While testifying before the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee, a top U.S. Navy admiral said that China’s rapidly expanding fleet of submarines now has both more diesel and more nuclear subs than America’s does. He hastened to add that the Chinese vessels are not quite as sophisticated as their American counterparts, though they are nonetheless “fairly amazing submarines.” Reuters reports:
Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources, told the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee that China was also expanding the geographic areas of operation for its submarines, and their length of deployment.For instance, China had carried out three deployments in the Indian Ocean, and had kept vessels out at sea for 95 days, Mulloy said. […]U.S. military officials in recent months have grown increasingly vocal about China’s military buildup and launched a major push to ensure that U.S. military technology stays ahead of rapid advances by China and Russia.Mulloy said the quality of China’s submarines was lower than those built by the United States, but the size of its undersea fleet had now surpassed that of the U.S. fleet. A spokeswoman said the U.S. Navy had 71 commissioned U.S. submarines.
With the PLA budget growing by double digits every year, this raises serious concerns about the future of U.S. naval strategic superiority. Washington still vastly outspends Beijing on defense in general and naval power in particular, but the U.S. doesn’t just want to have a slight strategic edge on China in a war of attrition, it wants to present a credible threat of vastly superior strength in the event of a conflict. And even if there never is a conflict, the projection of what would happen in such a scenario is a defining feature of the diplomatic relationship.There are also contingencies here that are perhaps less fantastic and far-off than an all-out war between the U.S. and China: Washington would like to be able to assure its allies in Asia that it will be able to intervene if China decided to make a land grab or attack a neighbor.To understand why the relative power of the U.S. and China sub fleets matters, you have to understand China’s “Anti Access/Area Denial” (A2/AD) military strategy. That strategy involves building up the defensive capabilities necessary to keep U.S. forces out of effective range. Much ado has been made about China’s DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles. That’s because, if they are as effective as Beijing claims (and the U.S. must assume the worst), they could destroy any U.S. carrier that came close enough to China to launch an airstrike, given the ranges of current and planned carrier-capable U.S. aircraft. So the question is: if the surface fleet can’t get close enough to project power onto the Chinese mainland, what’s a globally dominant seapower to do? The answer: hide its ships underneath the waves.Perhaps not coincidentally, the Navy and Congress are looking into a plan to speed up America’s construction of new and more powerful subs. But in the current budgeting climate and with U.S. procurement policy as mismanaged and poorly designed as it is, it’s unclear whether the plan will happen, not to mention whether it would be enough to roundly outgun the Chinese.But if the U.S. can’t be sure its subs won’t be repelled by a larger enemy fleet or its surface forces can safely get close enough to Chinese territory, then it can’t guarantee protection for its allies or itself.