China’s submarine fleet made its first known trip into the Indian Ocean, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. A Chinese attack submarine passed through the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia with sightings near Sri Lanka and the Persian Gulf.
It’s the latest report of the significant steps forward the Chinese navy has taken in advancing its submarine fleet. Earlier this year, a U.S. Navy report estimated that the Chinese navy has nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines able to launch strikes against the United States from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Chinese navy has ambitious plans over the next 15 years to rapidly advance its fleet of surface ships and submarines as well as maritime weapons and sensors, according to a report by the Office of Naval Intelligence.
Earlier this year, ONI issued an assessment on the Chinese navy as part of testimony to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review. ONI leaders found that China’s navy has evolved from a littoral force to one that is capable of meeting a wide range of missions to include being "increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland."
The Chinese navy has 77 surface combatants, more than 60 submarines, 55 amphibious ships and about 85 missile-equipped small ships, according to the report first published by the U.S. Naval Institute.
ONI raised concerns about China’s fast-growing submarine force, to include the Jin-class ballistic nuclear submarines, which were expected to commence deterrent patrols in 2014. The expected operational deployment of the Jin "would mark China’s first credible at-sea-second-strike nuclear capability," the report states.
The submarine could fire the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile, which has a range of 4,000 nautical miles and would "enable the Jin to strike Hawaii, Alaska and possibly western portions of CONUS [continental United States] from East Asian waters," ONI assessed.
In addition, a 2014 Pentagon Annual Report to Congress on military and security developments said the Chinese have three operational Jin-class SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines) and up to five may enter service before the Chinese proceeds toward a next-generation SSBN.
The ONI report says the Chinese currently have five nuclear attack submarines, four nuclear ballistic missile submarines and 53 diesel attack submarines.
Overall, China’s fleet of submarines has quickly increased in offensive weapons technology over the last 10 years. A decade ago, only a few Chinese submarines could fire modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Now, more than half of the conventional attack submarines are configured to fire ASCMs, the ONI report states.
"The type-095 guided missile attack submarine, which China will likely construct over the next decade, may be equipped with a land-attack capability," the assessment explains. This could enable Chinese submarines with an enhanced ability to strike U.S. bases throughout the region, the report adds.
The Pentagon’s China report affirms that the expected deployment of nuclear-armed JL-2s will, for the first time, give China an at-sea nuclear deterrent capability.
One analyst said the Chinese appear to be trying to position themselves as a nuclear global super power able to both assert regional dominance and project power around the world.
”China clearly appears to be pursuing a great power nuclear-deterrence strategy. They are making progress but it is not fast paced. It is kind of appropriate for a military that has two missions, guaranteed deterrence and an interest in showing its ability as a superpower,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Va.-based think tank.
In recent decades, the Chinese military has had more of a regional focus instead of ICMBs, something which may now be changing in light of growing ambitions, continued rapid technological expansion and military modernization, Goure explained.
“We know from watching the Soviets how hard it is for these countries to build western-equivalent militaries and nuclear enterprises. The Russians almost broke trying to build a Navy that would out do us,” he added.
However, Goure added that the Chinese navy has a long way to go before it could emerge as a credible competitor to the U.S. Navy.
“Are they really going to go the route of building their own kind of competitor to the U.S. Navy? That is expensive and difficult – at a time when their economy is slowing down,” Goure said.
The Navy’s Atlantic Fleet submarine commander recently voiced concern about China’s submarine modernization efforts.
“The world has become multi-polar and we have competition for global influence and power from a rising China – which is very much on our mind. The Chinese have had ballistic missile submarines in some form for a while. Their pace has accelerated and they have several nuclear ballistic missile submarines and are continuing to build more,” said Vice Adm. Michael Connor.