China continues to project its military influence across the globe. Based on recent developments, it appears that the Chinese military is not just expanding its naval influence in the South China Sea, but is also looking to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean.
The first piece of evidence in this regard is Pakistan’s announcement earlier this year that it will purchase eight modern Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines from China. Analysts note that this significant expansion of the nation’s fleet will give Pakistan a notable Anti-Access/Area Denial capability against the Indian Navy. A stealthy submarine fleet packing a punch would be particularly useful in case of an Indian blockade of Pakistan, and would give New Delhi pause before sending out its new (under construction) aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.
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The second piece of the puzzle is the fact that China has also recently deployed submarines to the Indian Ocean. The Chinese submarines were ostensibly in the area to participate in the ongoing anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden with several other Chinese naval vessels. While this is true, the subs are almost certainly conducting exercises, surveys, and even combat training exercises for future operations in the Indian Ocean. Of note, the Chinese naval deployment to the area included a recent visit by a Yuan-class sub to a major navy shipyard in Karachi.
Chinese navy looking for submarine resupply location in Indian Ocean
The naval planners for the Middle Kingdom are generally realistic about the nation’s power-projection capabilities. Based on a U.S. Naval War College report published earlier this year, China will probably not build overseas military bases similarly to the U.S., France or Russia in the near future to avoid overstretching naval resources closer to home. Keep in mind that China is quite a long distance from the Indian Ocean, and Pakistan is a useful partner in the region.
Submarine crews need to be rotated. Having a location for docking relatively close to a sub’s area of operations makes it much easier to rotate crews, take on fresh supplies and undertake any required maintenance. The Chinese Navy has already taken advantage of ports in Oman, Djibouti and Aden for these purposes during its anti-piracy campaigns in the Gulf of Aden. That said, only surface vessels have docked at these facilities to date.
Experts note that submarines typically need specialized facilities for rearming or resupply and certainly for repairs. Making arrangements for a sufficiently equipped resupply location in the friendliest state in the region instead of trying to build an expensive and controversial naval base makes perfect sense.
A Pakistani naval facility which already berths similar subs would obviously be ideal for the purpose. This solution would obviate the need to permanently station a large number of personnel overseas, while offering maintenance facilities for routine repairs that submarines will need in order to continue to operate at sea over long periods of time.
More on China’s Yuan-class subs
The Yuan-class submarine is China’s first class of submarines to utilize a domestically designed and constructed Air-Independent Propulsion system, giving the modern subs a cruising speed of 18 knots and a range of more than 8,000 nautical miles. The export version of the Chinese Yuan (the S-20) does not usually come equipped with the AIP, but sources report that Pakistan has apparently been able to convince the Chinese provide the latest upgraded version of the subs. Naval analysts also point out that the Yuan is designed with advanced noise reduction techniques including anechoic tiles, passive/active noise reduction and an almost silent asymmetrical seven-blade skewed propeller.
All of this cutting edge technology makes makes the Yuan-class hands down he quietest non-nuclear sub in the People’s Navy. Yuan-class subs also include an impressive arsenal. As well as six tubes firing standard 553 mm torpedoes, the Chinese sub features the YJ-8/8A Anti-Ship Cruise Missile. While this missile only currently offers a maximum range of 30-42 km, the Chinese are working to add the YJ-18 ASCM to the Yuan class. These improved anti-ship missiles supposedly have a range of 220 km and represent a significant A2/AD “force multiplier” for the Yuan class. If or when Pakistan will acquire the more advanced ASCM missiles for their Yuans, or opt to go with their domestically produced Hatf VII Babur ASCM is unclear at this time.