Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 2

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One of the republication here.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

Sensors, Systems, Research, Development, and Training

American efforts at exploiting advancements in commercial off-the-shelf technology have received attention. One article observes that “the updated (COTS) CCS MK II [fire control] system is not only used on the Los Angeles and Ohio classes, but is also used on the new Seawolf and Virginia class submarines”;44 another points out that “92% of the hardware and 90% of the software used in non-publicly available projects in fact come from popular commercially available technologies.”45 China’s intense interest in the U.S. Navy’s use of COTS may stem in part from Beijing’s effort to develop a world-class commercial information technology industry and to incorporate its products into the PLA.

Chinese analysts also monitor American submarine sensor development. One article notes, “At present, the U.S. is the world leader in developing periscope technology and using it on its submarines.”46 U.S. efforts to bolster the submarine force’s mine warfare capabilities receive particular attention.47 Moves to develop and acquire the Long Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) have been noted, with one researcher stating that “the U.S. is now buying 8 long-range mine scouting systems to be put on the Los Angeles and Virginia class nuclear attack submarines.”48

Chinese observers pay fairly close attention to American submarine-related research and development efforts. For example, websites on Chinese naval matters frequently report on the awarding of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Office of Naval Research (ONR) contracts.49 Chinese journals take advantage of these announcements and also scour the U.S. open press for sources that can be exploited. For example, a rather lengthy article in the June 2002 issue of 现代舰船 (Modern Ships) reprinted the “Submarine of the Future” briefing slides (complete with a logo in the upper left-hand corner of each) generated by the DARPA-sponsored, Lockheed Martin–led industrial consortium “TEAM 2020.” These slides depict futuristic hull forms, sonar configurations, propulsors, weapons storage ideas, interfaces for unmanned underwater vehicles, and other elements of advanced submarine designs and concepts.50 It seems that little, if any, publicly released information regarding U.S. submarine-related research and development escapes the attention of Chinese analysts.

In keeping with the technological dynamism of U.S. platforms and their constant improvement, Chinese analysts also credit the American submarine force with an extremely rigorous selection and training process for commanding officers. In a coauthored article in Modern Navy, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a PLA expert on the United States and former naval attaché in Washington, emphasizes that “the U.S. Navy’s selection process for the commanding officers of nuclear submarines is very strict.” Yang details the numerous education and training programs that successful candidates must attend, as well as the periodic qualifying tests they must undergo. A major emphasis of his article is the extent to which submarine commanders must periodically update their “specialized [technical] knowledge.”51

Historical Issues

Although China is emerging as a submarine power, its submarine force, and indeed its navy overall, generally lacks blue-water experience, to say nothing of a combat history. Of course, this paucity of experience stands in stark contrast to the U.S. submarine force, and PLA Navy analysts are acutely aware of that disparity. In fact, Chinese naval analysts have expressed particular admiration for the record of American submarines in World War II, pointing out that “the U.S. submarine force had the fewest losses” of any major submarine force “but had high combat effectiveness. According to statistics, the U.S. submarine force destroyed 1,314 enemy ships during the war.”52 Moreover, Chinese sources indicate an appreciation for the accumulated knowledge that the U.S. Navy has achieved through decades of intense submarine operations. Another Chinese source observes: “The U.S. is a country with 100 years of experience in building submarines, and with so many years of experience the USN constantly emphasizes the ability of a submarine to take punishment [and survive].”53

While there are numerous Chinese writings on the U.S. Navy’s submarine force’s campaign against Japan, this article focuses on the Chinese perceptions of American submarine operations during the Cold War. Some of the observations made in this context may explain aspects of contemporary PLA Navy submarine doctrine. For example, an article in Modern Ships relates an anecdote of a “Soviet Type 627 [known in the West as “November”] nuclear attack submarine [that] once went all out in a race with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, revealing the Soviet attack submarine’s capabilities. [This revelation] apparently has had a major impact on the development of a new class of American submarines.”54 This appraisal of the peacetime interaction between the two navies may suggest that overly aggressive tactics employed by the Soviet Navy yielded too much information to the U.S. Navy. In general, it is quite clear that Chinese sources understand that a “main mission of [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines [during the Cold War] was to deal with the Soviet Navy’s SSBNs.”55

With respect to the Cold War at sea, one Chinese book published in 2006 is worthy of particular note.56 The translation of a Russian book, Secrets of Cold War Undersea Espionage, states that “U.S. nuclear and conventional submarines would often lurk along the routes of Soviet warships, and even within Soviet territorial waters, conducting intelligence activities.”57 It is noted that “the SOSUS [Sound Surveillance] system substantially helped the U.S. to cope with the capabilities of the Soviet submarine force.”58 The subject of acoustic signatures is also raised: “In the ocean, there are simply too many sources of noise. . . . In order to cope with this problem, the U.S. decided to build an acoustic signature catalogue (resembling a fingerprint) for Soviet submarines.”59

Chinese ASW and the U.S. Navy Submarine Force

When considering Chinese views of the American submarine force, it is certainly relevant to consider how China appraises its own antisubmarine warfare forces. Generally, China considers its ASW forces to be weak. One Chinese naval analyst observes: “[Chinese] people are focused on China’s submarine force (both conventional and nuclear) development, but often neglect the threat we face from [U.S. Navy] submarines.”60 It is, moreover, suggested that “there is still a relatively large gap between [China’s] ASW technology level and that of the world’s advanced level.”61 In appraising the ASW capabilities of its own surface forces, another naval analyst notes, “Across the world, most naval ships are now equipped with towed array sonars, which has increased their ASW capabilities, but most of our ships only have hull mounted sonars.”62 Finally, there is a concern that these antisubmarine assets are themselves highly vulnerable: “Submarines can carry out ferocious missile attacks from tens or even 100–200km ranges, causing the submarine hunting vessels to become the hunted targets.”63

Chinese aerial ASW is also highlighted as a particular weakness. One Chinese analyst judges that the Z-9 helicopter lacks adequate range and internal space for the ASW mission.64 A second argues that while the Z-8 has better range and capacity, it is too big for most surface combatants to carry and chronic engine troubles have limited production.65 The Russian-import Ka-28 ASW helicopter is reported to be capable but few in numbers.66 As for Chinese maritime patrol aircraft, some designs have apparently been developed, including a variant of the Y-7 Fearless Albatross, but the outlook is said to remain bleak.67 Thus, one evaluation of Chinese aerial ASW concludes, “Our country at the present stage does not have an ASW maritime patrol aircraft . . . but the number of submarines in our peripheral seas is increasing, and their technological sophistication is also increasing. This contradiction is becoming more obvious every day, creating a grim situation.”68

In Chinese discussions of Russian ASW systems, there is a pointed recognition that the Soviets leaned heavily toward the use of tactical nuclear weapons (e.g., nuclear depth charges and torpedoes) in ASW operations.69 Tactical nuclear weapons are also mentioned in the context of mine warfare. An article in the July 2006 issue of Modern Navy, in discussing possible PLA Navy use of sea mines, suggests the potential combat value of nuclear-armed versions.70 It will be important to watch closely for any sign of Chinese efforts in this direction.

While the overall impression is that of Chinese ASW weakness, there is one notable exception. Significant prioritization appears to be given to the use of sea mines for the antisubmarine mission, as if to produce a “poor man’s ASW capability.”71 One discussion explains, “Because of a tremendous change in the maritime strategic environment, since the early 1990s the PLA has made mobile ASW sea mines a focal point of weapons development.” The analysis continues, “[China] is energetically undertaking the research mission [of] using [mobile ASW sea mines] against U.S. nuclear submarines.”72 The same discussion also hints at a review possible PLA Navy ASW role: “The major mission of self-guided sea mines is to isolate American nuclear submarines outside the First Island Chain.”73

It is noteworthy for the future development of Chinese antisubmarine warfare that hydroacoustics has been called a “key point” technology for state investment.74 The conventional wisdom has long been that the Chinese submarine force is focused entirely on the anti-surface ship mission. This assumption may have become outdated, perhaps especially after the PLA Navy received the last of eight new Kilo-class diesel submarines (and accompanying weaponry) from Russia in 2006. According to Professor Li Daguang of China National Defense University, these new Kilos have four missions: to blockade Taiwan, threaten carrier battle groups, employ land-attack cruise missiles as a “strategic weapon,” and “form an underwater threat to the U.S. nuclear submarine force.”75 There is also preliminary evidence that China is moving toward deploying antisubmarine rocket weapons on its newest surface combatants.76 This system is no “silver bullet,” as the Chinese would still have severe, perhaps insurmountable, targeting and cueing problems, but successful acquisition and deployment of ASROCs would extend the engagement range of Chinese ASW weapons significantly. It is also worth noting that Chinese sources discuss “many openly published dissertations concerning underwater targeting for a homing depth charge.”77

To reverse the equation: How do Chinese naval analysts appraise American ASW, and in particular the submarine force’s part in it? Clearly, the PLA Navy understands the overall centrality of SSNs in U.S. antisubmarine warfare. Thus an article in Modern Navy states: “The nuclear attack submarine . . . is the most effective tool for ASW.”78 However, some PLA Navy observers appear rather unimpressed by American efforts in ASW. The same official Chinese Navy journal observes: “The U.S. Navy actually has not had sufficient exercises in the [ASW arena] and also lacks experience.”79 In the same article, it is likewise noted that “conducting ASW in the littorals represents a special difficulty for the USN” and that “the combat advantage of the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine force in the littoral areas is far from obvious.”80 On this note, Campaign Theory Study Guide, a 2002 textbook written by China National Defense University scholars that draws on a variety of high-quality doctrinal publications, emphasizes that “nuclear powered attack submarines have difficulty operating in close proximity to shore due to natural conditions.”81 Another Chinese naval analysis suggests that “up to 2005, the USN has altogether 350 ASW platforms, just 11% of the number of [ASW] platforms it fielded in 1945. Moreover, many of these current naval and air platforms are not specialized for ASW, but more often are multi-mission platforms.”82 This quantitative comparison across historical periods is crude in some ways, but there is no denying that inherent physical principles combined with the vast geographical area of the Pacific Ocean will likely keep ASW an asset-intensive mission, even in the age of “net-centric warfare.”

The U.S. Navy Submarine Force-Level Trajectory

Chinese discussions of the American submarine force focus heavily on the continuing decline in its size. As one article from a People’s Republic of China (PRC) naval interest publication states, “The decline of U.S. submarine strength is inevitable.”83 Indeed, that a wide variety of Chinese naval sources share this evaluation suggests that this “decline” now passes for conventional wisdom within the PLA Navy. The Chinese naval community is likely paying close attention to internal U.S. debates, knowing that investments made (or forgone) today in submarine fleet modernization shape the future fleet.

