Bill Gertz at Washington Free Beacon has been pursuing the story that a Chinese submarine simulated a cruise missile attack on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) the weekend of 24 October. We have very limited information on this; it reportedly happened as Reagan was entering the Sea of Japan from the Tsushima Strait, after transiting around Honshu to the south from Reagan’s new homeport of Yokosuka.
What’s interesting about this incident is that it has been disclosed – albeit on background – to reporters, and that defense officials find it to be of note.
This may seem like a fine distinction, but it’s important. Chinese submarines – Kilo diesel-powered attack submarines in particular, which China bought from Russia – could be targeting U.S. Navy ships at basically any time these days: whenever our ships are near Chinese waters. Equipped with the Klub S (NATO SS-N-27 Sizzler) submarine-launched antiship cruise missile, Chinese Kilos can target ships from over the horizon, without necessarily doing anything that shows they’re practicing a cruise missile attack.
So it took something particular for U.S. Navy officials to conclude that a Chinese submarine was specifically “simulating a cruise missile attack” on Reagan.
I won’t leave you in suspense: my conclusion is that Reagan’s escort ship (unnamed in the WFB reporting, but a carrier underway for an operational mission always has at least one) picked up the opening of the Chinese submarine’s torpedo door(s) on sonar.
A Kilo can launch either torpedoes or cruise missiles from its torpedo tubes. But the Chinese torpedoes – variants of the Russian Type 53 torpedoes – have a range of only about 22 nautical miles (28 statute miles, or 45km). If the submarine is further from the surface target than that, and especially if it is at periscope depth – i.e., to receive targeting data – then opening its torpedo doors is to be interpreted as preparation for launching a cruise missile.
Our tactical platforms have the means to determine these operating conditions. Although the carrier itself doesn’t have any shipborne antisubmarine warfare capability, the escort ship – presumably an Aegis destroyer or a cruiser – has the necessary equipment and sailor skills. Reagan could also have been accompanied by an attack submarine, which would have the same requisite capabilities (and the most highly honed skills).
This scenario fits with the other clues from Gertz’s reports. Besides the specific reference to simulating a cruise missile launch, Gertz indicates that Navy officials are concerned about the incident violating the East Asian “CUES” incidents-at-sea agreement (Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea), on which the U.S. and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014. Section VI, para. ii (1) on page 4 specifies the following:
Actions that the prudent commander (commanding officer) or master generally should avoid include:
1. Simulation of attacks by aiming guns, missiles, fire-control radars, torpedo tubes, or other weapons in the direction of military vessels or military aircraft encountered…
The longstanding Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) agreement between the U.S. and Russia (a legacy from the former USSR) contains a similar provision. Flooding torpedo tubes and opening their doors – readily detectable via passive sonar – are inherently threatening actions which are to be avoided in a mutual-confidence-tending environment.
Gertz also reported in October that “detection of the submarine set off alarm bells on the Reagan.” Although the surprise detection of a submarine close by would get people running to the combat direction center on a carrier, in peacetime it wouldn’t set off alarm bells (i.e., the general quarters klaxon) unless the submarine was detected doing something explicitly threatening. For a simulated cruise missile attack at Klub S range, that boils down to the torpedo doors being opened.
China has regularly operated Kilo submarines from her East Sea Fleet for years, and it’s most likely that an East Sea Fleet Kilo was the submarine involved. Notably, the Chinese Song-class attack sub that surfaced near USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) in 2006 was also an East Sea Fleet submarine. Both Kitty and the Chinese sub were in the East China Sea at the time.
The Song can launch Chinese YJ-8 anti-ship cruise missiles, although no specific indications of launch preparations were disclosed publicly from that incident. The Song was reported to be five miles from Kitty, which is well within torpedo range, and allows the submarine to gain its own targeting solution rather than needing data input from a multi-platform network.
We haven’t been told how far the Chinese sub was from Reagan during the incident in October. But if the Navy concluded that the submarine had to be conducting a cruise missile launch simulation, the range was probably too far for a torpedo – yet the event involved the sub opening torpedo door(s).
This is serious and dangerous behavior. We can assume it’s in retaliation for U.S. freedom of navigation transits in the South China Sea, one set of which was conducted on 26 October. The difference is that the U.S. is adhering to international maritime law in conducting the FON transits, whereas the Chinese are violating their MOU with the U.S. on the CUES standards, by simulating a cruise missile attack with active, detectable measures.
These standoffs and comparative tactical postures only become tiebreakers in an atmosphere of American weakness. The taxpaying public frankly shouldn’t even have to worry about them. America’s posture of strategic strength and leadership should be better than that.