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China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force

China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force edited by Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson. Naval Institute Press, 2007, 412 pp.

The United States is facing new challenges around the globe, China’s geostrategic challenges are not well understood, and the US Navy may have a peer challenger in the form of a Chinese nuclear submarine force in 5–10 years time. The Naval War College, under RADM Jacob Shuford, created the China Maritime Studies Institute to study the changes the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is undergoing. This book, a collection of essays presented a conference on Chinese submarines in 2006, shows how the China’s nuclear navy has developed to date and the possible future trajectories it could take. Nuclear submarines, both attack (SSN) and ballistic missile (SSBN) versions, should be seen as a sign that China intends to become a true global military power. The book also explores the development of Chinese diesel submarines, which play an increasingly important role in littoral warfare, especially when combined with air-independent propulsion systems. The acquisition and incorporation of Western (French and German) and Russian submarine technology is allowing Chinese submarines to “leap a generation” and emerge as serious peer competitors.

The launching of second-generation nuclear submarines—the 093 attack boat and the 094 ballistic missile boat in 2002 and 2006—heralded the arrival of a new era in Chinese maritime operations. The opaque nature of Chinese military writings forces the authors and editors to use history and likely scenarios to chart future courses.

The acquisition of eight Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia has allowed the PLAN to move to the forefront of Asian navies. A very salient point made in the book is that the US Navy has eroded its strategic antisubmarine warfare (ASW) forces since the demise of the Soviet Union, and in future East Asian or Straits of Taiwan conflict, US naval commanders would have to shift assets from protecting the carriers to conduct strategic ASW. The development and size of the Chinese ballistic submarine force is closely tied to the long and painful development of solid fueled ballistic missiles. As Soviet, now Russian, know how and practices enter Chinese naval thinking, a bastion concept of operations to protect the ballistic missile sub operations may emerge.

Chinese strategies of “first island/second island” as well as offshore and active defense allow the writers to explore how and where Chinese submarines could be placed and used in various conflict scenarios. The use of a carrier in Chinese naval operations makes for interesting reading as technology acquisitions from East and West and the role they play in Chinese naval and submarine developments are examined. The authors cannot arrive at a definitive conclusion since Chinese directions in some areas have not yet emerged. China’s use of weapons on its submarines and the possible uses of a nuclear submarine force to thwart US intervention in Taiwan Straits scenario will show the reader that the PLAN is well aware it must use weapons in different or modified roles to neutralize US advantages. Some authors use indirect methodology to break down gaps and show what the Chinese navy has and will likely accomplish in the next 5–10 years. The acquisition of Soviet diesel submarines and the continued construction of the Ming-class boat show that the Chinese navy may be employing a strategy that allows the nuclear boats to become true blue water forces since they have no logistical needs and thus can operate unhindered in the Pacific Ocean.

By mimicking Soviet concepts in submarine operations, the PLAN has opted for a strategy that is affordable, practical, and comprehensive. It also embodies technical challenges that Beijing must overcome for its combined naval and air forces and strategic missiles to be successful. Effective and timely open-ocean surveillance is essential, and the PLAN will therefore mirror image the United States in becoming increasingly reliant on space-based surveillance and communication to meet this requirement. The texts are well footnoted and the reader is able to conduct more extensive research and reading if desired.

The book also examines command and control issues for a Chinese nuclear submarine force and logistics issues that any variant of a future Chinese submarine force would face. Any student of Chinese military developments should read this book. Future texts by the China Maritime Studies Institute will examine other aspects of Chinese naval development. The other services would benefit from similar research. It is important not to focus exclusively on current defense problems but to also study future strategic challenges.

Gilles Van Nederveen

Fairfax, VA

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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