31 December 2009

Extensive Review of China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force Published in China Review International

L. H. Xavier Demián Soto Zuppa, El Colegio de México, A.C., Centro de Estudios de Asia y África (CEAA),  review of Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson, eds., China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), China Review International, 16.4 (2009): 494-501.

China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force is a compilation of the papers presented at the 2005 conference on China’s new nuclear submarine force at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The authors are academics who, in many cases, have served as officials on U.S. nuclear submarines (SSN) around the world.

This volume is one of many efforts to assess the consequences that the impressively high and constant Chinese economic growth has shown in the last decades. The most evident results have been the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasing demand for oil and natural gas and its need to ensure its maritime trade to sustain its growing industry. These elements represent many maritime-oriented challenges that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is striving to overcome by creating a capable submarine-centered navy that would be able to defend its regional interests, as a first phase, and to develop a power projection capacity in a later phase. The modernization of the PLAN has caused great anxiety among China’s neighbors and in the United States about what role the U.S. Navy should play in East Asia.

These elements are analyzed and contextualized by the participants of this very specific volume that focuses on the small proportion of Chinese SSNs. It also contains data about the submarine force and the navy as a whole. Furthermore, the book offers a wide range of perspectives that provide readers with the opportunity to make their own judgments based on a meticulous analysis of data from Chinese sources. There is a broad agreement among the participants regarding the Chinese Navy focus on the accelerated development of submarines and that the SSN 093 extends the strategic reach of the Chinese Navy. A consensus was also reached by the participants that further development of the SSN force could represent China’s intentions to project broadly into global waters. A consolidation of the conventional/diesel submarine (SS) force would indicate a naval force oriented to a Taiwan crisis scenario or operations in the East Asian littoral. Disagreements emerge in the volume, largely because of the scarcity of reliable information about the PLAN modernization progress, based on speculations about the possible roles of the type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic submarine (SSBN), or the possible strategies that the PRC could follow in the near future.

The book expounds first upon Chinese submarine development and then the dimensions of the new submarine capabilities. It continues with a discussion of current and future SSN operations. Finally, it offers an assessment of Cold War lessons in order to understand the development of the PRC nuclear submarine force and the implications for the U.S. national security.

The first section is initiated by Eric McVadon’s work: an assessment of the current developments in the Chinese Army and its synergies with other new Chinese military capabilities. McVadon believes that China does not want to compromise its brilliant economic and international influence by provoking a crisis with Taiwan or a confrontation with the United States. Thus, a moderated and cautious posture currently prevails. Nevertheless, by enhancing its naval and missile forces to the point that in the case the Taiwan state of affairs goes awry, the PLAN could be available to contest Taiwan and U.S. forces. This causes some concern, not just in Washington and Taipei but in Tokyo as well. The PLAN has matured remarkably in its acquisition of platforms, equipment, and weapons. However, it still needs experience in exercising its forces and developing command and control capabilities, coordinating means and intelligence, and targeting support to make that force operational. It also needs a better-educated officer corps than it now has. If China reaches these objectives, in a strait crisis it could easily subdue Taiwan and delay U.S. intervention. Other factors also have to be considered. China wants to build a military appropriate to the country that it is becoming. Furthermore, a large component of the economic growth that legitimates the Communist Party is based on ocean commerce and maritime and land routes for the flow of oil and natural gas imports.

Bernard D. Cole thinks that China’s current maritime strategy draws on Chinese, Russian, and other Western concepts of sea power. China faces many major maritime security threats in Asia: Taiwan, Japan, India, the South China Sea and its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), and its claims in the East China Sea. The United States has naval presence in all these zones. Until now, China’s strategy reflects an orientation toward continental objectives, but it has gradually shown signs of following goals related to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of “command of the sea,” which can be characterized as “offshore defense.” This new strategy includes a preparation for operations against Taiwan, defending Chinese interests in the East and South China seas, maintaining a strategic deterrent force against the United States (and possibly India and Russia), protecting the vital SLOC (some lying at great distance from China), and serving diplomatic force. The strategy for the new century includes establishing a maritime nuclear deterrent force; maintaining a naval presence throughout East Asia; joint capability for specific objectives, including credible power projection capability; SLOC defense of the Tsushima Strait in the north, the Malacca Strait in the south, the Marianas in the east, and the South China Sea; and prevailing potential Taiwan conflicts. For regional strategic planning, the PLAN follows a sea denial strategy. Further maturation of the PLAN depends on how naval power and economic interests (rich offshore mineral and biologic resources, dependence on sea trade and transportation) are viewed by Chinese strategists. Current developments in the PLAN do not yet imply a force superior to that of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) or to the U.S. Navy. Nevertheless, the PLAN already has the capacity of power projection throughout the China littoral, including the waters surrounding Taiwan.

