On 26 October 2006, a Chinese Song-class attack submarine reportedly surfaced in close proximity to the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group in international waters near Okinawa. This was not the first time that Chinese submarines have attracted extensive media attention. The advent of the Yuan-class SSK in mid-2004 seems to have had a major impact in transforming the assessments of Western naval analysts, and also of the broader community of analysts studying China's military modernization.
In order to grasp the energy that China is now committing to undersea warfare, consider that during 2002-2004 China's navy launched thirteen submarines while simultaneously undertaking the purchase of submarines from Russia on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, China commissioned thirty-one new submarines between 1995 and 2005. Given this rapid evolution, appraisals of China's capability to field competent and lethal diesel submarines in the littorals have slowly changed from ridicule to grudging respect of late. China's potential for complex technological development is finally being taken seriously abroad.
Whereas the Yuan's debut allegedly surprised Western analysts, the emergence of China's 093 SSN and 094 SSBN has been anticipated for some time. Nevertheless, these programs remain shrouded in mystery, and there is little consensus regarding their operational and strategic significance. In the broadest terms, it can be said that a successful 093 program will significantly enlarge the scope of Chinese submarine operations, perhaps ultimately serving as the cornerstone of a genuine blue-water navy. The 094 could take the survivability of China's nuclear deterrent to a new level, potentially enabling more aggressive posturing by Beijing in a crisis. Moreover, these platforms are entering the PLA Navy (PLAN) at a time when reductions are projected to occur in the U.S. Navy submarine force; that fact was duly noted by a senior PLAN strategist recently in one of China's premier naval journals.
The PLA is notoriously opaque, posing major challenges for Western analysts. Official statements regarding the intentions of China's future nuclear submarine force are all but nonexistent. Nevertheless, one of the most significant statements is contained in the 2004 PLA defense white paper's discussion of naval operations. Enhancing "nuclear counterattacks" capability was described as one of the PLAN's most important missions. Moreover, Chinese unofficial writings on defense issues are voluminous and growing more so. Among dozens of journals, magazines, and newspapers devoted to military affairs (not to mention hundreds of more technically oriented publications), at least five focus specifically on naval warfare. This article will survey the available Chinese writings concerning the PLAN's future nuclear submarine force.
Two caveats are in order. First, this article seeks to present the views of Chinese analysts but does not render final judgment on the validity of those views. Such an approach will better acquaint a broader community of naval analysts with the essential primary source materials. Second, this is not a comprehensive study but rather a preliminary research probe. These data need to be treated with a certain amount of caution, and follow-on studies are necessary before major conclusions can be drawn.
The article begins with a brief survey of relevant elements from Chinese writings concerning the PLAN's nuclear submarine history. A second section examines how PLAN analysts appraise developments among foreign nuclear submarine forces: What lessons do they glean from these other experiences? The third section concerns mission imperatives: What strategic and operational objectives are China's 093 and 094 submarines designed to achieve? The potential capabilities of these submarines are addressed in this article's fourth and final section.
Chinese naval writings reveal an intense pride regarding Beijing's naval nuclear-propulsion program. These writings, in the "glorious genre," as it were, are well documented in John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai's groundbreaking and authoritative classic China's Strategic Seapower. This article will not attempt to examine Chinese writings to check for consistency with the conclusions in the detailed study by Lewis and Xue (though this is a worthwhile project and should be undertaken, given the wide variety of new Chinese secondary source data). Rather, this analysis highlights several important trends in contemporary Chinese discussions of the first-generation nuclear submarines, in order to assess the prospects for the next generation.
In his recent autobiography, published in Chinese by the official PLA press in 2004, Admiral Liu Huaqing provides a unique level of detail concerning the foundation for China's contemporary development of nuclear submarines. Credited with an instrumental role in modernizing China's navy, Admiral Liu presided over a steady improvement and expansion of China's submarine force as both commander of the PLAN (1982-88) and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (1989-97). In 1984, Admiral Liu emphasized: "We must place importance on submarines at all times.... Nuclear-powered submarines should be further improved and used as a strategic task force." Liu viewed nuclear submarines not only as "a deterrent force of the nation" but also as "an expression of our country's overall strength." As commander of the PLA Navy, Liu emphasizes, "I paid exceptional attention to the practical work of developing nuclear-powered submarines. From 1982 through 1988, I organized various experiments and training sessions in this regard. I also considered developing a second generation of nuclear-powered submarines." PLAN emphasis on submarine development continues today. As the 2005 edition of the PLA's first authoritative English-language volume on strategy emphasizes, "Stealth warships and new-style submarines represent the modern sea battle platforms."
