Although the new Liaoning aircraft carrier has captured most of the limelight in the last couple of years, informed military analysts remain focused on the potential naval challenge posed by China’s rapidly improving submarine force. Indeed, one of the sharpest spears in China’s maritime arsenal is surely the Yuan-class conventional submarine, as perhaps a dozen or more have been built in the last few years. This submarine’s small size and stealth (augmented by air-independent propulsion) suggest that it is a good fit for the shallow waters of China’s “near seas.” Nevertheless, President Xi Jinping’s spring 2013 visit on board a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine highlights that this other segment of the submarine force should not be neglected by Western analysts.
On the nuclear side, China’s new generation of “boomers,” or ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), have garnered substantial attention. Some of these analysts have even gone so far as to claim that the strategic questions surrounding the deployment of China’s second-generation SSBNs could be a significant root cause of increasing tensions in the South China Sea over the last few years. At long last, the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile appears ready for deployment on board China’s strategic submarines—a major milestone in the country’s developing nuclear strategy, to be sure. In addition to Chinese SSBN development and the very real threat posed by China’s capable diesel boats, the mystery of the Chinese navy’s deployment of new nuclear-attack submarines (SSNs) is another cause for concern.
Press reporting in spring 2014 suggested that Beijing deployed an SSN to the Indian Ocean for the first time ever.1 Does this interesting revelation, one that was essentially ignored by the Western media, herald a new era in Chinese naval power projection? Or alternatively, is this seemingly core nuclear-submarine program plagued by difficulties? The latter might be suggested by the fact that although a reasonably authoritative U.S. assessment about a decade ago concluded that China might construct as many as 20 of the then-brand-new Type 093 second-generation Chinese SSNs, just two are presently assessed to be in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).2 In other words, China’s effort to wield an effective nuclear-attack-submarine program could be undergoing significant teething problems. Surveying a wide body of Chinese military and strategic writings, it seems that this particular program remains quite shrouded in mystery. Still, a variety of interesting articles have appeared in the Chinese shipbuilding press over the past two years that discuss the prospects for future Chinese SSN development.
Near Seas vs. Far Seas
Chinese naval analysts have long debated the merits of putting emphasis on either the conventional submarine program or the nuclear one. As one such fall 2014 analysis relates, the Soviet Navy had continued to develop conventional submarines into the late Cold War with the aim, for example, of deploying these small submarines to key choke points where they could threaten U.S. nuclear-attack submarines. In regards to the inherent advantage of small submarines in shallow and relatively confined sea areas, the same analysis also points out that the well-known Kilo-class diesel submarine, which is operated in large numbers by the PLAN, is “too large” in its displacement, even for such operating areas as the South China Sea. On the other hand, this analysis states quite candidly that Beijing resorted to importing the Kilos during the 1990s because of stark deficiencies in its nuclear submarine fleet. It also concludes that air-independent propulsion has not fundamentally changed the well-established tactical deficiencies of conventional submarines.3 A rather similar analysis from mid-2013 suggests that Chinese naval analysts clearly also appreciate the many advantages of nuclear submarines that go well beyond the immense speed advantage to encompass, for example, the size of the bow-sonar array, which affords nuclear submarines the edge in detection capabilities.4
An early 2014 Chinese analysis gets to the heart of the question posed in this article with its provocative title: “What Kind of Nuclear Attack Submarine and Cruise Missile Nuclear Submarine Does China Need?” In the introduction of the article, this author states emphatically that the nuclear submarine development effort is at the “core” of the PLAN’s modernization drive and that both the quantity and the quality of these platforms must radically increase. About a dozen mission imperatives are outlined in this paper, including: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; trailing U.S. carrier battle groups; escorting Chinese carrier battle groups; land attack; creating submarine-surveillance screens; driving U.S. nuclear submarines from the near seas; deploying special forces; countering surface vessels; executing offensive and defensive mine warfare; and interdicting maritime commerce. For this wide array of missions, the authors state that Beijing requires nuclear-attack submarines that have a large magazine, the most advanced communications capabilities, and that simultaneously emphasize both speed and also quieting.5 The rather extensive wish list of mission areas and capabilities outlined in this article implies not only considerable ambition, but also a certain angst regarding the status quo in Chinese nuclear submarine development as well.