Paul Godwin highlights the coherence between current nuclear force developments and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrinal principles of “offshore defense” and “active defense.” The first principle is related to the transition from coastal defense to an offshore strategy, which is based on SSNs and a credible retaliatory capacity based in SSBNs; the second concept references the need to strike the enemy’s fleet at key points with increasingly capable weapons, such as long-range, submerged-launched antisubmarine cruise missiles (ASCM) and wake-homing torpedoes for the submarines. Judging from the white papers, Beijing’s most feared potential adversary now is the U.S. Navy, whose power exceeds that of the PLAN. Nevertheless, with PRC’s new strategic orientation, the U.S. aircraft carrier groups may be more vulnerable than in the recent past. In a crisis between the PRC and the United States, the U.S. Navy could completely destroy the PLAN, but at a very high cost.

The second section is integrated by the following participants’ works. William Murray presents a fully contextual overview of PLAN submarine development and compares the efficiency of SSNs and SSs given the current technological advances in air-independent propulsion and quieting mechanisms, and improvements in software and communications. Murray concludes that the PLAN is conscious that it is in the midst of a fundamental transition from a coastal patrol force to a powerful offshore force. It manipulates, to its advantage, the fact that properly operated modern quiet submarines (even conventional ones) are very difficult to detect and attack because of the many physical difficulties that characterize strategic antisubmarine warfare (ASW). Equipped with modern, easy-to-use weapons, such submarines became a tremendous threat for surface naval forces, which are easy for submarines to spot and destroy.

Despite the arduous Chinese SSN development, China has reached, according to Chris McConaughy, a level that allows it to consider a strategy that could threaten the U.S. surface force, forcing it to change assets from aircraft carriers to strategic ASW. The apparent intention of the Chinese SSBN fleet is to ensure a nuclear-strike capability that would increase the risk of confronting China in a crisis. With the introduction of a more capable submerged strategic systems with far greater range and accuracy, China would have the ability to threaten the continental United States “from the relative safety of its own or adjacent waters” (p. 75). McConaughy raises a concern over the possibility that the U.S. Navy could be ill-prepared to offset a modernized PLAN, and suggests improving the U.S. ASW capability by increasing the number of SSNs to seventy and building up air and surface assets.

Shawn Cappellano-Sarver considers the lack of transparency of the PRC’s nuclear development program. Analysts of the civilian nuclear program have to learn indirectly about Chinese nuclear propulsion development. Cappellano-Sarver asserts that the commitment of the PRC’s government to reduce the energy dependence on coal and imported oil and to reduce greenhouse emissions implies a $40 billion investment in Chinese nuclear power that encouraged companies from the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and Canada to offer their most advanced designs. One problem lies in the fact that there are close connections between the civilian and military nuclear power programs in nearly all countries that are keen to transfer nuclear technology to the PRC; many of them have built nuclear-powered warships. The civil and military industrial base is very imbricate in China too, so the technology of one program will invariably be present in the other. These circumstances could result in the improvement of current pressurized water reactor designs or in the development of revolutionary technology as high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors could be 3tted to SSN propulsion systems, which could modify the security balance in the Asia-Pacific region.

Richard D. Fisher summarizes the current capabilities of the PLAN by analyzing the technological transfers from Russia and other parts of the world. Russian third- and possibly fourth-generation submarine technology transfers from Russia had facilitated an unprecedented advance to the PLAN, SSN, and SSBN programs and to the development of indigenous naval weapons and naval aircraft to improve the support of the submarine fleet against any adversary air and naval forces. The PLAN would also be interested in acquiring European submarine and naval combatant technologies in case of the lifting of the 1989 European Union (EU) arms embargo. These elements suggest that China’s objective is to become an innovator or leader in submarine technology.

The third section is initiated by Peter A. Dutton’s review of the implications of international law and the strategic consequences of the “Han incident,” referent to a Han SS submerged incursion in Japanese waters in the Ishigaki Strait (2004) and, consequently, its pursuit by Japanese ASW forces for more than two days. Until this incident, Chinese interpretation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), regarding the jurisdiction and control that a coastal state should have over the maritime zone of its shores, had been protectionist. However, the Han submarine incursion in Japanese waters, not plausibly accidental, undercut the legitimacy of the Chinese protectionist position. It also resulted in the strengthening of the Japanese posture that the Chinese have no right to pass through these waters, since they took advantage of the incident by forcing the Chinese government to give an official admission of guilt. “This incident will serve as a benchmark for the future when states seek to interpret acceptable practices in the coastal zones of other states in the light of international maritime line” (p. 177).

