a much better job of establishing survivable nuclear deterrence and China had long determined to obtain such weapon platform.

Project 09 was the Chinese quest for an SSBN. During unsuccessful negotiations with the USSR in 1959, Mao declared that, “We will have to build nuclear submarines even if it takes 10,000 years!”52 Such determination coupled with strategic concerns provided the political energy for a program that would persevere through several decades and consume innumerable resources. Beyond the daunting technical challenges, the scientists and managers that worked on Project 09 were forced to contend with violent political upheaval, burdensome project relocation, and living conditions that were inversely related to the importance of their endeavor. Throughout it all there were remarkable examples of tenacity that transcended mere orthodox approaches. Chinese researchers collected data from every means available. Not only did scientists peruse published documents and stolen secret material, but the Chinese appetite for information was so ravenous as to be absurd. In tremendous excitement, a Chinese design group came across an inaccurate model of an American Polaris submarine. They proceeded to take profuse notes while disassembling and reassembling the little device.
Two separate submarine classes existed to test ideas essential for China’s SSBN. The aforementioned Golf class submarine provided the necessary platform to test underwater missile launching innovations. The Han class submarine was China’s first nuclear powered vessel. Finished in 1974, the submarine’s propulsion system was China’s first floating nuclear reactor. Although the Han experienced many difficulties with radiation, it succeeded in teaching technicians and scientists a great deal. The Han was by no means an end, it was merely another step towards a larger goal.
After nearly three decades, Chinese persistence succeeded in giving the PRC underwater nuclear deterrence. In 1988, the PLAN successfully fired the JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile from the country’s only Xia class submarine. Henceforth, China possessed the third and most survivable vertex of the nuclear triad. The PLA’s land-based missiles and plane-dropped bombs, though effective, were vulnerable to an enemy’s first strike. The new underwater strategic capability required rules that grew out of previous policies pertaining to the use of land-and air-based nuclear weapons. When Mao first demanded that nuclear weapons be a part of the PLA’s arsenal, he conceived a number that would make China just potent enough to deter other nations. Therefore, it is generally believed that the nuclear weapons aboard the Xia class submarine are handled according to these six rules: 1) no first use; 2) soft target kill capability; 3) smaller but better; 4) smaller but inclusive; 5) minimum retaliation, and 6) quick recovery.

For the past fifty years, China has steadily increased the number and quality of its submarines. Although the USSR created the foundations of the PLA Navy, China has not altered its essential components. Because China has never utilized submarines in any of its several naval skirmishes, it is clear that these weapons existed to defend against a major foreign intervention of strategic importance. While in the past fifty years China has been threatened by both superpowers, only the United States possessed the ability to truly meddle in China’s maritime affairs. Therefore, China’s diesel submarines existed to oppose the possibility of American aggression.
The submarine is the most cost effective platform for dealing with surface combatants. China has never sought a head-on collision with the might of America’s surface navy. It realized early on that the effort necessary to reach parity with the United States was too great. Specifically, the threat of US naval airpower has deterred China from developing a large surface fleet. Submarines on the other hand, stand a much better chance of survival. In addition, stealth and surprise make them an inherently offensive weapon. Although China still lags behind the United States with regard to underwater technology, it has purchased or stolen information that has resulted in constantly increasing capability. Thus, the gap between American and Chinese submarines is closing. Certainly, China has a great deal more ground to cover, but it only takes one capable submarine to place an entire carrier battle group into jeopardy, and therefore neutralize America’s naval power projection.
China has bestowed tremendous value on this program from its inception through the present. In the beginning, China built its submarines behind concealments, while other vessels were assembled in the open. In a time of economic strife, China allocated enough resources to continue building these submarines. Finally, amidst military budget cuts, the number of Chinese submarines skyrocketed. All of these events indicate how seriously China has taken the threat of American naval intervention. It is reasonable to assume that this perception remains unchanged.
Through fifty years of change, China’s desires have remained unaltered. The PLA Navy still exists to safeguard China’s territorial integrity, to conduct a possible blockade of Taiwan, and to defeat a sea-based invasion. With the addition of a SSBN, China has added to its naval objectives the requirement of making ready survivable nuclear retaliatory forces. 55 Although in 1953 China was unable to achieve these goals, it has steadily crept closer.

It is important to remember that for decades China’s Navy was exclusively capable of a defensive posture. It did not have the ability to act too aggressively. This does not indicate a predilection for dormancy. Rather, in 1974, the ONI reported that “the deployment of nuclear powered submarines may be the event which initiates the change in PRC naval strategy from defensive to offensive.” Nuclear submarines can operate at greater distances and speeds than their conventional counterparts. Al though in recent years technology has substantially enhanced the underwater stamina of diesel submarines, only nuclear submarines are freed from the burden of having to refuel. In the event of an oil shortage, this makes nuclear propulsion essential.

Currently, China is in the middle of this transition. It has acquired the abilities to sustain longer periods of underwater deployment. Although it has possessed the Han class submarine for a number of decades, only recently has it become an effective platform. Thus, China’s naval actions are evolving. It no longer remains necessary for Chinese submarines to sit back, idly waiting for an American aggressor. The actions of the PLAN will begin to reflect the offensive nature of the navy’s origins. The Navy was conceived to participate in the recovery of Taiwan, the keystone of East Asia. As the Office of Naval intelligence noted in 1953, “if a line [was] drawn from Shanghai to Manila and another from Saigon to Tokyo, the crossing of the ‘X’ is in the heart of Formosa [Taiwan] … a place of unquestionable strategic importance.” The chosen apparatus of this recovery was a school of naval warfare that espoused an active defense. Neither the PLAN’s origins nor its strategy precludes preemptive strikes. Indeed, the appropriate situation might demand such an action undertaken by submarines

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