China Pursues Antisubmarine Warfare

November 2004
By James C. Bussert

Although Russian Sovremenny large missile destroyers are more than 20 years old, the models that China has purchased add state-of-the-art antisubmarine warfare (ASW) sensors and helicopters to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The People’s Republic takes a serious approach to undersea activities.

In keeping with its approach to incorporating blue-water-navy technologies for possible littoral uses, China is deploying a number of antisubmarine warfare systems to support potential conflicts against adversaries equipped with the most advanced submarines under the sea. As with most of China’s military, these systems constitute a mix of legacy import technologies with indigenous developments.

Many Pacific naval analysts do not believe that China has a real antisubmarine threat or that antisubmarine warfare (ASW) is a priority in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) new ship program. In fact, ASW is a high priority in naval new production. While some cite the lack of a PLAN ASW flag-rank staff as an indication of a low program priority, the U.S. Navy went without an ASW admiral billet for 15 years until recently, and no one questions the United States’ commitment to antisubmarine warfare. PLAN ASW platforms and equipment have been acquired, developed and deployed on submarine, surface ship and aviation platforms. The fact that many sensors and weapons are imported does not decrease the threat they pose to U.S., Taiwan or other nations’ submarines.

A number of modern Chinese ASW capabilities became operational in the mid-1980s, which is evidence of a decision to put considerable emphasis into upgrading ASW in the air, surface and submarine platforms. In the late 1990s, further modernization of these areas with new big ticket procurements provided the PLAN with modern ASW weapons and sensors in modest but increasing numbers. China has obtained multiplatform high-quality ASW sensors, fire control and weapons only in the past six years.

Consequently, in any future Taiwan Strait naval conflicts, other navies will need to consider the recent PLAN ASW modernization when moving submarines into Chinese waters. This is complicated by the fact that several Western nations have desired to sell new-construction or in-service submarines to Taiwan. Retaliation by China in the form of threats to stop trading with those nations caused most to back off to maintain open trade and future arms deals with the larger customer.

The most likely war probability involving submarines would be an attempt to force “the renegade illegal government on Taiwan” to be brought under People’s Republic of China political control by military means. The submarine threat against China initially would comprise two Dutch-built modern Taiwan boats, but the People’s Republic must prepare for the possible introduction of U.S. attack submarines into the arena. Targets for the pro-Taiwan submarines would be PLAN warships and probably Chinese harbors or coastal merchant supply lines. The presence of Tomahawk-equipped U.S. submarines would raise the ASW threat to a new level for inland targets.

Other potential conflicts also could entail submarine threats. China’s expansion into the South China Sea has led to contention with two other claimants to the Paracel and Spratley islands, but neither has any submarines. Of the six original nations with claims on these two island chains, only two—Taiwan and Indonesia—have submarines. These two countries have Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) treaty ties with other submarine-equipped navies, and these could represent ASW threats to China. Similarly, China’s expansion northeast or southwest would meet strong modern Japanese or Indian submarine forces.

Multiplatform improvements in the mid-1980s and the late 1990s indicate that Chinese government and naval leaders believe they face an ASW threat. U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s visit to China in 1984 was intended to form a new relationship between the two navies. This plan included Chinese procurement of U.S. Navy weapons. Of all the potential naval weapons from which to choose, the MK 46 lightweight ASW torpedo was China’s first choice in 1985 negotiations. This was a rare insight into the internal PLAN priority list of warfare needs.

Coincidentally, 1999 saw the PLAN’s first fully coordinated surface, submarine and air ASW exercise. The fact that it involved China’s Northern Fleet is no surprise because Qingdao and the Dalian/Lushun complex are main centers of ASW bases and schools. The Northern Fleet also demonstrated excellent control and coordination in having a Han nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) intercept a U.S. carrier group in the Korean Gulf and vector naval air force interceptors out to support the submarine against U.S. ASW forces. In addition, Chinese submarine topographic units have been making underwater maps for submarine training areas and operations since 1960.

China has charged forward with surface ship ASW. Prior to 1985 new-construction warship designs, China’s 15 Luda destroyers and 31 escorts had Soviet-designed World War II-era high frequency (HF) searchlight Tamir sonars, Soviet BMB-2 depth charges and two Type 75 12-barrel mortars with a 2,500-meter range. In 1975, the Jianghu III series of new escorts introduced Type 81 copies of Soviet RBU-1200 five-barrel mortars. The 3,200-meter range of the Chinese Type 81 nearly tripled the Soviet RBU range. It is a mistake to assume that Chinese copies of foreign equipment do not have improved capabilities. The six follow-on Jiangwei frigates improved the Type 81 with two six-barrel mortars with a longer 5,000-meter reach, and these were called Type 87.

The small French SS-12 dipping sonar was exported to the PLAN in 1974. China must have made a high-level decision on antisubmarine shortfalls by 1980 because around 1986 several new ASW systems appeared. In 1986, the Luda II conversion and Jinghu IV frigate put the first helicopter decks on PLAN warships. Also, the first French TAVITAC combat direction system and Italian ILAS-3 ASW triple torpedo tube mounts were installed.

