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China’s new n-submarine base sets off alarm bells

China has deployed its latest Jin class nuclear submarine at a massive new military facility at Sanya on the Hainan Island in South China Sea...

Written by Manu_pubby | New Delhi |
May 3, 2008 12:16:36 am

China has deployed its latest Jin class nuclear submarine at a massive new military facility at Sanya on the Hainan Island in South China Sea — its newest and nearest naval base to India.

While the Indian Navy had been aware about the upcoming military facility for some time, satellite images for the first time show the extent of the base and the fact that the Jin Class submarine, which carries 12 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, has been deployed at Hainan.

This has raised concern as the Chinese naval base, complete with an underground facility that can hide the movement of submarines from spy satellites, is barely 1,200 nautical miles from the strategic Malacca Strait and an access route to the Indian Ocean — a region that New Delhi considers its personal security responsibility.

Chinese nuclear submarines have never yet operated in the Indian Ocean but the facility — which is 2,000 nautical miles away from the Andaman Islands — will be its nearest access point to the region.

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Details about the Hainan naval base have been widely reported but satellite images (dated February this year) obtained by nuclear weapons watchdog Federation of American Scientists (FAS) for the first time show a sea entrance to an underground facility and a Jin class submarine moored at the base.

This, experts say, could give China the capability to cut off Malacca Strait and the South China Sea for commercial traffic in event of a crisis. Experts say that the base also seems to have a demagnetization facility which makes submarines more stealthy and difficult to detect.

While India has taken note of the event, military analysts say that the South China Sea is a difficult place to operate submarines and China has not yet developed the expertise to operate nuclear submarines far away from mainland.

“It will take a long time for China to develop the operational skills and structures to be able to deploy the (Jin class) SSBNs in a way that makes a real strategic difference. The Xia (China’s older class of nuclear submarines) has never deployed on a deterrent patrol, so operationally the Chinese are starting from scratch,” Hans Kristensen, Director, Nuclear Information Project, FAS, told The Indian Express.

A report in The Daily Telegraph today said that satellite imagery indicated that a substantial harbour has been built that could house nuclear submarines and a host of aircraft carriers.

One photograph shows China’s latest nuclear submarine at the base just a few hundred miles from its neighbours; another shows warships moored at long jetties and a network of tunnels at the Sanya base on the southern tip of Hainan island. One of the issues of concern to the Pentagon, the newspaper reported, is the immense tunnel entrances — 11 of these have been spotted — estimated to be 60 ft high, carved into the hill-side around the base. They could lead to caverns capable of concealing from spy satellites up to 20 nuclear submarines.

The location of the base off Hainan will also give the submarines access to very deep water — exceeding 15,000 feet — within a few miles, making them even harder to detect. Two 1,000-yard piers and three smaller ones could accommodate two carrier strike groups or amphibious assault ships.

China has been packaging Hainan as a new Hawaii with its sparkling beaches lined by hotels patronised by western expatriates, Russian package tours, and China’s new middle-class, said the newspaper.

The deployment of the Jin class submarine at Hainan may motivate India to speed up its indigenous nuclear submarine project that has been in the making for the past decade. The Indian Navy is looking at inducting five indigenous ATV nuclear submarines. However, sea trials for the first sub are set to begin only by next year. In the meantime, India is leasing an Akula II nuclear attack submarine from Russia next year to initiate the training process for its personnel.

Of late, several photographs and satellite images of Chinese nuclear submarines and naval facilities have come to light, raising speculation that Beijing is subtly showing off its increasing military prowess. In October last year, several Chinese websites carried photographs showing off its latest Jin class submarine. The first clear photographs gave experts an insight into the capabilities of the vessel.

A month earlier, the Shang (Type 093) class attack submarines were unveiled through a photograph and an article in the state-run People’s Daily newspaper. The Shang and Jin class are replacements for the first generation Han class nuclear submarines that China developed over two decades ago.

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