When a Chinese Submarine Surfaced Next To The USS Kitty Hawk in 2006

Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) was a general who wrote the “Art of War” – a book on military strategy that’s still required reading for all students of Chinese literature.  “If your enemy has the advantage, bait them,” he wrote. And one of the ways to do this is to “appear where you are not expected.”

In 2006, that’s exactly what the Chinese did. Right in the middle of a joint US-Japanese naval exercise.

Harpoon anti-ship missile launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during a live-fire exercise off the coast of Japan. Image Source: CC BY 2.0 Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr
Harpoon anti-ship missile launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) during a live-fire exercise off the coast of Japan.

The first time was an accident, however. In September 1994, the US Pacific Fleet reported seeing a Chinese submarine in international waters, but nothing came of it. At least till the following month.

On October 27th, the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier, was passing through the Yellow Sea in international waters when they detected something in their sonar. To track the object, they deployed anti-submarine warfare planes which dropped sonic devices into the sea.

It turned out to be a Chinese Han-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SNN). During the Cold War, the US and the USSR had established a protocol for such encounters to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, no such protocol existed between the US and China.

Statue of Sun Tzu in Japan. Wikimedia Commons / 663highland / CC BY-SA 3.0
Statue of Sun Tzu in Japan. Photo Credit

On October 28th, the Chinese scrambled jet fighters to the area, making passes over the Kitty Hawk, while Beijing threatened shoot-to-kill orders. By October 29th, the US was told that the sub wasn’t stalking their aircraft carrier. It was simply trying to get back to its base in the port of Qingdao.

The matter settled, the Kitty Hawk left the area, but it showed just how far Chinese technology had come. The Chinese thought so, too.

Which is why on July 21st, 1995 they began conducting missile tests off Taiwan, resulting in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. US intervention ended it the following year, but it made the Chinese leadership realize just how inadequate their technology was.

Then on April 16th, 2003 the Great Wall #61 (a Ming-class diesel submarine) suffered engine failure and used up all its oxygen, killing the entire crew. That was not the first time China had lost a submarine, but it was the first time they admitted it on national TV.

A copy of Sun Tzu's "Art of War," commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, now displayed at the University of California, Riverside Image Source: vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on flickr.com
A copy of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, now displayed at the University of California, Riverside. Photo Credit

The US heaved a sigh of relief, but not because of the deaths. There had been other unconfirmed Chinese losses, but the Great Wall snafu confirmed what they knew about the state of Chinese technology.

But China was learning. According to Sun Tzu, “The factors in war are: first, measurement; second, quantity; third, calculation; fourth, comparison; and fifth, victory.”[4:14] Compared to Russia, China was technologically backward, which is why they relied on greater numbers.

When the US officially terminated diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China in 1979, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) calculated that they could terrify Taiwan in 1995. At least until US intervention showed them otherwise. So they resorted to comparison.

PLAN strategists came to the conclusion that the basis of America’s power lay in its aircraft carriers. Following Sun Tzu’s logic, what made one strong was also the very thing that made one weak. And while America was strong, China would never have control over its own waters. The solution? “Attack what he values most.”[11:70]

The Chinese Navy Han class nuclear-powered attack submarine No. 405 Image Source: Wikipedia
The Chinese Navy Han class nuclear-powered attack submarine No. 405. Photo Credit

Since the US only had 11 such carriers, PLAN decided to focus on submarine development and anti-carrier military exercises. The thinking was that in the event of war, America couldn’t afford to lose even one. So they bought Kilo-class submarines from Russia and began building new ones of their own.

In 2004, Chinese submarines began making reconnaissance missions further away from their coastal waters. In November, a Type 09-1 Han Class attack submarine traveled all the way to Guam, circled the island, then surfaced in Japanese territorial waters on November 10th where they were spotted.

International law requires tracked submarines to surface and identify themselves, but the submarine did not. It was followed by helicopters for two hours before returning to China.

Japan raised a ruckus over the incident, so China apologized seven days later, claiming it was due to a technical error. Chinese newspapers hailed it as a victory, however, citing Japan’s human rights abuses during WWII.

Ever since that war, ethnic Chinese (not just those from the People’s Republic of China) have had a love-hate relationship with the Japanese. To the surprise of the PRC, some Chinese newspapers around the world lauded the incident.

Chinese Type 0-91 Han Class Submarine. Wikipedia / Public Domain
Chinese Type 0-91 Han Class Submarine.

It wasn’t because they supported the PRC. It was because they enjoyed seeing the Japanese panic. Even some South Korean papers had a good laugh because of their equally ambivalent relationship with Japan.

The incident taught the PLAN the value of counting coup. It also proved Sun Tzu’s other maxim that “it is enough to consolidate your strength, calculate the enemy, and get support from your men.”[9:41]

By 2006, China was ready to test another one of Sun Tzu’s claims – “Provoke him to know his patterns of movement.”[6:27]

On October 26th, the USS Kitty Hawk was undergoing a training exercise near Okinawa, Japan. She was trailed by escort ships meant to protect her from submarine attack, when that’s exactly what happened.

OK, the carrier wasn’t attacked, but a Song-class Chinese submarine breached the surface within five miles of it – well within range for a missile strike. And none of the escort ships noticed it till it surfaced.

The exact details remain scarce, but NATO officials confirmed that it disturbed those at the Pentagon. Some military experts claim, however, that unless one is actually looking for submarines, they’re very hard to detect.

The USS Kitty Hawk Image Source: Wikipedia
The USS Kitty Hawk.

Chinese officials deny the incident happened. While some suggest that it was an accident, others argue that Chinese officers don’t have the leeway to act independently. Meaning the thing surfaced where it did because it was ordered to.

Its timing was also crucial. Admiral William Joseph Fallon, the commander of the US Pacific Command, was headed to Asia for a 23-nation defense meeting which China declined to join. Admiral Gary Roughead, on the other hand, was in China preparing for the first joint Sino-US naval exercise.

In 2014, China began claiming islands close to several South East Asian nations, including the Philippines, which the US pulled out of in 1992. The US responded by signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines in April, granting them bases to operate from.

Some, therefore, believe that a new (but undeclared) Cold War has begun. If so, then the PLAN is taking another quote from Sun Tzu, which states that ”two sides remain in a standoff for many years in order to do battle for a decisive victory on a single day.”[13:03]

Stay tuned.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE