Underwater Currents of Naval Strategy – by Andrei Martyanov


Late Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov at the peak of the Soviet naval development in late 1970s to mid-1980s continued to stress his seemingly simple idea, first officially articulated in his 1976 treatise The Sea Power of the State, that modern (Soviet) navy must be balanced.[1] Gorshkov's idea of balanced fleet was that of a navalist, who envisioned modern navy capable to conduct global operations ranging from amphibious landings, to global anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, to nuclear deterrent. Yet, throughout Gorshkov's long tenure as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy one platform above everything else remained dominant in his thinking—a submarine. Unsurprisingly, 1968 Time magazine cover featured image of Admiral Gorshkov superimposed on the background with a submarine at the periscope depth. With all the Soviet Navy's impressive development of its surface fleet at that time, these were primarily submarines which USSR developed at a break-neck speed and eventually equaled or surpassed US Navy's submarine forces not only in quantity but in quality too, with even US Navy grudgingly admitting in 1988 that project 971 (NATO Akula-class) nuclear submarine being the best in the world.[2]  

Gorshkov knew, as well as contemporary Russian naval commanders know that no balanced fleet is possible without powerful submarine component. Even in the worst times of post-Soviet collapse, with what became Russian Navy's surface component rusting away and disintegrating in 1990s, submarine development never stopped in Russia because submarine forces were and are viewed still as one of the major elements of national security. Submarines, apart from strategic missile submarines serving as a crucial pillar of the national nuclear deterrent, are indispensable in ASW role, they are also a major factor in operations, both as a defender and otherwise, on the Shipping Lanes of Communications (SLOC). This fact is important when considering what is emerging as a flash point, one of many, between China and the United States in the oceans, Indian and Pacific Oceans to be precise. There is very little doubt that any American Administration, as recent experience with Donald Trump's affection for the most extreme neoconservatives, such as John Bolton or Mike Pompeo, demonstrated, will pursue the most aggressive policies both in relation to Russia and China. This is today the nature of the American state, driven by crusading spirit of exceptionalism and desperate vain desire to not allow emergence of economic and military peers. China long ago surpassed the US economically. In terms of naval development, however, some questions still remain as of today. 


There is little doubt that China's naval force, PLAN, is capable to support Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) measures China must undertake to secure the homeland from attack from the sea. But considering China's immense economic weight and obvious necessity to ship goods using especially Indian and Pacific Oceans' SLOCs one has to consider a distinct possibility, in case of a serious conflagration between China and the US, of the flow of goods and energy to be cut by belligerent US, which already undertakes steps to also bypass or overcome China's A2/AD zones.[3] Things get even more complicated for China in the Indian Ocean, at what is known as Maritime Silk Road—PLAN will need to face a powerful world-class US submarine force in case of escalation. Even for all its institutional problems US Navy experiences today, it still remains a premier global naval force whose real might rests not just with, however impressive visually, its carriers but its nuclear submarines. US Navy holds here an overwhelming advantage over PLAN in the open ocean. The advantage is not just in quantity, it is in quality and a vast operational experience. While justifiable discussion on vulnerability of the US aircraft carriers against modern anti-shipping missiles continues unabated in the US, there is very little discussion on the necessity of a potent submarine component. US Navy deploys today an impressive submarine force which boasts cutting edge technologies in both quieting and detection on its latest subs. With US regional allies this capability grows even further, once one considers submarine forces of Japan and Australia.

While diesel-electric or non-nuclear submarines of PLAN can play crucial role in defense of China's littoral, operations in the open ocean require nuclear-powered submarines. China has problems with this particular type. While PLAN's program of building surface combatants is extremely impressive, nuclear submarines remain its Achilles heel. As one Russian naval analyst observed in July 2018, citing also US Office of Naval Intelligence Report, modern Chinese nuclear powered submarines lag seriously even behind American and Russian third generation nuclear submarines, such as project 671 RTM (NATO Victor III-class)  in terms of quieting—a key, albeit not the only one, tactical and technical characteristic of a submarine.[4] Nobody can predict when and if China will be able to match its nuclear submarines' capability, and a surface force required for support of their operations, with that of the US Navy's but it is obvious that this issue must be high on a priority list of Chinese strategists. Lesson from Admiral Gorshkov can help. The lesson is simple—there is no modern powerful and balanced navy without powerful nuclear submarine component armed with modern weapon systems.

Is naval conflict between China and the US possible? This is not an idle question, many observers are concerned today with the possibility of such a conflict erupting due to disputes in East and South China Sea.[5] Considering increased level of belligerence emanating from Washington, which also acts increasingly in irrational manner, one cannot discount a possibility of some people self-indoctrinated with delusion of own exceptionalism and pseudo-scientific concepts such as Thucydides Trap making a decision to get the US drawn into conflict with China. This must be avoided by all means. Paradoxically, China developing world class nuclear submarine force may become one such measure. As of now, however, PLAN remains an unbalanced navy which faces a stiff competition on high seas. Reaching quality level of American or Russian latest nuclear submarines will require a highly focused effort which will be very expensive and will require serious systematization of experience already accumulated by PLAN. Considering a scale of such undertaking one shouldn't be then surprised that China also seeks alternatives to Indian Ocean SLOCs such as Ice Silk Road, the name for Northern Sea Route, where China will get much more cooperative spirit from Russia who already has a fleet of conventional and nuclear icebreakers operating on this route and who has defensive infrastructure being built in Arctic for precisely maritime traffic and natural resources development reasons. As one observer noted:

        As long as solid Russia-China relations exist, the future of the Ice Silk Road is bright.[6]        

Considering current highly positive dynamics of Russian-Chinese relations which could be termed as nearly allied, it is difficult to foresee any complications between Russia and China in short to mid-term future. Combination of strategic flexibility afforded by alternative trade routes such as Northern Sea Route and of proper balancing of the Chinese Navy through development of its submarine forces may prove a decisive factor in China, with Russia's support, countering American efforts to arrest the emergence of a new truly multipolar world.  

[1] The Sea Power of the State. Sergei Gorshkov, Pergamon Press, Ltd., 1979, pp. 253-254.

[2] Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718-1990. Norman Polmar and Jurrien S. Noot, Naval Institute Press, 1991, p. 210.

[3] China Has Impressive A2/AD Capabilities, But Smart Positioning Can Let the Navy Avoid Them. Jerry Hendrix, Harry Foster, The National Interest, November 10, 2018. 

[4] Реальные боевые возможности гигантского флота Китая явно преувеличены (Real Combat Capabilities of Gigantic Chinese Navy are Obviously Exaggerated). Alexander Shishkin, Vzglyad, July 13, 2018. https://vz.ru/world/2018/7/13/932028.html

[5] China’s Actions in South and East China Seas: Implications for U.S. Interests—Background and Issues for Congress. Ronald O'Rourke, Congressional Research Service (CRS), August 1, 2018, p.49.

[6] China-Russia Trouble on the Arctic Silk Road? Nengye Liu, The Diplomat, July 21, 2017.


This entry was posted in China, Current Affairs, Martyanov, Russia, The Military Art, weapons and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.