Chinese 039 had Kitty Hawk in her sights

China sub stalked U.S. fleet

Tell Murdoc that this isn’t troubling:

A Chinese submarine stalked a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the Pacific last month and surfaced within firing range of its torpedoes and missiles before being detected

The sub, a Type 039 Song-class diesel-electric boat, is one of the Chinese navy’s newer models, designed and built in China. China also operates Russian-built Kilo-class diesel subs.

China’s military build-up, and naval build-up in particular, should concern us. And within the naval build-up, the obvious strategy to heavily utilize submarines should be very troubling. The use of subs, especially ultra-quiet diesels, will threaten our carrier operations as this incident demonstrates.

Any sort of war in the Pacific region, whether an attack on North Korea or a defense of Taiwan or Japan, will rely very heavily upon our carrier air power. If the threat of submarine attack keeps our carriers from working where we want them to be working, we will have ceded initiative to the enemy.

Assuming this report in the Washington Times is accurate, a very loud wake-up call has just been sounded. Carrier groups operate with a nuclear attack sub, and the fact that this diesel snuck in under our noses is telling.

There are two things here that need to be noted.

First, plans to greatly reduce our attack sub fleet are misguided. I’ve noted this in previous years here, here, and here.

Secondly, we need to become more adept at tracking (and therefore attacking) diesel-electric subs. In Contracting out aggressor work (08 Oct 2005) MO noted that we were going to hire a Swedish Gotland-class diesel boat for some exercises, and in Diesel sub aggressor we saw some of the results. I also posted a pic that should scare the living daylights out of our admirals.

Also, in The fleet we need: A look at alternative — and affordable — futures for the U.S. Navy Armed Forces Journal looks at some options.


  1. The idea of the submarine was born out of a desire for weaker states to defeat more powerful navies. Then it was Britain, now America. The Brits never faced the kind of subs we do today, and they very nearly lost 2 world wars to those noisy, slow vessels which rarely submerged, preferring instead to fight their foes on the surface. With cruise missiles, and higher performance the new subs can attack the fleet, while still submerged, far out of range of surface ship defenses, save for ASW helicopters. But heloes are only a minor nuisance, having to hover for extended periods before attacking. Long-range aircraft like Orion and Vikings are better, but the Viking is being retired from carrier service and the Orions are old.

  2. I’m not too worried about the Chinese because we can rely on them to act in their own self-interest, and starting a war is NOT in the interest. They have strong trade ties with both Taiwan and the USA, and their economy and society are growing rapidly thanks to that. They have far more to lose than they have to win and they should know that. Of course, that doesn’t rule anything out, and it could change in future (unlikely though), but I would worry about other threats first. Of course nobody should ignore a threat like China, especially because you have to keep the barrier to success high enough that they realize it’s futile to fight. But personally I think the #1 strategy for preventing hostility with China should be to continue to make the benefits of peaceful trade far outweigh any benefits of war-fighting. On a more generic note, I’d say the two most serious threats faced by ships today are mines and torpedoes. Therefore ASW and mine-sweepers should be high priority. That means I agree that scrapping attack subs and long-range ASW aircraft is a mistake.

  3. The old saying still rings true. There are submarines and there are targets. It is fairly common in war games that the carrier gets sunk by a sub. The only real defense against a sub is another sub. (and mines, but nobody wants to talk about mines.)

  4. The new saying will be ‘there are satellites and there are targets.’ All this stuff is obsolete – we just don’t realize it yet.

  5. This is not troubling This is not troubling. There, always ready to help 🙂 Cat and mouse games with subs are nothing new. The fact that it surfaced within firing range before being detected is…..that thing you told us to tell you it wasn’t. I’m not convinced that diesels are the way to go for the US navy…they are very quiet until they have to recharge…then they are noisy and vulnerable as they must stay at snorting depth. Still the utillity and deadlieness of electricboats in costal waters makes the rundown of our ASW forces particularly inexcuseable.

  6. James you know I heard the saying about subs and targets and it doesn’t always hold water. I was on the Hawk in 84 during a team spirit exorcise and we had so many Red SSN’s in the area that we called all of our boats(US Sub’s) on over to our side and simulated sinking all of them may times over. got so good at hiding the carrier that one surfaced in front of us and we t-bond it, got the same reaction back then as well. In 86 we evaded 2 fast attacks pulling out of San Diego. Mike: the ASW do pretty well using sonar buoy’s and only drop there dipping sonar to lock on there target.

  7. Mike: I’ve always had the impression that helos were more than a ‘minor nuisance’, but your point that newer weapons extend the range at which subs can effectively attack is a good one. Nicholas: I’m not arguing with you, but everyone also knew in 1912-1913 that a European war would never happen because everyone’s economies were getting so intertwined. James: Mines are mentioned at Bram: I agree that control of the high ground in space will be vital in the next Major War. But ships and sea lanes will be of absolute import for a long, long time, and it will usually take ships and/or subs to control them. Sort of like how you still need boots on the ground in an age of air-dropped precision weaponry. Brickmuppet: It’s not helping. Say it some more…

  8. Murdoc : True. I guess my point is, it always pays for the military to assume the worst, but that it also makes sense to attempt to avoid wars politically in the first place. If that fails—and we should assume it could—then you have to be able to fight and win. But what I’m saying is, compared to other threats we face (e.g. Islamofascism or whatever you want to call it), the Chinese are far more rational and far more friendly. I would never recommend wooing Islamifascists to prevent conflict—it just won’t work. I think wooing the Chinese just might. Look at how they’re embracing capitalism. They’re doing it out of self-interest but it’s still good for us too. The Chinese often appear incredibly arrogant, but while I think they have strong pride, and some of them may act irrationally because of it, I wouldn’t assume that they are not willing to make compromises. So, we should be able to fight the Chinese, but we should seek to avoid it if at all possible, and I think it is possible. I think we will find soon that we have more in common with them than ever before. Who knows maybe they will start respecting human rights one day too.

  9. The thing that’s scarce in this world is not countries capable of manufacturing goods, it’s the pot-bellied, fat asses who consume the manufactured goods. That’s why the Chinese need us so badly. What would they do with all their manufacturing capability without us? Improve their own standard of living? I think this incident calls for us to build even bigger and more expensive aircraft carriers. Clearly they are the most cost effective way to fight a war, if you don’t mind losing a few to a cheap WW2 technology subs every now and then. I’ll bet Taiwan is real happy to have us as allies right now.

  10. Murdoc, A Chinese sub snuck up on one of the oldest, crappiest ships in the fleet? Yawn. They don’t call it the ‘Shitty Kitty’ out at Yokosuka for nothing. I’m amazed the thing can even still leave port. V

  11. It’s not the Kitty Hawk that really matters, it’s the aircraft she operates and the ships and subs in her group who are supposed to pick up subs that matter. But the LOSS of the Kitty Hawk would matter. A lot.

  12. Watch it ‘vincente’ That old crappy bird farm has kicked some Newbe Nuke but without even breaking a sweat.

  13. James said: ‘The only real defense against a sub is another sub.’ This hardly does justice to the destroyers and aricraft which whipped the sub threat in 2 World Wars.

  14. This hardly does justice to the destroyers and aricraft which whipped the sub threat in 2 World Wars.’ Not my intention, the actions of that generations sub fighters are beyond comparison. However, subs of today are far more capable then their WWI & WWII ancestors.