The very public testing of China’s first aircraft carrier in late 2012 may have sent heads turning around the world, but Beijing’s neighbors and other maritime powers continue to have their eyes fixed on its submarine force. Submarines are still the sharpest arrow in China’s quiver. Four new, indigenous designs entering the fleet between 2000 and 2010 have heightened the urgency for more-detailed appraisals of China’s emerging undersea capabilities. Yet, while the contours of China’s submarine force structure are relatively well-known, and satellite imagery has revealed extensive new submarine bases (at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, for example), the inner workings of this elite undersea force remain shrouded. In particular, Beijing’s increasing efforts to improve its ability to keep its submarine fleet at a high state of readiness, well-supplied, and operating effectively suggest that learning more about how China is progressing in this area will prove crucial to understanding its overall military and naval potential.
Chinese analyses of historical naval campaigns show a keen appreciation of the vital role of submarine logistics in modern naval warfare. They rightly point out that logistics proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the German U-boat campaign in World War II. As one 2010 Chinese analysis concluded: “. . . Lacking sea control and after losing air control . . . the Nazi navy had to look for a safe and stealthy method to supply the wolf packs . . . But using submarines to supply submarines did not prove feasible.” The analyses also cited the U.S. submarine logistics system as much more effective, observing that “[During World War II] . . . the U.S. built 18 . . . submarine support ships, which with their massive carrying capacity could keep the U.S. submarine force deployed and fighting among the island chains for long periods.”1 It is also noted that both the U.S. and Japan made submarine supply ships a primary target, given their importance.
The Chinese submarine force could be said to have Russian DNA, since Moscow played a vital role in setting up Beijing’s submarine force in the 1950s. Chinese naval analysts are familiar with the Soviet submarine logistics model, and, since the Chinese navy continues to operate Russian-made submarines, they are fully aware of the shortfalls in Russia’s submarine maintenance program. As one Chinese analyst observed last year in a detailed survey of Soviet submarine support practices: “During the Cold War period, Soviet submarine technology was extremely rapid, but production craftsmanship was relatively backward. The safeguards on modern systems could not keep pace with the use of new equipment.” The appraisal continued: “For the submarine crews on combat or exercise [patrols] there were more than a few hidden dangers. This was especially true for nuclear submarines . . . which had even greater demands for logistics support.” Indeed, the same analysis offered detailed descriptions of Soviet submarine support operations that resulted in major radiation leaks during both 1991 and 1992. And it concluded that between 1970 and 1990, the Soviet submarine force suffered 338 safety accidents of varying seriousness.2 Small wonder that Chinese strategists seem determined to avoid the problems that manifested themselves in Soviet submarine strategy.
The same trend is even more evident in a fascinating mid-2011 cover story from the Chinese naval journal, Modern Ships, which examined Chinese submarine-basing practices, and suggested the possibility that Chinese naval strategists may be embroiled in a major debate on the subject. The author made the unconventional argument that “China’s geographic conditions are not appropriate to undertake the Soviet-style . . . ‘bastion’ strategy,” and contended that the U.S. Navy has actually made an “ideal choice” in its submarine strategy by dispersing its submarines rather than basing them in caves, and by keeping them frequently deployed at sea. “From a naval perspective, the approach [of building submarine caves] seems naïve,” he said. “This type of thinking style is actually non-naval.”3
Indeed, there is accumulating evidence that the Peoples LIberation Army Navy (PLAN) is reforming its whole approach to deploying submarines as part of its efforts to initiate sustained operations in the “far seas.” In an expansive interview last year, PLAN Admiral Zhu Shijian, who was recently given oversight of the crucial mid-life upgrades for Chinese submarines, made clear that Beijing admires the U.S. Navy’s system for submarine development and management.4 One recent detailed Chinese study of a U.S. Navy submarine support ship marveled that the tender could supply up to ten submarines, operating as a “mobile submarine factory . . . [with] more than 50 repair compartments. . . .” Still, Chinese naval analysts are aware that “. . . Most of the maintenance support for submarines can only be done in the U.S. . . . A frequent occurrence is that a submarine will require supplies or maintenance, but has no option but to return thousands of miles to its mother port. . . . ” In assessing the challenges of submarine logistics, Chinese analysts also make the obvious, but rather salient point that “In wartime, if the torpedoes have all been used and there is no way to replenish them, then the submarine has lost its value altogether.” At the moment, the PLAN does not have any tenders that are as large and sophisticated as those in the U.S. fleet. Although the PLAN launched one large tender recently, it seems to be focused much more on submarine rescue than on supply operations.5
How China Is Improving
Open-source satellite imagery offers limited insight into China’s submarine logistics modernization. Time-series photos of both the Qingdao and Yulin submarine bases show a wide array of large new buildings, including innovative designs that enable transporter vehicles to roll in one side and out the other efficiently. The PLAN’s internal debate about submarine caves notwithstanding, tell-tale cave entrances are clearly visible at most Chinese submarine bases. These caves run almost a half mile in length, both at Quingdao’s nuclear submarine facility and at the relatively new base at Yalong Bay. Interestingly, the piers visible in the satellite images are lightly constructed and “too uncluttered.” By contrast, U.S. Navy submarine piers are built sturdy so that heavy and continuous maintenance can take place alongside. This suggests that there still is a significant gap between China’s submarine maintenance practices and those of the world’s leading navies.6
To see China’s navy at the deckplate level, it is helpful to read the PLAN’s official newspaper. A recent article that describes maintenance operations in the East Sea Fleet since March 2011 shows that major problems persist within China’s submarine logistics system. “There are still many bad habits,” it says. “Some officers and sailors do not take adequate measures to prevent breakages, are accustomed to equipment maladies and remain passive . . . they are used to getting a helping hand. . . . [others] are resistant to new . . . repair methods. . . .” The article shows how maintenance problems have inhibited operations. In one case, a submarine could not take part in a scheduled exercise because a known maintenance problem had not been properly resolved. And it refers to a “new equipment technology management information system,” which suggests that the PLAN is working to use information technologies to improve maintenance practices.