Chinese periodicals elucidate more recent factors shaping Chinese nuclear submarine force development. One important 2004 Chinese survey of China's emerging nuclear submarine program, in the journal (World Aerospace Digest), reviews a series of inadequacies in China's submarine force that became starkly evident during the 1990s. According to this report, the 1993 Yin He incident was an important event for crystallizing the People's Republic of China (PRC)'s commitment to a new generation of nuclear attack submarines. Thus, when the Chinese freighter was inspected in Saudi Arabia before proceeding to Iran, the PRC high command was apparently "extremely furious, but had no recourse" . At that point, the leadership redoubled its efforts to build a "capable and superior nuclear attack submarine that could protect China's shipping in distant seas." The author notes that "at present, our country only has five Han-class nuclear attack submarines.... This number is insufficient and the capabilities are backward.... Thus, they are inadequate to cope with the requirements of the new strategic situation."
The 2004 memoirs of former PLAN commander Admiral Liu appear to lend some credence to this sequence of events as they state that the Central Military Commission began development work on a "new generation nuclear submarine," probably the 093, in 1994. "In 1990 the last [of the original five Han-class SSNs] was launched," Liu recalls:
After I briefed President Jiang Zemin on this, he decided to
personally inspect the launch of this submarine. At the time
of inspection, he said resolutely: "Development of nuclear-powered
submarines cannot be discontinued." On 29 May 1992, when forwarding
the Navy's report on building nuclear-powered submarine
units to President Jiang, I particularly stressed the need
to continually develop scientific research and perform successful
safety work. President Jiang wrote a note on the report, giving his
important instructions on this matter. Based on his instructions,
in the course of developing nuclear-powered submarines, we
formed a seamless and effective nuclear safety mechanism by
drawing on the experience of foreign countries while taking our
practical situation into account. The mechanism included
regulations and rules, technological controls, and supervisory
and examination measures. In 1994, in compliance with President
Jiang's instructions, the Central Military Commission and its
Special Committee adopted a decision to start developing a new
generation of nuclear-powered submarines. Seeing that there were
qualified personnel to carry on the cause and that new types of
submarines would continue to be developed, I felt relieved.
The above analysis in (World Aerospace Digest), however, does cut against what appears to be conventional wisdom in China's naval literature, which tends to credit China's Han submarines with a significant role in the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Thus, one report states that in mid-March 1996, "U.S. military satellites were unable to detect the position of [certain] Chinese nuclear submarines; it was as if they ... had vanished." This narrative continues, "The U.S. carrier battle groups were unable to cope with the hidden, mobile, high-speed, undersea" threat posed by the Chinese nuclear submarines, and thus "were unable to approach the sea area within 200 nautical miles of Taiwan." Implying some uncertainty on this issue, the author asks, "Why did the U.S. carrier group suddenly change its original plan? Was it that they feared China's nuclear submarines?" Another PRC report also alleges that American military satellites lost track of China's SSNs and that the U.S. Navy was forced to retreat when confronted by the "massive threat of China's nuclear submarine force." Given the Han-class SSN's reputation as a noisy vessel, these statements might well be viewed with suspicion--and, indeed, they are not reproduced here to imply their truth. Nonetheless, these Chinese conjectures are related above because they could be indicative of the context within which 093 and 094 development has occurred.
Most China scholars agree that the intellectual space for debate and disagreement in China is, and has for some time been, rather wide. In this respect, the analysis from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (World Aerospace Digest) is once again noteworthy. While the vast majority of PLAN writings concerning the single Type 092 Xia SSBN heap praise on China's technical achievements, this analysis breaks new ground (in the PRC context) by drawing attention to the Xia's inadequacies. It notes candidly, "The Xia-class actually is not a genuine deterrent capability." Noting the symbolic value of the vessel, the author explains that the Xia was important to answer the question of "having or not having" a nuclear submarine but then enumerates the platform's numerous problems: high noise levels and radiation leakage, not to mention the short range of the single warhead carried by China's first-generation submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Julang-1. Forced to approach the enemy's shores and vulnerable to enemy ASW, the Xia "cannot possibly serve as a viable nuclear, second-strike force." It is no wonder, the author explains, that China did not opt to build a "whole batch" of these problematic submarines. No doubt, such candid observations suggest that Chinese strategists do not necessarily overestimate the capabilities of their first-generation nuclear submarines, perhaps adding additional impetus to the building of a second generation.
