A red threat lurking beneath the sea: China dramatically ramping up submarine fleet

China‘s military is building up its submarine forces as a priority for its large-scale military modernization, according to the latest annual Pentagon report on the Chinese military.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has placed a high priority on expanding the already modestly growing submarine forces, working to mature the forces, add new technologies and expand shipyards.

“The PLAN currently operates six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines, and 44 diesel-powered/air-independent powered attack submarines,” the Pentagon report said.

A total of 65 to 70 submarines will remain deployed through the 2020s and older submarines will be replaced on a near one-to-one basis with new vessels.

A major worry for the Pentagon is the increase in the number of conventional submarines that can fire advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. These missile-firing submarines include 12 Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, eight of which can fire anti-ship cruise missiles.

China‘s shipyards have delivered 13 Song-class units (Type 039) and 17 Yuan-class diesel-electric air-independent propulsion attack submarines (Type 039A/B),” according to the Pentagon report.

A total of 25 or more Yuan submarines will be built by 2025, the report said.

The PLAN has already produced 12 nuclear-powered submarines during the past 15 years. They include two Shang-1-class and four Shang-2-class nuclear attack subs. China‘s nuclear-missile firing submarines include six Jin-class boomers equipped with JL-2 missiles.

“Equipped with the CSS-N-14 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) [4,474-mile-range], the PLAN‘s six operational JIN class SSBNs represent the PRC’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” according to the Pentagon report.

A new version of the Shang-class submarines will be built by the mid-2020s and will “enhance the PLAN‘s anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles,” the report said.

A push by the PLAN to bolster its efforts to track and attack foreign submarines are also advancing.

The Pentagon report said the PLAN is improving anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities on surface warships, and special mission aircraft.

The Chinese military, however, lacks a robust deep-water anti-submarine warfare capabilities, the report said, although it asserted the following: “By prioritizing the acquisition of ASW capable surface combatants, acoustic surveillance ships, and fixed and rotary wing ASW capable aircraft, the PLAN is significantly improving its ASW capabilities.”

“However, it will still require several years of training and systems integration for the PLAN to develop a robust offensive deep water ASW capability.”

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