India Troubled by Chinese Submarine Reports

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Revelations of advances in China's nuclear-powered submarine capabilities and naval expansion are having an impact in India, whose own plans for nuclear submarines have undergone lengthy delays.

New satellite images released by the Jane's group of defense publications late last week indicate that the Chinese are building a major strategic naval base on Hainan island, south of the mainland.

Jane's reported that commercially available satellite imagery from the DigitalGlobe Corp. confirmed reports circulating since 2002 about the existence of an underground submarine base. It said 11 tunnel openings were visible at the base near Sanya, on the island's southern tip.

Also visible at the port was China's new Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), known by NATO as the Jin-class.

According to, an independent information source based in Britain, the Jin-class has 12 missile silos and will be equipped with Julang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles with a reported maximum range of almost 5,000 miles.

Unlike conventional (diesel-electric) submarines, nuclear-powered submarines have the ability to remain submerged for long periods of time.

Jane's noted the Sanya base's proximity both to the Taiwan Strait and to major shipping routes to the south, including the Malacca Strait.

Around one-third of the world's sea-borne trade and half of its oil supply are carried each year through the narrow waterway, which runs between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

With its fast-growing economy dependent on energy imports, China has in recent years explored various options to expand and secure supplies, including energy deals with Central Asian republics, proposals for pipelines, and the financing of a deep-water a href=""port in Pakistan, near the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

But the vulnerability of the Malacca Strait remains of key concern: Eighty percent of China's oil supplies presently move through the channel before traversing the South China Sea to mainland ports.

According to Jane's, Beijing's concerns about defending its access to the vital sea lanes are a key factor driving its development of power-projection naval forces in the region.

In his evaluation of the satellite images, retired Indian Navy Vice-Admiral Arun Kumar Singh also noted the presence at the Sanya base of two jetties long enough to accommodate two 80,000 ton aircraft carriers or large amphibious ships.

China does not currently have aircraft carriers although there have been persistent reports since the mid-1980s about plans to acquire them (Beijing is notoriously secretive about its military buildup; the U.S. and some of its allies have for years been pressing the Chinese for greater transparency.)

In its annual report to Congress on China's military power, the Pentagon last year noted that at China's major air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong province in 2006, Chinese "military and civilian officials asserted China's interest in building an aircraft carrier."

The Pentagon report said China has about 58 attack submarines. Most are conventional but China is also building and testing Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs and Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), it said.

Any developments in China's naval capability are closely watched in India, which boasts what is considered to be the world's fifth largest navy -- including a flagship carrier -- and has significant security interests in the Indian Ocean.

The Times of India said the extent of the Chinese progress as revealed in the satellite images "has jolted the Indian defense establishment."

Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, voiced concern about the latest reports, but said it was not the location of the base -- of which the Indian Navy was already aware -- as much as the number of submarines being built that was a worry.

"It is not the nuclear submarine bases that matter," he told reporters. "We are concerned over the number of nuclear submarines that are being built in our neighborhood."

Mehta said it was immaterial where the submarines were based, because "nuclear submarines have long legs and can operate over long distances."

The 2007 Pentagon report did not say how many SSBNs China is believed to have in operation or under construction, although the Office of Naval Intelligence in late 2006 said China would "probably" aim to build five Jin-class submarines in order to have "a near-continuous at-sea SSBN presence."

India has for years been pursuing indigenous nuclear-powered submarine capability, under what is known as the ATV (advanced technology vessel) project.

Mehta this week declined to talk about the sensitive project, although last January Indian media reported that the first ATV could be in the water in two years' time. Military analysts then speculated that concerns about the Chinese buildup may have accelerated the program.

If successful, India would become the sixth country -- after the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China -- with a sea borne nuclear deterrent, the third leg of its long-planned "triad" of ground-based, sea-based and air-deliverable nuclear weapons.

Singh, the retired vice-admiral, said in an op-ed Tuesday that India was about 10 years behind China when it came to developing SSBNs and tactical nuclear powered submarines, and argued that "drastic measures" needed to be taken to reduce the strategic gap.

The U.S. and Indian navies have since 1992 carried out annual joint exercises codenamed Malabar. Last year, the exercise was expanded to include warships from Australia, Japan and Singapore, and focused on waters at the entrance to the Malacca Strait.

* The new revelations about the base on the southern tip of Hainan island recall an incident there in 2001, when a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane on what U.S. Pacific Command called a "routine surveillance mission" was involved in a mid-air collision with one of two Chinese F-8 fighter jets which were deployed to intercept the slow-moving aircraft. The Chinese pilot was killed.

Following the collision, the EP-3 issued a mayday warning and made an emergency landing at a military airfield on Hainan. The 24-person crew had held there for 11 days before being permitted to leave, although China only allowed the plane to be dismantled and airlifted home months later. The diplomatic row took relations to a low point.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow