August 8, 2016

China's SSBNs limited by Opposing Submarines - Part Four

Shallow Sea Disadvantage

Map A - The map above indicates that China's whole coast is uncomfortably shallow for SSBNs (less than 200 meters (m)) from China's main SSBN Base (Yulin/Sanya on Hainan Island) then north:
- on the edge of the South China Sea
- up through the Taiwan Strait,
- East China Sea
- Yellow and Bohai/Po Hai Seas.

This shallowness makes Chinese submarine (including SSBNs, SSNs and SSKs) movements partly channeled and more predictable for opposing submarines and Western undersea sensor layers. For the sensor map see August 1's, Part One Map C). This makes quietness/discretion all the more important for Chinese SSBN.

In addition to China's shallow coastal water the ability of Chinese SSBNs to break out into the more desirably open Pacific Ocean is corralled by the islands of Japan, Ryuka Islands/Okinawa. Senkaku Islands, Taiwan,  Bashi Channel/Luzon Strait, Philippine Islands, then Indonesian Islands (including Borneo) in the South. I'll talk about alternate Chinese territorial actions in Part Five.

Opposing Forces

Between all of thes islands Japanese and US laid sensors are likely (or definite August 1's, Part One Map Cand act as trip-wires to rapidly indicate Chinese SSBN breakout attempts.

In a shooting (medium to high intensity) war the US and Japan could act quickly to weaponize the undersea sensors, with:

-  rising from the seafloor mines-small torpedos (which may have been already laid/laced in the 
   sensor network)
-  MPAs (eg. P-8s, P-1s and P-3 Orions) dropping depth bombs or small torpedos. More rapid B-1
   bombers, F/A-18s or F-15s dropping the same.
-  SUBROCs (available since the 1960s) and cruise missiles (from Harpoons to Tomahawks and
   similar) carrying warheads-torpedos.

Map B - The HQ of each of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army - Navy (PLAN's) Fleets are indicated, along with ship and submarine numbers in each. China's 4 Yulin-Sanya based SSBNs (South Sea Fleet) are at Hainan Island just south of Zhanjiang HQ.  (Map courtesy page 29 of US DoD, Annual Report to Congress - Chinese Military Power 2016 large 7 MB PDF. Pages 25 - 26 itemises all the PLA-N subs

As reflected on the Chinese PLA-N orbat on Map B China has many SSKs and some SSNs to protect and/or run decoy actions for the SSBNs. The top-cover from Chinese aircraft and missiles (including Chinese SUBROCs, cruise missiles and DF-21Ds (in an ASW role) could also protect Chinese SSBNs as could Chinese surface ships and undersea sensors-mines.

See Map C (below) for all the Asia-Pacific submarine forces. USN subs are not included in part because they can be rapidly redeploy from the US West coast, Hawaii and Indian Ocean patrols.

Opposing Submarine Forces 

In peacetime to low intensity confrontation Western submarine forces, on station and/or alerted by SOSUS (plus other sensor) sensors could be directed to tail the Chinese SSBNs. Assuming the Chinese SSBN set out from Hainan or are already in the South China Sea (SCS), Western submarine forces could include:

-  about 4 to 10 US SSNs (from Yokosuka Japan, Guam or elsewhere) coming from any direction.
-  from north and east about 4 Japanese SSKs (of 16-18 available) from Yokosuka or Kure, Japan or 
   already on patrol down to the Philippines area. 
-  from south and west of the SCS subs from 2 more of the US's allies (namely Singapore (4) and 
   Australia (3?)) 
-  Indian SSN's may have reason to track Chinese SSBNs as well
-  meanwhile South Korea's and others subs from the Japanese Navy might be available for any
   Chinese SSBN deployments in the Yellow of East China Seas. 

Of course in a confrontation all Western navies in northeast Asia would also be watching out for Russian and North Korean submarine activities.   

