Trust, Confidence, and Competency in PLA Navy Submarine Command

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 18

Submarine officer supervises junior sailor. (Source:
  • PLAN’s submarine force faces autonomy issues due to historical distrust between leadership and boat commanders, impacting long-distance deployments.
  • PLAN submarines historically employ senior officers as mission commanders for centralized control—a practice dating back to the force’s early development—yet frequent and extended deployments strain senior officers, leading to micromanagement and atrophy in command structures.
  • In 2018, attempts were made to reform the practice by prohibiting mission commanders, but uncertainty remains regarding the full autonomy of submarine commanding officers.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has over the past decade sent its submarine force further afield on more long-distance deployments. [1] Submarines operate relatively independently below the waves, so individual boat command and leadership competency significantly influence operational effectiveness. However, autonomy is something to which the PLA has historically given short shrift (China Brief, August 17, 2012). Chinese-language sources indicate this problem extends throughout the PLAN. [2] Within the submarine force, there is a longstanding shortfall in trust and confidence between submarine unit leadership and the commanders of their subordinate boats. For decades, this distrust manifested in an unofficial practice of dispatching senior officers alongside submarine commanders, negatively impacting commanding officer development and force readiness. This has led to some reforms across the PLAN, however, there are indications this problem persists in the submarine force.

The “Headquarters, May I?” Approach to Submarine Leadership

PLAN submarines have long embarked a “mission commander” or “headquarters guiding group” to oversee missions rather than entrust individual boat commanders to command autonomously at sea. These were more senior officers from the submarine base or flotilla headquarters—often deputy flotilla commanders or trainer captains (教练艇长).These senior officers are assigned to individual submarines, often forming an “at-sea temporary Party Committee (海上临时党委)” to implement more centralized command of a boat. [3]

This practice of embarking senior officers began during the submarine force’s early development. For example, in 1976 deputy flotilla commander Xu Zhiming (许志明) was tasked with leading the first PLAN submarine (No. 252) on a training mission beyond the first island chain. [4] It may be the case that senior officers were embarked for significant missions, such as in 1989 when First Submarine Base commander Yang Xi (杨玺) acted as commander of the temporary Party Committee in the first nuclear submarine to go on a training mission beyond the first island chain. [5] This practice likely continued throughout the following two decades, even as submarines were deployed farther from the coast with more frequency.

The PLAN considered long-distance deployments to be highly sensitive and meriting extra political and operational supervision by unit leadership. Around 2010, one East Sea Fleet submarine flotilla established formal rules to strengthen political work for such deployments. The flotilla headquarters drafted and implemented “Twelve Measures for Strengthening Political Work on Long-Distance Voyages” and amended the “Procedural Rules for At-Sea Temporary Party Committees,” so that three or more senior officers from flotilla headquarters were on board every boat on long-distance deployment for the stated purpose of “strengthening leadership.” [6] The PLAN is never explicit what strengthening leadership involves, but certainly includes the strengthening of Party leadership over individual submarines.

The practice of embarking senior officers held for both conventional and nuclear submarines. The Type-091 No. 403 nuclear-powered attack submarine had a temporary Party Committee while on a long-distance combat readiness patrol that occurred sometime prior to May 2015. The committee included an “at sea commander” (海上指挥员) in addition to the boat commander and political commissar, reportedly to ensure the boat complied with higher strategic intent. [7] While the activities and exact nature of the submarine’s mission is unknown, its long-distance deployment may have necessitated more senior leadership on board.

Mission commanders have also been assigned to oversee submarine training. Judging from available sources, their role in these cases was to “guide training activities at sea” (随艇指导训练) and to assess boat officers and crew throughout the process. In some cases, their role was to ensure that training met requirements set in training outlines or provide more direct supervision for special training events. [8] Safety for the boat and crew is typically cited as the primary concern when mission commanders were assigned. Over time, this practice of having senior officers embarked became institutionalized (成为一项制度). [9] Some former nuclear submarine sailors have fond memories of being accompanied to sea by their base leaders. They state that the time spent together in close proximity created a unique atmosphere and familiarity between units and leadership that persisted when they returned to shore. [10]

