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The Nanxun Jiao Crisis and the Dawn of Autonomous Undersea Conflict

Fiction Topic Week

The following story is the next installment of a series on micronaval warfare. Read Part One of Admiral Lacy’s oral history on the emergence of micronaval warfare, “The Battle of Locust Point.”

By David R. Strachan


TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare.

Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret.)

November 19, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN 


Good morning.

We are joined again today by Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, widely considered the father of autonomous undersea conflict, or what has come to be known as micronaval warfare. Admiral Lacy spearheaded the Atom-class microsubmarine program, eventually going on to establish Strikepod Group 1 (COMPODGRU 1), and serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). He is currently the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is the second installment of a planned eight-part classified oral history focusing on Admiral Lacy’s distinguished naval career, and his profound impact on modern naval warfare. In Part I, we learned about the genesis of the Atom-class microsubmarine and its operational construct, the Strikepod, and the series of events leading up to the first combat engagement of the micronaval era, the Battle of Locust Point, where a Strikepod of prototype Atoms tracked and engaged several Russian Istina-class microsubmarines prowling the upper Chesapeake Bay during Baltimore Fleet Week, 2016. Today our discussion will focus on the aftermath of Locust Point, the continued development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, as well as the early days of autonomous undersea conflict, including the first major confrontation of the micronaval era, the Nanxun Jiao Crisis.

The period following Locust Point was a time of high tension and uncertainty. With the United States now facing an unprecedented undersea threat to both the homeland and forces abroad, the president, through a series of classified executive orders, mobilized a full range of U.S. defensive capabilities. This included authorizing a broad expansion of the Atom-class microsubmarine program via the Joint Undersea Initiatives Group (known colloquially as FathomWorks), a consortium of leading defense contractors and specialized units of the United States Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps charged with, among other things, developing a coastal undersea network to defend against foreign micronaval threats.

We joined Admiral Lacy again at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Let’s begin today with FathomWorks. Paint the picture, if you will, of those early weeks in the wake of Locust Point.

It was all about testing, evaluation, and improvement. The Atom had performed admirably, but for all intents and purposes, it was still a prototype, and there were serious gaps in coms and navigation that needed addressing, as well as kinks with Falken [the Atom’s artificial intelligence]. Our vision for the Atom-class was achievable, but in order to get there we had to enhance Falken dramatically. Strikepods would be operating – and fighting – in a complex, communication-denied environment for extended periods. This demanded a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence, as well as a more evolved approach to human-machine teaming.

We emerged from Locust Point feeling pretty validated, and confident that Strikepods could be more than just another club in the bag, that they promised much more than minehunting or intel gathering. We knew that this was a capable platform in and of itself that could be integrated into the fleet at the operational level.

But there was no time to dream and tinker. Our mandate was clear, and the sense of urgency was unmistakable. The Russians were on the move, and the threat they posed to our security was greater than at any time since the Cold War. Our analysts had taken one on the chin with Locust Point, but they’d been warning for months that Moscow was working on something highly advanced and very closely guarded, but there was no indication that anything was operational, much less poised to invade our inland waters. A lot of folks at the Pentagon laughed it off. But they weren’t laughing now, especially when we took a closer look at Poseidon.

So Locust Point influenced the Navy’s perception of the Poseidon program?

When we first heard of it, it seemed more implausible than Istina. That the Russians had the know-how or the resources to develop an autonomous microsubmarine was difficult enough to believe, but when we started receiving information on a nuclear-tipped autonomous torpedo, we were honestly beginning to wonder if we were the target of a wildly excessive disinformation campaign. Even when we received intelligence that it had been test fired from the Sarov, we just didn’t see it as a viable platform. But the Istina changed all that.

In what way? 

If the Russians were capable of the miniaturization and AI integration – and audacity – we’d experienced with the Istinas, then we had to assume that Poseidon would eventually threaten our shores as well. We needed a viable micronaval defense.

And so the Atlantic Undersea Network was born? 

Yes. The Atom was incredibly flexible by design, and could be configured to fulfill a multitude of roles. We’d been tossing around concepts for mine warfare, including a variant optimized for the seabed, something akin to a mobile, local area SOSUS, with the capability to detect and engage both surface and subsurface targets. The idea, conceptually, was to have Strikepods fanned out across the seabed near certain approaches to the eastern seaboard – Bangor, Boston, New York, the Chesapeake, Norfolk, Kings Bay. These would serve as the ears for either roving hunter-killer Strikepods, or Atoms housed in undersea microsubmarine batteries. In this way, AUDEN would essentially be an integrated minefield.

The signature feature of the seabed-optimized Atom was the Advanced Seabed Warfare module which, in addition to providing a suite of highly advanced communication and sensor technologies, also housed the SEASTAR [Seabed Static Array] – a passive microsonar array that would deploy from the module and extend about 150 feet upward into the water column. With their SEASTARs deployed, the networked seabed Atoms could act as a large array, identifying and classifying targets and passing that information along to the Strikepods – either roving, or turret-based.