Even more important than the observations concerning history cited above, however, are the views of China's "founding fathers" of naval nuclear propulsion. Two of these founding fathers recently offered interviews to the press in which they expounded on the outlook for nuclear submarines in naval warfare. First, Peng Shilu, designer of China's first naval nuclear reactor, was interviewed in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (World Outlook) in 2002. Although Peng drafted his first reactor designs more than three decades ago, this engineer is unwavering in his commitment: "In the First World War, the battleship was the most important vessel; and in the Second World War, it was the aircraft carrier. [But in] the future, I believe the most critical naval asset will be the nuclear submarine." For Peng, the SSN's primary strengths are high power, high speed, large carrying capacity for equipment and personnel, and extended deployment capability, as well as excellent concealment possibilities. According to Peng, "Nuclear submarines can go anywhere.... [T]heir scope of operations is vast [and they are therefore] most appropriate to meet the security requirements of a great power." Drawing on another interview with Peng Shilu, an analysis published in 2005 by China's Central Party School Press concludes: "[Such is] the huge superiority of nuclear propulsion [that it] simply cannot be compared with conventional propulsion."
An interview with the Han submarine's chief designer, Huang Xuhua, which appeared in the military periodical [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Ordnance Knowledge) in 2000 is more explicit regarding some of the dilemmas confronting China's naval nuclear propulsion program. Huang discusses the conundrum for naval strategists posed by the option to choose between development of AIP (air-independent propulsion) technology and nuclear propulsion. The interviewer asks Huang directly whether it makes sense to continue with nuclear propulsion development, given recent worldwide advances in AIP technology. Huang points out that nuclear propulsion offers far more power, is likely much safer and more reliable, and enables submarines to stay submerged for longer periods of time. Taking Sweden's Gotland-class AIP-equipped submarine as an example, he suggests that this submarine's two weeks of submerged operations at an average speed of four knots might not "be adequate for combat requirements." Huang accepts that certain bathymetric conditions are ideal for AIP-equipped diesel submarines, such as those prevailing in the Baltic Sea (a small, shallow body of water). For Sweden, therefore, Huang says, "It is scientifically logical to select this type of submarine." The implicit argument, however, is that China confronts rather different, if not wholly unrelated, maritime challenges and requirements.
In making an argument for Chinese nuclear submarine development, Huang draws a parallel to Britain's deployment of SSNs during the Falklands War. He notes that their high speed was critical to their success in deploying to a distant theater in a timely fashion. Indeed, other PRC naval analysts have been impressed by the sea-control capabilities that British SSNs afforded during this scenario--the most intense naval combat since the Second World War. Huang then makes the observation that such high-speed submarines are critical for a nation, such as the United Kingdom, that--in contrast to the United States--no longer possesses a global network of bases. For the PRC, which takes great pride in its lack of overseas bases, this would appear to be an argument for SSNs serving as the basis of a blue-water navy with considerable reach. Indeed, writing in China's most prestigious military publication, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (China Military Science), PLAN Senior Captain Xu Qi goes so far as to state that China's "navy must ... unceasingly move toward [the posture of] a 'blue-water navy' [and] expand the scope of maritime strategic defense."
The Falklands War is hardly the only naval campaign of interest to Chinese strategists, as PRC researchers produce an extraordinary volume of analyses concerned with modern naval warfare--often generated by carefully dissecting foreign secondary sources. There is a large appetite for information regarding the United Kingdom's history of nuclear submarine operations and even that of such nascent nuclear submarine powers as India. However, Chinese naval strategists evidently prioritize analyses of the American, French, and especially Russian nuclear submarine fleets.
From a very early stage, PRC engineers demonstrated concretely that they were not averse to adopting American designs, as they conspicuously embraced the "teardrop" configuration for their first generation of nuclear submarines, in contrast to then-current Soviet designs. Today the "threat" component is also evident in PLAN analyses of the U.S. submarine force. Chinese researchers display intimate familiarity with all U.S. Navy submarine force programs, including the most cutting-edge platforms, such as Seawolf and Virginia. Additionally, there is great interest in the ongoing transformation of some SSBNs into SSGNs. Ample focus is also devoted to the capabilities of the Los Angeles class as the backbone of the U.S. Navy submarine force. Beyond platforms and programs, there is also a keen interest in America's industrial organization for nuclear submarine production and maintenance.
Chinese analysts closely monitor French nuclear submarine development as well. They have paid particular attention to the manner in which France strives to maximize the effectiveness of its second-tier nuclear submarine force. The September 2005 issue of (Naval and Merchant Ships) features a lengthy report, apparently by a Chinese naval officer studying in France who has made several visits to French nuclear submarines based in Brest. This report makes note of numerous details, from the vast support network at the base to France's inclination to support a high quality of life aboard its nuclear vessels. Concerning the value of France's SSBN force, which is noted to constitute "80% of France's nuclear weaponry," the author quotes a French military expert as saying, "France's SSBNs ensure national security, carry out strategic nuclear deterrence and [have] basic power for independent national defense." Other issues highlighted in this report include personnel practices (e.g., age limitations, two crews per submarine), operations cycles (a two/two/two pattern for SSBNs that marches other Chinese discussions--see below), command and control arrangements, quieting technologies, and the small size of certain classes of French SSNs.