Issues with the Practice

As the submarine force increased the frequency and duration of deployments for combat readiness and other missions, submarine base and flotilla senior officers became overburdened with excessive responsibilities. The demands on these officers, some of whom were at sea for an average of 90–110 days per year, forced many to forgo scheduled leave and important familial matters. [11] One account tells of a scheduled interview of an East Sea Fleet submarine flotilla Party Committee Central Group (党委中心组), from which several senior officers, including the flotilla commander and chief of staff, were absent. Not only were these officers busy overseeing training on board submarines, but their deputies were also otherwise engaged, working with other PLAN units in an anti-submarine combat exercise. Meanwhile, the flotilla deputy political commissar, one chief engineer, and another deputy flotilla commander were embarked aboard a submarine on a special mission. [12] This style of leadership leads to a small cadre of officers being substantially overstretched, as they are forced to micromanage aspects of the force’s activities that would not usually be part of a senior officer’s purview. Part of the logic behind this could come down to the fact that there is very little tolerance for mistakes in submarine operations, and so there are special requirements for training and building the submarine force that must be managed closely. However, these methods are difficult to sustain as the submarine force’s missions and tasks grow.

Importantly, embarked submarine base and flotilla officers were the most senior personnel on the boat, sometimes referred to as the “highest commander,” which caused issues in boat commanding officer autonomy. [13] These base and flotilla officers played more than just a supervisory role in submarine training. PLA writings describe them as “safeguards (保驾).” As one deputy flotilla commander complained, “how can the flotilla leadership bring every boat to the battlefield in wartime? With these ‘safeguards,’ how can frontline commanders and sailors obtain the qualifications to lead forces in combat?” [14] With flotilla leadership onboard, commanding officers were basically relegated to officer of the deck positions, thereby causing atrophy of the submarine command structures. [15] The problem has worsened in recent years, with “mission area experts (业务长)” and other headquarters “reinforcement” personnel joining individual submarine deployments. [16]

Attempts to Reform the Practice

The practice of assigning senior officers to submarines was an openly recognized problem in the PLAN. It was not stipulated in navy regulations and reflected a serious lack of confidence in boat commanders. Worse, the practice stifled the development of commanding officers and could not be scaled up during wartime. [17] In early 2018, the PLAN held a themed study activity for Party Committees at the regiment level or above, referred to as the “Three Discussions and Three Rectifications (三讲三整顿).” The most significant outcome of this event was the decision to prohibit the dispatch of mission commanders and guiding groups to oversee the missions of individual ships and submarines. [18] After some experiments in surface ship units, the practice appears to have ended in some arms of the PLAN. [19] Once boasted about openly, this convention is now seen as something in need of correction. As such, the topic of embarked flotilla or base senior officers now appears less frequently in PLA media reports.

Changing the rules does not necessarily entail the practice’s disappearance. Nor is it clear whether submarine commanding officers have been given full autonomy and authority to command their own submarines. Trainer captains still spend some time on board to provide guidance to new boat commanders in certain situations. However, it is unknown if they are also sent on long-distance deployments or other important missions. [20] In one recent report regarding a submarine base, the leadership continued to assign leadership and headquarters officers to boats for training purposes (随艇跟训). The base leadership justified continuing these problematic assignments by citing the heavy demands of having to manage coordination between the PLAN’s various arms (the submarine force, surface force, coastal defense force, marine corps, and naval air force), crew evaluations, emergencies, equipment maintenance, and long training timelines. The report’s author argues that higher-level assistance must be more involved to address problems and improve training and exercise quality. [21] The special requirements for training and building the submarine force in the PLAN’s system likely make it difficult to fully wean submarine units away from higher-level management and empower them with more autonomy.

The reduction of embarked mission commanders and guiding groups may not necessarily improve the autonomy of commanding officers, as these boat commanders may be hampered by other stringent rules. For example, after attending a training course focused on loyalty to the Party and to Xi Jinping in the summer of 2022, the deputy political commissar of a Southern Theater Navy submarine flotilla produced written remarks on maintaining the submarine force’s loyalty from the depths of the ocean. Among the officer’s takeaways were the need to strengthen organizational procedures in submarines reporting back to the chain of command. He also noted submarines should, in accordance with regulations, report any issues or problems when they occur, explaining:

“even if a submarine is under extreme conditions and it is difficult to report immediately, after the situation is handled, it must be reported in a timely manner … to ensure that General Secretary Xi’s decision-making and tasking are fully implemented while diving to the ocean’s depths and at the furthest extremity of the grassroots without compromise.” [22]

The deputy political commissar’s statement implies a continued lack of trust in boat commanders, even if it is difficult to assess how rigorously such reporting requirements are observed in practice. If true, then this suggests increasing desire to monitor submarine commanders and their activities beyond the mere oversight obligations for which the practice was ostensibly designed. Such a desire for constant awareness of what individual units are doing could end up being particularly detrimental to the submarine force, as micromanagement and requirements for seeking approval from higher up the chain of command lead to inflexibility and delays to decisive action.


