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