Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Submarine Threat

In the media, we have often heard about the growing submarine threat from China. How much of a threat is this really going to be. I don't profess to know the answer of this question, but I can possibly examine what PLAN's underwater fleet will look like in the next few years.

First, we can start with the imported subs, since their status is relatively transparent. We know that China imported 2 873 and 2 636 submarines in the 90s. I think the first 2 was originally destined for Soviet navy, whereas the second 2 are the improved export versions of kilo. These should all be superior in acoustic level to the previous Soviet exported kilos. The 8 new kilos that were delivered in 2006 are most likely similar to the 2 636 in terms of acoustic, but its combat system and sonar are upgraded. In fact, the major improvement for these boats was supposed to be the much advertised Club missile (or Sizzler as USN calls it). Interesting enough, they had trouble with this missile right from the start. Supposedly, they have to make fixes/upgrades to each batch of Club missile they received. In a way, it is not too surprising this is done, because many people have speculated that China has upgraded the sonar/combat system. We've seen kilo subs spending long periods of time in the docks of major submarine building shipyards like JN. Either way, we have only recently received a report on 1 successful firing of Club missile from 636M. Either way, these 12 kilos will be expected to serve ESF and SSF in the coming years.

Secondly, the 039 series of submarines are China's most recent diesel subs. This is one of the best illustration of Chinese military advances in the past decade. When the original 039 was launched in 1994, it happened to suffer many problems. And acoustically speaking, it probably wasn't really a shining moment in PLAN history. After that, we saw 3 more 039 of a new variant coming out from 2001-2003 with several noticeable changes (including a new sail). And after that, we had 3 years of mass production of a slightly modified variant of 039 with changes like drainage hole alignment, the curvature joining sail to the hull, upgraded sonar and combat systems. By the way, I have to give props to Crobato for summarizing all the differences. These 3 variants are what western observers typically refer to as the Song class. The final variant numbered anything from 8 to 12, so we are probably looking at a total of 12 to 16 Songs. Although, the difference between the pennant of the first Song and the first Yuan would indicate a maximum of 20 units. Kanwa apparently believes that there are 12 Songs, because its contacts with MTU indicated 12 set of engines (MTU 16V-396) exported for Song. In 2004, we saw the launching of the first 039A (aka Yuan) sub. It appeared to be double hulled and larger than Song subs. It featured a kilo like hump and was dubbed the "Chinese kilo" and "Chinese Amur" by different observers. However PLA seemed to look at it as just an upgraded Song. According to several people much more knowledgeable than I, Yuan does not represent a generational leap over Song in acoustic level. This is not too surprising, since PLAN favours more of an incremental improvement approach rather than a generational improvement approach. This new 039A went through probably 2 years of sea tests before joining PLAN. It features a generally more hydrodynamic looking hull, flank array sonar + AIP engines (at least reportedly). We waited for 3 years before firm evidence of new Yuan units being launched in JN and Wuhan. As seen in the recent photos, there are at least 2 units of a new 039A variant (with changes in drainage holes, sail modifications, flank array sonar placements) launched in the past couple of months. We've just recently saw another 039A unit of this improved variant that already seemed to have joined ESF. We've also seen possibly a new major modification of 039 series (possibly 039B?) in Wuhan with a different looking hump, possibly larger hull and possibly other changes (we need more photos!). In my opinion, this new 039B submarine probably will need about 2 years of sea tests before mass production. So, we might see a couple of years 039A mass production (meaning around 3 a year) before 039B is put into mass production. With all the 033s and early 035s retiring, it's hard to see them not mass producing the improved 039A. By 2010, we will probably see the lone 039B + 7 to 9 039As + 12 to 16 039s. (I guess 20 to 25 039s)?

Thirdly, what about 033 and 035s? Most of the Ming class subs are still relatively new hulls (like Jiangwei of submarine) and can do the role of patrol, surveillance, laying mine and distract more powerful subs from the quieter 039 class. From the above estimates, there will be about 35 3rd generation subs in 2010. According to sinodefence, there are currently 17 035s serving in NSF and SSF. I would expect most of them to still be service in 2010, but 033s to be retired. Of course, there may be some other 033s remaining active in a training role. So, PLAN will have a conventional fleet of around 50 submarines in 2010.

