Submarines: China Moves Ahead on New SSN Design

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December8, 2006: Having got its first two new, 7,000 ton, 093 class SSNs (nuclear attack subs) to sea, China is apparently underwhelmed by their performance. 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.

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 in two years, or less. It all depends on how soon the JL-2 missiles are ready for deployment. Things can go wrong with these new missiles, as the Russians learned with their latest SSBN design. The planned Russian missile did not work, and a new one, 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 construction. If the Chinese are lucky, they will have two or three 094s in service by the end of the decade, and as many 093 SSNs as well.

The 095 class SSNs are still in the design stage, and Russia is apparently offering some excellent SSN technology, at a price. China is still learning when it comes to building nuclear subs, so they may be forced to pay the Russians what they want, if the 095 is to be ready for service in the next decade.

 


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