Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force. Winter 2004 U.S. Submarines... Because Stealth Matters Cover for Winter 2004
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From Humble Origins
China’s Submarine Force Comes of Age

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From Humble Origins China's Submarine Force Comes of Age. In this undated photograph, Admiral Xiao Jinguang, PLAN commander between 1950 and 1980 - and two senior military officials - review two "Romeo" - class submarines and their crews.
by Dr. Lyle Goldstein and Bill Murray

The maritime balance of power in the East Asian littoral is undergoing slow, but steady change in Beijing’s favor. Numerous indicators, including the imminent sea-trials of the first of China’s 2nd-generation nuclear submarines, the first serial production of its indigenous Song-class diesel boats, and the ongoing purchase from Russia of eight “Kilo”-class diesel submarines, all confirm PRC progress in undersea warfare across a broad front.

Because of a centuries-long history of neglect, incompetence, and defeat at sea, there is a strong tendency in Washington to rate the Chinese as poor mariners. The recent accident and loss of all hands onboard a Ming-class submarine in April 2003 only serves to reinforce these stereotypes. However, besides obvious safety lapses, the incident also shows that the submarine force of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is engaged in a vigorous program of realistic at-sea training, under battle-like conditions. Moreover, despite this recent mishap, the appointment of Admiral Zhang Dingfa – a nuclear-trained submariner – to head the PLAN suggests growing momentum in undersea warfare.

Indeed, it was the emerging “ASW problem that we have out there in the Western Pacific,” that moved Pacific Fleet Commander ADM Walter Doran to call on the U.S. Navy to “rededicate ourselves to getting back into [the ASW] business.” With undersea operations a key element of China’s emerging maritime strategy, the U.S. submarine community must learn more about this prospective competitor. Since the origins and development of any large and complex institution over time will have a strong influence on its future evolution, this article reviews the known history of the PLAN submarine force.

200 Submarines for Imperial China

Following the humiliating Opium War of the mid-19th century, China faced continual encroachment from Western nations, and total defeat at the hands of the “upstart” Japanese in 1895. The occupation of Beijing by an alliance of powers in 1900 only added insult to injury. China’s profound maritime weakness, however, encouraged surprisingly bold thinking about emerging technologies for undersea warfare. Over the last decades of the 19th century, Chinese leaders attempted vainly to gain the support of foreign powers, particularly Britain and France, for constructing a modern navy. In 1915, a former U.S. naval attaché, CDR Irvin Gillis, arranged for the visit of Vice-Admiral Wei Han and 30 Chinese student officers to Groton, Connecticut to observe submarine building and operations. According to one account, Wei Han “delighted [Electric Boat] officials by announcing that China needed a fleet of 200 submarines.” An initial purchase of 12 vessels was inked, and plans for training Chinese crews were put into place. Unfortunately for China’s navy – and for Electric Boat – these agreements collapsed as the imperial regime gradually gave way to the so-called warlord era.

Years of desultory internecine warfare among the warlords were followed by a period of growing consolidation during the late 1920s and early 1930s under the leadership of the Chinese nationalist, Chiang Kai-shek. Submarines continued to be of significant interest. Chiang attempted to purchase German submarines in 1934 and hired a German naval advisor. Although nothing materialized, Chiang did succeed in sending a number of young naval officers to Germany for training on submarine technology. Some of these officers would later rise to prominence in the PLAN. After these false starts, China finally received its first two submarines from the British after World War II, but following the Communist civil war victory in 1949, China would look to Russia for submarine assistance.

Photo caption below Photo caption below
Soviet-designed “Romeo”-class conventional attack submarines were produced in significant quantities by China between 1965 and the early 1980s, and the PLAN eventually had more than 60 of these boats in service. The “Romeo”s displaced 1,319 tons surfaced and 1,712 tons submerged on a length of 252 feet. China continues to produce the Ming class, which originally was simply a wider “Romeo”, but has been continuously upgraded with advanced quieting and weaponry. The PLAN’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine – of the Han class – was laid down in the mid-1960s but did not enter service until 1974. The first two of these five ships were troubled with serious propulsion defects, lacked basic weaponry and electronics, and were never entirely reliable. The latter members of the class displaced 5,550 tons submerged on a length of 295 feet, and in 1985, one of them made a submerged voyage of 84 days.