PLAN ASW torpedoes include the Italian A-244, copies of the U.S. MK 46 and several Soviet ASW torpedoes. Four years later, France sold modern medium frequency (MF) bow dome array DUBV-23 sonars to China, and the 1990 Luda III was the first publicized installation. This does not explain the Luda DDG 131 seen in Shanghai drydock with a large bow dome in 1982. The DUBV-43 large MF variable depth sonar (VDS) was installed on the Luhu in 1993, which made for a powerful ASW capability when coupled with the DUBV hull sonar.

Russia has provided the latest in airborne ASW sensors and weapons in the Ka-28 helicopters that it has sold to China. This version is an earlier Ka-25.
In 1998, Russia sold two 8,000-ton Sovremenny large missile destroyers to China. These included the latest Soviet MG-335 MF Platina and HF tracking sonars. Twin RBU-1000 six-barrel ASW mortar launchers are controlled by the Burya fire control system. China has ordered additional Sovremennys from Russia.

Also in the 1990s, China designed two Luhu large 5,800-ton destroyers, and it followed that by modernizing two Luhai destroyers. These had bow-mounted LF French sonars and ASW torpedo tubes, along with ASW helicopters with Italian or French integrated combat systems. Only the two Luhus have an MF VDS. All six of these large warships have modern ASW systems included with their other major warfare capabilities.

Because China has no active aircraft carriers, its naval air assets are low key. However, land-based and shipboard ASW air platforms have been expanded. Two new naval air ASW platforms were introduced in 1986. The Soviet AN-12 transport, designated by China as the Y-8, was redesigned by Shaanxi Aircraft Company and equipped with western ASW systems to become the first true People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) Y-8-X maritime patrol aircraft. It has an APS-504 search radar, LTN-72 INS and LTN-211 Omega navigation by Litton Canada, various Collins guidance and landing transponders and an infrared submarine detection system. The weapons it carries include mines, depth charges, ASW torpedoes and sonobuoys.

An original Chinese-designed Harbin SH-5 four-engine seaplane with an ASW mission reached initial operational capability in 1986 at Qingdao Tuandao naval air station. A MAD stinger aft, sonobuoys, ASW torpedoes and depth charges show varied ASW capabilities. Ironically, the U.S. Navy has converted ASW maritime patrol aircraft for overland Tomahawk missions.

Six Chinese destroyers and 12 frigates equipped with helicopter decks initially had Z-9 helicopters that were copies of French Super Frelon, but only a few of these had French ASW avionics, including the SS-12 dipping sonar. The first Z-9 dates from 1985, and there are now 36 units, but only three are known to be equipped with dipping sonar. Photographs of Z-9s with externally mounted torpedoes show the Z-9s labeled as ASW helicopters. China negotiated with Russia for 12 modern Ka-28 Helix-A ASW helicopters in the 1998 Sovremenny deal. The PLAN now has ordered 12 more of these potent helicopters with sophisticated sensors, fire control and ASW weapons.

Soviet-era OKA-2 helicopter dipping sonars are 15 kilohertz with an active range of 5,500 meters and triple that range for passive detection. This helicopter has a next-generation Lira ASW system with a mission computer controlling all radio, radar, sonobuoy, dipping sonar and electronic support measures. The Kobalt radio relay links it to the controlling ship. Onboard weapons include Russian AT-1 active/passive acoustic homing ASW torpedoes, APR-2 ASW missiles or PLAB 250-120 Lastochka depth charges.

Chinese ASW efforts also include submarine platforms. In the 1970s, China augmented more than 60 obsolete Romeo diesel submarines and their obsolete Soviet HF sonars with two new Type 035 Ming diesel boats containing a mix of French and Soviet sonars. Several important ASW upgrades occurred in the mid-1980s. In    1987, the first Han-class SSN, which was built in 1974, received a modern French DUUX-5 imported sonar. The following year saw the launching of the first of three new Type 039 Song-class attack submarines in Wuhan shipyard with modern French TSM-2233 and TSM- 2255 sonars. Chinese submarine ASW torpedoes are Yu-3 21-inch acoustic homing torpedoes.

The PLAN submarine force received its most modern ASW capability with the inaugural order of four Kilo submarines, which was followed by six more. The first two imports were Russian 877E Kilo submarines in 1995. These quiet diesel boats had modern MGK-400 active/passive LF and HF MG-519 classification sonars with an associated MVU-110 electromagnetic combat system fire control suite. The next two in 1999 were newer 636 Kilo submarines with improved sonar and fire control. Six more 636s have been ordered and are being built and delivered. Export Kilos include Russian E53-67 acoustic homing ASW along with wire-guided and wake-homing types. The three Song-class submarines were surprisingly noisy, but a new version is quieter than prior PLAN diesels. However, Kilos still are among the quietest and most modern ASW submarines in the world.


James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface-ship antisubmarine fire control systems with commercial off-the-shelf technology upgrades.

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