India Relevant

Map C - (can be made much larger scale here) All the Asia-Pacifics submarine forces (except the USN's). India can be included because Indian sub's (including SSBNs) may need to, or want to, venture into the Pacific to put China's eastern seaboard cities at risk. India's current SSBN (INS Arihant) may eventually mount 1,000 km range K-15s (insufficient to hit much of China from Indian Ocean launch points). 

Until India fully develops the long range K-4 SLBM Indian SSBN may need to operate in the Western Pacific if it is to plausibly put China's main cities (on the east coast) at risk.

Part Five - on Chinese geographical strategies will follow later this week.



Josh said...


Thought you might find this interesting since you mention the B-1 for weapon deployment. The B-1s can already deploy free fall quick strike mines - mk80 series bombs with tail retard kits and nose mounted pressure/magnetic/sound sensors. In the case of the B-1 and mk-82 bomb body (mk63) mines, this means 84 weapons could be deployed in a line in the space of under five minutes flight time. With 500 meter spacing between mines, a 40 km long barrier could be laid with mines containing 100kg explosive each - keep in mind USS Princeton was felled by a pair of bottom mines half that size undergoing sympathetic detonation. Submerged subs are much more vulnerable to mine damage. Multi bombers could make multiple lines in a larger more complex field. The shallow water of all of the major fleet base areas means this could be effective dozens of miles off their cost, likely below the radar horizon of shore facilities (B-1s are specifically designed for <100 meter altitude weapon delivery). More recently the US has added guide kits to its bottom mines:


Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh

The dynamics of US B-1 land and naval bomber deployments are of considerable (though officially understated) interest in Australia. Much of that comes from current or future use of Tindal Air Base (in Australia's Northern Territory) as a southern stopover airbase for US B-1s, B-52s and a secure emergency airbase for B-2s. see

As you have written B-1s (other bombers and MPAs) can drop lines of smart mines + presumably sonobuoys, anti-ship missiles, land attack missiles and bombs.

A strategy may be that once the Malacca Strait is easily blocked to Chinese tankers then Chinese oil and gas tankers will need to more heavily move north through straits in an arc from Java through to the Solomon Islands. This is noting China's oil/gas not only comes from Middle East/Africa but from Australia, PNG and Southeast Asian Countries. that you provide is a useful indication that all sorts of US and allied airpower can get involved in rapidly destroying China's tankers. Submarines also. China trying to organise pipelines through Burma and Russia may not be an adequate substitutes out to 2040.



Josh said...


I think the allure of Australian bomber basing is that it is far enough away to be hard for the Chinese to target (as oppose to Kadena or Anderson) but much closer than flying all the way from the US. The distances are somewhat large, but a B-1 could make it to the SCS and back practically without refueling (alternatively one or more bomb bays can be fitted with additional tanks for extended range and reduced payload). With minimal tanker support B-1s could hold any coastal base at risk of direct attack or mining, and when the LRASM enters service, surface formations can also be engaged. Conversely the Northern Territory is out of the claimed range of DF-26 and *might* just barely be in range of H-6Ks armed with CJ-10As, likely with refueling required. Even that would require them flying straight to the target at high fuel efficient altitudes through the radar coverage of less than friendly nations (Indonesia or the Philippines) effectively taking Australia off the target list. Out bound B-1s can expect little trouble from either nation or, if absolutely necessary, can simply burn more fuel and fly at low level to avoid radar.

I don't see bombers or mines being used to block civilian traffic through the straights around Indonesia - they are over kill for this role. Any MPA, submarine, or surface ship could be used for that mission assuming civilian traffic was being engaged, which seems unlikely in anything but a very long term conflict. The PLAN has little capability to escort that far south in any case.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,

I wonder if the PLAN could go for a hi-lo mix in the 2030/40s.

