It is vital for the United States to take pride in its advances in military doctrine, strategy and technology. But when does pride blind us to emerging threats? The People’s Republic of China is emerging as an economic, diplomatic and military competitor to the United States and we cannot continue to take lightly Chinese acquisitions and applications of military technology. Even if this Chinese experimentation leads to failure, the attempt itself represents a commitment to advancement.
More than 20 experts on Chinese maritime and security policies discuss the significance of China’s nuclear submarine force. Retired Vice Adm. Eric MaVadon makes an argument that China’s navy is in an adolescent phase, experimenting with longer range cruises and the application of a combination of varying submarine forces. The People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN still grapples with whether better-educated officers or party loyalty should be paramount for advancement in their navy. But this should not be viewed as a permanent problem with the Chinese navy.
The PLAN is attempting to conduct exercises in more distant waters but currently the bulk of its naval forces are restricted to the littorals of mainland China. The September 2006 joint naval exercise between the PLAN and U.S. Navy was remarkable. It showed a new confidence to conduct joint training, which in the past was undertaken reluctantly by China for fear of espionage and, more importantly, the fear of perception and embarrassment if they did not perform well in the joint multi-national exercise environment.
The book discusses how China’s submarine force is built around eight Kilo-class submarines. These are not your father’s Russian Kilo’s but diesel subs that are much quieter and can loiter in the ocean depths for longer periods of time before needing to resurface. The partners to these kilo subs are Shang-class (Type 093) nuclear submarines used not as attack subs primarily but as reconnaissance platforms to track U.S. carrier strike groups. One maritime tactic discussed is the use of Kilos coupled with Song- and Yang-class conventionally powered subs to overwhelm a U.S. warship. One can mock Chinese antiquated technology, however, it’s not the technology but its application and potential in crisis that counts. Kilos combined with aged Ming and Romeo subs all bring ways to divert, deceive and attack an opponent. There are also the Jin-class (Type 094) SSBN. These are considered China’s second strike nuclear option if land-based nuclear silos are taken out.
Bernard Cole, who’s written extensively on China, discusses the evolution of Chinese naval and maritime strategy. He reduces their national objectives to operations against Taiwan, defending Chinese claims in the East and South China Seas, strategic deterrence against the United States, Russia and India, securing sea-lanes of communication for trade and finally showing China’s power and flag around the world.
Paul Godwin’s chapter explores China’s emerging doctrine such as no first use of nuclear weapons and the concept of minimal deterrence, a product of China’s limited number of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
William Murray discusses China’s interest in Air Independent Propulsion that gives non-nuclear subs the ability to remain submerged for up to two weeks. Today China relies heavily on foreign sub technology, but according to this chapter, could produce indigenous submarine technology within a decade.
The chapter on China’s aircraft carrier dilemma by Andrew Erickson and Andrew Wilson is a fascinating look into a rational discussion among China’s leaders as to the utility of even having a carrier, and what that may mean to the balance of power in the Pacific. In addition, if a carrier is needed, the Chinese are likely to opt for a smaller helicopter assault carrier versus anything the size of a Nimitz-class carrier.
Reading this excellent volume should waken many of us in the U.S. Navy to remain vigilant and always explore the totality of assets a potential adversary may have, even though they maybe technologically inferior to our own.
Editor’s Note: Lt. Cmdr. Aboul-Enein served as Middle East Country Director and Advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2006. He currently is a Defense Department Middle East Analyst with a passion for U.S. national security issues. He wishes to thank the John T. Hughes Library in Washington DC for providing the environment and atmosphere to read, reflect and write this review.