Chinese Submariners

This is a pretty interesting video. It’s an older Type 033 Romeo diesel-electric boat used for training. It’s technology from the 1950s, but the Chinese built them well into the 1980s.


A couple thoughts. Voice pipes! Who still uses voice pipes? And isn’t that a little problematical from a water-tight integrity view?

Second, the food looked really good. But not having a proper mess deck is really weird.

The video is for domestic Chinese consumption, so of course the PLAN comes across looking pretty good.

China thinks it can defeat the US. David Axe thinks they can’t. Worse, the Chinese know they don’t have to.

David Axe takes a look at the relative naval strengths in the Western Pacific. For years armchair analysts have looked at a potential Sino-American conflict through the paradigm of an attack across the Taiwan Strait. For many years, the thought of an actual assault across the strait was rather unthinkable, as the Chinese had little or no genuine amphibious assault capability. That’s rapidly changing with the Chinese shipbuilding program producing significant amphibious shipping for both the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and for the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces.

He sees the rapidly growing Chinese fleet as strong, but with one potentially fatal flaw- undersea warfare.

The bad news first. The People’s Republic of China now believes it can successfully prevent the United States from intervening in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or some other military assault by Beijing.

Now the good news. China is wrong — and for one major reason. It apparently disregards the decisive power of America’s nuclear-powered submarines.

Moreover, for economic and demographic reasons Beijing has a narrow historical window in which to use its military to alter the world’s power structure. If China doesn’t make a major military move in the next couple decades, it probably never will.

The U.S. Navy’s submarines — the unsung main defenders of the current world order — must hold the line against China for another 20 years. After that, America can declare a sort of quiet victory in the increasingly chilly Cold War with China.

Yes, we do have excellent nuclear submarines. And any student of naval war in the Pacific will quickly realize that long range submarines unleashed offensively will have devastating consequences upon an enemy. Our Silent Service in World War II had an impact far larger than the numbers of sailors, or the numbers of boats assigned would suggest.

But no single weapon system or approach is the single key to victory. The great American talent in warfare is the integration of all forms of combat power to overwhelm an enemy, both physically and mentally.  One role for nuclear submarines that Axe doesn’t mention is using our subs as Anti-submarine Warfare platforms to sanitize an area so our carriers and other surface ships can operate with relative safety.  That’s going to take a few boats off the table, keeping them from pursuing Axe’s goal of sinking any notional Chinese amphibious assault.

Second, a look at both US and Japanese submarine operations in World War II suggests that submarines are not likely to be terribly successful in stopping any amphibious invasion. US submarines failed to stop Japanese invasion of the Philippines, and the Japanese never succeeded in stopping any of the many, many US amphibious assaults in the war. Similarly, the German U-boat force was never able to defeat any amphibious assault, though they did try.

But the real issue is, the Chinese currently have no intention of engaging in a shooting war with the US.

As Matthew Hipple argues, while the US is constrained by a “shoot/don’t shoot” deterrence posture of credible combat power in the disputed territories of the Western Pacific, China is leveraging every tactic and means short of shooting to achieve its aims. And absent US willingness to shoot first (and there’s none of that) China is both achieving near term goals, and showing regional forces that the US is not, in fact, a credible deterrent.

Defense strategists usually discuss asymmetry in terms of operations or tactics: specialized anti-ship missiles, cyber-attacks on command-and-control functions, or insurgency against conventional forces. Strategic-level asymmetry is less discussed—in this case, a force designed to stop an opponent’s war versus an opponent using those forces for everything but a war.

The United States is leaving a gap in its strategy. At CSF14, Andrea Dew describes this gap in the context of groups in active conflict: “Although we artificially draw lines between different domains, other adversaries use them seamlessly.”Dew’s specific concernsare about armed groups fighting a state through the exploitable seams of its stove-piped perspectives. This general concept applies to non-combat operations, where China is utilizing a gap in how the West views the scope and appropriate use of military action as a political instrument. Between the committee chambers of diplomats and the joint operations center of admirals, there is a blind spot in our strategy being manipulated, the same as if it were a small boat attack against a conventional blue-water combatant.

The US could counter this current Chinese operational plan, but the current administration, and the vast majority of the defense establishment simply do not have the mindset to engage in the strategic ambiguity needed.

Most US leaders see the path forward in terms of the past, when US and Soviet forces, seeing an escalating pattern of incidents at sea, forged an agreement to minimize the chances of a tense encounter escalating into a shooting match. They worked together to minimize the tensions.

