Chinese Submarines Pose a Double-Edged Challenge

December 2003
By James C. Bussert


Ming-class submarine 361, shown here in Shanghai in 1995, was towed to port in April 2003 after the entire crew of 70 was killed in an accident during fleet exercises. China's ambitious effort to develop an effective submarine fleet has been hampered by a range of difficulties. 

The Middle Kingdom and its oceangoing rivals all are tasked by the country’s underwater fleet.

China’s procurement of additional modern Kilo-class submarines for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, development of second-generation nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, and continued production of improved indigenous diesel boats present a threat to the U.S. Navy and other antisubmarine forces. However, these submarines may present an even larger challenge to Chinese crews and support assets.

The loss in April of an entire Ming submarine crew highlights the dangers. Questions remain as to whether China can maintain and support such new and complex naval technology to attain operational capabilities. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine force shore support infrastructure has evolved from one dedicated to supporting the earlier generation of ex-Soviet diesel boats. China now has submarine designs with limited imported technology, and next-generation nuclear submarines under construction could bring greater support problems in the future. In addition, China faces unique difficulties in supporting complex Russian high-technology electrical and combat systems on imported Kilo submarines.

The burden of servicing complex modern submarines rests heavily on the PLAN organization of shipyards, maintenance, repair, operations and training. The time lag from receiving modern submarines and systems and assimilating them into the battle force is many years. This is complicated by the fact that China made no attempt to collocate or integrate modern Russian system training, support or repair with an extensive Chinese submarine support infrastructure in Northern China or Shanghai. It could be a decade before China’s imported Russian submarines and complex systems will be a viable challenge to other Pacific Rim powers, including the United States.

Numerous shipyards from northern, eastern and southern fleet ports as well as inland third tier locations built hundreds of Russian Whiskey and Romeo designs—designated Type 03 and Type 033, respectively, by the PLAN—from 1955 until 1975. Naturally, these yards had the ability to perform all levels of repair, but most support came from facilities near the homeports. The facility at Northern Qingdao was inherited from the Germans who built up the base, but China developed it into the focal point for submarine training and various support tasks such as weapon testing and diver school. China’s Submarine Institute was established in 1953, and Qingdao was made North Fleet headquarters in 1954. The first Han-class nuclear attack submarine (SSN) 401 was commissioned in 1971, and four years later, the first nuclear submarine flotilla was formed.

The shipbuilding bureau has evolved through several major reorganizations from Sixth Ministry of Machine Building in 1960 to China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) in 1980. There were six shipyards throughout China that built 1950s-Russian-design boats. In 1998 CSSC was split into separate northern large vessel and southern small vessel groups. The only vessel types built in both groups are submarines. The Northern CSSC builds nuclear submarines in Huludao, and the Southern CSSC builds new diesel boats at Wuhan.

PLAN submarines historically did not operate at sea very often, and then usually in coastal waters. The PLAN has several submarine support craft, and three Dajiang-class ships have a large crane and two 35-ton deep submergence recovery vessels (DSRVs) embarked. The Chinese DSRV can rescue 22 crewmen from a claimed depth of 600 meters and was operational in 1989.

China has built a long-range high frequency (HF) and very low frequency (VLF) communication capability to support distant operations. Initial fleet submarine command links were long-range HF radios left by the departing Russians at Port Arthur and Qingdao. In 1958 Russia agreed to supply a high-power VLF site, and in 1982 Russia completed construction of an extremely high-power VLF station. The distant South Fleet naval communication link was a low frequency (LF) station in Zhanjiang. The first high-power LF station was built in Hainan in 1965.

By 1980, submerged submarine communications were possible via VLF transmitters at Zhanjiang and Yulin. Chinese VLF sites are 20.5 kilohertz, which is bracketed by Russian Pacific VLF of 18.1 kilohertz and 21.1 kilohertz. China currently has 12 VLF stations. Two examples of fleet submarine command and control (C2) in the Yellow Sea provide conflicting arguments on the issue of effectiveness. In 1994 a Han SSN located the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, and several F-6 naval fighters were sent out to assist when U.S. forces practiced antisubmarine measures on it. This showed effective PLAN communications, navigation and control. However, in 2003 Northern Fleet C2 failures led to the loss of a Ming submarine and its crew.

