China Is Figuring Out How to Build a Modern Nuclear Attack Sub, the Last Step to a Truly World-Class Navy

The Russians could help

Moscow is already working with China on a ballistic missile early warning system, commercial airliner, and heavy-lift helicopter. Irritate it enough and it may give China a leg up in the naval race vs the US

Mao Zedong famously said China would build nuclear submarines even if it took ten thousand years. It has required several decades, but new vitality is evident in this critical program for Beijing’s blue water aspirations.

China’s navy, long the butt of jokes among Western defense professionals, is grudgingly earning respect. When it looked like China might put to sea in 1950 under the new regime in Beijing, the whole ambitious project was suddenly shelved due to the Korean War. Nor did the Cultural Revolution serve the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy well since much-needed technical expertise was undermined in favor of ideological purity.

Even after China began to take defense tasks more seriously again in the mid-1990s, strategic imperatives in the “near seas [近海]” meant a priority on fast boats, diesel submarines, and shore-based missiles—hardly the blue water capabilities of the world’s leading navies.

Yet now investments in “far seas [远海]” capabilities are yielding genuine results. The last decade has been very good to Beijing’s blossoming surface fleet, and the Middle Kingdom currently wields very formidable frigate and destroyer forces that have been deployed to strategic effect in sea areas as distant as the Black and Baltic Seas. Moreover, it appears that China is in the aircraft carrier business for the long haul. The progress in that particularly complex domain of naval warfare has been nothing short of remarkable.

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if Beijing can fully master what still remains the “crown jewel” of the world’s most potent fleets: the nuclear attack submarine or SSN.

While Chinese nuclear submarine programs (both SSN and SSBN) generally remain shrouded in mystery, some tantalizing hints regarding the PLA Navy’s on-going SSN program were offered in a special issue of the December 2018 edition of Naval and Merchant Ships [舰船知识]. One article in that volume argues that SSNs will be crucial to defending China’s interests in areas beyond 500 kilometers from the mainland, including in domains proximate to Belt and Road projects.

Nuclear attack submarines will help the PLA Navy to “build a mighty intelligence, surveillance and strike capability.” Thus, Chinese SSNs will be employed to “destroy enemies entering and operating in areas to launch attacks against our country [破坏敌方进入和利用任务区域对我国发起攻击].” That would involve both “seizing local . . . sea control [获得局部…制海权],” as well as “projecting force against land areas [向陆地投送力量].” One method of employment that is discussed includes the “stealthy approach to enemy ports . . . [隐蔽接近敌方港口].”

This analysis broaches the issue of the Taiwan scenario several times, and also repeatedly describes China’s strategic challenge in terms of “anti-intervention [反介入].” The author concludes that such strategic requirements imply that Beijing should be looking to build 1.5-2 SSNs per year at an approximate cost of $600–$800 million per boat.

Another article in this interesting collection traces the long evolution of the PLA Navy’s second generation nuclear attack submarine, the Type 093. The most significant “revelation” from this discussion concerns a supposedly new refinement of the design, now to include a Type 093D. That interesting claim comes complete with several pages of photo analysis and related graphics (unfortunately not available online yet). While this article comes with the now standard caveats that it was crafted from “open sources [公开资科]” and does not represent the magazine’s editorial opinion, American strategists should be more than a little interested in this boat given the importance of the undersea balance to future regional and global maritime security.

The first iteration of the Type 093 dates all the way back to 2005. This article relates how Chinese observers were quite “disappointed” by the new Chinese submarine’s appearance since it did not seem to adopt modern design features from other advanced SSN-wielding countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. This first 093 appeared to be “basically similar [基本相同]” to its problem-plagued, noisy predecessor, the Type 091.

That this design had major teething problems is strongly suggested since the next refinement in the design, labeled here as Type 093A, was only first identified more than a decade later in June 2016, as this new Chinese SSN transited the Malacca Strait to enter the Indian Ocean. Among the most visible of the changes in this design was the flaring of the sail’s connection to the hull and a more hydrodynamic design similar to changes made in U.S. Navy and other modern SSN designs. According to this analysis, the late advent of Type 093A implies that the capabilities of the original Type 093 “did not satisfy the Navy [末让海军满意].”