Some Chinese assessments of the Seawolf program appear to point out indirectly the internal political tensions that hold down American submarine build rates now and perhaps in the future. One volume notes: “Although the Sea Wolf– class SSN gathers the era’s most advanced technology in a single hull, and possesses beyond-first-class performance, the appraisals of ‘Sea Wolf’ by American public figures from all walks of life differ, with a roughly half-and-half split between praise and condemnation.”84

Taking the long view, Chinese naval strategists recognize that force levels have dropped drastically from Cold War levels. One source observes, “Since 1989, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine [force] has been reduced by half.”85 A more recent Chinese naval press article estimates that “[U.S.] nuclear attack submarines will decline in number by close to 40%, eventually reaching 30 boats.”86 This calculation is roughly consistent with a projection in Modern Navy that anticipated a sustained build rate of one boat per year.87 Rear Admiral Yang Yi, writing in 2006 on the future size of the American submarine force, quoted one American analysis as follows: “China already exceeds [U.S. submarine production] five times over. . . . 18 [USN] submarines against 75 or more Chinese navy submarines is obviously not encouraging [from the U.S. perspective].”88

A Reputation for Mastery?

This article demonstrates that Chinese strategists are keenly interested in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force. Thousands of articles have reviewed various aspects of American submarine capabilities, operations, and developmental trends. There is clear evidence that Chinese naval analysts have enormous respect for U.S. submarines, submariners, and their weapons. Certainly, China aspires to be a submarine power and hopes to emulate certain aspects of American experience. However, it is equally clear in these writings that the U.S. submarine force is seen as a key challenge in any military confrontation between Beijing and Washington. It is significant in that regard especially that Chinese analysts are increasingly drawing attention to, and seeking to remedy, their antisubmarine warfare deficiencies. The study also reveals an apparent assumption within Chinese naval analytic circles that American submarine force levels are on a downward trajectory.

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.


  1. “美国雷声公司拟用商用流行技术更新潜 艇作战系统” [U.S. Raytheon Corporation Draws Up a Plan to Use COTS to Upgrade Subs’ Systems], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真 技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 10 (2003), p. 19.
  2. 戴维 [Dai Wei], “ESM 对潜艇支持的新 作用” [ESM’s New Role in Submarine Support], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真技 术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 7 (1999), p. 19. 46. 李平, 陆炳哲 [Li Ping, Lu Bingzhe], “美 国虚拟潜望镜研究及进展” [Research and Progress of the American Virtual Periscope], 船舶电子工程 [Ship Electronic Engineering] 26, no. 5 (2006), p. 199.
  3. This article does not analyze Chinese examinations of U.S. sonar, navigation, combat control, ESM, or radio systems.
  4. 李书甫 [Li Shufu], “水下无人航行器” [UUVs], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], (April 2003), pp. 57–60.
  5. See, for example, the “US Submarines, Antisubmarine Warfare and All News” section of the China Forum at www ?showtopic=1541.
  6. 王绪智 [Wang Xuzhi], “潜艇大革命—近岸 作战催生美国下—代多用途核潜艇” [The Submarine Revolution: Littoral Warfare Will Drive the Multirole Nature of America’s Next Generation Nuclear Submarine], 现代舰 船 [Modern Ships] (June 2002), pp. 30–33.
  7. 杨毅, 赵志军 [Yang Yi and Zhao Zhijun], “美国核潜艇艇长是怎样选拔的?” 17 Collins et al.: 85 [How Are American Submarine Commanding Officers Selected?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2001), p. 17.
  8. 杜朝平 [Du Zhaoping], “美国为什么不装 备常规潜艇” [Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2004), p. 19.
  9. Qi Yaojiu, “Reflecting Again on the San Francisco,” p. 41.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Du Zhaoping, “Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines,” p. 21.
  12. 拜科夫, 济科夫 [Zykov and Baikov—in Russian], 水下间谍战的秘密 [Secrets of Undersea Espionage] (Shanghai: Shanghai Translation, 2006).
  13. Ibid., p. 10.
  14. Ibid., p. 12.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 70.
  17. 管带 [Guan Dai], “走向未来的中国反潜作战” [Looking toward Future PLA Navy Antisubmarine Warfare], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 33.
  18. 蓝杰斌 [Lan Jiebin], “中国反潜装备的发展” [China’s ASW Equipment Development], 舰载武器[Shipborne Weapons] (February 2004), p. 29.
  19. 巡抚 [Xun Fu], “中国海军反潜武器的发展” [PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 29.
  20. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  21. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  22. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  23. Ibid., p. 75.
  24. Ibid., p. 73.
  25. See, for example, ibid., p. 72; and Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  26. 刘衍中, 李祥 [Liu Yanzhong and Li Xiang], “实施智能攻击的现代水雷” [Carrying Out Intelligent Attacks with Modern Mines], 当 代海军 [Modern Navy] (July 2006), p. 29.
  27. For a much more detailed discussion of this issue, see Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray, “China’s Undersea Sentries: Sea Mines Constitute Lead Element of PLA Navy’s ASW,” Undersea Warfare (Winter 2007), pp. 10–15.
  28. Lin Changcheng, “The Hidden Dragon in the Deep,” p. 30.
  29. Ibid., p. 31. The “first island chain” comprises Japan, its northern and southern archipelagoes, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Greater Sunda Islands. See Xu Qi, “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the Early Twenty-first Century,” trans. Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (Autumn 2006), pp. 47–67, esp. note 11.
  30. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 28.
  31. 陈位吴 [Chen Weiwu], “解放军新基洛” [The PLA’s New Kilos], 国际展望 [World Outlook] (July 2006), p. 25.
  32. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 29.
  33. Ibid., p. 32.
  34. 许世勇 [Xu Shiyong], “美海军实施网络反潜 新战略” [The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (September 2006), p. 44.
  35. Ibid. For an equally unimpressed American view, see John R. Benedict, “The Unraveling and Revitalization of U.S. Navy Antisubmarine Warfare,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005), pp. 93–120.
  36. Xu Shiyong, “The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy,” p. 44.
  37. 薛兴林 [Bi Xinglin, ed.], 战役理论学习指南 [Campaign Theory Study Guide] (国防大 学出版社 [National Defense University Press], 2002), vol. 3, p. 261.
  38. 石江月[Shi Jiangyue], “‘中国潜艇威胁’与美 军反潜战的复兴” [“The Chinese Submarine Threat” and the Revival of the U.S. Military’s ASW], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (May 2007), p. 17.
  39. 胡锦洋 [Hu Jinyang], “外媒: 中国海上‘狼 群’挑战美军潜艇霸权” [Foreign Media: China’s “Wolf Pack” at Sea Challenges American Submarine Hegemony], 海事大 观 [Maritime Spectacle] (July 2006), p. 45.
  40. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 127.
  41. 孟昭珍, 张宁 [Meng Zhaozhen and Zhan Ning], “潜艇承担的新任务” [Submarines Assuming New Missions], 情报指挥控制系统 与仿真技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology] (April 2003), p. 12.
  42. 石江月[Shi Jiangyue], “美国海军需要什么样 的舰队?” [What Kind of Fleet Does the U.S. Navy Require?], Navy Require?], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], (December 2006), p. 12. 87. 张晓东, 王磊 [Zhang Xiaodong and Wang Lei], “美国海军未来 20 年发展规划” [The 20-Year Development Program of the U.S. Navy], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (August 2006), p. 51. 88. Yang Yi, “Who Can Estimate the Future Number of Submarines?” p. 28.

Featured Image: Virginia-class submarine Indiana (SSN-789) Departs for Sea Trials, May 2018. (via Navsource)

Assessing the Military Balance in the Western Pacific with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara

By Cris Lee

CIMSEC was pleased to be joined by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Professor Yoshihara is a long-time expert and well-published author on Asian security topics, Chinese naval capabilities, and Chinese maritime strategy. We are interested in his thoughts on recent security trends and what kind of calculus should be taken into account when analyzing the military balance in the Western Pacific.

Cris Lee: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Yoshihara. Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and I’ve been at CSBA since 2017. I study Chinese military strategy and doctrine, Chinese maritime strategy, Asian security affairs, the overall military balance in Asia, and U.S. maritime strategy in Asia.

Before joining CSBA, I was the inaugural John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College. As an endowed chair, I helped to support research on—and the teaching of—all things Asia at the war college. I was also a professor of strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College, where I taught strategy for over a decade.

I’ve been looking at Chinese military and defense issues since the late 1990s, so this is an area of great interest to me. It’s a real pleasure to join you today.

Cris Lee: Thank you. Dr. Yoshihara, you’ve studied Chinese military and maritime issues from the beginning of what we could call a distinct and recent modernization period that goes on to this day. You’ve also observed in your writings that there needs to be an understanding in fundamentals, and how to understand these changes through certain analytical perspectives.

Could you introduce us to what you think we should understand when understanding the military balance in the Pacific, and when measuring up American maritime capacity in the Pacific versus that of the Chinese?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think it’s very important to take into account a variety of factors. The first variable is the bilateral naval balance between China and the United States. The Sino-U.S. naval balance, in part, involves surface ships, submarines, naval aviation units, the combat logistics fleet, and so forth on both sides. But, this does not fully capture the balance. China also possesses other elements of seapower.

China’s shore-based military power is integral to this overall balance, including: shore-based aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and shore-based cruise and ballistic missile forces. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 and the longer-range DF-26, can reportedly strike large surface combatants at great distances. These land-based capabilities enable China to impose its will on its adversaries at sea by launching striking power from the Chinese mainland.

I think it’s worth thinking through the operational scenarios, particularly for U.S. naval forces, should the United States decide to intervene on behalf of its regional allies and friends, including Japan and Taiwan. It’s worth thinking through contingencies in which U.S. naval forces could come under withering firepower from sea and from ashore.

But, the military balance still represents only a partial picture. We have to consider the non-military implements of Chinese military power. The China Coast Guard—the so-called “white hulls”—constitutes a frontline force in the maritime domain. China’s maritime militia is also a critical component of its first line of defense. It’s thus important to think about the military and the non-military balance, and to think about how they mesh together in order to fully comprehend the overall balance.