From 1950 to 1975, Chinese shipyards assimilated the simplistic Soviet Whiskey- (Type 03) and Romeo- (Type 033) class designs and produced more than 100. Chinese diesel and battery plants produced the basic hull, machinery and electrical (HM&E) systems. The Soviet Type 37-D 4000 HP diesels were manufactured in China and designated MTU-12V 493 diesels. The Soviet 46SU lead-acid battery cells were 1,013 millimeters high, 365 millimeters wide and 656 millimeters long. All Chinese submarines used 224 cells rated at a 6600-ampere-hour charge.

Combat systems such as radar, sonar and navigation were mass-produced from Soviet examples and drawings, or they were reverse engineered as needed. When Soviet aid and advisers were withdrawn in 1960, the PLAN was self-sufficient to maintain production and support of the 1950s-era submarines and internal equipment.

The sighting of a Type 03 class in the 1974 Paracel Islands conflict with Vietnam was one of the few out-of-area submarine operations. Not until 1999 did all three submarine fleets conduct operations off the east coast of Taiwan. Both submarine and antisubmarine operations also increased. Normally short coastal cruises increased to 45 days and 60 days for diesel and nuclear submarines, respectively. Although China is secretive about military problems, submarine hull 418 is known to have sunk in December 1959 with the loss of 39 sailors, and a Type 033 boat was lost in an accident around 1993.

As some Western nations offered the sale of modern equipment for the antiquated submarine hulls in the 1975 to 1995 time frame, China decided to design and produce modern diesel submarines using some imported Western systems. Both of the new series of modernized Chinese diesel submarine classes were built at the Wuhan shipyard.

The Ming class was based on the traditional Romeo hull design, and the first two, hulls 341 and 342, were launched in 1975. In 1979, boat 341 was scrapped after a serious fire. Then the Chinese may have undertaken some redesign because hull 343 was not launched until 1982. Although there were other periods when production of Mings stopped for several years, a total of 19 were built. Safety problems in the design remain that could have been related to the loss of a Ming submarine in April 2003. On May 2, 2003, the PLAN admitted that an entire crew of 70 sailors was killed by a recent accident on hull 361 in the Yellow Sea. The typical crew of that type of boat is 56, so there were 14 extra people on board for their mission. Conventional speculation would be that the submarine suffered a terrific explosion that would cause it to plunge to the bottom, as in previous submarine incidents that caused the loss of entire crews. For example, the Russian submarine Kursk was lost because of unsafe hydrogen-peroxide torpedoes, which since have been removed from Russian and U.S. submarines.

Photographs of the doomed Ming 361 in Shanghai during 1995 show flank array sonar panels, which indicate that it was one that received a French TR-2225 passive tracking system. After the fatal accident, this submarine was towed to port. This means it suffered its accident on the surface, because the PLAN lacks the capability to raise a submarine from the ocean bottom. In 2000 and 2001, China sent representatives to submarine rescue conferences and international submarine rescue exercises. The PLAN held meetings with Canadian and British DSRV companies, but no actual sales were announced.

No information about what happened to hull 361 was released, but the most probable scenario was that seawater seeped into the batteries, creating a toxic environment that possibly could kill an entire crew while on the surface. However, on June 13, 2003, it was announced that two North Fleet admirals and eight other officers were demoted for the submarine loss, and improper “command and control” was stated as the reason. This brings up the possibility of a weapon launched from another platform during tests or an exercise accidentally hitting 361. The East China Sea area south of the accident is where submarine-launched Strike Eagle Number 8 Model 3 antisubmarine missile tests were held on a Song in 1997.

