Recently China made a declaration which strongly illustrates the magnitude of Chinese efforts made in order to get at least technological parity with the U.S. in naval warfare. In its efforts to develop its maritime military power, Beijing announced that it could have taken an important step in the development of what should be the world’s first supersonic submarine. If feasible, the new technology could help an underwater vessel travel 6.100 miles, (roughly 9.900 km)[i] from “Shanghai to San Francisco in 100 minutes thanks to a break-through in the technology commonly known as supercavitation.”[ii]

Supercavitation

Supercavitation is a technology in which an underwater object is incased within an air bubble. This helps it travel faster underwater by substantially reducing friction.[iii] In effect, such an object would “fly” rather than “swim”.

supercavitation

http://www.washingtonpost.com

Supercavitation has been around for some time, with one of the first mentioning of the technology being made publicly at the end on the 1950’s. In 1958, a researcher by the name of Marshal P. Tulin of the Office of Naval Research in the USA calculated a number of formulas which led to the idea that supercavitation would be possible.[iv] The possibilities derived from such a theoretical framework soon captured the imagination of the public as The Popular Science Review documented an article which stated that vessels could get faster than ever. The technology putting Tulin’s theory into practice was not addressed to underwater vessels and was, at the time, linked to a hydrofoil that would be attached to a propeller in order to enhance the speed of the vessel.[v] The hydrofoil could also be attached to the ship and have a similar effect.[vi] The engineering study roughly cost 75.000$.[vii] The speed of a liner that would put the technology into practice was estimated at about 100 knots per hour.[viii] Later, Mikhail Merkulov borrowed the technology and applied it to the first underwater projectile ever built. In the 1960’s Merkulov, a ballistician working for the Hydrodynamic Institute in Kiev, created the VA 111 Shkval supercavitating torpedo, capable of reaching a speed of roughly 370 km/h.[ix]  However, supercavitation did not necessarily become a main stream technological research option for many states, because the effect restricts the navigation pattern of an object to a straight line.[x]

A possible technological solution

The breakthrough managed by the Chinese team at the Harbin Institute for Technology, seems to find a solution to the linear pattern adopted by supercavitation vessels, by implementing a complex system of lubrication on the outside of a submarine.[xi] The lubricant should help the vessel reach high enough speeds in order to attain a supercavitation state (at about 75km/h)[xii] that would then allow it to travel at speeds of up to 3.600 mph[xiii], an underwater supersonic value.[xiv] In trying to tackle the direction issue, Li Fengchen, professor of fluid machinery, declared that the special lubricant would also be used in order to increase friction alternatively on either side of the vessel in order to make it steer.[xv]

Some concerns regarding applicability

Even so, many tend to be skeptical about putting the theory into practice. Even in China, Wang Guyou, who leads the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory at Beijing’s Institute of Technology, expressed concerns regarding the difficulty in controlling the size of the encasing bubble, as well as the steering capabilities of such a vessel.[xvi] Another worrying prospect for the success of an eventual supercavitation submarine would be derived from the fact that although the technology has been around for some while, very few states actually use it. According to The International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2013 “supercavitation, the technology that allows torpedoes to greatly increase their speeds up to 250 miles per hour, remains limited to the Russian VA-111 Shkval, in service since the early 1970s.”[xvii] If the technology would be easy and profitable to manipulate it would have been used by other states as well. In effect, despite receiving Shkval missiles from Russia, Beijing seems to have not been too happy with them, because of certain deficiencies regarding fire control equipment, which “limited their use.”[xviii] Iran has claimed that it has tested a supercavitation torpedo in 2006 but this has not been confirmed. Besides steering problems related to supercavitation equipment known to us today, the technology seems to imply a lot a noise. This is something you want to keep a close eye on when using a vessel that is primarily designed for stealth. For this reason America seems to be tinkering with some supercavitation phenomenon for military use, but is not relying on it as a central factor of development.[xix]

Chinese naval policy fueling an arms race

Open source available at this time does suggest that China is not necessarily close to revolutionizing underwater warfare by introducing the first supersonic submarine. Even so, the situation in the Asia-Pacific area is far from being simple. China has followed a continuous strategy of improving its naval capacities since the fall of the Soviet Union and the military have not forgotten to include submarine modernization in the scheme. Most of the recent developments seem to have been showing a targeting of the attack submarine fleet composed of Russian Kilo Class submarines, as well as Yuan and Song Class homemade submarines.[xx] The inferior Ming Classsubmarines are slowly being decommissioned to make way for more technologically adapted ones.[xxi] On the nuclear propulsion powered front, China has commissioned a number of home-made Jin Class submarines to the PLA.[xxii] In sheer numbers, the Chinese submarine fleet has grown from 46 to 66 vessels in the last two decades.[xxiii] Worryingly enough, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Japan, India and Pakistan are also trying to augment their underwater capabilities,[xxiv] which does seem to suggest that the Asia-Pacific region is entering an arms race that could prove problematic in the future.