Erickson and Goldstein evaluate in a preliminary research probe the operational objectives of the PLAN’s 093 SSN and 094 SSBN programs, from the viewpoint of Chinese analysts and their documents. The available information about these programs indicates a moderate pace of development of the nuclear submarine force; if these programs are successful, they could give the PLAN the capability to project Chinese force through an island-chain blockade and to conduct long-distance operations without being hindered by enemy’s airborne ASW. On the other hand, 094s could guarantee the survivability of an important nuclear retaliatory force. These elements show that the Chinese will become a genuine global maritime power. Erickson and Goldstein stress that the PLAN modernization efforts are occurring at a time when reductions are projected to occur in the U.S. Navy. They suggest that Washington should develop a contingency long-range plan to face up to, if necessary, a determined PRC naval challenge.

Hekler, Francis, and Mulvenon assess the effectiveness that centralized and decentralize command, control, and communications (C3) systems have shown in their application to submarine fleets since World War II. They suggest that the decentralized systems have had better results. Nevertheless, the PLAN appears to be creating a tightly centralized submarine C3 system by developing command communications, network-centric warfare strategies, and advanced communications technologies. The idea is to improve the information sharing and the coordination between the submarines and other PLAN vessels. However, although it is highly likely that the PLAN will seek to strengthen centralized control over its SSBN fleet, it is less obvious in the case of the SSNs because of the obstacles that undersea communications imply. This element gives the SSNs greater autonomy in decision making, which constitutes a very unusual mode of operation within the PLA. This tendency will diminish as improved communications technology makes centralized C3 a real option.

Erickson and Wilson delve into the Chinese perception about the need for aircraft carriers and ask if the resources directed toward submarine development interfere with that of the deck aviation platforms. They follow the general consensus that the focus of the PLAN currently is in submarine development more than in the building of aircraft carriers for many reasons: Aircraft carriers (CVs) imply the possibility of power projection very far from the peripheral waters, which could be employed in diplomatic negotiations, in ASW operations (which is incongruous with the pacific development posture that China promotes in its relations), or in secondary activities like SLOC security or humanitarian relief. However, these surface assets also imply the mastering and construction of advanced technologies and the need for a well-implemented escort integrated by SSNs, destroyers, and maintenance and supply ships. At present, the PRC lacks the necessary technologies, experience, and qualified crew to use a CV adequately. Furthermore, the PLAN has not finished the process of developing its nuclear submarine fleet, which constitutes a prerequisite for a CV program. On the other hand, the PLAN’s current strategic objectives related to assuring control over the Taiwan Strait have priority over the need to increase the Chinese influence in the South China Sea and in the Pacific Ocean. This situation means that the PLAN will privilege the use of SSs, SSNs and the development of ballistic missiles and airborne assets, over any CV project. Finally, China has not found, for the moment, a good reason to contend with the United States, India, or Japan in a field in which these nations easily surpass Chinese capabilities. However, one should consider that in the next twenty years, once the PLAN’s submarine fleet has been completed and under the condition that the Taiwan tensions could be eliminated, the PRC might link a CV program to its capable and numerous submarines.

Finally, the fourth section commences with James Patton asserting that the main objective that a nation seeks by developing a strong SSN fleet is “to obtain a significant degree of global maritime influence” (p. 280). Regarding the teachings of the Cold War and in the post 9/11 globalized world, one must realize that all nations are maritime nations and that they will compete to become the only dominant maritime power. These elements stress the offensive nature of the navies: “A first sign of their imminent worthlessness is when they are pulled back into a defensive role” (p. 277). Another important aspect to take into consideration is that the maritime goals must support broad national goals. In the PRC’s circumstances, these national goals are to maintain economic growth, which is translated into maritime objectives such as securing the SLOC for the sake of trade and energy supply. Thus, it is in China’s best interest to avoid any confrontation with the United States over Taiwan or any related issue. On the contrary, a peaceful resolution of the tensions of the Strait could allow China to appear as a powerful but benevolent guarantor of regional stability and economic well-being, which could result in a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine in East Asia. Such a result would dramatically affect U.S. foreign policy as well as the role of the U.S. Navy. Furthermore, China’s SSN development could be interpreted as a sign of the search for power projection.

