In late August the Ministry of Science and Technology and State Oceanic Administration (SOA) of China announced that on July 13 the Jiaolong manned deep-water submersible, which is named for a mythical sea dragon, had successfully completed a test dive to a depth of 3,759 meters below the surface of the South China Sea. The submersible’s operators took pictures and videos, collected marine life samples and used a robotic arm to plant a Chinese flag on the seabed (Xinhua News Agency, August 27). With the sea tests of the Jiaolong, China gained membership in an exclusive club, becoming only the fifth country with a manned submersible capable of diving deeper than 3,500 meters . Chinese media noted that China joined the United States, Japan, France and Russia as the only countries to have demonstrated such impressive deep diving capabilities. High-level science and technology officials also lauded the accomplishment. "The successful diving trials of Jiaolong marked a milestone in our country’s deepwater equipment and technology development," said Vice Minister of Science and Technology Wang Weizhong (China Daily, August 27). Echoing this message, one Chinese media report praised the Jiaolong as “one of the most advanced vessels of its kind in the world” (CNTV, August 27).
Official Chinese media reports and expert commentators also compared the rigors involved in testing a submersible to that depth to the technological challenges encountered in the manned space program and China’s nuclear program. Jia Yu, a research fellow with the China Institute for Marine Affairs, said, "Deep-sea technology is considered an innovative and high-end technology as important as space and nuclear technologies" (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). In addition to emphasizing that the Jiaolong sea tests reflected China’s growing scientific and technological prowess, Chinese officials and PRC media reports highlighted some of the specific ways in which the Jiaolong is capable of contributing to deep-sea scientific research and marine resource exploration activities. Yet international media reports and commentaries also noted the potential military applications of China’s deep submergence accomplishments, giving rise to several questions for analysts concerned with China’s growing naval power: What are the capabilities of China’s new Jiaolong deep submersible? How has the Jiaolong program developed over the past decade? How is it likely to evolve in the future? Lastly, what are its strategic implications?
Characteristics and Capabilities of China’s Jiaolong Submersible
The Jiaolong is a manned deep-ocean submersible made in China. Like many other submersibles, the Jiaolong operates with a mother ship. For its sea trials, the Jiaolong operated with the Xiangyanghong 09, an oceanographic research ship subordinate to the North Sea Branch of SOA . Built in Shanghai’s Hudong shipyard in 1978, the Xiangyanghong 09 was recently modified to serve as the mother ship for the submersible’s sea tests. The hull of the Jiaolong is made of titanium, and it is designed to reach a maximum depth of about 7,000 meters, making the submersible capable of reaching 99.8 percent of the world’s sea areas, according to an official website . Chinese media reports state that the submersible is equipped with “foolproof life support systems and two oxygen supply systems” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). The Jiaolong can remain submerged for up to 12 hours. Chinese media reports indicate that the Jiaolong is about 8.2 meters long, 3 meters wide and 3.4 meters high. It weighs nearly 22 tons (Global Times, September 25). This makes it roughly comparable in size to Alvin, a U.S. Navy-owned deep submergence vehicle operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that is perhaps best known for locating a lost hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea in 1966 and surveying the wreck of the Titanic 20 years later .
Chinese media reports state that Jiaolong has “a unique hovering and locating ability” and “possesses advanced micro-acoustic communication and undersea topography detection capabilities, enabling high-speed transmission of images and voice and detection of small marine targets” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). Chinese media reports also state that it is “equipped with a variety of high-performance tools enabling it to complete complex tasks such as on-the-spot sampling and core drilling in specific marine environments and geological conditions” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23).
According to a journal article by three Chinese specialists involved in the project, Liu Feng, Cui Weicheng, and Li Xiangyang, the submersible is capable of cruising at a constant height above the sea bottom, hovering at a designated position and resting on the sea bottom . With these impressive capabilities, they write, Jiaolong can carry out a variety of tasks, including taking samples of mineral deposits or sea creatures, measuring water temperature and collecting water samples, making high-resolution maps with its bathymetric side-scan sonar, taking pictures and recording video of underwater objects such as marine wrecks, deploying or recovering devices, and inspecting and maintaining marine structures such as pipelines and cables .
