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Ming-class Submarine Incident Won't Stop Chinese Navy from "Going Blue"

On May 2nd, Chinese government claimed an unfortunate submarine incident. A Ming-class submarine, No 361 had an accident on April 16, causing the deaths of 70 officers and sailors. No 361 had this fatal accident when recharging the electricity on its way back to Weihai Military Port of Qingdao, Shandong Province.

American Sub Officer: surprised by China's candor

Retired Lieutenant Commander Bill Murray, who served in submarines between 1983 and 1995, said "I was quite surprised when I heard the news. It was unprecedented that Chinese military exposed a fatal sub incident. Some people equaled China's SARS crisis to the Soviet's Chernobyl in 1986. No matter how true it is, it seems that the SARS crisis is forcing the Chinese leaders to respond to incidents in a more human manner."

Michael Swaine, a senior China expert with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that "this submarine incident t indicates a general trend of more openness and transparency of the Chinese military, a trend which was shown before the SARS crisis."

The reason that caused the accident of this Ming-class submarine is still under investigation. However, according to reports, a technical malfunction caused this deadly accident. In due procedures, the submarine charges the electrical batteries that run the ship undersea by running their diesel engines, which need to burn a large quantity of oxygen. Therefore, when recharging the batteries, the submarine has to get close to the surface and have the periscopes on top of a submarine and air-taking valves into the air. It seems the valves malfunctioned in No 361 and the craft's diesel engines sucked up the oxygen inside the ship, quickly killing those aboard in two minutes. Because of the imbalance of the air pressures, the gate of No 361, under the negative pressure, could not be opened from inside. Therefore, those who attempted to escape would have found no way to go. Because No 361 submarine was on a silent, no-contact drill, it cut off all contacts with the outside, which made it impossible for the outside world to know No 361 had this bad accident for 10 days.

"I don't think this accident itself means China's submarine forces are immature. Submarines are complicated machines and their operations are no less complicated than spacecraft. The crew members have to be highly trained and highly motivated to operate safety and maintain carefully. You have to watch safety, follow the procedure and be careful not to repeat mistakes. It requires great diligence not to have a submarine problem. Even you do all things correctly, you still see accidents happen. The US submarine force went through the same process, learning from mistakes and methods. The key is how to take steps to prevent that from happening again," Murray said. He used to serve as the Navigator and Operations Officer in the submarine.

Take a glance at the recorded history of submarine incidents in the period of 1945-1989. There are a total of 27 submarine accidents worldwide, including five in the former Soviet Union, four in the United States, three in Britain and four in France. Six submarines were salvaged either because the sinking took place in port or in shallow water. In this time period, 21 submarines were lost at sea, including two US nuclear-powered attack submarines, the USS Thresher (SSN-593) that sank in 1963 near Boston in 8500-foot waters killing 129 crewmen and USS Scorpion (SSN-589) in 1968 in more than 10000 feet of water, killing all 99 on board.

No 361submarine incident exposed the "old-and-big problem" of Chinese submarine forces

"It is clear that China's submarine force is a mix of very old platform sub and new ones. This incident just showed how difficult to maintain these old submarines with hi-level operational readiness. China might be struggling between deploying older submarines more regularly and concerns for the safety of the crewmen on these obsolete submarines," Swaine told Washington Profile.

China's People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) keep a "big but old" submarine force, including 30 active Romeo-class submarines and another 30 ones in reserve, which have the technology as old as the US submarines in its 1950s, according to Lieutenant Commander Murray. The Ming-class, the type of No 361, is a modification of the Romeo-class and therefore is regarded as "very old-fashioned" submarines. China now has 20 of such subs, five nuclear-powered Han-class fast-attack submarines and Xia, a nuclear submarine that could file ballistic missiles from under waters. China is now developing an indigenous Song-class submarine and an updated design of ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). China has signed a contract with Russia to buy another 8 kilo-class diesel submarines, which might signifies China's lack of ability to develop or manufacture submarines of sufficiently advanced design.

Murray agreed that China might confront technical bottlenecks in improving its submarine design. He also argued "some said Chinese would have difficulties to absorb and transform technologies they got by studying kilo-class subs. But I believe the past showed that Chinese often did so well so quickly. Chinese learn so quickly. They have achieved many great things in the past 20-30 years. So giving them another 20-30 years, it is difficult to imagine what their submarine forces are like."

China spent approximately same length of time building its nuclear submarine. For example, it took China five years to build the first nuclear attack submarine. The Soviet Union's ballistic missile submarine development program was regarded as the quickest among its peers but China similar program cost same amount of time or even shorter, according to the Chinese source.

Don't underestimate China's submarine forces

Although Chinese navy has a series of problems such as obsolete submarines and technical difficulties in developing advanced designs, American experts believe that the strength of China's submarine force should not be underestimated.

"Even a sub force without good maintenance or top technology can be a threat, if able to lurk in shallow waters or otherwise remain quiet and hard to detect--in other words, such a sub fleet may be able to ambush even if it can't easily pursue," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analysts of Brookings Institute.

Submarines are the maritime weapons posing the greatest threat to an aircraft carrier formation. Submarines are also our Navy's core force, said one Chinese strategist. Retired Navy rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, a close observer of the Chinese Navy, also believed that submarine is "an essential ingredient in the maritime strategy of China". Murray wrote in his recently published article "China's Subs Lead the Way" that "submarines will for the backbone of China's gradual strategic reorientation toward maritime priorities".

Dr. Swaine said, "Any diesel submarine is always a potent weapon and poses problems to naval officers. It is difficult to be detected if submarines are well maintained. China is moving into that direction. But it does mean that it now has the denial capability on the sea. However, China's naval modernization program created a higher level of concerns (for the US) of free navigation in that area."

The destruction of US aircraft carrier battle groups remains the focal point of the doctrinal development of the Chinese Navy. Its diesel submarines would be the decisive force in realizing this new doctrine.

"A great power likes to have a great navy and China wants to become a great power. China is not the first land power to challenge a maritime nation's sea supremacy by investing disproportionately in submarines," said Lieutenant Commander Murray, adding that in the meantime "the US Navy must focus on protecting power into the Persian Gulf and Central Asia and guard its core competence of sea control. Close examination of the Taiwan issue discloses significant room for compromise. But if war with China does occur, the US Navy must retain an ability to locate and destroy Chinese submarines."

Yali Chen, Washington Profile, Chinese Edition, Issue 18 (#34), 2003-5-7


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