North Korea stunned the world by conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, a mere three years after its withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Despite the small, one-kiloton yield of the device, the test nevertheless signified the rogue state’s entry into the nuclear arena and further complicated the already strategically challenging position on the Korean Peninsula. A recent report by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies estimated that Pyongyang currently possesses a growing stockpile of between 10-16 nuclear weapons, though the exact number remains unknown. More alarming are the rapid advancements North Korea has recently made in developing nuclear weapon delivery systems, including the recent missile test-launch on May 14th showing considerable progress toward an intercontinental ballistic missile. Considerable resources have been devoted to this pursuit by the famine-stricken state, and investments are beginning to bear fruit. Despite its emphasis on land-based systems such as the new Hwasong-12, North Korea’s evolving sea-based nuclear delivery potential is beginning to pose a considerable threat, lending additional credibility to the Kim regime’s nuclear deterrent.
Nukes at Sea
Of particular concern, North Korea has been making progress toward attaining a nuclear triad by developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. After several failures, the DPRK successfully tested its first SLBM, known as the Pukkuksong-1/KN-11, in late August 2016. With a two-stage solid fuel propellant system, the KN-11 has an estimated range of almost 500 nautical miles, more than enough to threaten major population centers such as Seoul and Tokyo, or military installations like Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, with only limited travel of its launch platform outside of home waters. Notably, it seems the decision was made to opt for a more stable, solid fuel propellant at the expense of range after a series of liquid-fueled missile failures. Not only is a solid fuel propulsion system less volatile, but it enables the missile to be launched on short notice, as it does not require the lengthy and dangerous fueling process required before the launch of a liquid fueled ballistic missile. Currently, the operational status of the KN-11 is unclear, with estimates of service entry varying from late this year to 2020.
In addition to technical advances in SLBM technology, North Korea has made considerable progress in developing a new class of submarine for the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) capable of deploying these weapons. With the first vessel launched in the summer of 2014, the Sinpo-class represents Pyongyang’s first diesel-electric ballistic missile submarine. Similar in size and shape to older Yugoslavian designs like the Heroj-class, the Sinpo-class appears to have incorporated features derived from the Soviet Golf II-class ballistic missile submarine. Indeed, in 1993 North Korean technicians had the opportunity to examine a number of ex-Soviet Pacific Fleet Golf II-class boats before they were scrapped.
When looking at the Sinpo’s ballistic missile launch tubes, the influence of older Soviet designs becomes apparent. In a similar arrangement to the Golf II, a rectangular section of the conning tower houses what appear to be one or two ballistic missile launch tubes. Likewise, given its diesel-electric propulsion system, the Simpo-class shares the Golf-class’ range limitation, estimated to be around 1,500 nautical miles. When paired with the moderate range of the KN-11, the Sinpo-class would require fueling to achieve launch distance of the continental United States. Nevertheless, once made fully operational, these submarines could potentially threaten strategic targets throughout East Asia and could prove difficult to track and eliminate. Moreover, a ballistic missile submarine can launch its SLBMs from a variety of directions, complicating missile defense planning and increasing the vulnerability of potential targets.
Currently, only one Sinpo-class ballistic missile submarine appears to be active, but additional vessels will likely be completed in the near future. The submarine reportedly suffered damage to its conning tower on 28 November 2015, after a KN-11 failed to successfully eject from its launch tube during a test. Nevertheless, on 24 August 2016, a successful test was conducted where a KN-11 was launched from the vessel. Despite this success, the operational status of North Korea’s SLBM capability remains unclear. Ultimately, the Sinpo-class remains the largest submarine built for the KPN and will represent a significant enhancement of North Korea’s nuclear delivery capacity once perfected, though its small size, limited range, and rudimentary design are substantial shortcomings.
The addition of an SLBM, complemented by a workable launch platform, will greatly enhance the survivability of North Korea’s nuclear delivery capacity and improve the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Currently, North Korea’s land-based nuclear delivery systems rely heavily on fixed infrastructure and operate in the open, which makes them particularly vulnerable to attack. As a result, if Washington were to lose ‘strategic patience’ with the DPRK, Pyongyang would likely see its land-based nuclear forces neutralized in a first strike. Ballistic missile submarines, on the other hand, are more survivable than fixed infrastructure because the vastness and depth of the oceans provide concealment within a wide operational area.
Though the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities of the combined U.S.-ROK forces are second to none, even a rudimentary submarine such as the Sinpo-class would be difficult to locate and destroy quickly. Consequently, it is plain to see how a ballistic missile submarine would enhance North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. If the DPRK were to ever lose its land-based nuclear delivery systems in a surprise attack, it would still have the ability to retaliate with an SLBM launch against South Korea or Japan. Politically, this would alter the cost-benefit analysis when weighing military action against Pyongyang. Once the nuclear armed Sinpo-class becomes fully operational, it will be even more difficult for the United States to guarantee the complete elimination of all North Korean nuclear delivery systems in a first strike. Under those circumstances, it seems unlikely that South Korea would agree to any preemptive military action against North Korea. Therefore, the scope of action that can realistically be taken against the rogue state is diminished, granting the Kim regime additional political leverage on the international stage. With this in mind, the significance of a fully operational nuclear armed North Korean ballistic missile submarine becomes abundantly clear.
