The competition for submarine development is heating up as China begins manufacturing a new type of nuclear-equipped submarines that are predicted to present a formidable obstacle for the US and its allies in their attempts to monitor them.
Experts and military representatives from neighboring countries report that there is growing evidence that China will have its Type 096 ballistic missile submarine ready for use by the end of the decade. This progress has been attributed, in part, to the implementation of Russian technology to improve its stealth capabilities.
A study presented at a conference in May at the US Naval War College and published in August by the China Maritime Studies Institute suggests that tracking the new vessels will become more challenging. This finding is supported by seven analysts and three military attaches based in Asia.
Christopher Carlson, a retired submariner and naval technical intelligence analyst who was part of the research team, stated that the Type 096 submarines will be difficult to detect and could potentially be a nightmare.
The discreet effort to track China’s nuclear-powered and -armed ballistic missile submarines, known as SSBNs, is one of the core drivers of increased deployments and contingency planning by the US Navy and other militaries across the Indo-Pacific region. That drive is expected to intensify when Type 096s enter service.
According to the Pentagon, the Chinese navy regularly conducts nuclear deterrence patrols with their Type 094 vessels from Hainan Island in the South China Sea. This is similar to the long-standing patrols carried out by the United States, Britain, Russia, and France.
However, the Type 094 submarines, equipped with China’s top-of-the-line JL-3 missile, are deemed to be quite loud, posing a significant disadvantage for military submarines.
The article states that the Type 096 submarine will be on par with advanced Russian submarines in regards to its stealth, sensors, and weaponry. It also mentions that this increase in capabilities will have significant implications for the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
Drawing from Chinese military publications, internal addresses from high-ranking officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and patent records, the report traces over five decades of the PLA Navy’s slow progress in developing nuclear submarines.
It contains satellite imagery taken in November at China’s new Huludao shipyard showing pressure hull sections for a large submarine being worked up. That puts construction on schedule to have the boats operational by 2030, the timeline stated in the Pentagon’s annual reports on China’s military.
The study also presents potential advancements in certain domains, such as pump-jet propulsion and internal noise-reducing devices, through the use of “imitative innovation” inspired by Russian technology.
Reuters’ attempts to get comments from the defense ministries of both Russia and China went unanswered.
The ship is expected to be much bigger than the Type 094, enabling it to house an internal “raft” supported by advanced rubber materials to reduce engine and other noises, similar to Russian models.
According to Mr. Carlson’s statement to Reuters, he does not think that China has acquired Russia’s most advanced technology. However, he predicts that they will soon have a stealthy submarine that can rival Moscow’s Improved Akula boats.
Mr. Carlson stated that it is difficult for them to locate and monitor the Improved Akulas.
Collin Koh, a defense scholar from Singapore, stated that the study revealed hidden research initiatives aimed at enhancing China’s SSBNs and strengthening its anti-submarine warfare capabilities.
According to Mr. Koh from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, they are aware that they are lagging and are attempting to catch up by focusing on reducing noise and improving propulsion.
According to Mr. Carlson, China’s strategists will likely follow Russia’s example and keep their SSBNs in protected “bastions” near their coastlines. This will involve making use of recently strengthened territories in the contentious South China Sea.
Rephrasing: Reflections on the Cold War
The possibility of improved SSBNs will greatly complicate an already challenging underground monitoring conflict.
According to analysts and military attaches, the search for Chinese submarines is now a joint effort involving the United States, Australia, Britain, Japan, and India, similar to the Cold War-era hunt for Soviet “boomers.”
There has been a rise in anti-submarine warfare exercises and an increase in the presence of P-8 Poseidon aircraft in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean for sub-hunting missions.
The advanced aircraft used by the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Britain, and New Zealand employ innovative methods like sonobuoys and ocean surface scanning to detect submarines at great depths.
According to a report by Reuters in September, the United States is currently undergoing a major renovation of its covert underwater surveillance system, the largest since the 1950s. This is in response to China’s increasing presence in the area.
The possibility of a less noisy Chinese SSBN is a factor in the AUKUS agreement between Australia, Britain, and the US. This deal will result in more frequent deployments of British and American attack submarines to Western Australia. Australia plans to introduce their first nuclear-powered attack submarines with the help of British technology by the 2030s.
At this moment, we are at a very interesting stage,” stated Alexander Neill, a defense analyst based in Singapore. “China is progressing with their next generation of submarines before the first AUKUS vessels, and even if they have similar capabilities, this holds great importance,” added Neill, who is also an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum think-tank in Hawaii.
Although China’s submarine capabilities may become technologically equal, they will still need to undergo intense and rigorous training in the next ten years to match the capabilities of AUKUS, according to him.
According to Vasily Kashin, a Chinese military researcher at HSE University in Moscow, it is feasible that Chinese engineers were responsible for the advancements mentioned in the report.
Mr. Kashin stated that while China may have acquired certain important Russian technology in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there is no documented agreement for sharing between Beijing and Moscow, except for a 2010 agreement regarding nuclear reactors.
He claimed that China’s advancements in military technology may have been influenced by Russian designs and other means, such as espionage, but it is doubtful that they possess the latest Russian systems.
According to Mr. Kashin, China does not pose a threat to Russia in terms of naval power. Instead, it is causing issues for the US rather than for us.