Saturday, March 7, 2015

What's most shrouded in secrecy

The Chinese navy has long been accused of not showing enough transparency. While that has certainly really improved in the recent year, there are still plenty of areas that's hard for a blogger like myself to follow. Certainly, most of the surface combatants are easy to track, since many photos are released of them. Most of the subsystems and weapon systems on these ships are also quite transparent with some version of them offered for exports. There are some many news reports giving even more information on various naval ships and their subsystems. So which programs are noticeably absent from all these photos and news releases?

The most obvious answers would be their strategic platforms. Certainly, CV-16 is a strategic platform, but it also happens to be one of the more transparent programs due to how it has captured the imagination of the ordinary people. At this point, I don't see them introducing any significant secrecy to CV-16 or aircraft carriers in general due to the excitement it has generated. Certainly, the nuclear submarine programs are probably the most secretive platforms amongst all of the naval ships. We very rarely see pictures of under construction nuclear submarines, but we do get some pictures of them at the naval bases and out on patrols. Also, 093 was officially declassified a few years ago, which allowed for some more pictures to come out. As shown in my previous blog entry, we get enough information about 093 and 094 from China themselves and Google Earth photos in addition to ONI reports to make some educated guesses on where they are at.

So, what else are really hard to get any kind of useful information on? The first would be the ASBM project. I've written numerous articles on it back in 2009. Such articles were written based on work already done by Chinese bloggers on the same topic. Even though numerous articles were written by people like myself, Andrew Erickson and numerous other PLA followers, much of what we gathered were based on our observations of various support systems that were developed. Certainly, we get more information on China's satellite programs, ELINT programs and UAV programs than DF-21D missile itself. We know that it is an active program, but the actual operational status is unknown at this point. It certainly makes sense that such secrecy is given to this program because of its strategic nature against US aircraft carriers. Due to the amount of attention I've seen USN given to this program, it seems like China would be wise to continue the secrecy here.

Secondly, What caused me to write this blog is the secrecy in China's torpedo programs. First thing to note is the different levels of transparency given to light and heavy torpedoes. We have not only seen many photos of Yu-7 carried by helicopters and launched by naval ships, but we've also seen export versions (ET-52) of Yu-7 and pictures of the Yu-7 seeker. It would make sense for Yu-7 to be more transparent since it's unlikely to be very helpful against nuclear submarine and more likely to be used to counter conventional submarines. At the same time, its kinetic performance can be estimated based on that of MK-46 and A244-S. Basically, the Chinese navy don't have as much to loose by giving Yu-7 greater transparency. It will be interesting to see if the next generation of light torpedo will be given the same level of transparency. It certainly seems like they are not investing as much in them. Heavy torpedo on the other hand have been extremely secretive. In the past 5 years, we've seen photos of Yu-6 and Yu-3A loaded onto conventional submarines. There have been no export versions of 533 mm torpedoes anywhere. There have been little to no articles on the usage and test firings of 533 mm torpedoes. Even the status and performance of a rather old torpedo like Yu-3A is completely off limits. I do suspect that they should have the necessary kinetic performance to sink conventional submarines and most surface combatants provided that the Chinese submarine can reliably track them. Based on that, it seems like these torpedoes will remain in service at least with the conventional submarines.

Since the wide introduction of Yu-6 is the past decade, there have apparently been 2 new heavy torpedoes in development that are either in service of close to service Yu-9 and Yu-10. In case you are wondering, I just read them off reasonably reliable Chinese bbs sources that these torpedo programs do exist and have gone through test firings. These were probably done in China's underwater weapon test range in South China Sea. It's no wonder why China is so concerned about American spy aircraft and ships around that area. Considering that there have not been any photos of them anywhere, I certainly don't have any details on their kinetic performance. So, the question is why there are so much secrecy toward these 533 mm torpedoes. I think China has correctly identified USN nuclear submarines as their biggest threat. After all, Chinese submarines cannot leave their naval bases without getting tracked by USN subs. Even though the top speed and operating depth of USN subs are classified, I would imagine that China needs something like MK-48 ADCAP that can sustain high speed over long range to chase down a modern USN submarine. The actual performance of something like the MK-48 mod 7 CBASS is classified (as is its advanced processing capability), but i would imagine it's capable of chasing down and destroying Russian and Chinese nuclear submarines that are within certain range. So I do think these new torpedoes will take over from Yu-3A/6 as the primary weapons on the Chinese nuclear submarines. On top of that, USN aircraft carriers are extremely fast and well protected against strikes for anti-ship missiles. A heavy torpedo is sure to do much greater damage than even multiple hits from anti-ship missiles. Therefore, new heavy torpedo development would also have double strategic value in usage against carriers. Now, I'm not saying the Chinese nuclear submarines are quiet enough to get within torpedo launching distance of a USN carrier, but numerous ambushing conventional submarines equipped with new torpedoes would be credible threats. So, I think these usage cases against strategic platforms explain their classified nature.

Another torpedo system that we have very little information on is China's version of ASROC. Since 054As have joined service, there have been many photos, articles and TV interviews revealing the many capabilities of this class of ships. We knew very early on that 054A's VLS could launch HQ-16 missiles and have seen many photos of live firing of HQ-16. However, it was only recently confirmed on Chinese online sources that these VLS could also fire anti-submarine missile (given possible designation Yu-8). We first heard on a TV interview of PLAN commander that such ability does exist, but I did not know at the time whether this Yu-8 was fired from the VLS or some other launcher. I just have not seen any photos of Yu-8 at this point. Based on articles regarding the new VLS on 052D, it seems like that VLS will also be capable of firing some types of anti-submarine missile. There are certain advantages to VL anti-submarine missile vs normal shipborne torpedo launchers, since it gives surface combatants additional quick reaction, standoff ASW capability on top of shipborne helicopters. As I mentioned, we are still waiting for first public photo of such missile.

On top of the classified nature of torpedoes, information on the new sonar system that China has developed for its surface combatants and submarines are also classified, but not to the same degree. I think it's clear that the Chinese Navy sees ASW as its biggest weakness. They have spent a lot of money in developing sensors to track advanced submarines, but more resources is spent on the weapons against them. Even as they show more transparency, torpedo programs are still very secretive.

9 comments:

DLF1977 said...

I read a while ago that China was able to buy some Shkval super cavitating rocket torpedoes shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. How true are these rumours, and were they ever deployed by PLN?

Feng said...

It's possible, but I think shkval torpedoes are probably overrated and don't have the same range as the more advanced 533 mm torpedoes.

AAmrein said...

Interesting article about submarine based weapons. It seems that there is a convention where the PRC reveals "platforms" Yuan, J-20, 52D's not much about their weapon systems e.g. there's been very little public disclosure about Air to Air missiles recently (PL-10, PL-12 (advanced or extended range variants) or the PL-21 (meteor equivalent). It would be an interesting next topic on what will arm the PLAN J-15's moving forward.

Feng said...

well, there is no evidence PL-21 is in service. We have seen PL-10 as it recently joined service. PL-12, we have seen plenty of photos.

We get more ICBM photos than torpedo photos.

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