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Submarines have long been one of the three focuses of the People's Liberation Army Navy (the other two are aircraft and attack boats), and when the decision was made in the late 2006 to concentrate on building other principal surface combatants to strengthen the air defense and to further delay the construction of aircraft carriers due to insufficient air cover, submarines will continue to play the lead dominant role in the assault force for the PLAN.
Total - 50 boats
Total - 2 boat
Total - 9 boats
Total - 4 boats
Nuclear submarines have been envisaged in the Chinese Navy since the 1950s. Despite ambition and a long history of development, the acquisition of nuclear submarines has been a difficult process. The Cultural Revolution greatly disrupted nuclear submarine development. The Sino-Soviet split prevented any Soviet assistance in nuclear propulsion, and these propulsion problems have been troublesome to this day.
The first Chinese nuclear powered submarine was laid down in 1967 but not completed until 1974. The Han class has experienced more than 20 years of development, the last of the class not being commissioned until 1990. Only five hulls have entered service and have been reported to have experienced nuclear reactor difficulties (though this has been greatly overcome in some aspects by French and subsequent Russian assistance). The Han class since their commission have gone through major upgrades and numerous refits. It is believed that long refits have often meant that these submarines spend more time in port than out at sea, greatly affecting their operational capacity. Combat capabilities of the Han class seem to be undermined by the poor and noisy nuclear reactors. Their initial design and weapons fit seem inadequate if confronting other submarines and ships in Western navies. Hull 401 (and possibly 402 as well in the near future) has been retired from active service by 2005. All remaining hulls however have been greatly refitted with new sonars and anechoic tiles (which reduce noise levels). The Han class has mostly operated in local waters, but since the 1990s, Hans have been used more aggressively. A Han shadowed a US carrier battle group in the mid-1990s, and more recently, a Han operated around Japanese waters, prompting a Japanese task force to chase the submarine out of its territory. Han-class submarines are far from being as capable or effective as their American Los Angeles class counterparts, but with recent improvements they can pose a great threat by operating deep in the Western Pacific and attacking targets that are less well-protected by ASW coverage.
A new class of SSN has been in development since the 1980s, when the PLAN first sought a replacement for the Han class. Little information has emerged about the Type 093 (Shang class) SSN project, but it is believed to have some Russian influence. The 093 design maybe comparable to the Russian Victor III class, signifying a significant step forward for Chinese nuclear attack submarines. The 093 has been the focus of much attention from US and Asian military analysts. Its improved capabilities will undoubtedly increase PLAN power in the region and its ability to carry war to the West Pacific. Such submarines can escort future SSBNs as well as attacking US Navy carrier battle groups in the deep ocean. There have been reports that the first hull was launched around 2001, with a second hull also launched a few years afterwards. Photos of the 093 Shang class were released on the internet in mid-2007, with some photos considered to be from official sources as well, perhaps leading to speculation that the 093 may be declassified.
There have been numerous reports that China has the option of buying or leasing Russian nuclear attack submarines, particularly the Akula class. It is unlikely, however, that Russia in the foreseeable future would be willing to sell such high-level platforms to China, nor is China likely to be interested in wasting money on run-down Russian attack submarines considering the near-completion of the 093 class and development of the 095 class.
China is constructing a major underground nuclear submarine base near Sanya, Hainan. The Daily Telegraph on 1 May 2008 reported that tunnels were being built into hillsides which could be capable of hiding up to 20 nuclear submarines from spy satellites.
China engaged in the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles since the 1950s, with the acquisition of a single Soviet Golf class conventionally powered ballistic missile submarine. The original Golf class design has three launch tubes. Using this single hull, the PLAN acquired experience and tests from this platform. The Golf played a major role in China's JL-1 SLBM development project. The first successful launch of the JL-1 SLBM took place in 1982 from a submerged pontoon, and the first successful launch from a submerged submarine was in 1984 from the Golf test submarine. It is believed the single hull is still serving as a test platform for different missile technologies, as well as a test launcher of the JL-2 missile.
