More Kitty Hawk vs. Chinese Song

First, Defense Tech has a good round-up at Behind the Kitty Hawk Incident (Updated), including a note from Rear Admiral Hank McKinney, the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s submarine force.

Next, I want to caution again against reading too much into this. Yes, it doesn’t look good. Yes, it’s cause for concern. And yes, we should try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But if you think we have enough real information to base a meaningful opinion on, you’re mistaken. We don’t have much in the first place, and there’s every reason for those in both the US and Chinese navies to misrepresent exactly what happened.

The Chinese, of course, want to project an image of increasing technological and military capability. Showing up an American carrier battlegroup is a good way to do that, so we should probably expect them to tell the story in the way that flatters them the most.

The US Navy, on the other hand, has a number of options. If we really didn’t know the Chinese sub, a Type 039 ‘Song’-class boat, was there, we might or might not say so. If we were actually tracking them all along, or if the circumstances of the “surprise” weren’t quite as dramatic as depicted in the press, we also might or might not say so.

Here are some reasons to claim we were taken by surprise:

  1. Because we WERE and the story leaked so we’re just going to admit it
  2. Because we WERE and we want to get more funding for more subs and ASW systems
  3. Because we WERE and we want them to try again so we can practice our countermeasures
  4. Because we WERE and we want to score political points against Rumsfeld or other leadership for running things the way they run them
  5. Because we WERE and we want to highlight the threat that China poses to Taiwan
  6. Because we WEREN’T but we want the Chinese to think they succeeded
  7. Because we WEREN’T but we want to get more funding for more subs and ASW systems anyway
  8. Because we WEREN’T but we want them to try again so we can practice our countermeasures some more anyway
  9. Because we WEREN’T but we want to score political points against Rumsfeld or other leadership for running things the way they run them anyway
  10. Because we WEREN’T but we want to highlight the threat that China poses to Taiwan anyway

There are, of course, many more reasons than this. And most of them can be used whether the Kitty Hawk group really was surprised or not.

As others have pointed out, it’s also possible that this was merely a “stunt” pulled by the Chinese, maybe by lying dead on the bottom and just waiting for the group to pass over and then suddenly surfacing. But even if this is the case, what’s to stop them (or anyone else) from trying the same stunt during a shooting war? So even if it was a stunt and not a traditional “stalking”, it should be troubling.

Also see Inside Job on In From the Cold. Particularly this:

Bill Gertz, who originally broke the story, based his reporting on information from unnamed “defense officials,” indicating that the leak came from within the Pentagon. My guess is that the story was planted by one of Admiral Roughead’s rivals within the upper ranks of the Navy. As Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Roughead holds down one of the plum jobs in the U.S. Navy; his selection for that post means that other officers were passed over, and one of them might have viewed the sub incident as a chance to exact a little revenge. Another source for the leak is a disgruntled former staffer, who served under Roughead in a previous assignment. You don’t reach four-star status without making a few enemies, or leaving a few disappointed subordinates in your wake.

There’s also the possibility that Gertz obtained his information from a senior officer or official in another branch of the armed services, anxious to illustrate the “vulnerability” of carrier groups, and the potential folly of funding more capital ships that can be sunk by a single, relatively cheap diesel sub. Rule #1 in the DoD budget wars: you can get more money for your stuff by making the other guy’s system look vulnerable.

See reasons #4 and #9 above.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that, regardless of what really happened this time, the US Navy should invest in a couple of diesel-electric subs for use as “aggressors”. As I’ve pointed out before, we’re currently practicing against Sweden’s HMS Gotland, a boat with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP). AIP makes non-nuclear subs even quieter, and should scare the bejesus out of our surface fleet.

We have aggressor units operating equipment similar to that of our potential enemies at Top Gun and the National Training Center. We should have them under the sea as well.


  1. I’m not sure building our own would be the way to go in this case. We haven’t built non-nukes for a long time and there’s probably a lot to re-learn. Just buy good ones from a friendly nation that already builds their own. Heck, buy a Russian Kilo while we’re at it. Or steal one.

  2. MO, We could probably get very favorable rates on Russkie boats, since so much of their fleet is rusting dockside. That’s the problem though, in’it? Sure we buy some commie diesels at a price competetive against just scrapping them, but then we have to invest Lord knows how much to make them seaworthy again. Probably more cost effective to lease allied boats and crews like they’re doing.

  3. I think it would make a lot more sense to contract US shipyards to build some air-independent diesel boats than trying to keep them alive with the DDG-1000 program. I’m sure they’d be happy for the business. And if the balloon goes up they won’t be useless either. In the interim, I’m sure someone like Germany or Sweden would be happy to sell or lease you some.

  4. It wouldn’t be that expensive to rennovate an old WW2 boat. I saw it done in a movie once. Maybe they can borrow the Pampanito. I’m sure Lauren Holly would be happy to teach the Navy how to dive it.

  5. I don’t think a US built deisel sub will happen without some serious arm-twisting of the Navy ( how about it, new Sec-Def Gates?)Its the same with light carriers, the brass are fearful they’ll lose funding for their super-hi-tech nuclear boats if we start building cheaper ships.