AUDEN was clearly prompted by the immediacy of the Russian micronaval threat, but were you also troubled by other adversary programs, such as the Chinese Shāyú-class microsubmarine? 

We were keenly aware of adversary developments, particularly with the PLAN. The intelligence we’d been receiving on the Shāyú was spotty, but given China’s public successes with Haiyi gliders and deep diving vehicles like the Hailong III, as well as their commitment to an Undersea Great Wall, we were fairly confident that not only did the program exist, but that it was in all likelihood operational. And it wasn’t long before our suspicions proved correct.

In the South China Sea? 

About six months after Locust Point, late in the spring of 2017, I got a call from Seventh Fleet inquiring about our progress on the improved Atom, and whether we’d be up for an overseas deployment. At that point we’d pretty much improved the coms issues, and Falken’s training and testing was nearly complete. After checking with the engineers, we thought we were up for the challenge, and on April 1, 2017, half a dozen 5-ship Strikepods were deployed to the Spratlys in what was called Operation Eminent Shadow. Each pod’s initial configuration was one rogue, two remoras, and two relays, and their mission was to carry out general ISR and ASW operations, focusing primarily on the waters off of Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross, and to escort both surface ships and submarines performing FONOPS throughout the central Spratlys.

So there was harassment under the sea as well? 

Oh, absolutely. Of course, none of these encounters ever made headlines. It simply wasn’t in anyone’s interest to publicize them, and anyway there was more than enough high-profile harassment happening on the surface to keep the public and media buzzing.

The concerning thing was that Chinese subs were showing up unexpectedly, at times and places that suggested they knew where we were. Their Y-8s were dropping buoys practically right on top of our boats, and destroyers and frigates would show up suddenly to shoo us away. It was reminiscent of what we were experiencing with our boomers right before the Istinas showed up at our front door. Needless to say, COMPSUBPAC’s hackle was up. So the Strikepods were there to help figure out what the hell was going on.

Were they under the control of COMSUBPAC?

Actually, they were under the control of COMPODGRU 1, out of Norfolk, Virginia. There’d been a great deal of debate over this – whether Strikepods were a platform or payload, whether there should be a centralized Strikepod command versus a more decentralized payload approach. But we pointed at the Air Force piloting Reapers and Predators out of the southwest, and said look, there’s no reason why Strikepods can’t be run out of Norfolk, particularly when we’re talking about providing a persistent forward presence like any high-value asset.

So we’d airlift the Atoms to Guam, load them onto waiting Virginias, who’d then deploy them – from the torpedo tubes, initially, until we were able to fully integrate a launch and recovery system with the Virginia Payload Module.  And then we’d get to work, reporting contacts, keeping tabs on the PLAN. We were even able to test the Remora Module in a live environment, tracking a Yuan-class submarine for ten straight days all over the Central Spratlys. It was all going pretty smoothly, with high fives all around. But the Chinese were still showing up unannounced.

What was it like when you finally encountered the Shāyú? 

It was another day of Eminent Shadow, nothing particularly unusual. It’s Caitlyn’s thirteenth birthday, and I’ve got chaperone duty at 1400 for ice-skating and a fondue dinner, so I skip out early, but then at around 1545 I get an “urgent” from the watch: Something’s happened.

When I get back, the place is going bananas, and a watch officer briefs me. One of our Strikepods – Delta – on patrol off Subi had detected three small contacts closing at about fifteen knots. Initially they were classified as biologicals, given their signatures and behavior, and sensing a collision, the rogue ordered evasive action, accelerating and diving, while ordering a relay to break off and come shallow, probably to ensure communications. A second later, one of the contacts breaks formation and heads toward the relay.

So now Falken is faced with something it’s only experienced in the lab. We’d been developing some rudimentary combat tactics and introducing them into the training regimen, running scenarios where Falken would encounter something hostile. But in almost every case it chose to flee rather than fight. There were just too many variables, too much ambiguity for it to go lethal without a human on the loop giving the order.

The first contact reaches the relay and their signals promptly disappear. With the two remaining contacts closing on Delta, Falken orders Flee, and the Atoms scatter. The contacts split up and lock on to the two remoras, and thirty seconds later they also disappear. The rogue scans for additional threats, and finding none, orders relay-2 to head to the surface to phone it in.

Fortunately Falken had ordered all ships to fire their onboard imaging systems, so from the moment Delta went evasive there was running video. Of course 99 percent of it was just black water and bubbles, but there were five screen grabs that were very compelling.

You had a visual? 

It was another one of those moments – like Cape Charles when we first laid eyes on an Istina. I was honestly half expecting to see an eye, some flukes, or a long jaw and teeth. But there it was – a short hull, a propulsor. We knew it then – we’d just encountered the Shāyú-class microsubmarine.

Was there continued harassment by the Shāyús during Eminent Shadow? 

Almost daily, and as such there was a real sense of urgency at FathomWorks to get Falken in a place to adequately defend itself. We were losing Atoms at a rate of nearly five per week. They needed to fight back.

Were there no attempts at communication? No back channel diplomatic overtures by either side? 

It’s important to understand – this was the dawn of autonomous undersea conflict, a time when there were very few environments left for sovereign governments to carry out covert operations without risk of exposure. The Chinese tactics were risky, to be sure, but they believed – correctly – that we had a shared interest in keeping this sort of thing quiet. The undersea community, regardless of nationality, has always been characterized by a cult-like devotion to secrecy, and in the unmanned era, it would be no different. In fact, in some ways there would be an intensification of that silence, if you will, given the willingness to take greater risks with systems that were hidden from public scrutiny, and posed no risk to human life.

But the risk, of course, was that this new type of conflict could spill over into the manned, visible world and precipitate a more serious, potentially bloody crisis. I’m referring, of course, to the Decatur, and the Nanxun Jiao Crisis. 

Yes, of course. Just because the conflict is unseen and unmanned doesn’t insulate it from the overarching strategic reality. It’s woven into that reality, and its effects can indeed break the surface and escalate, as it did at Nanxun Jiao.

Can you tell us about the Decatur incident, and the events leading up to the strike on the Nanxun Jiao installation? 

So, after Subi we could confirm the Shāyú’s existence, and that the Chinese were serious about it as an ASW platform. It was an eye-opener for sure, but beyond that we knew very little – its capabilities, performance characteristics, or Chinese microsubmarine tactics, or doctrine. But then we had a HUMINT breakthrough.

CYAN? 

In early 2018, we get a call from the CIA station chief in Manila. Apparently the embassy received something in the mail that might be of great interest to us – a letter with a simple handwritten sketch of what looks like a missile turret, but on closer inspection the missiles are actually small submarines. Below that sketch are a series of random dots that are actually a fairly accurate representation of the Spratlys. One of the dots has a circle drawn around it – the northern reef of the Gaven Reefs, what the Chinese call Nanxun Jiao.

Needless to say, we were intrigued, but what was particularly intriguing was how the sketch bore a striking resemblance to our working concept for AUDEN.  So the CI folks immediately open a file, and we’re left pondering the possibility that the Chinese have deployed a battery of microsubmarines, and that it could be based on a design stolen from a highly classified U.S. Navy program.

What was the response? 

Well, we were alert to the possibility of disinformation, but to what end? To draw us in to Nanxun Jiao? A lesser-militarized island, one that appeared to be used primarily for logistics and resupply?

We weighed the options carefully, and ultimately decided we needed to take a look. Rather than divert resources from Eminent Shadow, we shipped a new 5-ship Strikepod via SH-60 to the nearest destroyer, USS Decatur, and about six hours after delivery, the FONOP is underway, with the Strikepod sweeping the reef. At first it’s pretty routine, nothing unusual, but then at the five minute mark, we get a flash: seabed contact. Falken positions the Strikepod for a closer look, and thirty seconds later, another flash. Shāyús in the water. Six of them. So we order an immediate withdrawal to Decatur, and the Shāyús give chase.

By now the PLAN destroyer Lanzhou has made her appearance, and has closed to around three miles. The Strikepod, with the Shāyús in pursuit, is at flank, but won’t reach Decatur before it can be safely recovered. So we have a decision to make. Since the encounter at Subi, the engineers at FathomWorks had been working nearly nonstop on combat scenarios, and even worked with DARPA to develop a special wargame for Falken to help it anticipate conflict and learn how to fight. But we were still uncomfortable with it making the call. So we dipped a SUMO [Shipboard Undersea Modem] and hoped it would get the message.

What followed was seven minutes of sheer chaos. The Strikepod goes hot, and now it’s a furball. All that training seems to have paid off, and we were looking at a much different outcome than Subi. But what we quickly realize is that the Strikepod isn’t the Shāyús’ objective. Three of them disengage and resume course toward Decatur, and by the time the captain orders the ATT [Anti-Torpedo Torpedo System] to engage, it’s too late, and they slam into Decatur’s hull just aft of the sonar dome. Meanwhile, the remaining Shāyús and the Strikepod fight it out until the end. About a minute later the Lanzhou makes its aggressive pass across Decatur’s bow.

Was there any damage to the Decatur? 

Nothing of any consequence. Some scratched paint. The Shāyús were inert. It was a warning, and a damn stern one at that.

What was the reaction in Norfolk? 

Shock, on a host of levels. We’d just experienced the most aggressive harassment yet. Chinese employment of microsubmarines was unsettling enough, but they were based on the seabed near disputed areas, and were tasked with threatening our manned warships and kinetically engaging our unmanned systems.

