The Chinese Submarine Threat

What is the scale of the threat to U.S. supercarriers of China’s growing undersea capabilities?

The Chinese Submarine Threat

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

There has been extensive debate in recent years about modern Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems rendering the aircraft carriers of the United States Navy (USN) highly vulnerable if Beijing and Washington were to clash in the western Pacific. Particularly ominous is the growing undersea arm of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, China’s attack submarine fleet consists mainly of diesel-electric boats (SSKs) ­– there are 57 of them, as well as five nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). Of these, the more modern ones include two Shang SSNs, 12 Kilo SSKs, and 12 Yuan SSKs.

Experts often allude to the threat posed by SSKs to the U.S. flattop. This is because the SSK, which is quieter than its nuclear-powered counterpart, is seemingly often able to slip detection by the carrier’s escorts. There have been numerous instances of American carrier groups being surprised by SSKs, friendly or otherwise, during either training exercises or regular deployments. The most famous is arguably the 2006 incident of a Song surfacing at a distance within firing range of the Kitty Hawk battle group. Critics point out that if a relatively inferior sub like the Song was able to penetrate the carrier’s screen, a more capable one such as the Kilo would find the endeavor easier.

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