When considering the military balance, we also have to think more broadly about the fundamental asymmetries between a local power and a global power. The United States is a global power that must defend its interests globally. It therefore needs a global navy that conducts a whole host of missions worldwide. In practice, only a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. Navy is ready for action in Asia. The rule of thumb is that the U.S. Navy deploys a third of its forces at any given time, owing to maintenance and workup cycles. Of that third, only a portion of those forces is in Asia at any given time while the rest of the fleet is operating elsewhere around the globe. By contrast, China, the local power, can devote the bulk of its forces in its own backyard. I think this asymmetry puts the naval balance in perspective.

However, another asymmetry—the role of allies and friends—works in favor of the United States. Washington boasts many high-quality, like-minded maritime allies around the world. Think about Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan. Extra-regional powers, including India and even Britain and France, are also turning their attention to the Western Pacific. The naval balance looks very different when considered in the context of coalitions. But, this by no means suggests that we can take our allies for granted. On the contrary, we need to continue to cultivate close operational ties with our allies to maintain our collective competitive edge.  

Cris Lee: Starting with the 1990s and going to the late 2010s you studied the Chinese Navy which encompasses essentially the bulk of their present period of modernization. How far has the Chinese Navy come in terms of capacity and what they can do now, and how this has affected the military balance?

Toshi Yoshihara: What we’ve witnessed, particularly over the past 10-15 years, is an extraordinary transformation of the Chinese Navy. China already has the largest navy in Asia. This has been the case for quite a few years. Some earlier estimates predicted that the Chinese Navy will be the largest navy in the world by 2020 and that, by 2020, it will be the second-most capable expeditionary force, second only to the U.S. Navy. More recent estimates have concluded that the Chinese Navy has already surpassed the U.S. Navy in size.  

By my own calculations, in 2007, China had about seven surface combatants that could be considered modern by western standards. By 2017, that number jumped to around 80. By the end of 2018, based on my calculations, China could have more than 90 modern surface combatants. This represents a remarkable shift in the naval balance. Given the inherently capital-intensive nature of navies, this massive buildup not only reflects China’s ability and willingness to pour resources into seapower, but it also reflects a long-term strategic will to the seas.

From a historical perspective, this kind of buildup happens infrequently. Its infrequency can be measured in generational terms. Comparable frenzied naval buildups took place prior to both world wars. Historically, when these buildups have occurred, they have preceded great power competitions and global wars. We thus have to pay close attention to China’s remarkable transformation .

It is not just the Chinese Navy. China’s maritime law enforcement fleet is also the largest in Asia. In fact, it is larger than all of the other Asian maritime law enforcement fleets combined. And China’s fleet is still growing.

From an operational perspective, China has modernized its navy, in part, to fight the U.S. Navy in a war at sea. The Chinese Navy’s heavy focus on anti-surface warfare and the development of a large family of long-range anti-ship missiles are powerful indicators. As Admiral Harry Harris, the former commander of Pacific Command, noted in congressional testimony, China is “outsticking” U.S. forces, meaning that Chinese anti-ship missiles far outrange those of their American counterparts. In other words, Chinese missile salvos could reach our forces well before we can get within range to hit back.

At the same time, it’s not just hardware. The Chinese Navy has been honing its skills as an expeditionary force. China has conducted uninterrupted naval operations in the Indian Ocean for a decade, making it a legitimate Indian Ocean power. It now has a base in Djibouti, allowing China to have a permanent presence in a region that was once the exclusive preserve of Western seapower. Over the past ten years, the Chinese Navy has dispatched flotillas to “break through” the first island chain—the transnational archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia—into the open waters of the Pacific on a regular basis. These sorties have demonstrably enhanced the tactical proficiency of Chinese naval forces.

It was not so long ago that a U.S. surface combatant could transit the entire length of the South China Sea without running into a Chinese counterpart. Today, a U.S. warship steaming through the South China Sea would just as likely be met and trailed on a continuous basis by modern Chines surface combatants, some of them superior to our warships in anti-surface warfare. This is the new normal. This is something we have to come to terms with.

Cris Lee: With regard to that evolved capacity, how do you think perspectives have changed on the Chinese Navy, particularly those of its peers and the U.S.?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think our attitudes have changed quite a bit as a result of China’s naval transformation. Let me take you back to the 1990s. In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, condescension characterized our views of the Chinese Navy. A running joke that could be heard in the hallways of Washington think tanks was that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be akin to “a million-man swim.” This evocative image of a million-man swim reflected America’s patronizing views of the Chinese military at the time. It was widely assumed that the Chinese Navy was not even a match against the Taiwanese Navy, much less against Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. Moreover, some asserted that China would struggle to become a regional navy well into the early decades of the 21st century.  

Today, it is no longer controversial to describe China as a serious seapower. It is widely accepted that China is a genuine maritime power capable of challenging the United States and its interests in Asia. Indeed, by many non-military measures, China is already a leading maritime power. Its merchant fleet and fishing fleet are already among the largest, if not the largest, in the world. Its sprawling and massive port system along the mainland coast has surpassed the world’s leading ports, such as those in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet, a kind of smugness still persists. We still come across inapt tactical comparisons between U.S. and Chinese forces, a misplaced sense of our operational virtuosity at sea, and musty assumptions about our ability to command the global commons and about our ability to stay ahead in the competition. What these assessments miss, in my view, is the dynamic character of the rivalry. China will pose a far more complex set of challenges at sea than is generally assumed. A clear-cut conflict with a discernible beginning, middle, and end—during which the United States can amass leisurely its military power for a decisive operation—is not the most likely scenario. China will likely employ a mix of military and non-military means in the twilight between peace and war. These so-called gray-zone tactics are designed precisely to constrain, or preclude altogether, our ability to employ our military capabilities and to offset our technological and operational superiority. Side-by-side comparisons of individual naval platforms and comforting narratives about how many more carriers we have compared to the Chinese are at best simplistic, if not misleading.    

Cris Lee: So this kind of smugness, does it reflect an old lineage of thinking that involves assumed U.S. maritime supremacy? How does that kind of assumed supremacy continue to affect American maritime approaches for the Pacific? What problems arise because of that?

Toshi Yoshihara: We need to strike a balance between underestimating and overestimating China. Each fallacy creates its own set of analytical problems. Underestimation certifies institutional inertia and deepens our comfort with the status quo. The siren song of our accustomed supremacy at sea is really hard to resist. The logic goes like this: since we’ve been unbeatable following the Soviet Union’s collapse, our presumption is that this dominance will stretch indefinitely into the future.

The temptation to rest on our laurels is risky. It might mean that we won’t act fast enough in the face of the China challenge. It might mean that we won’t be able to resource our Navy and our sister services enough to meet the threat. Such complacency might mean that we could be surprised at the tactical and strategic levels. Indeed, the Chinese have consistently sprung surprises on us with their many technical and tactical developments.

Overestimation creates its own set of analytical dysfunctions. The storyline goes like this: “China’s going to be too strong and there’s nothing we can do about it. We might as well learn to live with a very powerful China. To do so, we need to accommodate China’s interests and ambitions now. We should cut a deal and reach a grand bargain with China before its too late such that China becomes so strong that it can dictate terms to us and our allies.” This is a kind of preemptive surrender.  

These polarized views and their policy implications are not helpful. Rather, we need to think productively about China in ways that neither downplay its strengths and its ability to challenge the United States at sea nor overlook some of its structural weaknesses.

Cris Lee: Have you seen these perspectives impact the Pacific in recent times and how a rising China’s changing capabilities have impacted policy?

Toshi Yoshihara: A key danger is the growing mismatch between American commitments and resources. When our resources are inadequate to meet our commitments to defend Asia, we have a situation akin to bluff. The bigger the gap, the bigger the bluff waiting to be called by our adversaries.

A related danger is the declining confidence among our allies and friends about the credibility of our commitments. If our allies and friends begin to doubt our security commitments to the region, they may begin to make their own calculations, pursue their own independent policies, and perhaps even cut their own separate deals with China, accommodating it or bandwagoning with it. Some may embark on an independent strategic path, such as going nuclear. Many of our Asian partners and friends, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, are all latent nuclear powers.  

There is still an opportunity to restore balance to our commitments and resources. But time is running short.

Cris Lee: I imagine that it would be really difficult to make friends if they view our commitments as wavering in the Pacific.

Toshi Yoshihara: This commitment-resource gap has wide-ranging ramfications beyond the military competition. Our diplomacy, for example, is only as credible as the hard power that underwrites that diplomacy. A growing gap may erode our ability to persuade our Asian allies to act in the best interests of the region. This gap thus has as much to do with the larger diplomatic-political competition that is unfolding in Asia today as it does with the naval rivalry.

Cris Lee: What are the most important aspects that need to be tackled in order for the U.S. to retain its traditional maritime advantages in the Asia-Pacific? What policies and ideas could be pursued to that end?

Toshi Yoshihara: Rather than delving into the operational and tactical aspects of the competition, let me outline some of the larger prerequisites for strategic success.

First, we need to acknowledge that we face a competent, resourceful, and determined competitor. China’s rise as a seapower has already challenged our cherished beliefs and deeply-embedded assumptions about U.S. naval prowess that have persisted over the past three decades. It will—or ought to—force us to think about scenarios that we have not had to seriously ponder since the end of the Cold War. Conditions that we took for granted, such as uncontested command of the seas, are likely things of the past. Indeed, we need to think hard about a future in which a serious contest for sea control could take place in multiple theaters and across different operational domains at the same.

Second, in this far more competitive strategic environment, we need to get reacquainted with risk as an integral component of our statecraft. For too long, risk aversion characterized our calculus. We feared taking actions that might provoke China. We thought risk was, well, risky. This aversion to risk in turn fostered timidity, paralyzed decision making, and encouraged inaction. China, for its part, took calculated risks, pursued its ambitions, and changed facts on the ground in a resistance-free environment. Just look at China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping took a calculated risk—at first not knowing what the Obama administration would do in response—and it paid off. We need to reciprocate Chinese risk-taking. Indeed, we need to do more to impose risk on China in the maritime domain and other areas of statecraft. Only when we approach risk as a normal way of doing business, just as the Chinese have treated risk, can we stay competitive.    

Third, we need to think more productively about the strengths and weaknesses on each side and exploit them to our advantage. They need not be strictly material. The intangibles matter, too. To leverage our inherent strengths, we need to revisit basic principles. We need to return to—and embrace anew—our Navy’s raison detre: to fight and win wars at sea. That is the foundational purpose of our naval power. We need to tap into our enduring strategic traditions that appeal to our way of warfare at sea. That means, in part, restoring our offensive-mindedness at sea and the derring-do that has been the hallmark of our Navy. The surface fleet’s concept of distributed lethality and its implementation are important initiatives in this context.

