Some of America's most influential think tanks and the Pentagon have likely underestimated the number of Chinese nuclear submarines under construction, a new report suggests.
Satellite imagery of the Bohai Shipyard and Longpo Naval Facility taken by Planet Labs shows that “China does not yet have a credible sea-based deterrent,” Catherine Dill of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told Defense One. Two of China's four Jin-class submarines “appear to not be in operation and are undergoing maintenance or repairs at the Bohai shipyard, suggesting to us that credibility is still in question.”
Defense One said that contradicts the US Defense Department’s 2018 China Military Report and the Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) report, which had stated that China had four operational Jin-class subs.
The report said there is one additional submarine under construction that the Pentagon missed.
Jeffrey Lewis, a colleague of Dill, discovered that China had one more nuclear submarine in development than previously believed. He observed a total of five submarine hulls in production, three at Longpo and two at the Bohai shipyard, indicating that China's modernization efforts are ahead of schedule to meeting its goal of eight.
“China is continuing to modernize its nuclear weapons program, broadly,” Dill said. “There’s a big emphasis on the SSBN program because all of their deliverable nuclear weapons are on land-based systems. Expanding into these SSBNs gives China more flexibly and credibility.”
She added, “These observations would not have been possible without the high cadence of the Planet imagery, which gave us 244 days of exploitable imagery to monitor from July 2017 to November 2018.”
By comparison, the US nuclear-armed submarine fleet features 14 Ohio-class subs, which are comparable in size to China's Jin-class sub and Russia's Borey-class.
Boston College Geopolitical Professor Robert Ross, an expert on Chinese defense and security policy, released a new report entitled “The End of US Naval Dominance in Asia,” it warns that at the current rate of modernization by China, US Navy's global dominance could be displaced sometime in the mid/late 2020s.
“The rapid rise of the Chinese Navy has challenged US maritime dominance throughout East Asian waters,” Ross writes. “The US, though, has not been able to fund a robust shipbuilding plan that could maintain the regional security order and compete effectively with China’s naval build-up."
“The resulting transformation of the balance of power has led to fundamental changes in US acquisitions and defense strategy. Nonetheless, the US has yet to come to terms with its diminished influence in East Asia.”
Ross provides documentation that shows China is well on its way to deploying a naval fleet that could rival the US, but increasingly more modern.
Sometime around 2038, roughly two decades from now, China will surpass the US in military spending, and become the world's dominant superpower not only in population and economic growth - China is set to overtake the US economy by no later than 2032 - but in military strength and global influence as well.
While it might not seem like much when American think tanks and the Pentagon underestimated the number of Chinese nuclear submarines in development, it could otherwise show how unprepared the West is for a rising China.