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Beneath the surface, a quiet superpower race for nuclear supremacy

The world’s three largest naval powers are all developing the next generation of their nuclear submarine fleets, accelerating the underwater arms race between the United States, China and Russia.

For now, at least, analysts say America remains by far the most dominant submarine force, even as its chief rivals work feverishly to overcome the U.S. advantages. Each country appears to have different strategic goals, with the U.S. bent on gaining greater cost and operating efficiencies while the Chinese and Russian are keenly focused on technological advances and achieving greater stealth.

As tensions escalated in the South China Sea, these three countries — which boast the world’s largest navies — are aggressively preparing for any potential undersea or nuclear conflict, as they develop or perfect nuclear ballistic submarines (SSBNs) and attack submarines (SSNs). These nations have engaged in territorial disputes in those waters, and China has increased its submarine-intensive military drills as a show of force.

The U.S. has likely been underestimating the number of attack submarines it would need in the Pacific, given the heightened potential for conflict in the region, warned James R. Holmes, professor of strategy at the Naval War College.

“You need to divide the number [of total ships] by two, three, or even more to estimate realistically how many ships are available for duty on any given day. The rest are in overhaul, undergoing training, or relaxing after deployment,” Holmes said. “So, divide the number of SSNs in the Pacific by three, then look at the map. That’s very few boats to manage events in the world’s largest body of water.”

Nearly half of the $106.4 billion of planned Navy shipbuilding between fiscal 2019 and 2023 will go for nuclear ballistic and attack submarines, according to the Navy’s long-range construction plan. The spending blueprint calls for $32.9 billion for construction of ten attack submarines and $16.7 billion for a new nuclear ballistic submarine.

The attack submarines are armed with various cruise missiles designed to hit closer-range land and sea targets. They are specifically designed to attack and sink other submarines, surface combatants and merchant vessels.

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Yingjie Gu and Matt Sussis