CNO Roughead Disputes China Sub Claim

I’m attending a conference at the National Defense University on China’s naval modernization, a subject which I’m very interested in, for much of the day today.

At the naval strategy forum in Newport earlier this month, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead disputed Robert Kaplan’s claim made in the pages of Foreign Affairs that the Chinese will have more submarines than the U.S., at least in terms of nuclear attacks submarines (SSNs).

“China could field a submarine force larger than the U.S. Navy’s, which has 75 submarines in commission, within 15 years,” Kaplan writes.

That number is consistent with this 2009 Office of Naval Intelligence (large .pdf) report on China’s navy, which says:

“As PLA(N) strategy and capabilities have changed, Chinese submarine procurement has focused on smaller numbers of modern, high-capability boats. In keeping with the overarching PLA(N) strategy of the time, the 1980s submarine force featured a relatively high number of low-technology platforms. Now there are fewer submarines in the PLA(N) inventory than there were at any point in the 1980s.

Currently, the submarine force consists of six nuclear attack submarines, three nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and 53 diesel attack submarines. Over the next 10 to 15 years, primarily due to the introduction of new diesel-electric and air independent power (AlP) submarines, the force is expected to increase incrementally in size to approximately 75 submarines.”

Today, the U.S. Navy operates a total of 52 SSNs (45 Los Angeles-class, 4 Virgina-class and 3 Seawolf-class). Procurement of the Virginia class was bumped up from one per year to two a year. The Navy also operates 14 Ohio-class SSBNs.

The Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plan, at least the most current one, puts the long term tactical sub level at 45 SSNs in 2040, after rebounding from a low point of 39 SSNs in 2030, according to CRS’ Ron O’Rourke. How many SSBNs will be in the fleet in 2040 is anybody’s guess.

An important point here is to keep in mind that while China is building newer submarines, its sub fleet has been steadily shrinking from nearly 120 boats in the 1980s to around 55 today. The vast bulk of China’s subs are diesel-electric, meaning its largely a coastal defense force. China bought four Kilo class nuclear powered attack subs from the Russians in the 1990s and is reportedly building its own nuclear attack boats.

So, I guess it comes down to debating the relative merits of diesel-electric versus nuclear attacks boats.

— Greg Grant

  • Anon

    uhh a nuclear Kilo class?

  • @Earlydawn

    Why don’t we start sounding the panic bells once China demonstrates the potential to make *quality* equipment. Chinese subs are notoriously noisy, and while the new upgrades will certainly help, it’s not going to make up for the decades of missing technology yet.

    Instead of worrying about super-expensive countermeasures to the Chinese force modernizations, we should instead focus on the number game; more F-18s for when the F-35 inevitably flop. Acquire F-15SEs at marginal cost. Harden our Pacific airbases. Invest in diesel submarines for littoral operations. Purchase more drones and spend some practical money on making them autonomous to help deal with the jamming issue.

    I could go on and on. As someone astutely pointed out in an earlier thread, we’re turning into World War II Germany - the best technology, and too few numbers to do anything with it. Instead, we need to become the Soviets; cheap, rugged, and highly effective weapons to prepare for the age of anti-access.

  • STemplar

    I think our biggest mistake in development is trying to do too much at once, and when part of the tech falls down for a system we end up with these vastly over budget programs. When you look at what the developers are still able to do with the F-15SE and the latest block F-16 for the Indian contract, you really start to see what a strangle hold industry has on government. Pushing systems that were intended for fights that went away.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    Hi Greg. Numbers hurt don’t they. While the PRC has three SSBN’s it has no SLBM’s for them the two newest the Type 094’s are are sitting in sea caves on Hainan Island, the only survivor of the surviving Type 092 Xia Class SSBN comes out periodically for maritime parades such as the picture above of it in October of 09.

    The replacement missile for the scrapped Jl-1 the Jl-2 is still years away if ever.

    On SSN’s China does on deed have six three Type 091 Han Class that never go to sea and three Type 093 Shang Class of which only one ever goes to sea.

    As of last year China stopped production of nuclear submarines and sent back to designing a reactor. The reactors in all none of it’s existing boats are suspected of leaking.

    Now to bust the cherry of all those peculiar institutions of winger tanks like Heritage who for months have been striking fear into American about the PRC’s mighty air armada. An article from 6/10/10 in a PRC publication and The Russian Federation new service ran a story called “China say(s) farewell to the J-6 Fighter.” The Mig 19 variants built in the PRC composed most of the PLAAF air fore with 4.000 built. With their retirement to scrap that leaves as of Monday 1,510 airframes in the PLAAF most of which are transports, trainers or old fighter along with about 200 Russian/Soviet build Su-27’s and Su-30M’s. The Chinese J-8’s are grounded and the J-10’s/J-11’s are said to be headed to Hianan Island to be parked next to the two J-12’s in the PRC’s aviation bone yard.