The Range of DPRK Seaborne WMD Threats
Given the range limitations and reliability issues associated with North Korea’s current arsenal of ballistic missiles, the Kim regime may turn to unconventional methods to deliver nuclear weapons to targets well outside the range of its missiles. In the extreme, North Korea could smuggle a nuclear or radiological weapon in a shipping container aboard one of its numerous merchant vessels. A 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Terrorist Nuclear Attacks on Seaports: Threat and Response,” highlighted the challenging nature of preventing such an attack. Certainly, North Korea has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to smuggle contraband aboard its merchant vessels undetected.
In 2013, a North Korean-flagged freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, traversed parts of the Pacific undetected after disabling its Automatic Identification System. Eventually, the freighter made it to the Panama Canal where its illicit cargo was discovered after being boarded by Panamanian port authorities. Fortunately, in this case its cargo merely consisted of surface-to-air missile components, disassembled MiG-21s, night-vision goggles, and ammunition. Yet, if the ship was transporting a nuclear or radiological device, the damage that could have been inflicted upon the Panama Canal would have been substantial.
For North Korea, smuggling a nuclear device on a freighter would be a high-risk high-reward strategy. A successful smuggling operation followed by a detonation in close proximity to the intended target could serve as the first strike in the opening of a larger war. On the other hand, if the nuclear cargo was intercepted en route to its destination, North Korea would lose the element of surprise and open itself to a retaliatory attack. Although it is unlikely that North Korea would opt to smuggle a nuclear weapon aboard one of its merchant vessels, the threat should not be discounted entirely.
Recent developments in the sea-based nuclear delivery capacity of the KPN have complicated the strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula even further. By diversifying the means by which it can deliver nuclear weapons, the Kim regime has strengthened the credibility of its nuclear deterrence, forcing the U.S. and its allies to think twice before considering military action. Although the North Korean military would eventually succumb to the overwhelming force of American-ROK full-spectrum dominance in a full-scale war, the possibility of nuclear strikes against South Korea and Japan would likely be considered an unacceptable risk by political leaders, thereby taking the option preemptive military action against North Korea off the table. Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear smuggling looms large, adding an additional layer of complexity to the North Korean nuclear problem.
As the DPRK continues to perfect its missile technology, we may one day see Pyongyang with the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At this point, whether or not to pursue a strategy of forcible denuclearization is up for debate, but given this turn of events it seems the window of opportunity to do so is closing rapidly.
Matthew Gamble is based in New Brunswick, Canada. His research interests primarily focus on Eurasian geopolitics, capability analysis, and Canadian defence policy. Find him on twitter @Matth_Gamble.
Featured Image: North Korean underwater test-fire of submarine-based ballistic missile. (KCNA/via Reuters)
Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.
“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.
By W. Alejandro Sanchez
In spite of Brazil’s political crisis, the Brazilian Navy has continued with its ambitious project of domestically constructing a new fleet of submarines, including a nuclear-powered platform. The first Scorpène-class submarine is expected to be launched in 2018, an important development though a couple of years behind schedule. However, the question remains: does Brazil require today, or will it require in the foreseeable future, an advanced submarine fleet?
The PROSUB Program
A 2009 contract between the Brazilian Navy and French conglomerate DCNS “covers the design, production, and technology transfer required for four Scorpène-class conventional submarines, and the design assistance and production of the non-nuclear part of the first Brazilian nuclear powered submarine, including support for construction of a naval base and a naval construction site.” This contract was the result of a defense agreement signed in 2008by then-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his French counterpart, then-President Nikolas Sarkozy. This project is known as the Submarine Development Program (Programa de Desarrollo de Submarinos; PROSUB).
At the time of this writing, SBR-1 Riachuelo (S-40) is nearing completion as it is expected to be launched in 2018 and delivered to the Navy in 2020. The next submarine, SBR-2 Humaitá, will be launched in 2020, while SBR-3 Tonelero (S-42) and SBR-4 Angostura (S-43) are scheduled to be completed by the early 2020s.
It is worth stressing that the Brazilian Navy is particularly interested in learning how to manufacture the submarines domestically, rather than relying on DCNS to construct and assemble the submarines abroad. For example, in July, the Brazilian company Nuclebras Heavy Equipment (Nuclebrás Equipamentos Pesados; NUCLEP) delivered the stern section of Humaitá to Itaguaí Construções Navais (ICN) which is assembling the platform in Rio de Janeiro. According to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, “the submarine’s hull has been divided into five sections and to date … four sections of SBR 2 [have been delivered]. The final one is scheduled to be delivered in November.”
As for the nuclear submarine SN-BR Alvaro Alberto (SN-10),the Brazilian Navy’s PROSUB webpagereports that it is still in the developmental phase and that actual construction will commence in 2017 and be completed by 2025. “The transfer [of the submarine] to the Navy is expected to take in 2027,” the Navy explains.
A word should be said about the status of the shipyard, also part of PROSUB, since the Navy wants the capacity to construct more of these platforms in the future. To this end, a 750,000 square meter complex is under construction in the municipality of Itaguaí (Rio de Janeiro). In 2013, the Metal Structures Manufacturing Unit (Unidade de Fabricação de Estruturas Metálicas; UFEM)was inaugurated, with then-President Dilma Rousseff in attendance. Among other tasks, UFEM will manufacture the metal hull structures of the platforms.
The DCNS and Other Issues
It is necessary to highlight that the construction of these platforms has not been a smooth ride. A 1 March 2013 article by Reuters reported that “the first conventional submarine [will be completed] in 2015 and the nuclear-powered submarine will be commissioned in 2023 and enter operation in 2025, the Brazilian Navy said in a statement.” The timetable was perhaps too ambitious as the first submarine Riachuelo is now scheduled to be launched in 2018, three years later than originally reported. Similarly, the nuclear platform is now expected to be ready by 2025, not 2023. Part of the reason for the delay has to do with the country’s recent economic crisis which has affected the budget of governmental agencies, including defense.