Robert Loewenthal emphasizes that China has the resources and the access to necessary technology as well as the will to create a viable SSBN force. It has produced a second-generation SSBN and has become the fifth member of the ballistic missile submarine club. The objectives of developing a SSBN fleet is not yet clear, but Loewenthal reminds us that “a nation’s national objectives lead to policy, which leads to strategy. Strategy leads to the procurement and allocation of resources and their operational use” (p. 298). It will not be surprising if the PRC orients its navy to ensure the free flow of commerce, but “What if the intent is not purely to defend the sea lanes?” (p. 298). Further investigation should be done on this matter to avoid arriving to both a paranoid and a too hasty conclusion. To be operational, the PLAN SSBN 5eet will need time to train the skilled crews required and also to get the necessary experience at sea.

Peter M. Swartz believes that the U.S. Navy’s strategic thinking about a possible conflict with the Chinese is rife with uncertainties. Experts, he suggests, should produce a construct like the 1980s Maritime Strategy, which provided the systematized national and regional strategic documents and planning and “the objectives of many joint, combined, and naval operations and exercises of the period, and of much of the Navy’s operational and tactical training” (p. 305). Swartz recognizes that today’s PRC does not represent the same threat as that of the USSR during the Cold War: China is only an East Asian power, while the United States remains a global maritime superpower. Nothing in China’s history shows an intention to project its maritime power at great distances. However, these are not sufficient reasons for the United States to stop working on the resolution of the uncertainties that a growing PLAN nuclear capabilities could represent.

Toshi Yoshihara evaluates the impact that U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities could have in PLAN nuclear strategy, which is based on the capability to maintain a credible nuclear retaliatory capacity. In this sense, a substantial advance in the U.S. BMD could trigger an expansion in the PRC’s nuclear arsenal (based mainly in SSBN platforms). This expansion could lead to a balancing process among Chinese neighbors. However, the current development of the BMD is at a very early stage, so the conflicts could appear in the next twenty years. Nevertheless, the future course of China’s nuclear doctrine and associated force structures will also depend on internal factors, such as domestic debates subject to broad strategic/political considerations, and external factors, such as the condition of Sino-U.S. relationships. Both the PRC and the United States seek to avoid a Cold War–style rivalry. While the ambiguity that characterizes bilateral ties continues, a radical shift in China’s nuclear posture is unlikely. Under these conditions, the employment of traditional ASW (particularly hunter killer SSNs) would be the most recommended instrument to contest the threats posed by the PRC’s SSBNs.

Michael McDevitt believes that the PRC’s maritime orientation strategy intends to coordinate the navy with the air force and the 2nd Artillery Corp. Evidence suggests that the majority of China’s unresolved sovereignty and strategic issues are maritime in nature: the Taiwan issue, the territorial disputes with Japan over islands and seabed resources, the territorial issues of the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea, the economic importance of China’s coastline, and the commercial and energy dependence on the SLOC. The current Chinese naval strategy mimics the Soviet approach of sea denial, and it relies on conventional submarines. Nevertheless, given the limitations of diesel submarines and the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean, it is reasonable to expect the PLAN to strive in its perfection of SSN technologies. McDevitt asserts that no economic reason impedes the United States from continuing to play a stabilizing role in East Asia in the near future: “The key is that, in terms of capability, as the PLA gets better so too must the United States improve” (p. 371).

Tom Mahken believes that there are two main challenges that will dominate U.S. national security planning for the future: On the one hand, the global war on terrorism, which will involve principally the army and the marine corps, and on the other, geostrategic competition with China, which will employ preferably the navy and the air force. To conduct its strategic planning properly, the U.S. Navy must have a better understanding of Chinese military in general, and the PLAN SS force in particular, than the information that it could get through public sources or doing dubious historical parallelisms between the rapid growing of the Japanese Imperial Navy between the world wars and the current Chinese PLAN modernization. These kinds of extrapolations could “understate the pace of improvement of the Chinese submarine force” (p. 317).

I would like to end this review by suggesting that the reader keep in mind three important elements while consulting this book. (1) This volume constitutes a great and useful effort to understand Chinese strategic planning for the near future. Nevertheless, it was published in the year 2007, when a great deal of the information available now had not yet been published, such as the 2008 White Paper or the many notes and declarations in favor of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait’s dilemma, which could tinge or temper many of the former postures that we have reviewed. (2) Despite the fact that the authors have based their analyses on the reading of Chinese sources, their interpretations revolve around viewpoints strongly determined by U.S. strategic thinking. (3) Finally, although many of the participants mentioned the importance of the diplomatic and domestic components that could shape the Chinese strategic thinking, they did not track these seams of research to their last consequences and they preferred to analyze more technical aspects of the case or to speculate about how the circumstances could be in case of a belligerent scenario between the PRC and the United States.