It is with the Russian nuclear submarine force, however, that the Chinese navy feels the greatest affinity. This is not surprising and springs from historical, strategic, and perhaps even organizational-cultural affinities that appear to have been cemented since the passing of Sino-Soviet enmity in the late 1980s. Chinese analysts are well aware of the crisis that the Russian nuclear submarine force has suffered in recent years. They have written extensively on the Kursk tragedy and other accidents. For instance, one source has documented the great embarrassment suffered during an SLBM test failure that was witnessed directly by Russian president Vladimir Putin in early 2004. Chinese analysts note the vastly decreased building rate for Soviet nuclear submarines and voice concern lest the legacy force be insufficient to contend with the United States.
Nevertheless, respect for Russian nuclear submarine achievements has not diminished significantly. A review of Soviet naval development that appeared in (China Military Science) in 1999 extolled the virtues of nuclear submarines: "Relying on nuclear submarines, the Soviet Union rapidly overcame the unfavorable geostrategic situation, giving the USSR an ocean going navy with offensive capability." Perhaps reflecting on internal debates in China regarding naval modernization, the author also described how the Russian naval development encountered a major obstacle from a faction adhering to the notion that "navies have no use in the nuclear age".
Reflecting on today's Russian navy, (Modern Navy) lavished praise on the capabilities of a refurbished Typhoon-class SSBN, Dmitry Donskoy, that was re-launched in 2002; it also hailed the 2001 launch of an Akula-class SSN, Gepard, which is described as the world's quietest nuclear submarine. The latter report also noted that Gepard has twenty-four nuclear-armed cruise missiles. In a "war game" (of unknown origin) modeling a Russian-Japanese naval conflict, which was reported on in considerable detail in the October and November 2002 issues of (Naval and Merchant Ships), the Russian nuclear submarine force overcame Japan's ASW forces and inflicted grave losses (thirteen ships sunk) on the Japanese navy. This would appear to be a subtle argument that China also requires a substantial fleet of SSNs.
In Chinese naval periodicals, the affinity with the Russian nuclear submarine force is manifested by vast coverage of the minutest details of historical and contemporary platforms. In 2004-2005, for example, the journal (Naval and Merchant Ships) carried ten-to-fifteen-page special features, each devoted to outlining the development of a single class, such as the Victor, Delta, Oscar, or Alpha, complete with photo essays and detailed line drawings. These features are suggestive of the volumes of data that have been made available over the last decade from the Russian side and, simultaneously, the voracious appetite for such information within China's naval studies community. Among such descriptions, perhaps no Russian submarine commands as much respect and interest as the massive Typhoon. Chinese analysts are captivated not only by this vessel's gargantuan proportions but also by the efficiency of its reactors, its impressive quieting characteristics, the attention to crew living standards, and its command and control equipment and procedures. Evidently Chinese naval analysts appear to comprehend the strategic significance of a platform that could strike adversary targets from the "Russian-dominated Barents and Okhotsk seas."
Western analysts have followed Russian arms transfers to China with an all-consuming interest. But the above discussions imply that one should not underestimate the transfer of "software" and expertise that has occurred in parallel with that of the hardware. The true dimensions of these intellectual transfers remain unknown.
PRC writings concerning nuclear submarines do not hide the symbolic role of these vessels. One, for example, remarks on the precise correlation between membership in the UN Security Council and the development of nuclear submarines. Indeed, it appears to be conventional wisdom in the PRC that nuclear submarines represent one of China's clearest claims to status as a great power . In 1989, after China's successful test Of the JL-1 SLBM, Admiral Liu, then vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, stated,
Chairman Mao said that "we will build a nuclear submarine even if
it takes 10,000 years." ... Our nuclear submarine [and its] stealthy
nuclear missile both succeeded. This has [had] strong international
repercussions. As Comrade Deng Xiaoping has said, if we did not
have atomic bombs, missiles, [and] satellites, then we would not
[enjoy] our present international status, and could not shape
international great triangle relations [as a balancer to the Soviet
Union]. Developing strategic nuclear weapons has therefore [had]
great strategic significance for the nation.
Beyond symbolism, however, what are the missions that Chinese strategists envision for the second generation of PLAN nuclear submarines?
In general, nuclear submarines are credited with having significant advantages over conventional submarines: "a large cruising radius, strong self-power [i.e., electrical power supply], high underwater speed, great diving depth, [relative] quietness and large weapons carrying capacity." Perceived advantages of conventional submarines include "small volume, low noise, low cost, and mobility." Underscoring the cost differential, an anonymous PLAN officer is cited as warning, "The price of one nuclear submarine can buy several, even more than ten, conventional submarines.... As a developing country, our nation's military budget is still quite low, and thus the size of the navy's nuclear submarine fleet can only be maintained at a basic scale"
In 1989 Admiral Liu declared, "I believe that there are two issues in developing nuclear submarines: one is the development of SSBNs, and one is the development of SSNs. Both types of nuclear submarines should be developed, especially SSNs. Along with technological development, enemy ASW power has strengthened. Originally, using conventional submarines was sufficient to accomplish [our] missions, but now that has become problematic, [so] we must develop SSNs."
