Inside Asia’s arms race: China nearing ‘breakthroughs’ in nuclear-armed submarines, report says

HONG KONG, Oct 9 (Reuters) – The submarine arms race is intensifying as China begins production of a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines that for the first time are expected to challenge growing efforts by the United States and its allies to track them down.

Regional defense analysts and attaches say evidence is mounting that China is on track to have its Type 096 ballistic missile submarine operational before the end of the decade, with breakthroughs in its quiet powered in part by Russian technology.

Research discussed at a conference in May at the US Naval War College and published in August by the college’s China Maritime Studies Institute predicts that monitoring new ships will be more difficult. This conclusion is credible, according to seven analysts and three defense attaches based in Asia.

“The Type 096 would be a nightmare,” said Christopher Carlson, a retired submariner, marine technical intelligence analyst, and one of the researchers. “It would be very difficult to detect them.”

Covert efforts to track Chinese nuclear-powered and armed ballistic missile submarines, known as SSBNs, are one of the primary drivers of increased deployments and contingency planning by the U.S. Navy and other militaries across the Indo-Pacific region. This drive is expected to intensify when the Type 096 enters service.

The Pentagon said in November that the Chinese Navy routinely conducts fully armed nuclear deterrent patrols with its old Type 094 boats outside Hainan Island in the South China Sea, similar to patrols that the United States, Britain, Russia and France have conducted for years.

But the Type 094 submarines, which carry China’s most advanced JL-3 submarine-launched missile, are relatively noisy — a major drawback for military submarines.

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The newspaper indicates that the Type 096 submarine will be compared to modern Russian submarines in terms of stealth, sensors and weapons. She said the jump in capabilities would have “profound” implications for the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Based in part on Chinese military journals, internal letters of senior PLA officers and patent data, this paper charts more than 50 years of development of the PLA’s naval nuclear submarines.

Contains satellite images taken in November at the new Huludao shipyard in China showing pressure hull sections of a large submarine under construction. This puts construction on schedule to have the boats operational by 2030, a timeline mentioned in the Pentagon’s annual reports on the Chinese military.

The research also details potential breakthroughs in specific areas, including pump-jet propulsion and internal coolants, based on “copycat innovation” of Russian technology.

The Russian and Chinese Defense Ministries did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

The ship will likely be much larger than the Type 094, allowing it to have an internal “raft” mounted on complex rubber struts to dampen engine noise and other sounds, similar to Russian designs.

Carlson told Reuters he did not believe China had obtained Russia’s “crown jewels” — its latest technology — but that it would produce a submarine stealthy enough to be compared to Moscow’s improved Akula submarines.

“We have a hard time finding and tracking improved Akulas as they are,” Carlson said.

Colin Koh, a defense scientist based in Singapore, said the research opened a window into secret research projects to improve China’s SSBNs as well as enhance its anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

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Koh, of S. College, said: Rajaratnam International Studies in Singapore: “They know they are behind the curve, so they are trying to catch up in terms of calming down and pushing.”

Carlson said he believes Chinese strategists, like Russia, will maintain short-term security networks within protective “bastions” close to its coasts, using recently fortified holdings in the disputed South China Sea.

Echo of the Cold War

The prospect of advanced SSBNs will further complicate the already intense subsurface surveillance battle.

In an echo of Cold War-era efforts to hunt down “Soviet boomers,” tracking Chinese submarines has increasingly become an international effort, with the Japanese and Indian militaries assisting the United States, Australia and Britain, analysts and military attaches say.

Anti-submarine warfare training is increasing, as is the deployment of P-8 Poseidon sub-hunting aircraft around Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The advanced aircraft is operated by the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Britain and New Zealand, which uses acoustic buoys and other more advanced technologies, such as scanning the ocean surface, to find submarines at a distance.

The United States is also undertaking the largest overhaul of its top-secret maritime surveillance network since the 1950s to combat a growing Chinese presence, Reuters reported in September.

The prospect of a quieter Chinese SSBN is driven, in part, by the AUKUS deal between Australia, Britain and the US, which will see an increased deployment of British and US attack submarines in Western Australia. By the 2030s, Australia expects to launch its first nuclear-powered attack submarines with British technology.

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“We’re in a great phase here,” said Alexander Neil, a defense analyst based in Singapore. “China is on the right track with a new generation of submarines ahead of the first AUKUS boats — even if they are equivalent in terms of capability, that is very important,” said Neal, an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Research Forum in Hawaii.

Even if China’s submarine force reaches technological parity, it will need to train aggressively and intensively over the next decade to match AUKUS’ capabilities, he added.

Vasily Kashin, a Moscow-based Chinese military researcher at HSE University, said it was likely that Chinese engineers had achieved the breakthroughs mentioned in the report.

Although China likely acquired some key Russian technology in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been no known sharing agreement between Beijing and Moscow other than the 2010 nuclear reactor agreement.

He said China may have made progress through modifications of Russian designs and through other sources, including espionage, but was unlikely to have the latest generation of Russian systems.

“China is not an opponent of Russia in the maritime field,” Kashin said. “It does not create difficulties for us, it creates problems for the United States.”

Greg Torode reports. Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Edited by Gerry Doyle

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