THREE NEW NUCLEAR attack submarines are being added to the PLA-Navy, according to state media, taking the country’s sub fleet to about 15 and providing more tangible evidence of the modernisation of China’s military. One report suggests the PLA-N took delivery of the vessels in late-February.
CCTV recently showed a satellite picture of the three subs docked at unidentified berths. This Bystander believes the location to be the Bohai shipyard at Huludao on the Bohai Sea. Our images, acquired from Google Maps, shows one sub in dry dock (above; the black square in the middle of the sub is its vertical missile launching tubes; vertical supersonic missile launching is the vessel’s big advance in capabilities), and two at berth (below). There is little advantage to keeping them hidden. Indeed, China stopped keeping its subs secret in 2009. It is the logistics systems for the latest subs that the rest of the world will want to get a look at.
CCTV said the vessels were Type-093Gs, a longer, faster and quieter (thus less easily detectable) version of the Type-093 nuclear subs of which six are believed to already in service. The PLA-N also has in its sub fleet three old Type-091s and four Jin-class Type-094s, which can carry ballistic missiles.
The Type-093Gs are reportedly capable of launching the new YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missiles. The YJ-18, now in development as a replacement for a mishmash of Soviet-era models, is equivalent in capability for maritime attacks to the Russian (land attack) cruise missile that NATO has nicknamed the ‘Sizzler’. It will be the basis for a series of supersonic and hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missiles that could be used to attack carrier groups; these missiles fly so fast towards the end that they are difficult for anti-missile systems to intercept.
China is already testing one such hypersonic weapon, the WU-14, which can travel at Mach 10. Were it to come to a hot war between China and, say, the U.S., these missiles would be Beijing’s best bet for knocking out the carrier groups that Washington would likely use to cut China’s maritime supply lines.
The early models in the series will be for attacking ships. The missile can carry a more potent warhead than the PLA-N’s current missiles, and thus be able to penetrate the increasingly heavy armor of U.S. and Japanese warships. Later models are intended for submarine and, eventually, land attacks. The YJ-18 will have a range of 300-400 kilometres from a carrier.
While China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, is operational, it is still far short of being battle ready, mostly because of a lack of pilots trained to operate from carriers. Training more is a priority. And not just for the Liaoning. As many as six carriers are planned, according to senior PLA-N officials quoted recently by the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.
That number has been bruited before. Construction on two improved and indigenously built Liaonings is underway in China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.’s Jiangnan yards in Shanghai with plans for three indigenous nuclear-powered carriers to follow. The newspaper report may be as close to confirmation of those plans as we have had to date.
It will be those latter three carriers that will propel the PLA-N into a blue-water force to be reckoned with. The Liaoning, a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, is, at 58,500-tons, lightweight by carrier standards — half the size of U.S. carriers. It also launches its aircraft with a ‘ski-jump’, not a catapult. That limits the fighters that can operate from it.
The Liaoning carries helicopters and modified Shenyang J-15 fighters, but couldn’t launch the fifth-generation J-31 fighter. It is better described as an aviation-capable patrol ship than a carrier of the line. Letting the PLA-N learn the ropes of carrier operations is its main purpose.
Modern catapult launchers use electromagnetic systems that require massive amounts of energy, of the magnitude a nuclear-powered carrier would be capable of generating. China Shipbuilding Industry was tasked in 2013 with developing nuclear power technology that would be compact and safe enough to install in ships such as carrier and icebreakers, and possibly into nuclear stealth bombers.
Nuclear bombers are probably years off, but a first nuclear-powered carrier is likely within a decade. The two second-generation Liaonings due to be commissioned in 2020 are likely to be conventionally powered. It is a racing certainty that the carrier after those would be nuclear powered.
To put that in perspective, China has had nuclear-powered subs for 40 years, but that is still 15 year fewer than the U.S. In 2022, the U.S. Navy will mark the 60th anniversary of its first nuclear-powered U.S. carrier while the PLA-N may still only be getting its first into the water. What is certain though is that the PLA-N is playing determined catch-up.