THE NATIONAL INTEREST — As defense analysts brood over the evolving military balance in the western Pacific, considerations related to undersea warfare keep coming to the fore. Given the lethality of modern antiship cruise missiles, surface combatants of all types may well be scarce on the future naval battlefield. Moreover, precision strikes on airbases (and the inherent vulnerability of aircraft carriers) suggest that aerial platforms could additionally be rather sparse during the first few critical weeks of any military conflict that breaks out in the Asia-Pacific region. That leaves submarines (assisted by undersea robots) to decide the epic battle.
Western strategists have been reasonably comfortable with this conclusion, safe in the knowledge that Washington possesses a very considerable undersea advantage over Beijing. That advantage includes acoustic superiority, larger and more capable boats, and a wealth of experience both in operating submarines and in developing undersea warfare-technology innovations. However, this column has occasionally drawn attention to caveats in the assumption of U.S. undersea superiority, including China’s robust mine-warfare posture, its broad front effort to improve its antisubmarine capabilities, as well as possible attempts to experiment with alternative submarine doctrines. That is not to even mention the fact that the U.S. Navy fleet of nuclear attack submarines is now declining to a perilous low of just forty-one boats by 2029—a “valley” in U.S. naval capabilities that is widely noted in Chinese military sources.
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