CHINA’S UNDERWATER GREAT WALL


The China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), one of the country’s two largest shipbuilding state-owned enterprises, has proposed the construction of a network of ship and subsurface sensors that could significantly erode the undersea warfare advantage held by US and Russian submarines and contribute greatly to future Chinese ability to control the South China Sea (SCS).

As per the news website of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, details of the network of sensors, called the ‘Underwater Great Wall Project’, were revealed in a CSSC booth at a public exhibition in China in late 2015. A translated copy of the descriptions was obtained by IHS Jane’s from a government official. The text was confirmed by a second government source on condition of anonymity.

What CSSC is proposing is in effect an improved Chinese version of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) that for a time gave the US a significant advantage in countering Soviet submarines during the Cold War. It aims to provide its customers with “a package solution in terms of underwater environment monitoring and collection, real-time location, tracing of surface and underwater targets, warning of seaquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters as well as marine scientific research”. It says it has on offer, 10 series of products that include systems relating to marine observation, oceanographic instrumentation, underwater robotics, and ship support and that its R&D and production bases in Beijing and Wuxi have the ability “to support the whole industry chain covering fundamental research, key technology development, solution design, overall system integration, core equipment development, production, and operation service support”.

China’s Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is likely to acquire the system, which may also be offered for export. Specific components of CSSC’s surveillance system include surface ships, sonar systems, underwater security equipment, marine oil and gas exploration equipment, underwater unmanned equipment, and marine instrument electronic equipment.

India needs to keep a close watch on further developments in this field. The Chinese navy controls the world’s second largest fleet with more than 80 submarines, 16 of which are nuclearpowered and another 15 are equipped with marine technology that allows them to stay underwater longer and their engines to operate more quietly, enhancing their stealth capability. Of concern to India is increasing Chinese submarine activity in the Indian Ocean. With India preparing to launch its first locally-built submarine armed with nuclear tipped missiles and the U.S. seeking to track Chinese nuclear armed submarines in the Pacific, the Chinese are expected to send their own attack submarines to the Indian Ocean in greater numbers to scrutinise the Indian patrols.

As per Indian naval officials, sighting of Chinese submarines takes place four times every three months. During the visit of Japanese premier Shinzo Abe to Sri Lanka, a Chinese nuclear powered submarine paid a port visit to the island nation, ostensibly to send a message to the Japanese!

Both the United States and India are growing concerned at the reach and ambition of the Chinese navy, which is taking an increasingly assertive stance in the South China Sea and is challenging India’s domination in the Indian Ocean. We are likely to see enhanced cooperation between the two countries on tracking submarines in the Indian Ocean, further boosting defence ties. This will perhaps encompass talks between the two navies on anti submarine warfare (ASW), to include areas of sensitive military technology and closely held tactics that only allies share. Presumably, such basic engagements will be the building blocks for an enduring Navy-to-Navy relationship, which could fructify into a shared ASW capability. As of now, both India and the United States conduct joint naval exercises and both fly the new version of the P-8 aircraft, Washington’s most advanced submarine hunting weapon, equipped with sensors that can track and identify submarines by sonar and other means, making information sharing easier on highly sensitive submarine tracking activities.

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