China's first SSBN, the Xia 092 class hull 406, was laid down in 1978, launched in 1981 and commissioned by 1983. Its primary weapon is the JL-1 SLBM, with 12 launch tubes, as well as six 533 mm tubes for self-defense. The JL-1 missile was not ready until the first successful test launch of the missile from the Xia in 1988. Previous launch attempts from 1985 had failed. The missile's short range only permits the 092 to launch its missiles against regional targets. Striking targets far away require the submarine to travel dangerously closer to enemy waters. The Xia has since undergone a major modernisation refit, with a new black-coated paint and possibly other improvements with unofficial reports indicating the Xia is now carrying an improved missile, the JL-1A that is alleged to have longer range.
The PLAN currently has plans to acquire a new class of SSBN, with a projected number between three to six vessels. The 094 is believed to have been influenced by Russian assistance. It features 12 launch tubes for the longer ranged JL-2 missile (contrary to the previously speculated 16), which has an 8000 km range that can carry 3 to 4 MIRVs. The 094 would be permitted to patrol nearer Chinese waters, with the ability to launch its missiles against continental US targets.
Recent photos released in the internet by unofficial sources (including alleged satellite images by Google Earth) show at least one operational 094 followed by one or two other hulls being fitted in Huludao submarine facilities. In December 2007 the first Type 094 submarine was moved to Sanya. The 094 bears a strong resemblance to the Xia, though being much larger in all aspects and thought to be far more capable.
Submarine warfare is regarded as a vital part of PLAN's coastal defense doctrine. Large numbers of conventional powered submarines have therefore been in service, and this force makes up the bulk of the PLAN's submarines, making it the third largest submarine force in the world today. The PLAN currently operates five different classes of conventional submarines. In times of war, these submarines can be used for disrupting lines of shipping, laying mines, attacking ships, defending against enemy submarines and later generations of Chinese SSK can employ use of anti-ship missiles. Being quiet underwater combatants, they represent a considerable threat to regional navies.
The first class of submarine to be operated by the PLAN was the Soviet Whiskey class. These were little different from the German U-Boat designs used in the later years of World War II. The Whiskey was imported from the Soviet Union and subsequently built in considerable numbers (40+). Most of these hulls have been removed from service by the mid 1990s.
The second type to be operated also owed its origins to the Soviet Union. The Romeo class was principally based upon late war German U-boats. The Romeo was also copied in China as the Type 033 submarine. Production of this submarine took place since the 1960s until the 1980s (even till the early 1990s). It has been estimated that more than 100 have been produced for the PLAN and for export. The 033 formed the backbone of the PLAN submarine forces, mostly patrolling near the coast. Their main armaments were primitively guided or unguided torpedoes and mines. The 033 generally had very limited ability to engage more advanced submarines in modern warfare as well as being quite vulnerable to modern ASW sensors and weapons. By the late 1990s, a large number of 033s had been retired from active duty and pulled into reserves. A handful of upgraded hulls remain in service. These upgraded hulls have new sonar fits and other improvements that keep them effective as patrol submarines.
The Ming class 035, first commissioned in 1974, is based on the 033. It could be considered as China's first indigenously designed submarine, despite its similarities to the Romeo class. The Ming did not particularly perform well in initial hulls. One of the first boats was scrapped after a fire. Initial hulls have since also been scrapped, but major improvements and eventual reliability have permitted production to proceed at a rate of one to two boats a year between 1988 and 1995. Following a hiatus, production resumed in the late 1990s and continued until 2001. At least 17 hulls are still in service, with later hulls using modern sonar systems which include the French DUUX-5. The later hulls of the Ming class may have been employed for testing Air-independent propulsion (AIP), which would significantly reduce the noise level of the submarine. Mings have reportedly been exercising more frequently and making recent incursions into Japanese waters. On one occasion a Ming surfaced briefly within Japanese waters before submerging again. In 2003, Ming 361 was lost with all hands. It was speculated that 361 was testing an AIP system, and that a failure caused the near-instantaneous death of the all crewmembers (as they were found dead in their quarters with the submarine intact).