The cost to produce modern diesel submarines was so high that a special budget request was submitted in 1993, but only one quarter of the requested amount was funded. The first hull of the Song class started sea trials in 1995. The integration of Chinese, Russian and imported systems such as the French TSM 2225 sonar and German diesel engine is blamed for serious system design and operational problems on the lead boat. It was several years before a much-redesigned second Song submarine was launched. This is the quietest Chinese-design submarine, and it launches several types of missiles while submerged.

The most ambitious new submarines were the five Han-class nuclear submarines. These were built at the Huludao shipyard, and the lead boat took nine years to complete, becoming operational in 1974. Since Russian assistants departed in 1960, the Chinese had to design new systems required by nuclear propulsion technology, including the teardrop-shape single screw Albacore hull. The Han design was lengthened and made into the Xia nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) by putting in 12 JL-1 (CSS-N-3) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The torpedoes on all Chinese-built submarines were old Russian 53-39 straight-running steam and 53-56 pattern-running torpedoes provided with the initial Soviet submarines sold to China. The second number in the designation is the year of design. The Chinese-built YU-4 electric passive torpedoes are based on a Soviet SET-53 torpedo obtained in 1958. The navigation and fire control computers were mechanical-analog with synchro dials and range counters, again based on early Soviet designs.

A cost not included in the published PLAN annual budget is the cost to procure foreign weapons. Kilo submarines cost $47 million each. The first two Russian Kilo submarines ordered were the earlier exported version 877 EKM that dates back to 1985. Nearly all of its systems from HM&E up to combat systems were generations ahead of what was on all previous PLAN submarines. For example, the sonar and fire control advanced from analog vacuum tube technology to the use of 100,000 operations-per-second digital computers. The Uzel fire control system tracks three contacts for engagement. The MGK-400 EM sonar is an active/passive system that performs all functions digitally, including beam formation. It automatically tracks four contacts and can attack two simultaneously.

Realizing the training challenge for the Chinese crews, Russia, when negotiating the deal in 1994, proposed 18 months of training, a realistic simulator and associated base support infrastructure. In 1995, China actually funded one year of training for the first 877 crew in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a shorter training period for the second crew at the submarine base in Xiangshan.

Although the sonar, fire control, radars and electronic warfare all were highly advanced and complex systems, it is likely that the HM&E systems actually kept the two submarines from being operational for more than two years after delivery. The Type 2D-42 diesel generators rated at 1,500 kilowatts each were beyond the ability of the Chinese to maintain or repair, and they were returned to the Elektrosila plant in Russia for repairs. Setting up a new base at Xiangshan for Kilos and basing of sophisticated Sovremenny guided missile destroyers at nearby Dinghai make this area a central complex for Russian advisers to conduct training and maintenance of advanced Russian systems. Russia provided advanced TEST-71 and TEST-96 wire-guided electric torpedoes and 53-65KE wake homing anti-surface-ship torpedoes, but five years later they had not yet been test fired. In 1997 Kazakhstan sold some high-speed Shkval torpedoes to China without necessary fire control.

The 877s were followed in 1997 and 1998 by two of the latest 636 Kilos that had many of the same combat systems as 877, but the troublesome Type 2D-42 diesel generators were replaced by more complex turbocharged Type 4-2AA-42M diesel generators rated at 1,500 kilowatts each. Instead of 18 months of training for 636 submarines that Iran and India had, China reduced training to nine months. Only the officers for the two 636 crews were trained in St. Petersburg in 1997. The enlisted men were trained at the Xiangshan home port. The Chinese are blamed for the battery problems of Kilos, but other customers such as Iran and India have had similar problems. Increased reliability is achieved with batteries made in India and Britain.

A new-generation SSN Project 093 and a new SSBN Project 094 are being built at the Huludao shipyard. Numerous reports of Russian help persist, but the Russians deny involvement. The project 093 appears to be similar to the Soviet Victor III class, which had many advanced systems combined with quiet noise levels and high-speed performance. It is expected to have submerged launch capability for antiship and land attack cruise missiles. The project 094 will feature 16 long-range JL-2 (CSS-N-4) SLBMs that have completed testing and have been back-fitted to the single Xia SSBN.

James C. Bussert works on surface ship antisubmarine fire control systems at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia.

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