The article also reports that the PLAN has set up an investigation team that performs reliability checks on submarines that are about to conduct sorties. The team apparently has performed some 4,000 tests over the past three years and found 240 instances of defective equipment. In addition, the article introduces the concept of “self-repair,” which calls for equipping submarines with crews that are trained to perform maintenance tasks under way, rather than having to depend on shipyard technicians to do the job when a problem comes up.7
Another lengthy treatment of East Sea Fleet submarine operations, published early last year, sounded similar themes, noting the importance of the “new equipment technology management system,” and the imperative for “self-repair,” especially now that the submarine fleet is embarking on ever-longer patrols. Interestingly, the article suggests that a single crew has undertaken ten long-range patrols since 2007 and in at least one instance has gone on a joint patrol with another submarine from the same detachment. Such accounts can be surprisingly candid regarding problems. For example, this article related that “In 2007 . . . on a certain submarine’s first long range patrol, in an area of deep water, there was a malfunction with the boat’s main electrical power source. The boat’s compartments went black and it was a dangerous moment.” The problem was resolved quickly, but the episode illustrates an evident willingness within the force to discuss problems openly and seek solutions—another sign that the PLAN is becoming more professional.8
Indeed, the force appears to have been infused with a new emphasis on safety—most likely the result of a catastrophic accident in 2003, when an entire crew was asphyxiated. A summer 2011 article that discusses practices at a submarine munitions storage area claims that the relevant unit had set a record with 34 years without an equipment accident. It suggests that “the value of safety equals that of combat capability . . .” and warns that “just telling everyone to ‘pay attention to safety’ is not sufficient . . . Much more important are daily safety routines. . . .”9 Like the others cited here, it details specific problems that are being addressed—such as how to transport submarine weapons more effectively. Another discusses the difficulties of dealing with much larger weapons stockpiles, and the problem of introducing effective maintenance cycles for active munitions.10
To design and execute these new maintenance procedures, the Chinese submarine force is relying on a new generation of non-commissioned officers—a relatively new practice. People’s Navy, the official PLAN newspaper, showcased submarine force electrician Guo Jinhai, who it noted has made more than ten long voyages and spent more than 800 days at sea.11 Such institutional and personnel reforms are likely to enable the PLAN submarine force to advance gradually over the coming decades to the ranks of the world’s most capable navies.
In parallel with such reforms, the PLAN is also devising new operational patrol patterns to conform to its wider strategic vision. Indeed, while the Chinese surface fleet has impressively increased its operational tempo to include a regular anti-piracy squadron in the Gulf of Aden, there is hardly any doubt that Chinese submarine force longs to range the “far seas.” A front-page article announcing the new approach, in a February 2012 edition of People’s Navy, said the “small long range” voyage “has become the new growth-point of combat effectiveness.” Although the article recognized candidly that the Chinese Navy is in “the infancy of training innovation” and that the PLAN will face more challenges, it is clear that China has its eye on longer and more wide-ranging patrols.12 Chinese submarine logistics will have to keep pace with this invigorated operational tempo.
Still Behind, But Catching Up
Despite the rapid progress that China is making in submarine logistics, it has a long way to go before it can match the capability of Western navies. “The gap is very wide,” Admiral Zhu observed in the mid-2012 interview. Nor was he shy about venting his frustration as he prepares for the PLAN’s first mid-life overhauls of Chinese-made submarines. “The responsible production units do not have the appropriate maintenance plans,” he wrote. “Even more serious is that major problems have arisen with respect to the related building and technical manuals, standards of evaluation, repair equipment, and machine parts and plans. The expense is high. To perform the [planned] midlife overhaul [of Chinese-made submarines] under these conditions, the difficulties can well be imagined.”13 But he added that the shortfall “is wider with respect to management than technology, actually.”