But more unsettling still was what the imagery revealed. As CYAN’s letter suggested, the Chinese system was nearly identical to AUDEN. The turret, the network of sensors on the seafloor, complete with SEASTAR-like tentacles.

They’d gotten there first?

AUDEN was still in testing, so it certainly appeared so. Maybe they’d already made a lot of headway, and the stolen design helped push them over the edge. We knew the Chinese were making huge strides in AI and seabed warfare, but this was too much too soon. The signs were clearly there. They’d either hacked us, or they’d had help.

We knew this was coming, though. We knew that microsubmarines were the future of offensive mining operations, and we were well on our way with Strikepods. But we weren’t expecting our adversaries to be quite so far along.

What was the reaction in Washington? 

We’d been patched into the Situation Room from the very beginning, so all the principals were well aware of what we’d found. Needless to say, they shared our concerns, but were also particularly concerned with the strategic implications – that China had moved beyond island building to leveraging the seabed for weapons emplacements. And of course, if it was happening at Nanxun Jiao, surely it was happening at Subi, Mischief, Fiery Cross, and others.

It was a complex situation to say the least, and there were some fairly heated discussions on how to proceed. Many believed we should strike immediately, to send a message that this type of illegal installation would not be tolerated, particularly as it has been used to destroy sovereign U.S. property and threaten a U.S. warship. Others called for expanding Eminent Shadow to include all of the waters off disputed outposts in order to build a diplomatic case and compel the Chinese to dismantle the sites.

And where did you fall on the matter? 

I felt the crisis called for a blended approach, that neither one alone would have done the trick. Even though a show of force risked emboldening the Chinese, we needed to send a strong signal. Diplomacy could come later, but behind closed doors. A Cuban Missile Crisis-style U.N. confrontation would have made for riveting diplomatic theater, but what if the Chinese didn’t blink? We were talking about what they believed was their territorial sea. So they don’t blink – they refuse to dismantle their microsubmarine batteries. What then? U.S. credibility would be on the line, and we would have no choice but to take action – what would be, at that point, very public action. And suddenly we’re at war in the South China Sea.

And ultimately your approach won the day? 

Yes, it did. The president ordered an immediate expansion of Eminent Shadow. We were deploying Atoms by the dozen to the South China Sea, and all told, spent about eight weeks gathering evidence. 

As you might imagine, we encountered quite a bit of resistance. The Chinese were onto us now, and were expecting us to go sniffing around. The PLAN was on high alert, stepping up air and surface activities, and Shāyús were everywhere.

The Atom’s LENR [Low Energy Nuclear Reactor] afforded excellent standoff capability, so we were able to launch all of the sorties from well offshore. The Strikepods would arrive on station, form up, and wait for the go order. They’d fight their way in, and, with any luck, a few Atoms would penetrate far enough to capture some imagery, beam it to the others, and then race to the surface to relay the data. The plan worked about 75 percent of the time, gathering more than enough evidence to satisfy the policymakers. We lost nearly 120 Atoms out of the 150 participating in the expanded Eminent Shadow. Expensive, yes, but they weren’t human casualties. This new form of conflict was evolving right before our eyes.

And what did you find? 

Ultimately we found operational systems off of Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross, with partial construction off Hughes, Johnson, and a few others.

So you have the evidence you need to make a compelling case. Now you move on Nanxun Jiao?

Yes, the planning for the Nanxun Jiao strike – or what was now being called Operation Roundhouse – was complete.

Tell us about Operation Roundhouse. 

During the expanded Eminent Shadow, we were also keeping a close eye on Gaven Reefs, with particular focus on any human comings and goings at the Nanxun Jiao undersea installation. The last thing we wanted was casualties, and from what we could tell, the schedule was routine. Every Wednesday at 10am local, a dive tender would head out over the spot and they’d deploy, and we’d listen as they performed routine maintenance, and after about two hours or so they’d surface and head in.

After several weeks of recon, the date was set – a Saturday at 0300 to avoid any possibility of human activity or unwanted attention from satellites or passing aircraft. (The turret was at a depth of fifty meters, so there would surely be a disturbance on the surface.)

The package was sixty Atoms strong, organized into three waves of Strikepods that would make a staggered approach. The Shāyús had a tendency to be all in at the first sign of trouble with almost no reserve, so we hoped the first wave would draw them out, exposing the turret’s flanks and allowing waves two and three to penetrate and carry out the mission.

The package launched at 0215 for the cruise to staging, approximately 10 miles west of Nanxun Jiao. The go order went out at 0245, and then we waited, watching a real-time feed via a surfaced relay trailing approximately 500 yards behind.

At three miles out we hear the Shāyús pinging away, and at two miles they engage the first wave. Resistance is light, which, in hindsight, should have been cause for concern. We only lose about fifteen Atoms during the first wave, and waves two and three meet with almost no resistance at all. Falken had been trained to race toward the target and detonate at the last possible moment, but with such little resistance we were able to perform a static demolition to ensure more thorough destruction.

