NBC Weapons: China Springs A Nuclear Leak

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

 

August 10, 2011: On July 29th, a rumor began spreading on the Chinese Internet sites that there was a radiation leak on a submarine stationed near Dalian in northeast China. As the story went, the accident occurred while technicians were installing new electronic gear on a Type 94 SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The government promptly denied the rumor and ordered all Chinese media to stop discussing it. Since there was no evidence that the incident actually occurred, and no more news from the pier where the SSBN was tied up, the story would normally have disappeared from lack of interest. But six days earlier, there had been a very public train accident, with many dead and injured. Cell phone pictures and videos from witnesses got loose, and that story would not die. Not just because there was plenty of evidence that it actually happened, and the government tried to cover it up. But also because the Chinese government keeps trying to control the news, while most Chinese are eager to show the government how that sort of thing doesn’t work anymore.

When a radiation leak story shows up less than a week later, and the government also tries it bury it, the half billion Chinese Internet users are definitely not buying it. It’s not like there haven’t been submarine disasters in the Chinese navy before. Back in 2003, one diesel sub went to sea, and the entire crew died because of glitch with the air supply. The government tried to keep that one quiet as well. Moreover, many Chinese are well aware of the sorry history of Russian nuclear subs (who served as the models for Chinese ones). Russian nukes were infamous for their poor radiation shielding. The Russians had many jokes about that. Like, “how can you tell if a sailor serves on a submarine? He glows in the dark.”

It has not been as bad in the Chinese Navy, mainly because the Chinese have fewer than ten nuclear subs, and they don’t let them go to sea very often. So it should be no surprise that this is not the first embarrassing situation for the Type 94 boats. There have been several.

For example, China has never sent a boomer (the nickname for SSBNs) on a combat patrol. America, Russia, Britain and France have all done so, and still do. The U.S. has had SSBNs going out with nuclear armed, and ready to fire, missiles for over half a century. What is going on with China? There appear to be a combination of technical and political problems. This is one reason so many Chinese were ready to believe there was a radiation leak.

China has already produced two generations of SSBNs. In the early 1980s, the Type 92 SSBN was launched, but had lots of problems, and never made a patrol. It only went out for training in Chinese coastal waters. Only one was built. In the last decade, the Type 94 showed up. This was believed, in the West, to be the Chinese SSBN that would go on patrol. Never happened. Turns out that the Type 94 also had technical problems, so why not believe radiation leaks were one of them.

This all began with the Type 93 class SSN (nuclear powered attack sub), which looks a lot like the three decade old Russian Victor III class SSN design. The first Type 93 entered service in 2006. The Type 93 was the basis for the Type 94 SSBN, which looks like a Victor III with a missile compartment added. Taking a SSN design and adding extra compartments to hold the ballistic missiles is an old trick, pioneered by the United States in the 1950s to produce the first ever SSBNs. The Chinese appear to have done the same thing with their new Type 93 SSN, creating a larger Type 94 SSBN boat of 9,000 tons displacement. Priority was apparently given to construction of the 94, as having nuclear missiles able to reach the United States gives China more diplomatic clout than some new SSNs. The first 94 entered service two years ago. But it has still not gone to sea equipped with nuclear missiles.

Having already sent the first two new, 7,000 ton, 093 class SSNs to sea, China was apparently underwhelmed by their performance. Not much more is expected from the 94s. The 93s were too noisy, and had a long list of more minor defects as well. It's unclear how many 93s will be built, probably no more than 3-6. More resources are apparently being diverted to the next SSN class; the 95, and the next SSBN class, the Type 96.

The Type 093 and Type 094 were both over a decade in development and construction. Work began on the 094 class in the 1990s. For years, all that was known was that the Chinese were having technical problems with the new design. The 094 is a modern SSBN, using technology bought from Russia, plus what was developed by the Chinese in their earlier nuclear submarine building efforts. While the Chinese have had a hard time building reliable and quiet nuclear subs, they are determined to acquire the needed skills. You do that by doing it, and eating your mistakes. U.S. intelligence experts believe that China now concentrating on the design of the new Type 96s.

But there are other problems. The Chinese government is apparently uneasy with sending off an SSBN, armed with twelve or more SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles), each with one or more nuclear warheads. Western nations carefully select the officers and crews of their SSBNs, and use a host of codes and procedures (PAL, or "Permissive Action Links") to insure that a single madman cannot use any of those SLBMs. Russia also screened crews and had PAL codes, but also had, in effect, representatives of the secret police on the SSBN, whose main job was to insure that the SLBMs were used as the government back in Moscow commanded. China has always been much less trusting of the armed forces when it comes to nuclear weapons. China also appears to lack the PAL technology. All this doesn't get much mention in the West, but it is very real inside China. So when the Type 96 shows up, sometime late in this decade, it will be revealing to see if the Chinese have overcome their reluctance to trust a crew of Chinese sailors with all those nukes.

 

 


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