While these insights from the Chinese naval press offer a limited glimpse into the secretive PLAN submarine force, we still can only speculate about many of the most critical aspects of Chinese submarine logistics. The use and purpose of the extensive system of caves remains a mystery. Are they an antiquated holdover from the Cold War or, an integral part of modern Chinese submarine strategy? Other mysteries involve nuclear logistics, about which almost nothing is published. Another set of questions concerns what China may be doing to facilitate the refueling and rearming of Chinese submarines at remote locations along the Chinese coast. That second topic is certain to be an important dimension of Chinese strategy, given the likelihood that mainland submarine bases would almost certainly be attacked in the early phases of any conflict with a major opponent. An effective Chinese strategy in this field no doubt would seriously complicate the planning of any power attempting to disrupt Chinese submarine operations by striking key logistics nodes.
Geologists know that incremental changes can produce stunning transformations over long periods of time, and so far that seems to be what has been happening in the Chinese navy. But the pace of progress may well accelerate as more resources become available, institutions reach maturity, and the officers and crews become more capable. None of these conditions really existed in China until just a decade ago; since then, China has been making ever-more-rapid gains.
Logistics has been a key concern for the Chinese military at least since the Korean War, when its soldiers frequently went into battle on empty stomachs and with inadequate footwear. Six decades later, maintaining equipment and keeping fighting units properly supplied remains a core concern of Chinese military modernization. In the literature reviewed for this article, it is clear that progress is continuing, whether from the standpoint of employing new information technologies, introducing tighter safety requirements into routines, developing best practices by analyzing and publicizing problems, critically evaluating foreign approaches, or creating robust institutions to oversee rigorous maintenance procedures with periodic upgrades. If the current pace of reform and steady improvement is merely sustained, China will have one of the world’s leading undersea forces within one to two decades.
2. ?? [Liu Yang], “???????????” [“A Brief Survey of the Soviet Navy’s Submarine Support Ships”] ???? [Modern Ships] No. 466 (March 2012), 46–47.
3. ?? [Nuo Man],”??????? ???????” [“Concealed Egress to Battle? The Tactical Value of Nuclear Submarine Caves”] ???? [Modern Ships] No. 439 (June 2011), 23, 26.
4. ?? [interview by Yu Ping], “???????????????????” [“The Chief Engineer Discusses a Certain Type of Submarine’s First Ever Mid-Life Maintenance Regarding the Engineering Upgrade”] ???? [Modern Ships] (August 2012), 13.
5. ?? [Luo Fu],”??????????” [“The ‘Babysitter’ for U.S. Nuclear Attack Submarines: the Emily Lund-class Submarine Repair and Supply Ship”] ???? [Ordnance Industry Science Technology] No. 9A (2010), 37–40.
6. The authors thank Prof. William Murray of the Naval War College for providing these and other insights for this article.
7. The entire paragraph is drawn from ??? and ??? [Cao Jieyu and Li Yibao],“?? ‘??’???????????” [“Blessed ‘Health’: Ensuring the Submarine Has A Healthy Body: An East Sea Fleet Submarine Detachment’s ‘Clinical Report’ On Making Its Own Repairs for Difficult Problems”] ???? [People’s Navy] (29 March 2011), 3.
8. ?? and ??? [Wu Han and Cao Jieyu], “?????????” [“Going to the Deep Blue Requires Reliability] ???? [People’s Navy] (9 January 2012), 3.
9. ??? and ?? [Shang Wenbin and Zhang Gang], “??????” [“Toward Forging a ‘Safety Shield: A Record of Building Up Safety Culture in a Certain North Sea Fleet Submarine Base Missile Technology Unit”] ???? [People’s Navy] (29 July 2011), 6.
10. ??? and ??? [Liu Kaiping and Liu Haiyang], “???????” [“My Perspective on Torpedo and Mine Munitions”] ???? [People’s Navy] (6 March 2012), 4.
11. No author,”???” [“Profile of PLA Navy Electrician Guo Jinhai”] ???? [People’s Navy] (12 May 2012), 2.
12. ??? [Cao Jinyu],”’???’ ?????????” [“The ‘Short Voyage’ has become the New Growth Point of Combat Effectiveness”] ???? [People’s Navy] (20 February 2012).
13. ?? [interview by Yu Ping], (from “The Chief Engineer Discusses…), 10–11, 13.
Dr. Goldstein is associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of numerous academic papers on Chinese undersea warfare and on U.S.-China relations.
Mr. Knight is an open-source China analyst and computer scientist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He is a former policy analyst with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and former intelligence analyst with the Marine Corps Reserve.