The U.S. Navy has a larger submarine force than China. 68 submarines compared to an estimated 66. This makes the U.S. Navy the second largest submarine force in the world, after North Korea. Our estimate for North Korea is 71 subs, although they are barely comparable to the other countries on the list. So China is currently third, and Russia forth with 64. These are the four big players in terms of fleet size. Exact numbers are open to interpretation, but this order is generally agreed.
The next ten years could see a major shift in the rankings however. Based on current plans and projections, the U.S. and China will trade places by 2030.
By then the Chinese Navy, known as the PLAN (People’s liberation army Navy) may have around 10 more submarines than America. This will make the PLAN the largest submarine force in the world, surpassing even North Korea (who anyway are projected to fall).
A report to Congress on the annual long-range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels lays out the U.S. Navy’s submarine force over the next 30 years. The plan is to build more submarines, increasing the rate to three a year for the Virginia Class. This will grow the force from 70 in 2022 to 92 in 2051. However, there will be a dip in numbers before it rises again as older boats will be decommissioned quicker than new ones can be built. The low-point will be between 2025 and 2030. This is also when China’s investment in new construction facilities is expected to pay off.
One category of boat which the U.S. Navy will lose completely before 2030 is the cruise missile submarine (SSGN). The four Ohio Class SSGN conversions will be decommissioned in 2026/7. The Ohios are the heaviest conventionally-armed submarines afloat. They will be partially replaced by the Virginia Class Block-V boats which will carry more cruise missiles than current versions.
Estimates of the PLAN’s submarine force vary. The figure of 76 in 2030 comes from a March 18 2020 US government report on China Naval Modernization. Given China’s significant investment in infrastructure this growth is easily accepted. China has expanded the Bohai shipyard where its nuclear submarines are built. New classes of both attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines are expected to emerge soon. In fact the first signs of new submarines have already been observed.
Many of China’s submarines are diesel-electric. These boats are smaller and shorter ranged than the U.S. Navy’s all-nuclear fleet. But this may make them better suited to some operations, for example in the shallow waters off the Chinese coast. It also makes them cheaper and easier to produce. The latest models, the Type-039A Yuan class, have air-independent power (AIP).
China has recently moved a major non-nuclear submarine construction facility out of Wuhan. The new site is further down the river at the Shuangliu yard. This is is larger and more discrete. It may allow an increased rate of submarine construction, although some of the boats will be for export to Pakistan and Thailand.
The U.S. Navy’s decrease in submarines will be partly made up by a new category of underwater vehicle which the U.S. Navy. Extra-large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles (XLUUVs) will perform some of the missions currently done by crewed submarines. The U.S. Navy is currently leading the charge with these and should receive the first four Orca XLUUVs by 2025. Their compact dimensions and relative expendability may make them particularly potent in littorals.
It is difficult to project whether the PLAN will follow the U.S. Navy’s lead with XLUUVs. It seems entirely possible, and they have developed large displacement UUVs (one category smaller). There is insufficient open source intelligence on a Chinese XLUUV program however.
The combat potential of a submarine fleet is not based on numbers alone. The quality of the boats, their weapons and their crews all come into play. And the U.S. Navy is widely seen as far ahead of the PLAN today. But quantity has a quality all of its own. And the U.S. force is much more spread out than china’s, also facing an increasingly assertive Russian Navy submarine fleet. And no submarine, however dated, can be written off as not a threat.