Friday, January 7, 2011

China's conventional submarine fleet

In the past few months, we have seen renewed activity around WuChang shipyard with the launching of numerous new conventional submarines. That got me interested in spending more time looking at China's diesel submarine fleet and how they are deployed. This blog entry will devote most of its energy on the 039 series, since that is currently the main work horse of PLAN. At this point, I really cannot answer questions like how quiet these submarines are, since I do not have that kind of classified data or have experience in signal management to give good estimates.

As you guys know, PLA Navy contains three fleet: North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet. There seems to be 2 flotilla of submarines in each fleet. At the moment, we have some 033s, 035s, 039s, 039As and kilos serving at these flotilla.

The Type 033 class submarines are basically the domestic productions of Romeo Class submarines from USSR. The production of 033s went on through the 60s and 70s before finally stopping in 1984. It is obviously an extremely old submarine class and have mostly retired from service. Currently, they are still serving at some flotilla in training roles.

The Type 035 Ming class submarines were the first domestically designed submarine. They were developed based on Romeo class and had a lot of problems early on. The original variant of 035s were error-prone and retired from the service by the 80s. Following that, a 035G variant was developed. This variant started production in 1987, a full 18 years after the first 035 started production, because Chinese military development basically paused in those years. The 035G and the subsequent 035G1 variant continued production until 1996. This class is currently in service in much of the NSF flotilla with the 2nd and 12th submarine flotilla. A following class 035B (also known as 035G2 in some circles) were produced between 1997 and 2001. About 8 of these boats were produced for the SSF and they are currently serving in the 72nd submarine flotilla. These boats were built after the first 039, so they adopted a lot of technologies from Song class like Anechoic tiles, more advanced fire control systems and the ability to fire more advanced weaponry. In fact, a recent article has shown that 035B submarines are capable of OTH strikes (through YJ-82 I assume). Ming class also has the dubious honour as the submarine that caused the deaths of its entire crew. So even though it is still serviceable for coastal patrols, this class is not fit for front line duty.

In the early 90s, PLA took advantage of the low Russian defense funding to import large quantity of highly capable former Soviet weapon systems. One of the most recent imports is the Kilo class. As early as 1995, China received two units of project 877EKM (kilo class) from the Russians. These two were followed by two units of the improved kilos (project 636) in the late 90s. These were highly capable systems that were more than one generation ahead of anything in service with PLAN. They were also capable of firing heavy Russian torpedoes that were a generation ahead of what was available at that time for 035 class. In response to possible Taiwanese import of submarines from US, PLAN ordered 8 more improved kilo class (project 636M) in 2002. These boats had new fire control system, French Sonar and the ability to launch the supersonic Klub-S AShM. Eight of the Kilo submarines were assigned to the 42nd Submarine flotilla of East Sea Fleet (No. 364 to 371) and the other four were assigned to the 32nd Submarine flotilla of the South Sea Fleet (No. 372 to 375). In the recent years, the Kilo class have lost some luster with PLAN. We hear about several early failures with launching Klub-S missiles and only see pictures of Kilo submarines at the dockside or in shipyards for repairs). I don't know if it has become paper tiger, but PLAN does not seem to be using its capabilities fully.

As China imported Kilo submarines in the 90s, they also started the construction of a new generation of submarine (aka the Type 039 Song class). The first boat had a lot of problems after its launching in 1995 and did not join service until 1998. Even then, it seemed to be quite outdated design compared to the Kilo class. Major redesign was done during that time and an improved variant, the 039G variant, came out between 2001 and 2003. The easiest way to tell from the original 039 boat (No. 320) and remaining 039 variants is the removal of the stepped sail structure. PLAN only ordered 3 039G submarines (No. 321 to 323) before making further changes and starting mass production of 039G1 variant. Here are some of the changes courtesy of Crobato:
  • The G1 has only a single line of sink holes near the front bow. The G has three lines.
  • The G has a continuous sink hole line behind the sail. In the G1 it is staggered.
  • The back of the G model where the sail meets the hull is webbed and shaped with a curve. The back of the G1 model where the sail meets the hull is just plain straight.

