A pair of next-generation submarines will help China not only further Beijing’s naval power in Asia but also pose a greater challenge to U.S. and Western fleets in the near future, experts and analysts say.

According to a report by East-Asia-Intel.com this week, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) already has completed 18 voyages with its new Yuan class vessel, a conventionally powered attack sub that is believed capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles as well as standard torpedoes.

The new Yuan-class vessel reportedly has passed a series of performance tests and is ready to be deployed, the website said, quoting Chinese news sources.

One Chinese source, the Jinyangwang news site, reported the vessel “has now formally become a new member of the PLA navy’s submarine force.” It went on to say the vessel had achieved “15 firsts” during its initial cruises, which “included technical performance, development and construction quality assurances.” The news agency also said the new sub set a depth record for a conventional submarine.

Discovery of the Yuan-class vessel came as a surprise to U.S. intelligence agencies, East-Asia-Intel reported.

Meanwhile, China appears on the verge of deploying its newest SSBN, or nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Type 094 class, which is being developed as a seagoing extension of Chinese nuclear weapons power projection, analysts say.

The Type 094 is a follow-on to earlier SSBNs produced by China, most recently the Type 093, a nuclear-powered attack vessel “similar to Russian second-generation designs such as the Victor III,” said an analysis by the American Federation of Scientists, or FAS.

An additional report by SinoDefence.com said two Type 094 vessels were planned, but, the analysis said, it was unclear whether both were ever deployed.

As to missile weaponry, the 093 carries the JL-1, a two-stage, solid-propellant weapon with a single nuclear-capable warhead with a yield between 200 and 300 kilotons and a range of 1,700 kilometers, or 1,056 miles. A sea-launched version of China’s land-based DF-21 missile, the JL-1 was initially developed for the Type 092 Xia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile boat, which became operational in 1983, according to FAS.

China also has developed the JL-2, a three-stage, solid-fuel sea variant of China’s DF-31 ballistic missile. It is capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads – as many as four, FAS says – and has a range of about 8,000 kilometers, or 4,971 miles. Some analysts say it is being developed specifically for the 094 but experts say it’s unclear whether China has ever test-launched a JL-2 from an 094 platform.

Doubts across the straits

Despite Chinese advances in submarine technology, some lawmakers in Taiwan doubt China has made as much progress as it is claiming, especially in the realm of nuclear submarine development.

Taiwan National Security Bureau Director-General Hsueh Shih-ming briefed lawmakers earlier this week about China’s increased sub capacity, pointing out the PLAN had recently completed a test with the 094 and that it should be ready to deploy soon.

People First Party Legislator Lin Yu-fang, however, voiced doubts about the sub’s progress, and went on to question where the NSB might have obtained its data.

“Internationally no information has indicated whether the Type 094 has passed the test and would be in service soon, but instead, U.S. and Japanese intelligence have dismissed an allegation that the Type 094 successfully tested a Julang-2 [JL-2] ballistic missile in June,” Lin said, according to the Taipei Times newspaper.

“Whether the missile tested in June was launched from a Type 093 or Type 094, whether it was a JL-1 or JL-2, and whether it was launched from an underwater platform or a submarine were all unclear, so how do you know the Type 094 has passed a test?” he said.

Richard Fisher, Jr., a China weapons expert and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said China’s submarine development was comparable enough to U.S. technology to be a legitimate threat.

In an interview, he also told WND that, though he is uncertain whether the new Yuan-class vessel is operational, the fact that it is undergoing sea trials and reports suggest a second one is planned for December launch “probably means that operational status is a near-term development, and that series production is under way.”

Fisher also said the June launch of the JL-2 was most likely not from a Type 094 sub but a specially modified Golf-class conventional ballistic missile sub.

“The Chinese maintain one of those just for this purpose,” he said.

News of China’s increasing submarine capacity comes as Taiwanese legislators continue to haggle over a multi-billion dollar U.S. weapons deal, one which includes the sale of eight modern diesel-electric [conventional] submarines to supplement Taiwan’s two operational 1980s-era Dutch subs.

It also comes as U.S. analysts and military planners express concern over China’s continuing military buildup in the face of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said was a non-threatening environment. A required annual report by the Defense Department on China’s military capabilities said Beijing is at a “strategic crossroads” as it works intensively to increase and modernize its military capabilities.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian last week encouraged lawmakers to approve the purchase of the weapons package of subs, P-3C Orion sub-hunting aircraft, four U.S.-made Kidd Class destroyers and other systems.

As to the new Chinese subs, Fisher said “obviously” they would present challenges to U.S., Japanese and regional allied navies.

“The Type 094 will constitute the first reliable Chinese second [nuclear] strike capability,” he said. “The actual performance of the submarine is not known publicly, but there is ample reporting from American government sources that broadly say the submarine will benefit greatly from Russian technology.”

Those technologies aren’t widely known, Fisher said, “but if you let your imagination roam,” it becomes easier to believe new-generation Chinese submarines are much more advanced than previous models.

He also said how the new subs are deployed would make a difference as to their effectiveness. American subs are deployed in single-vessel sorties and hence able to disperse first- and second-strike assets around the globe. But Russian subs, Fisher said, tended to be deployed with other naval and air assets, to protect vital targets.

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