Due to space considerations, we cannot provide a full account of Brazil’s political crisis over the past year with regards to the Lava Jato revelations. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, which is involved in PROSUB via its ICN unit, has been implicated in the scandal. (Ret.) Admiral Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, considered the father of Brazil’s nuclear program and a major supporter of the nuclear submarine (see his biography in Togzhan Kassenova’s commentary Turbulent Times for Brazil’s Nuclear Projects) has also been implicated in illicit activities. He was sentenced to 43 years in prisonthis past August for corruption and money-laundering. While PROSUB itself has survived the recent crises, these scandals raise the question whether there will be new allegations of illegal activities surrounding the construction of these platforms in the near future.
The other problem with PROSUB is that sensitive information about the Scorpène-class subs may be out in the open as DCNS has suffered a massive intelligence leak. This past August, the Australian daily The Australianpublished documents which “detail the secret combat capability of six Scorpène-class submarines that French shipbuilder DCNS has designed for the Indian Navy.” According to reports, the DCNS leak includes more than 22,000 pages about the Indian platforms.
Regarding this incident, Brazilian Rear Admiral Flavio Augusto Viana published a letter stating that “the Brazilian submarines were designed along specifications made by the Brazilian Navy, which means that there are differences between our submarines and those of other countries.” Therefore, the Brazilian Navy, “does not foresee any impact on the construction of the SBR.” The author is not qualified to compare the Brazilian and Indian Scorpène-class subs, however it is likely that there are some general similarities between the two models.
At this point it is worth remembering the words of Admiral Eduardo Leal Ferreira, commander of the Brazilian Navy, who spoke at a recent 26 September event entitled “Addressing Challenges in the Maritime Commons”at the National Bureau of Asian Research. An article written by the author for IHS Jane’s Defense, quotes Admiral Ferreira stating that the PROSUB program is the Navy’s main priority, followed by upgrading the fleet’s frigates, and then repairing the Sao Paulo(A-12) carrier. In other words, PROSUB, in spite of delays, budget issues and other incidents, will continue.
Given that PROSUB is well underway and by next decade we will see a modern, domestically constructed, Brazilian submarine flee. The question is: why does Brazil need these platforms?
The standard reason is for Brazil to monitor and protect its 7,500 kilometers of coastline and vast maritime territory, including its natural resources (the discovery of underwater oil reservesis an often-mentioned fact), from domestic and foreign threats. In his remarks for NBAR, Admiral Ferreira added that the Atlantic Ocean is an open ocean, not a closed sea, so Brazil requires a blue water navy, hence the importance of the submarine and aircraft carrier program. The admiral also highlighted the necessity to have freedom of navigation, implying a blue water navy is necessary, “so when there are problems in the South China Sea or the East China Sea or wherever, we won’t be affected.”
This author argues that Brazil does not have any major inter-state issues that would make the submarines, a platform suitable for conventional warfare, necessary. The reality of South American geopolitics is that Brazil’s relations with its 10 neighbors, including one-time competitor Argentina, remain quite cordial. Hence, the possibility that a regional state would attempt to aggressively take control of part of Brazil’s exclusive economy zone is too remote to realistically contemplate.
Additionally, while Brazil has pursued the submarine program (among other platform acquisition projects), this has not sparked a regional arms race for fear of an “imperialist” Brasilia trying to take over a neighbor’s territory. In other words, regional states do not appear threatened by Brazil’s PROSUB program, highlighting the current status of regional geopolitics and the general success of confidence building mechanisms (for example Brazil has a constant presence in regional military exercises, such as hosting UNITAS Brasil 2015 and serving as the deputy commander forPANAMAX 2016 – Multi-National Forces-South), which make the possibility of inter-state warfare remote in this region.
Likewise, there is little chance that an extra-regional power will deploy a fleet to Brazilian waters a la Spanish Armada to take over its oil platforms. While it is true that the U.S. did send a fleet, led by the USS Forrestal, to support Brazil’s military coup in 1964, bilateral, regional and global geopolitics are not the same as five decades ago.
Without a doubt, Brazil deserves a well-equipped and modern navy that can address its 21st century challenges, protecting its maritime territory, particularly the offshore oil platforms, and cracking down on maritime crimes like drug trafficking (or other types of smuggling) or illegal fishing. However, this author argues that submarines are hardly the appropriate platforms for these tasks. A fleet of oceanic patrol vessels (OPVs) along with a robust air wing would be more suitable for coastal and oceanic patrol, including the interdiction of suspicious vessels.
In his September remarks at NBAR, Admiral Ferreira explained the need for Brazil to possess a blue water Navy in case of a hypothetical armed conflict in the South or East China Seas. This author has not found a direct correlation between the two issues: if an incident took place, would Brazil need to deploy its platforms to the open seas in defense of freedom of navigation? While the Admiral’s statement is not clear, the wider goal is to obviously increase the power projection of the Brazilian Navy by making it a blue water navy. This explains PROSUB’s priority, as this will be a major source of pride regarding the country’s naval capabilities, including the ability to manufacture these platforms.
Additionally, Admiral Ferreira highlighted that the Brazilian Navy is a dual-purpose navy as “we are not just a war-fighting Navy like the U.S., we have other collateral tasks, we are coast guard, we are maritime authority for safety of the sea [and] we have lots of tasks in the Amazon basin.” Indeed, the Brazilian Navy has a variety of tasks. However, the question remains if a fleet of four Scorpène-class submarines and one nuclear-powered submarine are the ideal platforms to carry out these duties when OPVs and frigate-type platforms (which the Navy is upgrading) are more suitable for these tasks.