Fourthly, what will be the future of Chinese conventional submarines? This is really a complex question, because many people suspect 039 maybe the last series of pure diesel submarines with PLAN. We've heard anything from going strictly nuclear in the future like USN to producing min-nuke subs for hi-lo combination to Magnetohydrodynamics submarines. To be honest, most of these ideas sound pretty crazy to me. I do think China will go for more nuclear submarines in the future as it seeks to project more power, but the long Chinese coastline will always provide the need for the cheaper and defensive diesel submarines. Even so, I'm not sure when we will see the successor series to 039.

Finally, what have we really learnt about the nuclear submarines? If the recent Google Earth pictures told us anything, it would be that there are more 093s/094s out there than all the unclassified Western sources indicated. We've seen pictures of 3 094s docked Huludao and another dao recently. We've also seen evidences for probably at least 5 093s (2 in service, 1 in google earth photo docked, another in dry dock and another about to be transported to dry dock). A source on Chinese bbs said a few months back that there were 5 093s and 3 094s launched at the end of 2005. I would say that it was a shocking revelation at the time, but the Google Earth photos seem to corroborate with that. At the same time, he said there will be 8 093/095s and 5 094s launched by the end of 2010. You may be shocked by the mention of 095 here, but we've seen a company involved in the 095 project accidentally leaked the news that it's suppose to finish development of 095's reactor vessel in the 5 year plan of 2006-10. So, it's not too shocking that the first 095 might be launched by 2010. Of course, it might be another 3 to 4 years before 095 can join service. Now, if we include the 3 serving 091Gs and 2 092s, there will be around 18 nuclear submarines by 2010 (although not all of them will be in service).

The recent years have been a period where much of the old Chinese submarine fleet have been replaced with newer and more capable submarines. The combat system, sonar and torpedo of the new submarines are also a generation ahead of the pre-2000 level. It looks like China will certainly move to more of a nuclear fleet in the future as it seeks more power projection. But at the same time, it also is modernizing in all the other areas and increasing power projection. So, I don't really think the submarine modernization is really much more emphasized than other part of the fleet.


escobar said...

could 095 challendge virginia or seawolf

Feng said...

I guess it would be behind in most aspects and possibly very behind in certain aspects, but it would have to be able to score a kill on sea wolf in open water. It would have to be better than Akula II.

dlhh said...

Tempur has recently come out with an article about AWACS platforms from PLA.

The interesting part is about deliveries to Pakistan AF of two Y-8 AWACS in 2008 through 2010. Seems that the radar is the same as KJ-2000, meaning its a AESA radar.

Also, the development for the Y-9 balance beam is to be finished this year and negotiations between CATIC, CETC and Indonesia is currently underway for the export of six KJ-200's to that country.

Malaysia & Thailand is going to buy the SAAB AEW&C, which means 3 countries in this part of the worls are SAAB users.

Feng said...

i kind of doubt the Pakistan part, we've seen nothing that would indicate the radar is AESA. But again, maybe they upgraded since we last saw it, although I doubt that.

dlhh said...

Actually, the article does make sense.

Why would Pakistan accept an AWACS plane that has an inferior radar to the SAAB AEW&C?

Tempur had a detailed article on the SAAB and its airborne radar functions & anti-jamming are very impressive.

With PAK AF feedback and PLA benchmarking against the SAAB, all PLA AWACS planes will be world class.

Feng said...

yeah, but you see China would not export something as good as KJ-2000 to PAF. It never exports the best. As for why would PAF take mechanically steered, cost will be one issue. Having said that, they might go AESA when the time comes, but we will have to wait and see.

timurelame said...

Any thoughts on what kind of specifications 095/096 subs will have? Probably larger tonnage,
newer reactor designs, better quieting....removal of the "hump"
on 094 perhaps?

Feng said...

improvements in every area I guess? PLAN favours incremental improvement rather than revolutionary changes.

dlhh said...

"China would not export something as good as KJ-2000 to PAF"

I disagree with this line of thought.

One reason AESA radar is superior to mech scanned is its impressive anti-jamming capabilities.

