Jeffrey LewisYuan Class Submarine

One of the “failures” Gertz pinned on the IC yesterday was the “deployment of a new [Chinese] attack submarine known as the Yuan class that was missed by U.S. intelligence until photos of the submarine appeared on the Internet.”

Gertz first reported on this story in July 2004. Take a moment to read carefully Gertz’s July 2004 story in its entirety, then answer the following question: What surprised US intelligence about China’s new attack submarine?

You can’t, because Gertz doesn’t offer more than an unidentified official calling it a “technical surprise,” and noting the submarine “is diesel-powered” and a “combination of indigenous Chinese hardware and Russian weapons.”

DIA Director Lowell Jacoby, in prepared Congressional testimony, acknowledged that “China recently launched a new conventional submarine.” Jacoby didn’t mention being surprised, but then again why should he? The 2002 edition of Chinese Military Power mentions China is constructing new diesel submarines that incorporate Russian weapons systems:

Submarines. The PLA Navy likely intends to maintain a large submarine force. China is producing more modern submarines and is acquiring Russian technology to improve future units, with likely upgrades to the current fleet accomplished during overhauls.


Diesel Electric Submarines. In addition to the roughly 30 obsolete Soviet-designed ROMEO Class submarines remaining in the force, China has produced two domestically designed diesel-electric attack submarine classes: the MING and the SONG Class SS. China has launched 21 MINGs and three SONGs. The MING essentially is an improved version of the ROMEO. The SONG, on the other hand, is China’s first new-design, conventionally powered submarine.

The SONG is a blend of Chinese and Western technology and has several key features that point to a major shift in diesel submarine design philosophy. It is the first Chinese submarine to have a skewed propeller. The SONG also is the first Chinese submarine designed to carry the developmental YJ-82, China’s first encapsulated ASCM capable of launching from a submerged submarine. SONGs are probably fitted with flank-array sonars of French design. Chinese diesel submarines are fitted with German MTU diesel engines.

The PLAN has taken delivery of four Russian-built KILO Class SS. Two are standard export version Project 877 EKM KILO SS and two are Project 636 KILO SS (the improved KILO design). In purchasing the KILO SS, the PLAN has acquired one of the quietest diesel-electric submarines in the world. Armed with such weapons as the wire-guided Test-71ME heavyweight torpedo and the 53-65KE wake-homing torpedo, the KILO provides Beijing with access to previously unavailable quieting and weapons technology. China most likely will try to incorporate aspects of this submarine into its domestic programs, although it will take several years before these technologies could be used effectively.

By 2010, China will have withdrawn the ROMEO Class submarines from service. By 2020, China’s non-nuclear submarine inventory probably will include MING, SONG, and KILO SS. China will continue using Russian technology to improve quieting, propulsion, and submarine design; it also is incorporating foreign technology into its existing submarines. China also will benefit from the maturation of its domestic submarine research and development (R&D) infrastructure to achieve a capability to design and manufacture modern submarines domestically. [Emphasis mine]

So, what’s the surprise, exactly? One possibility is that the new submarine incorporates “air independent propulsion” – at least that is what Gertz’s right-wing buddy Rick Fisher thinks. Interesting but not a surprise, either. Chinese Military Power predicts:

A new advanced version of the SONG-class conventional submarine is expected to incorporate advanced air independent propulsion.

The surprise might be a judgment about the extent of modifications to the SONG. For what it is worth, Chinese internet sites seem to be hosting a substantial debate about whether to call the new submarine the YUAN, modified SONG or Super SONG.

My guess, however, is that “surprise” is one of those political words that don’t have much meaning in an intelligence context. Let’s take a close look at one of the sentences from Chinese Military Power: “it will take several years before these technologies could be used effectively.”

That last little word makes all the difference. It means that China might be able to introduce Russian technologies before then, but doing so would be to China’s detriment and our gain.

Let me tell you about another case of the intelligence community being surprised by the dumb things other countries do. A few years ago North Korea unexpectedly tested a three-stage configuration for the Taepodong-1 (TD-1) missile. Missile defense advocates (including our current Secretary of Defense) were apoplectic. The Senate report accompanying the National Missile Defense Act seized on the TD-1 test as further evidence of the terrifying and unpredictable post-Cold War world:

On October 31, 1998, North Korea tested the Taepo-Dong One missile on a flight trajectory that passed over Japan and demonstrated the capability to deliver a small payload to an intercontinental range. Although the Intelligence Community had observed and reported on preparations for this test, it was completely surprised by the sophistication of the Taepo-Dong One missile, especially its use of a solid fuel motor as a third stage. North Korea is also developing a longer-range version known as the Taepo-Dong Two, which will clearly be an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking much of the United States and which could be operational in a few short years.

