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CCP’s oversight of nuclear submarines renews concerns

FORUM Staff

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) questionable judgment in managing its nuclear-powered and potentially nuclear-armed submarines has persisted under General Secretary Xi Jinping.

CCP submarine officers usually hail from Chinese military academies with the lowest entrance exam score requirements, the news website Business Insider reported in April 2024.

The lower educational standards, coupled with the operational stresses of submarine deployments, mean that People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine commanders are more susceptible to making mistakes because the program apparently “draws its leaders from some of the worst-performing officer cadets,” Roderick Lee, a Chinese military expert, told Business Insider.

“The PLAN submarine force must therefore rely on its least talented officers to lead forces that may be cut off for days if not weeks at a time,” Lee, who is director of research at the U.S. Air Force Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, wrote in a June 2023 analysis for the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

The lower standards may contribute to PLAN submarine officers being “more likely to suffer from the error precursors of poor proficiency, poor problem-solving skills, inappropriate attitudes towards tasks, imprecise communication habits, and inability to handle stress,” Lee wrote in “PLA Navy Submarine Leadership — Factors Affecting Operational Performance.”

The revelation builds on the CCP’s record of irresponsible submarine management.

In April 2003, 70 Chinese sailors died in a Ming-class, diesel submarine training incident in the Yellow Sea. The tragedy highlighted the submarine program’s history of safety and performance problems.

At the time, Chinese military leaders had expressed ongoing concerns about their submarine commanders’ capabilities. To address the problem, the PLAN had routinely staffed senior officers aboard ships and subs as a safeguard and continued to do so at least until 2019. But such a practice can confuse command decisions, Lee wrote. Senior officers were aboard the sub during the deadly 2003 incident.

In contrast, the U.S. and its Allies and Partners strive to select submarine commanders from their top tiers of talent. U.S. Navy submarine commanders, for example, also are trained in nuclear engineering.

There have been other submarine incidents since Xi took power in 2012.

In September 2019, a PLAN Jin Class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) surfaced perilously near Vietnamese fishing vessels in the South China Sea, according to the Forbes news website.

In December 2021, a PLAN Type-94 nuclear-powered SSBN appeared unexpectedly in the Taiwan Strait, CNN reported. The CCP claims self-governed Taiwan as its territory and threatens to annex the island by force.

“The sub was spotted allegedly cruising above the surface of the waters separating Taiwan from mainland China, where many analysts say conflict is more likely to start from an accidental collision than a planned event — and the more warships in a confined space, the more chances there are for accidents to happen,” the news organization reported.

“An SSBN on the surface is all but unheard of,” retired U.S. Navy Capt. Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the then-U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, told CNN. “This may suggest a hull or engineering problem that requires a major shipyard to investigate and fix.”

The CCP’s submarine programs have traditionally been cloaked in secrecy, exacerbating nuclear safety concerns. Since the 2003 incident, the CCP’s transparency over its submarine operations hasn’t greatly improved, analysts say.

In recent years, “the PLA has begun limiting the amount of public exposure that its senior officers receive, and there is even some evidence to suggest the PLA is actively censoring the identity of its flag and general officers,” Lee wrote.

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