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Pacific Underwater Racing

Japan and China are increasing fleets of submarines

Unlike Western countries, in Japan, a newly built vessel, when launched, receives the blessing of breaking vodka and sake on board the bottle of not champagne, but rice. October 4 in the city of Kobe, the center of Japanese submarine shipbuilding, this rite was "Oryu" - Japan's first submarine working on lithium-ion batteries. 84-meter "Oryu" was launched at the shipyard shipyard shipyard - Kobe Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The submarine can reach speeds up to 20 knots and has a displacement of 2950 tons. It will be delivered to the Japanese Naval Self-Defense Forces in March 2020.

Pacific Underwater Racing
Photo: Australian Ministry of Defense

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
The Oryu is already Japan's eleventh Soryu-class submarine. Soryu, which began construction in 2005, is one of the largest and quietest diesel-electric submarines in the world. But Oryu is a significantly updated version of Soryu. The biggest change in the new boat was the replacement of lead-acid batteries with lithium-ion. Mitsubishi Heavy has ordered these batteries from GS Yuasa. Their capacity is twice the capacity of previous batteries. They are charged with electricity generated by Oryu diesel engines. The ship switches to batteries during operations and in real combat to shut off the engines and become stealthy. Lithium-ion batteries drastically expand the range and time a submarine can spend under water.

Relying on the most advanced tactical and technical data of the Soryu submarines, the Shinzo Abe government hoped to sell them to Australia, which in recent years has also radically renewed its submarine fleet. However, Canberra, guided by its own motives, decided to acquire French submarines in 2016, which caused great disappointment in Tokyo. The feeling was reinforced by the fact that in recent years Japan and Australia have noticeably strengthened military cooperation with anti-Chinese motives.

The development and commissioning of the newest Japanese submarine reflects the competitive strengthening by Japan and China of their naval potentials in the face of their growing confrontation in the Pacific Ocean and, above all, in the East China and South China Seas. At the same time, both countries significantly intensified the activities of their submarines. So, in January of this year, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces discovered a Chinese submarine underwater near the group of uninhabited Senkaku islets in the East China Sea. Beijing considers them its Diaoyu Islands and demands their return. And in September, Tokyo first announced its naval submarine exercises in the South China Sea, a significant part of the water area of ​​which China claims, despite the fact that Japan does not border on this sea.

The exercise was the "Japanese response" to China's participation in Russia's naval exercise in the Sea of ​​Japan last year. Last September, Japan closely followed the movement of 28 Russian warships that entered the Sea of ​​Japan from the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. The attention of its experts, in particular, was attracted by the presence in the group of the search and rescue vessel "Igor Belousov", designed to provide assistance to submarines in distress. According to experts, the rescue of submarines is an area that the Chinese have been working hard on lately, realizing that they are lagging behind the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces in this regard. "There is a chance that the Chinese military will send submarines to the Sea of ​​Japan for training with the Russians, or that they will do so in the near future," the Nikkei newspaper quoted a source familiar with Japanese national security as suggesting. The mouthpiece of the Japanese business community notes that after China was denied an invitation to the Rimpac (America-led Pacific War Games) international naval exercise earlier this year, Beijing has looked for ways to gain access to submarine rescue methods from other countries.

In this respect, Russia is a natural partner for the PRC. At the end of September, China took part in Vostok 2018, the largest military maneuvers conducted in Russia since the days of the USSR. About 3000 Chinese military personnel, along with 900 pieces of military equipment, took part in the exercises held in Transbaikalia. When Russia conducted a naval exercise in the Sea of ​​Japan in September 2017, China also sent a search and rescue ship to participate. Therefore, Japanese experts believe that Beijing may send submarines to the same area in order to further study with the Russian Navy.

According to Japanese experts, despite the fact that aircraft carriers and stealth aircraft play the leading role in modern naval strategies, submarines are the real subjects of the "game change" in these strategies. At the same time, these experts are confident that the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces can with a high degree of reliability detect enemy submarines passing through the straits close to the country. Although, they point out, the Self-Defense Forces rarely demonstrate this capability, keeping their methods of tracking foreign submarines a secret.

Japanese experts also note that China is actively building aircraft carriers, but, they emphasize, for effective combat operations they need the escort of submarines. The ballistic missile submarines that China has deployed in the South China Sea also require the protection of escort submarines. By cooperating with Russia, China instills in its submarine crews the skills to escort and protect other warships.

According to Japanese estimates, the PRC's submarine fleet of about 60 submarines outnumbered the Japanese fleet of 22 submarines. But Japan is believed to maintain a significant dominance over China in managing submarines and conducting quiet operations. 

By taking the unusual step of announcing submarine war games in the South China Sea, Japan is sending a clear message to China and its neighbors that Chinese submarines will not go unpunished if any conflict erupts in these explosive contested waters. At the same time, Tokyo thereby demonstrated to its senior military ally, Washington, that it can play a role in the United States' deterrence of Chinese submarines in that sea.

According to Japanese strategists, Beijing has long relied on quantity to compensate for the quality gap in its race with Japan underwater arms. This suggests that China's submarine fleet will continue to grow. In addition, the Chinese are attaching great importance to the "asymmetry strategy" by deploying a large number of unmanned submarines. This will require Japan not only to develop advanced underwater technology, but also to increase the number of its submarines.

Currently, the civil shipbuilding industry in Japan is experiencing strong competition from South Korea and the same China. In addition, ironically, the military industry of the Land of the Rising Sun as a whole does not allow their only military ally, the United States, to develop. They do not want to lose the huge Japanese military market. Moreover, American President Donald Trump is explicitly demanding that Tokyo sharply increase its purchases of American weapons in order to eliminate the huge deficit in bilateral trade.

As for military shipbuilding, here Japan has the most advanced technologies and a developed shipbuilding infrastructure. This is especially true for submarines. The aforementioned Oryu will be the last Soryu-class submarine. Japan intends to build next generation submarines based on Oryu technologies. They are expected to have a displacement of over 3 tons.

Taking into account the fact that not only Japan and China, but also both Koreas, as well as the ASEAN countries and Australia are rapidly developing their navies, especially submarines, we can confidently foresee a further intensification of the arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. Only such a race does not have a finish.
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