To understand what strategic roles the 093 submarine might undertake, it is essential to return to the discussion initiated by both Peng Shilu and Huang Xuhua in the first part of this article concerning the particular tactical and operational advantages of nuclear submarines. Indeed, the sophistication of PLA thinking on these issues is underlined by Huang's analysis of the different roles played by SSNs for each side during the Cold War. For the Americans, he says, they were a vital element of "global attack strategy" . For the Soviets, by contrast, their roles were to stalk enemy carrier battle groups, as well as to defend Soviet ballistic missile submarines. Concurring with Peng and Huang, a third analysis from (National Defense) enumerates further advantages of nuclear submarines by emphasizing the all-important factor of the SSN's impressive power supply. Not to be underestimated, this supply of power can vastly improve the crew's quality of life (e.g., by providing for strong air conditioning) and support electronic combat systems. In terms of combat performance, it is said that SSNs can employ their speed to foil ASW attack and are built solidly to absorb battle damage.
A consistent theme in PRC writings concerning SSNs involves their ability to undertake long-range missions of extended duration. Consistent with the analysis above that described the 1993 Yin He incident as lending significant impetus for the 093 program, a recent discussion of China's nuclear submarine force in (Naval and Merchant Ships) refers to the enormous growth in China's maritime trade as a factor in shaping China's emerging nuclear submarine strategy.Likewise, another article from (Modern Ships) on PRC submarine strategy suggests, "Submarines are the PLAN's main long-distance sea force.... Protecting China's sea lines of communication has become an important aspect of maritime security. This is an important new mission for the PLAN." If nuclear submarines can "break through the island chain blockade" , they can conduct long-distance operations without hindrance from the enemy's airborne ASW. Nuclear submarines are said to be far superior to diesel-powered submarines in combat situations in which air cover is lacking--a recognized vulnerability of the PLAN in distant operations. But overall, there is a strong emphasis on the imperative for Chinese nuclear submarines to function in a joint environment, thereby complementing other PLA strengths.
Nevertheless, these same analyses also exhibit some conservatism--for example, suggesting explicitly that China's new nuclear submarines will not operate beyond China's "second island chain" (running from the Japanese archipelago south to the Bonin and Marianas Islands and finally to the Palau group). Indeed, nuclear submarines are also said to be critical in the struggle to establish sea control in the littoral regions and in China's neighboring seas. The linkage between the 093 program and the Taiwan issue (as suggested above) is fairly clear: "In order to guarantee the required national defense strength and to safeguard the completion of national unification and to prevent 'Taiwan independence,' over the past few years, China has increased indigenous production of new conventional and nuclear submarines" (emphasis added). There is not only an acceleration of the building rate but also a change in the pattern of submarine development: "China's construction of a new generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines breaks with past practice, in which China would first build one vessel, debug it repeatedly, and then begin small batch production. In this case, work on the later submarines began almost simultaneously with work on the first.... China is doing it differently this time ... because of the urgency of the surrounding situation." Consistent with the Taiwan scenario hinted at above, it is said that China's nuclear submarines will be ideal for attacking a likely enemy's lengthy seaborne supply lines.
Disturbingly, one article actually does raise the possibility of a long-range land attack and even a nuclear-strategic role for China's future SSN. But it is the 094 SSBN, of course, that is envisioned to have the primary role in the nuclear-strike/ deterrence mission. Indeed, the same analysis suggests that, in contrast to Russia, China is planning to base a higher proportion--as many as half--of its nuclear warheads on submarines. Another source states that Chinese "SSBNs, [which] already possess appropriate nuclear counterattack capability, are an important embodiment of national strategic nuclear deterrence."
One Chinese expert identifies bathymetry as influencing SSBN development and deployment. He suggests that countries with shallow coastal waters on a continental shelf (such as China) face strong incentives to develop smaller SSBNs in order to better operate in local conditions. Among the reasons cited by Chinese strategists for continuing development of their nation's SSBN program are the inherent stealth and mobility of the submarine, which combine to make it the "most survivable type of (nuclear) weapon" . The PLAN is pursuing the 094, therefore, in order to guarantee via deterrence that mainland China is not struck by nuclear weapons and "to make sure, in the context of regional war, to prevent direct intervention by a third party" . In this analysis, China's nuclear forces are viewed as critical to deterring Washington in a Taiwan scenario, and the author is unusually candid: "At present, our country's nuclear deterrent forces are insufficient; [therefore] the potential for U.S. military intervention in a cross-Strait conflict is extremely high." Another source, citing China's development of the 094 submarine, emphasizes that "if a war erupts across the Taiwan Strait one day, facing the danger of China waging nuclear war, it will be very difficult for America to intervene in the cross-strait military crisis."