Nice story, but it misses the point. Notice the first sentence says “deliver a small payload.” So small, DIA officials told the Washington _Post_’s Bradley Graham, that it couldn’t carry a military payload:

Part of the reason for the oversight, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officials explained months later, was that intelligence experts had concentrated on militarily useful payloads. They had never figured that the North Koreans would choose to give up a normal-sized payload and substitute a tiny broadcasting satellite boosted by a small motor. “We assumed they were focused on achieving military utility for this system ,” one DIA official. “Instead, they chose to go for political effect and replaced a military payload with one that was politically dramatic. This may reflect a kind of institutional bias we have, but if it’s not militarily useful, we just kind of ignore it.”

Lost in all the huallabaloo about the “sophistication” of the TD-1 was the fact that the third stage failed to place the satellite in orbit. I wonder if Kim Jong-Il slapped the missile engineers and screamed “Juche!” before or after they said “but Dear Leader, it was a sophisticated failure …”

So, what do we make of this report by Bill Gertz? Two comments on perspective.

  • First, not all intelligence failures are equal. If policy-makers are to improve the intelligence estimates, they must have some perspective about the craft of intelligence and its limits.

The CENTRA report by Suettinger et al is probably a good faith effort to engage in some self-criticism and improvement. The wrong lesson, however, would be the one that Secretary Rumsfeld drew from the TD-1 episode. He told Senators that when a policy-maker receives an intelligence report that doesn’t fit his expectations, “it ought to be sent back and [the intelligence community] asked for those alternatives” to be considered.

  • Second, we need some sense of perspective about China’s military modernization. Chris Nelson detects stirrings that DOD is thinking through the question of how muchc modernization is okay—and that the most recent edition of Chinese Military Power was delayed pending an answer. A question by Jonathan Pollack apparently prompted the introspection:

[Pollack] asked Rumsfeld whether he agreed … that China does have legitimate military modernization needs, and if so, how he would define a “legitimate” military program. Rumsfeld replied “that’s up to China”, but sources say he clearly realized that the Report needed to realistically address this issue …

See, I can say nice things about Don Rumsfeld.


  1. JLo (History)

    Jeffrey, us laymen who enjoyed “Blind Man’s Bluff” read this post with glee. Well done, sir, and may you continue to open our eyes about the true magnitude of such things.

    As an afterthought, it strikes me as odd that people are still building diesel subs these days. Is that common, or is this a matter of the Chinese just using what limited technologies are available?

  2. Rovas (History)

    Diesel subs are still effective weapons in combat thanks to new research into engines, batteries and sonar. They are the cheap alternative to nuclear submarines. Many countries have them Germany, Italy, France, etc.

  3. Lux (History)

    The difference with diesel subs is that they are mainly a litorial weapon where shallow water accenuates their capabilities and hinders the nuclear boats. This is why the USN is developing techniques and measures to detect the relatively batery silent diesel subs in shallow waters, due to how dangerous diesel subs can be in these litorial waters. But if a navy wishes to be strategic, nuclear submarines are needed with their mobility that diesel subs can only dream of.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    Submarines aside (I think that Lux has an excellent point with regard to the relative virtues of nukes and non-nukes), one should remember that the last sighted DIA opinion about the TD-1 missile was a reply to “questions for the record” (QFRs) submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, dated 30 June 2003:

    We [DIA] have no information to suggest Pyongyang intends to deploy the Taepo Dong 1 (TD-1) as a surface-to-surface missile in North Korea. We believe instead that the vehicle was a test bed for multi-stage missile technologies.

    And the TD-2 is still out there in the “real soon maybe someday” land it has been since the 1990s.

    By the way, has there been anything recent on the SS-N-6-derived IRBM North Korea was reported to have developed?

