Navy officials confirmed yesterday that an aircraft carrier battle group failed to detect a Chinese submarine that surfaced within weapons range of the USS Kitty Hawk. Anti-submarine defenses for the carrier battle group will be reviewed as a result, they said.
“It was not detected,” said one Navy official of the encounter with a Chinese diesel-powered attack submarine. “And we’re concerned about that, obviously.”
The Chinese Song-class attack submarine surfaced near the carrier in deep waters off Okinawa on Oct. 26. It was armed with wake-homing torpedos and anti-ship cruise missiles.
The officials said it was unusual for the submarine to be operating in deep ocean waters, but the incident was not like the April 2001 collision of a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft and Chinese F-8 jet that ruptured military ties.
“We were operating in international waters, and they were operating in international waters,” the official said. “From that standpoint, nobody was endangering anybody. Nobody felt threatened.”
However, other defense officials said the submarine surfacing was a provocative action by the Chinese military, which has placed a high priority on practicing anti-aircraft-carrier operations against U.S. carriers and warships in preparation for a possible future conflict over Taiwan.
The carrier was not engaged in anti-submarine warfare exercises at the time and thus did not have active patrols for submarines, the Navy official said. As a result, submarine defenses for the carrier and its accompanying warships will be reviewed, he said.
The submarine was spotted by carrier-based aircraft conducting routine surveillance.
The submarine encounter also took U.S. intelligence agencies by surprise because of years of analyses that continue to portray a benign China, said a defense official.
“Our China analysts appeared to be stunned that China would shadow a U.S. carrier as far away as Okinawa,” the defense official said.
The Japan-based Kitty Hawk and associated warships are the only Asia-based battle group and would be the first to respond to a crisis concerning Taiwan, which China has threatened with force in the past.
The encounter also was unusual because Chinese submarines normally do not operate in deep waters, both officials said.
“From our standpoint, … it shows that they continue to develop blue-water capabilities,” the Navy official said.
Pentagon and military officials initially declined to discuss anything about the submarine incident, claiming details were classified. Some details were then disclosed after The Washington Times reported the encounter in yesterday’s editions.
Disclosure of the submarine encounter comes as the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Gary Roughead, is visiting China for meetings with Chinese military officials.
A Pacific Fleet spokesman said Adm. Roughead could not be reached yesterday on whether he planned to raise the submarine encounter during talks with the Chinese.
Adm. Roughead told reporters in Beijing yesterday that he hopes to better understand the intentions behind China’s naval buildup during his weeklong visit.
“When asked if the PLA navy is a threat, I’ve been on the record as saying no,” the four-star admiral said, referring to Chinese forces, the People’s Liberation Army. “But I really would like to know what the intent is in some of the developments that I see in the PLA navy.”
Adm. Roughead is in China as the U.S. and Chinese militaries conduct a joint search-and-rescue operation exercise.
The visit is part of an ambitious program being promoted by the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. William J. Fallon, to develop closer ties with the Chinese military.
The program has been plagued by a lack of reciprocity on the part of China’s military, which continues to refuse U.S. military visitors to key military facilities or to observe military exercise. By contrast, the U.S. military has given Chinese military visitors access to sensitive U.S. facilities and military exercises.
Also, China is continuing to block U.S. military officials from visiting a secret underground command center in Beijing known as the Western Hills.
Adm. Roughead is scheduled to meet Chinese navy commander Vice Admiral Wu Shengli and the commander of the South China Sea Fleet. Those talks could shed light on China’s aggressive naval buildup.
“Clearly, the growth in the capacity and capability of the navy since I’ve first been exposed to it in the ‘90s, the ability to go into the blue water is very, very clear,” he said. “I look forward to having discussions about what the vision is and perhaps what some of the operating doctrine might be.”
William Tripplett, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff specialist on China, said the failure to track the submarine was alarming.
“China’s tracking of the Kitty Hawk, undetected by U.S. Navy anti-submarine warfare assets, is a shocking development,” he said.