Another PRC analysis draws a direct link between the 094 and U.S. missile defense capabilities. It proposes: "In the face of the continual upgrade of the U.S. theater missile system and the excited U.S. research and development of all sorts of new antimissile systems, of course we cannot stand by idly and watch.... We must ... [adopt] countermeasures. The most important of these countermeasures is to exert great effort in developing new types of nuclear-powered strategic missile submarines which are more capable of penetrating defenses." Failure to do so, according to these authors, will increase the likelihood that "the opponent's nuclear cudgel may some day come crashing down on the heads of the children of the Yellow Emperor."
A somewhat more subtle justification for the 094 makes the argument in quasi-legalistic terms. Since China currently has a no-first-use policy for its nuclear forces, it is said to require the most survivable type of nuclear weapons (i.e., SSBN-based). The same analysis cautions that there is no need to build SSBNs in the excessive numbers that characterized the Cold War at sea. Rather, China will seek a "balanced" nuclear force (both land and sea-based), just as it will seek a balanced navy.
There appears to be some recognition that an effective sea-based deterrent hinges on more than stealthy second-generation nuclear submarines. A student at China's Central Party School cautions that unless the PLAN "possess[es] the ability to control passage in and out of important strategic passages in times of crisis.... In wartime, it is possible that PLAN vessels might suffer enclosure, pursuit, blocking, and interception by the enemy. Besieged in the offshore waters, [China's] sea-based nuclear deterrent could be greatly reduced."
For Western analysts, the most important details concerning the 093 and 094 submarines involve their projected deployment numbers and capabilities. Here the authors will examine both Chinese naval writings and related technical research to suggest a range of possibilities. It bears repeating that we do not endorse the estimates offered below but are merely presenting the data for other scholars and analysts to consider.
A major theme of Chinese writings is that while China cannot yet build submarines that meet advanced Western standards in all respects, it is intent on building successful 093 and 094 submarines. According to one source, "The technology involved is relatively mature." The situation is strikingly different from that surrounding China's first generation of nuclear submarines, which were built in the 1960s and 1970s when China was unstable, impoverished, isolated, and technologically backward. One author cites China's "successful economic reforms" over the "past twenty years" and the accompanying "technological progress" as providing the necessary expertise and adequate "resources" for successful nuclear submarine development. China is finally poised to capitalize on its decades of experience with related development and manufacturing processes. Because of these advances, China's new nuclear submarines will not necessarily be copies of either American or Russian submarines but rather products of an indigenous Chinese effort that is informed by foreign "best of breed" technologies and practices. Nor will Chinese nuclear submarines necessarily be used in the same roles for which U.S. and Soviet submarines were optimized (e.g., antisubmarine warfare).
The actual number of 093 and 094 submarines that China constructs and deploys will offer insight into its naval and nuclear strategies. One Chinese source suggests that by 2010, China will field a total of six 094 SSBNs, divided into patrolling, deploying, and refitting groups. Consistent with this projection, another source suggests that these groups will comprise two SSBNs each.
Another critical question concerns the 093 and 094 submarines' acoustic properties. Chinese sources universally recognize that noise reduction is one of the greatest challenges in building an effective nuclear submarine. PRC scientists have long been conducting research concerning the fundamental sources of propeller noise. For instance, experts at China Ship Scientific Research Center developed a relatively advanced guide-vane propeller by the late 1990s. This, and the fact that China already has advanced seven-blade propellers with cruciform vortex dissipaters on its indigenous Song-class and imported Kilo-class diesel submarines, suggests that the 093 and 094 will have significantly improved propellers. A researcher in Qingdao's 4808 Factory also demonstrates Chinese attention to the need to use sound-isolation couplings to prevent transmission of vibrations to the ocean from major fresh-water circulating pumps in the steam cycle. Advanced composite materials are credited with capability to absorb vibrations and sound.
One Chinese researcher states that the 093 is not as quiet as the U.S. Seawolf class or Virginia class but is on a par with the improved Los Angeles class. Another analyst estimates that the 093's noise level has been reduced to that of the Russian Akula-class submarine at 110 decibels . He states that the 094's acoustic signature has been reduced to 120 decibels. According to this report, this is definitely not equal to that of the Ohio class, but is on a par with the Los Angeles. There is no additional information given to evaluate concerning the origins or comparability of these "data."
