It was October 2006, and a U.S. Navy fleet was on a routine military exercise in the South China Sea between southern Japan and Taiwan. Defended by a flotilla of battleships, the centerpiece of the fleet was the formidable aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. But in spite of the power of this mighty armada, trouble lay in wait. A spotter saw something five miles from the Kitty Hawk, and it was a sighting that shocked military personnel to the core.
The U.S.S. Kitty Hawk was named after the location where the Wright brothers achieved the world’s first powered plane flight: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Classed as a supercarrier, the ship was launched in 1960 from the Camden, New Jersey, yard where she was built.
From bow to stern, the Kitty Hawk measured more than 1,069 feet. As a result, steam turbine engines powering four propeller shafts drove the ship through the ocean. She was so large, in fact, that she could carry 85 aircraft, including 40 Super Hornet fighter-bombers. And to keep this vessel and its planes in ship-shape order, some 4,500 personnel crewed her.
Shortly after its initial launch, the Kitty Hawk saw its first “hot” deployment in a combat situation during the Vietnam War. On a single day – November 26, 1965 – the ship’s planes engaged in 90 attack missions against Viet Cong targets. That day was the first time the ship had ever been directly involved in combat, and her aircraft unloaded close to 150 tons of bombs on the enemy. And her involvement in the Vietnam conflict subsequently continued until the cease-fire agreement of 1973.
Then 25 years later, the Kitty Hawk was appointed to be the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed carrier, which meant that she would now be based at the Japanese port city of Yokosuka. In the intervening years, the ship had taken part in a number of operations, including deployments in the Persian Gulf and participation in the 2003 Iraq War. She had also been involved in regular exercises.
Now, though, let’s return to that October 2006 day in the South China Sea. You see, the U.S. Navy fleet was sailing in formation close to Okinawa Island – a Japanese territory about 400 miles from mainland China. And as far as the crews of the Kitty Hawk and her surrounding escort ships were concerned, the exercise was unfolding with reassuring normality.
Then it happened: a submarine surfaced some five miles from the Kitty Hawk, and it definitely wasn’t an American vessel. It’s worth noting that as well as boasting the protective ring of around a dozen battleships, the Kitty Hawk would often have a number of U.S. subs tracking her for added security. But the craft emerging from the waves was not one of them, meaning it had somehow evaded the Kitty Hawk’s protectors.
It was in fact a Chinese submarine; to be precise, the vessel was a Type 039 submarine of the Song class. And the distinctive thing about this particular type of submarine is that it was the first one to be 100 percent Chinese in design and build. More alarmingly, though, at just five miles from the massive supercarrier, this sub was close enough to score a hit with one of her missiles.
That was potentially very bad news for the Kitty Hawk. Yet the real significance of this unexpected and disconcerting appearance of a sub so close to an American supercarrier was that it appeared the U.S. Navy had badly underestimated the capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The Daily Mail reported that one startled NATO staffer later said the incident was “as big a shock as the Russians launching Sputnik.” He was referring to the surprise launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite to orbit the Earth in 1957. That was when the Soviets stunned the U.S. with the advanced level of their technology. And it seemed that something similar was now happening with regards to Chinese submarine capacity.
The Song-class submarine is a 160-foot-long diesel-electric vessel. It’s also an assault craft with the capability to attack ships and other subs thanks to its Chinese-made Yu-4 torpedoes. Those torpedoes in turn travel underwater at a speed of more than 45 mph. And crucially, they have a range of a little over nine miles.
Of course, that range is a key specification; remember that the submarine surfaced at around five miles from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. So the supercarrier was well within range of the Chinese vessel’s attack capabilities. And the People’s Liberation Army Navy had no less than 13 of these Song-class submarines at the time.
The U.S. Navy, then, was left scratching its head as to how this Chinese submarine could, with apparent ease, creep up on such a supposedly well-protected aircraft carrier. And another question consequently arose: how long had the submarine been following the carrier before it revealed its position by surfacing?
Afterwards, the Chinese authorities denied having deliberately shadowed the Kitty Hawk at all. According to their version of events, the whole incident had simply been an unfortunate coincidence. But some experts argued that the Chinese had been intentionally sending a message to the Americans.
Indeed, analysts believed there was no way that the submarine would have surfaced in that manner without direct orders to do so. And the message that the Chinese arguably wanted to deliver to the U.S. might have been very simple – namely, that their submarine capabilities were far in advance of American assumptions.
Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2007, submarine expert Commodore Stephen Saunders explained that the Americans had paid far less attention to submarine warfare since the Cold War had finished. After all, he said, the collapse of the Soviet empire had meant that the threat from Russian subs had receded.
“It was certainly a wake-up call for the Americans,” said Commodore Saunders. “It would tie in with what we see the Chinese trying to do, which appears to be to deter the Americans from interfering or operating in their backyard, particularly in relation to Taiwan.”
So perhaps the Chinese were keen to show the Americans that the South China Sea was not a place where their ships could cruise without risk. In fact, even back in 2007 the Chinese navy had two submarines in its fleet with the capability to launch nuclear warheads.
And it appears that the timing of this incident might not have been an accident, either. Because at that moment, Admiral William Joseph Fallon, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, was about to attend a multi-nation assembly on defense in Asia – a summit that China had pointedly refused to attend. Meanwhile, Admiral Gary Roughead was meeting the Chinese to discuss a joint exercise between the U.S. and Chinese navies.
So it seems that back in 2006 the U.S. military might have been guilty of not paying enough attention to the advances that the Chinese were making in their submarine technology. Yes, the way in which the protective shield of vessels around the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk had been evaded was, as Commodore Saunders pointed out, a “wake-up call” for the U.S. Navy.