China Has More Submarines Than the U.S., Says Admiral

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Chinese Navy submarines and warships take part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province, April 23, 2009. Guang Niu/Pool/Reuters

China’s submarines now outnumber the U.S. fleet after an ambitious shift in strategy, according to a U.S. Admiral.

According to Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy, who serves as the deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources, China is in the process of building “fairly amazing submarines" and does so in such quantity that it currently has more diesel-powered and nuclear-powered vessels at its disposal than the U.S.

Speaking in front of the House Armed Services Committee's seapower subcommittee, Mulloy said China’s growing naval ambitions have also seen Beijing expand the geographic areas where its units are deployed as well as the length of time they spend on duty.

"We know they are out experimenting and looking at operating and clearly want to be in this world of advanced submarines," Mulloy told the committee.

According to Mulloy, China had deployed units as far as the Indian Ocean three times and had kept vessels on duty for as long as 95 days.

Mulloy did not specify how many units the Chinese fleet had grown by or how many submarines it now had at its disposal, however in the Pentagon’s last annual report to Congress which looked at the state of China’s security, the country had 77 surface vessel warships, 85 missile-equipped small combatant vessels, 55 amphibious ships and more than 60 submarines.

A U.S. Navy spokeswoman told Reuters the US had commissioned 71 submarines.

However, according to Mulloy the quality of China’s submarines was inferior to the U.S. Navy’s.

The Admiral also highlighted that, although the Chinese military had been testing ballistic missiles, the U.S. did not believe nuclear missiles were on board China’s submarines.

According to Elbridge Colby, military expert at the Centre for New American Security (CNAS), China's navy is facing considerable challenges but "its submarine force will pose an intensifying challenge for the United States and its allies in the coming years".

"The Chinese fleet has made significant strikes in the last two decades," Colby says "It is an increasingly modern force capable of fighting much more effectively in China's coastal waters and of deploying farther from China's shores and a significant part of this is China's efforts in the undersea domain." 

"While China has lagged somewhat in its progress on submarines, especially in the face of the vaunted and highly capable U.S. submarine force, Beijing's newer and soon-to-be-deployed submarines are of top-end quality. Nonetheless, China still faces challenges in effectively operating these new submarines, especially in the face of U.S. submarines and other capabilities," Colby adds.

China’s Navy has also reportedly been undergoing expansion in other areas as China is currently constructing offshore facilities in the South China Sea, at least one of which has been rumoured to be the site for a potential command-and-control naval base, twice the size of the nearby US Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean DW reports.

It’s thought that China is developing a second aircraft carrier, after buying one from Ukraine that was commissioned in 2012.

China has struggled to provide its vessels with offshore support when deployed for long periods of time, as reflected by their need to refuel in Australia when looking for a Malaysian airliner’s wreckage in the Indian Ocean in 2014.