On the flip side, we need to assess enduring Chinese weaknesses. What can we do to take advantage of those weaknesses? Are there ways that we can tap into enduring Chinese fears to shore up deterrence? In reading the Chinese literature, I have come across repeated references to a longstanding Chinese psychological fear: the fear of being closed off from the seas and of being encircled by a hostile coalition of maritime powers. It seems to me that we should do whatever we can to play up those fears. In this context, we should take a page from the Chinese themselves and adopt anti-access measures at sea that target these psychological fears.

Finally, we need to work with our allies. I think this is one of our true competitive strengths. Frontline states like Japan can impose all sorts of costs and risks on the Chinese. Japan’s Southwestern Islands, which stretch offshore from Kyushu to the northeast coast of Taiwan, could play host to formidable anti-access weaponry. A string of anti-access bubbles along those islands would make large parts of the East China Sea extremely hazardous for Chinese air and naval forces. Think about stretching this anti-access bubble down through Taiwan and down through the Philippines. We could have a very formidable defensive architecture that would give the Chinese serious indigestion in wartime. Should cross-strait deterrence fail, for example, the United States and its allies could open up a massive geographic front that entangles China in a series of peripheral fights, drawing Beijing’s attention away from the main target, Taiwan. The very possibility that a Chinese military operation could trigger such a horizontal escalation would go far to shore up deterrence. Favorable geography and well-armed allies can thus be fused to shift the terms of competition in our favor today and into the future.

Cris Lee: Before we take our final leave, could you describe your recent work and anything else you would like to share with our audience?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m very pleased to announce that the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific will be published in December 2018. This is a major revision of the first edition. About 70 percent of the content is new.  This partly reflects just how rapidly the Chinese Navy has developed since the first edition was published.

When the book came out in 2010, many of its arguments, including the idea that China is going to become a serious seapower, were greeted with skepticism, if not hostility. The critics implied that we were overinflating the threat. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we arguably didn’t go far enough in describing the Chinese military challenge in the maritime domain. Today, the notion that China will be a permanent factor in maritime Asia is more or less conventional wisdom.

In addition to capturing the rapid development of Chinese seapower, we frame our overall argument within the larger context of Chinese grand strategy. I’m very excited about this upcoming publication and I hope it will be well-received among colleagues, friends, and other analysts in the strategic community.

Cris Lee: Dr. Yoshihara, thank you so much for your time. This has definitely been a thought-provoking discussion.

Toshi Yoshihara: Thank you.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Before joining CSBA, he held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College where he taught strategy for over a decade. He was also an affiliate member of the war college’s China Maritime Studies Institute. Dr. Yoshihara has served a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego; and the Strategy Department of the U.S. Air War College. He is co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, which has been listed on the Chief of Naval Operation’s Professional Reading Program since 2012. The second edition is forthcoming in December 2018. Translations of Red Star over the Pacific have been published in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, an M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a B.S.F.S. from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 

Cris Lee is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Featured Image: Chinese Type 055 destroyer (Liu Debin for China Daily)

What Do You Call It? The Politics and Practicalities of Warship Classification

By Captain James P. McGrath, III, USN

The decommissioning of USS Simpson (FFG 56) in 2015 left the U.S. Navy without any frigates for the first time since 1950. Several pundits derided this “frigate gap” and suggested reclassifying the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a frigate to keep frigates in the inventory.1 These calls, which the U.S. Navy wisely resisted, are symptomatic of a century’s old challenge over how navies classify warships. Warship classification exists for two reasons, one practical and one political. Practically, naming a group of ships with similar characteristics allows for better comparison of capabilities within and among navies. Politically, warship classifications signal national intentions or influence political leaders who fund warship construction. While the practical reason may seem more functional, the political reason frequently determines classification.

Four common types of major surface combatants exist today: cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. Each title has historical roots and a variety of practical and political implications. This essay explores how these classifications came to represent modern ship types, how nations abuse them to suit their needs, and how they facilitate or hamper exploration of alternative fleet designs as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) challenges the U.S. Navy to do in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.2

Names, Roles, and Conventions

The classification of warships is as old as naval warfare. When historians evoke the ancient Trireme, naval scholars envision a large wooden vessel with three banks of oars and a prominent ram-style bow. During the golden age of sail, mentioning a ship-of-the-line conjured elements of national pride and a clear understanding of powerful broadsides that could only be defeated by similarly strong ships. Another commonly understood ship type during the age of sail was the frigate. Similar in length to ships-of-the-line and with comparable canvas, but significantly less broadside, frigates were swift ships, able to outrun what they could not outgun.

The rebirth of the American Navy authorized in the Naval Act of 1794 centered around a fleet of six frigates, “four ships to carry forty-four guns each, and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each,”3 conceived by Joshua Humphries and designed with the “outrun what they could not outgun” mantra in mind. Lighter and faster than ships-of-the-line, frigates often scouted for and covered the flanks of the battle line. Frigates also conducted independent operations, and several of the most famous naval actions of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were frigate duels. Corvettes carried even fewer guns on the smallest hulls capable of open-ocean operations. These ships often conducted raids or served as picket ships between fleets. The relatively consistent classification of warships in this age allowed for easy comparison and provided fleet commanders insight into the type of fleet required to defeat a foe.

Warship classifications evolved to describe new types of warships developed from the new technologies of the industrial age. With the advent of steam power ships gradually improved their propulsion with paddlewheels, and later screw propellers. Initially, these new warships kept the basic shape and mission of the frigates of old, so they kept the frigate name, albeit caveated as paddlewheel or screw frigates. With the addition of armor and turreted gun mounts, titles like cruiser and battleship emerged. By the mid-1880s, the terms “ship-of-the-line” and “frigate” fell out of use. The explosion of ship types resulted in an expansion of naming conventions with little commonality between navies. These new classes of ships came to describe the changing fleet designs of this new era of naval power.

Two common and modern warship classifications, both derived from descriptions of the ship’s mission, grew from this explosion of ship types. Designed to cruise the oceans independently, cruisers filled the role held by frigates in the age of sail, but capabilities varied widely across the world’s navies. The other type, the destroyer, represented a genuinely new classification of warship. The first ship to use the term “destroyer” was the Spanish torpedo-boat destroyer Destructor commissioned in 1887. What set Destructor apart as a new class of warship was her combination of size, large enough to operate in the open sea with the battle fleet; speed, 22.6 knots made her one of the fastest ships in the world in 1888; and her armament, seven rapid firing guns, and two torpedo tubes. Over the next three decades the destroyer evolved to provide all manners of protective functions for the fleet including usurping the role of torpedo boats and proving especially effective against the submerged torpedo boat, the submarine. Development of these new ship classes harnessed the technical advances of the industrial age and drove the development of modern fleets.

Spanish Navy torpedo gunboat Destructor, designed and built in the UK by Thomson and delivered to the Spanish Navy in 1887. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1906, Admiral Sir John Fisher of the Royal Navy shocked the world with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary, all-big-gun, turbine-powered battleship, which instantly made the world’s battleships obsolete. The capability gap between dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts sparked a naval arms race with the world’s maritime powers scrambling to build bigger and better battleships. This naval arms race is widely considered one of the principal causes of World War I. What constitutes a dreadnought, however, remains contentious, a situation confused by sub-classifications such as super-dreadnought and semi-dreadnought making fleet comparison challenging. Even more confusing and unfortunate is the classification of the battlecruiser. One of Fisher’s goals in developing Dreadnought was to help create a class of ships capable of outrunning anything they could not outgun – a large light-cruiser – the true successor of the sailing frigate. Unfortunately, and here is where ship classification can become dangerous to fleet design, politicians insisted on calling these ships battlecruisers since they looked like battleships, similar in size and armament but deficient in armor, which the designers sacrificed for speed. This unfortunate classification led to the battlecruiser’s misemployment in the battle line, which constrained their speed advantage, and where their lack of armor made them vulnerable to large caliber gunfire. This was demonstrated catastrophically at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when three battlecruisers exploded with incredible loss of life after only a few hits. Twenty-five years later, the last British battlecruiser, HMS Hood, met the same fate after only five salvos from the German battleship Bismarck. Classifying ships for political purposes can have deadly effects.4

The Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary exploding at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Queen Mary is surrounded by the explosion and smoke. To the left is HMS Lion, surrounded by waterspouts from enemy shots falling short. (Wikimedia Commons)

Treaties and Types

After World War I, in an effort to prevent a naval arms race like the one that preceded the war, world leaders aimed to curtail warship construction by treaty. Ensuring all parties met treaty obligations required common definitions of ship types. The Five Power Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 defined ship classes in a manner agreed upon by all signatories. The first treaty defined capital ships as those displacing more than 10,000 tons and carrying guns greater than 8-inches.5 Seeking an alternative to the now constrained battle line, Japan designed and built a series of cruisers right to these limits in the 1920s. These highly-capable warships caused great concern in the United States and Great Britain over the gap in cruiser capability. The London Naval Treaty, an attempt to further and more broadly restrict naval construction, especially of these “heavy” cruisers, defined lesser warship classes as follows:


Surface vessels of war, other than capital ships or aircraft carriers, the standard displacement of which exceeds 1,850 tons (1,880 metric tons), or with a gun above 5.1 inch (130 mm.) calibre.

The cruiser category is divided into two sub-categories, as follows:
(a) cruisers carrying a gun above 6.1-inch (155 mm.) calibre;
(b) cruisers carrying a gun not above 6.1-inch (155 mm.) calibre.


Surface vessels of war the standard displacement of which does not exceed 1,850 tons (1,880 metric tons), and with a gun not above 5.1-inch (130 mm.) calibre.6

By 1930, there existed a shared understanding of capital ships (BB), aircraft carriers (CV), heavy cruisers (CA), light cruisers (CL), and destroyers (DD), but that shared understanding quickly fell apart since not every nation building warships was party to the treaty. The re-building German Kriegsmarine, governed by the Treaty of Versailles and not the Washington Treaty system, built three 14,520 ton, 11-inch gun Deutschland-class ships in the early 1930s. Although capital ships under the terms of the Washington Treaty, the Germans initially called them Panzerschiffe (armored ships) and later classified them as heavy cruisers. The British press derisively dubbed them “pocket battleships” since the Panzerschiffe were significantly smaller than most other nations’ capital ships further confusing what type these ships actually were.

