Military Balance Blog

By Henry Boyd, Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis, and Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis A substantial increase by 2020 in the size of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine force has been widely anticipated, including in successive US Office of Naval Intelligence and Department of Defense (DoD) reports. However, the actual size of China’s operational fleet appears to have remained remarkably consistent over the last 15 years. And the PLAN seems still to face considerable constraints – with crewing, base facilities and to some extent shipyard capacity – in expanding its force significantly in the near term. Nuclear-powered submarines The PLAN nuclear-powered attack (SSN), guided-missile (SSGN) and ballistic-missile (SSBN) submarine fleet is currently comprised of: Four Jin-class (Type-094) SSBNs Up to three Han-class (Type-091) SSNs Two Shang I-class (Type-093) SSNs Up to four improved Shang II-class (Type-093A) SSNs/SSGNs The Jin-class SSBNs and the Shang I-class SSNs are all based at Yalong Bay, on Hainan island, as part of the South Sea Fleet. Recent satellite imagery shows all four Jin boats simultaneously in port, suggesting that China does not currently have a policy of continuous-at-sea-deterrence. The fourth boat in the Jin class was launched in 2011, but a fifth of class has yet to be launched. The Shang IIs appear to have started entering service in late 2016, leaving the status of the older Han-class vessels unclear. Without an overall increase in the number of trained crews, the Shang IIs can be expected to replace the legacy Hans on an almost one-for-one basis. Given their age, it seems unlikely that the PLAN would seek to keep the Hans in service with replacements on hand; it is more likely that some, if not all, of the remaining Han-class hulls have been left with, at most, skeleton crews in order to release personnel to ‘work-up’ the new Shang-IIs. Unless another Jin-class or Shang II-class hull is launched at Bohai – China’s only nuclear-powered submarine yard – later this year, it is unlikely that any additional nuclear-powered vessels will be commissioned into service before 2020. The Pentagon does not expect construction of a new class of Chinese SSBNs to begin before the early 2020s. Meanwhile, Shang II production appears to have stopped for now at four. Diesel-powered submarines The PLAN’s three fleets each operate two flotillas of diesel-powered attack submarines. Each flotilla has an establishment strength of eight boats, for a total operational requirement of 48. To meet that requirement, the PLAN nominally has access to some 54 hulls. However, it is not clear that all of the 25 older Ming-class (Type-035) and Song-class (Type-039) vessels included in this 54 actually remain in service, while a considerable number of the new Yuan-class (Type-039B) hulls still do not seem to have officially commissioned into the PLAN. Based on Chinese media reporting and the latest available commercial satellite imagery, the current composition of the six flotillas appears to be as follows: North Sea Fleet: 15–16 boats 2nd Flotilla (Qingdao) 8 x Song class (Type-039) ...

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