China Makes Strides Towards Closing Military Gap

( – Military analysts are warning that China is cutting into the US Navy’s technological lead after a Chinese submarine with a new propulsion system was sighted. The communist dictatorship is also building underwater sensor networks that could help it track US submarines operating near Taiwan. However, while it’s worrying that China’s technology is improving, the situation isn’t critical just yet — and probably won’t be in the near future.

On November 20, Wall Street Journal Asia Security Correspondent, Alsastair Gale, said that “the era of total US submarine dominance over China is ending.” To back up this alarming claim, he highlighted a Chinese nuclear attack submarine, sighted early this year, which had a pump-jet propulsor instead of a traditional propeller.

US attack submarines have been fitted with propulsors since the 1995 launch of USS Seawolf, and the British Royal Navy actually pioneered the technology with the HMS Turbulent in 1982, but it’s the first time a propulsor has been seen on a Chinese boat.

This is significant because propulsors are quieter at high speeds. A propeller turning fast underwater produces cavitation noise, caused by bubbles generated at the rear edge of the blades collapsing under the water pressure. Because a propulsor’s blades are enclosed, this noise isn’t radiated into the sea, so this modified Chinese submarine should be quieter than before.

On the other hand, that isn’t actually a huge threat right now. Firstly, the US Navy currently has 52 attack submarines. On paper China has 54, but only nine are nuclear — and, of those, three are 1980s-vintage Type 091 boats, notorious for their poor radiation shielding and very high noise levels. They’re currently in reserve, leaving the People’s Liberation Army Navy with just six Type 093 and Type 093A boats in active service.

China claims they’re as quiet as the US Improved Los Angeles class; US Navy intelligence says they’re louder than the 1970s Soviet Victor III, and the best that can be said about that is that it’s not quite as loud as the Victor II was. Will a Chinese Type 093 with a propulsor be a little quieter than it was before? Yes. Will it be quiet enough to worry a modern US sub? Unlikely.

What will have US subs worried is China’s other project, which it’s calling the “Underwater Great Wall.” This is a system of underwater sensors, most likely passive sonar, around the critical South China Sea region.

The US and NATO operated a similar system during the Cold War; SOSUS was built to detect Soviet submarines trying to break out into the Atlantic, allowing NATO ships and aircraft to hunt them down. It looks like China hopes to replicate that, letting it track US submarines moving around Taiwan and other areas in the South China Sea which Beijing claims.

China’s own submarines are likely still too noisy to be a serious issue, but if underwater microphones let them track our subs — which would play a key role in stopping a Chinese invasion — the threat to Taiwan just increased dramatically.

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