Submarines: June 3, 2005

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: For the second time in twenty-six months, a Chinese Ming-class submarine has had a major accident. The Ming is a Chinese variant of the Russian Romeo-class submarine. The Mings displace 2,113 tons, have eight 21-inch torpedo tubes (six forward, two aft), and a top speed of 33 kilometers per hour when submerged. Mings differ from the Romeo in having a slightly different power plant (giving it a 9 kilometer per hour advantage over the Romeos top submerged speed) and a slightly larger hull that adds about 400 tons of displacement.

The 2003 accident involving a Ming-class submarine, known as Number 361, killed 70 crew. The 2003 accident possibly involved a valve malfunction that deprived the crew of oxygen, although it should be noted that the Chinese have not officially disclosed the cause (other possibilities mentioned were a possible release of chlorine gas from an interaction between the batteries and sea water, or a leak of poisonous torpedo propellant). The cause of this second accident is unknown (right now, speculation is centering on a fire aboard the submarine), but what is known is that the submarine is under tow to a Chinese port in the South China Sea. It is believed that this submarine was taking part in an exercise, since other vessels (three or four surface vessels and at least one other submarine) were in the area. The submarine managed to get to the surface, and was taken under tow toward Yulin on Hainan Island.

This is not the first time the Ming-class has had problems. The initial prototypes, built in the 1970s, had numerous problems, including a fire in one ship. The prototypes were so troublesome that they were scrapped in the 1980s. A revamped design, the present Ming-class submarine, was then built to the tune of 18 units, with four others possibly under construction.

For China, this has some serious implications. The Ming is a much simpler design than some of the other submarines China is trying to build (like the Song-class and Yuan-class SSKs, variants of the French Agosta-class and the Type 93 and Type 94 nuclear-powered submarines). If there is a high rate of serious accidents (say, one about every 13 months that knocks a submarine off-line) involving a simple design that is not really old (Number 361 was only in service for eight years before her accident), this raises questions about how reliable the more advanced designs will be. Chinas SSBNs will form the main arm of their strategic nuclear deterrent, particularly against the United States. SSBNs have enough troubles from American SSNs to deal with questions about whether something will go wrong is a complication that will not help matters any.

The recent accident also raises question of how effective their submarine force will be in two other aspects: Blockading Taiwan, and defeating American carriers. In both cases, the large (China has 69 attack submarines in service) force would be relied upon to primarily attack surface ships, or the eight Kilo class subs being purchased from Russia. The backbone of this force consists of 35 Romeos and 16 operable Mings at the present time. Quantity is the advantage that China has over Taiwan at the present and now, the quantitative edge could be in question due to a flawed or unreliable design rather than having 34 relatively new submarines backed up by 35 Romeos (which are worthless against anything other than a merchant vessel), China would only have 16 and they would be dealing with Taiwan and the Seventh Fleet, with Japans Maritime Self-Defense Force possibly in the mix as well.

China already faced long odds in a conflict over Taiwan. These recent accidents involving the class that is a major component of their submarine force only makes these odds longer. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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