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“[Chinese submarines] are definitely catching up to us,” said Captain Chester Parks, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s missile submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia, earlier this month while speaking about the Navy’s next-generation Colombia Class missile submarine.
The comment resonates with me. As a defense analyst I am constantly reminded of the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China has had a few nuclear-powered submarines since the 1970s but for many years they were widely regarded as inferior to Western types. The latest Type-093 ‘Shang’ Class fast attack submarines and Type-094 ‘Jin’ Class ballistic missile submarines are a different matter. They are more numerous and, very likely, substantially more potent. They are not necessarily as capable as their western equivalents, but the gap is closing over time.
There are a few variables at play, but submarine warfare is largely a game of stealth. Two straightforward questions are whether they are as good at staying hidden, and whether they are as good at detecting others.
Submarine stealth largely comes down to the amount of noise a submarine makes. The aim is to make the submarine as quiet as the ambient sea noise around it, typically around 90 decibels. Western submarines got close around 20-30 years ago. China has been seen as lagging. But the according to unclassified U.S. Navy estimates, the early Type-093 attack submarines are about 110 decibels. That is about the same as the U.S. Navy’s improved Los Angeles Class boats. Ten years ago the latest Chinese attack submarines were considered to be as quiet as the latest Russian Akula Class submarines. Since these estimates were published in 2007, China has launched two improved variants of the Type-093 submarine. So it is a reasonable assumption that the latest Chinese boats will already be quieter.
There is even less information available on the second point, how well they can detect other submarines. However, Chinese technology is rapidly advancing and showing greater levels of innovation. Already Chinese submarines are known to have passive sonar arrays along their sides, known as flank arrays. This is similar to U.S. Navy submarines. And they have retractable towed array sonars which stretch far behind them, again like western boats.
And China is reputed to be working on a new generation of submarines. Very few details are available about the Type-095 ‘Tang’ Class, but I expected the first boat to be rolled out soon. As a completely new design, it will be twenty years newer than the U.S. Navy’s latest Virginia Class. That doesn’t automatically make it better, the Virginias are still being developed, but it has a newer foundation.
The biggest variable might be innovation. Historically many Chinese military products have been heavily influenced by other countries’ designs. Yet their nuclear submarines have always been indigenous. And their submarine industry is increasingly showing signs of experimentation, such as a mysterious submarine launched a year ago in Shanghai. Chinese submarine designers are capable of surprises.
Captain Parks also said included Russia’s submarines in his comments. That’s a whole other topic. So U.S. Navy submarines may continue to be viewed as superior to non-NATO types, but their advantage is likely to diminish.