Its almost impossible to jam the radar due to frequency hopping which is done in milliseconds. 360 degree sweep can also be done a lot faster than the mech scanned radar. Due to the hundreds or thousands of T/R modules in its radar, it csn also jam enemy transmissions, ground mapping, SATCOM link, etc all this similtanoesly.

As with the JF-17, PAK AF will not accept an inferior product VS what it buys from the West. It expects a cheaper price but same or superior capabilities.

I am not saying that the AWACS plane that PAK AF is getting will have all this features, since it is a lot smaller plane then the KJ-2000 but the chances of AESA radar is very high.

Also, bear in mind that PLA wants to be a major supplier of arms to these region, for political and economic reasons.

It therefore have to supply the best or comparable systems with the West without compromising its own security.

As for the KJ-2000, its not just the hardware but the software that counts. US embedd the software in the chips or deny access to it to maintain security. Hardware can be sourced globally but software countries have to invest in R&D, it cannot be bought.

I would think that PLA would do likewise to maintain the IP rights. Also, the software it has and the what it allows to export can also be different. Thats what US does.

dlhh said...

Tempur have also reported that Malaysia will be looking to induct two squadrons of M-MRCA aircraft in 2012. Aircraft in contention includes JAS-39E/F Gripen, MIG-35 & J-10A/B.

However, looking at the initial specs, with both Mig & Gripen offering AESA radar, wide angle HUD, high content of sensor fusion technologies for targeting, IP-Based network connectivity via airborne/ground sensors, real time sensor & tactical data links within airborne units, esp Gripen, J-10 will have to be considerably upgraded to have any chance of being chosen.

dlhh said...

MOSCOW. Jan 29 (Interfax-AVN) - The Zaporizhzhya-based Motor Sich engine company has started supplies of a supercharged version of AI-222-25F engine to China, company's chairman Vyacheslav Boguslayev told Interfax-AVN.

"About 20 such engines have been delivered to the Chinese clients so far. The first L-15 combat training aircraft are already flying," he said, noting that the AI-222-25F unsupercharged engine, with the thrust of 2,500 kg, propels Russian Yak-130 combat training, mass production of which have started at plants in Nizhny Novgforod and Irkutsk.

"Whereas in the Yak-130 project it is the Moscow Salyut production enterprise that plays the part of the contractor and Motor Sich is the subcontractor, it is vice versa as far as the contract with China is concerned," he added.

The twin-seated L-15 combat trainer is designed to provide advanced training of J-10, J-11, Su-27 and Su-30 pilots, and was developed in a joint efforts of Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, which is a division of Chinese AVIC II, and Russia's Sukhoi design bureau.

Specialists forecast that the sales of L-15 may reach 200 aircraft. The price of one such aircraft is about $15 million. L-15s are intended to be deployed at training airfields of the Chinese Air Force, as well as to be in service of maneuver units and flight schools where they will be used for training purposes.

Two supercharged AI-222-25F engines are expected to be used as the power plant for the L-15, developing 4,000 kg of thrust each. The engines were developed by the Zaporizhzhya-based Ivchenko-Progress design bureau and are mass produced by Motor Sich in cooperation with Salyut.

Feng said...

China does not export its best stuff, regardless. If it means loosing several export deals, then so be it. As for AESA on Mig-35 and Gripen, let's just say that I find advertising AESA radar when you have never developed one to be more hype than substance.

dlhh said...

Thats only your opinion, Feng.

It would be a waste of CAC & other PLA companies to goto defence exhibitions and exhibit their products which are pointly inferior in specs to what others have to offer.

I differ from your opinion. Lets leave it at that.

Feng said...

They've done that for years. You notice they have never advertised KJ-2000, J-10, 093, 052C on these things. Trust me, this is not an opinion, they will only export something if they have something else that's better.

timurelame said...

Which PLA weapon systems now employ AESA for sure?


Feng said...

all the surveillance ones + 052C.

Jiang said...

Feng, how does 052c performe compare to the latest American agies?? Is 052c just as good? If so what area is 052c good at and what area it lacks?

Personally our navy does not have enough DDG and we certanilly need more if we are to build ACs.

Veronica Pitman said...

We should always be on the alert to combat.

security hardware