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Over the Horizon: Global Submarine Forces in Stable Asymmetry

Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011

The sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 reignited global concerns over the proliferation of submarine technology. Although the total number of submarines in service worldwide has declined since the end of the Cold War, largely because of the disappearance of the Soviet navy and a reduction in U.S. forces, the number of countries operating relatively advanced submarines has increased. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in particular has expanded the size and sophistication of its undersea armada. At the same time, capabilities for fighting submarines have atrophied. Altogether, these trends suggest an alarming degree of uncertainty in the relationships among major powers and between major powers and minor states. However, a closer examination suggests that a roughly stable asymmetry has been achieved, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. The balance of undersea capabilities bears attention, but doesn’t yet indicate the threat of a “breakout” arms race.

The biggest undersea stories of the past 20 years have been the collapse of the Soviet navy, the general reduction in U.S. forces and the rise of the PLAN.  The latter two trends have led to considerable consternation regarding the ability of the United States to retain dominance in the Western Pacific. However, as David Axe has amply documented, the Russian and Chinese submarine fleets currently face significant difficulties. The Russian fleet continues to age and decline in size, while the PLAN submarine force has stabilized at between 50 and 70 boats. Unsurprisingly, given U.S. budget considerations, the U.S. Navy will likely not expand its fleet from its current total of 57 attack and cruise-missile submarines, although it continues to modernize and update. ...

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