Alejandro Sanchez Nieto is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.
The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Featured image: The interior of the Brazilian Navy submarine Tapajó (Guilherme Leporace / Agência O Globo)
As the South China Sea dispute continues to command headlines, such issues as China’s island building, U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), and the contested arbitration have received justified attention, but a concurrent trend in the activities of the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea also merits closer consideration. Within the past several months, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet (南海舰队) has engaged in relatively sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) drills (反潜作战演练). Historically, China has remained relatively weak in ASW and continues “to lack either a robust coastal or deep-water anti-submarine warfare capability,” according to the Department of Defense.1 Despite such persistent shortcomings, the apparent advances in the realism and complexity of these recent drills suggest that the PLAN’s ASW capabilities could be progressing. Given the context, these drills, which were reported upon in detail in official PLA media,2 might also have been intended as a signaling mechanism at a time of heightened regional tension. Presumably, the PLAN is also motivated by concerns about U.S. submarines operating in the region and the submarines procured by multiple Southeast Asian nations, including rival claimant Vietnam.
While China’s ongoing investments in ASW platforms have indicated an increased prioritization of improving its ASW capabilities, the PLAN’s ability to advance in this regard will also be influenced by its level of training and experience.3 Certainly, the levels of stealth and sophistication of current and future U.S. submarines will continue to pose a considerable challenge. Although the PLAN’s ASW capabilities will likely remain limited in the short term, its attempts to realize advances in ASW reflect a new aspect of its efforts to become a maritime power and attempt to achieve “command of the sea” (制海权) within the first island chain.4
Recent PLAN ASW Drills in the South China Sea
Between May 25th and 26th, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet engaged in ASW drills that involved a confrontation between Red and Blue Forces that continued “successively for twenty-four hours uninterrupted.”5 After entering the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel, within the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, the far sea training formation involved initiated the drill “under actual combat conditions.”6 The Red Force involved four surface warships, two Type 052D guided-missile destroyers (Hefei and Guangzhou), a Type 052C destroyer (Lanzhou), and a Type 054A guided-missile frigate (Yulin), as well as three unspecified anti-submarine helicopters, against a Blue Force with an unknown number of submarines.
Since anti-submarine operations have reportedly become a “key emphasis” (重点) for the South Sea Fleet, this constituted an attempt to design a more advanced, realistic drill for ASW operations.7 It was characterized as “really rare” given the large size of the search area (1,000 square nautical miles); the multiple forms of anti-submarine forces included; the multiple ASW methods used, including five kinds of sonar; the employment of a greater number of anti-submarine attack weapons including anti-submarine rockets, depth charges, and torpedoes, and finally the length of the drill, which occurred for 24 hours continuously.8 That these aspects of the drill were considered so notable implies that prior drills were appreciably less sophisticated.
Although the drill seemed somewhat more advanced than previous such exercises, PLA media commentary also highlighted the existing shortcomings in the PLAN’s ASW capabilities that the drill was intended to mitigate. According to one PLAN officer who had participated, difficulties included the command and control over and coordination among the forces involved. He also highlighted that the two forces had not established a set program or plan prior to the drill – implying that past drills had been organized around more of a “script” (脚本).9 This lack of a script enabled the whole process to “break through into actual combat confrontation” and “explore anti-submarine methods and approaches.”10 In particular, this realistic training was intended to address certain “important difficulties,” including coordination between ships and aircraft, coordination of firepower, and information-sharing.11 For instance, a Blue Force submarine engaged in evasive measures, such that the Red Force had to cooperate closely and engage in real-time information sharing to locate it again and enable the launching of “precision strikes” against it.12
Although it is difficult to compare this ASW drill to previous iterations qualitatively or quantitatively – given the limitations of available information and uncertainties about the consistency of open-source reporting on such training – a review of prior accounts of the PLAN’s ASW exercises suggests that these drills have advanced considerably within the past several years. There seemingly has been a shift in the PLAN’s ASW training, starting from relatively routine exercises held only annually in the South China Sea, towards these more advanced exercises. In this regard, the South Sea Fleet’s engagement in this ASW drill at a time of heightened tension in the South China Sea not only might have been intended to serve as a signaling mechanism, but also may have reflected a longer-term trend toward advances in the PLAN’s ASW training. In the past several years, the PLAN’s ASW drills in the South China Sea have included the following:
September 2013: In accordance with the PLAN’s annual training plan, the East Sea Fleet held training exercises in the South China Sea that involved unspecified “new type” submarines, with collaboration between anti-submarine ships and anti-submarine helicopters, which reportedly “effectively increased ASW capability under informationized conditions.”13
September 2014: In accordance with the PLAN’s annual training plan, the East Sea Fleet held training exercises in the South China Sea in which there was an emphasis on “testing and exploring anti-submarine tactics.”14
May 2015: The Sino-Russian “Joint Sea” exercise incorporated an ASW component.15
November 2015: The North Sea, South Sea, and East Sea Fleets all engaged in live-fire “confrontation drills” in the South China Sea, involving Blue and Red Forces, which emphasized “information systems of systems ASW capability.”16, 17
January 2016: PLAN exercises with the Pakistan Navy incorporated ASW for the first time.18
May 2016: A sophisticated, realistic drill involving the South Sea Fleet occurred in the South China Sea, as described in detail above.19
July 2016: The PLAN’s extensive exercises in the South China Sea, which involved all three fleets, also included an ASW component.20, 21
While the list above is probably not comprehensive, this sequence seems to illustrate a potential shift in the pattern of the PLAN’s ASW training – or, at least, in official PLA media reporting on these drills. From late 2015 to the present, the reported drills have not occurred in accordance with the prior training schedule and have often involved the South Sea Fleet or multiple fleets. Perhaps this change indicates a shift in focus towards advancing the operational ASW capabilities of the South Sea Fleet in particular. As this timeframe has aligned with heightened regional tensions, the organization of such drills and the reporting on them could have indicated an increased degree of discomfort with the potential intensification of U.S. submarine activity in the South China Sea and also the ongoing procurement of Kilo-class submarines by rival claimant Vietnam, which received its fifth of six submarines in February 2016.22, 23 Eventually, this focus on realistic, unscripted ASW drills could enable the PLAN to progress in capitalizing upon the more advanced ASW platforms that have been concurrently introduced.