Yet another design modification surfaced in June 2018, according to this article, and this design, labeled as 093B, had very substantial differences from the 2016 version. First, the “sail was lengthened by roughly 25% [围壳长度增加约25%].” Then, there was also the apparent addition of a sizable “turtle-like protrusion or hump [龟背]” immediately behind the sail, as well. Much speculation has attempted to explain this protrusion, with a leading theory that the protrusion held a vertical launching system (VLS) for land-attack cruise missiles. But also noteworthy in this design was the rounding of the dorsal rudder and the addition of a towed array. In this way, type 093B “became the first indigenous nuclear attack submarine to have this kind of sonar.” Together with the extensive flank arrays, “the sonar sensing capabilities also achieved a huge increase [声纳探测能力也得到了巨大的提升].”

Yet for all the speculation regarding the meaning of the 093B’s hump, the discussion seems to have been a bit premature. The so-called 093C, which according to this essay had a run-in with Japan’s navy in January 2018, has a rather smaller protrusion aft of the sail. The Type 093D was labeled in this analysis as the most recent refinement and was unveiled during the South China Sea parade back about a year ago.

The author notes that some have actually called this submarine a Type 095, but this late 2018 Naval and Merchant Ships analysis rejects that view. Here, the author demonstrates that the noteworthy “hump back has practically disappeared [‘龟背’几乎消失]” in a photograph of the Type 093D. The author of this analysis, however, cautions that the protrusion did not hold VLS since it was rather too small, but likely was related to the towed array system. In the end, it is emphasized that the PLA Navy still confronts “an enormous gap in its submarine force [潜艇兵力缺口很大].” For the time being, therefore, it is maintained in this particular piece that China’s SSNs will be dedicated to escorting both SSBNs and also aircraft carrier groups, rather than undertaking direct attack missions.

The experiments and tribulations described above may afford a respite to American strategists grappling with China’s rapid advance on all fronts. Yet, caution is warranted here as well. Given contemporary China’s notable prowess in shipbuilding, it is fair to assume that once Beijing does finally alight on an SSN design that it feels is truly capable, we will see many of these boats in short order and with good quality and efficiency to boot.

The contrast with the Soviet submarine “sprint” development model from the Cold War of all-out production that evidently cut way too many corners is already evident.

Instead, as this article describes, the PLA Navy in building undersea prowess is rather more modestly seeking “to run fast with small steps [小步快跑].” Still, the first article discussed in this volume explicitly notes that Chinese SSNs will be very useful for “attacking … the Guam base and such critical nodes [打击…关岛基地等关键节点].” This threat can hardly be dismissed given the spiraling calamity that regrettably constitutes contemporary U.S.-China relations.

Source: The National Interest

  1. Melville Pouwels says

    the chinese have come ‘full circle’, given their dominance over the seas in the 1400’s !

  2. Godfree Roberts says

    China’s surface fleet is bigger than, and its missiles far outrange, America’s.

    By 2019 the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet of seventy ships, charged with projecting US power to the Indo-Pacific, faced three hundred PLAN warships, two hundred missile- and gun-boats defending its coast and the Navy[1] expects the PLAN to deploy 342 warships by 2021.

    The PLAN’s mastery of naval logistics is unparalleled: in 2018 alone it launched fifteen new warships and began simultaneous construction of four nuclear submarines. Even the US Navy, shopping for a floating dock, visited its shipyards.

    Its newly completed submarine factory can accommodate the construction of four submarines at once—out of sight of spy satellites. Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industrial Corporation built the plant in Huludao, Liaoning Province. It has two parallel assembly lines for producing the Type 095.

    [1] Chinese Naval Expansion Hits High Gear: China’s Navy Acquires 15 Warships in 7 Months.

  3. David Chu says

    @joebudtz:disqus I think it is psychological or is it pathological that the USA must beat the shit out of everyone that is a perceived threat to its “national security”. That’s what genocidal empires do when they are at the end of their genocidal empire!

