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  Opinion   Oped  04 Dec 2017  India vs China at sea: Why subs are critical

India vs China at sea: Why subs are critical

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Dec 4, 2017, 12:25 am IST
Updated : Dec 4, 2017, 12:26 am IST

India has 14 imported subs as compared to 54 indigenous and 12 imported subs of the PLA Navy.

 China’s own weakness, however, has not blinded its vision to identify and implement counter-measures to neutralise its sea rivals.
  China’s own weakness, however, has not blinded its vision to identify and implement counter-measures to neutralise its sea rivals.

Even a layman will understand its  importance. Thirty five years ago, in the post-Mao Zedong era, when India had an imported fleet of eight Foxtrot-class diesel electric submarines of Soviet origin, the Chinese inventory consisted of a fleet of 105. Plus China was already in the league of indigenous submarine manufacturing nations and understood submarine capability as well as capacity much better than most. Little though seems to have changed as today’s scenario is no better: India has 14 imported subs (plus the first indigenous boat to be commissioned next week) as compared to 54 indigenous and 12 imported subs of the PLA Navy. Clearly, there always existed an important difference between India and China. Whereas Delhi has always preferred surface boats, Beijing always banked on the sub-surface ones.

India must focus more on submarines and less on “big boy” aircraft-carriers because all is not well along India’s 4,104-nautical mile coastline as well as distant sea lanes through which the country’s economic lifeline moves. Plus, the exponential rise in the aggressive posture of the PLA Navy, along with its Pakistani counterpart, operating in tandem with its land-partner PLA, constitutes a grave strategic challenge to the freedom of navigation for the sovereign nations of the world and free passage of ships through the sea lanes of not only the Indian Ocean region but also the western Pacific Ocean and several seas adjoining it. Contemporary mercantile marine fleet face real-time threats spanning from, and under, the great northeast to southwest arc, extending from Japan to Djibouti and Persian Gulf to Djakarta.


China’s PLA Navy has made its intention and action plan very clear. It wants to extend its operational jurisdiction from coastal brown waters to mid-distant green to distant blue water. Its defence white paper 2013 stated the goal: PLA Navy (PLAN) “is responsible for safeguarding its maritime security and maintaining its sovereignty over its territorial seas along with its maritime rights and interests”. The white paper further stressed development of “blue-water capabilities for mobile operations, countering non-traditional security threats and enhancing its capabilities of strategic deterrence and counterattack”.

One can easily understand Chinese impatience; its 2013 white paper was followed by another one in 2015. Titled “China’s Military Strategy”, its emphasis was on “offshore water defence” and “open seas protection”.


Aware of adverse and hostile reaction from other foreign navies, the paper visualised and conceptualised another doctrine, referred to as “preparation for military struggle”, thereby implying out-of-area operations in the high seas.

Reportedly, though China’s weakness emanates from the fact that PLAN is not yet “equipped to fight long wars”, yet it certainly is capable enough to go for “high-tech war of a short duration”.

China’s own weakness, however, has not blinded its vision to identify and implement counter-measures to neutralise its sea rivals. It has rightly diagnosed that the US navy’s aircraft-carrier battle groups constitute the biggest challenge to navies aiming to counter it. The weak moments and vulnerabilities of carrier operations have also been detected: “the thin hull bottoms of aircraft carrier and the most opportune times to attack such as when receiving supplies or landing aircraft”. There is absolutely no doubt that a carrier battle group will find its task daunting, to counter or suppress, a “co-ordinated mass strike of anti-ship missile launched from strike aircraft” and (long range) “surface warships, and submarines”.


The point is simple. If the carrier battle group signifies “sea command and control” with high visibility and power-packed mobility, it is the “sea denial” of/ by long range missiles and hard-to-detect “invisible” submarines which could be the preferable fighting platform in sea, especially for a navy which does not have the matching strength to be numero uno.

It further needs to be remembered that ever since the Second World War epic sea battles in the Pacific Ocean between the Japanese and American armadas of aircraft-carriers, never has any matching carrier versus carrier battle been fought till date. Hence, it would not be inaccurate to suggest that not only carrier war stands untested but that naval wars of the Pacific Ocean of the 1940s are highly unlikely to occur or recur simply because whereas today the US has an 11-carrier fleet, seven other non-US navies together constitute a total of seven aircraft-carriers (helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ships, have been excluded from under the “head” of anaircraft-carrier).


Nevertheless, the question could still be asked: If an aircraft-carrier is so vulnerable and “defenceless”, why then is China going all-out to induct more in its fleet? Why is it aspiring four-carrier PLA Navy? The answer lies in the fact that even before inducting its second carrier, China has already developed and deployed 66 submarines to “take on carrier force” of its “principal rival” (read the US Navy) and formed defence shield for its sole aircraft carrier, Liaoning. This carrier is likely to enhance the ratio of defensive-offensive capabilities of Beijing because whereas a carrier is a platform “high on offence” and comparatively “low on defence” submarines could be more utilitarian, being high on defence and equally effective in offensive role. Further, these are invisible and hard to identify, track, trap, target.  


In effect, China has already made a paradigm shift in submarine operational capability as its Type 032 Qing class auxiliary boat reportedly has a maximum diving depth of 600m which is almost double the 300-400m diving depth capability of most of the submarines around the globe.

And the deeper a submarine dives, more difficult becomes its detection thereof.

This, in turn, makes it that much more potentially elusive and hence deadlier. It renders surface combatants vulnerable to an unexpected, unanticipated and untimely attack from under the sea, notwithstanding the former’s formidable surface-fighting subs to attack a surface ship than the other way round.


The critics may still ask this question: If submarines are that formidable then why is the US Navy such a strong votary of a carrier fleet? Why is the Royal Navy constructing two carriers? Why China is hell-bent to enhance its carrier fleet? And why India too is going for a “carrier force”? The answer to this is: The US command, control, communication and deployment cover the globe with its six Pacific, Central, Europe, Africa, North and Southern Commands, each under an “independent admiral” responsible for one continent. The British could never survive without fighting ships and China can afford to be extravagant at this point in time with its overflowing cash. One instance will suffice. Beijing has a $52 billion bilateral trade surplus with India and $370 billion with the US.


Today, the PLA-Navy has nine operational units among its three fleets and construction of Beijing’s diesel-powered submarines has consistently averaged 2.5 vessels annually, “and this is where China is... placing greater emphasis as it modernises its submarine fleet”. The point is simple: Submarines clandestinely control the sea and deny surface ships control of it. India should vote for the submarine first, and the carrier later. But both are necessary, and compliment each other.

Tags: pla navy, submarine