China’s submarine fleet is largely limited to a coastal defensive role, but still could not prevent infiltration by U.S. undersea boats, according to a recent analysis by Owen Cote Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.
Only big shifts in doctrine and technology could alter the current equation, Cote explained.
Cote’s assessment is a fresh reminder of the obstacles China faces in securing its own waters – to say nothing of extending its influence farther into the Pacific. The report is also a reminder that, despite the high visibility of aircraft carriers, jet fighters and ballistic missiles, submarines are still the most decisive weapon in the evolving rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
With their stealthiness and tremendous firepower, submarines pose a serious threat to surface vessels. For that reason, they are ideally suited to so-called sea denial – that is, keeping enemy fleets out of a given patch of ocean.
That’s precisely what Beijing intends for its force of roughly 50 small diesel-electric submarines and 10 or so larger nuclear boats. “China plans on using its diesel attack submarines … for coastal defense,” Cote wrote.
Likewise, the nuke boats could be used in an attempt “to deny or limit the access of Western navies to the larger sea space between what (Chinese officials) call the ‘first and second island chains’ – or, roughly speaking, the Philippine Sea.”
But the U.S. Navy’s own submarines plus its patrol planes, helicopters, surface ships and underwater “listening” arrays, concentrated in geographic choke points, could probably detect most Chinese subs attempting to reach the U.S. fleet beyond the first island chain, Cote asserted.