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China chases US and Russia guided-missile submarine capabilities with new vessels

Hong Kong: Chinahas launched its first nuclear- poweredguidedmissile submarines, according to the Pentagon’s latest report onChina’s military – giving it landandsea attack options once the sole province ofUSandRussianvessels.

The Pentagon report, published October 20, marks the first apparent confirmation that modifiedsubmarinesseen in Chinese shipyards over the last 18 months are Type 093Bguidedmissilesubmarines.

Reuters revealed in May 2022 that satellite images from Huludao shipyard in northeastChinashowed anewor upgraded class ofsubmarine, possiblywithvertical tubes for launching cruisemissiles.

The Pentagon report says that in the short term, the Chinese navy “will have the ability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from itssubmarineandsurface combatants using land-attack cruisemissiles, notably enhancing (China’s) power projectioncapability”.

Known as SSGNs, conventionally armedmissilesubmarineswere developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War in part to targetUS aircraft carriers, while theUS Navy developed its own version by converting ballisticmissileboats to carry large numbers of land-attack Tomahawk cruisemissiles.

Cruisemissilesare typically long-range, precision weapons that, unlike ballistic weapons, fly at low altitudes or skim the surface of the sea.

ThesubmarineUSS Florida fired 93 Tomahawks against Libyan air defences in 2011 – the first combat strikes from aUS SSGNandan event that regional military attaches say was closely studied by Chinese strategists.

Some analysts say the PLA navy will be eager to deploy thevesselsas an extra weapon against aircraft carriers as well as a land-attack platform, allowing strikes from a far greater range than its fleets of smaller attacksubmarines.

The report notes that three of thenewSSGNs could be operational by next year, as part of a wider expansion of itssubmarinefleet – both nuclearanddiesel powered – which could number 65vesselsin 2025.

The Chinese defence ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The confirmation comes amid an intensifyingsubmarinearms race asChinaconstructs anewgeneration of nuclear-armed boats as part of its evolving deterrent force.

The effort to trackChina’ssubmarinesat sea is one of the core drivers of increased deploymentsandcontingency planning by theUS Navyandother militaries across the Indo-Pacific region.

Singapore-based security scholar Collin Koh said the SSGNs were an importantnewcapabilityfor the Chinese navy.

Withan expected core armament of cruisemissiles, “this potentially allows them to carry out saturated landandanti-ship attacks at standoff range”, he said, which would complicate strategic calculations byChina’s rivals.

“I would also expect the Chinese have learned from the Russian experience in using them to threatenUS aircraft carriers –withan SSGN, you can launch strikes at standoff range, unlike a typical attacksubmarinethat could have more limited weapon options,andthat is a real advantage,” said Koh, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“I would also expect the Chinese have learned from the Russian experience in using them to threatenUS aircraft carriers –withan SSGN, you can launch strikes at standoff range, unlike a typical attacksubmarinethat could have more limited weapon options,andthat is a real advantage,” said Koh, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Research discussed at theUS Naval War College in May noted that the PLA was close to breakthroughs in making its nuclear-poweredsubmarinesfar quieterandmore difficult for theUSandits allies to track.

Some diplomatsandanalysts said, however, that it was unclear whether those breakthroughs had been incorporated into the recently launched SSGNs. The upgrades are expected in nuclear-powered boats launched before the end of the decade.

“Unless they are certain of improvements, we can expect the PLA navy to be cautious in how they initially deploy them,” said an Asian military attache who is trackingChina’ssubmarineforce. The attache declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. “But we know thesubmarineforce is a priority for Xi Jinping,andthis is one more sign they are getting there.”

(Published 25 October 2023, 10:19 IST)

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