So we pull back, and we’re watching the split screen with feeds from various perspectives, including the kill vehicles as they continue to close, and as the turret comes into view…

[Admiral Lacy pauses here.]

That’s when you saw them?

I called immediately for confirmation. The pilots switched frantically between feeds, and, yes – quite distinctly. Dive suits. Four of them.

The room erupted, and we immediately fired off a flash to abort. The relay confirmed, but it was already too late, and half a second later the screens went blank. BDA later confirmed that the mission was a success. The turret was completely destroyed, and many of the surrounding network sensors appeared badly damaged or disabled. We searched in vain for three hours, but there was no trace of any divers.

The next day we received the news.

From Chinese state television?

The lead story was an explosion at a CNOOC facility that claimed the lives of four offshore divers. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for Beijing to cover up accidents of any kind, particularly when they were security related or politically sensitive. But then we received word from CIA, who’d been running CYAN from the beginning. They’d been trying to track him down, to recruit him for more, and in the course of their research they’d determined that the letter had likely come from a member of the Nanxun Jiao dive team, and that one of the four divers reportedly killed in the CNOOC accident – a Mr. Xin Li – was in fact CYAN.

The Chinese had been onto him?

 Perhaps CIA had been careless while poking around and attracted the attention of Chinese counterintelligence, or…

Or they’d been tipped?

 A very real possibility as well.

And they’d known you were coming?

The fact that Mr. Li had been exposed, and that this had likely led to his death – his execution – along with those of three others, was of course problematic enough. But the fact that there were divers down as Roundhouse was underway, and that one of those divers was most likely the individual who led us there in the first place – the implications were unimaginably grave.

Some questioned whether they’d been killed elsewhere, and were never down there at all. But I’m fairly certain they died there that night. The Chinese wanted to send a message to would-be traitors, and especially to us. It was textbook psychological warfare. They wanted us to know we’d pulled the trigger.

What I can tell you is that there were people in the room that day who were never the same again.

I know I wasn’t.

And the aftermath?

Nanxun Jiao was spun as a stalemate, but it was really a Chinese victory. Four casualties and the perils of autonomous undersea conflict were too much for the politicians to stomach, and so, much as Chinese island building had gone unchecked for years, so too would their undersea buildup continue. 

In just three years we were an order of magnitude beyond Locust Point, and the brave new world of autonomous undersea conflict was coming into focus. The underwater realm was more secretive, more complex, and more dangerous than ever before, but one thing in particular was becoming inescapably clear:

Nothing less than total undersea dominance was at stake.

[End Part II]

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Project 885 Yasen Class Submarine by Isra Tan.

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.

References

  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 Defense.com Forum at www .china-defense.com/forum/index.php ?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)

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.

References

  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)

The Nazi’s U-Boat Ace

By Christopher Nelson

Author Larry Paterson joins us to discuss his new book, Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-Boat Commander

Nelson: Let’s start with you. You live in Italy, you’re a SCUBA instructor, a drummer for a heavy metal band, and you write books about naval history. I’ll admit, it is one of the more interesting author bios I’ve read on a book flap. So how did you end up writing books on naval history?

Paterson: It does seem to surprise people sometimes! Growing up in New Zealand, a lot of people we knew had served in Second World War and even the previous war. One of my grandfathers had gone ashore on the first day of Gallipoli in 1915 and then gone through the Somme, Passchendaele, and so on, while the other was ex-Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy, and fought in the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. So, the subject of military history was always around, and both of them taught me that it was never as simple as black and white, good and bad, when it came to warfare. Most people hated Germans, while both my grandfathers respected them. I suppose that my interest in the German side of Second World War stems from that.

I left New Zealand in 1988 to be a drummer in the UK (and to see Iron Maiden live because they kept canceling New Zealand tours), so found myself near most of the battlefields I had read about. I’ve been diving since I was a teenager, and I became an instructor, eventually running my own little operation in Brittany, France, which is littered with Kriegsmarine wrecks. The U-boat bunkers and Atlantic Wall are all still there and a friend of mine called Jon Gawne sent me a copy of the First U-Boat Flotilla’s War Diary, who were based in my area. The rest just seemed to come together after that really.   

Nelson: Your newest book is about one of the Nazi’s most successful U-Boat commanders. U-boats, I believe, are a subject in some of your other work. What is it about the German Navy of World War II, particularly U-boats, that fascinates you?

Paterson: I have studied – and continue to study –  all aspects of the Third Reich’s military machine, and specializing in the Kriegsmarine kind of came around by accident after receiving the War Diary and diving on a lot of Kriegsmarine wrecks. Of course, you can’t study one side of a military and political conflict in isolation, so Second World War warfare, in general, is fascinating. I’m glad I was able to know so many people that were actually there, because most are gone now.

