As China ramps up military flights around Taiwan, another quieter mission continues at sea

China Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft
A Chinese military Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

  • Chinese military flights around Taiwan have increased in recent weeks.
  • Those flights are seen as Chinese efforts to test Taiwan and send a message to its partners, especially the US.
  • But the aircraft included in those operations hint at a larger Chinese effort to improve its military’s capabilities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China’s military flights around Taiwan have intensified in recent weeks in what is seen as an effort to test Taiwan and to send a message to its partners, especially the US.

Amid those operations, China appears to be continuing an ongoing effort to improve its military’s ability to fight below the waters off its coast.

In 2020, Chinese aircraft made a record number of flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone. China has stepped up those flights this year, adding combat aircraft and setting new records: 20 aircraft in one incursion on March 26, followed by 25 warplanes on April 12.

According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, many of those flights take place off of southwest Taiwan and include variants of the Shaanxi Y-8 aircraft equipped for reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare.

The latter capability is particularly important in those waters, where the shallow Taiwan Strait meets the deeper South China Sea. To the east, the Bashi Channel connects them to the Pacific through the Philippine Sea.

Chinese China navy submarine
A Chinese submarine off the coast of Qingdao in Shandong province, April 23, 2009.

The South China Sea’s deep waters are “favorable” for Chinese submarine activity, and the proximity to Taiwan is the reason for “the frequent presence” of anti-submarine aircraft, said Su Tzu-yun, director of the defense strategy and resource division at the Institute for National Defence and Security Studies, a Taiwanese state-backed think-tank.

The Bashi Channel “can be considered as an underwater corridor from which Chinese submarines can enter the Philippine Sea and launch strikes against the US West Coast,” Su told Insider.

Operating and detecting submarines in that area depends on knowledge of water conditions there, which China is working to learn.

“If you want to fight a successful naval war, you had better get your hydrographic information right,” said Lyle Goldstein, a research professor and expert on Chinese undersea warfare at the US Naval War College.

That information affects algorithms used in undersea warfare, and China has been “pulling out all the stops” to understand the currents, temperature, and salinity of those waters, Goldstein told Insider.

“The performance of all those systems is affected by those algorithms, and the Chinese know that,” Goldstein said, “They are working absolutely overtime.”

Waiting game

Shiyu Kinmen County Taiwan China
Shiyu, or Lion Islet, one of Taiwan’s offshore islands, seen in front of the Chinese city of Xiamen, April 20, 2018.

The geography around the first island chain – the islands immediately off East Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – creates challenges and opportunities for submarine warfare.

“China has this kind of perennial strategic problem of geography,” Goldstein said. “To egress their submarines is quite difficult because they have to maneuver through the island chains.”

“You can bet they’re working very hard on making it as hard as they can for the US to know when Chinese submarines are going out and how they do it,” Goldstein added.

The shallowness of the Taiwan Strait inhibits submarine operations, but the currents, temperatures, and salinity create “a really tough acoustic environment,” according to Bryan Clark, an expert on naval warfare at the Hudson Institute and a former submarine officer.

The latter conditions make it harder to detect submarines – an acute problem for US forces tasked with finding Chinese subs in a conflict. The Chinese, however, will likely “just wait for the US [submarines] to start doing something that they can detect,” such as firing torpedoes or missiles, Clark said.

China has rolled out an array of assets that improve its ability to do that, including anti-submarine-warfare ships, undersea monitoring sensors, and advanced helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

China navy Type 056 corvette
Huizhou, a Chinese Navy Type 056 corvette designed for coastal defense, near Hong Kong, July 7, 2017.

“China just in the last five years has started fielding units of serious anti-submarine aircraft,” Goldstein said, citing the Gaoxin-6, an improved anti-submarine variant of the Y-8/9 aircraft.

“They had helicopters that could do anti-submarine warfare, but this is quite new, to have these large fixed-wing planes that drop on sonobuoys and look for submarines,” Goldstein added.

China still has anti-submarine-warfare shortcomings. Its sonar and sonobuoys “aren’t very sophisticated,” Clark said. “They’re easily two generations behind where the US and NATO are and … at least one generation behind Japan.”

The combination of assets and capabilities likely means China will focus on thwarting offensive operations by US subs rather than proactively hunting them, Clark said. Despite US submarines’ familiarity with the area, the confined waters there would limit their ability to evade attacks, meaning they’d likely back off in the face of Chinese pressure.

“The idea would be if a potential submarine is detected, they would send these aircraft, like the Y-8, out there to drop weapons on them,” Clark said. “They’re going to make sure that their own submarines are not in the area and use that to suppress US submarine operations.”

“The fact that the Chinese are developing this, essentially, [anti-submarine warfare] response capability means that US submarines are going to have a more limited impact on any confrontation with the Chinese over something like Taiwan,” Clark added.

‘China is extremely worried’

Navy submarine
US Navy fast-attack submarine USS Asheville with US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge in the Philippine Sea.

China’s efforts to improve its maritime awareness aren’t limited to waters around Taiwan.

Last year, Australian officials said a Chinese ship off that country’s western coast was likely mapping routes Australian subs use to access the South China Sea. In December, Indonesian fisherman found a suspected Chinese underwater drone, which was seen as a sign of China trying gather information needed for submarine operations near Australia.

China is not alone in these efforts.

