One of the ways in which China is growing its military muscle – which has already matched America’s in most respects – is the buildup of its submarine fleet. It is also one of China’s assymetric ways of becoming a military match, and a future superior, for the US, and of defeating the US in a future war.
So let’s look at how many submarines China and Russia have.
But keep in mind that most sources understate China’s military prowess, including its submarine fleet size and quality. So we must choose sources carefully, and do not have a wide choice.
According to Wikipedia – admittedly not the best source, but it does document its articles on China’s navy with links to other websites – the PLAN (the Chinese navy) has:
- 5 Type 094 Jin class SSBNs;
- 1 Xia class SSBN;
- 1 Golf class SSB;
- 5 Han class SSNs (but the article on the Han class itself says only 4 submarines of this class remain in service);
- at least 4 Shang class (Type 093) SSNs;
- 2 Type 095 SSNs;
- 12 Kilo class conventional subs (SSKs);
- 13 Song class SSKs;
- 7 Yuan class SSKs;
- 1 Type 43 Qing class SSK;
- 17 Romeo class SSKs.
That would give China a fleet of 68 (5+1+1+5+4+12+13+7+1+17) submarines.
However, the article on the Romeo class says that 31 subs of this class remain in service for training purposes. If the additional 13 subs are counted, that gives China a fleet of 85 submarines. It is likely, though, that new submarines will replace some Romeo class boats soon.
The USN has a fleet of 70 submarines: 14 SSBNs, 4 SSGNs, and 52 attack submarines. It used to be 53, but the USS Miami was set afire (arsoned) earlier this year and will have to undergo repairs, so she is not seaworthy right now.
So, depending on which figure you’re looking at, China has either already amassed more subs than the US or is close to achieving this, just 2 boats short of the goal.
Regarding China’s SSBN fleet, currently numbering 5 Jin class and 1 Xia class boat, these 6 boats give China the capability to maintain a continous at-sea deterrence capability throughout an entire year, assuming one submarine patrol lasts 61 days (they normally last 60 days, so I just lengthened them by one year). Moreover, China likely follows the American practice of maintaining two crews for one SSBN, thus making an SSBN available potentially for 120, not 60, days every year. This means that at any given time, at least one Chinese SSBN, and perhaps two, are on patrol.
By 2008, Chinese SSBNs had conducted 12 patrols, double what they had done in 2007.
Each Jin class boat can carry 12-24 JL-2 SLBMs with 4 warheads each, and the Xia can carry 12 JL-1 SLBMs, with one warhead each. That gives the PLAN the capability to launch at least 252, and up to 492, warheads from its subs.
That, by the way, by itself refutes the lie that China has only 240-400 warheads.
Russia has a large nuclear submarine fleet, mostly inherited from Gorbachev, but also some subs built after 1991. The VMF (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot, i.e. the Russian Navy) has three types of nuclear submarines: ballistic missile, cruise missile, and attack submarines (though the latter kind can also carry nuclear-armed land attack cruise missiles).
Russia’s SSBN fleet consists of 4 Delta III class, 7 Delta IV class, and 1 Typhoon class SSBN; another 2 Typhoons are in reserve (sources disagree on whether these will be recommissioned or retired and replaced with Borei class boats). 8 Borei class SSBNs are on order. Two have been completed and undergoing sea trials, 2 further ones are under construction.
The 11 Delta class SSBNs can launch 16 MIRVable SLBMs each, and the Typhoon class boat, Dmitry Donskoi, can launch 20 (with 10 warheads each, for a total of 200 warheads). Although the Dmitry Donskoi currently serves as a test platform, it can be armed with SLBMs any day, and with a 200 warhead launch capacity, it can deliver as many warheads as Britain’s entire nuclear arsenal combined.
The first three Borei class boats can carry 16 SLBMs each, but starting with the fourth one, Knyaz Vladimir (named after Prince Vladimir of the Kievan Rus), the Borei class will carry 20 SLBMs each, more than the planned SSBN-X class, planned to carry only 16 SLBMs per boat.
Each of these SLBMs will be an R-29M Sinyeva (Skiff in NATO nomenclature) or an SS-NX-30 Bulava. Each of these missiles is MIRVable.
Russia’s SSGN (cruise missile carrier) fleet consists of nine Oscar II class boats.
Russia’s nuclear attack submarine fleet consists of the following:
- 8 Victor III class nuclear attack subs (SSNs);
- 3 Sierra class SSNs;
- 12 Akula class SSNs; and
- 1 Yasen (Severodvinsk) class SSN.
Thus, their total SSN number was 24. Russia’s total fleet of nuclear submarines consists of 12+9+24, i.e. 45, boats.
In 2009, the US Office of Naval Intelligence assessed the Yasen (Severodvinsk) class as the quietest of all Russian and submarine classes up to that date. Furthermore, ONI warns that the Yasen class is quieter than any other American submarine class except the Seawolf and Virginia classes – far quieter than even the Improved 688 (Los Angeles) class. This is no surprise to knowledgeable people: the Yasen class is a 21st century submarine program, while the LA class was built during the 1980s and 1990s using now-obsolete technology, and is quite inferior to even the Improved Akula class.
Russia’s diesel-powered submarines are no less lethal.
Their newest submarine class, the Lada (or Sankt Peterburg) class, has entered service. One boat is operational, 7 more are planned. Russia also has 1 Tango class and 23 Kilo class (Project 877 Paltus class) subs; 6 more Kilo class subs, of Project 636.6, are planned, according to Russian Wikipedia. Thus, their total conventional submarine fleet numbers 31 boats. Together with their nuclear-propelled subs, they have 66 submarines.
Thus, both Russia and China are already very close to matching the size of America’s submarine fleet – China is only two, and Russia only four submarines short.
And as America’s submarine fleet size shrinks precipitously in the decades ahead (which will happen even if sequestration is avoided), China and Russia will both have bigger submarine fleets than the US, and significantly bigger ones by the 2020s and the 2030s. Under the Navy’s own plans, its attack submarine fleet size will shrink to 39 boats by the 2020s and recover only to 48 boats later, down from 52 today, while its SSBN fleet will shrank from 14 to 12 boats and its SSGN (cruise missile carrying boat) fleet will be retired.
Submarine replacement and expansion plans
As stated above, Russia plans to buy 6 additional Kilo (Project 636.6) class, plus 7 additional Lada (Sankt Peterburg) class, and 9 additional Yasen (Severodvinsk) class submarines on top of the completed one. The Yasen (Severodvinsk) class is the quietest Russian nuclear attack submarine class in history, and one of the quietest in the world, trailing only the Seawolf and Virginia classes and possibly the Astute and Suffren classes (on whose noise levels no ONI data is available).
China plans to buy an unknown number of additional Yuan and Qing class, plus 4 additional Shang class submarines, at least 10 additional Type 095 subs, and is now developing a new nuclear attack submarine class (the Type 097, AKA the Qin class), and a new SSBN (boomer) class, the Type 096.
Thus, China and Russia, already close to matching the US, will overtake the US – sooner rather than later – on this criterion of military power, as they have already done on many other criteria.