Wartime recognition drawing of the German cruiser or “pocket battleship” Lützow, produced by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Intelligence in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

The collapse of the Washington Treaty system in 1936 removed the constraints on warship classification, but the nomenclature initially remained as nations prepared for war. During World War II, the belligerent navies significantly expanded in size, creating a vast array of ship types not envisioned in 1922 or 1930. To describe these new ships, navies returned to the pre-World War I practice of naming them as they saw fit. The British brought back the historical terms corvette and frigate to describe dedicated anti-submarine vessels designed for convoy escort. The Flower-class corvettes fit well with the sailing vessel definition as the smallest class of ocean-going vessels capable of independent operations. The British River-class began as a twin-screw corvette, but in 1941 was reclassified as a frigate. While the frigate rated above the corvette in the age of sail, this new class of ship bore no resemblance to the prestige and importance of sailing frigates.7 The Americans chose the title destroyer escort (DE) for their version of the vessel filling the open-ocean escort role, but they also employed a class of patrol frigates (PF), the Tacoma-class, built to a modified River-class design. The United States produced 96 Tacoma-class PFs between 1943 and 1945, 20 of which served in the Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy considered these vessels inferior to the indigenously designed DEs, so kept the frigate classification to differentiate them. By the end of World War II, the modern classifications of cruiser, destroyer, frigate, and corvette appeared firmly established, although at the time the application of these classifications lacked continuity among the Allied navies. The outlier was the newly designed and named destroyer escort possessed only by the Americans, faster, more maneuverable and better-armed than the frigates but less capable than the destroyer.

Warships in the Guided Missile Age

The advent of the missile age further upset the Washington Treaty system of warship classification as nations began developing new missile-armed platforms for fleet anti-aircraft defense. The Navy’s missile-firing surface combatants (marked by a “G” in their classification from their guided missiles) were first born from World War II-era heavy and light cruisers that had their main armaments converted from large caliber guns into missile batteries. These ships kept their base cruiser designations (CAG/CLG and later CG). But lacking a clear classification example for the new warships built around missile batteries instead of guns, the U.S. Navy initially applied ship classifications it already had. It designated larger missile ships destroyer leaders (DLG), medium-sized missile ships derived from destroyer designs remained destroyers (DDG), and ships derived from smaller destroyer escorts kept that classification (DEG).8 But politics is tricky and explaining to Congress the difference between a destroyer leader, a destroyer, and a destroyer escort, and why the Navy needed all three, became a challenge. The Navy solved the image problem by evoking the prestige of the age-old title of frigate for the larger missile ships. Thus, the destroyer leader became a frigate (although kept the DL hull designation) in 1950, to make building and funding them more politically palatable.

Two problems arose due to the American system. First, it ran counter to the rest of the world’s ship classification system, especially NATO’s. In NATO, the primary surface combatants were cruisers (which were quickly disappearing), destroyers, frigates (the small open-ocean escort version), and corvettes. The second reason is another example of politics driving ship classification. With the singular exception of USS Long Beach (CGN 9), America built no “traditional” cruisers after 1949, and by the mid-1970s most of the converted World War II-era cruisers had reached the end of their useful service. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a resurgent Soviet Navy built a number of ships it classified as cruisers, leading to an apparent “cruiser gap” of 19 Soviet cruisers to America’s six. That the American frigates outclassed the Russian cruisers mattered little to policymakers worried about fighting the Cold War. So in 1975, the United States reorganized its ship classifications with frigates reclassified as cruisers (CG), destroyers remaining destroyers (DD/DDG), and destroyer escorts becoming frigates (FF/FFG).9 Additionally, the Navy reclassified the Oliver Hazard Perry-class patrol frigate (PFG), then under construction, as a frigate (FFG). This reorganization also aligned U.S. warship classifications with its NATO allies, simplifying allied ship employment and doctrine.

The 1975 reorganization did not end the confusion over ship classifications. That same year, the first Spruance-class ship joined the fleet. Displacing over 8,000 tons, these ships equaled the size of the newly re-designated cruisers but lacked the robust anti-air capability. Since the U.S. Navy committed the cruiser designation to large anti-air ships, these new ships were classified as destroyers.10 Later that decade, the newly-developed Aegis weapons system was installed on the Spruance-class hull to create a highly capable anti-air warfare ship. Despite displacing only slightly more than the Spruance-class, the new Ticonderoga-class ships earned the designation of cruiser. The Navy’s rationale included the ship’s anti-air mission and the inclusion of command spaces suitable for flag officers to control fleets in battle.11

A bow view of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Spruance (DD-963), left, and the guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) moored at the destroyer and submarine piers at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia (USA), on 8 October 1983. Although the superstructures are different, these ships use the same basic hull and the same propulsion plant. The destroyer tender USS Shenandoah (AD-44) is visible in the left background. (Wikimedia Commons)

Classification and Politics

The United States is not alone in the questionable classification of ships. The Soviets designated the Kiev-class as heavy aviation cruisers, even though they operate fixed-wing aircraft and look like aircraft carriers. The cruiser designation allows the 45,000-ton ships to pass through the Turkish Straights in compliance with the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. The convention permits capital ships of Black Sea powers including Russia to transit the straights but excludes aircraft carriers. Fortunately for the Russians, the 1936 definition of aircraft carrier determines straight transit eligibility:

“Aircraft-Carriers are surface vessels of war, whatever their displacement, designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea. The fitting of a landing on or flying off deck on any vessel of war, provided such vessel has not been designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea, [emphasis added] shall not cause any vessel so fitted to be classified in the category of aircraft-carriers. ”12

By accepting the vessel as a cruiser whose primary purpose is not “carrying and operating aircraft at sea,” Turkey allows Kiev-class ships to transit the straights. Russia uses the same classification for the Kuznetsov-class, even though China classifies its Kuznetsov-class ship, Liaoning, as an aircraft carrier.

Classifying ships to skirt international convention is not the only reason to downplay a ship’s capabilities. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution prevents the nation from maintaining an offensive military capability.13 In the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force that equates to limiting ship types to destroyers or smaller, ostensibly since those types serve defensive roles. Within the last decade, Japan built four “helicopter destroyers (DDH)” which look suspiciously like aircraft carriers with full-length flight decks. The newest, the Izumo-class, can operate the fixed-wing, short take-off, vertical landing (STVOL) F-35B Lightning II. Despite recent reinterpretations of the Japanese constitution allowing the use of its military to defend allies in the event of an attack, calling these ships destroyers enabled the Japanese Diet to justify funding them as defensive.14

Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force helicopter destroyer Izumo (DDH-183) (JMSDF photo)

The German Baden-Württemberg-class (7200 tons) and Spanish Álvaro de Bazán-class (6300 tons) frigates both displace more than the destroyers they replaced, are only slightly smaller than contemporary destroyers, and are similarly armed with high-tech anti-air, anti-submarine, and anti-surface sensors and weapons.15 Both the Deutsche Marine and the Armada Española emphasize the defensive roles of their naval forces, and building frigates is politically more palatable than building destroyers, even though these frigates are essentially equivalent to the destroyers of peer navies.16

The United States continued its Cold War tradition of confusing the world, and itself, with ship classifications with the development of the LCS. As then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted, “When I hear L, I think amphib, and it’s not an amphib. And I have to spend a good deal of my time explaining what littoral is.”17 Mabus even directed reclassifying LCS as a frigate, but the reclassification never came to fruition, partly because the LCS is significantly less capable than the world’s other frigates. Weighing in between 3100 and 3500 tons, armed with a 57mm gun, and with no real long-range anti-air capability, LCS more closely aligns with modern corvette classes than the frigates. But the United States does not want corvettes, because they are viewed as too small for its blue-water mentality.

The other oddly classified ship is the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Displacing over 14,000 tons, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) weighs as much as a World War II Baltimore-class heavy cruiser. Armed with 6.1 inch (155mm) guns, she meets the Washington Treaty system armament criteria for a light cruiser. She is also significantly larger than the Ticonderoga-class cruisers.18 Yet Zumwalt remains classified as a destroyer, again for political reasons. Derived from the “Destroyer for the 21st century (DD-21)” program of the early 1990s, the Navy continued to call this ship a destroyer even as it grew in size and complexity. When the U.S. Congress eventually authorized and funded the building of “a destroyer,” Zumwalt kept that classification.19

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Navy instituted a program called Surface Combatant for the 21st Century (SC-21). Designed to address the lack of land attack and fire support capability in the surface fleet, the program looked to develop a family of ships that would not necessarily fall in line with the traditional ship classes.20 Despite recognizing the potential for new ship classes, the U.S. Navy continued to shoehorn modern warships into the traditional ship classes until the development of LCS in the early 2000s. As mentioned above, LCS did not fit nicely into traditional categories, and its classification brought about more confusion than clarity.

Today’s U.S. ship designers also eschew the traditional ship classes. To meet the CNO’s goal “To better meet today’s force demands, [and] explore alternative fleet designs, including kinetic and non-kinetic payloads and both manned and unmanned systems,”21 the Navy’s Future Surface Combatant (FSC) program envisions three ship classes – Large Surface Combatant, Medium Surface Combatant, and an Unmanned Surface Combatant – to replace the current fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and the already retired frigates.

The Enduring Classification Gap

Today’s U.S. Navy still continues the century-old tradition of conforming ship classifications to more political instead of practical requirements. While it might appear trivial what a ship is called, ship classifications bring with them expectations such as armament and mission that may not match the practical needs of the fleet. The resultant ship tends to cost more and take on different missions than fleet designers initially intended in order to justify the higher price tag. Additionally, conforming to existing ship classification conventions limits the ability to develop ship classes necessary for exploration of alternative fleet designs. By naming its newest ship class “FFG(X)”, the U.S. Navy provides another illustration that while the classification of ships serves two purposes, political and practical, the political purpose usually wins.

Captain McGrath is a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer who commnded Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron Seven in Guam. After staff tours at Seventh Fleet, Naval Forces Europe, and the Joint Staff J7, he currently serves as a military professor of Joint Military Operations at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. Christopher P. Cavas, “LCS Now Officially Called a Frigate,” Defense News, 15 January 2015, 

2. John Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority: Version 1.0 (Washington, DC, Officer of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2016), 6.

3. Naval Act of 1794, Session 1, Chapter XII, 3rd Congress (1794).

4. Philip Sims, Michael Bosworth, Chris Cable and Howard Fireman, Historical Review of Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions: SFAC Report Number 9030-04-C1 (Washington, DC, Naval Sea Systems Command, March 28, 2005,

5. Limitation of Naval Armament (Five Power Treaty or Washington Treaty), 43 Stat. 1655; Treaty Series 671, Article XI & XII.

