Beijing said on March 5 that its official military budget would increase by 10.1 percent in 2015, continuing a decades old trend of double digit funding increases for Beijing's armed forces, year-on-year. Alongside the other branches of the Chinese military, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine force stands to benefit from continued significant investment going forward.
The Chinese announcement follows remarks made by Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of Naval operations, integration of capabilities and resources, on Feb. 25 to the U.S. House Seapower and Projections Forces subcommittee on the status of the Chinese navy. Admiral Mulloy highlighted what he referred to as a tremendous growth rate in the Chinese submarine arm, indicating that the Chinese are now producing some "fairly amazing" submarines. Following the remarks, a number of Chinese analysts retorted that the United States military was once again exaggerating the Chinese threat in an attempt to secure increased Congressional funding at a time of budget uncertainty in Washington.
Though the Pentagon is right to point out continued and impressive Chinese headway in modernizing their armed forces, the Chinese nuclear submarine fleet is not nearly as capable as official remarks may suggest. As an entity, the People's Liberation Army Navy lacks the expertise and institutional knowledge possessed by navies with a centuries-long heritage, like the United States Navy or the British Royal Navy.
It is true that the Chinese submarine force has made tremendous progress over the last decade. It is also true that the number of overall Chinese attack submarines, both diesel and nuclear powered, has grown rapidly, surpassing the number of commissioned U.S. nuclear attack submarines — craft designed specifically to engage other submarines or surface vessels. Critically, the Chinese are also spending large amounts of time at sea building up their expertise in training and patrols. The number of PLAN submarine sorties has approximately quadrupled over the last five years or so. As Admiral Mulloy stated, Beijing's nuclear ballistic missile submarines — distinct from their hunter-killer brethren in that they can launch intercontinental ballistic missiles from beneath the ocean surface — are almost ready for deterrence patrols, with one of these submarines having spent more than three months at sea during a trial patrol.
However, the Chinese are without a doubt still far behind the U.S. Navy's submarine service, especially in terms of fielding a nuclear submarine force capable of global reach and sustained operations. With a number of advanced diesel-electric Yuan-class submarines already in service, and improved models under construction, the Chinese are increasingly well positioned to utilize their diesel submarines in the sea denial role around China's coastal waters.
The Chinese doctrine in regard to its periphery is what can be referred to as a counter intervention strategy based on preventing or limiting U.S. and allied access into the Chinese near seas. From Beijing's point of view, these include the Yellow, East China and South China seas. Chinese conventional submarines would be used to interdict enemy vessels as they approach the Chinese near seas by conducting operations in the larger sea space between what China calls the first and second island chains — roughly speaking, the Philippine Sea.
The long-term Chinese ambition is, however, to develop a strong force of nuclear powered submarines for global force projection and the escort of carrier task groups and nuclear ballistic submarines. In this respect, China is still far behind the United States. In terms of the development of critical nuclear propulsion and quieting technology, the latest Chinese commissioned nuclear attack submarine, the Type-93 Shang-class, is broadly equivalent to the U.S. Sturgeon-class of late 1960s vintage. Even taking into account improved Chinese Type-93B submarines undergoing sea trials, the Chinese have not surpassed the capabilities displayed by early versions of the U.S. Los Angeles-class submarines of late 1970s vintage.
Furthermore, China has only started to seriously invest in anti-submarine warfare capabilities, an area in which they are sorely lacking. Even with its limited capability, Beijing is still much better prepared for anti-submarine operations in its peripheral waters than in the global commons. The introduction into service of the Shaanxi Y-8Q maritime patrol aircraft — with its seven-meter-long Magnetic Anomaly Detector boom designed to identify submarines — is a welcome addition. Yet, it will take almost a decade to produce the required number of anti-submarine aircraft and associated surface corvettes to seriously contend with the threat of U.S. submarine operations in the East and South China Seas. For anti-submarine warfare operations far from home, the Chinese are even less prepared.
In his statement, Admiral Mulloy acknowledged that U.S. submarines remain superior to Chinese ones. But, his remark about China producing some "fairly amazing" submarines mischaracterizes and overplays the Chinese underwater force, particularly its nuclear submarines. Relatively speaking, and given the qualitative difference between the U.S. and Chinese nuclear submarine force in particular, if the latest Chinese submarines are "fairly amazing" then the latest U.S. Virginia class submarines could only be described as "phenomenal."
It is worth reiterating that the Chinese have made and continue to make remarkable advances in submarine development. They are particularly innovative in fielding increasingly capable diesel-electric boats suited for the primary mission of sea denial close to home. Even in terms of nuclear boats, the large technological gap between the U.S. and Chinese submarine force is closing rapidly, with the next generation Chinese Type-95 submarines already under construction. It will take decades, however, for China to reach technological parity with the United States, internalize global operational procedures and operate an equivalent number of nuclear attack submarines.
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