Submarines: A Chinese Nuclear First


November 8, 2016: Three years after China featured its nuclear subs in the Chinese media for the first time they put their first nuclear sub (SSN or nuclear attack sub) on public display. This was only the third time any country had done this. Plans for this were revealed during their 2013 media campaign as well as the fact that the boat in question, the Type 091 Long March No. 1 had been demilitarized (taken apart to remove the nuclear reactor and then reassembled) and cleaned up for display. This is a very expensive process and so far only the United States (the USS Nautilus in 1965) and France (the SSBN Redoutable in 2002) have done this. The Nautilus was the first SSN (attack sub) in service and Redoutable was one of the early (1971) ballistic missile carrying subs.

This first Chinese Type 091 sub entered service in 1974 after being under construction for nearly a decade. This first Chinese SSN was retired in 2000 but three of the five o91 SSNs are still in service. The theme for the 2013 media promotion 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 in part because most nuclear subs ever built were Russian. During the first 60 years of existence several hundred billion dollars has been spent on developing and building nuclear powered submarines. Some 400 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. In 2000 China joined this club and retired it’s first “nuke.” 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 about 70 today. China currently has about a dozen nuclear subs in operation (eight SSNs and four SSBNs) and their track record since 1974 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.

The first Chinese SSN was definitely a learning experience, not entering service until the mid-19y0s. The 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 o91s were always hopelessly out of date but were the only SSNs China had until the new 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 2016. China will be playing catch-up in the nuclear submarine area for at least another decade or two.

China's development of nuclear submarine technology has gone slowly because they have been forced to do it all themselves, and follow the same path as the Russians. What little Russian technology the Chinese were able to borrow or steal was Cold War era (1960s-1980s) stuff. During that period, Russia was in a hurry to catch up with the American lead in nuclear submarine technology. The Russians never did, and they paid a high price in trying. Russia built over 250 nuclear subs during the Cold War, and suffered 40 serious accidents, which left over 400 crew dead. Most of the losses were from reactor problems. In contrast, the United States lost two subs to mechanical failure, killing 228 people. Moreover, the U.S. used their nuclear subs more, spending over twice as much time at sea as the Russians. In contrast, over a thousand Russian sailors were exposed to harmful levels of radiation from the poorly designed and built nuclear reactors, which made the Russians reluctant to keep their subs at sea. Once the Cold War ended, Russian speeded up the decommissioning of its most dangerous (to the crews) nuclear subs, and currently only has 41 in service.

The Chinese know they are dealing with dangerous and unreliable nuclear submarine technology. That's why, in by the time the Cold War ended in 1991 they had built only seven nuclear subs. And they have not been able to make them much more reliable than the Russian boats. China appears determined to avoid the Russian mistakes as much as possible, and won't begin building a lot of nuclear subs until they have mastered the technology, at least to the point where their nukes are a lot more reliable and safer than the Russian ones. China appears to be getting more Russian nuclear submarine technology, and more recent stuff at that. Chinas new generation of nuclear subs are expected to be a lot safer for the crew, and a lot more reliable as well. In another ten or twenty years, China will have safe and reliable nuclear subs, and probably a lot of them.


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