David Lague / New York Times – 2008-02-27 23:03:55
BEIJING (February 25, 2008) — Several recent events, from an eagle-eyed spotting of an image on Google Earth to an overt military delivery from Russia, suggest that China is continuing its rapid expansion of a submarine fleet that would be particularly useful in a conflict with the United States over Taiwan, analysts and military officials said.
American and other Western military analysts estimate that China has more than 30 advanced and increasingly stealthy submarines, and dozens of older, obsolete types. By the end of the decade, they say, China will have more submarines than the United States, although it will still lag behind in overall ability.
“I would say that the U.S. feels a strong threat from Chinese submarines,” said Andrei Chang, an expert on Chinese and Taiwan military forces and editor of Kanwa Defense Review. “China now has more submarines than Russia, and the speed they are building them is amazing.”
The United States Navy developed a range of antisubmarine sensors and weapons in the cold war that are still considered the world’s best. But fighting submarines has been less of a military priority since then, experts say.
Several events have shed light on the growth and technological advances in China’s fleet.
In late 2006, one of China’s new Song-class conventional submarines remained undetected as it shadowed the American aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, although the exact details of the encounter remain the subject of continuing debate. It then surfaced well within torpedo range.
To some China experts in the United States military, that was an aggressive signal to Washington that China could challenge the United States Navy in waters around Taiwan. It also showed that Chinese submarine technology had advanced more rapidly than some experts had expected.
“The U.S. had no idea it was there,” said Allan Behm, a security analyst in Canberra, Australia, and a former senior Australian Defense Department official. “This is the great capability of very quiet, conventional submarines.”
In July, in another sign of technological progress, China displayed photographs and models of its new Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine at an exhibition in Beijing. Two submarines of that class are in service, the official People’s Daily newspaper reported then.
In October, Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear weapons researcher with the Federation of American Scientists, spotted a Google Earth satellite image that appeared to show two of China’s Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Some military analysts were surprised that China had built a second submarine of that class so soon after the first, in 2004.
And to put the improvement of its fleet on a fast track, China has also taken delivery of 12 advanced Kilo-class conventional submarines from Russia, defense experts say. Experts say the designs of the newest Chinese submarines show evidence of technical assistance from Russia.
Many foreign security experts, including senior Pentagon analysts, say China’s main objective in upgrading its submarine fleet is the ability to delay or deter a United States intervention on behalf of Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and has warned regularly that it would use force to prevent Taiwan from moving toward formal independence.
Stealthy submarines with torpedoes and antiship missiles would pose a direct threat to the deployment of American aircraft carrier battle groups, likely the first line of response to a Taiwan crisis, security experts say.
The Pentagon is monitoring China closely, officials say. “Chinese submarines have very impressive capabilities, and their numbers are increasing,” the senior American military commander in Asia, Adm. Timothy Keating, said in Beijing recently.
He urged China to be more open about its plans, which he said would reduce the risk of crisis or conflict.
Senior Chinese officers have said the buildup is strictly defensive.
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