The PLAN in the 1990s sought to acquire a modern conventional submarine with emphasis on sensors, weaponry, and modern capabilities to engage enemy submarines in modern warfare. In 1994 it ordered two Kilo 877EKM type submarines from Russia, which were delivered by 1995. In 1996, two improved Kilo 636 submarines were ordered, delivered between 1997 and 1998. In 2002, a $2 billion deal was signed for eight more Kilo 636, these submarines particularly fitted with the capability of launching the Russian Novator 3M-54E Klub S cruise missile capable of engaging land and sea targets at 220 km. The Kilo class represents a huge leap forward in the PLAN submarine fleet. Originally a Soviet design in the 1980s, the Kilo was meant to be one of the world's quietest class of submarines. With 12 Kilos operational by 2006, it is unclear whether PLAN will buy more of these potent vessels.
Despite the purchase of the Kilos, the PLAN has continued to develop indigenous designs. The Song class design was first launched in 1994 with sea trials in 1995. It featured Western influences with a German propulsion system, seven blade skewed propeller and noise-reduction rubber tiles; however, the first hull retained the traditional stepped sail. The first hull was not fully operational until 1999. As a result of the sea trials a significantly modified design emerged as the Song 039A, with a number of improvements, including a conventional sail. Song 039A appears quite similar to the Agosta class in appearance. By 2006 about 12 hulls have been confirmed to be built so far, indicating the class has performed satisfactorily. The Song presents a major milestone to indigenous submarine designs, being comparable in capabilities to contemporary Western submarines. Song submarines are armed with torpedoes and a sub-launched variant of the YJ-8 anti-ship missile. An AIP system may be installed in the future. Internet photos emerged in 2005 of a new class of submarine dubbed the Yuan class. The hull seems to resemble Russian influences (as it is similar to the Kilo) while also adapting features found on the 039A. The Yuan is expected to adapt an AIP system to achieve maximum quiet operational capabilities. The Yuan could be armed with advanced Russian and Chinese torpedoes and cruise missiles. The Yuan came as a surprise to US military intelligence, as the submarine's existence was entirely unknown until internet images emerged. This class of SSK is expected to have capabilities which surpass the Kilo and Song class SSK designs currently being operated by the PLAN. Series production began late in 2007, with at least two boats identified so far.
The future fleet will compose of the Kilo, Song and Yuan types, as the Romeos and Mings are phased out of service. China is reported to have the option of purchasing the more advanced Russian Amur class SSK. With the success of indigenous programmes, however, future purchases of foreign submarines look relatively unlikely.
Diver propulsion/swimmer delivery vehicles (DPV/SDV)s are wet subs used for transporting frogmen and other special force troops. All confirmed DPV/SDVs in Chinese service are developed by the Kunming Wuwei Science & Technology Trade Co., Ltd (昆明五威科工贸有限公司) at Kunming, a solely owned subsidiary of Kunming 705th (Research) Institute Science & Technology Development Co. (昆明七零五所科技发展总公司) at Kunming, which in turn, is a company wholly owned by the 705th Research Institute (headquartered in Xi'an) of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. All DPV/SDVs fielded by this contractor are developed by the design team with the following members: Liu Ning (刘宁), You Yun (犹云), Jin Zhongxian (金仲贤), Chen Haizhen (陈海珍), and Zhang Chun (张春). A total of 4 SDV/DPVs have been identified in Chinese naval service:
The following submersibles have been confirmed in Chinese service:
The following unmanned underwater vehicle(UUV)s have been confirmed in Chinese service:
See also List of Chinese military accidents
In 2003 an explosion on board a diesel-powered submarine killed 70. In early August 2011 social media in China reported a radiation leak on board a Type 094 submarine, docked in Dalian. According to reports, China Era Electronics Corporation was installing an electronic system when the leak occurred.