The underwater threat: The Chinese are coming!

The underwater threat: The Chinese are coming!

In a numerically sobering comparison to China’s submarine fleet, India has 1 SSN, 1 SSBN and 14 conventionally powered attack submarines functional.

Over the course of the last two decades, China has substantially reduced the qualitative and quantitative gaps with the United States in its military capabilities. While most visible and commonly understood areas continue to be watched and publicly analyzed, China’s underwater stealth capabilities remain the least studied, and least understood. Among two obvious reasons for this are: China’s rather secretive strides in this area, and the esoteric nature of submarine technologies themselves. It is imperative for New Delhi that China’s leap in submarine development be understood in its totality, to be able to assess not only its gap vis-a-vis China but the leap in technologies that the latter has made. And to, most importantly, understand what China’s growing underwater capabilities mean in terms of sea control, sea denial and overall strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean?

As per a US Department of Defense study, the PLAN Submarine Force (PLANSF) presently commands a robust nuclear triad capability, operating four ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBN). In addition to the SSBNs, it operates five nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) and 47 diesel-electric attack submarines. By the end of this year, the study says, the total number could reach as high as 78 submarines, of which 11 would be nuclear attack submarines. Although some other estimates put the number a tad lower than the official estimates of the US, they aren’t significantly low. One study estimates the average growth of Chinese submarines per year between 1995 and 2016 to be 2.6 submarines per year. Most countries pale in comparison.

Also Read: The Very Silent Service

Although the first Chinese submarine acquisition was on June 4, 1953, when the Soviet Union supplied China with a licence to build Soviet O3-class submarines, its first nuclear attack submarine (SSN) was completed in the mid-1970s. Currently, China operates two types of SSBNs (Jin Class and Xia Class); two types of SSNs (Shang and Han Class); and four types of conventionally powered attack submarines (Yuan, Song, Kilo and Ming Class). The exact number and capability of Chinese submarines continue to be debated among watchers.

The Chinese Navy has come a long way in its development from its Cold War days, especially in the pace of development and the technologies. Two areas in which Chinese submarines have sped away from other countries, although the US remains a clear leader in technology, are more effective Sonars and better Anechoic tiles for their submarines. Sonar technology used by submarines involves sound propagation under water to navigate, communicate or detect objects by sound reflection, such as other ships. Anechoic tiles are used to absorb the sound waves of one’s own active sonars, to make submarines less noisy, lowering the chances of being detected under water. Significant developments in these areas have not only made detection of prowling Chinese submarines difficult but also more lethal to other countries’ surface and subsurface assets.

These strides in Chinese submarine capabilities stand out from two critical perspectives. First, these rapid Chinese developments are important from a comparative point of view to assess how India’s own submarine capabilities have grown. Secondly, growing underwater capabilities are central to the emerging power play in not just the Indo-Asia-Pacific but closer home in the Indian Ocean.

In a numerically sobering comparison to China’s submarine fleet, India has 1 SSN, 1 SSBN and 14 conventionally powered attack submarines functional. An even fewer number is on active duty at a given time. The only SSN, INS Chakra, is on 10-year lease from Russia until 2022. Between 1991 and 2011, the Indian Navy was without an SSN. Some progress has been made in the area of SSBNs with India indigenously designing and building a nuclear-propelled SSBN, INS Arihant, and three more SSBNs to follow. However, INS Arihant remains India’s only active nuclear-powered submarine and advancements in SSBNs are not considered immediate operational gains as they are not part of the navy’s regular combat fleet but function as one of the legs of the country’s nuclear triad capability.

Besides the 14 active conventionally powered submarines, six Scorpene-class submarines are being built at Mazagon Dock, Mumbai. The first of these submarines, the INS Kalvari, was commissioned in 2017. The remaining five vessels are expected to be in service by 2022. However, conventionally powered submarines have tremendous limitations in comparison to SSNs in their ability to remain underwater for long, and can be detected when they surface. SSNs have enhanced stealth capability, with nuclear reactors allowing them to remain under water for long and hence undetected.

If India is to emerge as a pivot in the Indo-Pacific regional security architecture, it needs to enhance its submarine capability rapidly, especially given fast and competitive changes in the underwater capabilities of countries in the Indo-Pacific region. As such, India’s Project 75I (P75I) needs a strategic uplift. The project is part of a 30-year submarine building plan that ends in 2030. Under this project, India was to build 24 submarines -- 18 conventional submarines and six nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). The target remains severely underachieved. Moreover, progress has only been in conventionally powered submarines while SSNs still remain elusive. Gauging by current progress, along with the entry of too many contenders for the project, it seems unlikely that the 2030 targets will be met.

Between 2013 and 2018, at least eight deployments of Chinese submarines took place in the Indian Ocean. In the past year, Chinese submarines have frequented the northern and eastern Indian Ocean. With increasing docking points in the Indian Ocean Region, such as Djibouti, Gwadar and Hambantota, the frequency of Chinese submarines in the region is expected to grow. India needs to place its submarine capability deficit vis-à-vis China front-and-centre in the maritime discourse that concerns sea control and sea denial. As submarines play a key role in both sea control (by providing support to surface ships from beneath) and sea denial, India cannot afford a lackadaisical attitude in this area.

A strong navy is critical to a country’s near and distant goals, and a strong submarine fleet is indispensable for an effective navy. It’s high time India got its act together in building up the Silent Service.

(The writer is Deputy Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies)

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