U.S. Report Warns Of China Sub Threat
Chicago Tribune
August 11, 2005
Michael Kilian

Little noticed by the public, a just-released
Pentagon report to Congress carries a strong warning that China's rapidly expanding and improving submarine fleet poses a mounting military threat to the United States.

The end of the Cold War left the United States the world's supreme naval power, and the Pentagon, occupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has shifted its priorities away from seaborne threats in recent years.

The Pentagon has even diverted components of its anti-submarine warfare arm to other purposes.

China, though still well behind the U.S. in terms of the strength of its submarine fleet, has turned to an undersea vessel that American planners had considered largely obsolete--the diesel-electric attack submarine--to boost its arsenal. And it is equipping its submarines with new technology from Germany and elsewhere to make the craft harder to detect and more lethal than ever before.

Experts predict that China's submarine fleet will substantially outnumber that of the U.S. within the next 15 years.

As the Pentagon report, delivered to Congress last month, says, the new Chinese navy is a force designed mostly to prevent or dissuade the U.S. from intervening in a conflict between China and Taiwan. But it also is giving China the capability of menacing Japan and striking U.S. cities with submarine-launched nuclear missiles from far out in the Pacific.

"China is in the midst of perhaps the largest military buildup the world has witnessed since the end of the Cold War," Richard Fisher, vice president of Washington's International Assessment and Strategy Center, a national security think tank, said at a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

John Tkacik Jr., a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, raised a similar alarm.

"China's ambitious weapons modernization and reforms in military doctrine are aimed at promoting vast increases in its comprehensive national power," Tkacik told the House committee. He said the Pentagon report is "a wake-up call to the administration, to Congress, to the Taiwan government and to our friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific region that . . . China stands poised to assert itself as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific region."

China appears to be strengthening all branches of its military--improving training and weaponry for its huge army, increasing its short- and long-range ballistic missiles, adding new aircraft and precision munitions to its air force and developing unmanned aircraft, the report said.

But submarines have become a high priority. China has about 64 surface warships in its navy and 55 or more attack submarines, designed for use against enemy surface ships and submarines as well as ground targets.

These not only include its current Song-class sub, armed with anti-ship cruise missiles that can be launched underwater, but a new Yuan diesel-electric attack sub as well. China also is expected to introduce a nuclear attack submarine this year and has bought four highly capable Russian Kilo-class attack submarines with eight more on order from the Russian military.

In contrast, Taiwan has just 27 surface warships and four submarines.

U.S. fleet of 59 attack subs

The U.S. has a fleet of 59 attack submarines of all classes but, as experts have noted, has commitments for them all over the world.

At current attrition and replacement rates, experts estimate the U.S. attack fleet will be down to 40 submarines or fewer within the next 15 years, while China expands its fleet by perhaps 35 modern subs.

Another great leap forward in Chinese attack submarine capability has been the introduction of "air-independent propulsion" technology to its attack force.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Bill Murray, a veteran submarine officer now serving as an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, AIP technology has transformed the diesel-electric sub into an ultrastealthy, state-of-the-art ship-killing weapon.

Nuclear subs are quieter than diesels, but attack subs running on batteries are quieter still.

"When they're on battery, they're incredibly difficult to find," Murray said. "So, unless you know where they are, they could be anywhere, which complicates the United States' or any opposing navy's ability to operate on the surface."

According to Lyle Goldstein, another Naval War College expert, diesel-electric subs have been able to operate for only two or three days on batteries, having to resurface to recharge them. With AIP, the submarine carries its own air supply, as it might extra fuel, and can recharge its batteries while deep underwater and stay submerged for two or more weeks.

"I don't think anybody really knows how far the Chinese are along with it, but we've found some very disturbing signs," Goldstein said.

According to Goldstein and Murray, the Chinese acquired much of their AIP technology from Germany. They emphasized that their assessments are their own and not official views of the Naval War College or the Navy.

All American submarines are nuclear; the Navy has no diesel-electric attack craft. Last fall, the Swedish government leased the Navy the use of one of its AIP-equipped diesel-electric vessels and crew so American anti-submarine warfare forces could train against the wider-ranging submarine tactics AIP makes possible.

As the Pentagon report on China observed, the U.S. has emphasized capability over quantity in maintaining its submarine fleet. But numbers give the Chinese certain advantages.

"Numbers matter," Murray said. "The Chinese obviously believe that numbers matter because they're turning out submarines like sausages. The Chinese are definitely on the winning end of an arms race."

Though the collapse of the Soviet Union decreased the need for the nuclear submarine as a globally deployed, second-strike nuclear deterrent, the U.S. underwater fleet still is spread worldwide as part of a strategy of projecting force on all oceans and major seas. That mission includes protection of the United States' wide-ranging carrier battle groups.

China is showing its new emphasis in other ways. It traditionally has been so focused on its army and ground warfare that for decades it had army generals commanding both its air force and navy. The new navy commander, Zhang Dingfa, is a navy admiral and veteran submarine officer.

Capitol Hill reaction

Alarm over the Chinese buildup is spreading on Capitol Hill. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) argued that this was no time to cut back the size of the U.S. attack sub fleet or to close the Navy submarine base at Groton, Conn., as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has recommended.

"The best anti-submarine weapon is another submarine," Hunter said.

The Pentagon report on Chinese military power assessed its submarine buildup as part of a coercive effort to persuade Taiwan that "the price of declaring independence is too high" and that naval action against Taiwan might include a blockade or outright attack.

"They want to deter us from interfering if they feel they have to use force to deter Taiwan [from independence], raising the potential cost [in sunk ships and casualties] of U.S. intervention to such a high degree that they think we will calculate we can't defend Taiwan without paying an exorbitant cost," Murray said.

Although Rumsfeld has raised concerns about China's military buildup, he has continued to state publicly that he believes the Taiwan dispute will be settled through peaceful negotiation.

"Our position with respect to Taiwan and the People's Republic of China hasn't changed in years," he said at a news briefing last month. "Our view is that whatever changes are to be made in that connection should be made on a peaceful basis by both countries."

"You judge military threat in two ways," said Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, who becomes chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next month. "There're lots of countries in the world that have the capacity to wage war. Very few have the intent to do so. And clearly, we have a complex but good relationship with China. So there's absolutely no reason for us to believe there's any intent on their part."

"On the contrary," Tkacik said. "The Pentagon report shows that there is every reason to believe that China intends either to coerce Taiwan or to attack it. There is no third option."