Some details regarding China’s most advanced front line SSN, the Type 093, were recently discussed in a late 2014 Chinese article. According to this piece, design work began in the 1980s, the ship was built during the 1990s, and the first boat was launched in 2002. “Chang Zheng-7” [Long March 7] with hull number 407 apparently joined the Chinese fleet for active service in 2007. According to this analysis, in comparison to the first-generation Type 091 [Han-class], the Type 093’s quieting, sensors, weaponry, and automation were significantly upgraded, thus “achieving a relatively good result.”
These improvements are, at least in part, detailed in some graphics that appeared in the same naval-affiliated journal earlier in 2014. Those graphics spell out that 093 is larger in displacement than 091 by 1,000 tons, so that 093’s submerged displacement is 6,300 tons. It is somewhat longer than its predecessor at 110m and slightly wider at 10m. Apparently capable of 30 knots (submerged), this would be a significant speed improvement over the improved Type 091G, which was said to have a top speed of only 25 knots. The crew is significantly larger (105 vice 79) and Type 093 is said to be capable of diving much deeper (450m vice 300m). Type 093 is reported to have a larger torpedo load out (24 vice 18), but to carry the equivalent number of antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) (six). With a “two over four” tube arrangement, the second-generation submarine deploys the Yu-6 torpedo, capable of 50-plus knots over a distance of 30km. Meanwhile, its YJ-83 ASCMs could strike targets at a distance of 150km. Although the improved Type 091 does seem to have both flank arrays and a seven-blade skewed propeller, a new and important feature seems to be the towed-array dispenser visible on the stern dorsal fin. It is also suggested that 093 has a sonar countermeasures system, including both “air curtains” and acoustic decoys.
These same sources, however, suggest that the PLAN is not quite contented with the performance of the Type 093. Most fundamentally, the vessel’s nuclear reactor is said to still have significant problems. While more reliable and having a longer lifespan than the reactor in China’s first generation SSN, “there was no breakthrough with respect to natural circulation” in the reactor for Type 093, resulting in more noise and also lower speed. They are concerned that the submarine may not have sufficient speed, either for tracking U.S. carrier groups or for escorting Chinese carrier battle groups. A related point made in the late 2014 article is that the design of Type 093’s sail is “crude,” which impacts the submarine’s acoustic signature and also stability. The analysis observes, moreover, that Type 093 has limited land-attack capabilities, because it lacks a system for vertically launching cruise missiles.6
Looking to the Future
The frustrations outlined above may well have caused the PLAN to move cautiously on Type 093, so that only a couple of prototypes have been completed. It seems quite plausible that Beijing’s naval planners have been simply awaiting a superior design. As noted in the late 2014 analysis cited previously, the Chinese research apparatus, particularly with respect to nuclear power, was hardly mature back in the 1980s when Type 093 was originally conjured up.
That same article and related illustrations outline some characteristics that may be part of a future Type 095 design and/or an improved Type 093G class. It discusses a prospective Type 095 that has a much improved, smaller nuclear plant. This plant relies partly on more efficient “natural circulation,” which allows for enhanced quieting, due also to the addition of a pump-jet propulsor. The article concludes that it is not realistic to compare the capabilities of this new Chinese SSN to that of the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class, but that it might be on par with the late Los Angeles-class SSN. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new submarine design, however, concerns its weapons load, as the article notes that it will be the first Chinese submarine to have a vertical launch system (VLS) for firing cruise missiles.