Why am I fascinated with U-boats? I don’t honestly know. It’s an intensely interesting subject, as is the whole of the Wehrmacht. What motivated people to fight against such odds? I do not for one minute subscribe to the ‘all Germans were Nazis’ idea that people keep saying, as that provides purely political motivation as a driving factor. There were undoubtedly some like that, as there are now in overly nationalistic people, but in general, the Wehrmacht was made up of ordinary working people. Even the Waffen SS can’t be explained by running home to the ‘Nazi’ label. It was an extraordinary phenomenon, the military services of the Third Reich.

One of my all-time favorite historians Max Hastings writes very lucidly about it and claims, with (I believe) great validity, that the German forces were probably, as a whole and in general terms, the most militarily adept of the war. It’s hard to deny the fact though they were frequently led by chaotic orders, and with such finite resources and a regime despicable in its treatment of subjugated people (even their own) they were always bound to fail. This in no way denigrates other nations’ military. For example, I now live in Italy, a nation whose efforts in the Second World War are roundly mocked, and yet who had superb Special Forces, paratroopers, and torpedo bomber pilots. So…going back to your original question before I got sidetracked into the complexities of it all…why am I fascinated? I have no idea!      

Nelson: Who was Otto Kretschmer? Where does he sit in the ranking of other U-boat commanders when you refer to “scoring” in the subtitle of your book?

Paterson: Kretschmer was the most successful U-boat captain of the Second World War, and the term ‘scoring’ relates to the total tonnage of shipping that he sank while commander of both U23 and U99. It’s terminology that is frequently used in military books dealing with all branches of service, be it tank commanders, fighter pilots or U-boat skippers, but in reality, it is a rather glib way of putting it. Counting tonnage sunk was at the heart of Dönitz’s entire U-boat campaign which, in effect, was designed to sink more merchant shipping carrying capacity tonnage than could be replaced, thereby reducing the cargo carrying potential to Great Britain and correspondingly succeed in enforcing a blockade that could starve Britain into submission.

U-52, A Type VIIB German Submarine (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it has probably become a term that is used too freely in books that deal with the U-boat war. Every ship that was sunk was the home of those crewmen, and even those that went down with no casualties frequently involved a lot of fear, panic, the loss of belongings and even the stoppage of wages for many merchant seamen! Then there are the other ships that sank in flames with men killed and injured and frequently left to die. The other side of the coin is identical: U-boats being sunk with men trapped inside the hull and crushed by extreme pressure or dying through air starvation or the myriad other ways that killed three-quarters of the men of the U-boat service. As always, that is the reality of such a war, which can be somewhat ‘anesthetized’ by talking about a U-boat commander’s ‘score.’ Nevertheless, it is a quantifiable measure of military success, and Kretschmer ranks at the very top of that ‘league table.’ 

Having dived on many wrecks which are war graves, that moment gives you a sense of humility and gravity that I think is very important to remember. The same as standing at the cemetery near Omaha Beach. Truly sobering, and an important feeling for anybody who studies and writes about war to be aware of.

Nelson: What was the standard path for a German submariner to become a captain of their own boat? Did it differ greatly from the allies?

Paterson: Not particularly, though it accelerated greatly as the war dragged on and the ‘old guard’ were either posted ashore or lost in action. In the early stages, men enlisted as officer cadets, served as midshipmen, then junior officers before — if judged competent — given their own command. Often a training boat at first, though that morphed into a combat boat involved in training and trials before heading to the front. Kretschmer was amongst the ‘first wave’ of young captains, the men that served as his First Watch Officer amongst the ‘second wave’ and beyond that the entire process got quicker and quicker. Men were sometimes going to sea with little command experience, and with crews that had been drafted into the U-boats. The mythology of a force of volunteers is just that, a myth.     

Nelson: Did the Germans have better submarines than the allies? How quickly were the German’s able to innovate and field new submarines, and what types of submarines did Kretschmer serve on?

Paterson: Perhaps the Germans possessed better submarines in the early stages of the war. Certainly, the Type VIIB (like Kretschmer’s U99) was a finely-honed weapon, and the larger Type IX cruiser submarines well-suited to more distant operations. However, there hadn’t really been that much development between the wars and the types were reminiscent of those that served in the First World War. The Type II that Kretschmer started on a was a good coastal boat, but of limited endurance and weapon load. The Type VII was the backbone, particularly the later Type VIIC. These had excellent seakeeping qualities and a well-designed hull that gave it quite an extreme depth capability for a boat of its time. Creature comforts were few, but then that can be the story of the Wehrmacht. Conditions aboard a combat boat were difficult, particularly on a long voyage where living and working space was sacrificed for supplies, and yet people just dealt with it.

U-37, A type IXA U-Boat in Lorient (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as development after the war had begun, that proved a major stumbling block. Rather than create a completely new design, modifications to the existing frames were made so that by 1943 the boats were virtually obsolete. The Germans failed in the cypher war most spectacularly when they refused to concede the possibility of compromised codes and were frequently one step behind Allied countermeasures such as radar, the Leigh Light, and air superiority.

