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It’s Getting Crowded Under the Sea

October 26, 2010

Galrahn at Information Dissemination shows that even Japan is catching on to East Asia’s submarine race:

We observe in imagery the growth of the Chinese submarine force on this blog. Authors here have also noted the increase in the submarine force of MalaysiaAustralia,South KoreaIndonesiaVietnamSingaporeRussia, andIndia. Now we see news from Japan

Why Japan is increasing the size of their submarine force? The simple answer is China, because China is replacing old, easy to detect submarines with modern submarines. The problem with that theory is that China is not actually increasing the number of submarines, simply the quality of their submarines. Or are they?

And that’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t know how many submarines China is producing for two reasons: China is not transparent on military developments and the US has traditionally been very slow to offer any intelligence not already available to open source observers. Maybe China is increasing the size of their submarine force at a rate greater than retirement of old systems, but maybe the reason isn’t only China. One has to believe that at some level this also has to do with the plans by Russia to operate more nuclear submarines in the Pacific, not to mention the recent activities of North Korea. In other words, China is the easy and obvious reason, but not the only reason Japan would want to increase their number of submarines.

The development of submarines should also be particularly worrying to policymakers, particularly if we take the current American National Security Strategy seriously. Some commentators hope to paint the relative rise of East Asian fleets as a boon, not an obstacle, for the new way of American leadership and rule-based, cooperative order. Rather than the prelude to a new great naval game and realpolitik, the US can integrate these new fleets into cooperative coalitions to tackle issues such as piracy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and natural disasters. As far as developments in surface vessels go, this argument has some logic. Attack submarines, however, are mostly for stalking and destroying other naval vessels. They can have additional uses for intelligence gathering, covert operations, and over-the-horizon missile strikes, but generally they are “modern” rather than “postmodern” in purpose. Nor should we dismiss submarines, as we sometimes do carrier projects, as symbolic flagships whose construction and maintenance is often detached from real threat analyses. Galrahn is right to point out that for Japan, and other states lacking the political will or financial means to build carriers, submarines reflect a sober hedging strategy for increasingly crowded, contested, and dangerous seas.

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