6. Limitation and Reduction Of Naval Armament (London Naval Treaty), 46 Stat. 2858; Treaty Series 830, Article 15.

7. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

8. Andrew Toppan, “The 1975 Reclassification of US Cruisers, Frigates and Ocean Escorts,” Haze Gray and Underway, March 30, 2000,

9. Andrew Toppan, “The 1975 Reclassification of US Cruisers, Frigates and Ocean Escorts,” Haze Gray and Underway, March 30, 2000,

10. David W. McComb, “Spruance Class,” Destroyer History Foundation, Accessed 21 June, 2018

11. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

12. 1936 Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, Adopted in Montreux, Switzerland on 20 July 1936, Annex II, Section B.

13. The Constitution of Japan, Chapter II, Article 9, May 3, 1947.

14. Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka, “Japan Takes Historic Step from Post-War Pacifism, OKs Fighting For Allies,” Reuters, June 30, 2014.

15. Contemporary destroyer tonnages: Russian Sovremennyy-class (6600 tons), Japanese Kongō-class (7500 tons), Chinese Type 052D (7500 tons), British Type 45 (8500 tons), and American Arleigh Burke-class (9600 tons).

16. Deutsche Marine official website; Armada Española official website,

17. Cavas, “LCS Now Officially Called a Frigate,”

18. Even though Zumwalt’s guns are effectively useless with the cancellation of the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP), but the guns are still mounted and available if projectiles are procured.

19. Sims, Bosworth, Cable and Fireman, Cruiser Characteristics, Roles and Missions.

20. Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 2004), 434-5.

21. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, 6.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (December 8, 2016) The Navy’s most technologically advanced surface ship USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) steams in formation with USS Independence (LCS 2) and USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) on the final leg of her three-month journey to her new homeport in San Diego. (U.S. Navy Combat Camera photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume/Released)

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 1

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It will be republished in two parts.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

The U.S. Navy submarine force has set the standard in undersea warfare for at least half a century. America’s submarines made a vital contribution to victory in the Second World War, and they formed an elite force of truly innovative capabilities during the “Cold War at sea” with the Soviet Navy. Since the end of the Cold War, the submarine force has been a leader among U.S. military warfighting communities in transforming itself to remain relevant against militant Islamist extremism and other emerging threats.

In such missions, the submarine force conducts strategic deterrence, intelligence and surveillance, extended-range land attack, and insertion of special forces, in addition to forming the essential backbone of the Navy’s mission of sea control—the all-important, enabling task of maintaining command of the seas for the U.S. armed forces. With the launch of the first of the Virginia class in 2003, the Navy’s position at the forefront of global submarine forces was set for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps partly inspired by the great successes of the U.S. submarine force, navies around the world have invested heavily in undersea warfare, especially in submarine capabilities. China stands out among these as an emerging submarine power. Over the last decade, Beijing has been building four different classes of boats while importing the Kilo-class diesel submarine from Russia in large numbers. Indeed, China’s intense focus on undersea warfare has led some to speculate that a transpacific rivalry is already under way, at least with respect to submarine capabilities. As policy makers in Washington grapple with the challenge of China’s rise, therefore, it may be wise to consider how Beijing is approaching its evolving naval strategy dilemmas. This article examines Chinese views of the American submarine force. As that submarine force constitutes one of the most vital elements of Washington’s overall strategy for establishing and maintaining sea control in times of conflict, Beijing’s assessment of those capabilities may be critical to uncovering the future evolution of this nascent rivalry.

More specifically, then, this research was undertaken for three reasons:

  • The U.S. Navy submarine force is thought to represent a key capability for conflict scenarios involving China.
  • This part of the U.S. Navy has undertaken major efforts at transformation within a new geostrategic and technological environment.
  • The American submarine force represents a rather well-defined warfare area and thus lends itself to a bounded research effort.

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of publishing in China on all subjects, including strategic and military-technical research. Thus, there are at least five serious journals devoted to naval warfare and dozens of more technically oriented journals.1 In this project, well over a thousand Chinese articles were surveyed, of which approximately 150 were judged worthy of closer scrutiny and analysis by the research team. The danger of circularity—attributing to Chinese analysts ideas that have simply been translated from original English-language sources into Chinese—is real, but one that the research team carefully considered throughout. Most Chinese journals now openly attribute English-language articles to their original sources. By and large, this kind of material (direct translation from English) was not evaluated in this study, in favor of articles that appeared to represent the actual opinions of Chinese naval and defense analysts.

This article is divided into five parts. The first section surveys Chinese reactions to a variety of current issues in the U.S. submarine force, including recent deployments and incidents of special interest. A second section examines Chinese evaluations of specific submarine force capabilities, focusing especially on new factors (e.g., the development of SSGNs) that have been central to transformation efforts. Section three considers some critical historical issues, particularly Chinese perceptions of U.S. submarine operations during the Cold War. A fourth section considers how Chinese analysts believe their antisubmarine forces would match up against the U.S. submarine force. Section five reviews Chinese perceptions regarding the overall future trajectory of the U.S. submarine force. A conclusion summarizes the article and offers policy recommendations.

Overall, this article finds that Chinese naval analysts study the U.S. submarine force in excruciating detail, as concretely manifested in thousands of both strategic and technical articles that focus on it.2 As one Chinese naval analyst puts it, “Nuclear attack subs are the most worthwhile weapons investments because they are the most survivable weapons platforms. . . . During a regional conflict, [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines are the first in and last out.”3 Nevertheless, there is also a keen appreciation that the U.S. Navy is focusing primarily on ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writing in the official PLA journal 当代海军 (Modern Navy), one analysis declares, “The U.S. Navy’s capabilities to wage war at sea are gradually declining, and open ocean warfare is already not a focal point.”4 Recognizing the potentially major role of the U.S. submarine force in China contingencies, another analyst suggests: “On the basis of a great quantity of research, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] believes that U.S. nuclear submarines are very quiet, and difficult to discover and counterattack; at the same time, [their] attack power is great, [and] must [be] restrain[ed].”5 Such assessments underline the importance of a closer examination of Chinese perspectives concerning the American submarine force.

Current Developments

In order to give a sense of what Chinese analysts believe to be the trajectory of U.S. submarine force development, it is useful to examine their assessments of two significant recent events: the grounding of the Los Angeles–class submarine USS San Francisco (SSN 711) and the stationing of nuclear-powered submarines on Guam.

The Grounding of the USS San Francisco

The collision of San Francisco with an underwater mountain on 8 January 2005 greatly interested China’s naval press. The articles published then, which prominently feature official U.S. photos of the damaged vessel, express admiration that a submarine that received such damage could have returned to port. This respect is couched in terms of the fundamental strength designed and built into the ship, however, not in terms of the critical factors of crew training and damage control. Author Qi Yaojiu, for example, wrote approximately four months after the incident in a typical article, “In order to investigate battle damage strength, the U.S. undertook strength tests [for submarines] under the conditions of nuclear weapons detonation.” Additionally, “almost every U.S. submarine, before entering into active service, undergoes tests that use underwater explosives to evaluate resistance to battle damage.”6 Notwithstanding this apparent respect, the author recognized that the damage San Francisco incurred would have amounted to a “mission kill,” stating: “If the San Francisco collision had occurred during wartime, and crew members had experienced such wounds, the San Francisco would essentially lose its basic combat effectiveness.”7 A realization that submarines do not have to be destroyed in order to lose combat effectiveness could influence Chinese operational calculations.

Also characteristic of Chinese discussions of San Francisco’s grounding is an undercurrent of bewilderment, asking in effect, “Why were they going so fast?” The tone of analysis implies that such a high-speed transit is somewhat reckless. Thus, one Chinese analyst states that “a nuclear submarine in the process of underwater high speed transit is confronting serious danger” and that “even some U.S. Navy officials expressed that they could not understand the incident.”8 Another author declares, “It is well known in all navies that as soon as a submarine enters international waters in order to protect its stealth, the submarine will not rely on its active sonar. Objectively speaking, a submarine at high speed that is not operating its active sonar is in danger comparable to a vehicle without headlights traveling in the pitch dark.”9 Perhaps because China’s submarine force consists primarily of diesel submarines that rarely make high-speed, long-distance transits, the circumstances surrounding the collision seem peculiar to Chinese naval analysts.

Chinese analyses of the San Francisco incident recognize the United States as a world leader in submarine rescue.10 As one author observes, “Overall, the USN employs the best submarine rescue vehicles and has the most extensive exercises, so its submarine rescue capability leads the world.”11 This appraisal is corroborated in Modern Navy: “Over the last few years, the U.S. Navy has continuously explored submarine rescue methods, and thus strengthened international cooperation, enhancing submarine rescue exercises with its allies. For us this represents a certain inspiration.” Moreover, the Chinese author states, “small groups at various bases are alternatively ready for war or ready to go out and undertake the rescue of an American or allied submarine at any time.”12 Even though the Chinese Navy evidently has extreme respect for the U.S. submarine force, the analyses of the San Francisco incident appear to show awareness that even this elite force can make errors and must invest in cutting-edge rescue technologies.

SSNs in Apra Harbor

As might be expected, China’s naval press has watched the military buildup on Guam with great interest, particularly that of the American submarines.13 A 2004 article in Modern Navy suggests, “The U.S. Navy has stationed three nuclear powered Los Angeles–class attack submarines on Guam. At present, the U.S. military has considered dispatching an additional 6 nuclear submarines. . . .Deployment of such weapons would give the U.S. military considerable capacity to ‘gain the initiative by striking first’ at us from the sea.”14

The same journal a year later described the basing of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) on Guam in greater detail, observing that the United States officially reestablished Submarine Squadron 15 on Guam under Submarine Group 7 in February 2001 and deployed three nuclear-powered attack submarines there: the first and second in fall 2002 and the third in summer 2004. Moreover, as administered by Commander, Submarine Force Pacific, the submarine group “on the basis of troop deployment plans regularly dispatches 4–5 submarines under its 7th fleet jurisdiction. The duty period of these submarines is ordinarily 6 months. Each submarine can execute missions independently, or can attach to a carrier battle group.”15

The operational significance of stationing SSNs on Guam is not lost on Chinese naval analysts. One observes that “if [a submarine] sets out from Guam, especially in a Taiwan Strait crisis, it may only require 2 days or so.”16 A significant finding of the present study is that even in official journals, Chinese analysts are exploring Guam’s vulnerabilities. The same author notes that Guam, in addition to conferring some advantages to the United States in a Taiwan crisis, also carries self-defense vulnerabilities having strategic implications:

“The U.S. military has still not established a defense system of anti-aircraft, antimissile, and other defense systems on Guam—[there exists] only a pittance of coastal patrol forces. Once there are hostilities, Guam’s defense can only rely on the U.S. Navy’s sea-based missile defense system and Air Force joint operations. Consequently, in wartime, Guam’s defense is still a problem; also, because it is in a special position surrounded on four sides by ocean at the intersection of three major international sea lanes, it is impossible to defend effectively. If the other side’s long-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles, long-range bombers or maritime special forces operations units, etc., can break through Guam’s peripheral warning and defense, [to] destroy or seriously damage its naval port, airfield, munitions warehouse, and communications system, [then] the entire operational system of America in the Pacific Theater can become ineffective, its sustained warfare capability can greatly fall short of requirements [and] its resolution and dynamics of military intervention would have to change.”17

Regardless of the validity of their specific claims, then, it is clear that some Chinese analysts perceive Guam to be vulnerable to offensive attacks.