The PLAN’s trust in its submarine commanders and its efforts to foster capable, independent submarine commanders have been severely lacking. Despite attempts to correct longstanding command and control issues through broader PLAN initiatives, some evidence points to continued predisposition on behalf of base and flotilla headquarters to micromanage the force. This could have serious repercussions on the actual readiness and tactical performance of individual submarines and the overall force. As the PLAN submarine force prepares for more long-distance deployments, further research should carefully examine whether individual commanders are given independence in carrying out their missions. It will likely be difficult to fully wean submarine units away from higher-level management and empower their commanders with more autonomy.

This article reflects the personal opinions of the author and not the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other US Government entity.


[1] Dahm J. Michael and Zhao, Allison, “China Maritime Report No. 28: Bitterness Ends, Sweetness Begins: Organizational Changes to the PLAN Submarine Force Since 2015” (2023). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 28, p. 20.

[2] Ryan D. Martinson, Blue Water Command: The Evolution of Authority on Chinese Warships, (Commonwealth of Australia, 2023),

[3] PLAN submarines are assigned to flotillas (支队), which contain diesel-powered submarines, and bases containing nuclear-powered submarines. Trainer captains are former submarine commanders that have promoted into more senior positions in their respective flotilla or base, and provide mentorship to junior commanding officers. Roderick Lee, “China Maritime Report No. 27: PLA Navy Submarine Leadership – Factors Affecting Operational Performance,” (2023). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 27. p. 15; 吴寒月 [Wu Hanyue] and 曹结余 [Cao Jieyu], 走向深蓝的坚强保证 – 东海舰队某潜艇支队用主题主线引领远航中思想政治工作纪实 [“A Strong Guarantee for Going into the Deep Blue – A Record of a Submarine Flotilla of the East Sea Fleet Using the Main Line to Lead Ideological and Political Work During a Long-Distance Voyage”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 9 January 2012, p. 3.

[4] 许志明 [Xu Zhiming], 骑鲸蹈海闯大洋 – 忆潜艇首航太平洋 [“Riding a Whale Across the Ocean – Recalling the First Voyage of a Submarine to the Pacific Ocean”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 4 May 2016, p. 3; Martinson, p. 3.

[5] 杨连新 [Yang Lianxin], 见证中国核潜艇发展史 展示中国海上核力量 [Witnessing the Development History of China’s Nuclear Submarines, Demonstrating China’s Nuclear Forces at Sea], (北京: 海洋出版社, 2013 [Beijing: Ocean Press, 2013]), p. 256.

[6] 吴寒月 [Wu Hanyue] and 曹结余 [Cao Jieyu], 走向深蓝的坚强保证 – 东海舰队某潜艇支队用主题主线引领远航中思想政治工作纪实 [“A Strong Guarantee for Going into the Deep Blue – A Record of a Submarine Flotilla of the East Sea Fleet Using the Main Line to Lead Ideological and Political Work During a Long-Distance Voyage”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 9 January 2012, p. 3.

[7] 刘文平 [Liu Wenping] and 于航 [Yu Hang], 大国重剑 出鞘惊天 – 学习发扬人民海军优良传统精神之 “核潜艇精神” [“Unsheathing a Great Power’s Sword to Scare the Heavens – Learning and Carrying Forward the Fine Tradition of the ‘Nuclear Submarine Spirit’ in the People’s Navy”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 6 May 2015, p. 4.

[8] 闾勇政 [Lü Yongzheng] and 武振平 [Wu Zhenping], 对抗, 针尖对麦芒 – 目击北海舰队某潜艇支队潜舰对抗训练 [“Confrontation, Sharply Opposed Against Each Other – Witnessing Confrontation Training in a Submarine of a North Sea Fleet Submarine Flotilla”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 12 May 2010, p. 1; 张守军 [Zhang Shoujun], 第三次牵手 – 亲历327艇首次自主实现模拟艇员救援 [“Holding Hands for the Third Time – Experiencing the First Time Submarine 327 Achieved A Simulated Rescue of Crew”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 3 December 2010, p. 2.