Ongoing Investments to Overcome Traditional Weaknesses in ASW
Although the PLAN’s ASW capabilities have historically been lacking, the increased frequency and sophistication of ASW drills have corresponded with investments in and the commissioning of new ASW platforms within the past several years. The PLAN previously had only the Ka-28 and the Z-9C as ASW helicopters, but has introduced the more sophisticated Changhe Z-18F ASW variant.24 Notably, the Y-8FQ Gaoxin-6, an anti-submarine patrol aircraft reportedly analogous to the P-3C, which has a lengthy magnetic anomaly detector, was introduced into the PLAN in 2015.25 Although it was not reported to have participated in recent exercises, the Gaoxin-6 could critically contribute to China’s future ASW capabilities. In June 2016, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet also commissioned the Type 056A corvette Qujing, the tenth such vessel assigned to it, which reportedly has “good stealth performance” and has been upgraded with a towed array sonar for ASW.26, 27 As of 2016, a total of twenty-six Type 056 corvettes are in service throughout the PLAN, and there might eventually be sixty or more, likely including quite a few of this ASW variant.27
Beyond these existing platforms, the PLAN has been investing in multiple aspects of its ASW capability that could have significant long-term dividends. According to one assessment, the construction of a helicopter base on reclaimed land on Duncan Island in the Paracels could constitute a component of a future network of helicopter bases that would enable the PLA’s ASW helicopters to operate more effectively in those contested waters.29 The PLA’s existing and future aircraft carriers could launch multiple anti-submarine aircraft, and less-authoritative Chinese media sources have emphasized the expected efficacy of a future Chinese carrier strike group in ASW.30, 31 Concurrently, China has been establishing an underwater system of ocean floor acoustic arrays in the near seas, referred to as the “Underwater Great Wall Project” by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation responsible for its construction.32, 33 In addition, the PLAN clearly recognizes the relevance of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) in ASW. For instance, PLA academics from China’s National Defense University characterize “unmanned operations at sea” as among today’s “important development trends.”34 There are multiple Chinese USVs and UUVs under development,34 and PLA-affiliated individuals and institutes have evidently engaged in extensive research on the topic.36
Although the operational potential associated with such investments might require years to be actualized, China could eventually become a significant ASW force in the South China Sea and beyond. While the PLAN’s ability to engage effectively in ASW will likely remain limited by persistent shortcomings and its relative lack of experience for the short term, it is nonetheless notable that the PLAN has evidently decided to compete in an area of traditional U.S. advantage, which had previously seemed to be a lower priority for it. These apparent advances in its ASW drills and increased investment in a variety of ASW platforms could allow the PLAN to become an inconvenience and eventually an impediment to the ability of other regional players, and perhaps even U.S. submarines, to operate unchallenged in the South China Sea. Thus far, the PLAN appears to be focusing primarily on near seas ASW, especially with the “Underwater Great Wall,” and this concern regarding defense within the first island chain could reflect a reaction to the intensified U.S. focus on submarines as a tool to counter China’s A2/AD capabilities.37
This undersea dimension of strategic competition will likely continue to be a priority for the U.S. and China alike, and the South China Sea will remain of unique strategic importance. Notably, the majority of China’s submarines, including its SSBNs, is based on Hainan Island and would probably transit to the Pacific through the South China Sea.38 While the prevailing “undersea balance” seems unlikely to change significantly in the near future,39 the PLAN’s undersea warfare capabilities could advance more rapidly than anticipated across multiple dimensions. For instance, by one assessment, China’s new Type 093B SSN could be stealthier than expected.40 Looking forward, the traditional dynamics could also be appreciably altered by technological change. In particular, the U.S. and China’s parallel advances in unmanned systems, which will likely play a significant role in future undersea warfare, could accelerate competition in this domain. While visiting the USS John C. Stennis in the South China Sea, Secretary of Defense Carter alluded to the Pentagon’s investment in “new undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads that can, importantly, operate in shallow water, where manned submarines cannot,” which could become operational within the next several years.41 The PLAN’s USVs and UUVs might not be far behind. Although the PLAN may prove unable to overcome the U.S. Navy’s undersea dominance beyond the first island chain, the South China Sea itself could become a zone of “contested command” and frequent undersea friction in the years to come.42
Elsa Kania is a recent graduate of Harvard College and currently works as an analyst at Long Term Strategy Group.
1. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016 China Military Power Report.pdf. For prior assessments of China’s relative weaknesses and gradual advances in anti-submarine warfare, see, for instance: Stratfor, “China: Closing the Gap in Anti-Submarine Warfare,” July 20, 2015.
