Navies are technically intense arms of the defence. They take a long time to build, and once built along a particular doctrine, they take another thirty to change due to the momentum built by an interrelated ecosystem around them. This article from the Diplomat about Chinese Submarine threat raises interesting questions to any naval planner.
The article raises five main issues in the course of its narrative
- That Chinese submarines are in the vanguard of an anti-access campaign
- That the US Aircraft Carrier Battle group is vulnerable
- The nuclear powered SSN is the greater threat compared to conventional submarines
- The submarine carries a mix of missiles and torpedoes as its integral weapons
- That the torpedo, whilst more lethal than the missile has certain disadvantages.
Whenever balance of power is tilted in favour of one side, the weaker side adopts asymmetric means to regain balance. From Trojan horse to naval application of jeune ecole of naval strategy adapted by the French against a powerful British Navy in late 19th century, history is replete with examples of asymmetric strategies and force structure. The French developed the smaller but faster torpedo boats against the bigger but slower ships of the Royal Navy. Closer in time during the cold war the Soviet navy adapted a strategy of using submarines against US Navy. At certain points of time the Soviet Submarines were clearly ahead in technology and lethality over US submarines and were the vanguard in the balance of power between the two super powers.
In the new age build up between the top two powers, we see a repeat of history, where the rising power trying to balance the first rate power with an asymmetric strategy.
The PLAN was originally assisted by the Soviet Navy in early 50s. However the Sino Soviet Split in late 1950s weaned them away from Soviet Camp. Two other significant events that dictated the transfer of technology to China were the Sino US rapprochement of the 70s and Sino Soviet Rapprochement post-cold war. Both these events enabled large transfers of technologies and inventories to PLAN.
The main threat that China faces is from the US Naval Carrier Battle Groups- which is currency of US power. The incident of the two USN carrier battle groups that sailed in to diffuse the Taiwan crisis in 1996 has been one driver of its maritime strategy. Chinas aim is to prevent an incident of this nature in the future. The PLAN strategy of ‘Anti Access’ and ‘Area Denial’ (A2AD) is pivoted around submarines, missile boats and the much talked Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles PLAN to prevent the USN from interfering in any Chinese design in the region. Submarines remain the vanguard of that strategy.
However, the recent induction of the Aircraft carrier by PLAN has signalled a slight shift in its strategy where their inventory doesn’t reflect denial alone. The rising economic heft has also forced China to think beyond just denial to protecting its sea lines and prestige.
Not with standing this slight shift, instruments of denial with submarines as the vanguard will remain the mainstay of Chinese Strategy.