U.S. Navy Capabilities

Having set the scene by reviewing major submarine force developments noted by Chinese analysts, we now turn to a more comprehensive survey of the major American capabilities that have attracted their attention. These include nuclear powered cruise missile–armed submarines (SSGNs) and Tomahawk cruise missiles, Trident submarines, fast attack submarines, sensors and systems, and research and development.

SSGNs and Tomahawks

Chinese analyses demonstrate interest in the Navy’s four new SSGNs, their conversion from Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, and their mission areas.18 A fairly typical article observes that:

“refitting focal points are refitting the first 1–2 of 24 ballistic missile launch tubes for the use of special forces; tubes 3–10 into special forces use or for Tomahawk cruise missiles; [and] tubes 11–24 for Tomahawk cruise missiles. After refitting, the submarine can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and 66 special forces personnel, a dock/shipyard cover, a frogman transport ship (SDV), and an advanced Seal Transport System (ASDS).”19

Although they clearly recognize the potential value of an SSGN’s embarked special operations forces, Chinese analysts appear to be much more impressed by the implications of one SSGN’s potentially large inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles and the high readiness rate that SSGNs will be able to maintain. One perceptive article observes that these features will allow other ships to focus on different mission areas:

“After being refitted, SSGNs will be deployed 65% of the time each year on average. . . . As such, the USN will always have at least 2 SSGNs ready for battle at any time, and in wartime, 1 SSGN can take over the duties of many attack submarines and surface ships. Once the SSGN goes into service, this will significantly reduce the land attack burden shouldered by the surface fleet and allow it to focus on providing air defense against missile threats. At the same time, the SSGN will reduce the land attack role of SSNs, enabling them to concentrate on anti-surface and ASW [antisubmarine warfare] missions.”

The same analysis also recognizes with some alarm that “it is conceivable that in the future the arsenal ships could from a safe distance simultaneously rain 500 or more guided missiles upon several points of an enemy’s territory. Using [the SSGN] would be stealthier and faster than an air raid by carrier based aircraft and would also avoid pilot losses.”20

Chinese literature on SSGNs suggests anxiety regarding this capability and what it may mean for Chinese forces. One analysis calculates that SSGNs will allow the United States to engage in saturation attacks: “The ground forces that have relied on the traditional deception against air attack, such as fake targets and positions, will be severely tested under future conditions in which the U.S. armed forces are able to employ saturation attacks by low-cost [cruise missiles].”21 Another analyst, however, points out that Tomahawks are expensive, estimating that Tactical Tomahawks cost anywhere between $5.7 and 8 million dollars a round.22 One Chinese lesson from the Kosovo conflict was that the United States does not possess an infinite inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles; even in that relatively minor conflict, it adjusted its weapons stocks to cope with apparent resource limitations.23

Trident Submarines

Chinese writings about SSBN capabilities express concern about potential U.S. plans to place conventional warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. One scholar writes that “the new Trident II D5 can achieve a CEP [circular error probable—generally, accuracy] of nine meters. Therefore, as far as point targets are concerned, there already exists the ability to achieve nuclear destruction with a conventional warhead.” This accuracy, he worries, might raise the risk of war overall: “One can see that through lowering one’s own barriers to war, one can more realistically deter the enemy. This undoubtedly reduces war’s actual combat threshold.”24 This may reflect a Chinese concern that Trident conventionalization could give the United States more ability to coerce China in a variety of combat scenarios.

The nuclear deterrence provided by American nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) is well recognized in the majority of Chinese writings, as is the significance of the shifting of five Ohio-class SSBNs (USS Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Maine) from the Atlantic to Pacific fleets from 2002 to 2005. This transfer occurred as the four oldest Ohio-class SSBNs, which had all been stationed in the Pacific, were temporarily taken out of service for conversion to SSGNs; the two transactions effectively rebalanced the American SSBN force from a Pacific/Atlantic ratio of ten/eight to nine/five.25

Fast Attack Submarines

Chinese observers are intensely interested in and closely follow other modern U.S. nuclear submarines, including the USS Jimmy Carter, Seawolf, and Hawaii. Highly detailed, full-page color photos of Seawolf– and Virginia-class submarines appear in China’s most prominent naval journals. These photos are usually accompanied by articles that imply an advanced state of technology and advanced acoustic quieting. Thus, for example, Seawolf is described as having

“an X type stern, [sic] employ[ing] a non-circulating main pump SbW [sic] pressurized water reactor, rel[ying] on natural circulation [of cooling water], thereby reducing noise; us[ing] an advanced pump jet propulsor, [thereby] reducing noise, us[ing] anechoic tiles on the hull. Anechoic tiles can absorb the enemy’s active sonar survey waves as well as both separate and reduce the submarine’s own noise radiation. Moreover, this ship’s own machinery power equipment also employs [sound isolation] technology. These measures reduce the Seawolf-class’s noise level to 95 decibels, making it the world’s quietest submarine (ocean background noise is 90 decibels, Kilo 636 noise is 105 decibels).”26

Additionally, Chinese authors believe Seawolf possesses “beyond-first-class performance” and is regarded as the most sophisticated and lethal submarine yet to go to sea, despite its “tortuous development history.”27

The Chinese also respect Virginia-class submarines for their advanced technology and quietness. An author in Modern Navy states that “compared with the Sea Wolf–class submarine, the Virginia is slower and carries fewer weapons, but is just as quiet. Its acoustic signature is lower than that of the improved model of Russia’s Akula-class attack submarine and Russia’s fourth-generation attack submarine that will hereafter be in active service.”28 Another analyst, in discussing the Virginia class’s acoustic achievements, reports, “The Virginia-class has been called ‘the world’s quietest submarine,’ with a cruising sound level that is only 1/10 that emitted by a Los Angeles class boat pierside.”29

The techniques used to build Virginia and its sister ships also evoke respect, with one author noting, “The use of modular construction has been a major breakthrough in the construction of the Virginia-class SSN. . . . This construction method is a revolutionary breakthrough compared to the methods used to build the Los Angeles–class.”30 Modular construction is widely perceived as a tremendous advantage, allowing the United States to “promptly design and build new nuclear submarines on the basis of new circumstances and requirements.”31 Plans for Virginia, it is implied, having been generated by computer-aided design tools and relying on modular construction, could be used as the basis of a new SSBN design.32 Chinese authors argue that Virginia’s impressive technology allows it to “scout, reconnoiter, and keep watch from a concealed position using its modern sensors to gather intelligence; analyze it; fix radar positions, missile bases, and command centers; as well as watch and track warship movements.”33 The Virginia class is thus seen as “a completely new attitude emerging on the world military combat arena.”34 Some Chinese analysts believe “the U.S. will keep building Virginia class boats and the final number could exceed 30.”35

Los Angeles–class submarines receive significant attention from Chinese authors. One article on this class notes, “The American Navy believes that: nuclear attack submarines are the most worthwhile weapons investments because they are the most survivable weapons platforms, have the advantage of being stealthy, and have become one of the premier threats at sea.”36 Another author rates their performance as “outstanding,” with the reservation that although they have superior weaponry, they “might not [have proved] an effective counter to new types of Soviet nuclear submarines.” This impending disparity, in turn, is credited with precipitating U.S. follow-on designs.37 Still another observer notes that Los Angeles–class submarines are aging: “By the year 2020, the U.S. military intends to have built 30 nuclear attack submarines. However, by the year 2016, all of the Los Angeles–class submarines will exceed 30 years of service life”; the writer emphasizes the great expense of replacing them with Virginia-class vessels.38

Chinese naval observers regard American torpedo technology highly. Noting an enviable six decades of torpedo experience, one Chinese author observes, “Since World War II and for a relatively long period, U.S. torpedo technology has always been among the best in the world.”39 With specific reference to the Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo, another analyst assesses that “the [Mark 48] torpedo’s outstanding effectiveness in all combat circumstances has been proven and it can be used to attack surface ships, nuclear submarines, and also diesel electric submarines.”40 The same author describes the aggressive U.S. torpedo-testing program: “The USN has already carried out more than 6500 exercises and warshot firings [with the Mark 48], in addition to 20,000 simulations and 9 million mathematical simulations, so that this torpedo reaches a high state of reliability.” Perhaps in reference to the sinking of Russian Oscar-class submarine Kursk, and also as part of an overall effort to improve submarine safety consciousness, this analyst later observes that “the [Mark 48] system has been in active service since 1982 and there have been no safety accidents.”

Not every Chinese analyst would readily agree that the Mark 48 torpedo or its Advanced Capability (ADCAP) variant is especially fearsome. In a 2005 article, a Chinese author flatly stated, “Traditional heavy-weight torpedoes practically have no way to cope with modern diesel submarines in shallow waters.”41 The author notes that “shallow waters constitute a very acoustically complex warfare environment” and that the U.S. Navy has allocated significant resources to developing sonars suitable for littoral combat against diesel submarines.42 Another analyst, however, appreciates the U.S. Navy’s ability to upgrade the weapon: “At the moment, [the Mark 48] torpedo is still being upgraded, so that it can correspond to the challenges associated with shallow water environments and threat—it is expected to be in service with the USN until 2025.”43

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.