The finite resources that Germany waged war with sealed the fate of the entire Wehrmacht; the Luftwaffe declining quickly and unable to counterbalance Allied material and tactical strength. Things like the snorkel helped briefly but were never going to swing the tide of war, much as the German attack that became the Battle of the Bulge was never going to alter the outcome of the war but gave the Allies a momentary fright. The development of the Walther propulsion system never came to fruition and the Type XXI electro-boats would have had to come into service in early 1944 to make any appreciable difference, and even then it would be doubtful. They too were deeply flawed in their construction, due to the dislocation caused by Allied bombing. The Type XXIII electro-boat saw service and was an effective machine, but carried only two torpedoes! The same loadout as a Seehund midget submarine — and not really of much greater endurance. 

So, before the war had gone past 1941, the Germans were reacting to Allied technological and tactical advances rather than leading the field. Dönitz never had enough boats in action during the early years when they could have made a difference. He wanted 300 before war was declared — he started with 57. By the time he had the numbers, the U-boat war was already lost and the ‘greats’ who had captained the ‘Ace’ boats were gone.    

Nelson: I was fascinated to learn in your book that the Germans had their own problems with torpedoes. I’ve read about our own challenges with U.S. torpedoes in the early part of the war, but I wasn’t aware of the Kriegsmarine’s troubles. What exactly was the problem with German torpedo performance? Kretschmer experienced some of this, did he not?

Paterson: German torpedo performance was abysmal. It wasn’t just the Kriegsmarine that suffered this problem, it was the same with aerial torpedoes for the short-lived naval air arm and the Luftwaffe. A lack of rigorous testing and technological development rendered them next to useless. It was really a combination of things that damned the German torpedoes.

First, while the contact detonator that had been used during the First World War was simple and reliable, it had been redesigned between the wars to an overly complex series of levers that were supposed to provide a wider angle in which the trigger would fire, but in effect did not work. It was tested only twice before being issued, and even those tests did not go well.

So, U-boat skippers were advised to use magnetic pistols. However, not only did Allied degaussing provide a problem for them but geographical variations in the earth’s magnetic fields rendered them inoperable — as in Norwegian waters during 1940.

However, even if they had worked, the triggering of a magnetic detonator required the torpedo to pass beneath a ship’s keel at a set depth and German torpedo depth keeping was compromised by a leaking balance chamber. Original tests of the torpedo’s depth keeping had been done at ordinary atmospheric pressure, but the internal pressure of a U-boat differed, and this differential leaked into the chamber and caused torpedoes to run deeper than set and thereby not triggering. This problem wasn’t remedied until the end of 1942! Instead, commanders began to rely on pattern running and, later, acoustic-homing torpedoes that could be countered.      

Nelson: Another thing I read with fascination – again, because it is something that can plague any Joint Force today – and that’s Germany’s challenge of coordination between the navy and the air force. You write that on one deployment, the Luftwaffe attacks Kretschmer’s boat. What happened? And was this a problem throughout the entire war?

Paterson: Yes, indeed…For an effective military, they were extremely ineffective sometimes! The relationship between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine was frequently strained; a situation that stemmed from the very top as Göring was vainglorious and boastful and despised the ‘cold’ and aristocratic Raeder. It is true that Raeder did not really value the U-boat service as much as his ‘big ships’ but he also failed to understand the potential of aircraft as an offensive maritime weapon, soon demonstrated by most other countries’ navies. Göring, on the other hand, wanted tight control of everything that flew in Germany and frequently engaged in the kind of petty political maneuvering that was rife within the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht and Third Reich as a whole, often at the expense of operational necessity.

Kretschmer’s U-boat was actually attacked by a floatplane from the Scharnhorst after it strayed unintentionally into a prescribed search and attack radius given by the battleship’s reconnaissance aircraft who were guarding against British submarines. But there were more deadly examples of the lack of cooperation between the two services such as when two destroyers were sunk as a result of a German bomber attack. That example was a combination of faulty Luftwaffe navigation — most of their crews not properly trained in nautical navigation — and lack of communication between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands as neither was made fully aware of the other’s movements in time to brief operational crews.   

It’s an interesting topic in itself and I’m actually working on a book about Luftwaffe maritime forces, a long and complicated story! The reality is that although aircraft like the Focke Wulf 200 Condor are (in)famous for their role in the Battle of the Atlantic, they were woefully unprepared, unsuitable, undertrained and underequipped. Thankfully, for the Allies! Proper air and sea coordination between better led, better equipped, and better-supplied forces could have been devastating.   

Nelson: How good was Kretschmer as a tactician? Did he prefer the surfaced night attack? If so, why?

Paterson: He was very good. He was unwilling to follow the norm and obey whatever operational protocol was being promoted. Like many of his generation of U-boat commanders, he thought outside the box and always had two overriding motivating factors: combat effectiveness (i.e. results) and crew welfare. He would not jeopardize his boat or crew without a good chance of survival and success.