2. See the PLA articles referenced later in the article, including: Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断].
3. For reflection on the importance of training and experience in ASW, see, for instance: Lt. Cmdr. Jeff W. Benson, USN, “A New Era in Anti-Submarine Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute, August 27, 2014, https://news.usni.org/2014/08/27/opinion-new-era-anti-submarine-warfare.
4. The objective of becoming a “maritime power” was also articulated in China’s latest defense white paper. See: Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China[中华人民共和国国防部], “China’s Military Strategy” [中国的军事战略],” May 26, 2015.
5. Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断], China Military Online, May 26, 2016, http://www.81.cn/jwgz/2016-05/26/content_7073486.htm.
7. “The Strongest Lineup! The South Sea Fleet’s Five Large Primary Warships Through Day and Night [Engaged in] Joint Anti-Submarine [Operations]” [最强阵容！南海舰队五大主力战舰跨昼夜联合反潜], PLA Daily, May 27, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2016-05/27/c_129019813.htm.
8. Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断], China Military Online, May 26, 2016, http://www.81.cn/jwgz/2016-05/26/content_7073486.htm.
10. “The Strongest Lineup! The South Sea Fleet’s Five Large Primary Warships Through Day and Night [Engaged in] Joint Anti-Submarine [Operations]” [最强阵容！南海舰队五大主力战舰跨昼夜联合反潜], PLA Daily, May 27, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2016-05/27/c_129019813.htm.
13. “The East Sea Fleet’s South [China] Sea Drills Life-Fire Multiple New-Type War Mines, Successfully Destroying the Targets” [东海舰队南海演练实射多枚新型战雷成功摧毁目标], PLA Daily, September 26, 2013, http://mil.cnr.cn/jstp/201309/t20130926_513692312.html.
14. “The Navy’s East [China] Sea Fleet Organized Live-Fire Drills Under Complicated Acoustic Conditions” [海军东海舰队组织复杂水声环境下战雷实射演练], PLA Daily, September 26, 2014, http://news.xinhuanet.com/photo/2014-09/27/c_127040400.htm.
16. “Chinese navy conducts anti-submarine confrontation drill in South China Sea,” CCTV, November 20, 2015, http://126.96.36.199/NewJsp/news.jsp?fileId=327578.
17. The Navy Held Submarine-Aircraft Confrontation Drills in a Certain Maritime Space in the South China Sea” [海军在南海某海域举行潜舰机实兵对抗演练], China Youth Daily, November 21, 2015, http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2015-11-20/doc-ifxkwaxv2563788.shtml.
18. Koh Swee Lean Collin, “China and Pakistan Join Forces Under the Sea,” National Interest, January 7, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-pakistan-join-forces-under-the-sea-14829
19. Li Youtao [黎友陶] and Dong Zhaohui [董兆辉], “The South Sea Fleet Organized Anti-Submarine Operations Drills [Which] Continued for 24 Hours Without Interruption” [南海舰队组织反潜作战演练连续24小时不间断], China Military Online, May 26, 2016, http://www.81.cn/jwgz/2016-05/26/content_7073486.htm.
20. “The Three Large Fleets’ Realistic Confrontation,” [三大舰队实兵对抗], China Navy Online, July 14, 2016, http://jz.chinamil.com.cn/n2014/tp/content_7154202.htm.
22. “The Fifth Russian-Made Kilo Submarine [Has Been] Consigned to Vietnam” [第五艘俄制基洛级潜艇“托运”到越南], Xinhua, March 3, 2016, http://youth.chinamil.com.cn/view/2016-03/03/content_6907855.htm.
23. Minnie Chan, “China and US in silent fight for supremacy beneath waves of South China Sea,” South China Morning Post, July 8, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1985071/china-and-us-silent-fight-supremacy-beneath-waves-south.
24.“The Z-18 Anti-Submarine Helicopter [Has Been] Fitted With a New Radar [That] Can Attack Air-Independent Propulsion Submarines” [直18反潜直升机配新雷达 可攻击AIP潜艇], Sina, April 30, 2014, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2014-04-30/1712776972.html.
25.“Expert: “Gaoxin-6” improves China’s anti-submarine capability greatly,” China Military Online, July 10, 2015, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2015-07/10/content_4594293.htm.
26. “China commissions new missile frigate Qujing,” China Military Online, June 12, 2016, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2016-06/12/content_7096962.htm.
27. “A New-Type Corvette Has Been Officially Delivered to the Navy” [新型护卫舰正式交付海军],Ministry of National Defense Website, February 26, 2013, http://www.gov.cn/gzdt/2013-02/26/content_2340335.htm.
28. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016 China Military Power Report.pdf.
29. Victor Robert Lee, “Satellite Images: China Manufactures Land at New Sites in the Paracel Islands,” The Diplomat, February 13, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/satellite-images-china-manufactures-land-at-new-sites-in-the-paracel-islands/.
30. “The PLA Is Building an Effective Weapon in the South [China] Sea’s Seabed Against the American Military’s Submarines” [解放军针对美军潜艇在南海海底打造利器], Sina, June 18, 2016, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/jssd/2016-06-18/doc-ifxtfrrc3844240.shtml.
31. “Our Aircraft Carrier Fitted with an Anti-Submarine Weapon [Will] Make American and Japanese Submarines Not Rashly Dare To Draw Near” [我航母配一反潜利器 使美日潜艇不敢轻易靠近], Sina, June 29, 2016, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/jssd/2016-06-29/doc-ifxtsatm0986174.shtml.
