China’s stealth submarines spread more fear and anxiety along its coast

Growing geopolitical tensions mean that military assets such as submarines are increasingly seen as targets for enemy forces One day in October 2016, a Chinese submarine had lunch with its US crewmates. When the…

China's stealth submarines spread more fear and anxiety along its coast

Growing geopolitical tensions mean that military assets such as submarines are increasingly seen as targets for enemy forces

One day in October 2016, a Chinese submarine had lunch with its US crewmates. When the mealtime tradition concluded, it lifted a large device from the subsides, setting it afloat in the beige hull of an Australian frigate. Minutes later, another Chinese submarine arrived with a similar device.

As US and Chinese naval forces gather off the Korean peninsula, skirmishes across the China’s exclusive economic zone appear to be on the increase. The submarine episodes were part of what analysts have dubbed a “routine series of military encounters”, yet the apparent show of force highlighted how naval forces are increasingly seen as potential targets by rivals.

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A naval officer told the ABC that it appeared the activity was meant to deter rival countries from breaching the Chinese-claimed South China Sea. Chinese submarines are more capable than Chinese warplanes, such as bombers and fighters, because they operate mostly at depths of more than 3,000 metres, which is at least 4,500 feet deeper than the depth of the South China Sea.

The Chinese are concerned about US naval forces following their deployment to the South China Sea after China placed the controversial artificial island of Mischief Reef on the western edge of the disputed sea last year.

A spokesman for the US Pacific Command declined to comment on the submarine incident. The report of the incident comes on the heels of a similar naval incident last year, in which a Chinese submarine reportedly approached an American aircraft carrier strike group.

While submarine operations are generally carried out in silence and without a media presence, satellite imagery and photographs frequently capture a ship’s surface, while the site of a collision or incident can be difficult to spot. These incidents can be difficult to verify until images of the incident are retrieved.

Unlike wars, submarine operations are highly difficult to predict, even with detailed advance information, as in November 2016, when a Chinese submarine encountered some Canadian crewmen when it was off the French island of Reunion, which lies near the Strait of Malacca, through which is flows 85% of the world’s trade. The crew described a “white smoke coming from the bottom of the submarine”, according to Global News.

“Submarines tend to be deployed in smaller numbers than aircraft, and submarines do not have a coordinated radio frequency to communicate with each other,” said Philip Hensher, author of six books on modern submarine warfare.

“Yet the reported sighting of white smoke indicates not just human error, but possible enemy interference. Our best defence is to remember that we are merely pawns in a much bigger game, and to keep our heads down, out of sight, in the background.”

China’s air force and navy have acquired cutting-edge stealth technology and firepower. The air force has 46 bombers, 50 modern fighter aircraft and six intercontinental ballistic missiles, the full weight of which China has been developing for months now.

Despite being dwarfed by the US air force and able to only fly and launch fewer than 2,000 flights a year, Chinese air force possesses more pilots in its training force than American fighter pilots. “Certainly the aircraft that China is buying or developing are certainly more advanced than aircraft in the American military,” said Hensher.

Surface-to-air missiles

China appears to be pursuing projects to improve its air defences, with reports earlier this year that it had developed missiles based on the Russian ARROW technology, designed for long-range missile strike.

“I think they are also working on submarine and naval defence – mostly short-range, anti-submarine missiles,” said Hensher. “Short-range missiles, the kind of things that could be shot at submarines, are something that are really important and relatively new, and pretty hard to get good at.”

He said Chinese submarines had been relatively difficult to detect because they did not employ technology such as sonar and radar and thus resembled normal ships. This is likely to change, as the fleet is more experienced, sophisticated and well-equipped.

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