The Jiaolong operates with a crew of three “oceanauts.” Chinese media reports indicate that Beijing began selecting its “oceanauts” in 2006. According to one report, “The requirements are as strict as those for astronauts. An oceanaut must be familiar with the structure, equipment and control of a submersible” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). Among the specific requirements, the “oceanauts” must be under 35 years of age and hold a bachelor’s degree or above in shipbuilding, machinery or electronics. They must also pass a rigorous physical examination. Today, the members of the Jiaolong’s crew are the only three fully trained “oceanauts” in China, but there will soon be several more. According to Liu Xincheng, an official with the SOA, China intends to begin training more candidates, with a goal of reaching a total of six fully qualified “oceanauts” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23).
After selecting and training its first three “oceanauts,” China began demonstrating the Jiaolong’s capabilities last year. The Jiaolong has conducted a series of sea tests over the past 15 months. According to one Chinese media report, “Since August 2009, Jiaolong has successively been tested at 1,000 meters and 3,000 meters below sea level. In the South China Sea test from May 31 to July 18, 2010, Jiaolong completed 17 dives. Seven surpassed 2,000 meters and four reached as deep as 3,000 meters. The deepest reached 3,759 meters” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). During its longest dive, the Jiaolong operated underwater for more than nine hours. Chinese media reports characterize the sea tests as successful. According to one report, “The tests have also fully verified the functionality and the technical capability of Jiaolong, laying a solid foundation for practical application of scientific research and greater depth of testing—as well as resource surveys” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23).
China has made relatively quick progress on the development of the Jiaolong submersible since starting the project as part of its ocean exploration program about eight years ago. China started to develop the submersible in 2002 and work on the submersible and its mother ship was completed after about six years. According to one report, “In order to promote the development of China’s deep-sea delivery technology…the Ministry of Science and Technology launched the Jiaolong Project as part of the State Hi-Tech Development Program (863 Program). This project was designed to provide important hi-tech equipment for China’s seabed ocean resources surveys and scientific research, as well as develop generic technology for deep-sea exploration and sea floor operations” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23).
The chief engineering unit responsible for the program is the China Ship Scientific Research Center (CSSRC), also known as the 702nd Research Institute of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). CSSRC is part of a consortium of more than 100 research institutes and enterprises across China that have been involved in various aspects of the development of the Jiaolong submersible and its mother ship. The CSSRC website indicates that the institute’s role as chief engineering unit for the project includes responsibility for development of 10 of the 12 major sub-systems as well as the assembly and integration work .
Some U.S. media reports indicate that China’s rapid progress was enabled by access to foreign technology and expertise. According to one report, “China went on a global shopping spree to gather sophisticated gear for its submersible” (New York Times, September 11). Indeed, according to an official from CSSRC, about 40 percent of the Jiaolong’s equipment was imported (New York Times, September 11). The Jiaolong’s hull was ordered from Russia and its advanced lights, cameras and manipulator arms were purchased from the United States. Foreign training was also critical to the program’s success. In 2005, Chinese trainee pilots and a Chinese scientist participated in a series of dives on Alvin. Among the Chinese trainees was Ye Cong, who served as a pilot during Jiaolong’s sea trials.
China’s Future Plans for Jiaolong
China appears to have ambitious plans for further development of its deep submergence capabilities. Next year the Jiaolong is expected to dive to 5,000 meters. In 2012, the submersible is to reach its maximum operating depth of about 7,000 meters, according to Chinese media reports (Global Times, September 17). The submersible will perform a variety of missions. According to one Chinese media report, “In the future, Jiaolong will take on various complex missions, such as carrying scientists and engineers into deep sea to carry out scientific investigation and exploration of oceanic ridges, basins and submarine hydrothermal vents. It will also conduct submarine prospecting and high-precision topographic surveys, detect and capture suspicious objects, lay fixed underwater equipment, detect submarine cables and pipelines, as well as undertake general deep-sea inquiries and salvage operations” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). China is also planning to build up the infrastructure required to support these ambitious plans. A study under way calls for construction of a “national deep-sea base in the coastal area of Qingdao in Shandong Province to provide ground services for manned submersibles” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23).
