Thursday, 7 March 2013

Suspicious buoy drop highlights submarine tensions

Earlier in the week, Chinese People’s Liberation Army–Navy (PLA-N) ships dropped a number of mysterious buoys around a group of islands in the East China Sea. The move has been clarified by Beijing as monitoring ocean conditions on the islands, but suspicions abound.

The islands in question are the disputed string called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. This particular region has been the centre of an increasingly nationalistic tussle between the two powers for a number of years. Tension has recently escalated as multiple military planes and ships belligerently traverse the islands. Submarines are an often overlooked but important aspect to the tensions.

Dropping the buoys around the island could be part of a scientific experiment, as Chinese foreign ministry officials say. It is more likely the buoys are part of an expanding system of submarine detectors, sonobuoys, China is using to monitor Japanese submarines around the island chain. The buoys were dropped just 300 metres from Japanese-controlled waters.

While surface interactions are plastered over the news media, beneath the waves submarines are almost entirely obscured. News that Chinese military ships are placing buoys lifts the veil slightly on these secretive underwater machines.
Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands

Anti-submarine warfare, as part of the system in which sonobuoys fit, is difficult to conduct in the noisy and shallow waters typical of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In these areas, acoustic energy from passive and active sonar technology is more likely to reflect off the seabed than in deeper waters, such as in the Philippine Sea.

Both China and Japan field a number of different classes of submarines. Chinese diesel-electric submarines are noisier than Japan’s more advanced diesel-electric ships. But the PLA-N’s newest Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are a hefty addition to Chinese undersea capabilities. While only two of these craft are assumed to be operational, and China is still having functional problems with nuclear power at sea, they offer serious firepower to the Chinese fleet.

Those Chinese nuclear powered submarines might soon be equipped with the JL-2 nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. According to initial estimates, this missile could reach the continental United States, placing it in theoretical strike range of any landmass in the Pacific. If China’s Jin-class submarines are to be equipped with such weaponry, the United States nuclear deterrence strategy (deterrence equation) would be significantly undermined.

Already a number of coast guard and fishing ships have been involved in dangerous scraps, surveillance aircraft and fighter jets are commonly seen above the atoll. Submarines however don’t need to show themselves. A submarine’s stealthy nature makes it ideally suited for operating in restricted or denied waters. In this way, not needing to regularly come to the surface makes these craft ideal for the current tension-heavy waters around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands.

The reason for tension around these islands becomes very clear on a map. Geographically, the disputed islands are in an extremely strategic position for both Japan and China. The Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands are a gateway for China into the greater Western Pacific. When viewed as a transit route, as sea lanes inevitably become, islands act in some ways like road intersections.

To control these islands would effectively break the PLA-N out of the claustrophobic South China Sea, a result they desperately desire. Likewise, keeping control of the islands in Tokyo’s hands would help Japan pen China into their territorial waters and put a temporary lid on Beijing’s expansionist dreams.

China has an incentive to monitor Japanese submarines around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. The buoys dropped just days ago could be decoys covering sonobuoys already stealthily emplaced at an earlier time. It is clear the buoys are in place, but it is difficult to confirm their exact construction and purpose.

The context, however, of rising tensions and increased over-flights of Chinese anti-submarine aircraft indicates the Chinese ships were dropping sonobuoys.

It is difficult to know how a submarine engagement between Japanese and Chinese craft would play out. Japanese submarines are extremely capable, but few in number (only 18 attack craft are in service). Their quiet engines and high-end sensory equipment puts their performance ahead of noisier Chinese submarines.

On the other hand, Chinese diesel-electric submarines number close to 50. With the inclusion of the new SSBNs, the PLA-N probably holds an edge over the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force if hostilities occurred.

Type 094 Jin-class SSBN - Courtesy Google Earth
In such a scenario, the United States Navy would probably not be able to reinforce Japanese craft until after an initial engagement. Japanese submarines would have to fight alone initially.

China’s development of a world-class submarine fleet is only just beginning, but even now Beijing can quietly project power a significant distance from its shores.

This is why the outcome of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands dispute is so important for Japan and China. Controlling those islands would give Chinese submarines unfettered access to the Western Pacific and increase Beijing’s strategic options in the Eastern Pacific.

It would also open up the rest of the Pacific for exploration by Chinese submarines, possibly sailing with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Only the United States and Russia possess similar capabilities. Adding a third nation to this list will radically alter the strategic nuclear leverage the United States has enjoyed over the Pacific since the end of the Cold War.

Ultimately, Tokyo will not cease its submarine patrols around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands despite the Chinese sonobuoy drop. Submarines are an integral part of watching major avenues of approach to Japan.

With heightened military movements in the region the chance of an accident rises concordantly. And with so much firepower in close proximity should the United States become involved, along with a widespread and popular nationalism in both Japan and China, both countries will need to tread carefully to avoid escalating hostilities.

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