After over a decade of effort China has finally found export customers for its diesel-electric submarines. In December 2013 China agreed to sell Bangladesh two Type 035G subs for $103 million each. China and Pakistan are still negotiating prices and terms for the sale of six Chinese Type 041 subs. The Type 035Gs are to be delivered within five years, indicating that these will be newly built.
The Type 035Gs are so cheap because they are an old design that actually goes all the way back to World War II. The Chinese, with their typical persistence have kept tweaking and improving that design. For China it all began in the 1960s with their Type 33 boats. These were copies of the Russian Romeo class which was the successor to the Whiskey class boats, which were, in turn, based on the German Type XXI. The German design first showed up in 1943, and was the first modern submarine in that it was designed to spend most of its time underwater (with just the snorkel device and periscope above water, to bring in air for the diesel engine and crew). The Type XXI was a 1,600 ton (on the surface) sub, compared to the 1,500 ton Romeos. Russia built over 500 Romeos, while China built over 80.
China stopped building Type 33s in the 1980s and began producing 21 boats of an improved design (the Type 35), which they continue to build in small numbers. These were more reliable boats with much improved capabilities. More importantly they are cheap, which is crucial for countries like Bangladesh. The first subs China ever exported were four Type 33s to Egypt and several to North Korea. Most of these exported subs are still in service.
During the last decade, the Chinese were still having problems with producing reliable diesel-electric boats, and even more problems with nuclear subs. But eventually the Chinese tend to solve the quality problems which is exactly what they planned to do all along. Only a few of the Type 33s are still in Chinese service, used mainly for training. They rarely go to sea. The Type 35 kept getting improved and construction continues. The Type 35G is the latest version and it incorporates modern sonar systems and the ability to launch missiles via the torpedo tubes.
This brings us to the Chinese Type 041 boats Pakistan wants. These look a lot like the Russian Kilo class and that was apparently no accident. The Type 39 and 41 subs are 1,800 ton boats that look very much like Kilos. These subs have crews of 60 sailors and six torpedo tubes. This is very similar to the Kilos, which are a bit larger. China began ordering Russian Kilo class subs, then one of the latest diesel-electric designs available, in the late 1990s. The first two Type 41s appeared to be a copy of the early model Kilo (the model 877), while the second pair of Type 41s appeared to copy the late Kilos (model 636). The Type 39s were the first Chinese subs to have the teardrop shaped hull. The Type 41 was, according to the Russians, a clone of the Kilos. The Russians now believe that the entire Type 39/41 project is part of a long-range plan to successfully copy the Kilo. If that is the case, it appears to be succeeding.
China currently has 13 Song class, 12 Kilo class, 7 Yuan class, and 18 Ming (improved Russian Romeo) class boats in service plus some Type 33s for training. The Chinese are still having a lot of problems with nuclear power in subs. Despite that, the Chinese tweaking and improving the designs. At this stage it would be difficult to find an export customer for Chinese nuclear subs. But their latest diesel-electric boats are competitive with Russian Kilos and cheaper as well.