    But we must analyze the common thread of the threats to its “national security”. And that singular common denomination is their paramount fear that the US dollar with which it wields its power will go down the toilet bowl. Reason why Iraq was destroyed. Why Libya was sent back to the stone age. Likewise, China and Russia are directly threatening the “sustainability” of the Yankee empire: they are openly going around the use of the US dollar and bypassing it completely.

    So again it goes back to the Yankee’s exponential national debt. If the rest of the world wakes up on day, and this will happened and it will happened very suddenly, the only weapon left for the Yankees are their nukes. And the only opponents left for them are Russia, China, Iran, and to a much lesser degree North Korea, Venezuela, etc.

    So, getting back to the topic at hand. China is abiding its time, because she knows that time is on her side, whereas time is NOT on the side of the Yankees. The more peaceful time period the world experiences, the more China can build newer and better nuclear subs, ICBMs, hypersonic missiles, ABM systems, etc. Time is not on the side of the Yankees. They are running out of time and money . . .

  4. David Chu says

    The author concludes that such strategic requirements imply that Beijing should be looking to build 1.5-2 SSNs per year at an approximate cost of $600–$800 million per boat.

    China should exchange a few of the billions, 1,160 to be exact, of the US “toiletries” for a few more SSN, no?

    1. temujin1970 says

      Agreed. I do feel that China is slowly but surly cutting down on its pile of US treasuries (although what exactly about it can be described as a treasure I have no idea). China must continue to invest in upgrading its infrastructure, continue to move up the economic value chain (which it is doing quickly and with much success given ameriKKKa’s reaction to companies like Huawai) . And continue to buy gold hand over fist.

      Actually since about 2012 china has been the worlds biggest gold producer, producing 426 tons in 2017. Lets assume for the sake of it that since 2012 China has produced 400 tons per year. That’s 400 x 8 years from 2012 to 2019. That’s a total of 3200 tons. Now its known that China does not export any of its local production, plus of course its a big buyer on the international market. Yet China only officially admits to having about 1700 tons. Does this make scene to you?.

      My thinking is that China holds FAR more gold than officially admitted and being the long term strategic thinkers that they are, are waiting for the opportune moment to pull the plug on the US dollar.
      I think that the US is well aware of this (some sources are claiming that China probably holds somewhere in the region of 20 thousand tons of gold).

      And this is one of the driving forces behind ameriKKKa’s escalating hostility to China. Huawai and China’s rapid economic ascendance not withstanding. America knows that once China officially admits to its true gold holdings then the world will change overnight.

      A bit off topic I know but the whole picture must be viewed to understand why america is so hostile. They are in the end game, they know it, the west knows it and both China and Russia knows it. This decade will see the end of western hegemony I believe.

      Can the americaKKKns avoid the Thucydides trap?. I do not hold out much hope. I think that once it becomes obvious to the whole world that america is going to be displaced they will do something truly stupid.

      1. canadian234 says

        They already started. Although the evil Washington empire cannot compete with Russia and China in conventional wars, it outcompete them in biological war.

        This new coronavirus seems to kill only east Asian men, specially Chinese; it has 14 days incubation phase without any symptoms and great contagion power even in this incubation phase. Does this seem like a natural epidemy?

      2. Canosin says

        excellently commented

      3. David Chu says

        Well said.

        I believe that the number one reason for the accelerating beligerance of the Yankees towards China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, et al. is their exponential national debt which is metastasizing at almost $1 trillion dollars every 6 months now!

        They are on the verge of financial collapse. The only arrows left in their quiver is WAR: economic, financial, nuclear war.

        1. Canosin says

          sadly very true

        2. CHUCKMAN says

          Yes, but there are other important reasons.

          The US simply cannot get “its head around” the idea of another country seriously challenging it to become number one in influence and trade and all that comes with those.

          Remember, the belligerent slogan America has officially adopted about “full-spectrum dominance.” Foolish and without logic, having no relationship to reality. Just an urge.

          I do believe the US effort is doomed, and in part by that very exploding national debt you mention.

