Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The latest developments in China’s nuclear submarine fleet

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been focusing on diesel-electric submarines in the past years. This made sense as China focused on the area between its coast and the first island chain. Operating close to the coast, diesel-electric submarines have an advantage over nuclear powered submarines. They are more silent then nuclear submarines and since they don’t have to maneuver a lot in coastal waters they can remain silent and in ambush. For China it made sense to focus on diesel-electric submarines. But as the PLAN becomes bigger and transforms into a blue water navy the need arises to project power at greater distances. As diesel-electric submarines lack the range to support a blue water navy, the PLAN has taken a renewed interest in its nuclear submarine fleet.

Attack submarines
China currently has two types of nuclear attack submarines, the Type 091 Han class and the Type 093 Shang class. The Type 091 submarines of the Han class are very old boats. The first one was commissioned in 1974 while the fifth and last one was commissioned in 1990. Only the last 3 boats are still in service. The noise level of the Han class is so loud that these boats are easily detected. They have no combat value and can only be regarded as being used for training purposes.

The Type 093 Shang class submarines were a next step in Chinese nuclear submarine development. Construction started in the 1990s but the first boats were only delivered a decade later. Even though the Shang class is an improvement over the Han class it is still a noisy and easy detectible submarine. Its noise level corresponds to that of a Soviet Victor III class although some experts, mainly Chinese, state that the Type 093 submarine could be as quiet as a Los Angeles class submarine.

Type 093 Shang class submarine

Specific details about Chinese submarines are scarce and this is also true for their nuclear submarines. Nobody can really tell when exactly the PLAN has commissioned its Type 093 boats (and for that matter also its SSBM, see below). It is generally assumed that the PLAN operates only two Type 093 submarines. However, China also plans to build four new Type 093 submarines and commission them in the next five years. Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) will be installed in these improved type 093 submarines, making them more versatile. If true, an improved Type 093 submarine would be comparable to a US Los Angeles class submarine that also has VLS. The improved Type 093 submarines would be capable of launching cruise missiles at both land and sea targets. The six Type 093 boats will replace the remaining Type 091 submarines.

The next development in Chinese submarine design is the Type 095 submarine. Almost no details exist on this project. Some rumors say that they are being built, others state that they aren’t even designed. Whatever the truth, China will develop a Type 095 submarine in the near future. The improved Type 093 class shows that China still keeps modernizing its submarine force. With their VLS, the Type 093 will be a testing model before China makes a new step in submarine development. This is not a strange move as the PLAN did it with every type of ship. It is custom for China to build a couple ships, test them and then develop a new upgraded design until it finally has a perfect working ship.
The Type 095 submarine is expected to be louder than an Akula I class according to the 2009 ONI Report. If the Type 093 however has the acoustic characteristics of a Los Angeles class submarine then the ONI prediction would be wrong as the type 095 is expected to be a lot more silent then the Type 093. The Type 095 will receive a VLS as it makes the boat more versatile and thus a more lethal adversary.

Ballistic missile submarines
Ballistic missile submarines (SSBN’s) are equipped with nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Although these boats have torpedo’s with them, they are not designed to attack other submarines. Their mission is to remain hidden under the water until the moment to launch either a surprise first strike or a retaliatory second strike. China’s nuclear policy is one of no first use and their SSBN’s are thus used for launching a retaliatory second strike, in theory. As such, China would seek only to build so many boats as are needed to build a credible deterrent.

China’s history with building and operating SSBN’s is a very troubled one. The first class of SSBN was the Type 092 Xia class submarine. Only one boat of this class was build, the Xia. Laid down in1978, she was completed in 1981 and launched her first missiles as a test in 1987. The Xia has been plagued by many troubles and spent most of her time either being refitted or repaired. It is believed that she never sailed on an active combat patrol beyond China’s regional waters.

The successor to the Type 092 was the Type 094 Jin class submarine. This class resembles a Russian Delta class submarine. The 2009 ONI report states that this class of submarines is noisier than a Russian Delta III class SSBN. The exact numbers of submarines in service are unknown but experts think that there are three to five of these submarines in service. Most of them operate from the naval base on the island of Hainan where the submarines have rapid access to deep waters. The Type 094 submarine is also equipped with the JL-2 missile that has a greater range compared to the missiles deployed in its predecessor, the Xia class.
Type 094 Jin class submarine
The next evolution in SSBN design is the Type 096 Tang class submarine. Little has been known about this class but its hull will look more like a western SSBN than a Delta class submarine. The amount of missiles will be increased to 24 missiles compared to the 12 on board of the Type 094 class. Construction of this class was reported in the western press halfway the year 2013 and the first boat should be ready somewhere in 2014. As is usually the case concerning Chinese military programs, little news comes out and most information is just speculation. The Type 094 class took longer to be commissioned than was initially reported and this might well be the case with the Type 096 class.
Possible model of the Type 096 Tang class
Concept art of a Type 096 Tang class submarine

In the past China’s nuclear submarine fleet got little attention. The PLAN focused on modernizing its diesel-electric submarine fleet for operations within the first island chain. As the PLAN starts to focus on building a blue water navy for operations beyond the first island chain it is in need of new nuclear submarines that are more modern and quiet than the old classes they currently have at their disposal. Both the Type 095 and the Type 096 mark a significant change in nuclear submarine design. The Type 095, and the improved Type 093, will have a VLS that makes them resemble American instead of Russian submarines.

The same is true for the Type 096 class with a hull that should look like a western submarine instead of a Russian Delta class submarine. As such, China is breaking away from Russian submarine designs. The new nuclear submarine classes will be further improvements but the question is if they will bridge the gap with the modern US submarines that are their rivals. It is possible that the Type 095 and 096 are just further steps in the evolution process and not an end goal. As such, we can expect China to build a Type 097 and 098 in the next decade to further close the gap with US submarines.

1 comment:

  1. China is building up its military to defend itself from who else but the US.The problem is though the US has an assured destruction with regard to China since the end of ww2,the PLA can respond with devastating power.This is what is bothering the Pentagon.They wish the US can have a free hand on the attack in wars with NV,Iraq,etc.
    If you are the leader of China you have to make absolutely sure the Chinese are not subject to US nuclear threats anymore.These subs are one part of the PLA's defence plan. You can bet the PLA will be increasing its offensive missiles to keep pace with US anti missile shield.
    The US routinely portrays China as a threat to US security.You d o the maths. The US has 20000nm twenty thousand nm.China has at most ten.How can China be a threat?The problem is even after US can unleash thousands of nm , a single nm can cause massive and significant damage.Even that is unacceptable to US policy makers.
    You can bet the PLA will make absolutely sure more subs will patrol near the US coast in the next five years.If the US intends on emasculating China's nuclear threat,it is now when the price is still low. Hence the constant provocation by flying spy planes near China and B52 flying through China's adiz.Fortunatelythe PLA aint naïve to start a war by shooting down the US planes . You don't fight when you are weak.But things could be different in the future.