  5. TLAM Strike (History)

    Diesel submarines are not just for littoral operations; they are also quite effective open ocean platforms for operations against enemy SSNs and the sea-lanes of communication. Boats like the British Upholder SSKs (Now Canadian Victorias) are designed for deep water combat against Russian nuclear submarines in the G.I.UK Gap- hence they are equipped with the same gear as British SSNs like towed sonar arrays and Tigerfish wire-guided torpedoes. In fact against an SSN the diesel SSK has the stealth and sensor advantage due to its quieter nature interfering with ownship sonar less.

    Also newly built SSs have large numbers of anti-ship and/or land attack missiles. The Yuan [possably] has 6 or more VLS tubes aft of the sail and the Russian Amur project 950 SSG has 10 VLS tubes for the SS-N-27 SLCM- which is a serous threat to carrier battle groups when coupled with additional Air and Submarine missile attacks, against a convoy or small task force it could be devastating.

  6. Max Postman (History)

    Allen, with regards to the SS-N-6 based missile:

    U.S. officials have also said that North Korea is in the process of deploying a new, likely road-mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile which has been under development for years. The missile, said to be based on the Soviet SS-N-6, has a range at 2,500-4,000 kilometers, according to press accounts citing U.S. and South Korean government estimates.

    That’s from our very own Paul Kerr over at the Arms Control Association. Hope it helps answer your question.

  7. USN dolphin wearer (History)

    Diesel submarines (SSKs) are very vulnerable in the open ocean, as they have to snorkel sometime…out there, that sound carries forever. in the littorals, sometimes the diesels are a bit drowned out by all the other traffic and are less vulnerable. notice I didn’t say invulnerable in either case. ;o)

    As for the SSKs the Canucks bought from the Brits, I’d never consider those platforms for the open ocean. yea, the Brits used to use them for the GI/UK gap, but it was because the MoD didn’t want/couldn’t convince Parliament to give the MoD the funds to buy nukes in that era and that’s what they had.

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    TLAM Strike said:

    In fact against an SSN the diesel SSK has the stealth and sensor advantage due to its quieter nature interfering with ownship sonar less.”

    Back in the days when the USSR was still with us, there was some amount of worry in the US intelligence community about such matters. The Kilo was, if I remember correctly, the concrete object of concern, particularly in the area around the GIUK Gap in certain scenarios. For reasons that were never totally clear, the USN’s answer was (this is a quote from one discussion), “We’ll brush them aside.” As US submariners had an extremely impressive record of doing what they wanted in the presence of Soviet (and other) naval forces, that kind of carried the day.

  9. Lux (History)

    I would agree with TLAM Strike that modern diesel submarines with their increasing technology mentioned are more usefull in deep water operations than the diesel boats of old.

    The only big advantage that nuclear subs have (for now) is their propulsion. Not only does this allow faster sustainable speeds to evade danger (still can’t outrun the advanced torpedoes such as the Mk 48 ADCAP), but it allows for transits to and from patrol areas at a good speed without having to come near the surface to recharge. Not to mention that SSN’s do not have to worry about fuel supplies.

    But with increasing technology for diesel boats, the high costs and complexity associated with nuclear subs, and with the most likely naval hotspots being in littorial areas diesel submarines are slowly becoming the SSN’s equals.

  10. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Re: the SS-N-6-derived IRBM North Korea was expected to deploy

    This picks from an exchange with Allen and Paul from February 2005.

    At that time, I linked to Paul’s story in Arms Control Today.

    In 2004, DIA Director Jacoby testified :

    Press reports indicate North Korea is preparing to field a new IRBM, about the size and dimensions of the Russian SS-N-6 SLBM. If this is true, such a missile could reach US facilities in Okinawa, Guam and possibly Alaska.

    The press report in question was published in the conservative Chosun Ilbo.

    Jacoby’s 2005 testimony has much more restrained language, noting:

    North Korean also is developing new SRBM and IRBM missiles that will put US and allied forces in the region at further risk.

    Neither Admiral Fallon or General LaPorte mentioned the deployment their 2005 testimony.

  11. PKerr (History)

    RE: SS-N-6

    The ACT story I wrote was actually based on press accounts of a ROK MoD report that were confirmed by a State Dept. source I consider pretty reliable.

    Chosun Ilbo, my ass.

    [I didn’t mean YOUR story man, I meant the press report to which Jacoby probably referred! Jeffrey]

  12. PKerr (History)

    I know…just pointing out another data point. It is interesting that Jacoby said nothing about the ROK MoD report, given their previous willingness to roll with the Chosun Ilbo