Submarines: China Stumbles Over Quality Control


June 12, 2024: China recently delivered the first of eight Hangor II submarines to Pakistan. This delivery was late because deliveries were supposed to start in 2023. This delay was caused by Germany denying an export license for its MTU 396 marine diesel engine which the Hangors were designed to use. The engine is used in commercial and military surface ships as well as submarines and the Germans were not initially told that China wanted the MTU 396’s for submarines. Germany does not allow its MTU 396s to be used in submarines without prior permission. The Chinese did not mention submarines when they ordered the engines.

Thailand had the same problem when they ordered a similar Chinese submarine in 2017. China said they would install the German MTU 396 engine but later admitted the Germans would not sell them the engine for use in submarines.

China offers a similar CHD620 engine, a licensed Chinese copy of Germany’s MTU 396 engine. The CHD620 engine is only a crude copy of the MTU 396 because of inferior Chinese materials and manufacturing processes. As a result the CHD620 needs repairs after a few hundred hours of operation and is prone to unexpected breakdowns. This is not the kind of engine you want in your submarines during peacetime, much less after a war breaks out.

More Asian nations are obtaining submarines. Malaysia has two French Scorpenes, Singapore has four German type 218SG and plans to order two more. Vietnam has six Russian Kilo class submarines, and Indonesia is replacing two older German Type 209/1300 subs with three modern South Korean Type 209/1400 submarines. These will cost Indonesia a billion dollars. China has long exported warships and submarines but now South Korea is doing the same, especially their locally designed and built submarines. Most of these new submarines are based on German designs with the remainder being French Scorpenes or Russian Kilos as South Korean designs are not yet in service. China is having problems with its submarine exports while South Korea does not. As a result South Korea is taking business away from China. The Chinese are not happy with this, but the South Koreans do build superior submarines.

A decade ago Chinese Navy commanders appeared to be satisfied with the performance of their rapidly evolving Song (Type 39) class diesel-electric submarines. The changes had been so great that the latest four Songs were called Yuan class (Type 39A or Type 41).

The original design (Type 39) first appeared in 2001 and 13 were built, but in 2008 a noticeably different Type 39 appeared. This has been called Type 39A or Type 41. Two of these Type 39As appeared before two of another variant, sometimes called Type 39B, showed up. The evolution continued and by 2012 there were seven Type 41 Yuan Class subs.

This rapid evolution of the Type 39 appears to be another example of China adapting Russian submarine technology to Chinese design ideas and new technology. China has been doing this for as long as it has been building subs (since the 1960s). The Type 41 design shows Chinese naval engineers getting more creative.

The Songs look a lot like the Russian Kilo class and that was apparently no accident. The 39s and 41s are both 1,800 ton boats with crews of 60 sailors and six torpedo tubes. This is very similar to the Kilos, which are a bit larger.

China began ordering Russian Kilo class subs, then one of the latest diesel-electric designs available, in the late 1990s. Russia was selling new Kilos for about $200 million each, which was about half the price Western nations sold similar boats for. The Kilos weighed 2,300 tons (surface displacement), had six torpedo tubes, and a crew of 57. They are quiet and can travel about 700 kilometers under water at a speed of about five kilometers an hour. Kilos carry 18 torpedoes or SS-N-27 anti-ship missiles (with a range of 300 kilometers and launched underwater from the torpedo tubes). The combination of quietness and cruise missiles makes Kilo very dangerous to American carriers. North Korea and Iran have also bought Kilos.

The first two Type 41s appeared to be a copy of the early model Kilo (the model 877), while the second pair of Type 41s appeared to copy the later Kilos (model 636). The latest Yuans still appear like Kilos but may be part of an evolution into a sub that is similar to the Russian successor to the Kilo, the Lada.

The first Lada underwent three years of sea trials before they were declared fit for service in 2009. Since then more problems have developed and for a while the Lada was canceled. China appeared unconcerned with the Lada woes and were content to perfect their version of the Kilo and put dozens of them into the water.

The Kilo class boats entered service in the early 1980s. Russia only bought 24 of them but exported over 30. It was considered a successful design. But just before the Cold War ended in 1991, the Soviet Navy began work on the Lada. This project was stalled during most of the 1990s for lack of money, but was revived in the last decade.

The Ladas have six 533mm torpedo tubes, with 18 torpedoes and/or missiles carried. The Lada has a surface displacement of 1,750 tons, is 71 meters (220 feet) long, and carries a crew of 38. Each crewmember has their own cabin (very small for the junior crew but still, a big morale boost). When submerged the submarine can cruise at a top speed of about 39 kilometers an hour (half that on the surface) and can dive to about 250 meters (800 feet). The Lada can stay at sea for as long as 50 days, and the sub can travel as much as 10,000 kilometers using its diesel engine (underwater, via the snorkel). Submerged, using battery power, the Lada can travel about 450 kilometers. There is also an electronic periscope (which goes to the surface via a cable), that includes a night vision capability and a laser range finder. The Lada was designed to accept an AIP (air independent propulsion) system. Russia was long a pioneer in AIP design but in the last decade, Western European nations have taken the lead. Construction on the first Lada began in 1997, but money shortages delayed work for years. The first Lada boat was finally completed in 2005. A less complex version, called the Amur, is being offered for export, but so far there have been no sales.

The Ladas are designed to be fast attack and scouting boats. They are intended for anti-surface and anti-submarine operations as well as naval reconnaissance. These boats are said to be eight times quieter than the Kilos. This was accomplished by using anechoic (sound absorbing) tile coatings on the exterior and a very quiet (skewed) propeller. All interior machinery was designed with silence in mind. The sensors include active and passive sonars, including towed passive sonar. This quietness is what the Chinese are looking for because diesel-electric boats are the quietest available (all things being equal), even quieter than AIP. If nothing else, Lada provides a possible further development path for the Chinese Song/Yuan boats.

The Type 39s were the first Chinese subs to have a teardrop-shaped hull. The Type 41 was thought to be just an improved Song but on closer examination, especially by the Russians, it looked like a clone of the Kilos. The Russians now believe that the entire Song/Yuan project is part of a long-range plan to successfully copy the Kilo. If that is the case, it appears to be succeeding.

China currently has 61 submarines with 16 of them nuclear powered, including seven ballistic missile carrying SSBNs. China spent decades working out the problems they had with their nuclear powered submarines. Those problems seem to have been solved and some of their SSBNs have been operating in the central Pacific, where their missiles can hit targets in most of the United States.



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