Recent media interest about new types of submarines being developed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could provide important clues about China’s naval capabilities and intentions, a specialist on China said in a recent article.
“Whereas the development and deployment of the Chinese navy’s surface fleet have been prominently displayed in unprecedented scale in recent naval exercises both in the South and East China Sea, the expansion of China’s subsurface fleet appears to have been slowed in recent years,” Russell Hsiao, editor of the China Brief, a publication of the US-based Jamestown Foundation, wrote in the publication’s latest edition.
From 2007 until this year, he said, the total number of submarines deployed in the PLAN was steady, rising by a single vessel, to 63, Hsiao wrote.
While the scope of the PLAN’s development remained to be seen and would depend on tested capabilities rather than media photos and speculation, the increased incidence of reports on new submarines could nevertheless provided important clues about Beijing’s strategic outlook, he said.
“In this context, these reports raise interesting questions about what is known regarding the pace of investments that China has undertaken to increase stealth, missile capacity, survivability and the capability to project its submarine force both regionally and globally,” he wrote.
Early last month, a Hong Kong-based media ran a story based on a photo of a new conventionally powered attack submarine that had been circulating on the Web for several weeks. The SSK submarine was allegedly developed by state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, China’s largest shipbuilder, the report said.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has yet to officially acknowledge reports that the new submarine has stealth capabilities.
“Chinese academic engineering literature cited by a prominent Western defense magazine supports the fact ‘that the PLA has also been researching fuel cell AIP engine technology — with the PLA having benefited via Chinese academics from several conferences with German fuel cell technology experts,” the report said, citing Jane’s Defense Weekly.
“The addition of an AIP system could allow a Chinese submarine to operate underwater for up to 30 days on battery power, and would make the Song and Yuan submarines inaudible to existing US surveillance networks-and US subs,” the report said.
Reports also claim that China would finish testing and deploy two additional Yuan-class submarines by the end of next year, Hsiao wrote, adding that if reports were true, it would confirm the belief, held by some experts, that the apparent slowdown in the PLAN’s expansion was only a transitory phase and that its submarine fleet appeared set to resume its upward trajectory.
These revelations coincide with the recent sighting of a new Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine docked at a Chinese naval base in Sanya, on Hainan Island. A photograph obtained by Japan-based Kyodo News showed two nuclear-powered submarines docked at a quay on the base.
Hsiao wrote that the reports and images showcasing new submarines and deployments underscored Beijing’s growing assertiveness, which has also been accompanied by an increasing incidence of sorties and exercises in waters close to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.