Video Report: Will China Make an Aggressive Move on Taiwan?
Surface ships are of course visible to an enemy from miles away, many drones and aircraft are also easily detectable and certainly ground-based weapons such as missile launchers and interceptors can largely be seen by satellite.
This means any prepositioned assets put in place to deter or stop a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan are likely to be seen or known by attacking People's Liberation Army forces.
But what about submarines? When considering these variables, it seems reasonable to entertain the thought that submarines and the realm of the undersea might be the best way for the U.S. and its allies to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Ship and land-based sensors are now advanced to the point that it will be very difficult to position warships or even operate certain aircraft within striking distance of Taiwan which are not pretty easily seen by Chinese forces.
Therefore, China might be inclined to attempt a surprise attack when U.S. carriers and other visible assets are not within range. This, however, is where submarines and undersea drones come in.
Should enough attack submarines and sub-launched undersea drones be operating in the vicinity, they would quite possibly be much less detectable and in position to attack and destroy advancing Chinese amphibious forces.
Weapons and Technology
Part of this equation is fortified by recent U.S. Navy advances in attack submarine technology are able to not only make them less detectable to sonar and other methods of detection, but also armed with longer-range, more precise weapons systems.
Maritime variant tactical Tomahawks, for example, are able to change course in flight and destroy moving targets, placing them in a position to attack surface ships on the move.
The Navy is also developing its Very Lightweight Torpedo weapon which expands attack envelope possibilities.
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Block II Virginia-class and subsequent model attack submarines are now equipped with newer kinds of underwater antennas or communications devices, engine quieting enhancements and special kinds of coating materials intended to make them less detectable.
While details regarding what these look like are unavailable for security reasons, Navy leaders talked about these advances years ago when the USS South Dakota Virginia-class Block III submarine emerged as a prototype. The South Dakota, and other submarines with similar innovations, are now operational. This might be one reason why the concepts for operation for attack submarines have evolved a little to include more undersea surveillance.
Block III Virginias also use “fly-by-wire” automated navigational controls, fiber optic cables and more advanced Large Aperture Bow sonar systems. Attack submarines, and drones they can launch from the torpedo tubes, could likely operate along high-risk island and coastal areas conducting clandestine surveillance missions while being much less detectable than a surface ship or some aerial drones.
Furthermore, the U.S. Navy is making rapid progress with a growing fleet of small, mid-sized and very large, submarine sized unmanned undersea drones. These platforms have very long endurance and can dwell, or lurk beneath the sea for weeks tracking enemy surface ships, submarines and mines.
In the future, it seems possible some of them could be armed with weapons, providing undersea command and control technology evolves to the point wherein humans can remain fully “in the loop” regarding the use of lethal force. While undersea drones can already find and explode mines “autonomously” while undersea, any actual lethal firing of a torpedo would naturally need to be managed by a human, per Pentagon doctrine.
As for the force itself, this may be one reason why the U.S. and Navy continue to greatly uptick, accelerate and fast-track larger amounts of new submarines.
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An attack submarine “deficit” concern has been on the radar for many years now, and Congress and the Navy now plan to build as many as 3 Virginia-class attack submarines per year as opposed to two.
Are there enough submarines to potentially rise to this challenge? Global Firepower says China operates as many as 79 submarines, compared to the U.S.’ 69. This is yet another reason why many in the U.S. continue to call for an even more accelerated pace of submarine acquisition.
However, U.S. allies have submarines as well, and should attack submarines be so difficult to find, then having slightly fewer numbers would not impair mission effectiveness to a large degree. Global Firepower lists South Korea as operating 22 submarines and Japan is cited as having 20. These boats, in conjunction with U.S. Navy attack submarines, might indeed be well-positioned to stop the Chinese Navy, given their weapons ability and stealthy characteristics.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.