His preference was to penetrate the convoy body itself, at night and on the surface. Once submerged, the U-boat was slow, detectable, and unwieldy. On the surface it was fast, well-armed, maneuverable and hard to see as he would sail with the hull trimmed as low as feasible providing very little silhouette. It took great concentration, quick thinking, efficient lookouts, and a good torpedo officer as the First Watch Officer actually aimed and fired while surfaced as the captain maintained the ‘overall look.’

He was not the only commander to adhere to the ‘one torpedo, one ship’ mantra, as Erich Topp and Günther Prien did, to name but two. But their methods were far more successful than the prevailing operational advice of firing a spread of torpedoes from outside the convoy escort screen and hoping for one or two hits.   

Nelson: He’s eventually captured and taken into captivity in Canada. Yet he almost escaped. Can you briefly tell us about that episode?

Paterson: He was captured and did end up in Canada. The escape attempt was relatively far-fetched as it required traversing a great distance to be picked up by a U-boat off the Canadian coast. Not impossible, though as it transpired, not workable either. The tunnel was discovered, although one man did make it over the wire in a separate attempt and managed to reach the area of the rendezvous. Of course, the Allies had discovered the entire plan, and were waiting to trap the U-boat, U536, that had been sent to rescue them. The U-boat skipper sensed the trap and retreated, and the single escaped prisoner was caught. In fact, U536 was soon sunk thereafter as well.  

Nelson: Kretschmer was never a fervid Nazi, was he? What did he do after the war?

Paterson: He wasn’t a particularly politically motivated man, though he was undoubtedly nationalistic. His roots were in Silesia so he would have felt the fractious relationship with Poland resulting from the previous war and was probably in favor of the Third Reich’s stated ambition of reuniting and reinvigorating Germany. But, I don’t want to guess at his thoughts on the matter, as it is indeed a complex area which is also, of course, very sensitive for people. After the war he returned to Germany, studied maritime law, and then joined the navy once more. That in itself would have been a difficult time for such veterans as the Germans attempted to distance themselves from militarism, and yet some of their senior officers were ex-Wehrmacht and extremely militaristic. Tricky.    

Nelson: Das Boot (the film) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Brilliant. I actually prefer it to the book. One of my stock questions for U-boat veterans was what they thought of the film. In general, they were all very positive, give or take a few scenes. Many did not like the bar scene and said they would have little respect for officers who passed out and vomited on themselves. Others said there was too much noise from the crew during depth charging, but in general, the consensus was that it is as close to reality as any film has been. Personally, I think it is a superb film in every way. I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the film sets that are at the Bavarian Film Studios and open to the public, and it is remarkably like being inside U995 at Kiel. On the other hand, the movie U571 is junk of the worst kind, in every possible way, apart from a great U-boat model!

U995 in Kiel (Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson: Das Boot (the book) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Great book but prefer the film. More U-boat men that I spoke to don’t like the book so much. Sometimes that is because they could not stand the author Buchheim, an ex-propaganda reporter during Second World War. A man that certainly divided opinion amongst the veterans I have spoken to!

Nelson: Who, in your opinion, are some of the other naval historians writing about the German Navy during World War II whose work you admire?

Paterson: There are a lot, I’m not really sure who to name. As I’ve said before, I really like the work done by Max Hastings, though his books are not specifically naval at all. But his studies of aspects of the entire war are truly excellent. He has a refreshing ability to apply clarity and reasoned argument to subjects that are often considered done and unalterable. His views are forthright, accurate, and well presented and I find his books inspirational as he is not afraid to approach subjects as they actually are, rather than repeating the ‘party line.’ It’s hard to make a voluminous study of the war so readable, but he does it. In a similar way that Cornelius Ryan used to with such great books as A Bridge Too Far and so on. Also, Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle For Europe takes some beating. My favorite authors about U-boats? Very hard to say…maybe Jak Mallmann Showell’s older books, Jordan Vause, Eberhard Rössler… I would find it easier to say which books I don’t like…but I’m not going to! 

Nelson: This is great. Thank you.

New Zealander Lawrence Paterson has written fifteen books related to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War – predominantly concerning German naval operations – and one about his time on the road as part of the Blaze Bayley band. He is working on two more books which mark something of a new direction; the first being a history of Luftwaffe maritime operations, and the other detailing Operation Colossus, the first British parachute drop of the war. He is also a scuba diving instructor after having first learnt to dive in New Zealand in 1984, and a touring heavy metal drummer, a career that he started at about the same time! He now lives in Puglia, Italy, with his wife, three cats, two drum kits and a library of books.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: German U-boat attack, World War II. Artwork of German sailors on the conning tower of a U-boat (submarine) that has surfaced after sinking a British cargo ship during World War II (1939-1945). This 1941 painting is by German artist Adolf Bock (1890-1968).