As we see new Chinese warships come out, there is always the inevitable question of how capable are these new hardware. We can make assessments based on pictures we see and reports that we read. Nothing is harder to assess than nuclear submarines. We don’t get many pictures of them. We don’t know about the capabilities of sonar, torpedoes, combat system or the crew. And most importantly, parameters such as acoustic signature, maximum speed and depth are completely confidential. I have to rely on talking to folks who are much smarter than me on these issues, because I certainly don’t have the data or submarine background to do more than guess these things.
We know that the first 2 Type 093s were launched around 2002/3 and joined service in 2006. PLAN followers saw pictures of Type 093 coming out at that time and made optimistic assessment regarding follow-on units along with talks of Type 095 class. Most of us guessed that Type 093 was at or better than Victor III in acoustic performance (based on 1996 ONI assessment) and that Type 095 would be close to Akula I in performance. The interesting part is that PLAN stopped building Type 093s despite speculations and pictures of what appears to be new Type 093 submarines out of Huludao shipyard. Type 091s were upgraded and continued to be actively used. At the same time, a 2009 ONI study came out with chart indicating that they believe Type 093 to be louder than Victor III class and not that much quieter than Type 091. This chart caused a lot of anger online on Chinese military forums. Looking back, we can also see DoD reports of greater number of Chinese submarine patrols after 2006 along with comments from US naval services that they are able to track PLAN submarines at long range. If we combine this with the sudden stop of Type 093 construction, it would seem to indicate that Type 093 did not achieve the intended goals (of Victor III class?) in terms of noise level. At the same time, due to the greater reliability in reactor technology and improved sonar/combat system, these Type 093s and upgraded Type 091s were probably making a lot more extended patrols. I would imagine they get picked up as soon as they leave the naval base. Or else, DoD would not have such precise numbers of PLAN patrols. Certainly, Song and Yuan class have also been going out to sea for exercises, but they do not really have the endurance and would probably also expose themselves if they go too far out.
Based on everything I see, it seems like Type 093 had more reliable propulsion unit, but also a noisier one due to the need to generate greater power for a slightly larger submarine, more power sonar and higher speed/maneuvering requirements. Since the space for Type 093 probably did not increase that much inside pressure hull, they did not have much additional space for more noise insulation. At end of last year, we saw what appears to be a new type of attack sub coming out. Satellite pictures from Huludao earlier this year showed a new attack submarine and a new Type 094. This submarine was labeled as Improved Type 093 on Chinese forums. According to the latest report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China began building first of 4 improved 093 SSN in 2012. This improved Type 093 looks on the satellite photo to be slightly shorter and wider than the original Type 093. From the overheard satellite photos, it looks like this new submarine has a “hump” (like the one on kilo & Yuan) and a possible TAS installation on the tail. I would imagine the new submarines would have more space across for passive noise reduction technology, newer active noise reduction technology as well as newer generation of nuclear reactor. With the improvement in China’s civilian nuclear technology from the late 90s to mid 2000s, it is possible the newer reactor would be a lot quieter than the ones on the first two Type 093s.
This new attack submarine has now gone on sea trials. It is probably not considered Type 095, because a brand new class of attack submarine would probably have larger dimensions for more power nuclear reactor and associated propulsion gears along with more space for missile installation, sonar, living space and noise insulation. Everything I’m throwing out here is speculations. Up to now, PLAN hasn’t been able to develop a “quiet” attack submarine. USSR made a really big leap in Victor-III class (especially the later units). With lessons from the first 2 Type 093s, improved construction techniques along with other possible improvements, it’s possible that the improved Type 093 could make that leap (later Victor III units). Only time will tell where PLAN intends the performance of this improved Type 093 to be and if they will match the expected performance.
The same US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report also stated that China is continuing to build Type 094 while developing Type095 and Type 096. From past satellite photos, it looks like China launched its 4th Type 094 this year. There is at least one 094 at Sanya naval base and another at Jianggezhuang. The third one has moved around a bit, but the most recent photo from Huludao show two 094 at the piers. That could either be the 3rd and 4th or maybe a fifth one has launched. Although, I think the former case is more likely. The latest Type 094 seems to have its sail and missile installation shifted forward compared to the earlier Type 094s, but its overall dimension or the number of missile hatches did not seem to change. Compared to Type 093, I think type 094 is considered more or less successful by PLAN. The ONI charts indicated Type 094 to be quieter than Type 093 and the production of Type 094 didn’t stop for the same period as Type 093. I think PLAN is satisfied that it has a reliable second strike platform even if it is kind of loud.
As for Type 095, I think we are likely to see the lead unit of this class launched while the improved Type 093 is still under production. It is customary for PLAN to mass produce an earlier class while testing out the first unit of a new series. For example, Type 039 was still in production when the first Type 039A was launched. That would probably but the launching of first Type 095 toward the end of this decade. Type 096 would most likely come after that.