As part of its early revolution of military affairs, China gave preference to build its submarine fleets over aircraft carriers. China needed to first secure its interests at sea closer home and submarines also enabled China prowl oceans around the world. Aircraft carriers were later preference because they were expensive, needing the full complement of a carrier battle group (CBG) before venturing out in the open seas. China’s first carrier, the ‘Liaoning’, was commissioned in 2012. Presently China has two aircraft carriers with a third in early stages of construction. A fourth aircraft carrier is planned for in mid 2020s or later.
China’s submarine fleet presently consists of around 70 submarines including seven nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), 12 nuclear attack submarines (SSN), and more than 50 diesel attack submarines. All told China’s submarine fleet is more than three times the size of the India’s submarine fleet with our Navy operating less than 20 submarines. According to US Naval Intelligence, the Chinese submarine fleet will grow to 76 submarines by 2030 which will involve increases as well replacements for approximately eight remaining Ming-class submarines.
China’s largest submarine is the Jin-class ballistic missile submarine with a length of 135m and displacement of 11,000 tons when submerged. Interestingly, Russian Defence Ministry is in the process of receiving the ‘Belgorod’ nuclear submarine with a length of 180m making it the longest submarine in the world. Belgorod is to be armed with Poseidon nuclear torpedoes that can be used to deliver a “retaliatory” nuclear strike. There is also speculation that Belgorod may receive the autonomous unmanned vehicle ‘Harpsichord-2R-PM’ and nuclear deep-sea stations like the AS-31 ‘Losharik’. The US is working on Project ‘Manta Ray’; building a submarine that will never run out of power and have AI capabilities to identify and respond to other vessels.
Augmenting China’s sizeable number of submarine is its fleet of Sea Wing ‘Haiyi’ underwater drones developed by the Chinese Institution of Oceanology. Underwater drones use forward momentum created by repeatedly sinking and then rising in a method called variable-buoyancy propulsion. With large wings, the Haiyi unpowered drone is capable of long missions, and can also move through waters using buoyancy compensation system filled with oil. China claims that Haiyi was able to swim to a depth of over 20,764 feet, or nearly 6.4 km down, beating the US world record of over 16,964 feet. Using a unique battery and a special coat to protect it from over 60 tons of underwater pressure, Haiyi also broke records in 2014 by swimming over 1,106 km nonstop in 30 days. Most significantly, Chinese military media has speculated that the PLA can put Haiyi to military use.
Haiyi is not armed at present but possibly will be in future if the PLA is to put it to military use. However, even without arming mass deployment of Haiyi would be used to detect and track enemy submarines movements in order to attack them. The Haiyi, therefore, presents a clear security threat. Mass deployment gives a tremendous underwater advantage to Beijing not only for quietly gathering hydrographic data in territorial waters of other countries but also military advantage to PLA. The production cost and monthly/yearly production capability of Haiyi is not known but mass production enables China their unobtrusive deployment if EEZ of other countries. China could blame detection of Haiyi to unintentional drift or simply deny ownership.
China first deployed Haiyi underwater drones in East China Sea during 2015 and later in the South China Sea. In 2016, one Haiyi was found near Quang Ngai in Vietnam during November. Then, on February 12, 2019, another Haiyi was found in Indonesia near Bangka Island, followed by another in Riau Islands in March same year. In December 2019, China deployed at least 12 x Haiyi in the Indian Ocean using its survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 06. The Chinese Academy of Science said in March 2020, “The 12 underwater gliders carried out cooperative observation in a designated sea area. Together they traveled more than 12,000 km and conducted more than 3,400 profiling observations, obtaining a large number of hydrological data.” On January 20, 2020, one Haiyi was found near Masalembu Islands located east of the Makassar Strait.
China has been using survey ships roaming the seas to launch Hiayi drones. Data gathered by the ship’s sensors like the side-scan sonar and remote operated vehicles (ROVs) together with data gathered by Haiyi drones launched by the ship is useful for planning submarine operations. But the important part is that survey ships are not essential to launch Hiayi drones. These glider drones are small and autonomous enough to be launched from almost any vessel, even a rubber dingy. This implies that covert means for their deployment while monitoring agencies may be looking for survey ships or large vessels.
As mentioned above, China may already be working on arming the Haiyi or even developing an advanced version. Though not an underwater drone, but on another level China is developing a sea-skimming anti-ship drone capable of skimming the sea surface by flying just 18 inches above water to keep it undetectable by ships due to curvature of the Earth. Avoiding less wind resistance due to its low height, the anti-ship drone can reportedly fly at 960 km per hour for 1.5 hours, giving it a range of 1,440 km. It is also believed that this sea-skimming drone is capable of delivering a 907 kg plus explosive payload.
In 2017, China approved a $292 million (Yen 2 billion) plan to build an underwater observation network across the East China Sea and South China Sea; capable of all-weather and real time HD multi-interface observation from seabed to surface. China claimed the underwater observation network will serve as a scientific research platform which can provide long-term and continuous data to research on the marine environment under the two seas, with a Beijing-based naval expert saying, “The planned physical platform can help us understand the complicated submarine world and provide a technical basis and the physical conditions for exploration and application of resources under the ocean.”
The project was to be completed in five years – by 2022. The Beijing-based naval expert said that some foreign countries will link the underwater system with a military facility and exaggerate its military usage given its geographical location. But the cat was let out of the bag by Liu Jiangping, another military analyst, who stated, “Military use is only one part of the planned use of the system…. However, if foreign submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles enter Chinese waters, China is obligated to use data gathered from the underwater network to identify, detect or even drive away those vehicles to protect the security of China’s territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and the country’s sovereignty.”
Getting back to China’s underwater threat, the underwater drones are significant force multipliers to China’s underwater combat capabilities combined with the submarine fleet, while sea-skimming anti-ship drones are the closest above surface. Using the Haiyi drones, China is obviously gathering underwater naval intelligence in the Indian Ocean as also the choke points like the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok. These small, autonomous vessels are difficult to detect without an effective underwater detection system. China would use them to reconnoiter and monitor islands and off shore assets of another country. These are issues that nations of Indo-Pacific affected by China’s aggressive moves need to collectively address.