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China's submarine force is stressed by their more realistic training for combat

Michael Peck   

China's submarine force is stressed by their more realistic training for combat
  • Chinese submarine crews are training to operate farther into the Western Pacific.
  • The more intense training appears to be stressing them.

China is forcing its submarine crews to endure more intensive and realistic training exercises. The goal is to enable subs to operate farther from the Chinese coast and deeper into the Western Pacific, which requires commanders and crews capable of the flexible tactics and initiative that are the norm in Western navies.

But this change is taking a toll on submarine crews. Training has become "more realistic, rigorous, and standardized across the fleet," according to a report by the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College. "Though stressful on submarine equipment and crews, these changes to training may ultimately yield a more combat-capable submarine fleet operating throughout the western Pacific."

The changes date to 2014, when China's military strategy expanded from continental defense on China's border to blue water operations in the Western Pacific. To accomplish this, Chinese leaders have called for attack submarines to embrace "informatization:" Rather than prowling as solitary hunters, they would send and receive targeting data from external sources such as surface ships, aircraft and fleet headquarters.

In addition to more joint training, the People's Liberation Army Navy is now trying to make training as real as possible.

"While the PLA has addressed wartime requirements in training for years, the explicit requirement to train under conditions that are expected in combat adds an intensity and rigor to training and pushes units to consistently train for war," wrote Christopher Sharman and Terry Hess, who co-authored the CMSI report.

Chinese attack submarines are also expected to act more independently, take more initiative and respond flexibly to changing tactical situations rather than await orders from superiors. This may not be easy for a submarine force brought up in the Soviet tradition of rigid control, and in which each boat sails with a political commissar who shares authority with the captain.

Attack subs are most effective when they can ambush warships and merchants, missions that require tactical prowess and flexibility. So-called "boomer" submarines, by contrast, need rigid command and control to be trained and ready to fire nuclear missiles.

Since 2018, the Chinese navy has created new training infrastructure, including more use of simulators and the establishment of special naval bases that evaluate submarine crews and issue those who pass with "deep sea battlefield" certificates. "A submarine might face twenty different scenarios that are used to evaluate fifty technical and tactical tasks while operating at sea," the report noted. "For example, during one assessment, evaluators directed a submarine to sea in poor weather causing severe sea sickness among the crew. In these conditions, evaluators tested the submarine's ability to dive, avoid anti-submarine ships and aircraft, overcome a rudder hydraulic failure, perform anti-surface and anti-submarine targeting, and launch live torpedoes."

In another test, "a submarine sonar operator detected a high-speed target maneuvering toward the submarine. The submarine's captain assumed the object was an enemy torpedo and began making evasive maneuvers. The target, however, was a decoy. Because the submarine had misidentified the target, the crew failed the exam."

Training seems concerned not just with combat proficiency, but also with preventing cheating in the corruption-prone Chinese military. "Oversight prevents units from grading themselves on training evolutions, which ensures training accountability by mitigating the risk of units falsifying capabilities and validates capabilities to execute operational requirements," said the report. "Moreover, it addresses two problems that existed in PLA training: inconsistency between how similar units train and incorrect training techniques."

China's submarines face some unusual challenges, including "internal solitary waves" — common in the Western Pacific — that can sink them. The Chinese navy also has a habit of selecting low-scoring officers to command its submarines, which often operate with senior commanders aboard to ensure things are done right. Nonetheless, the idea of strenuous and realistic training would seem normal enough to Western sailors.

But for Chinese submariners, the new training is stressful. Demands for more realistic training have resulted in riskier training. "In order to execute operational guidance, the submarine force must operate at sea for longer durations, operate further from the coast, and train under simulated wartime conditions while ashore and at sea," the report said. "This places tremendous emotional stress on the crew and physical stress on the submarine platform, increasing the likelihood of a mishap caused by a mechanical malfunction or human error."

Between tougher training and mastering new equipment as Chinese subs become more sophisticated, there is a greater chance of a mishap. "Crews have less time to familiarize themselves with their equipment, and over time there is increased likelihood their lack of familiarization will contribute to an accident or mechanical failure," the report warned.

Indeed, a 2021 Chinese military newspaper article reported "a submarine that conducted a maximum self-sufficiency test to operate as long as possible at sea without external supplies," according to the CMSI study. "Reportedly, the submarine was able to operate for 90 days before returning to port. During the deployment, sailors experienced physiological difficulties such as sensory degradation, eating disorders, and internal clock disorders."

At sea, sleep rhythms are defined by when sailors stand their watches and can shift away from the 24-hour day that's characterized by the night and day submariners don't experience.

Ironically, while rigorous training is intended to create a more skilled and aggressive submarine force, these changes could backfire. "Any potential mishap in the years leading up to a conflict could adversely affect PLA leadership's confidence in the ability of the submarine force to execute high-risk missions during a conflict resulting in more conservative submarine employment during combat," the report concluded.

Sub commanders who take initiative are praised in China's military press, and in 2018, senior officers were barred from sailing aboard submarines to babysit their captains. "But uncertainty remains regarding the full autonomy of submarine commanding officers," Sharman told Business Insider.

In fact, much about China's submarines remains a mystery. What we know largely comes from open-source literature, such as Chinese military media, but this only provides limited information. "Open-source literature provides little insight into the proficiency of Chinese submarines or their crews or how capable they are," Sharman said. "What the literature does suggest is that the PLAN submarine force is simultaneously incorporating a wide range of new operational guidance, platforms, and technologies that are pushing the crews and equipment of the PLAN submarine force in ways they have not been stressed before."

For several years before Russia invaded Ukraine, Western experts claimed that the Russian military had thrown off its Soviet-era rigidity and transformed into a flexible NATO-style force. But Russia's dismal combat performance in Ukraine showed that the reforms were mostly cosmetic. It remains to be seen whether China has remolded its submarine fleet.

"My reading of the literature, and watching the PLAN for over three decades, suggests PLAN submarine capabilities have improved over time," Sharman said. "But it still must improve further to be capable of supporting what is expected of the submarine force."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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