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Admiral Says China Outnumbers U.S. in Attack Submarines

The Chinese navy now operates a greater number of attack submarines than the U.S. Navy and is rapidly expanding the scope of their undersea missions and patrols, U.S. Navy leaders told Congress Wednesday.

“Their submarine force has grown over a tremendous rate. They now have more diesel and nuclear attack submarines than we have so they’ve passed us in total quantity -- but in quality they are still not there,” said Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of Naval operations, integration of capabilities and resources.

Speaking before the House Seapower and Projections Forces subcommittee on the Navy budget, Mulloy also said the Chinese have expanded their undersea missions and patrols as well.

“They are producing some fairly amazing submarines. They’ve now had three deployments in the Indian Ocean.  They are expanding where their submarines go,” Mulloy told the subcommittee.  “We know they are out experimenting and working and operating and certainly want to be in the world of advanced submarines.”

Mulloy also cited Chinese production and testing of submarine launched weapons and said that one SSBN – or ballistic missile submarine capable of launching nuclear weapons – went on a 95-day patrol.

This development inspired many news reports and public commentary about the prospect that nuclear-armed Chinese ballistic missile submarines would have the ability to strike parts of Alaska and Hawaii from various undersea locations in the Pacific Ocean.

The issue of Chinese naval and submarine development was addressed in detail in the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report to Congress released last year.

The commission said Chinese modernization plans call for a sharp increase in attack submarines and nuclear-armed submarines or SSBNs. Chinese SSBNs are now able to patrol with nuclear-armed JL-2 missiles able to strike targets more than 4,500 nautical miles.

In addition, the Chinese are currently working on a new, modernized SSBN platform as well as a long-range missile, the JL-3, the commission said.

The commission also specifically addresses areas of Chinese-Russian military developmental cooperation, saying the two countries are working on a joint deal to build new attack submarines.

“China is pursuing joint-design and production of four to six Russian advanced diesel-electric attack submarines containing Russia’s latest submarine sonar, propulsion, and quieting technology. The deal would improve the PLA Navy’s capabilities and assist China’s development of quiet submarines, thus complicating future U.S. efforts to track and counter PLA submarines,” the commission wrote.

China is also reportedly pursuing a new class of nuclear submarines, called the Type 095 SSGN, which could bring the country its first-ever submarine-launched, land-attack cruise missile.

While the commission said the exact amount of Chinese military spending is difficult to identify, China’s projected defense spending for 2014 is cited at $131 billion, approximately 12.2 percent greater than 2013. This figure is about the sixth of what the U.S. spends annually.

The Chinese defense budget has increased by double digits since 1989, the commission states resulting in annual defense spending doubling since 2008, according to the report.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, cited the increase in submarine and surface navy patrols tripling since 2007 as an area of concern.

“What they are doing with patrols is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not just the number of the ships, but within five to eight years they will have about 82 submarines in the Asia Pacific area and we will have about 32 to 34,” he said last summer.

Although Mulloy made the point to lawmakers that the U.S. currently enjoys a technological advantage over China when it comes to submarines and undersea technologies, there is nevertheless much concern about this issue for the future.

Along these lines, a recent study says emerging submarine detection technologies, computer processing power and platforms such as underwater drones could quickly erode the U.S. military’s global undersea dominance and ability to operate in high-threat areas such as locations near enemy coastlines.

The U.S. military relies upon submarines and undersea technological superiority for critical underwater intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, which place assets near the surface fleet or coastline of a potential adversary.

In coming years, the technological margin of difference separating the U.S from potential rivals is expected to get much smaller, requiring the U.S. the re-think the role of manned submarines and prioritize innovation in the realm of undersea warfare, according to a January report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare.”

“America’s superiority in undersea warfare results from decades of research and development, operations, and training. It is, however, far from assured. U.S. submarines are the world’s quietest, but new detection techniques are emerging that don’t rely on the noise a submarine makes, and may make traditional manned submarine operations far more risky in the future. America’s competitors are likely pursuing these technologies even while expanding their own undersea forces,” the report states.

Navy officials told Military​.com the service was doing all that it could to retain its undersea technological advantage.

The U.S. has enjoyed an undersea technological advantage because it has quieter submarines that are more difficult to detect — combined with advanced sonar technology designed to find enemy submarines, the report’s author recently told Military​.com

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com

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