The Chinese, however, are currently working instead to determine just how far they can push, and with every push, are seeking to expand that envelope, bit by bit. The more they can antagonize both regional powers, and the US, without firing a shot, the more they demonstrate a dominance that may lead regional powers to decide that an unhappy relationship with China is better than a feckless one with the US.  And no submarine fleet, no matter how capable, can change that.

How to build a nuclear submarine.

Mind you, the Brits use their boats a little differently than we do, so they design them differently. And some of the production techniques may vary, but the basics of welding hoops together is pretty much how it’s done.


Also, good call on finding the one cute electrician to follow around. The producers must have been ecstatic to see her show up.

Updates from the Submarine Services

We don’t tend to write much about the submarine service. It’s mostly outside our wheelhouse. Also, the generally well run procurement of the Virginia class ships means there isn’t a lot of headline news to write about.

Here’s a presentation on the  state of the ongoing major programs in the sub fleet.

[scribd id=178787780 key=key-248xt1v2clkhftk332fp mode=scroll]

USS Dolphin

Next on our tour of the San Diego Maritime Museum was the research and development submarine USS Dolphin.

The last diesel-electric submarine in US service, the Dolphin was also much smaller than other US subs, but it was still a significant, oceangoing vessel.


Unlike most US subs which have hulls designed to improve hydrodynamic efficiency, the Dolphin focused more on an ability to dive deeply. The hull shape was a pure tube, with hemispherical end caps for and aft.


The number of through hull fittings was kept to an absolute minimum, giving her greater hull strength.


Sonar Room


Berthing compartment on main deck. The majority of the crew berthing was on the lower deck, but that isn’t open to the public.


Radio Room


That’s labelled as a KY-58. I’ll let Craig weigh in on that. But for your general fund of knowledge, devices in the “KY” series are cryptographic devices for scrambling communications.


Ship’s helm. Unlike most US subs, there’s only one position, with the helmsman operating all the ship controls, including the rudder, diving planes, and the lee helm (that is, the device that signals desired throttle settings to the engine room).  The depth gauge has been removed, as the diving depth of the Dolphin (and indeed, all US subs) is not public information.


Diving control panel, immediately aft of the ships helm.


Ship’s galley. For a small ship, with a small crew, it’s quite the galley.


Topside, aft looking forward. Decommissioned in 2007, the catwalks were permanently installed for the safety of tourists.

Foxtrot Sub b39

One of the results of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the wholesale distribution of former Soviet weapons around the world. In fact, the Russians sold an old Foxtrot class diesel electric submarine to private interests in Canada, who subsequently sold it to the San Diego Maritime Museum.

The Foxtrot class was a refinement of German U-Boats developed (but not deployed) at the end of World War II. Built in large numbers, the Foxtrots were the early backbone of the Cold War submarine fleet, until generally replaced by early Soviet Cold War nuclear subs.

The b39 now sits pierside along the Embarcadero, open to visitors, and is  a very interesting display of early 1950s state of the art.




Forward ‘Torpedo Room with six 21” tubes.




Diving controls


Fire control /Torpedo Director Computer


Main passageway looking forward


Main passageway looking aft into engine room


Pantry- Unlike US subs, Soviet sailors generally received a glass of wine a day, usually with the evening meal




Two of the three diesel main engines. Actually, those are the valve covers. The pistons and blocks are below decks.


Third diesel engine. The engines power electric motors for motive power on the surface, and charge banks of batteries for submerged power.




After torpedo room with four tubes.


Crew bunks in the after torpedo room. With 56 enlisted sailors aboard, there were only 27 bunks, meaning everyone had to “hot bunk” while aboard. Officers had far more comfortable accommodations, if still quite austere by Western standards.


Your humble scribe on an interior communications phone.


The Russians have a very long history of operating submarines, having started in 1905. They have also long had problems operating submarines. The US has lost two nuclear subs, both back in the 1960s. I’ve lost count of how many the Russians have lost. The most recent loss was the Kursk, which took 118 sailors with it.

Now comes news that the Russians have had another accident on board a sub. They didn’t lose the boat, but they did lose 20 people. Apparently the fire suppression system discharged unintentionally. When this happens, the freon displaces the oxygen in a compartment. Without oxygen, the fire can’t burn. But people in the compartment can’t breath, either.  On US subs, this hazard is mitigated by having air masks and hookups to breathable air. I don’t know how the Russian navy approaches the problem, but they have historically been far more willing to suffer the loss of sailors to accident then our own.