China surprise

What we can probably expect from China in the near future is specific demonstrations of strength—like its successful forcing down of a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane in the spring of 2001. Such tactics may represent the trend of twenty-first-century warfare better than anything now happening in Iraq—and China will have no shortage of opportunities in this arena. During one of our biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercises the Chinese could sneak a sub under a carrier battle group and then surface it. They could deploy a moving target at sea and then hit it with a submarine- or land-based missile, demonstrating their ability to threaten not only carriers but also destroyers, frigates, and cruisers. (Think about the political effects of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, off the coast of Yemen in 2000—and then think about a future in which hitting such ships will be easier.) They could also bump up against one of our ships during one of our ongoing Freedom of Navigation exercises off the Asian coast. The bumping of a ship may seem inconsequential, but keep in mind that in a global media age such an act can have important strategic consequences. Because the world media tend to side with a spoiler rather than with a reigning superpower, the Chinese would have a built-in political advantage.

And so it has come to pass. Robert Kaplan wrote that in the Atlantic in June 2005. Just over two years later we have this:

American military chiefs have been left dumbstruck by an undetected Chinese submarine popping up at the heart of a recent Pacific exercise and close to the vast U.S.S. Kitty Hawk – a 1,000ft supercarrier with 4,500 personnel on board.

By the time it surfaced the 160ft Song Class diesel-electric attack submarine is understood to have sailed within viable range for launching torpedoes or missiles at the carrier.

According to senior Nato officials the incident caused consternation in the U.S. Navy.

The Americans had no idea China’s fast-growing submarine fleet had reached such a level of sophistication, or that it posed such a threat.

One Nato figure said the effect was “as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik” – a reference to the Soviet Union’s first orbiting satellite in 1957 which marked the start of the space age.

You can draw your own conclusions from the Chinese action.

3 thoughts on “China surprise”

  1. Something I have seen aboard the USS Sellers (DDG 11, now decommissioned) is that subs shadow fleets all the time. It’s not uncommon for picket ships to permit foreign submarines inside a carrier task force and when transiting the Med, you have to expect the presence of a foreign vessel underneath occasionally.

    Russian subs play this same kind of game with American Carrier Task Forces. They don’t surface much–that was well-played.

    In a 21st century navy, a carrier looks big and menacing but her eyes and ears are often hundreds of miles away in the hands of weapons control officers aboard nondescript fast frigates. Those vessels use passive array systems that can detect and distiguish aquatic and non aquatic signatures over 300km. If a SONG class submarine surfaced within a half mile of a frigate ship, there would be a much different story to tell. The Daily Mail story is good for a chat but I wouldn’t take it as being an indictment of American naval capabilities.

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