It's not often that the military tells us how many subs are chasing our aircraft carriers but Naval intelligence has released data showing that China’s fleet of more than 50 attack submarines conducted 12 patrols in 2008, twice as many as in 2007, and the highest rate recorded.
The data was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, FAS writer Hans M. Kristensen says there were seven patrols in 2007, two in 2006, and none in 2005. In four years since 1981, China has not sent out any patrols. Its strategic ballistic missile submarines have never conducted a deterrent patrol, according to Kristensen. He also writes that the increased Chinese rate pales in comparison to that of the US Navy. "In comparison with other major navies, twelve patrols are not much. The patrol rate of the U.S. attack submarine fleet, which is focused on long-range patrols and probably operates regularly near the Chinese coast, is much higher with each submarine conducting at least one extended patrol per year. But the Chinese patrol rate is higher than that of the Russian navy, which in 2008 conducted only seven attack submarine patrols, the same as in 2007," Kristensen writes.
Still, the information would seem on the face of it to provide pretty good ammunition for those who believe we face a rising Chinese threat.
But an expert at the Naval War College, Nikolas Gvosdev, believes the increase in Chinese sub patrols may not be indicative of a threat.
"I think that this is a good example of framing--once you set the headline a certain way, you create a certain buzz. We are also seeing this with regard to Russia's naval deployments, which are 'the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union.' Sounds threatening, but then you count 13 total ships including supply vessels, and it isn't so threatening," the professor said in an email. Gvosdev is probably better known as the author behind the Washington Realist blog.
He goes on to say that, "Unless we want to argue that the very existence of a Chinese submarine force is an existential threat to the United States, it should be expected that the PLAN wants to gain greater experience and conduct more missions, and this by itself shouldn't be a major concern to us--especially if they aren't engaged in missions off of the U.S. coast or designed to test their ability to block our SLOCs."
What we'd really like to see, of course, are the official Chinese figures on the number of sub patrols that occurred. Hello? Anyone listening at the Wisconsin Avenue Chinese military complex?