Submarines: The China Crawl

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October 16, 2020: In mid-2020 Chinese media featured stories about another Type 93G SSN (nuclear attack submarine) entering service. This would be the sixth or seventh Type 93. A seventh Type 93 was unexpected as the next new SSN was supposed to be the first of the new Type 95 SSNs. Such unexpected news is not surprising. China is very secretive about its nuclear submarine program and, even with lots of photo satellite coverage, it is difficult to keep an accurate count on how many are actually in service and what is coming next.

Sometimes newly launched SSNs spend an exceptionally long time getting ready for service and sea trials. Nuclear subs can stay submerged all the time and are often docked in berths in caves or with roofs. Given this degree of secrecy the U.S. Navy, which is very interested in detecting and tracking Chinese nuclear subs, won’t reveal much about what they know. That’s because if the Americans do have an accurate count of Chinese nuclear boats and their movements, they don’t want the Chinese to know about and it and change their concealment measures.

Meanwhile this latest Type 93G featured some minor changes in hull shape and no official indication of what that means. While the Type 93s are meant to emulate the American Los Angeles class SSNs, the Type 95 was supposed to be the Chinese answer to the new U.S. Navy Virginia class SSNs. Each of the Type 93s featured some changes, indicating the Chinese were using this class of SSN to practice building all the features that make the most modern SSNs, like the American Virginias, so effective.

For example, in 2016 China released photos and some details of its new Type 93G and created a buzz among naval officers worldwide. The Type 93G was basically the original Type 93 design but with VLS (vertical launch system) tubes added, behind the sail for, carrying anti-ship and cruise missiles. This was a feature pioneered with the later models of the U.S. Los Angeles class of subs. There was immediate speculation that the new shape of the hull in the 93G would make these subs quieter and more difficult to detect. That won’t be known until these boats spend some time at sea, where subs from other navies can stalk and monitor the 93Gs in action and measure changes in noise.

The U.S. pioneered the use of collecting samples of undersea noise caused by friendly and enemy subs, as well as surface ships and all manner of sea creatures, and using that growing sound library with faster computers to quickly find matches to any sound a sub detects underwater. This system is now widely used by other navies.

The mid-2016 Chinese press event for the Type 93G was also part of a new openness about nuclear subs that China began in late 2013 when they presented their nuclear subs in the Chinese media for the first time. The theme for this event was that in 42 years of operation no Chinese nuclear sub has ever suffered a nuclear reactor accident. This was an indirect dig at the Russians, who are the only nation with nuclear subs to have suffered nuclear accidents, lots of them. Chatter indicates that the older Russian nukes still in service are notorious for the radiation leakage that results in crewmembers getting transferred to another job because they have been exposed to so much radiation that more exposure would cause medical (and morale) problems. Russia has reduced the radiation levels on its more recent designs, but their radiation leakage is still the highest of any nukes in service. China did a better job controlling the radiation leaks, but not a lot better than the Russians. Chinese nukes borrowed a lot of tech and design concepts from the Russians.

Since the 1950s several hundred billion dollars has been spent on developing and building nuclear powered submarines. Some 300 have been built so far, most of them Russian. Nuclear subs have been used in combat only once, in 1982, when a British SSN sank an Argentinean cruiser. When the Cold War ended Russia began scrapping its large nuclear sub fleet, which included dozens of older boats that were more trouble than they were worth to maintain. With the demise of the Russian sub fleet, the U.S. Navy submarine force, which peaked at 100 boats at the end of the Cold War, shrank to about 50 today. China currently has about fifteen nuclear subs in operation (eight SSNs and seven SSBNs) and their track record since the 1970s has been dismal. The early Chinese SSNs are noisy (easy for Western sensors to detect) and unreliable. Each new Chinese nuclear sub appears to be quieter and more reliable, a development method favored by the Chinese. Their SSNs rarely go to sea, which is one reason they have had no nuclear accidents. Chinese SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) are basically enlarged SSNs and have never been on a combat patrol, just brief training missions. China insists it has fixed a lot of noise and reliability problems with the Type 93G.

It took nearly a decade of planning, construction, and tinkering to get the first Chinese nuclear sub, the Type 91 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 Type 91s are small (4,100 tons) as far 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. The 091s were more dangerous to their crews than to any enemy. Radiation leaks and general unreliability made these boats, which entered service in the 1970s, much feared by Chinese sailors. In the 1980s it was thought the Chinese would just scrap this class but they kept repairing and updating them. The 91s are hopelessly out of date but five were built. Two have been retired and one of those is being turned into a museum ship. The 91s rarely went to sea, although that has changed recently. Apparently the 091s are being used for training crews, a task that is unaffected by inability of these noisy boats to stay hidden when submerged.

Their first generation Chinese SSBN, the 6,500 ton 092 entered service in the early 1980s. The design was familiar, as it was a stretched version of the 091 class SSNs. The 92 SSBNs had only four missile tubes and rarely went to sea. The Chinese spent a lot of time developing solutions to all these problems, before building the following 93 and 94 classes.

The Type 93 class SSNs begin to appear in 2002. This class was also obsolete at birth, and the first of the new Type 95 class was thought to have been launched in 2010 and expected to enter service in 2015. That has not happened and little is known about how this new class is being developed. The “Type 95” launched in 2010 turned out to be another Type 93 and, like other boats in that class, looked different than the previous Type 93.

The basic shape of the Type 93s is a lot like the three-decade old Russian Victor III class. The subsequent Type 94 SSBN 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 SSBNs. The Chinese appear to have done the same thing with their new SSN, creating a larger 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. Despite all the money and effort put into SSBNs, the Chinese have not sent many of them out to sea armed with reliable SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missiles). That appears to have changed in 2020 with a successful test a Chinese SLBM. Yet more test firings are needed before an effective Chinese SSBN will be available to threaten the United States.

China was apparently underwhelmed by the performance of Type 93 class SSNs. Not much more was expected from the 94 SSBNs. The 93s are too noisy and have a long list of more minor defects as well. The Chinese have had a hard time building reliable nuclear subs, but they are determined to acquire the needed skills. You do that by building more and more new subs while eating your mistakes. The U.S. believes that if China develops SSN and SSBN designs nearly as effective as Western models, they will build a lot of them. Thus, by the 2040s China could have the most powerful navy in the world. Meanwhile, China is still a minor naval power once you take into account their small nuclear submarine force.

 


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