Submarines: A Chinese First


July 22, 2014: China recently joined a very select club when, for the first time, it successfully dismantled one of its nuclear subs. Only the U.S., Russia and France have done this although Britain is planning to do so as soon as it can decide where to store (for several million years) the nuclear reactors and all their radioactive components. Nuclear subs are made non-nuclear once the reactors are taken from the subs. This requires partial dismantling of these boats. Then the radioactive reactor components are then sealed in a sturdy radiation proof container. These are then put under guard somewhere safe, usually in an isolated and geologically stable area.

The Chinese sub recently dismantled was built in the early 1970s and was not decommissioned until the early 1990s. It had been tied up at a pier ever since. It wasn’t until late 2013 that China presented its 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.

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 under 50 today. China currently has about a dozen nuclear subs in operation (8 SSNs and four SSBNs) and their track record in the last 42 years has been dismal. The Chinese SSNs are noisy (easy for Western sensors to detect) and unreliable. Chinese 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.

It took nearly a decade of planning, construction, and tinkering to get the first Chinese nuclear sub, 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 Type 091s 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 091s are hopelessly out of date but five were built but two have been retired and one of those is being turned into a museum ship. The 091s rarely go to sea, although that eventually changed as the 091s were used for training crews in basic procedures. That way the inability of these noisy boats to stay hidden when submerged was not an issue.

Their first generation SSBN, the 6,500 ton 092, entered service in the early 1980s, as a stretched version of the 091 class SSNs. 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. The 092 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 093 and 094 classes.

The 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. The lone 095 has been undergoing sea trials but there is little known about how it has performed.

The Type 093s look a lot like the three decade old Russian Victor III class SSN design. And the subsequent Type 94 SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear powered boat) 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 094, as having nuclear missiles able to reach the United States gives China more diplomatic clout than some new SSNs.

After the 7,000 ton, 093 class SSNs went to sea China was apparently underwhelmed by their performance. Not much more is expected from the 094 SSBNs. The 093s 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 doing it, and eating your mistakes. China appears to have built three Type 94s and apparently plan to build three more.

While China has 094 class SSBNs in service, they have still not performed any combat patrols (gone to sea for 30 days of more with nuclear missiles ready for use). These boats have been in development for over a decade now. The first one was launched in 2004 and was thought to be ready for service in 2007. The 094 is similar to the 093 class SSN. These SSBNs are armed with twelve JL-2 ballistic missiles and six torpedo tubes. Priority was apparently given to construction of the 094, as having nuclear missiles able to reach the United States gives China more diplomatic clout than some new SSNs. But mastering all the technologies required for a successful SSBN has proved daunting. The Chinese are not in a rush to put a problem ridden boat in service, and are working out all the problems first. The current plan is to finally begin combat patrols in 2014. That depends on getting the problem-prone JL-2 ballistic missile to perform reliably.



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