Submarines: Why China Takes Its Time

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April 18, 2007: China's development of nuclear submarine technology has gone slowly because they have been forced to do it all themselves, and follow the same path as the Russians. What little Russian technology the Chinese were able to borrow or steal was Cold War era (1960s-1980s) stuff. During that period, Russia was in a hurry to catch up with the American lead in nuclear submarine technology. The Russians never did, and they paid a high price in trying. Russia built over 250 nuclear subs during the Cold War, and suffered 40 serious accidents, which left over 400 sailors dead. Most of the losses were from reactor problems. In contrast, the United States lost two subs to mechanical failure, killing 228 people. Moreover, the U.S. used their nuclear subs more, spending over twice as much time at sea as the Russians. In contrast, over a thousand Russian sailors were exposed to harmful levels of radiation from the poorly designed and built nuclear reactors, which made the Russians reluctant to keep their subs at sea. Once the Cold War ended, Russian speeded up the decommissioning of its most dangerous (to the crews) nuclear subs, and currently only has 39 in service.

The Chinese know they are dealing with dangerous and unreliable nuclear submarine technology. That's why, in over 40 years of effort, they have built only seven nuclear subs. And they have not been able to make them much more reliable than the Russian boats. China appears determined to avoid the Russian mistakes as much as possible, and won't begin building a lot of nuclear subs until they have mastered the technology, at least to the point where their nukes are a lot more reliable and safer than the Russian ones. China appears to be getting more Russian nuclear submarine technology, and more recent stuff at that. Chinas new generation of nuclear subs are expected to be a lot safer for the crew, and a lot more reliable as well. In another ten or twenty years, China will have safe and reliable nuclear subs, and probably a lot of them.

 


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