The military’s latest secret assessment of China’s rapidly modernizing submarines has good news and bad news for the U.S. Navy. On one hand, the roughly 60 submarines in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet are spending more and more time on combat-ready patrols — signaling China’s increasing naval competence and growing seriousness about influencing the western Pacific Ocean.
On the other hand, the flurry of undersea activity gives American forces more opportunities to tail and examine Chinese subs. And U.S. analysts discovered a silver lining in the gathering strategic storm clouds. Chinese submarines are a hell of a lot noisier than anyone expected. The sound you hear is the Pacific balance of power tipping in Washington’s favor.
As recently as 2007, China’s diesel-powered subs and a handful of nuclear-propelled models managed just a few patrols per year, combined. Two years before that, none of Beijing’s undersea boats went on patrol. For years, the majority of PLAN submarines remained tied up at naval bases, sidelined by mechanical problems and a shortage of adequately trained crews.