Submarines: Patience, Persistence And Perfection


June 15, 2020: China recently revealed that all six of its Type 94 SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) were built as, or upgraded to, the Type 94A standard. Improvements include a different shaped sail containing improved equipment. The aft (rear) end of the 94A s now has storage space for a towed sonar array. This type of passive (listen-only) sonar can be deployed behind the sub via a cable that supplies power and links the sonar with the onboard computers and digital libraries of known underwater sounds. The towed sonar operates in an environment where there are no noises from the sub to muddle the sounds detected and, improve the ability of the SSBN to detect other subs, particularly American Virginia class SSNs that might be tracking them or trying to. Another potential threat is quieter diesel-electric Japanese or South Koreans subs that can stay underwater for weeks at a time searching for Chinese surface ships and subs. The Type 94A upgrades included more powerful computers and additional data storage. There were also upgrades to the torpedo tubes and torpedo control systems as well as a long list of minor mechanical and electronic upgrades throughout the sub.

Two more 094s were completed in 2019 as Type 94A and are being readied for sea trials. It was known that some of the earlier four Type 94s were being upgraded and now it has been confirmed that all of them were. The Type 94 is an 8,000 ton (on the surface) sub that is 138 meters long. Construction on the new Type 96 SSBN has not started yet but is expected to get underway before 2025 and enter service by 2030.

The Type 94A is comparable to American Franklin class SSBNs that entered service in the late 1960s. These served into the 1990s when they were replaced by the much-improved Ohio class. China seems to be seeking to make a similar leap with the Type 97 SSBN, which will build on all China has learned about SSBNs in the last few decades.

The second generation Chinese SSBN, the Type 94, entered service in 2007 but was limited by its poor performance and the persistent problems with the JL-2 SLBM (sub launched ballistic missiles) it was designed to carry. China apparently hopes to avoid all this partial success with the Type 96 SSBN and Jl-3 SLBM. That approach often works for the Chinese, who are persistent in these matters and are willing to keep at it even after decades of partial successes.

The Type 94 SSBNs carry twelve JL (Julang) 2 SLBMs. The missile has had a lot of problems as have the SSBNs that carry them. The 42 ton JL-2 has a range of 7,500 kilometers and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 class SSBN cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. JL-2s are naval versions of the existing land-based 42 ton DF-31 ICBM. The JL-2 was supposed to have entered service 2015 but kept failing test launches. China decided that JL-2 was reliable enough and ordered it installed in all six Type 094 SLBMs. There is now an improved SLBM, the JL-2A, which is supposed to be more reliable and a range of at least 9,000 kilometers. No Chinese SSBN has ever gone on a combat cruise, because these boats, as well as the SLBMs, have been very unreliable. If the JL-2A is indeed reliable, as the Chinese claim, the first SSBN combat patrol may take place in 2020.

The current American Ohio class SSBNs are 171 meters long and displace 15,600 (on the surface) tons. They are being replaced with the new Columbia class SSBNs, which will be about the same length of the Ohios but about 5 percent larger in diameter and displace 18,500 tons. The Ohios were based on 1980s technology and, although upgraded over the years are showing their age. The Ohios entered service between 1981 and 1997. Originally there were to be 24 Ohios but only 18 were built. With the end of the Cold War in 1991 even fewer were needed and four were converted to SSGNs (carrying cruise missiles instead of SLBMs), a process that was completed in 2008. Originally built to last 30 years, it was later realized that this service life could be extended to at least 42 years. That means the Ohios will begin reaching retirement age in 2023 and the entire class will be gone by the late 2030s. If no replacement class of SSBNs is built the SSBNs will be gone.

The first American SSBNs were the five 6,000-ton boats of the George Washington class. These were basically an SSN design that was enlarged to add the missile compartment for 16 Polaris missiles. The first of these boats entered service in 1960 and was soon joined by five of the 6,900-ton Ethan Allen class, which was designed from the start as an SSBN. These entered service in the early 1960s. Basically, this was an improved George Washington class. Next came nine 7,200-ton Lafayette class boats, with the first entering service in 1963, and the last one decommissioned in 1994. The next two classes (James Madison and Benjamin Franklin) were similar, with incremental improvements. The incremental improvements were not trivial. The Benjamin Franklins had much quieter machinery, better electronics and enough room to handle the Trident 1 missile. The last of the Franklins was decommissioned in 2002, after over 30 years of service, leaving just the Ohios.

