Submarines: Chinese Submariners Strain for Supremacy


May 28, 2024: The Chinese Navy has 78 submarines but 90 percent of them are conventional diesel-electric designs. China has some nuclear powered attack and SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) submarines. In contrast the U.S. Navy has 63 submarines in service, all nuclear powered and 18 of them are Ohio Class SSBNs (Ballistic Missile Carrying submarines). The rest are SSNs (Nuclear powered attack submarines). The United States is in the midst of building over sixty new Virginia class SSNs and preparing to build a new class of SSBNs. The U.S. Navy has established and maintains high standards for officers and sailors on its nuclear subs. Americans submarines remain at sea much longer than Chinese submarines. China is trying to catch up but is finding that serving on submarines is not a popular career choice for Chinese Naval officers. As a result the submarines’ officers are low quality and would rather not be serving on submarines.

Because of this China has had a lot of problems with its submarines. Their submarines are poorly designed and built. The crews are often poorly trained and supervised. Back in 2003 this led to an incident where 70 officers and sailors aboard a Chinese submarine suffocated and died. The sub did not sink, it just drifted for weeks until the Chinese Navy searchers found it and all the dead personnel on board. To remedy this situation the Chinese Navy has been ordered to improve crew training and demonstrate the success of that by keeping the subs at sea longer while operating as they would in wartime.

This means the U.S. Navy is encountering Chinese submarines in areas of the central Pacific where Chinese subs had rarely been seen. This has put a strain on Chinese submarines and their crews because neither has operated this far into the Pacific before. The Chinese government ordered its submarines to regularly patrol the central Pacific, and not just along the Chinese coast as they had in the past. The Chinese are new to operating on the high seas, otherwise known as far out in the open ocean. The Americans have long been out there because the United States has no local enemies on the north and south American continents.

The Americans and Chinese are both dependent on seaborne imports and exports. Thousands of ships regularly operate out of American and Chinese ports because these two countries are the largest importers and exporters in the world. Keeping those ocean sea routes safe is important for both countries. Enemy submarines are the major threat to those commercial transports and it’s been eighty years since there has been a threat to commercial sea lanes. The U.S. Navy exists to protect American seagoing trade and threaten that of its enemies. The only potential enemy now is China but the Chinese are also heavily dependent on trade by sea, both for imports to keep the Chinese population fed and supplied with all manner of goods. The U.S. is the largest exporter in the world and the American economy is dependent on that trade to maintain the high standards of living Americans have become accustomed to.

For both China and the United States, control of seaborne trade is essential in wartime. American submarines have operated off the Chinese coast since World War II when the Americans began mining the waters around Japan to block essential food imports from Japanese occupied northern China. In the 21st century China is dependent on imports of food and other goods. So are the Americans, but not to the extent the Chinese are. America can survive without seaborne trade but modern China cannot. Before the 20th century China used seaborne trade to bring in luxuries, not essentials. That has changed and China is scrambling to build a navy that can protect its trade routes. Currently the Americans are able to threaten those trade routes and China is having a difficult time coping. Chinese submarines in the central Pacific and even along the American West coast are a possible solution but one that is very difficult to achieve. At the moment China is trying to build submarines and train crews that can operate on the high seas and threaten U.S. Navy operations in the western Pacific and off the Chinese coast.




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