  1. This article draws extensively on five of the serious PRC professional publications concerned with naval warfare: 当代海军 (Modern Navy), 人民海军 (People’s Navy), 舰船知识(Naval and Merchant Ships), 舰载 武器 (Shipborne Weapons), and 现代舰船 (Modern Ships). Modern Navy is a monthly magazine published by the official PLAN newspaper People’s Navy, which is the daily newspaper published by the Political Department of China’s navy. Modern Navy offers articles that are often concrete and revealing of important capabilities, initiatives, and exercises. See, for example, 徐红明, 刘新民 [Xu Hongming and Liu Xinmin], “‘敌后’布 雷–中国海军某潜艇突破反潜编队训练 目击记” [Lay Mines “In the Enemy’s Rear Area”: An Eyewitness Account of a Certain PLAN Submarine Exercise Involving Breaking Through Antisubmarine Formations], 当代海军 [Modern Navy], no. 4 (2003), p. 38. 舰船知识 (Naval and Merchant Ships), a semitechnical monthly publication of the Chinese Society of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, has directly involved a retired PLA Navy rear admiral, Zheng Ming, formerly head of the PLA Navy’s Equipment Department, in its publication activities. See “我刊召开作者, 读者, 编者座谈会” [Our Journal Convenes a Discussion among Writers, Readers and Editors], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (August 2006), p. 8. An active-duty PLA Navy admiral has contributed to the journal. See 杨毅 [Yang Yi], “谁 的潜艇今后说了算?” [Who Can Estimate the Future Number of Submarines?], 舰 船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (July 2006), p. 28. Shipborne Weapons and Modern Ships are both monthly journals published by the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), China’s largest designer, manufacturer, and trader of military and civilian vessels and related engineering and equipment. In addition to these naval-oriented publications, 中国军事 科学 (China Military Science) is published by the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences.
  2. Because of the difficulty in conclusively identifying the authors of many Chinese writings on naval issues, this article will use a very broad definition of “naval analyst” —namely, one who engages in research and publication concerning naval affairs.
  3. 钱晋 [Qian Jin], “影子 ‘前锋’ 洛杉矶: 我伴 航母走天涯” [The Shadowy Vanguard Los Angeles Class: Escorting Carriers to the Far Corners of the Earth], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (August 2002), pp. 38–41.
  4. 张建平, 高倚天 [Zhang Jianping and Gao Yitian], “透视美海军 2035 年: 远 景规划” [Perspective on the U.S. Navy in 2035: Prospective Plans], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (August 2005), p. 37.
  5. 林长盛 [Lin Changcheng], “潜龙在渊: 解放军水雷兵器的现状与发展” [The Hidden Dragon in the Deep: The Present Situation and Development of PLA Mine Weaponry], 国际展望 [World Outlook], no. 9 (May 2005), p. 32.
  6. 齐耀久 [Qi Yaojiu], “‘旧金山’号核潜艇触 礁事故的再思考” [Reflecting Again on the San Francisco Nuclear Submarine Collision Accident], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (July 2005), p. 41.
  7. Ibid., p. 42.
  8. Ibid., pp. 41–42.
  9. 止戈 [Zhi Ge], “旧金山’号核潜艇事故分 析” [Analysis of the San Francisco Nuclear Submarine Accident], 舰船知识 [Naval and Merchant Ships] (March 2005), p. 59.
  10. 孙晔飞, 聂其武 [Sun Yefei and Nie Qiwu], “从美核潜艇出事: 瞧潜艇非战时事故规 律” [Looking at Patterns of Nonwar Submarine Accidents, from the Perspective of 15 Collins et al.: Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Published by U.S. Naval War College Digital Commons, 2018 82 naval war college review collins, erickson, goldstein, & murray 83 the U.S. Nuclear Submarine Incident], 当代 海军 [Modern Navy] (March 2005), p. 20.
  11. 临河 [Lin He], “常备不懈—美国海军潜 艇救生及启示” [Always Prepared: The Inspiration of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Rescue Cooperation], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (May 2004), p. 11.
  12. Ibid., pp. 9–11.
  13. Among the many articles that examine the U.S. military buildup on Guam are台风 [Tai Feng], “中国需要反潜巡逻机马?” [Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], no. 3 (March 2005), pp. 70–75; “美国陈兵关岛虎视台海” [U.S. Troops Deployed in Guam Vigorously Watch the Taiwan Strait], 世界新闻报 [World News Report], 15 February 2001; “美核攻击 潜艇欲驻关岛意何为” [Why America Stations Nuclear Attack Submarines in Guam], 信息日报 [NewsDaily], 3 November 2000, p. 22; “美国核潜艇关岛触礁” [U.S. Nuclear Submarine Strikes a Reef near Guam], 环 球时报 [World Times], 20 January 2005; Zhao Xiaozhuo, “The United States Does Not Want to Get Involved in a Crisis in the Taiwan Strait,” Huanqiu Shibao, 3 January 2005, FBIS CPP20050114000176; “核潜艇进 关岛: 美国居心叵测” [Nuclear Submarines Enter Guam: The U.S. Harbors Unfathomable, Evil Intentions], 中国国防报 [China National Defense News], 2 April 2002, p. B04.
  14. 李杰 [Li Jie], “对美系列海上演习之思考” [Reflections on the Series of U.S. Exercises at Sea], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (September 2004), pp. 20–21.
  15. 赵宇 [Zhao Yu], “全景扫描: 美太平洋第 七舰队战力, 中部” [Scanning the Entire Panorama: The Combat Power of the U.S. Pacific Seventh Fleet (middle part)], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (February 2005), pp. 53–57.
  16. 韩江波 [Han Jiangbo], “关岛—美军控制 西太平洋作战体系的‘纲’” [Guam: The “Key Link” in the U.S. Military System to Control the Western Pacific], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2006), p. 33.
  17. Ibid., p. 34.
  18. For the SSGN program and related operational opportunities and issues, see Charles D. Sykora, “SSGN: A Transformation Limited by Legacy Command and Control,” Naval War College Review 59, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 41–62.
  19. 杨修水 [Yang Xiushui], “2010, 世界大洋的新 生代—核潜艇篇” [In 2010, a New Era on the World’s Oceans: Writing on Nuclear Submarines], 当代海军 [Modern Navy], no. 9 (September 2004), pp. 50–55.
  20. 天鹰 [Tian Ying], “SSGN 即将面世的水下武 库舰” [The SSGN Will Soon Be the World’s Premier Underwater Arsenal], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (December 2004), p. 67.
  21. 李文盛, 程建良 [Li Wensheng and Cheng Jianliang], “威胁自海上来: 美海军对陆火力 突击能力的发展特点及影响” [Threat from the Sea: Development and Implications of Development Trends in the U.S. Navy’s Surprise Strike Firepower against the Land], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (March 2003), p. 20.
  22. “美国海军拟部署战术‘战斧’导弹” [U.S. Navy Intends to Deploy Tactical Tomahawk], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2000), p. 36.
  23. See Li Wensheng and Cheng Jianliang, “Threat from the Sea,” p. 17.
  24. Both quotes in this paragraph are from董 露, 郭纲, 李文胜 [Dong Lu, Guo Gang, and Li Wensheng], “析美国战略导弹常规 改装的动因及影响” [Analysis on the Motives and Effects of U.S. Strategic Missiles Armed with Conventional Warheads], 中 国宇航学会 [China Space Institute] (paper distributed but not presented at Tenth PIIC Beijing Seminar on International Security, Program for Science and National Security Studies and Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, Xiamen, China, 25–28 September 2006).
  25. See, for example, 朱伟 [Zhu Wei], “美 9 艘战 略核潜艇聚集太平洋” [Nine U.S. Strategic Nuclear-Powered Submarines Assembled in the Pacific Ocean], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (November 2005), pp. 58–59. In addition to commenting on the significance of the United States transferring SSBNs and SSNs from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, this lengthy, wide-ranging article also devotes substantial space to alleged aging problems in the W76 nuclear warhead, criticizes as overly large and unstable the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and decries the negative effects of all this on Asia-Pacific security.
  26. Yang Xiushui, “In 2010, a New Era on the World’s Oceans,” p. 50.
  27. 汪玉, 姚耀中 [Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds.], 世界海军潜艇 [World Naval Submarines] (Beijing: 国防工业出版社 [National Defense Industry Press], 2006), p. 127.
  28. 河山 [He Shan], “‘弗吉尼亚’号能否成为新 世纪海上霸王?” [Can the Virginia Class Become the New Century’s Oceanic Hegemon?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (October 2004), p. 21.
  29. “‘弗吉尼亚’ 潜艇浮出水面” [Launching of the Virginia Class], 现代军事 [Contemporary Military Affairs] (October 2004), p. 23.
  30. Only three Sea Wolf–class submarines were ever built. The Cold War’s end made it impossible to justify construction of additional hulls, because this submarine had been optimized for combating the Soviet Navy. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 129.
  31. Ibid., p. 29.
  32. 陈位昊 [Chen Weihao], “美国海军调整 部署: 美国核潜艇云集太平洋妄图威摄 中国”[The U.S. Navy Adjusts Deployment: U.S. Submarines Converging in the Pacific Vainly Attempt to Deter China], 国际展望 [World Outlook], no. 6 (March 2006), p. 13.
  33. 曹家伟 [Cao Jiawei], “杀向近海—美海军弗 吉尼亚级新型攻击型核潜艇”[Fighting into the Littoral: The U.S. Navy’s Virginia-Class Nuclear Attack Submarine], 环球军事 [Global Military Affairs], no. 18 (2004), pp. 26–29.
  34. Ibid.
  35. He Shan, “Can the Virginia Class Become the New Century’s Oceanic Hegemon?” p. 21.
  36. Qian Jin, “The Shadowy Vanguard Los Angeles Class,” pp. 38–41.
  37. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 121.
  38. 世画 [Shi Hua], “世界未来潜艇发展前瞻” [World Submarine Development Prospects], 海事大观 [Maritime Spectacle] (January 2007), p. 86.
  39. 黄龙华 [Huang Longhua], “潜艇克星: 世界 反潜鱼雷概览” [The Star for Subduing Submarines: A Survey of World ASW Torpedoes], 环球军事 [Global Military Affairs] (August 2006), p. 48.
  40. 崔峰 [Cui Feng], “Mk48 ADCAP: 美国海军主 战重刑鱼雷” [The Mk 48 ADCAP: The U.S. Navy’s Primary Combat Heavyweight Torpedo], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], no. 4 (2004), p. 31.
  41. 刘伟[Liu Wei], “外军的鱼雷及鱼雷防御技 术” [Foreign Torpedo and Torpedo Defense Technology], 现代军事 [Contemporary Military Affairs] (May 2005), pp. 34–37.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid. This three-page article is accompanied by full-color pictures of Mark 48 ADCAP circuit boards, torpedo body sections, detailed propulsion system schematic diagrams, and tables with performance criteria.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 7, 2012) The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Mississippi (SSN 782) conducts alpha trials in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat/Released)