Is China’s nuclear submarine superior to Russia, India and US subs?

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has been building its submarine fleet based on its strategic maritime perspective and possible conflicts in the South China Sea, Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. The race for next-generation nuclear-powered and attack submarines is advancing. How is it unfolding against the traditional nuclear powers.

A Type 094 submarine of China
A Type 094 Submarine of Chinese navy PLAN

In a series of war games organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, an attempt was made to find out the Chinese naval firepower based on their submarines.  According to the analyst, the US submarines were able to enter the Chinese defensive zone and wreak havoc with the Chinese fleet. However, it happened at the cost of many submarines and thousands of lives lost.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been building its submarine fleet based on its strategic maritime perspective and possible conflicts in the South China Sea, Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. The most lethal in its armament is the nuclear-powered and attack submarines. How is it unfolding?

Chinese nuclear attack submarines

In the mid-1980s, the PLAN began the development of the Type 093 nuclear attack submarine in order to replace its first-generation Type 091 (Han-class) submarine. The most modern of China’s current submarine fleet is the Type-093A Shang-II Class (aka 09-IIIA) and Jin-class Type 094A submarine, also known as the Long March-18. Long March- 18 was commissioned in service as part of celebrations to mark the 72nd anniversary of the PLAN.

However, the work progressed only after the Russian nuclear submarine technology was transferred to China in exchange for urgently needed money in the later 1990s. The central naval agency of Russia –Rubin Design Bureau for Marine Engineering– a submarine designer based in Russia, provided the key elements and technical support for the development of Type 093. In fact, Russian Design Bureau provided the overall hull design, machinery, combat and weapons systems, and countermeasures.

The Shang-class is a family of Chinese second-generation nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) built by the China Shipbuilding Industry (CSIC) at its Bohai Shipyard in Huludao, Liaoning Province, China.

A total of six Shang-class submarines, including Shang I class SSNs (Type 093), Shang II class SSNs (Type 093A) and Shang III class SSNs (Type 093B), are in service with the PLAN. The Type 093A and Type 093B SSNs are improved versions of the Type 093 submarine.

In 2022, the US Department of Defense (DoD) published its annual report on China’s Military Power. The report clearly outlines that China is likely to build a new Type 093B submarine by 2025. The submarine is also expected to provide a clandestine land-attack option when armed with land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) with improved anti-surface warfare capabilities.

The nuclear-powered and attack capabilities

The most modern of China’s current submarine fleet is the Type-093A Shang-II Class (aka 09-IIIA). The Tupe-093A weighs roughly 7,000-ton. The nuclear-powered submarine is in the same class as the Royal Navy’s Astute Class. In fact, in size terms, it sits between the latest French Navy Suffren Class and the US Navy’s Virginia Class.

China has deployed a new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, for the first time placing the West Coast of the United States within credible striking range. The most important development is the induction of the new Ju Lang-3 (JL-3) missile which replaces the older JL-2 on China’s ballistic missile submarines. However, reports indicate that despite the development, the Chinese submarines cannot reach the continental US from their existing patrol areas.

How advanced these submarines are?

In a report published in 2009, the US Office of Naval Intelligence produced a chart showing that the Type 094, first launched in 2004, was noisier than the Soviet-era Project 667BDR (Delta III) SSBN.

However, the further modifications were so radical in terms of technological advancement that Type 093 and Type 094 were transformed into a hi-clibre nuclear-powered submarines.

In fact, based on the acquired expertise, China is striving to leapfrog into the third generation Type 095 SSN and Type 096 SSBN in the 2020s.

Chinese submarines can carry a payload of a single 1 MT yield nuclear warhead. Reports indicate that it might carry another 3 to 8 Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) warheads. Unlike the traditional missile, the MIRV can carry multiple warheads. In the case of Russia, the MIRV missile can carry up to 16 warheads, each in a separate re-entry vehicle. The most unique capability of the MIRV is its speed and multiple launch angle. Alongside, China has developed a vertical launch system (VLS) for land-attack cruise missiles.

However, in a similar league, the U. S. Navy’s Ohio-class guided missile submarines carry up to 24 Trident nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. In fact, even after the international convention and restrictions, Ohio-class boats can now carry a whopping 154 Tomahawk missiles. That is the highest in its class. In terms of firepower, Russia’s new Severodvinsk-class guided missile submarines are equally formidable loaded with a total of 72 torpedoes and missiles.

FILE PHOTO: The Virginia-class USS North Dakota (SSN 784) submarine is seen during bravo sea trials in this U.S. Navy handout picture taken in the Atlantic Ocean August 18, 2013. The Navy commissioned its newest attack submarine North Dakota, during a ceremony October 25, 2014, at Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut, defense officials announced. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout

In addition to that, the nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class SSN carries Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and MK-48 torpedoes. But on top is the Virginia-class next-generation U.S. nuclear attack submarines. The Virginia class can carry up to 37 Tomahawk cruise missiles with two VLS.

Russian Yasen-class sub K-561 Kazan

On the other side, submarines are a relatively bright spot in Russia’s undersea fleet. Here, the Yasens- class, which NATO calls the Severodvinsk class, is a next-generation submarine with impressive capabilities. Loaded with Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile and dozens of other cruise missiles, the Severodvinsk is capable of attacking warships and land targets with precision.

India leased two SSN-class nuclear-powered submarines from Russia. In March 2019, India signed for a second nuclear-powered attack submarine, named — Chakra-3—which is under modification in Russia. The Chakra-III is expected to be delivered to the Indian Navy by 2025. The Chakra does have long-range torpedoes and nuclear warheads with Russian lineage.

Taking on China, the Indian navy does have the strike capability as it could hit closer by virtue of being submerged.  However, the concern is the sheer numbers that China’s overall submarine force will have 76 boats (8 SSBNs, 13 SSNs and 55 SSKs) by 2030. In terms of numbers, Russia has 17 Nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and 9 Nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGNs).  While China is catching fast, the US remains ahead of the curve with Russia.

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First published on: 22-03-2023 at 17:04 IST