    The J-12xxs and the J-15 is still mostly a product in the minds of conservative wingers who can’t accept it that the F-22 and F-35 are a waste of money and are not needed.

    Byron Skinner

  • John In Jacksonville

    Foreign navies seem to hold the diesel electric sub in higher esteem than our own. They can be quieter since they don’t have all the cooling apparatus and are slower (speed means noise). They can be smaller and are far cheaper. As for coastal defense, range limitations may optimize them for this mission, but larger versions ranged the oceans in World War II.
    Nukes and conventionals both have their roles. The US fleet must operate anywhere in the world, and the nukes have the range and endurance for that. For defense of one’s own coast, why spend 5-10X as much if a diesel electric has sufficient range? And would anyone be truly surprised if a modern conventional sub were to out-stealth and sink a nuke?
    A fleet of quiet modern diesel-electric boats could counter our nukes in the event of a regional conflict such as an invasion of Taiwan. I think if China is wise, it would leapfrog the whole Cold War legacy fleet concept and not waste money on 50 or 75 SSNs.

  • Kto Tam

    > Kilo class nuclear powered attack subs

    Er, Kilos are diesel-electric.

    Although, thinking about it, I remember the stories from the late Cold War that had the Soviets retrofitting one or two Juliette-class SSG with a very small nuclear reactor to provide housekeeping and and low-speed propulsion power.

    Something like that might suit the PLAN needs in many cases. Extended cruising on nuclear-electric power, high speed when needed on diesel-electric.

  • Mylegacy

    Let me see if I got this right - we’ve got 11 Nuclear Carrier Battle Groups the Chinese got - 8 - no, make that 4 - no - oh yea - they got zip, zero, nada.

    Thanks to our love affair with Reagan (Government is the enemy, trickle down, deregulate) we’ve “outsourced” our jobs, our top 1% have NEVER been richer and the rest of us have jobs at Starbucks (if we’re lucky enough to have jobs). In addition, our Bush tax cuts, coupled with our Bush non-funded spending and our Bush Whack of our unregulated economy has left us with debt in places that would make a hooker blush.

    Why the f*ck do we give a fiddlers whether the Chinks have 10 or 20 subs? Get REAL - we gotta protect our jobs and our home front - or none of our 11 Nuclear Carrier Battle Group *****’ are going to mean squat when the world wises up and stops buying our more or less worthless debt.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    After poking around a bit on PRC/PLAN Diesel Subs I have found the following in formation.

    Copy of Soviet Romeo Class, built in the PRC. Type 033 84 boats built from 1962 to 1984. Number still in service unknown.

    Type 035 Ming Class PRC built, 20 boats built 17 still in service (1995)

    Type 039 Song Class, PRC built, 10-13 boats built, 1992 to 2007, 6 to 9 still in active service. It was a Song boat that surfaced to snap some post card pics for Beijing. The money estimate is that there are six Songs still in service. They have had several accidents and boat loss in there operational history.

    Type 041 Yuan Class, PRC built. 2 boats. 2007 to ? These may be attempts at building an AIP boat. One of these boats may have already been lost.

    Soviet built Kilos. 2 original Kilos, 10 improved Kilos ordered, number delivered unknown, one source says four which would make a total on 6 Kilos. It is known that the 2 original boats are in serious need of overhaul and that can only be done in The Russian Federation.

    Wanting on order from The Russian Federation, 40 Lada Cass (improved Kilos) that are on hold pending licensing problems/disputes over the J-10’s and J-11’s with the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation has gone back into production of diesel submarines at a rate of one a years, Vietnam has six on order thus the first six years of production is booked.

    Nearly all, if not all active PRC Submarines are based with the North Seas Fleet. Of the 121 to 127 diesel boats that the PRC has built or purchased from The Soviet Union/The Russian Federation since 1962 it is unknown how many the PLAN could put to sea on any day. Just for a number most military planners use the a number 54 or close to it. I would think that this number is way on the high side considering the lack of activity in the PLAN’s submarine fleet over they years and the PRC’s history of maintenance problems.

    Currently it is unknown what the PRC’s production rate of Submarines is, it could be from zero to five boats a year. Somewhere in between of course is the actual number.

    The assumption that the PRC could send to sea a formable submarine force at this time and in the near to mid future is an act of faith in Naval fantasy.

    Byron Skinner

  • prometheusgonewild

    In all the debate between nuclear vs Diesel electric, I have yet to see any real numbers on the range of a diesel electric sub after the lead acid batteries have been swapped out for lithium-ion. China has the manufacturing ability.
    Also, with Bloom fuel cells working (converting gas into electricity with no moving parts), what is the range of one of those subs if they change out the batteries for compressed gas?
    You know they can steal the technology. All they have to do is go to the patent office site…….
    And finally, thanks to some very smart people here in the states, they have designed small “drop in” reactors.
    They may never be built here due to politics, but their designs are once again available at the patent office…..
    You may think I am a bit paranoid, but the Germans before WW2 pulled all our patents on rocket technology from the patent office for 10 cents a piece. Today they are free through the internet…..
    Plus about half of the engineering grad students at the university I went to were Chinese and had no intent on staying here……Were giving it away…..

