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Chinese Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarines Are A Growing Menace

May 22, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

The report titled China Naval Modernization: Implications For US Naval Capabilities published by the Congressional Research Service in April made for sober reading. In its concluding remarks the author pointed out a “substantially reduced US advantage” in overall naval strength and predicted the Chinese navy may “draw even with or surpass” its main rival in the Asia-Pacific. This is supported by open source data on the PLAN’s expansion driven by its new battle force ships. An understated detail from the same report is China’s gradual ascent to the exclusive quartet of countries that manufacture nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs.

The Type 093 or Shang/Shang II-class SSN is the PLAN’s future in subsurface warfare. But so little is known about it (hence the stock image above) that a proper analysis can’t be done at present.

The PLAN boasts a large submarine fleet but its composition is skewed in favor of diesel-electric models. Of the estimated 66 submarines operated by the PLAN a mere 11 are nuclear-powered and these are split between Shang-class SSN’s and four Jin-class SSBNs. By comparison the US Navy maintains an edge over the PLAN with its three dozen Los Angeles and Seawolf-class SSNs. But the Shang-class could even the odds in the PLAN’s favor with six more built and commissioned by 2030. The China Naval Modernization report included these figures in its battle force projections where the PLAN’s numerical size is forecasted to surpass the US Navy.

One reason why the PLAN’s adoption of newer submarine models is slow is the space constraints on state-owned shipyards. Analysts and researchers are convinced all work on nuclear-powered submarines is done at a single shipyard in China’s northeastern coast. But the PLAN’s emphasis on large surface combatants and the enormous costs of developing nuclear-powered submarine technology have slowed down the pace of SSN/SSBN assembly.

Even if the PLAN only has 13 SSNs versus the US Navy’s larger collection their cumulative firepower overwhelms every other regional navy and can deter the movements of carrier strike groups. This is a huge blow for the US Navy, whose access to the Indo-Pacific hasn’t been obstructed since World War 2. Another advantage for the PLAN’s SSNs is having a single ocean–the Pacific–as their theater of operations whilethe US Navy can’t muster its entire strength in the same region because since it must also deter Russia in the Atlantic Ocean and maintain a presence in the world’s maritime trade routes.

The publicly available information about the Shang-class and its improved variant the Shang II is so limited that making a distinction between them is difficult. Being an SSN their main characteristics are found in armaments and tonnage. A Shang-class submarine grosses beyond the 6,000 ton range and can carry out missions for weeks at a time. When it comes to armaments its hull supports a VLS loaded with anti-ship and cruise missiles. This is aside from the usual complement of six torpedo tubes. The YJ-18 and YJ-18A are believed to be the intended armaments of the Shang-class and these missiles are deemed a grave threat to the US Navy’s warships.

Each YJ-18 is capable of subsonic flight over several hundred kilometers. Once it reaches its terminal phase the missile’s flight pattern switches from sea-skimming to a high angle of attack at supersonic speeds. This makes it almost impossible for anti-missile defenses on ships to defeat an incoming YJ-18. The PLAN does posses other subsonic and supersonic missiles whose extreme range serves as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) tools for limiting the movements of the US Navy’s ships assigned to the Indo-Pacific.

Readers who want copies of China Naval Modernization can download it here.

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