In their first fifty years, U.S. SSBNs have made nearly 4,000 deployments (gone to sea for 11-12 weeks at a time). By 2009 the Ohios completed their 1,000th deployment. After the late 1990s, the number of deployments each year declined by about half in large part because the need (potential for nuclear war) greatly decreased.

One area where China is still way behind is the design and construction of SLBM but they are working hard to close the gap with American SLBMs. In December 2018 Chinese media announced that China had successfully tested a new JL-3 SLBM in November. This SLBM apparently worked and demonstrated it had a range of 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles). That is nearly 30 percent farther than the earlier and less reliable JL-2. The success of the JL-3 coincides with revelations that here is now an improved SLBM, the JL-2A, which is supposed to be more reliable and a range of at least 9,000 kilometers. Ultimately the JL-3 range is supposed to be 11,000 kilometers. JL-3 is larger than the JL-2 and won’t fit in the Type 94A SSBNs.

The JL (Julang) 3 may be the first Chinese SLBM reliable enough to use regularly in Chinese SSBNs and allow them to operate at sea frequently and reliably. The success of the JL-3 may be good news for the troublesome JL-2. Either the JL-2 is going to get more reliable or the improved Type 94 SSBNs are going to be modified to carry a small number of JL-3s.

Development problems also delayed the first Chinese SLBM, the JL-1, from entering regular service. Work on the JL-1 began in the late 1960s and it was designed as a 14.5 ton solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 1,700 (later 2,500) kilometers. It carried one nuclear warhead. Its first test launch at sea occurred in 1982. Meanwhile, work was underway on the first Chinese SSBN, the Type 92, which was not a success. The single Type 92 was built in 1981 and entered service with JL-1 SLBMs in 1987. Neither the Type 92 nor its JL-1 SLBM ever performed well and the Type 92 only made one voyage beyond Chinese coastal waters. The Type 92 is technically still in service but has spent most of its time tied up at a pier and reportedly serving as a testbed for new submarine technologies. The JL-1 also served on Chinese Type 31 SSBs but never went far from Chinese coastal waters. The JL-1 was also modified to operate as the land-based DF-21 and that was a much more successful missile.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is upgrading and refurbishing its current Trident II SLBMs so that these weapons will still be effective until 2040. There have already been upgrades to the electronics and mechanical components in the guidance system. Upgrades are underway to the reentry body (heat shield and such that gets individual warheads to the ground intact). Some of the upgrades are classified and details on all of them are kept secret for obvious reasons.

The Trident II is one of those rare complex systems that consistently perform flawlessly. They do exist. For example, test firings of production models of the Trident II have never failed. There have been 148 of these missiles launched each involving an SSBN firing one of their Trident IIs, with the nuclear warhead replaced by one of similar weight but containing sensors and communications equipment.

The test results for the Trident while in development were equally impressive, with 87 percent successful (in 23 development tests) for the Trident I and 98 percent (49 tests) of the Trident II. The Trident I served from 1979-2005, while the Trident II entered service in 1990 and may end up serving for half a century.

Trident II is a 59-ton missile with a max range of 7,200-11,000 kilometers (depending on the number of warheads carried). Up to eight W76 nuclear warheads can be carried, each with the explosive power equal to 100,000 tons of high explosives. Trident IIs cost about $31 million each.

The success of the Trident is in sharp contrast to the problems Russia and China have had developing SLBMs. The latest Russian SLBM, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30), was almost canceled because test flights kept failing. The Bulava finally completed its test program entered service in 2013. But since then there have been failures during test launches. The Russians have no choice but to accept the less reliable Bulavas for their new class of SSBNs. China has tried to avoid the mistakes the Russians made and adopt the methods employed by the Americans. The Chinese are often successful at this but it is not an instant process. China often has to develop (or steal) new technologies and learn how to manufacture new components reliably. This takes time, but the Chinese are willing to be patient.


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