A Chinese submarine stalked a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the Pacific last month and surfaced within firing range of its torpedoes and missiles before being detected, The Washington Times has learned.
The surprise encounter highlights China’s continuing efforts to prepare for a future conflict with the U.S., despite Pentagon efforts to try to boost relations with Beijing’s communist-ruled military. The submarine encounter with the USS Kitty Hawk and its accompanying warships also is an embarrassment to the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. William J. Fallon, who is engaged in an ambitious military exchange program with China aimed at improving relations between the two nations’ militaries.
Disclosure of the incident comes as Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, is making his first visit to China. The four-star admiral was scheduled to meet senior Chinese military leaders during the weeklong visit, which began over the weekend. According to the defense officials, the Chinese Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine shadowed the Kitty Hawk undetected and surfaced within five miles of the carrier Oct. 26.
The surfaced submarine was spotted by a routine surveillance flight by one of the carrier group’s planes. The Kitty Hawk battle group includes an attack submarine and anti-submarine helicopters that are charged with protecting the warships from submarine attack. According to the officials, the submarine is equipped with Russian-made wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.
The Kitty Hawk and several other warships were deployed in ocean waters near Okinawa at the time, as part of a routine fall deployment program. The officials said Chinese submarines rarely have operated in deep water far from Chinese shores or shadowed U.S. vessels. A Pacific Command spokesman declined to comment on the incident, saying details were classified. Pentagon spokesmen also declined to comment.
The incident is a setback for the aggressive U.S.-China military exchange program being promoted by Adm. Fallon, who has made several visits to China in recent months in an attempt to develop closer ties. However, critics of the program in the Pentagon say China has not reciprocated and continues to deny U.S. military visitors access to key facilities, including a Beijing command center. In contrast, Chinese military visitors have been invited to military exercises and sensitive U.S. facilities.
Additionally, military intelligence officials said Adm. Fallon has restricted U.S. intelligence-gathering activities against China, fearing that disclosure of the activities would upset relations with Beijing. The restrictions are hindering efforts to know more about China’s military buildup, the officials said. “This is a harbinger of a stronger Chinese reaction to America’s military presence in East Asia,” said Richard Fisher, a Chinese military specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, who called the submarine incident alarming.
“Given the long range of new Chinese sub-launched anti-ship missiles and those purchased from Russia, this incident is very serious,” he said. “It will likely happen again, only because Chinese submarine captains of 40 to 50 new modern submarines entering their navy will want to test their mettle against the 7th Fleet.” Pentagon intelligence officials say China’s military buildup in recent years has produced large numbers of submarines and surface ships, seeking to control larger portions of international waters in Asia, a move U.S. officials fear could restrict the flow of oil from the Middle East to Asia in the future.
Between 2002 and last year, China built 14 new submarines, including new Song-class vessels and several other types, both diesel- and nuclear-powered. Since 1996, when the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan in a show of force, Beijing also has bought and built weapons designed specifically to attack U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships.
“The Chinese have made it clear that they understand the importance of the submarine in any kind of offensive or defensive strategy to deal with a military conflict,” an intelligence official said recently. In late 2004, China dispatched a Han-class submarine to waters near Guam, Taiwan and Japan. Japan’s military went on emergency alert after the submarine surfaced in Japanese waters. Beijing apologized for the incursion.
The Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power stated that China is investing heavily in weapons designed “to interdict, at long ranges, aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups that might deploy to the western Pacific.” It could not be learned whether the U.S. government lodged a protest with China’s government over the incident or otherwise raised the matter in official channels.