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China Buys Some New Ideas
by James Dunnigan
April 21, 2013

China has ordered four Russian Lada class diesel-electric submarines. This came a month after Russia revived development of the Lada, and that came a year after cancelling its Lada class boats. Russia will now develop Lada as part of a joint effort with an Italian firm (Fincantieri) to create the S-1000 submarine, as well as other export versions of Lada. The S-1000 actually began as the Russian Amur 950 design. This was to be one of the export versions of the Lada but the collaboration with the Italians will transform the Amur 950 into the cheaper (less than $200 million each) S-1000 class submarine. While Fincantieri has never built subs (just destroyers, aircraft carriers, and patrol craft), it is one of the largest ship builders in Europe and has access to a lot of Western military technology. This is what has attracted the Russians, and apparently the Chinese as well.

The S-1000 will have a crew of only 16. Top submerged speed is 26 kilometers an hour. There are six torpedo tubes and an AIP (air independent propulsion) system to extend underwater endurance to 15 days or more. In place of eight torpedo reloads, the S-1000 can carry a dozen commandoes instead. Construction on the first Lada began in 1997, but money shortages delayed work for years. The first Lada boat was finally completed in 2005. A less complex version, called the Amur, was offered for export. There were no takers, until the recent Chinese order. The Ladas have six 533mm torpedo tubes, with 18 torpedoes and/or missiles carried.

Lada was developed in the 1990s, as the successor to the Kilo class, but it was decided over the last few years that there was not enough difference between the Lada and the improved Kilos being built. So Lada/Amur was canceled last year. One Lada was built and another is partially completed and will probably be finished. The Russians are hoping that the S-1000 will spark interest in the various Amur designs. The largest of these is the Amur 1650, which is basically the Lada with some top-secret Russian equipment deleted. This is apparently what the Chinese are buying.

The Lada has a surface displacement of 1,750 tons, are 71 meters (220 feet) long, and carries a crew of 38. Each crew member has their own cabin (very small for the junior crew, but still, a big morale boost). When submerged the submarine can cruise at a top speed of about 39 kilometers an hour (half that on the surface) and can dive to about 250 meters (800 feet). The Lada can stay at sea for as long as 50 days and can travel as much as 10,000 kilometers using its diesel engine (underwater, via the snorkel). Submerged, using battery power alone, the Lada can travel about 450 kilometers. There is also an electronic periscope (which goes to the surface via a cable) that includes a night vision capability and a laser range finder. The Lada was designed to accept an AIP (air independent propulsion) system.

The Ladas are designed to be fast attack and scouting boats. They are intended for anti-surface and anti-submarine operations as well as naval reconnaissance. These boats are said to be eight times quieter than the Kilos. This was accomplished by using anechoic (sound absorbing) tile coatings on the exterior and a very quiet (skewed) propeller. All interior machinery was designed with silence in mind. The sensors include active and passive sonars, including towed passive sonar. Russian submarine designers apparently believe they can install most of these quieting features into improved Kilos, along with many other Lada features.

The Kilo class boats entered service in the early 1980s. Russia only bought 24 of them but exported over 30. It was considered a successful design, especially with export customers. But just before the Cold War ended in 1991, the Soviet Navy began work on the Lada. This project was stalled during most of the 1990s, by a lack of money, but was revived in the last decade. Russia has 17 Kilos in service (and six in reserve) and six improved Kilos on order. More than that is on order from foreign customers.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy has been designing and building a rapidly evolving collection of "Song" (Type 39) class diesel-electric submarines that emphasize quietness. The changes have been so great that the latest four Songs have been called Yuan class (Type 39A or Type 41). The original design (Type 39) first appeared in 2001, and 13 have been built. But in 2008, a noticeably different Type 39 appeared. This has been called Type 39A or Type 41. Two of these Type 39As appeared before two of another variant, sometimes called Type 39B, showed up. The evolution continues, and there are now six or seven "Type 41 Yuan Class" subs (of at least three distinct models). These latest models appear to have AIP (air independent propulsion system) along with new electronics and other internal improvements.

This rapid evolution of the Type 39 appears to be another example of China adapting Russian submarine technology to Chinese design ideas and new technology. China has been doing this for as long as it has been building subs (since the 1960s). But this latest version of what appears to be the Type 41 design shows Chinese naval engineers getting more creative. Two or more Yuans are believed to have an AIP that would allow them to cruise underwater longer. Western AIP systems allow subs to stay under water for two weeks or more. The Chinese AIP has less power and reliability and does not appear to be nearly as capable as Russian or Western models. The Chinese will keep improving on their AIP, just as they have done with so much other military technology.

The Songs look a lot like the Russian Kilo class and that was apparently no accident. The 39s and 41s are both 1,800 ton boats with 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 latest Yuans still appear like Kilos but may be part of an evolution into a sub that is similar to the Russian successor to the Kilo, the Lada. The Type 39s were the first Chinese subs to have the teardrop shaped hull. The Type 41 was thought to be just an improved Song but on closer examination, especially by the Russians, it looked like a clone of the Kilos. The Russians now believe that the entire Song/Yuan 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. There are only 3 Han class SSNs, as the Chinese are still having a lot of problems with nuclear power in subs. Despite that, the Hans are going to sea, even though they are noisy and easily detected by Western sensors. Five Hans were built (between 1974 and 1991) but 2 have already been retired. There are 4 newer Shang class SSNs in service, but these are still pretty noisy. The Song/Yuan class subs are meant to replace the elderly Mings. The four Ladas will give Chinese submarine builders some ideas and goals for future subs of this type.


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