India, which recently clashed with China on their disputed land border, has stepped up efforts to monitor the Indian Ocean, especially around the Malacca Strait, which connects that ocean to the Pacific.

Last year, the US reportedly asked Indonesia to allow P-8 maritime patrol planes land and refuel there, giving them another operating location around the South China Sea; Indonesia denied the request. The recovery of underwater drones near China’s coast also suggests the US is gathering data on the waters there.

While the number of submarines in the region is growing – Taiwan is building a new fleet with US help – US subs remain China’s chief concern.

“China is extremely worried about our submarine force … because they know that it would be hard for them to hunt our submarines, and our submarines have quite a devastating punch,” Goldstein said. “They’re really trying to do everything they can to understand where our submarines are and how could Beijing possibly counter them.”

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US Coast Guard won’t ‘close the door’ on hunting submarines again in the future

Coast Guard cutter Bertholf Pacific Ocean
Coast Guard cutter Bertholf on a counter-drug patrol in the eastern Pacific Ocean, March 11, 2018.

  • Tensions are rising between the US and rivals like Russia and China, both of which are fielding more advanced submarines that are cause for concern for the US Navy.
  • The Coast Guard had an active role in hunting submarines during 20th-century conflicts, and while Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz says there are no immediate plans to resume that mission, it isn’t being ruled out either.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US Navy is scrambling to adjust to what it sees as growing threats posed by the Russian and Chinese navies, particularly their submarine fleets, which are getting larger and more effective.

The US Coast Guard, which hunted subs during World War II, doesn’t have plans to help keep an eye on those subs, but its top officer isn’t ruling it out either.

Asked at a Navy League event on December 1 about the service’s requirements to conduct anti-submarine warfare, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said “you have to turn the clock back” to an era when the Coast Guard was fully equipped for that mission.

“The predecessors to the national security cutters, the 378-foot high-endurance cutters, [the] Hamilton class, we had sonar capability, and we had sonar techs,” Schultz said, referring to a class of cutters that arrived in the 1960s that also carried torpedoes and other weaponry.

“We’re not building any capabilities, installing any capabilities on our ships today that would put us back in that mission,” Schultz said. “We’ve ceded that to the Navy.”

The Coast Guard already faces “unprecedented” demands, Schultz said, referring to the service’s 11 official missions, ranging from patrolling inland waterways to high-seas drug busts.

But the Coast Guard chief didn’t rule out helping counter underwater threats in the future.

“If there was a requirement that was at the joint Coast Guard-Navy-[Department of Defense] level that said, ‘Hey, there’s an urgent need to bring that capability back in Coast Guard,’ I’m not saying we couldn’t revisit that,” Schultz said.

“I’m not so sure I see an immediate return to that mission space here, but again, I don’t close the door on anything since we live in an increasingly complicated world … and requirements change,” Schultz added.

‘Not just Coast Guard missions’

US Coast Guard Navy World War II WWII convoy submarine depth charge
Crewmen on Coast Guard cutter Spencer watch a depth charge explode, blasting a German submarine attempting to break into a US convoy on April 17, 1943. The attacking U-boat was sunk off of Ireland.

Coast Guard crews guided hundreds of ships through submarine-infested waters during World War I. During World War II, its aircraft and ships, led by the Treasury-class cutters, hunted subs on the East and West coasts and escorted convoys across the Atlantic.

The Treasury class was replaced by the Hamilton class, the 12 ships of which could perform scientific and law-enforcement missions but were also equipped to find, track, and destroy submarines. The first Hamilton-class cutter arrived in 1965 and only two remain in US service.

A modernization program in the late 1980s outfitted Hamilton-class ships with better sensors and weapons, including upgraded torpedoes and new Harpoon anti-ship missiles, in addition to their helicopters. But the end of the Cold War lowered concern about undersea warfare, and those sensors and weaponry were removed.

That perception is changing, and the military is responding to what it sees as a growing submarine threat. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite’s announcement this month that Virginia-based Fleet Forces Command would become US Atlantic Command underscores the shift.

“We will refocus our naval forces in this important region on their original mission: controlling the maritime approaches to the United States and to those of our allies,” Braithwaite told lawmakers. “The Atlantic Fleet will confront the reassertive Russian navy, which has been deploying closer and closer to our East Coast, with a tailored maritime presence, capability, and lethality.”

Observers have already called for Coast Guard cutters to take a larger role as surface combatants to bolster the Navy, arguing that capabilities the Coast Guard has for missions like catching narco-subs can be adapted for military operations.

“The US Coast Guard and Navy should move jointly and decisively to arm, train and equip the major cutter fleet so that it can perform a useful set of defense and expeditionary missions,” Cmdr. Gregory Tozzi, a US Coast Guard cutterman, wrote in 2017, arguing that doing so was “a reasonable response to threats posed by increasingly capable, bold and bellicose competitors.”

Schultz and other officials have also said new Coast Guard ships will be able to adapt for future missions.

“We’re putting in what we call space, weight, and power to be able to plug and play for all kinds of mission support,” Shannon Jenkins, senior Arctic advisor at the Coast Guard’s Office of Arctic Policy, said at an event in August when asked about arming icebreakers. “It certainly will have the capacity and the abilities to add in whatever we need to execute our national missions, not just Coast Guard missions.”

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