With advancement in missile-tech and battery-tech, a fleet of ~ 12 SSKB [4/6 SLBM @ 144/216 warheads - assuming 3 on each SLBM], which will be keep near the coast. They will mostly lay on the sea-floor running on batteries - protected by the fairly large next-gen SSK-fleet and coastal assets. Those SSKB could be "simple" stretched version of the next-gen SSK.

Politically-reliable & competent officers would promoted to the big boomers after earning their rep on the smaller boomers.

The hi-component would be let's say 12 Type-096 SSSBN [24 SLBM @ 864 warheads], assisted by ~ 24 Type-095 SSNs.

Instead of being in a bastion, they deploy as wolfpack of 1 SSBN & 2 SSN-escort.

The OPFOR would stretch their sub-fleets very thin to keep an eye on both the big boomers AND the small ones and the PLAN CSGs and the other PLAN assests.

This also allows the PLAN to keep a permanent SSKB patrol at a lower cost, while the SSBN will only be "surged" in case tensions or sending political messages.

Team Eurowussies

Anonymous said...

The hi-lo mix is given. Look at China's approach to main battle tanks. They view their Type 99 to be too expensive so it is destined only to elite units. The rest of their armor units will have to contend with the cheaper (and not as good) Type 96/96B.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh [at 10/8/16 12:18 AM]

As well as the safer distance for US bombers, marines and naval vessels from China:

Darwin and Tindal in Australia’s Northern Territory allow:
- more secure overflight (than SE or NE Asia) for US bombers and MPAs,
- mid-air refuelling,
- ground maintenance (if necessary),
- alternate basing (in war time).
- the Northern Territory also has a handy bombing range .

Also Darwin and Tindal are on the route for US aircraft from US-Pacific airbases flying to Middle East deployments.

True that mining is unlikely in straits and seas crossed by large numbers of non-Chinese ships. This is noting Japanese and South Korean tankers and most other nations use the Malacca Strait-South China Sea.

Smart seafloor or tethered mines closer to the Chinese coast would be more likely. A historical precedent is mines being very successfully dropped by B-29s into Japanese waters in WWII.

This article yesterday is interesting



Peter Coates said...

Hi Team Eurowussies [at 10/8/16 11:58 PM]

I don’t think the PLA-N would wish to pursue a SSBN-SSKN hi-lo mix at any time.

All nations with full sized SLBM nuclear strategic plans WHO CAN AFFORD SSBNs go for SSBNs. This includes the US, UK, CHINA, France, Russia and now India.

N Korea and Israel can’t afford SSBNs so have gone for much smaller SSKNs – with smaller or far fewer missiles.

Technical considerations include:

- ballistic missiles with inter-continental range are large and presumably need to be many (ie. More than 8) meaning a large diameter, very large sub.

- SSKs and SSNs cannot be “simply stretched” due to need for larger diameter grounds and because hydrodynamics would be less discrete

- nuclear propulsion makes for vastly greater discretion for longer missions

- longer missions 3 to 6 months are more discrete as well. More food (to last 6 months) in a bigger sub.

- SSBNs moving together or close to friendly SSNs increases chances of detection (sound waves bouncing) and it would mean having too many eggs in one basket

Politically the SSBN owning nations, including China, require high faith in their SSBNs responsibility for several megatons of nuclear explosive and the chance that hacking (by officers or crew) could cause WWIII. So the fewer SLBM submarines the more secure.

The Chinese Communist Party is probably more sensitive than most SSBN nations that navy’s (or wider military) should not be given too much power.



Peter Coates said...


I think China would not choose a "lo", conventionally powered SLBM submarine, just on cost grounds. SSBNs are more desirable on security, discretion and control grounds.

ie considering a tank:
- having shells of around 110 kilotons
- less than 20 tanks possible
- tanks not having turbo or diesel engines but nuclear reactors.
- huge measures would need to be taken to minimise chances nuclear armed tanks could be captured, hacked or mutiny
- huge force mix to sanitise mission start and provide operating area top cover.