Behind the Kitty Hawk Incident (Updated)

Several readers have given me all kinds of grief for not posting about the USS Kitty Hawk incident. My apologies — I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot to add to the story, about a Chinese Song-class sub shadowing an American carrier group.
song_sub.jpgThe In From the Cold intel blog has some insights, however. “Spook86” notes that America’s sub-detection capabilities have been on the decline for a while, now.

With the collapse of the old Soviet Navy in the early 1990s, the USN [U.S. Navy] began to de-emphasize its ASW [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities, figuring that the preeminent submarine threat had essentially evaporated, and it would take years — perhaps decades — for a similar challenge to emerge.

But Rear Admiral Hank McKinney, the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s submarine force, tells us not to be to hard on the sub-hunters:

Noah, I have no inside information on this event, but it is very difficult to detect a quiet diesel submarine and the Song-class submarines are quality submarines. Operating in international waters in the vicinity of a US battle group is perfectly normal — good operational training.
The Chinese very well could have staged this event to make a point about the vulnerability of the Battle Group to submarine attack. The US Navy is fully aware of [those] vulnerabilities…
The Chinese are building a credible submarine force which will make it very difficult for the US Navy to maintain sea control dominance in or near coastal waters off of China.

McKinney concludes with a question: Did the Chinese “stage this event” to coincide with Adm. Gary Roughead’s visit to China? Roughead currently serves as “CINCPACFLT” — Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
(Big ups: Chuck)
UPDATE 11/15/06 11:25 AM: More from the Washington Times and In From the Cold.
UPDATE 11/15/06 11:50 AM: This will make China-hawks’ heads explode. But the chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, says the incident highlights the need for closer Sino-American ties.

“There is a need to have a fundamental understanding,” he said, adding that Admiral Gary Roughead, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was currently visiting China for the first naval exercise between the United States and the People’s Liberation Army.
“This is the kind of thing that we must encourage and continue so we can move ahead from what I would characterize as kind of Cold War thinking and truly broaden the dialogue.”

Meanwhile, as Brad notes in the comments, Barnett is yawning.

  • Endyr

    I think the words RAdm McKinney are pretty astute. Air Independent Diesel Electrics are really tough to spot with Hydrophones when they are running on batteries.
    The question I have is why active sonar is not used by the battle group? It seems like their position isn’t that hard to find and stealth, at least not on a global scale, is their greatest ally. So why not fire off a few active pings every now and again to see whats out there? It seems to me that that would provide a pretty good way of knowing if there were any of those pesky D-E Subs out there.
    The stunt factor of this seems pretty high to me too. This incident happened in blue water which hasn’t been the territory that the PLAN frequents. Now granted they have obviously been seeking to increase their influence in blue water operations, but the timing does seem rather convenient. It could be as the RAmd said a way to show American weakness when the Pacific Fleet Commander rolled into town.

  • JQP

    HMS Gotland powered with a Stirling AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) system is so hard to detect that the US have extended the lease for another year so as to gather more information about working with and against this type of craft.

  • Agricola

    Perhaps a more informed reader could help me on this; but I thought diesel subs, while very quiet, are somewhat limited in top speed and battery endurance. If true, a CBG, operating at 15 - 20 knots, could easily outrun a diesel, or at least force it to snorkel while chasing, an evolution I thought fairly easy to detect. An ambush, by straddling a known line of transit, would be more likely. Any thoughts?

  • Justin Hughes


  • Allen Thomson

    It would be useful to establish exactly what happened. What seems to be established is that a US airplane spotted the Song on the surface within 5 nm of Kitty Hawk. What is asserted is that Song approached submerged to within 5 nm of Kitty Hawk and then surfaced. Finding out just when and where (relative to the carrier) the submarine actually did surface would help in discussing this event.