About 12 boat of 039G1 variant (No. 314 to 319 and 324 to 329) were produced at JiangNan shipyard and Wuchang shipyard from 2004 to 2006. Please note that I am guessing with some of the number of these submarines, because the number of the boats are almost never on the released photos. At the moment, the 22nd Submarine Flotilla of the East Sea Fleet is made entirely of Song class. I believe they have No. 320-323, 314, 317-319. Here is a photo of that flotilla:

Four of the 039G1 variant joined with 4 636M in the 32nd Submarine Flotilla of the South Sea Fleet. Please note that 324 and 325 were originally in the 22nd Flotilla, so some sources still have them listed in that flotilla. Here is an image of 2 039G1 and 4 636M from this year.

And finally, 4 039G1 boats (No. 315, 316, 327, 328) joined 4 035G boats in the 2nd Submarine Flotilla of the North Sea Fleet. Here are some pictures of those boats together. Fortunately, we can actually see the number on these submarines, but I've had no such luck with other Song class photos.


At this point, Song submarine have become the work horse of PLAN. We constantly see pictures of one or more Song submarine out in the sea. The famous incident a few years ago involved a Song class submarine surfacing next to Kitty Hawk. That incident shows that Song submarines are venturing further and further away from the home base. This storyline forms an interesting contrast to the pictures of Kilo submarines sitting by the dockside. It also probably explains why China has not been interested in purchasing more Russian submarines.

In 2004, the lead boat of the 039A Yuan class (No. 330) was launched in WuChang shipyard while Song class was in the middle of mass production. This boat showed some Kilo influence with the hump, but also retained much of the features of 039 class. It is apparently also the first PLAN class using AIP system. It took a couple of years for this new class of submarine to sort out all of the problems. Similar to 039 class, a new variant of 039A came out a few years later with some changes from the first boat. Please see the photo below for the differences between the lead boat and the second boat:

I think that the trial period for 039A class was shorter and changes from first boat to second boat were fewer, because the leap from 039 to 039A was much less than the leap from 035 to 039 class. A total of 3 new 039A boats were produced from 2007 to 2008 to join the original 039A in a new flotilla. The picture below shows a flotilla with 3 Yuan class and 1 Song class.

I believe this was taken before the 4th Yuan was delivered to PLAN. I do not know where this flotilla is located, although I suspect it is a new flotilla established for East Sea Fleet. The Yuan class seemed to have followed Song class of one lead ship, 3 following variant and then more mass production. After a gap of 2 years, we recently have seen 2 new Yuan submarines launched in WuChang shipyard as shown in the photos below.


I cannot easily tell the difference between these boats and the previous 3 due to lack of more quality photos, but I did read that the interior had changed a lot in the new boats. As we move forward, I would expect that many new Yuan submarines will come out of WuChang and JiangNan shipyard in the coming 2 years. The production of this final variant of Yuan will probably be either 8 or 12 units based on the production path of the Song class. They will probably be assigned to the East Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet. At which point, the 035B submarines could be transferred to North Sea Fleet to replace the older 035G boats. By that time, 039/G and 039A class submarines will form most of the conventional submarine fleet.

And finally, a new class of submarine was launched in WuChang shipyard near the end of last year. There have been some discussions on this blog regarding to this new class when the lead boat first came out. Here is probably the most up close and detailed photo of this submarine.

Based on this photo and side by side comparisons with Yuan submarine, we can see that this is quite a large submarine (near the displacement of Soryu class). It seems to be designed to operate further offshore than Song and Yuan class. I guess this is part of PLAN's move to operate further and longer away from the shore. In the next couple of years, we will find out more about this class and its purpose. I would think that if this is a successful design, it will follow the production path of Song and Yuan class. By sometimes late this decade, it is possible that PLAN submarine force will have moved on completely from 60s Soviet era designs. That would make submarine the first type of large weaponry in PLA to do so. I think this truly shows the emphasis that PLAN has placed on conventional submarine fleet.

4 comments:

SINOGASS said...

Evryone seems to be focused on J-20 but the progress of PLAN's submarines is much more impressive.

duskylim said...

The last picture is quite interesting.

It allows us to see the new sub up close.

The construction quality is much better than that of the previous classes.

The hull form is much smoother and in particular the curved sections have no wrinkles like in the older classes.

I'll bet good money that the design and production equipment of the shipyard vastly improved before her construction.

The incongruous part is the submarine tender?/barge beside her - it has the appearance of a cheap floating motel.

LAI TIAM said...

your detail analysis with supporting pictures is very impressive

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