          As I’ve said elsewhere, you cannot make it be 1957 again, which is really what the US is trying to do.

          “MAGA” is just a restatement of the old advertising slogan about “the American Dream,” a slogan which great and irreversible changes in the world have reduced to a threadbare memory.

          You could almost call it secular religion.

          American elites are addicted to what they experienced for decades, but it is coming to an end.

          No doubt an economic crash is coming, but how extensive and enduring will it be?

          China’s brilliant Belt-and-Road Initiative insures it a great banquet of future projects for years to come while at the same time changing the world’s economic geography.

          However, given something the magnitude of the Great Depression striking, all bets are off.

          The US often pounds its head into walls rather than act sensibly. It does so in many spheres.

          Its Smoot-Hawley Tariffs had a lot to do with the Great Depression.

          And look at 10 years in Vietnam, an orgy of killing, just to be defeated by a relatively poor but very determined opponent.

          And now 18 years of bombing in Afghanistan, having achieved nothing but a lot of dead peasants.

          America is just incapable of providing leadership like Putin and Xi, literally incapable. Calm, practical, not impulsive, not ideological, consistently rational.

          The gene pool of its elites and leadership contains many religious fanatics, zealots, and ideologues from the past.

          Trump resembles a half-mad television Evangelist, waving his arms, sputtering, shouting, threatening hell, one whose religion is not Christianity but some “Patriotic vision” of America’s destiny and place in the world. The “indispensable nation” as that grotesque horror, Madeline Albright put it.

          None of the rest of that establishment really opposes him, even if they despise his sense of style. And, of course, he’s going to be re-elected.

  5. cechas vodobenikov says

    Subs possess advantages that other vessels lack. it has been reported that Iranian subs could clutter the strait of hormuz w mines in24-48 hours

  6. CHUCKMAN says

    Quite an interesting piece, teasing, as it does, some details from published general information.

    Yes, indeed, the Russians could help China here, but that is a far touchier matter than the huge defensive radar Russia is building for China, nuclear boats always having the capacity to be turned against Russia herself.

    Things may not always remain as they are under the two most gifted and enlightened major leaders in the world, Xi and Putin.

    The countries have had some serious past hostilities.

    And some Americans today are advocating strategies to separate Russia and China, just as Henry Kissinger worked towards doing in the Nixon era.

    I don’t believe such strategies have much chance because the aggression in the relationships is now so one-sided, all of it coming from America towards both China and Russia. What motivates American hostility towards those countries is different than what it was in the 1970s, and it is different for each of them.

    When China perfects its nuclear-missile fleet, it will of course be regarded as a much greater threat by the United States than has been the case. Only Russia has had the capacity literally to obliterate the United States, which, I believe, is a major reason for the endless cycles of American Russo-phobia. The world’s self-declared “indispensable nation” just rankles at the idea that (poor old) Russia can vaporize it.

    America’s hostility towards China has been more about the threat of being surpassed as a world trade and economic force and influence leader. There is no chance of that happening with Russia in the foreseeable future, and Putin seeks peace to build Russia the way he knows it needs building. His armaments are his guarantee to an extended period of relative peace.

    China’s nuclear forces have been much more limited, both in the total number of warheads – just a small fraction of the numbers for both Russia and America – and in the reach of the weapons carrying them from China to America, in good part owing to geography.

    But as with everything else about this remarkable, dynamic country, China, that will change., a new generation of nuclear submarines undoubtedly playing a major role.

    1. David Chu says

      You bring up a very good point about the potential relationship between China and Russia.

      When I was young, I used to play this board game called “Risk”. Anyone remember this war game? It would last for hours and hours, because everyone would change their alliances, so there was no way to kill off the opponents (players).

      Geopolitics today is kind of like Risk, but more solidified in their alliances. You are either with the Yankees (all their 5 eyes poodles plus the EU and the Middle East lackeys, etc.) or you are against them (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc.).

      China is Communist. Russia today is not. Could there be a repeat of WW2 as in when the Soviet Union “betrayed” Nazi Germany? Except this time it will be the Communist China “betraying” Mother Russia? Time will tell.

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