China, Russia Are Challenging Our Navy: Is Our Submarine Program Prepared?

As President Obama toured Alaska in the beginning of September, five Chinese naval vessels passed through international waters in the Bering Sea, approaching U.S. territorial waters.

Although the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) notified the Navy of their route, this marked the first PLAN voyage into the Arctic in the PRC’s history. Several days before, China marked the end of World War II for the first time, holding a military parade displaying the full might of the PLA’s combined forces. President Xi Jinping announced sweeping military reforms, aimed at modernizing and streamlining the PLA to allow it to fight a “modern limited war.”

On September 4, a Russian oceanographic vessel arrived in the Caribbean to operate north of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Turks and Caicos is southwest of Andros Island, where the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) is located. AUTEC opens onto the “tongue of the ocean,” a 6,000-foot trench that the Navy uses for deep-water submarine testing.

These events overshadowed an uncommonly revealing video, released by one of China’s largest news conglomerates two days before the victory parade. The video depicted a PLA counterattack against an unnamed aggressor that culminated in the capture of Kadena Air Base -- the USAF air base in Okinawa.

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American naval power is being challenged.

China’s operations near the Arctic, Russia’s attempted spying on American submarines, and the PLA’s video obliteration of a key U.S. military base in Asia share a common theme. Each incident is not only related to naval power, but specifically to the U.S.’s subsurface capabilities.

Russia’s oceanographic ship is designed to monitor subsurface movements and underwater arrays used for detecting hostile submarines. Arctic ice makes it a largely subsurface combatant environment: China will need to increase those capabilities if it wishes to continue further north. Finally, the Chinese video emphasized submarine warfare as a key PLAN war fighting capability.

Our potential enemies are focused on developing their own submarines and challenging American subsurface combatants. Responsible U.S. policy would ensure the maintenance and continued development of its submarine fleet.

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The U.S. first employed submarines during the Civil War, with both Union and Confederate attempts to use subsurface vessels to destroy enemy warships. Despite their limited initial efficacy, the concept of subsurface warfare became increasingly popular with the torpedo’s development. Widespread submarine employment began in earnest during World War II during the Battle of the Atlantic. U.S. submarine warfare actions against the Japanese in the Pacific destroyed millions of tons of crucial Japanese supplies. American submarines operated on extended deployments with little or no contact with the rest of the fleet.

With the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy drastically downsized. However, the realization amongst American policymakers that the U.S.S.R. posed a major threat prompted a new wave of naval construction.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover supervised the growth of the “nuclear navy,” which led to the modern submarine fleet. Nuclear-powered submarines can stay on station longer than their diesel-electric counterparts. A smaller nuclear submarine fleet can fill the same role as a larger diesel-electric fleet.

The strategic conditions of the Cold War led to two types of nuclear submarines: attack submarines (SSN) and ballistic missile and guided missile submarines (SSBN and SSGN).

SSNs filled the same role as their diesel-electric counterparts, but can remain on patrol for much longer periods. SSBNs were a direct product of the nuclear arms race. The nuclear power plant allowed SSBNs to remain at sea for extended deployments, ensuring that the U.S. had a credible second-strike capability against the Soviet Union in the event of a nuclear attack.

The American SSBN fleet solidified deterrence. Its existence helped prevent thermonuclear war.

With a rising China and resurgent Russia, submarines have added to their critical importance in the U.S. fleet.