  • prometheusgonewild

    Maybe I have not been paying that close attention to Chinese submarine construction.
    But I do know that even if the PRC is slow, they would have a hard time ignoring that their country has much better batteries that are already being used in cars on their roads:

    How about these:…

    Are those robust enough?
    Lithium Ion batteries store over three times as much energy as Lead acid, and do not degrade significantly when run down to low voltage.
    If they have never replaced the batteries in the Subs, does that make it more or less likely they will eventually replace the batteries with the best on the market? Especially since they have domestic manufacturers they can work with?
    As for how long they can stay down, are co2 scrubbers such exotic technology?
    Are hydrogen fuel cells exotic? How hard would it be to reverse engineer the technology in this?:…
    I many not know much about Chinese subs, but I am paying attention to the power storage revolution that is going on right now…..
    We have to come to the realization that as the Chinese free market heats up their companies will produce top end materials and products their military will be able to use for military purposes….. .

  • jus_sug

    China has already eclipsed the US. We just don’t know it yet (and the last tangible symbols of superiority - our military - are succumbing). They own the US.

    • Hale

      Maybe in a century.

  • Gregory

    For those who underestimate the effectiveness of diesel electric, get real. Many people think that they are only useful as a littoral asset. From my recent dealings with an ally country that is using German designed 209s and 214s, their actual range submerged is typically greatly underestimated. They may be slow, but they are quiet as hell and with a good captain could put many of our nuclear submarines on the bottom.

    The reason I’m not worried YET about the PLA(N) diesel electric force is that their navy doesn’t typically have a good record of maintenance practices. They have to get the boats to sea to fight them…. and they haven’t really been able to do that consistently.

  • NavyE9

    “The vast bulk of China’s subs are diesel-electric, meaning its largely a coastal defense force.”

    Yessir, just like Germany’s WWII diesel electric submarine force

  • tim UK

    Again more commie propoganda to get the US and UK to waste even more money on non existent threats .

    They are probably twenty years behind in terms of tech , thirty in terms of logistics and training .

  • Rick W

    Thank you, NavyE9.

    I was thinking that no one besides myself remembered that tidbit. And don’t forget the American, British and Japanese ‘costal defense’ subs as well.

    The rest of you guys might want to remember that modern conventional subs can stay submerged for up to six weeks at a time. And make speeds up to 20 knots while they are at it.

  • Wifey

    The one point that you all seem to be missing is actually a very important one. In the submarine game, it isn’t about numbers. Our Virginia Class submarines CANNOT be beat. We will ALWAYS hear a diesel or modern conventional before they hear us. And that is 100% of what matters. Because when we hear them, our mighty TM’s will load the tubes and fire! In 15 years, we will have 30 more Virginia Class subs. That is in addition to all the the LA class, the Seawulf class, and all of the decommissioned subs that we WILL call back into service if necessary. If there is one sector of our armed forces that no one else can compare to, it is undoubtedly our Sub Fleet! We gave a whole new meaning to “STEALTH”! HOOYAH NAVY!!!

  • R683AD

    This article and its writer are already suspect in that he did not do his homework. First of all it was Adm Gary Roughhead as CINCPAC, who proclaimed in an Address to Senate Armed forces Committe on Oct 14th 2006, that China could have Pacific Rim Dominance by 2015, with its current Ship aquisition and Building program. The majority of which China is expending on building new type 094 SSBN, and JIN class nuclear Submarines.
    Have we seen a change of heart by Adm Roughhead aimed more at preserving his job as CNO, in a decidedly political landscape in DC dominated by progressive liberals, or does he really have new Information”?
    Secondly, this write has no concept of the Journalistic rule of checking and multi checking of facts and Substance as to its validity in proclaiming the type 636 Kilo’s China has, are Nuclear powered. THEY ARE NOT!!! They are Diesel electric Subs and are even older models that do not have current state of the art, Air Independent Propulsion systems the Russians have built and provided in their type 877 KILO’s to Iran.
    Lastly to wify’s comment above Our SSN774 class boats are very good.. But rest assured in Littoral High background Noise environments Like coastal waters, and in the Persian Gulf, a Kilo with AI Propulsion will kick a Virginia class boats ass every single time. With high background Surface contacts, and Biologics in the water.. our BQQ-6 and BQQ-10 is Blind as a bat. Only way you can detect a Kilo running on batteries or AI Propulsion is to Unzip your fly and go active. and in doing so you let the whole world know who you are and where you are..
    Any thinking outside of these bounds is Naive at best.