China’s emerging undersea capability and the implications for Australia’s future submarine
24 Apr 2014|

KINGS BAY, Ga. (Aud. 1, 2012) The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) transits the Saint Marys River. Maryland returned to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay following routine operations.At ASPI’s recent Submarine Conference the strategic rationale for Australia’s Future Submarine (FSM) was only lightly discussed. Presenters stated that the FSM worked best as an ‘offensive platform’ and ‘up threat’. But that issue deserves a more detailed debate: it’s central to answering the question about what we want the submarines to do. A hidden assumption of the 2009 Defence White Paper, which provided the vision for 12 new and large diesel-electric submarines, was that the boats would be able to operate for extended periods as far away as Northeast Asia, including off the Chinese mainland. Some analysts, including here on The Strategist, support such a view.

But the future undersea environment off the Chinese coast will be markedly different from what it is today. A key reason for that is China’s emerging submarine and anti-submarine (ASW) capability. To be sure, the current undersea balance between the US and China is still very much in favour of our major ally. Beijing is catching up though, and by the time Australia’s new generation of submarines goes to sea that balance might have shifted. As a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service points out, while China’s current submarine force is now quantitatively smaller than it was in 1990, it has ‘greater aggregate capability than it did in 1990, because larger numbers of older, obsolescent boats have been replaced by smaller numbers of more modern and more capable boats’.

A staff report for the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission puts the trend towards a more formidable Chinese submarine fleet by 2020 into a table:

China’s Submarine Fleet, 1990–2020

Type 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
Diesel Attack 88 43 60 51 54 57-62 59-64
Nuclear Attack (SSN) 4 5 5 6 6 6-8 6-9
Nuclear Ballistic(SSBN) 1 1 1 2 3 3-5 4-5
Total 93 49 66 59 63 66-75 69-78

The report also notes the ongoing modernisation of the fleet, defining ‘modern’ submarines as those able to launch ballistic missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

China’s Submarine Fleet, 1990–2020, approximate percent ‘modern’

Type 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015 2020
Diesel Attack 0% 0% 7% 40% 50% 70% 75%
Nuclear Attack 0% 0% 0% 33% 33% 70% 100%

That assessment is underlined by recent Congressional testimony from the US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). The ONI also expects that by 2020 the ‘vast majority’ of China’s submarine force will be armed with ‘advanced, long-range ASCMs’. Moreover, apart from the possibility that a new Type 095 SSN could be equipped with a land-attack capability, the testimony reiterates the Pentagon’s expectation that the JIN-class SSBN will become operational in 2014, marking ‘China’s first credible at-sea second-strike nuclear capability’ against the continental US, Hawaii and Guam. Should the Chinese Navy (PLAN) increase its JIN-class boats from three to five it could sustain a continuous SSBN presence in the Western Pacific or the Indian Ocean.

Finally, the PLAN has started to address more seriously its notorious shortfalls in ASW capability. For example, a recent article in the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine (subscribers only) analyses China’s deployment of a fixed ocean-floor acoustic network off its coast to monitor foreign submarine activities in its ‘Near Seas’. While the authors note that it’s not yet clear to what degree the ‘generally weak’ Chinese ASW capability will benefit from that network, they also stress that the PLAN is undoubtedly putting more effort into strengthening its ASW capabilities. As my colleague Andrew Davies points out, major advances in ASW could greatly complicate Australia’s future submarine operations close to China’s shore.

Of course, it’ll take time for the PLAN to turn its new platforms into actual capabilities. For instance, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, effective command and control in SSBN operations will be a major challenge. But two decades from now the PLAN will be more proficient in undersea warfare as well as ASW. This will not only increase the detection risk for Australian submarines. As well, the undersea land-attack options canvassed in the 2009 Defence White Paper will become even more questionable. And while China’s ‘Near Seas’ will remain the primary operational focus of the PLAN for the time being, Chinese submarines will increasingly patrol in waters close to Australia—requiring attention of the ADF’s ASW capabilities, including submarines.

We might be thus better off leaving the increasingly crowded undersea space off the Chinese mainland to our US ally whose nuclear submarines (like the USS Maryland, pictured) are faster and better armed. Moreover, expect non-nuclear submarines of partner nations like Japan, South Korea or Vietnam to also operate in this space given their geographic proximity to China. As Peter Jennings argued at our conference, Australia should consider adopting a more modest assessment as to how far ‘up threat’ our submarines should operate in the future. In my view, this implies a focus on operations in the Eastern Indian Ocean and maritime chokepoints in the Indonesian archipelago. While this could mean fewer and smaller boats, they would still make critical contributions to Australia’s security and to allied operations by posing a credible threat to hostile surface and subsurface systems.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.