It is conceivable, if unlikely, that the PRC has achieved a major scientific feat concerning the propulsion system for nuclear submarines. A wide variety of Chinese sources claim that China has succeeded in developing a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) suitable for use in its new-generation nuclear submarines. This development is described as a "revolutionary breakthrough" . Another source elaborates: "HTGR is the most advanced in the world, [its] volume is small, [its] power is great, [its] noise is low--it is the most ideal propulsion system for a new generation of nuclear submarines. The United States and Russia have both not achieved a breakthrough in this regard. According to Western reports, in the first half of 2000, China successfully installed an HTGR on a nuclear submarine. If this information is true, the 093 uses this advanced propulsion technology."
This same analyst suggests that the need to incorporate the new HTGR explains why 093 development has stretched out over a number of years. HTGR development is indeed cited as a major component of China's 863 High Technology Plan to develop selected key technologies. The Institute of Nuclear Energy Technology (INET) at Qinghua University has constructed a ten-megawatt HTGR, known as HTR 10. Qinghua and MIT signed a collaborative HTGR research agreement in 2003. The chief scientist and office director in charge of energy technology development for China's 863 Plan write that HTR 10's "high level results" make it "one of the most promising fourth generation systems." In the area of nuclear reactor design, construction, and components, robust indigenous research has been supplemented by extensive technological assistance from such Western corporations as Westinghouse.
As implied above, some Chinese analysts believe that the HTGR promises to give PLAN submarines unprecedented maximum speed. China's Han submarines, by contrast, are said to have a maximum speed of twenty-five knots, while the Xia has a maximum surface speed of sixteen knots and underwater speed of twenty-two knots. As mentioned before, however, Huang Xuhua believes that submarine speed is less important than concealment, which in turn depends on minimizing a submarine's acoustic signature. Another possible benefit of advanced nuclear propulsion is increased reactor safety.
Despite the above speculation, there are substantial reasons to doubt that China would be willing or able to put such an immature technology in its second generation of nuclear submarines, as this would constitute a substantial risk on the investment. Moreover, as Shawn Cappellano-Sarver points out, "The technical difficulties that would have to be overcome with the blowers (the need for magnetic bearings) and the fuel loading system to make an HTGR compatible with a submarine are formidable. This makes the probability of the 093 being equipped with an HTGR small."
As for armaments, the same analyst states that the 093 submarine may be equipped with "Eagle Strike" YJ-12 supersonic antiship cruise missiles. The YJ-12 has been developed as part of a larger Chinese quest for improved cruise missiles, particularly submarine-launched variants. The PLAN is presently working to equip "attack submarines with long distance, supersonic, low altitude missile travel, high accuracy, and strong anti-interference anti-ship missiles, with the combat capability to attack enemy surface ships from mid- to long-range."
The 093 is said to have sixty-five-centimeter torpedo tubes. In his interview, Huang discusses the engineering issues associated with torpedo tube diameter, explaining that "wider tubes support superior torpedoes and are not for ... missiles or sound-dampening." As for the number of missile tubes in the 094, two sources predict sixteen tubes, compared with the Xia's twelve. A third source forecasts between twelve and sixteen tubes.
Admiral Liu Huaqing has recounted China's initial failure and ultimately successful (on 12 October 1982) effort to test launch the JL-1, or CSS-N-3, SLBM from a submerged Golf-class submarine. This made China the fifth nation to have an undersea nuclear capability. "Launching carrier rockets from underwater has remarkable advantages, compared with using land-based or airborne strategic nuclear weapons," Liu emphasizes. "This is because the launching platform ... has a wide maneuver space and is well concealed. This gives it better survivability and, hence, greater deterrent power." The JL-1 was test-fired successfully from the Xia on 15 September 1988. According to one PRC analyst, "China believes that although the U.S. thinks the Xia-class submarine is too noisy and easy to detect, the Chinese navy is capable of going into the Pacific without detection because of its special tactics."
The 094's JL-2 SLBM is projected to have a range of eight thousand kilometers, compared to 2,700 kilometers for the JL-1. There is also speculation that, in contrast to JL-1, JL-2 will have multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). This would enhance nuclear deterrence by increasing China's number of undersea warheads and significantly bolstering their chances of penetrating an American national missile defense. One Chinese source predicts that each JL-2 SLBM will carry three to six warheads. Another article makes the extremely ambitious claim that JL-2s already carry six to nine warheads each and in the future will carry fourteen to seventeen.
