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Could America's Submarine Fleet be Surpassed by China?

submarine
Image via Chinese state media

By Ankur Kundu 12-20-2020 06:08:00

Currently, the U.S Navy has a submarine force that is bigger than its Chinese counterpart when it comes to numbers. The U.S has 68 submarines and China has 66, according to the official count. This makes the U.S. Navy the second-largest submarine force in the world (by numbers), right after North Korea. However, North Korea's 71 submarines are very old, with some dating back to the Korean War.

China comes in at third place, followed by Russia, which has about 64 submarines. However, we could expect major changes in the rankings in the coming decade. Based on the number of submarines both of these navies have under construction, it is likely that the U.S. and China will trade places on the list by 2030. By that date, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (or PLAN) will have around 10 more submarines than America. This will make the PLAN the largest submarine force in the world (in addition to the largest navy overall).

A Congressional report on the annual long-range “Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels” highlights the U.S Navy's submarine force strength over the years to come. The plan involves building more submarines for the most advanced navy in the world, increasing the rate to three a year for the Virginia Class subs. The projected growth will be from 70 in 2022 to 92 in 2051. This doesn't include a dip in numbers that the U.S Navy will incur due to the decommissioning of older submarines. The low point will be between 2025 and 2030. This is also when China’s investment in new sub construction facilities are expected to pay off.

There is some variation among the estimates of the growth of the PLAN's future submarine fleet, according to the U.S Congressional Research Service’s report on China Naval Modernization. Given China’s investment in shipyard infrastructure, an expansion of its sub fleet is possible, in the view of the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence.

But numbers aren’t the whole story. Many of China's submarines are diesel-electric, and are far smaller and shorter-ranged than the nuclear submarines operated by the U.S Navy. Some of the latest Chinese subs have air-independent propulsion (AIP). AIP conveys a major advantage in submarine warfare: it is very stealthy and allows the sub to stay submerged for a longer period, thereby making it harder to detect. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.