November 5, 2013:
China recently confirmed that it had dismantled one of its SSNs (nuclear attack sub). In fact, the decommissioned sub was China’s first SSN. It took nearly a decade of planning, construction, and tinkering to get this boat, the Type 091 Long March No. 1, into service back in 1974. The first SSN was definitely a learning experience, not entering service until the mid 1980s. The Hans are small (4,100 tons) as SSN’s go and have a crew of about 75 sailors. French sonar was installed, and a lot of the other electronics came from foreign suppliers. In the 1980s it was thought the Chinese would just scrap this class but they kept repairing and updating them. The Hans are hopelessly out of date but are the only SSNs China had until the new 093 class SSNs begin to appear in 2002. This class was also obsolete at birth and the first of the new Type 095 class was launched in 2010 and is expected to enter service in 2015.
Eventually the Hans went to sea. Back in 2004, a Han class boat left its base in northern China in October. It cruised slowly, both underwater and on the surface. By late October it passed near Okinawa. In early November the sub was within 150 kilometers of Guam. It circled the island and headed northwest. By November 10th it briefly entered Japanese territorial waters, an incident that eventually caused the Chinese to admit the “mystery sub” was theirs and apologize for the intrusion. The sub arrived back at its base on November 16th. It appears to have been a 30 day training cruise. This was not the first time a Han class boat has come out to play but it was the longest time spent at sea. In the mid-1990s a Han class boat appeared 100 kilometers off the Japanese island of Kyushu. The sub was spotted by an aircraft from the American carrier Kitty Hawk, which was then 800 kilometers to the southeast. The Chinese sub kept coming, heading for the American carrier. The sub got to within 38 kilometers of the carrier before it turned away. American navy policy at the time was not to let a potentially hostile sub get that close. But this time the navy was curious to see what the Chinese would do. There was never any doubt where the noisy Han class sub was. American sensors tracked it easily and precisely. These maneuvers give the Chinese crews some practice, but until they get some quieter subs, that’s all it does.
There are only 3 Han class SSNs in commission, as the Chinese are still having a lot of problems with nuclear power in subs in general and the Hans in particular. Despite that, the Hans have been going to sea, even though they are noisy and easily detected by Western sensors. For many decades the Hans rarely left port and the Chinese seemed to be constantly tinkering with these boats. Five Hans were built (between 1974 and 1991) but 2 have already been retired, and now one has had its nuclear power plant and weapons removed. This sub will eventually become a museum boat. There are 4 newer Shang (Type 083) class SSNs in service, but these are still pretty noisy. Meanwhile, China continues to develop diesel-electric boats. The Song/Yuan class subs are meant to replace the elderly Mings. Then four new Ladas will give Chinese submarine builders some ideas and goals for future subs of this type. Unlike the United States, China is planning on using both nuclear and non-nuclear subs for quite some time.