[9] 在严格履行职责中强化执行力 – 一兵一事求安全 [“Strengthen Execution in the Strict Performance of Duties – Every Soldier and Task Seeks Out Safety”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 1 August 2012, p. 3.

[10] 雪菜罐头 潜艇老兵的特别记忆 [“Canned Pickled Vegetables, A Special Memory of Submarine Veterans”], 中国军视网 – 《老兵你好》 [ – Hello Veteran], 12 August 2019,, (00:33).

[11] 张旭峰 [Zhang Xufeng], 王超 [Wang Chao], and 侯瑞 [Hou Rui], 春雨播洒淬利剑 – 东海舰队某潜艇支队学习贯彻十八大精神纪实 [“The Spray of Spring Rains Quenches the Sharp Sword – A Record of an East Sea Fleet Submarine Flotilla Studying the Spirit of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Part of China”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 23 April 2013, p. 2.

[12] 钱宏 [Qian Hong] and 宛敏武 [Wan Minwu], 立学为杆好扬帆 – 东海舰队某潜艇支队破解党委中心组现实问题的启示 [“Learning Is a Good Way to Hold Up the Sails – Lessons from an East Sea Fleet Submarine Flotilla Solving Real Problems in the Party Committee Central Group”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 19 May 2017, p. 3.

[13] 高毅 [Gao Yi], 海底生日Party [“Birthday Party at the Sea Bottom”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 20 July 2010, p. 2; One North Sea Fleet submarine flotilla account of training in 2012 features a boat captain reading data and speaking to the boat’s “commander.” See: 刘凯 [Liu Kai], 于海涛 [Yu Haitao], 吴晋豫 [Wu Jinyu], and 于航 [Yu Hang], 练出能打胜仗的本领来 – 北海舰队某潜艇基地以十八大精神为指导加强军事训练见闻 [“To Develop the Ability to Win Wars, A Submarine Base of the North Sea Fleet Takes the Spirit of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China as a Guide to Strengthen Military Training”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 18 December 2012, p. 2.

[14] 李涛 [Li Tao] and 王超 [Wang Chao], 锻造决胜水下的虎鲨 – 某潜艇支队大力提高艇队战斗水平纪实 [“Forging a Tiger Shark to Win Underwater – A Record of a Submarine Flotilla Striving to Improve the Combat Level of Crews”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 19 October 2016, p. 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid; Wu & Cao, “A Strong Guarantee for Going into the Deep Blue.”

[17] Martinson, p. 5, 12; 侯融 [Hou Rong], 孙国强 [Sun Guoqiang], and 陈国全 [Chen Guoquan], 海军深化 “三讲三整顿” 专题学习教育的启示与思考 [“Enlightenment and Reflection on the Navy’s Deepening of ‘Three Discussions and Three Rectifications’ Thematic Study and Education”], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], 16 April 2019,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Martinson, p. 6.

[20] 王冠彪 [Wang Guanbiao], 茆琳 [Mao Lin], and 董存金 [Dong Cunjin], 虎鲸嘴中最锐利的那颗牙 – 潜行大洋深处, 捍卫水下国门。某潜艇支队教练艇长赵爱军 [“The Sharpest Tooth in the Killer Whale’s Maw – Diving Dive Under the Ocean and Protecting the Country’s Underwater Doorway. A Submarine Flotilla Trainer Captain Zhao Aijun”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 25 November 2022, p. 1.

[21] 邓博宇 [Deng Boyu], 海军某基地聚焦战斗力建设深化主题教育——向难攻坚担使命 潜航大洋为打赢 [“A Navy Base Focuses on Building Combat Effectiveness and Deepens Thematic Education – Shouldering the Mission of Overcoming Difficulties and Navigating Under the Ocean to Win”], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], 11 July 2023.

[22] The training was focused on the “two establishes” (两个确立), which refers to establishing the core role of Xi Jinping in the Party and the guiding role of Xi Jinping thought in ruling the Party-state. 周亚文 [Zhou Yawen], 大洋深处书写忠诚篇章 [“Writing Chapters of Loyalty While at the Ocean’s Depths”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 20 July 2022, p. 3.