2 April 2017
A decade ago, myriad questions hung over the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The only modern vessel it seemed capable of building in a hurry was a coastal fast attack craft, hardly the stuff of a world-class fleet. Where were the large surface combatants or even the frigates that are the workhorses of any sea service? And then there was the biggest question of all: would China actually go all in for the “holy grail” of naval prestige and build an aircraft carrier? Things look very different from today’s vantage point.
Not only are China’s simultaneous destroyer and frigate (and cruiser and cutter) programs the envy of the world, Beijing’s aspiration to wield “super carriers” is no longer a laughing matter at all.
On the other hand, media attention focused elsewhere seemed almost to suggest that the Chinese submarine force might have been marginalized by the glitzy carrier program, not to mention the shiny new airstrips dotting the South China Sea. The new leader of the PLAN, Shen Jinlong, is yet another surface warfare officer rather than a member of the undersea service. However, there are some palpable signs that the PLAN submarine force might be seeking a return to the limelight after some years in the shadows. First, my colleague Conor Kennedy has unearthed an article on the China Strategic Emerging Industry website that suggests that China is in the process of completing perhaps the world’s largest nuclear submarine fabrication facility. Second, additional bombshells have emerged from the February 2017 issue of Naval & Merchant Ships, which quite casually announced that Beijing might opt to forward base some submarines at Gwadar in Pakistan, while also letting it be known that one of its new Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarines had been active as recently as December 2016 in a continuing escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. Finally, this edition of Dragon Eye also examines some developing discussions among Chinese naval strategists reflecting an apparently new doctrinal concept for the modernizing PLAN submarine force of power projection “from the sea...”
According to the article from the China Strategic Emerging Industry site, “Many media outlets are reporting that China’s Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Co. has built a new large-size factory.” Later, the new facility at Huludao is described as a “super factory” and it is noted with great pride that that the fabrication shed was erected in just one year. In terms of size comparisons, this piece asserts that it is the world’s largest: “Western production lines for the most part can only build one submarine, and only the U.S. is capable of building two submarines simultaneously, but China is now capable of building four!”
According to this article, China already has at least four type 094/094A ballistic missile submarines and at least five Type 093/093G attack submarines, so it is speculated that the new facility is to build the successor third-generation classes of Type 096 ballistic missile submarines and Type 095 attack submarines. The new submarines will be built using modular fabrication techniques. The projection is made that Chinese nuclear submarine production will double its rate within two to three years. The advantages of the new facility for production in all-weather conditions, and in terms of hiding the building from U.S. spy satellites, are duly noted. The author reveals that within Chinese Navy circles the question of whether to prioritize the aircraft carrier, or large surface ships or
nuclear submarines, has formed a “focal point of debate,” but concludes that there is a consensus behind “balanced development” and nuclear submarines are a key part of that balance.
Two other recent revelations from Chinese-language sources may be almost as significant. Both are in small news tidbits from the front material in the February 2017 edition of the Naval & Merchant Ships, a Chinese naval magazine published by the shipbuilding conglomerate China State Shipbuilding Company. The lead headline item on the list, perhaps suggesting its importance, is as follows: “China Might Send Submarines to Guard the Port of Gwadar.” These submarines would work together with the Pakistan Navy to protect the port and also “maritime trade routes.” The report also says there is a possibility that the Chinese Navy will build a base there and use it to “support the activities of its fleet in the Indian Ocean.” True, the source of this information is revealed to be the Pakistan Navy, but it would be quite unusual for this Chinese navy-affiliated magazine to lead with such a headline if there was no basis to it. Moreover, another news item further down the list seems to offer some evidence for the above assertion in relating how a Type 093 nuclear submarine took part in a Gulf of Aden escort during December 2016. The headline reads simply “Navy Type 093 Conducts Escort in the Gulf of Aden.” A small photo accompanying the item shows a surfaced submarine in the foreground with a merchant ship and two warships in the background. Not much additional information is provided, but the report follows others that suggest that Beijing is routinizing nuclear submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean. One can only smirk at the supposed naval logic for employing nuclear submarines to escort merchant ships and deter a pirate attack.
A still more disconcerting part of this emerging puzzle is an October 2016 headline from a report in another Chinese naval-affiliated magazine, Shipborne Weaponry: “Developments in Chinese Navy’s Land Attack Capabilities.” Not surprisingly, the article has a picture of the new Type 052 destroyer and discusses the developing Type 055 program with its enormous number of Vertical Launching System (VLS) tubes. It also prominently features a rare photo of the 093B nuclear submarine, which has a “relatively large protrusion behind the sail, thought by foreign observers to be a VLS compartment.” Reaching out to a hypothetical land attack cruise missile range of 1,500 kilometers, such undersea forces afford “the Chinese Navy a non-aircraft carrier battle group attack capability that is extremely feasible, and also amounts to a huge breakthrough in combat capabilities...”
The developments related above should raise some eyebrows in Washington, New Delhi and elsewhere. In some ways, they are wholly expected and need not be greeted with excessive alarm. After all, plenty of naval analysts (both Chinese and Western) have long identified the vulnerability of Chinese maritime supply lines crossing the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, American naval strategists may be rather perturbed to contemplate how much closer Chinese submarines at Gwadar could be to reaching waters proximate to the American homeland. After all, the only potential antisubmarine barriers between Pakistan and the U.S. East Coast are thousands of miles wide. southern Africa (and even the Azores) may once again become hot real estate in an emergent Cold War. Is this one critical segment of Beijing’s long awaited strategic riposte to the American pivot?
At the very least, the Washington strategic studies community might want to shift some of their ample attention from scrutinizing satellite photos of reef outposts to examining the industrial activities around an exceedingly large shed on the Bohai Sea.
Lyle J. Goldstein is associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.