China could have its first aircraft carrier battle group composed of 11 warships in place by 2020, a high-ranking official from the Ministry of National Defense told a recent symposium hosted by the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies to discuss the purchase of diesel-electric submarines. His remark is probably an understatement and the ministry has seriously underestimated China's capability to develop and deploy submarines.
The ministry estimated that China will have two Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarines in this planned aircraft carrier battle group. Named the "Shang-class" by NATO, Type 093 is a refined model of the Russian Victor-III class and an engineering project complementary to the construction of China's Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered guided ballistic missile submarines. Deploying two nuclear-powered attack submarines in a middle-sized aircraft carrier battle group is adequate.
Over the past decade, China's submarine technology has made huge progress. In addition to its highly developed Type 093, Bei-jing may have more advanced nuclear-powered attack submarines, possibly Type 095, by 2020.
International media reports indicate that China may have completed the design of Type 095 and initiated the first phase of construction. Some believe the hull of Type 095 has been given a Western rather than a Russian design and that the underwater noise level of the engines has been reduced.
The Type 095 may also dopt the sophisticated HY-4 cruise missile with a range of 3,000km. If this type of missile carries a nuclear warhead, it can destroy up to 2km2 of any targeted area.
China is planning to build five Type 095 submarines. If the Type 095 can join its aircraft carrier battle group by 2020, its overall combat capabilities will easily exceed those of Type 093.
The ministry's projection of the make-up of China's aircraft carrier battle group also ignores the great technological progress China has made in building diesel-electric submarines in recent years. After Russia delivered the second batch of eight Russian Kilo-class Type 636 attack submarines to Beijing, China's diesel-electric submarine technology has improved considerably through imitation or technology transfer.
According to a foreign news report, China's Ming-class submarines have begun testing the installation of an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system that operates on liquid oxyhydrogen cells. Moreover, China's navy continues to improve its Type 039 Song-class submarine, which was recently found stalking the USS Kitty Hawk near Okinawa.
In future, all Song-class submarines are likely to be equipped with the AIP system and China will take the initiative to acquire new weapons systems from Russia, including supersonic anti-ship missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, wake-homing torpedoes and supercavitating torpedoes.
Prior to 2020 then, China's fleet of diesel-electric submarines will have become an underwater threat that nations in the Asia-Pacific region cannot ignore. That would constitute a structural change to the the strategic security of both the Taiwan Strait and the first island chain. Such a strategic alteration would put tremendous pressure on Taiwan.
Taiwan's defense capabilities will be unable to deal with these changes single-handedly and the nation cannot simply pin its hopes on the acquisition of a few diesel-electric submarines.
As the most vulnerable and strategically most important link in the first island chain, Taiwan should seek to improve its defense capabilities and strengthen military cooperation with both the US and Japan to deter China's expansionist ambitions.
Ta-chen Cheng is an adjunct assistant professor at Tamkang University.
Translated by Daniel Cheng