32. Richard D. Fisher, “China proposes ‘Underwater Great Wall’ that could erode US, Russian submarine advantages,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 17, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/60388/china-proposes-underwater-great-wall-that-could-erode-us-russian-submarine-advantages.
33. See also: Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight, “Wired for Sound in the ‘Near Seas,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2014, http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/media-ugc/items/2014-04-28-11-39-30-Goldstein&Knight%20-%20Wired%20for%20Sound%20in%20the%20Near%20Seas%20-%20Apr14.pdf.
34. Li Daguang [李大光] and Chan Jiang [姜灿], “Unmanned Surface Vehicles Have Become a Cutting-Edge Weapon for Future Maritime Warfare,” [无人艇成未来海上新锐武器], PLA Daily, February 12, 2014, http://military.china.com.cn/2014-02/12/content_31445672.htm.
35. Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, “The Great Underwater Wall of Robots,” Eastern Arsenal, June 22, 2016, http://www.popsci.com/great-underwater-wall-robots-chinese-exhibit-shows-off-sea-drones.
36. For instance, Jiao Anlong [焦安龙],“An Exploration of Unmanned Anti-Submarine Warfare Platforms Under Informationized Conditions” [信息化条件下无人反潜作战平台探析], Science and Technology Horizons, (33), pp. 403-404, http://www.cqvip.com/qk/70356a/201333/48101887.html.
37. See, for instance: Megan Eckstein, “CNO Richardson: Navy Needs Distributed Force Of Networked Ships, Subs To Counter A2/AD Threat,” USNI News, March 11, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/03/11/cno-richardson-navy-needs-distributed-force-of-networked-ships-subs-to-counter-a2ad-threat.
38. For recent commentary on the topic, see, for instance: Minnie Chan, “South China Sea air strips’ main role is ‘to defend Hainan nuclear submarine base,’” South China Morning Post, July 23, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacydefence/article/1993754/southchinaseaairstripsmainroledefendhainan.
39. For a more detailed consideration of the undersea balance, see: Owen Cote, “Assessing the Undersea Balance Between the U.S. and China,” SSP Working Paper, February 2011.
40. Dave Majumdar, “Why the US Navy Should Fear China’s New 093B Nuclear Attack Submarine,” National Interest, June 27, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/thebuzz/whytheusnavyshouldfearchinasnew093bnuclearattack16741 .
41. Geoff Dyer, “U.S. to sail submarine drones in South China Sea,” Financial Times, April 18, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/18/us-to-sail-submarine-drones-in-south-china-sea.html.
42. This term is taken from: Bernard Brodie, A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.: 1942.
Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 13, 2016) A sailor from the Chinese navy submarine rescue ship Changdao (867) sits in an LR-7 submersible undersea rescue vehicle off the coast of Hawaii following a successful mating evolution between the LR-7 and a U.S. faux-NATO rescue seat laid by USNS Safeguard (T-ARS-50), during Rim of the Pacific 2016. The evolution was the final event and practical portion of a multinational submarine rescue exercise between seven countries. (Chinese navy photo by Kaiqiang Li)
Consim Press has published a fantastic solo player wargame inSilent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945. With game design by Gregory M. Smith, Silent Victory offers a little bit of everything for someone looking for an immersive, historical naval wargame that is easy to play yet detailed enough to be fulfilling for an advanced gamer.
“EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE.”
– Chief of Naval Operations
It’s 1941 and you are a U.S. sub skipper in WWII; tasked to sink Japanese ships — tankers, freighters, personnel carriers, escorts, and capital warships — wherever you find them in the Pacific. You can play as a historical WWII sub skipper or, rather, you can simply play as yourself and choose the class of submarine you’d like to command. You can evenname the boat.When you crack open the box you’ll be impressed with how well Consim has done here. The patrol maps, captain cards, combat mats, and submarine display mats are all printed on a heavy card-stock and the print quality is excellent. Also included in the box are the required dice and plenty of copies of the Silent Victory patrol log sheet — important, as it is used to record the total number of tons you sink on your combat missions.
The game’s “footprint” is moderate — you’ll need a dinning room table or some floor space to lay out most of the game’s playing mats. However, if you are space constrained, you can simply stack some of the player mats on top of one another and then retrieve them when it is time to reference a mat during a roll. Below you’ll see my setup, and even though I had ample table space, I still stacked some of the mats (namely, the target mats which list all Japanese ships), until I needed them. This is what it looks like:
Game setup is tedious for folks playing the game for the first time. The only reason for this, really, is that you’ll have to punch out all of the game pieces that come with the game. These include everything from Japanese ships to markers that show awards and ranks. Future game setup is much easier if you take the time to organize the game pieces into plastic bags — grouping munitions in one, for example, and then Japanese ships in others, awards in one, torpedoes in another, and so on.
Now, before you start sinking Japanese ships, the basic setup goes like this:
1.) You decide if you want to play a historical skipper, which includes a specific submarine and starting period (you don’t have to start in 1941), to include patrols (e.g,. The Marianas, The Philippines, The Marshalls, and more). Many of these skippers already come with roll bonuses due to experience. The other option is you simply pick a submarine class and starting point (often dictated by when the submarine class enters service) and then roll dice for patrol areas, next;
2.) You’ll load out your submarine with the good stuff — torpedoes in forward and aft tubes, and ammo for the deck mounted guns on your specific submarine type. The game makers made this easy as each submarine combat mat states on the top of the mat exactly the type of torpedoes available for that submarine. For most, this was a mix of MK14 (steam) and MK18 (electric) torpedoes. Finally;
3.) Fill out your Silent Victory submarine log with the name of the sub, your captain’s name, your rank, and place your boat marker at your home port — now you’re ready to begin.