Possible Strategic Implications
Chinese scientists and officials state that the Jiaolong submersible is intended mainly to conduct resource exploration and scientific research activities. “The main mission of the submersible is to carry scientists, engineers and their various instruments to the rugged deep sea topography to perform tasks of oceanic geology, geophysics, biology and chemistry,” according to the article by Liu, Cui, and Li. Similarly, according to Peng Xiaotong, a research fellow with the National Marine Geological Laboratory at Shanghai-based Tongji University, "A manned submersible provides a powerful tool for scientists to carry out all kinds of research unavailable in laboratories by taking them directly to deep seas" (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23). Wang Pinxian, an academic with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chairman of China Marine Research Commission, has also emphasized its scientific research applications. "For deep-sea scientific research, a manned submersible is like a car in daily traffic,” Wang said. “Its practical significance is in enabling scientists to carry out research activities freely between 2,000 and 3,000 meters below sea level. A submersible can be seen as the lonely pioneer in deep-sea exploration” (Beijing Review No. 38, September 23).
Chinese officials have responded to international media reports highlighting the potential military applications of the Jiaolong by reiterating that its main missions are scientific. Some have downplayed its potential strategic implications. In September, sea test commander Liu Feng, also one of the authors of the journal article cited above, emphasized that the submersible’s missions are resource exploration and scientific research. Liu also stated that Jiaolong was developed by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, not the military, and Chinese sources dismiss international media reports highlighting the submersible’s potential military applications as attempts to play up the “China threat theory” (Global Times, September 17).
It is certainly true that the Jiaolong provides China with scientific research and resource exploration capabilities. Deep submersibles play an important role in various types of undersea scientific research because of their ability to operate deep in the ocean and on the sea floor. As for resource exploration, as one U.S. media report pointed out, “the global seabed is littered with what experts say is trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral nodules” (New York Times, September 11). The Jiaolong enhances China’s ability to explore for these resources .
Yet, China’s successful development of the Jiaolong submersible also has potential strategic implications. This is in large part because of the importance of the undersea battle space in contemporary military affairs. As one article in the Chinese publication Modern Ships points out, “how to use the deep sea to gain superiority in the undersea military competition is a question that all countries must closely inquire into” . As the same article notes, in addition to their utility for resource exploration and scientific research, submersibles like the Jiaolong also have potential military applications, such as supporting China’s submarine force as it becomes more active in the “far seas.” For example, the author of this article suggests that if there is an accident in which a PLAN submarine sinks to the bottom in an area far from China’s coast, a submersible like the Jiaolong could be used for tasks such as rescue, investigation, and salvaging important components of the submarine. Consequently, the Jiaolong will remain of interest to foreign observers not only because of its implications for scientific research and undersea resource exploration, but also as a result of its potential strategic applications.
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3. China Ship Scientific Research Center (CSSRC), Jiaolong hao zairen shenqianqi haishi chuangzao 3759 mi shuishen jilu (Jiaolong Manned Submersible Sea Test Sets 3,759 Meter Depth Record),” https://www.cssrc.com.cn/news/news.asp?id=269.
4. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “Human Occupied Vehicle Alvin,” https://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=8422.
5. Liu Feng, Cui Weicheng, and Li Xiangyang, “China’s First Deep Manned Submersible, Jiaolong,” Science China Earth Sciences, October 2010, pp. 1407-1410. Liu and Li are affiliated with the China Ocean Mineral Resource R&D Association (COMRA) in Beijing. Cui works for with the China Ship Scientific Research Center (CSSRC) in Wuxi.
6. Liu, Cui, and Li, “China’s First Deep Manned Submersible, Jiaolong.”
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8. Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, “Jiaolong—An Underwater Dragon,” IDSA Comment, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, September 16, 2010, https://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/JiaolongAnUnderwaterDragon_ssparmar_160910.
9. Hao Junshi, you shendu, you nandu–zairen shenqianqi mantan (Deep and Difficult—An Informal Discussion of Manned Submersibles),” Xiandai jianchuan (Modern Ships) October 2010: 16-19.