As the great military rivalry between the United States and China unfolds, reports published in the US media have warned that the American submarine dominance over China is ending as Beijing strides in technological innovation and expands production.
Chinese submarines were not a significant concern for the United States for several years. However, China is narrowing the difference as it advances its undersea technology and detection skills.
According to a report recently published in The Wall Street Journal, this has significant ramifications for the US military in the event of a potential conflict over Taiwan.
Chinese submarines were traditionally noisy and straightforward to locate, the report noted. In contrast, the incredibly quiet submarines of the US Navy were difficult for the Chinese military, creating a power imbalance between the two sides. However, that is changing as China works diligently to produce noise reduction technologies.
The PLA-N currently operates six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), and 48 diesel-powered/air-independent powered attack submarines (SS).
A Pentagon report released last month said China’s submarine force will increase to 65 units by 2025 and 80 units by 2035. Additionally, China is also reportedly adding more conventional submarines to its arsenal.
One of the most notable features of modern submarines is their acoustic stealth. While the quietness of the design is seldom disclosed, reports indicate that Chinese submarines are getting stealthier over the years.
A report released by the US Naval War College said that after five decades since it inducted its first nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarine (SSN), the PLA-N is on the verge of producing “world-class” nuclear submarines with its propulsion, quieting, sensors, and weapons capabilities approaching that of Russian Akula -I class SSN.
The report assessed that this giant technological leap will have “profound implications” for US undersea security. So far, all the Chinese submarines have used propellers, whereas many US and NATO submarines use pump-jet propulsion.
Pump-jet submarines are more adept at dodging the enemy’s listening devices and closing in on their target.
Earlier this year, satellite images revealed China launched a nuclear-powered attack submarine that used a pump-jet propulsion system. It was the first time a Chinese submarine had been spotted equipped with the noise-canceling equipment seen on US submarines.
Besides technological advancement, production has also continued to increase. For instance, satellite images of China’s nuclear submarine production plant in the northeastern Huludao a few months earlier showed sections of its hull larger than any Chinese submarine now in service. Completed in 2021, the plant’s second, more modern construction hall indicated plans to boost output.
Meanwhile, US submarines are finding the western Pacific increasingly dangerous. Beijing has almost finished constructing several underwater sensor networks in the South China Sea and other areas surrounding the Chinese coast, dubbed the “Underwater Great Wall.” Citing Chinese military and academic sources, the WSJ report stated that the networks significantly improve their ability to detect hostile submarines.
The addition of patrol planes and helicopters that gather sonar data from underwater buoys has helped China’s People’s Liberation Army become more adept at locating enemy submarines. Underwater listening devices known as hydrophones can now be dovetailed to ships or submarines of China’s navy.
China used dozens of Y-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft to perform a more than 40-hour-long submarine-hunting drill in the South China Sea in August. The Chinese and Russian navies had practiced coordinated anti-submarine operations a few weeks prior in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska. “The developments mean the era of unchallenged dominance of the US under the seas around China is ending,” the WSJ reported.
However, while the US press has highlighted China’s submarine technology and its giant leaps in recent years, Beijing is still struggling with submarine export to Thailand without German engines.
China Struggles With Submarine Export
Months after indicating that it would buy a submarine from China, Thailand declared in October this year that it had chosen to shelve the idea because a German engine was not readily available.
In 2017, the initial agreement to purchase the S26T Yuan-class submarine with German-origin MTU-396 diesel engines was drafted. However, after Germany pulled out of the agreement, claiming that Chinese military hardware could not use the proposed engines due to policy restrictions, problems began to arise.
To save the agreement from falling through, Beijing proposed a locally produced substitute and reverse-engineered CHD620 engines from China’s state-owned submarine builder and approved by German MTU. Intense negotiations ensued when the Chinese diplomats persistently advocated for using their engineering.
Thailand is known to have rejected a Chinese-made engine for the submarine, ostensibly owing to quality concerns. However, according to recent reports, Thai Navy chief Adm Adung Phan-iam said on November 21 that China already has a licensed version of the German engines that were supposed to power the submarine being sold to Thailand, and the engines matched the specifications of the German engine.
CHD620 engine is a Chinese-manufactured, license-produced version of the German MTU396 engine. The Admiral said that since it was the same engine produced locally by China, the change did not breach the submarine contract signed by the Royal Thai Navy (RTN).
Adm Adung admitted, “Previously, the navy did not disclose because it was waiting for approval from China. China has just permitted its disclosure. China produced the CHD620 engines for Germany.”
The Navy chief added, “The Royal Thai Navy Dockyard representatives witnessed the engine test in China, which continued for 200 hours, and concluded that it could be a substitute.” Adm Adung also told reporters that he had tried to convince the government that the engine was a suitable choice.
However, the deal has hit a snag for now. Thai Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang disclosed last month that the Royal Thai Navy had ordered a Chinese frigate instead of moving ahead with the planned acquisition of a Chinese Yuan-class submarine due to the unavailability of a German engine as initially stipulated.
“The submarine project is not scrapped but will be shelved for a certain period…It will resume when the country is ready.” The minister fell short of specifying a schedule for bringing the submarine purchase back on track