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Current PLA(N) Conventional
Type 035 Ming class submarine
Kilo class submarine
Type 039 Song class submarine
(final vessels under construction)
Type 041Yuan class submarine
(more under construction)
Improved Yuan class
(at least two boats under construction)
The trouble with rapid capability build-ups in
several areas simultaneously is that it is easy to
build many mediocre platforms quickly - meaning
potential block obsolescence. It is also very
difficult to make them capable against the new
peer opponents that such a build up is intended to
And here the PLA(N) is showing severe stress.
Recent high level assessments regarding the
rapidly modernising PLA(N) submarines force
is illustrating the nature of these stresses and the
capability gaps they have created.
To obtain the open-ocean expertise the new
conventional submarine force must have to meet
its potential foes, the growing fleet of around 60
modern-looking submarines must conduct more
patrols. They must conduct patrols to signal both
developing naval competence and increasing
capability to influence events inside the second
island chain. Yet this is a double edged sword.
As recently as 2005-2007 the PLA(N)
submarine force rarely did more than very
basic daily training in shallow water exercise
areas immediately off their bases. This training
was fully scripted rote-work, indicating little
understanding of their art and no mastery of it.
The PLA(N)’s conventional and nuclear powered
submarines managed no more then seven actual
patrols in 2007. In 2005 it was one. Each of
these patrols was detected and in each case the
submarine was shadowed by Allied submarines
(both conventional and nuclear) which gathered
acoustic intelligence (ACINT) on them. There are
unconfirmed reports of a submarine obtaining a
‘sublook’, getting so close that video footage was
obtained of the Chinese vessel. If so, then this is
remarkable, for this procedure is so hazardous and
demands such a high level of professional skill that
very few submarine commanders can achieve it.
While the PLA(N) submarine force operated
in daylight in the coastal shallows near their
bases, their actual, capability could not be known.
ASW aircraft, surface ships, SOSUS arrays and
submarines could not be used in these waters.
What the ocean patrols did was start to reveal the
true capability of PLA(N) submarines – and it was
anything but flattering to the PLA(N). By far their
best submarines were the Russian-built Kilo class,
and these were export models far noisier than
the parent navy’s own Kilo class. The Chinese
crews had poor noise discipline and frequently
made mechanical transients. This demonstrated a
poor acoustic culture in their submarine arm and
poor tactical understanding in their officer corps.
Submarines are most often located by passive
means – by listening for them. The more noise the
submarine makes the easier it is to find, and once
located, a noisy submarine is easy to attack.
The US Office of Naval Intelligence had little
information to go on and so was conservative.
Their estimates placed the PLA(N) about a decade
behind the state-of-art for Russian submarines
and so about two decades behind the USN. These
estimates were proven to be very conservative, the
real picture is much worse for the PLA(N). Once
the PLA(N) had its newest submarines patrolling
out-of-area more frequently into the South China
Sea, east of the Ryukyu islands and into the
Philippine Sea, tracking has revealed much about
them which was previously unknown.
Out-of-area patrols means that the true masters
of the art, the USN submarine force, Japanese
submarine force and Australian submarine force
are much more able to locate and track PLA(N)
submarines. This generates the most closely-held
intelligence data, acoustic intelligence or ACINT.
ACINT is the crown jewel of naval intelligence. It
is very difficult to obtain, perishable and uniquely
valuable for what it reveals of genuine capability.
A submarine is valueless if it is noisy.
The PLA(N)’s new submarines are noisy.
Noisier than previously assessed. They radiate
loudly in some of the frequency bands most
dangerous to a submarine and appear to be ‘noisier
than they really should be.’ Contact was made with
civil experts in submarine radiated noise, and a
very interesting picture has emerged.
Away back in the 1990s, the Chinese covertly
approached German submarine diesel engine
manufacturers with a request. They wanted to
ww w.defencere viewasia.com < 31
USN MH-60R using its dipping sonar
Credit: USN / Walter M. Wayman
The Chinese economy is now dependent on maritime trade for the first
time in Chinese history
DRA April 2012.indd 31
19/04/12 7:58 PM
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