The question of how Beijing will communicate with its newly modernized submarine fleet constitutes a major operational challenge. If China emulates other submarine powers, it is likely to pursue total redundancy for submarine command and control, relying on multiple means employing different physical principles. Extremely low frequency (ELF) communications have the advantage that messages can be received at depths of two to three hundred meters, thereby maximizing submarine stealth and survivability. There are major problems with ELF in practice, however, and it is not clear that China has mastered this technology. Most submarine communications are conducted across a range of frequencies, from very low frequency to extremely high frequency. Submarines receive messages through exposed antennas while at periscope depth, or via floating or slightly submerged antennas while near the surface. China might, therefore, create a dedicated maritime aircraft squadron for communications with its submarine fleet, if it has not already done so. A lengthy profile in (Naval and Merchant Ships) of the U.S. TACAMO ("Take Charge and Move Out") air fleet, which supports American SSBN operations, may buttress the general conclusion that Beijing is determined to perfect its communications with its submarine fleet as it launches a new generation of nuclear vessels.
The SSBN communications issue is especially acute, but China has been grappling with this particular problem for more than two decades. According to Admiral Liu, China on 16 April 1984 used "the satellite communications system for our nuclear-powered submarines to test the channels" of the Dong Fang Hong-2 communications satellite, which had been launched eight days before. "The navy's satellite communication system for its nuclear-powered submarines was the first one to open a test communication line with the satellite," Admiral Liu reports. "The success of the nuclear-powered submarine's experiment on instantaneous transmission of messages via the satellite ... pushed China's submarine communication to a new level."
Centralization is arguably essential for SSBN command and control, particularly in the highly centralized PLA. According to John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China's SSBN force, like all other nuclear units, is overseen by the Strategic Forces Bureau. This arrangement is intended to ensure that "only the [Central Military Commission] Chairman--not China's president--has the authority to launch any nuclear weapons after getting the concurrence of the Politburo Standing Committee and the [Central Military Commission]."
However, it is unclear to what extent centralized SSBN command, control, and communication (C3) would be technologically possible for China. "At present China's communications infrastructure is vulnerable to a first strike," Garth Hekler, Ed Francis, and James Mulvenon contend. "As a result, the SSBN commander would require explicit and restrictive rules of engagement and ... targeting data, lest crisis communications with Beijing reveal [the SSBN's] position to hostile attack submarines or if the submarine is cut off from Beijing after a decapitating first strike." On the broader question of submarine force command and control doctrine, it is suggested, "While the PLAN may recognize the effectiveness of decentralized C3 for certain types of submarine missions, it appears to be seeking to create a more tightly centralized submarine C3 system by developing command automation, network centric warfare strategies, and advanced communications technologies."
Chinese naval planners realize that rapidly improving equipment is useless without corresponding improvement in human performance. The PLAN has for some time been pursuing nuclear submarine missions of extended duration. In his recently published memoirs, Admiral Liu relates that he raised the priority of long-duration exercises for PLAN nuclear submarines in order to test all parameters of these new capabilities.
Apparently as part of these expanded activities, the current PLAN chief of staff, Sun Jianguo, reportedly commanded Han 403 during a mid-1980s mission of ninety days that broke the eighty-four-day undersea endurance record previously set by USS Nautilus. Chinese military medical journals evince a very clear interest in undersea medicine, especially issues surrounding physical and psychological challenges related to lengthy submerged missions.
An even more important challenge for nuclear submarine effectiveness is maintaining a cadre of quality technical personnel. According to one Chinese source, "The greatest problem facing submarine forces today is: it is difficult to have skilled technical operators; especially officers, because they must have good nuclear reactor equipment maintenance and repair skills."
Chinese analysts acknowledge that America has long been dominant in undersea warfare, especially after the Cold War. Many Westerners are therefore surprised that China would have the temerity to challenge the United States directly in this specialized domain of warfare. Yet PLAN analysts keep close tabs on U.S. Navy submarine building rates and carefully probe for potential American submarine force vulnerabilities. They have studied the 8 January 2005 accident involving USS San Francisco with great interest. A 2006 article by a senior PLAN strategist suggests that "China already exceeds [U.S. submarine production] five times over" and that eighteen U.S. Navy submarines based in the Pacific might be at a severe disadvantage against seventy-five or more Chinese submarines. While these assessments are ultimately attributed to an American source, the PLAN analyst makes no effort to deny or reject these assessments.
It is widely held that the trajectory of Chinese nuclear propulsion may be one of the best single indicators of whether or not China has ambitions to become a genuine global military power. With no need to surface in order to recharge batteries or any requirement for refueling, not to mention unparalleled survivability if acoustically advanced and properly operated, nuclear submarines remain ideal platforms for persistent operations in far-flung sea areas. They will form an efficient means for China to project power should it choose to do so. Available information on Chinese SSN and SSBN build rates currently suggests the continuation of a moderate development plan. However, Washington should, at a minimum, develop contingency long-range planning for a determined PRC naval challenge, spearheaded by a new and formidable force of Chinese nuclear submarines.