International Herald Tribune
By David Lague
Thursday, February 7, 2008
As part of a sustained military buildup, they say, China is investing heavily in so-called area-denial weapons without explaining why it needs them.
The term area-denial weapons refers to a combination of armaments, technology and tactics that could be used to dominate a specific area or keep opposing forces at bay in a conflict. And one of the most formidable examples U.S. commanders identify is the Chinese Navy's rapidly expanding fleet of nuclear and conventional submarines.
"I would say that the U.S. feels a strong threat from Chinese submarines," said Andrei Chang, an expert on Chinese and Taiwan military forces and editor in chief of the magazine Kanwa Defence Review.
"China now has more submarines than Russia, and the speed they are building them is amazing," Chang said.
U.S. and other Western military analysts estimate that China now has more than 30 advanced and increasingly stealthy submarines, along with dozens of older, obsolete types. "China is capable of serial production of modern diesel-electric submarines and is moving forward with new nuclear submarines," the Pentagon said last year in its annual report on the Chinese military.
By the end of the decade, experts say, China will have more submarines than the United States, although it will still lag in overall capability.
In a conflict, these Chinese submarines-many armed with state-of-the-art torpedoes and anti-ship missiles-would sharply increase the threat to enemy warships approaching the strategically important waterways of North Asia, according to security experts.
On a visit to China last month, the senior U.S. military commander in Asia, Admiral Timothy Keating, said the Pentagon was continuing to monitor the development of China's area-denial weapons, including submarines.
"Chinese submarines have very impressive capabilities, and their numbers are increasing," Keating told reporters in Beijing.Like other U.S. commanders, he also called on China to be more open about its plans.
If China were more transparent about the need for these weapons, it would improve trust and reduce the danger of crisis or conflict, Keating said.
"In submarine operations in particular, because of the medium in which they are conducted, underwater, there is greater potential, in my opinion, for inadvertent activity that could be misconstrued or misunderstood," he told reporters.
Under pressure from Washington, senior Chinese officers have said that the buildup is strictly tailored to defending China's interests and that it poses no threat to any other nation.
"The distance between the Chinese and U.S. militaries is big," said General Chen Bingde, chief of general staff in Beijing of the People's Liberation Army."If you fear China's military buildup, you don't have much courage."
While the administration of President George W. Bush continues to press Beijing for transparency, most foreign security experts, including senior Pentagon analysts, believe China's unstated objectives are relatively clear.
They say that China plans to use its submarines and other area-denial weapons to delay or deter a U.S. intervention in case of conflict over Taiwan.China regards the self-governing island as part of its territory and has warned regularly thatit would use force to prevent Taiwan from moving toward formal independence.
Stealthy submarines would pose a direct threat to the deployment of U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, almost certainly the first line of any American response to a Taiwan crisis, according to security experts.
In conjunction with attacks on military surveillance satellites, regional U.S. bases and communication networks, the Chinese military would attempt to keep U.S. forces at a distance while attempting to overwhelm the island's defenses, they say.
"This is precisely what the submarines are for," said Allan Behm, a security analyst in Canberra and a former senior Australian Defense Department official. "They can bottle up and deny an enemy access to any given area; in this case that means the U.S. Pacific fleet."
On previous occasions of high tension over Taiwan, Washington has deployed aircraft carriers to neighboring waters, sending a signal to China that it should not use force against Taiwan.
But in a clear demonstration of the increasing vulnerability of these warships, one ofChina's new Song-class conventional submarines was able to remain undetected as it shadowed the U.S. carrierKitty Hawk off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, in late 2006. It then surfaced well within torpedo range.
For some China experts in the U.S. military, this was an aggressive signal to Washington that ranked with China'sdestruction in January 2007 of one of its own obsolete weather satellites with an antisatellitemissile.In so doing, the Chinese Navy demonstrated that it could challenge the most powerful surface combatants of the U.S. Navy in waters around Taiwan.It also gave evidence that Chinese submarine technology had advanced more rapidly than some experts had expected.
"The U.S. had no idea it was there," said Behm. "This is the great capability of very quiet, conventional submarines."
Submarine construction is clearly a top priority for the Chinese Navy, and foreign analysts have noted that in recent years it has concurrently developed four-possibly five-classes of new, locally designed and built submarines.
Some experts have suggested that China is taking the same path as Germany and Japan, which once relied heavily on submarines in a bid to compete with the British and U.S. navies.
The attraction of submarines, the experts say, is that they are extremely cost-effective weapons compared with surface warships. For a relatively modest investment, stealthy submarines can threaten much more valuable military and cargo vessels and attack targets on land with missiles.
The suspicion alone that a submarine may be in the area can force an adversary to operate more cautiously, while diverting resources to expensive and complex detection and tracking.
In further evidence of progress in submarine technology, China displayed photographs and models of its new Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine at a Beijing exhibition in July celebrating the 80th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army. The official People's Daily newspaper reported that two submarines of this class are now in service.
In October, Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons researcher with the Federation of American Scientists, spotted on a Google Earth satellite image what appeared to be two of China's Jin-classnuclear powered ballistic missile submarines. Some military analysts were surprised that China had built another submarine of this class so soon after the first, in 2004.
And to put the improvement of its fleet on a fast track, China has also taken delivery of 12 advanced Kilo-class conventional submarines from Russia. These submarines are among the quietest and most difficult to detect, according to veteran submariners.
Experts say the designs of the newest Chinese submarinesshow evidence of technical assistance from Russia.
Analysts have also suggested that some of China's conventional submarines have been fitted with so-called air-independent propulsion systems. This would allow the submarines to patrol for extended periods under water without needing to draw in air for the diesel engines used to charge their batteries.
A number of naval experts have noticed that the growth in China'ssubmarine power has occurred while U.S. antisubmarine warfare capability has declined from its peak during the Cold War.
What is more, in case ofconflict over Taiwan, Chinese submarines would have the advantage of operating in a favorable environment for undersea warfare.
The waters of the East China Sea, South China Sea and Yellow Sea are of uneven depth, with considerable background noise, complex thermal behavior and strong currents. These factors make it very difficult, if not impossible, for surface ships and aircraft to detect stealthy submarines, even with the most advanced passive sonar and other sensors.