Power politics in the Asia-Pacific area

Within this increasingly volatile security scenario, the United States are being assertive in making a strong point out of the fact that, to date, Washington controls the most powerful technological means of underwater warfare. Just a day after open sources stated that China discovered a possible way of handling supercavitation, the Virginia Class, nuclear powered, USS Hawaii decided to dock at Nokosuka Naval Base in Japan.[xxv] The vessel is state of the art and roughly costs 2 billion $.[xxvi] Rear Adm. Stuart Munsch did not fail to declare that “the Hawaii represents the best submarine in the world”[xxvii] and that Americans were bringing their best to their “most important region.”[xxviii] The statement made by docking in Yokosuka tried to stress a number of key points. First of all, it demonstrated the superiority of the American power which is able to project military pressure a long way from home. Secondly, it was a declaration of presence that would show American allies in the area that Washington, amidst so many critical international situations, such as ISIS, Afghanistan, the Ukraine etc. is not at all ignorant of its commitment to its Asia-Pacific allies. Thirdly, the submarine presence was possibly a response to China’s latest supercavitation statements. It showed, in other words, that as some are locking towards a wishful future, others have the means of conducting faster, better and stealthier underwater warfare today. China is not going to take the presence of the submarine likely as it is not happy with foreign presence in what Beijing sees as its natural area of dominance. Only recently a P-8 Poseidon anti submarine and reconnaissance plane was threatened by a PLA jet fighter. But all in all, for now, although it is getting ever more complicated, the USA still controls the seas due to its technological superiority and power proje

[i] “China moves closer to developing supersonic submarine: Report”, The Times of India, 25.08.2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/China-moves-closer-to-developing-supersonic-submarine-Report/articleshow/40862389.cms, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[ii] Terrence McCoy, “Chinese reportedly working on submarine that would fly in an air bubble”, The Washington Post, 26.08.2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/26/the-chinese-are-reportedly-working-on-submarine-that-would-fly-in-an-air-bubble/?tid=hp_mm, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[iii] ibidem.

[iv] Alden P. Armagnac, “100-knot liner to fly on sea wings”, Popular Science Review, Vol. 174, No.3, March, 1959, pp. 106; 114.

[v] ibidem.

[vi] ibidem.

[vii] ibidem.

[viii] ibidem.

[ix] Peter O. K. Krehl, History of Shock Waves, Explosions and Impact, a chronological and biographical reference, Springer, Berlin, 2009, p. 805.

[x] “China moves closer to developing supersonic submarine: Report”, The Times of India, 25.08.2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/China-moves-closer-to-developing-supersonic-submarine-Report/articleshow/40862389.cms, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[xi] Terrence McCoy, “Chinese reportedly working on submarine that would fly in an air bubble”, The Washington Post, 26.08.2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/26/the-chinese-are-reportedly-working-on-submarine-that-would-fly-in-an-air-bubble/?tid=hp_mm, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[xii] “China moves closer to developing supersonic submarine: Report”, The Times of India, 25.08.2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/China-moves-closer-to-developing-supersonic-submarine-Report/articleshow/40862389.cms, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[xiii] David Harding, “Chinese scientists a step closer to developing supersonic submarine”, Daily News, 24.08.2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/scientists-closer-developing-supersonic-submarine-article-1.1915078, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[xiv] Terrence McCoy, “Chinese reportedly working on submarine that would fly in an air bubble”, The Washington Post, 26.08.2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/26/the-chinese-are-reportedly-working-on-submarine-that-would-fly-in-an-air-bubble/?tid=hp_mm, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[xv] ibidem.

[xvi] ibidem.

[xvii] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The military balance, 2013”, p. 24.

[xviii] ibidem.

[xix] ibidem.

[xx] “Report to Congress of the U.S. - China economic and security review commission”, U.S. Government printing office, Washington, 2009, p. 136.

[xxi] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The military balance, 2013”, p. 23.

[xxii] “Report to Congress of the U.S. - China economic and security review commission”, U.S. Government printing office, Washington, 2009, p. 137.

[xxiii] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The military balance, 2013”, p. 23.

[xxiv] ibidem., p. 24.

[xxv] Anna Fifield, “With submarine, Navy tries to reassure friends in Asia - and warn foes”, The Washington Post, 25.08.2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/with-submarine-navy-tries-to-reassure-friends-in-asia--and-warn-foes/2014/08/24/8f683411-4b95-4676-990f-48cd552d5363_story.html, consulted on 26.08.2014.

[xxvi] ibidem.

[xxvii] ibidem.

[xxviii] ibidem. 

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