  • Brad

    Please go read Thomas Barnett’s comments on this issue here:
    While it’s fascinating to read details about these kinds of incidents, Tom is right on the money - this sort of thing happens all the time and is only news to the alarmist, sabre-rattling Cold Warriors who still think the next century of conflict will be characterized by wars between high-tech powers; which it absolutely wont be.
    The sooner we can take the China scenario off the table, and the related “America versus China over Taiwan!” scenario, the sooner and faster we can retool our military for the type of irregular warfare currently going on in Iraq.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,
    The unasked question regard the Kitty Hawk issue is where was the normal SSN escort, at least one submarine if not two, that any Carrier Battle group doesn’t leave home with out?
    The Chinese Song Class of D/E Submarines are noy AIP, HMS Gotland or Hydrogen, U-212’s, state of the art subs but is well know the the ASW communitry of the USN. It appears that the fruits are ripening on the tree that was planted by the Navy a couple of years ago when ASW was merged as asubnorate activity into Mine Counter Warfare. This is a Rumsfeld cost cutting measure that should be top on the list of whom ever replace Rumsfeld for undoing.
    There is not excuse for this inicident to have happened, as usual the Americans are blameing the Chinese, bull sh**, the last I heard all countries have rights in international waters.
    The fault here rest with the USN’s chain of command and heads should start to roll starting with the CNO Adm Mullens and go all the way down to the CO of the Kitty Hawk. God know there is not shortage of Admirals and Captains waiting to take the places.
    Byron Skinner

  • Kaltes

    “The sooner we can take the China scenario off the table, and the related “America versus China over Taiwan!” scenario, the sooner and faster we can retool our military for the type of irregular warfare currently going on in Iraq.”
    And I’m sure your solution there is to roll over and betray Taiwan, to just stand by while a communist government invades and devastates an ally we have been protecting for over 50 years…
    The last thing we should be doing is gutting our capabilities in order to design our military to win the previous war. There will be both conventional nation-state conflicts and insurgencies, and we need to be able to deal with both instead of gutting the force to deal with one and not the other.

  • satellite pete

    Didn’t half the Russian Air Force buzz one of our carriers during an exercise in the Western Pacific off Kamchatka not too long ago? So now it is China’s turn and so what if we got shaken by a Chinese sub off our stern, and some Chinese admirals got some tales to tell. What are we allowed to tell them about the ongoing research underway on antisubmarine warfare in joint partnership with that navy that flies the flag with the rising sun? Not a smart move if you are trying to demilitarize the region.

  • Brad

    In response to “Kaltes” comment:
    “And I’m sure your solution there is to roll over and betray Taiwan, to just stand by while a communist government invades and devastates an ally we have been protecting for over 50 years…
    The last thing we should be doing is gutting our capabilities in order to design our military to win the previous war. There will be both conventional nation-state conflicts and insurgencies, and we need to be able to deal with both instead of gutting the force to deal with one and not the other.”

    My answer isn’t to abandon Taiwan, my answer is that the likelihood of China making such a move is nowhere near high enough to justify the kind of emphasis on a Leviathan army that the cold-warrior faction of the US Military has been pursuing.
    I wholeheartedly agree that our military needs to be capable of dealing with multiple styles of conflicts, but as long as we’re so worried about “Taiwan getting invaded by the evil commies,” we’ll never be able to fully balance our military. The cost of the Leviathan is just too high. We can remain capable of fighting a state-state war without constantly funding weapons designed for a China versus America war. That war is simply so improbable (for a myriad of economic, political and military reasons) that it is folly to dedicate so many resources to it.
    For a full explanation and description of supporting material, check out Barnett’s two books; The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action. Both are excellent.

  • blowback

    A quick search of Google reveals that the Chinese fitted AIP to Song Class submarines back in 2004.

  • Benjamin Fan

    We are being short-sighted. Everyone’s saying “terrorism” and being caught up in this post-9/11 frenzy, while losing sight of the big picture.
    Conventional Cold-War type conflicts must be prepared for. That means, yes, things like the F-22 and Virginia submarine which are NOT Cold War relics. They are still needed against Russia and China.
    Hopefully this incident (Song sub with US carrier) will get the Navy to boost more anti-sub warships, Virginia subs, and P-8 MMA.

