Was America hunting for a new killer submarine?

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Was America hunting for a new killer submarine?

STRATFOR.COM's Global Intelligence Update Apr 5, 2001


Amid all the hullabaloo between the United States and China over the downed surveillance plane, it is pertinent to ask just what the plane was doing in the first place. A series of incidents, stretching back several years, indicate that the US has been hunting for signs of a breakthrough in Chinese submarine technology - one that poses a serious threat to America's most powerful conventional weapon, the aircraft carrier.


The loss of the EP-3E aircraft means the demise of some of the United States' capabilities to eavesdrop along China's coastline. It also could eventually spell more trouble for relations between the two countries.

Both observations beg the question: What was a US spy plane doing down there in the first place? True, missions are flown routinely along the China coast. But a series of incidents, stretching back several years, indicate that the United States has been hunting for signs of a breakthrough in Chinese submarine technology - one that poses a serious threat to America's most powerful conventional weapon, the aircraft carrier.

There have been a rash of arrests of Western defense attaches in China. And recently a US vessel was chased from an exercise area. Both actions suggest China is close to a breakthrough in its long-stalled efforts to build an effective submarine threat. Sources in China confirm the Chinese military reaction to the EP-3E incident was sharp because the military is trying to safeguard its submarine secrets.

There are two vessels at issue. The People's Liberation Army Navy placed a new version of the Russian-designed Kilo-class submarine into service on April 4, 2000, according to a brief report in the Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Jih Pao. The new Kilo is equipped with anti-ship weapons and has conducted recent drills simulating combat with carrier-type warships, according to the paper, which cited sources in the People's Liberation Army. It takes up to a year to qualify a new vessel and crew for duty at sea.

But the Chinese navy may have made a more significant breakthrough. It has been working for years on a variant of the larger, more powerful Victor III submarine. This submarine, known in China as a Type 093 and which was due for completion some time in late 2000, was designed to launch cruise missiles while submerged. That would allow the Chinese to threaten the pre-eminent American weapons system in the region, the aircraft carrier.

The flight of the EP-3E along China's coastline suggests it was monitoring transmissions of navy vessels and coastal installations. The aircraft may have been looking for signs of either of these two submarines as well.

It appears the US Navy was taking an intense interest in a recent exercise far to the north in the Yellow Sea - not far from the port where the new boat has been under construction. That's where the US vessel was chased away.

It is an unusual coincidence that the damaged American EP-3E made an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The island lies at the epicenter of China's efforts to extend its naval force far beyond its coastline. By doing so, it can interdict the sea lanes that bring oil to Northeast Asia. The Chinese also could put an end to their worst nightmare, realized in 1996, when American carriers were just off the Chinese coast.

To the north of the island is the headquarters of the South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang. Zhanjiang is a likely target for collecting Chinese signals from telephone calls and other transmissions because it controls operations into the hotly contested Spratly Islands. Two submarine flotillas operate out of the South Sea Fleet, according to a recent version of Jane's Security Assessment. Hainan hosts a naval base at the northern port of Haikou.

It appears likely the new Kilos not only have entered service but also may have been certified to take part in deep-water operations, ostensibly against American carriers in the case of war.

The US Defense Department estimated last year that the Kilos will be adapted to use Russian technology in sonar as well as weapons systems. In a report last year, the department estimated China "is expected to begin arming some of its submarines with submerged launch cruise missiles". The Chinese navy is also emphasizing its own anti-submarine operations, especially training.

"As a result, China's submarine fleet could constitute a substantial force capable of controlling sea lanes and mining approaches around Taiwan," the US military report concluded, "as well as a growing threat to submarines in the East and South China Seas".

Operations in the South China Sea are the key for China to break out of its largely defensive naval posture. From the South China Sea, the Chinese can intercept an opposing force - far away from the mainland. Such a force can harass shipping, particularly ships carrying petroleum, to Japan and South Korea. The Chinese military appears to feel the United States, keenly interested in the submarine program, is moving to counter this threat by bringing its own weapons closer to the coast.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 06, 2001

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