Little Brother

In fact, close cooperation with Soviet submariners predated the Communist victory in China. Stalin’s Red Army had entered northern China during the final weeks of the war against Japan in mid-1945. By 1948, a significant force of 14 Soviet submarines patrolled the Yellow Sea, operating out of Lushun at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula. In the fall of 1948, Chiang
Kai-Shek’s Kuo-Min Tang (KMT) faction, fielding a number of surface combatants, attempted to blockade Manchuria and insulate central China from Communist infiltration. This effort failed, probably because of intelligence on the KMT patrols from Soviet submarines, and when the Peolples Iberation Army (PLA) also succeeded in landing large contingents of Communist organizers on the nearby Shandong Peninsula, Chiang’s armies were soon defeated in central China.

The Communist Party approved the preliminary formation of a Chinese submarine force in June 1949, four months before the official founding of the PRC.

Mao Zedong’s focus on submarines reflected both his determination to end the “Chinese nation’s total failure to create maritime defenses” and the strong influence of the Soviet “New School” approach to maritime strategy. The doctrine was encapsulated in a three-character phrase to guide the PRC’s new navy: “Qian, Kong, Kuai” – “Submarines, [Land-Based] Aircraft, and Fast [Attack Patrol Boats].” In 1951, several hundred officers were selected from the ground forces to form the nucleus of the new submarine corps. Many were sent to study with the Soviet Pacific Fleet and trained aboard Soviet submarines. However, a year later, the submarine force suffered its first major institutional setback when the extraordinary demands of the stalemated Korean conflict forced the PLA to divert funds from shipbuilding to aircraft production.

Nonetheless, step-by-step progress under Soviet tutelage continued during the 1950s. Over the course of the decade, 275 Chinese students traveled to the USSR to study submarine building and operations. In 1953, the PLAN received its first submarines, (one M-class, and three S 1-class) from the USSR and founded the submarine academy at Qingdao. The following June, the PLAN declared its first, four-ship submarine squadron operational, although some authorities believe that submarines operating in the Yellow Sea before 1954 may well have had joint Sino-Soviet crews. On the whole, China’s initial submarine efforts were concentrated in the North Sea Fleet, probably to counter U.S. forces based in Japan. Mao’s recognition of the importance of the developing submarine force was underscored by his January 1956 visit to the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai, where the PRC’s very first submarine was being built from a Soviet kit. China would eventually build 21 of these Soviet “Whiskey”-class boats.

As early as 1956, even before China had produced its first diesel boat, nuclear propulsion for submarines was adopted as a national priority by Mao himself. The daunting challenge that this entailed only became fully clear after Moscow refused Beijing’s explicit request to share nuclear propulsion technology, on the grounds that it would be premature for the PLAN. Foreshadowing the imminent souring of Sino-Soviet relations, Mao reacted indignantly: “We will have to build nuclear submarines even if it takes us 10,000 years.” In July 1958, the Politburo approved an ambitious plan to develop nuclear propulsion and an SLBM simultaneously.

Problematic Adolescence

By 1957, the year that culminated a “golden age” of relatively rational governance and steady development under the Communists, the Chinese had established a strong foundation for their submarine force. However, this period was followed by the gravely-destructive Great Leap Forward (GLF) in 1958 and later by the Great Cultural Revolution (GCR) of 1966-69. These periods of tumult had lasting, deleterious effects on the PLAN submarine force.

Mao’s GLF was an attempt to accelerate China’s modernization process by turning away from the Soviet model of development in favor of an effort to harness the ideological will of the Chinese people. Accordingly, Mao rejected Khrushchev’s offer to create a joint Sino-Soviet fleet in exchange for a renewed Soviet naval presence in Chinese waters. As a result, Russia was prevented from locating submarine broadcast transmitters on the Liaodong peninsula, and China lost a unique opportunity to augment the strength and operational capabilities of the PLAN undersea force.