  • Springbored

    Why interpret the actions of the SONG as super aggressive? Yeah, the US got humiliated, sure, but no navy person worth their salt will begrudge any rival crew a chance to enjoy some public laurels from successful compeletion of a competent tactical manuever. I mean, I ask you guys this-Would it not have been MUCH more aggressive to remain submerged, and to allow the carrier group to pass without “detecting” the SONG? China sacrificed both tactical AND strategic advantage to, essentially, be diplomatic and wave as the Kitty Hawk passed by.
    Sure, China’s a challenging country, but don’t reject the idea that China’s Navy MIGHT JUST actually be more grateful for high-level USN attention than some of the DC China baiters realize!
    Back to the SONG. You guys may not know that HMS Gotland did a similar thing to an unnamed carrer (in almost identical conditions, I suspect..hmm) relatively recently. Navy’s response-knowing the navy-was probably an immediate hobbling HMS Gotland (reduce zone of ASW operations, limit the sub’s operational options, etc.) and thus insuring ASW “success.” (See some of the effusive stuff on US ASW capability in Proceedings..shesh!) Rather than “solve” the darn ASW problem, I fear some Naval bureaucrats made the problem “go away.”
    Now, at least, that SONG may have done double duty in diplomacy AND in alerting us-in a very up-front fashion-to mend our ASW shortcomings, and, hopefully, force a needed injection of reality into AIP-sub threatened operations (AND into the HMS Gotland exercises off San Diego, for that matter!).
    What the heck-The Navy should invite that ballsy SONG captain to the US and have him give a lecture to the ASW commanders on the importance of conducting real-world-rather than sham-ASW exercises! Give him a six-course meal and enough drink and we might get some neat info from him too, hey…

  • L.

    Senario #1 - Was the Chinese Song-class submarine under the total (100%) control of a U.S. friendly crew (military or otherwise) 100% allied with the United States or NATO? If so, then this goes a long way in explaining why the sub was permitted within or near the sensitive security perimeter of the USS Kitty Hawk.
    Senario #2 - Now if Senario #1 is not the case then we have a huge problem; and it does not matter what the reason(s) is(are) for the sub’s surfacing. And that’s because if the Chinese Song-class submarine was armed it could have taken out the USS Kitty Hawk (4000+ lives) and whatever other ships it desired; and doing this with the full expectation that after such an attack the submarine itself would probably be destroyed, either by the sub’s crew or by the United States assets in the region. While one shudders at the thought of Senario #2, have we forgotten about the USS Cole disaster?

  • JQP

    The Collins class boats used by Australia gave a good account of themselves not I think powered by an AIP system but good old fashioned diesel & batteries from Kockums of Sweden. Train hard and fight easy on the lessons learned.

  • Phaedrus

    The elephant in the room here is that the carrier is no longer the capital ship. It has gone the way of the battleship and been replaced by the submarine. ASW efforts only waste resources - scrap the carriers and build subs…

  • Max

    Scrap the carriers and build subs? Are you nuts? Of course we need subs, but subs can’t carry planes, and air power trumps subs every day of the week, especially in a land conflict. What we really need are some intimidating Battleships, like the Iowa-class. During the Iraq War #1, the Iraqis were terrified of the Battleships off their coastline lobbing VW-weight shells their way. I think we need to spook the Iranians with them again, just for the fun of it.

  • Ed

    In a major war, every carrier would be nuked in the first hour. They are the modern day gunboat.

  • man

    counter intel gentleman, very simple.
    read some sun tzu or mercer.
    allow your enemy advances on your watch , not theres.
    Modern passive array can detect and distiguish aquatic and non aquatic signatures over 300KM.
    Active is much greater than that, do not discount the USA, never underestimate.

  • andy pote

    Lets see. #1 china shoots down weather satellite.
    #2 China’s Song Class Sub surfaces near Kittty Hawk.
    #3 Bejin denies entry to Hong Kong port to USS Kitty Hawk and Support Vessels, for Thanksgiving Day liberty.
    I cant be the only one here that sees a pattern.

  • William chao

    USS Kitty Hawk passed through Taiwan Straight 12/08/2007. Only super power can do that!! Imaging Chinese Aircraft carrier showed up at San Diego! Not going to happen.

  • S. Thomsen

    During the latest conflict in Irak, a Danish type 106/107 did the same thing to a battle gruop in the Gulf. It was in shooting distance of a carrier and was not detected.


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