Submarines: Chinas Uncertain New SSBN Goes To Sea


March 13, 2007: China has begun sea trials for its new Type 094 SSBNs (Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarines). The 094 is based on the Type 093 SSN (nuclear attack sub.) Having already sent the first two new, 7,000 ton, 093 class SSNs to sea, China was apparently underwhelmed by their performance. Not much more is expected from the 094s.

The 093s are too noisy, and have a long list of more minor defects as well. This may mean only two 093s will be built, while more resources will be diverted to the next SSN class; the 095. The 093 and 094 (the new SSBN, carrying ballistic missiles) were both over a decade in development and construction. Work began on the 094 class in the 1990s. For years, all that was known was that the Chinese were having technical problems with the new design. The 094 is a modern SSBN, using technology bought from Russia, plus what was developed by the Chinese in their earlier nuclear submarine building efforts. 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.

The 094 is similar to the 093 class SSN, which looks a lot like the three decade old Russian Victor III class SSN design. 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. With the first 094 undergoing sea trials, that means this SSBN could enter service next year. But only if its missiles are ready.

The JL-2 ballistic missile for the 094 is still in development, even though the first 094 class SSBN to carry it was launched two years ago. The JL-2 has a range of 8,000 kilometers, and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 sub cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. Each 094 boat will carry 16 of these missiles, which are naval versions of the existing land based DF-31 ICBM.

The first 094 boat should be ready for service next year, but only if the JL-2 missiles are ready for deployment. Things can go wrong with these new missiles, as the Russians learned with their latest SSBNs, and the SLBM (sea launched ballistic missiles) they were to carry. The original new SLBM did not work, and a new one, the Bulava, based on a successful land based ICBM (the Topol series) was used instead. But this required rebuilding of the new subs missile tubes, thus delaying the new subs (the Borei class) construction. If the Chinese are lucky, they will have two or three 094s in service by the end of the decade. The current plan is to have five Type 094s in service. But much can go wrong, which is doubly worrisome, because so much has already gone wrong with both the new SSBN, and its new missiles. The Chinese have proved to be persistent, so these new subs will eventually enter service, faults and all.




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