Once you’ve identified your patrol area, you move your submarine marker through the transit points and into the boxes located in your patrol areas. At each point, to include transit points, you’ll roll dice to see if you encounter enemy units.
While transiting, you might come across an aircraft or maybe a lone ship, but this is rare as roll of the dice go. Once you enter your patrol areas, however, the possibilities of rolling an encounter increase. For encounters, you can run into warships, convoys with escorts, or unescorted ships.To the game designer’s credit, they’ve assigned different probabilities per year as to what ships a submarine skipper might encounter. For example, it was tough to find a large Japanese freighter or Japanese capital warship still afloat by 1945.
Next, when you encounter a Japanese merchant vessel or Japanese warship, you can attack it (you can also choose to not attack). You will roll for day or night. Are you surfaced or submerged? You then assign the type and number of torpedoes and/or deck gun shots against your target(s). Then you will roll to see how effective each shot is. If not already obvious, dice will determine a lot of what occurs in this game — damage to your ship, damage to Japanese ships, being detected, dud torpedoes, and more. Oh, did I say “dud torpedoes?” Yes. This was a problem in WWII. It is also one of the things that make this a challenging game.
For every torpedo you fire, you’ll roll a 1d6 dice for a dud. Roll a 1 or 2, well, you are out of luck. It might have hit, but it didn’t explode. Dud. This happened to me at least three times in two patrols. It was a fact — the U.S. Navy had a torpedo problem. Clay Blair Jr.’s magisterial bookSilent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan made this clear:
“…[T}he submarine force was hobbled by defective torpedoes. Developed in peacetime but never realistically tested against targets, the U.S. submarine torpedo was believed to be one of the most lethal weapons in the history of naval warfare. It had two exploders, a regular one that detonated it on contact with the side of an enemy ship and a very secret “magnetic exploder” that would detonate it beneath the keel of a ship without contact. After the war began, submariners discovered the hard way that the torpedo did not run steadily at the depth set into its controls and often went much deeper than designed, too deep for the magnetic exploder to work.”
Blair notes that not until late 1943 would the U.S. Navy fix the numerous torpedo problems.
For my recent game play, I decided to play asLieutenant Commander Slade Cutter, USN. Cutter, who originally intended to be aprofessional flutist, ended the war with four Navy Crosses, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star with combat “V,” and a Presidential Unit Citation. He sank over 140,000 tons of Japanese shipping. In two hours of gameplay I couldn’t come close to that number. But we had a good run. I played the first two patrol areas listed on Cutter’s captain card: The Marianas and The Marshall Islands.
To summarize two patrols and two hours of play, these were the highlights:
I encountered an escorted ship in The Marianas. I rolled a dud for one MK 18 but assigned enough torpedoes to sink the freighter and its escort on subsequent rolls.
I encountered an aircraft. I rolled a successful crash dive and staved off any damage.
I was rebased to Australia following a “random event” roll. (These may occur once in a patrol.)
I refit my submarine when I rebased in Australia.
On my Marshall Islands patrol I encountered a three ship convoy with an escort. I sunk all three merchant vessels, but had to finish the last merchant vessel off with the deck gun (5”) — which I assigned at the last moment.
I encountered a warship which I decided not to engage.
And I returned to base after two successful patrols and earned two battle stars, a navy cross, and rolled for promotion to Commander — which was successful.
I was fortunate. During my two patrols, when I encountered escorts and rolled for detection, I always rolled “no detection.” If I had been detected, I would have had to roll for depth charge destruction. This includes flooding, damage to systems, hull damage, and sailors injured or killed. Not good. But I managed to get everyone back home after two patrols with all fingers and toes. Still, the risk was there every time I decided to engage a convoy with escorts. So, why is this game so much fun?
There are three reasons why this game succeeds.
First, historical accuracy. From the problems with torpedoes, to the detailed lists of Japanese merchant and capital ships, or to the specific weapons load out of each U.S. submarine in WWII, it is all there. The makers of this game did not cut any corners. They did their homework and tried, I think successfully, to incorporate significant historical facts into the gameplay.
Second, a risk/reward based gameplay experience. Every decision you make — from the torpedoes you use to deciding if you want to attack submerged and at close or long distance — incurs risk. There are numerous tradeoffs. For instance, you can attack from long distance submerged, but you suffer a roll modifier and risk not hitting your target. Or, you can be aggressive, and attack at close range, surfaced at night, which may increase your chance of hit but also increase your chance of detection. It just depends.
Finally, simple game rules. Complicated games are no fun to play. As a player, I don’t want to spend 10 minutes looking up rule after rule in a rulebook the size of a encyclopedia. In Silent Victory, the designers have done us a favor. The rules are clearly written and extensive, and after a single read through I referred to them occasionally. But more important, the combat mat has the dice roll encounter procedures printed on it, all within easy view. Also, the other mats all have reference numbers and clearly identify which dice should be rolled for what effects. It is all right there on the mats. This makes for a fun, smooth playing experience. And finally, if I were add another reason why this game is worth your money, it is the game’s replay value. You can conduct numerous patrols and no two patrols will ever be the same.
Silent Victory is a fun naval wargame that will appeal to the novice or expert gamer – and maybe you’ll learn something along the way.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a staff officer at the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The opinions here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.