Submarines: Please Come Out And Make Some Noise

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July 13, 2016: China recently released photos and some details of its new Type 93G SSN (nuclear attack submarine) and created a buzz among naval officers worldwide. The Type 93G (or 93B as some call it) was basically the original Type 93 design but with VLS (vertical launch system) tubes added behind the sail for anti-ship and cruise missiles. This was a feature pioneered with the later models of the U.S. Los Angeles class of subs. There was immediately speculation that the new shape of the hull in the 93G would make these subs quieter and more difficult to detect. That won’t be known until these boats spend some time at sea, where subs from other navies can stalk and monitor the 93Gs in action and measure changes in noise. 

The U.S. pioneered the use of collecting samples of undersea noise (by friendly and enemy subs as well as surface ships and all manner of sea creatures) and using that growing sound library with faster computers to quickly find matches to any sound a sub detects underwater. This system is now widely used by other navies.

The mid-2016 Chinese press event for the Type 93G is part of a new openness about nuclear subs that China began in late 2013 when they presented their 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 (eight SSNs and four SSBNs) and their track record since the 1970s 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. China insists it has fixed a lot of those problems with the Type 93G.

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 far 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. Two have been retired and one of those is being turned into a museum ship. The 091s rarely went to sea, although that has changed recently. Apparently the 091s are being used for training crews, despite the inability of these noisy boats to stay hidden when submerged.

Their first generation Chinese 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 was expected to enter service in 2015. That has not happened and little is known about how this new class is performing.

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 five Type 094s and a sixth may be on the way if the 93G is as much of an improvement as some hope (or fear, if they are not Chinese). The U.S. believes that if China develops SSN and SSBN designs nearly as effective as Western models they will build a lot of them. Thus by the 2040s China could have the most powerful navy in the world. Meanwhile, China is still a minor naval power.

 


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