A further illustration from the series discussed above purports to depict an improved Type 093, designated as “093G” (See Figure 1, below). A feature of this design in a slightly raised hump aft of the sail seems to show a moderately sized cruise missile VLS compartment. According to this description, the cruise missiles deployed in this VLS compartment will be either land-attack variants (e.g., DH-10) or the supersonic YJ-18 ASCM. If this design proves roughly accurate, these new weapons would dramatically increase the lethality and threat posed by China’s SSN force. After all, the U.S. Navy’s submarine force does not at this time wield a supersonic ASCM capability.
Other potentially significant aspects of this design are the propulsor, a more elaborate set of flank arrays, and a modified sail design. This design is projected to reach a top speed of 33 knots, while the diving depth and crew would be identical to the original Type 093. Besides the capacity to hold 24 torpedoes, including the new “Yu-9 ASW torpedo,” the design suggests a total cruise-missile payload of 16 missiles. But there is a problem with this sketch: Type 093G is reported to have a length of 110m, identical to Type 093. Would it really be possible to add a cruise-missile launch compartment without making the boat longer? There is room for skepticism regarding this design sketch. The 2014 “Annual Report to Congress” by the Pentagon on Chinese military power asserts that China has four improved 093 SSNs currently in production but does not reveal whether or not the submarine has VLS.7
A somewhat similar, but not identical, design was featured on the cover of the October 2014 issue of [Modern Ships]. The related article purports to discuss a Google Earth satellite photo on the web that seems to depict a Chinese SSN with a new and more prominent raised feature aft of the sail. The first portion of the article discusses the possibility that this feature might be a compartment designed for the egress of special forces troops and their equipment. However, the bulk of the analysis discusses the possibility that the feature is indeed a VLS compartment. The author discusses the importance of submarine-fired cruise missiles during the Cold War, which allowed U.S. Navy attack submarines, for example, to strike the Soviet Union’s major cities and industrial centers from thousands of kilometers from the shores of the USSR, creating “relatively strong deterrence.” Moreover, the article notes that Chinese cruise-missile development has considerable momentum and projects that a new generation of these missiles will have ranges out to 2,000 to 3,000km; some variants may achieve speeds in excess of Mach 5. The author explains that VLS will provide Chinese SSNs with enhanced survivability since they would be able to fire large salvos more rapidly, allowing them to shoot and evade possible “counter-battery” fire, while ensuring that the torpedo tubes are not adversely impacted by cruise-missile operations. This design, wherein the VLS compartment is so prominent, may be the Type 095, which the 2014 Pentagon report classifies as a guided-missile attack submarine (SSGN) that might be built “in the next decade.”8
‘A Dangerous Momentum’
While considerable uncertainty remains concerning China’s future outlay for SSNs and their capabilities, the designs are certain to strive for ever greater versatility, speed, quieting, and more lethal weaponry. Whether it is the new supersonic ASCMs or the ability to strike the U.S. homeland with conventional missiles, there is little doubt that China’s emerging SSN force will constitute a major factor in shaping the future strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, this force is likely to play a prominent role in what one Chinese senior admiral recently termed the imperative to “develop plans for the active wielding of long-range power.”9
Today, a dangerous momentum is developing in the nascent undersea rivalry between China and the United States. A recent article in a Chinese naval-affiliated magazine surveying the U.S. Navy’s experience with tactical nuclear weapons may serve to remind us of the perilous course that rivalry could take.10 Indeed, the future Chinese SSN force may in the coming decades go well beyond symbolic triumphs (such as reaching the North Pole) to adopt a more threatening posture such as patrolling regularly in the Atlantic. Beijing could alleviate related tensions by further increasing transparency regarding the future dimensions of its nuclear submarine programs, which remain quite suspiciously shrouded in a fog of mystery. For its part, Washington should also attempt to ease the tensions fueling undersea rivalry, since the threat perception in China with respect to the U.S. Navy submarine force is now acute.11