SUBMARINES: The Month Long Voyage of the Chinese SSN
December 10, 2004: The Chinese nuclear attack submarine (SSN) that was discovered prowling off the Japanese island of Okinawa last month was also spotted farther east, off the American island of Guam as well. The Chinese Han class boat was tracked on its month long voyage by American, Japanese and Taiwanese naval and air forces. The Han class subs are crude, noisy and easy to track. China has five of these subs, completed between 1974 and 1990. The first one was definitely a learning experience, not entering service until the mid 1980s. The Hans are small (4,100 tons) as SSN’s go, and have a crew of about 75 sailors. French sonar is installed, and a lot of the other electronics came from foreign suppliers. In the 1980s it was thought the Chinese would just scrap this class, but they kept repairing and updating them. The Hans are hopelessly out of date, but are the only SSNs China has until the new 093 class SSNs begin to appear in the next few years.
The recent incident began in mid-October, when the sub left its base in northern China. It cruised slowly, both underwater and on the surface. By late October it passed near Okinawa. In early November, the sub was within 150 kilometers of Guam. It circled the island and headed northwest. By November 10th it briefly entered Japanese territorial waters, an incident that eventually caused the Chinese to admit the “mystery sub” was theirs, and apologize for the intrusion. The sub arrived back at its base on November 16th. It appears to have been a 30 day training cruise. But it’s not the first time a Han class boat has come out to play. Ten years ago, a Han class boat appeared 100 kilometers off the Japanese island of Kyushu. The sub was spotted by an aircraft from the American carrier Kitty Hawk, which was then 800 kilometers to the southeast. The Chinese sub kept coming, heading for the American carrier. The sub got to within 38 kilometers of the carrier before it turned away. American navy policy at the time was not to let a potentially hostile sub get that close. But this time the navy was curious to see what the Chinese would do. There was never any doubt where the noisy Han class sub was. American sensors tracked it easily and precisely. These maneuvers give the Chinese crews some practice, but until they some quieter subs, that’s all it does.
December 7, 2004: China has launched its first 094 SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). Work began on the 094 class in the late 1990s. For years, all that was known was that the Chinese were having technical problems with the new design. The 094 is a modern SSBN, using technology bought from Russia, or developed by the Chinese in their earlier nuclear submarine building efforts. The Chinese have had a hard time building reliable nuclear subs, but they are determined to acquire the needed skills for building modern nuclear subs. You do that by doing it, and eating your mistakes.
The 094 is similar to the 093 class SSN (nuclear attack sub), which looks a lot like the three decade old Russian Victor III class SSN design. Taking a SSN design and adding extra compartments to hold the ballistic missiles is an old trick, pioneered by the United States in the 1950s to produce the first SSBNs. The Chinese appear to have done the same thing with their new SSN, creating a larger boat of 11-12,000 tons displacement. Priority was apparently given to construction of the 094, as having nuclear missiles able to reach the United States gives China more diplomatic clout than some new SSNs.
The JL-2 ballistic missile for the 094 is still in development. The JL-2 has a range of 7,400 kilometers, and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 sub cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. Each 094 boat will carry 16 of these missiles, which are naval versions of the existing land based DF-31 ICBM.
The first 094 boat should be ready for service in two years, or less. It all depends on how successful the JL-2 missile is. Things can go wrong with these new missiles, as the Russians learned with their latest SSBN design. The planned missile did not work, and a new one, based on a successful land based ICBM (the Topol series) was used instead. But this required rebuilding of the new subs missile tubes, thus delaying the new subs construction. If the Chinese are lucky, they will have two or three 094s in service by the end of the decade, and as many 093 SSNs as well.
December 3, 2004: France commissioned another SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine), the Le Vigilant. This is the third of four Triomphant class SSBNs. The 453 foot long, 12,640 ton sub carries 16 M45 ICBMs (range; 6,000 kilometers). Maximum diving depth is 1,640 feet. Each sub has two crews of 111 sailors each. This enables the maximum number of subs to be kept at sea (two or three at all times). There are also four torpedo tubes, which can fire torpedoes and Exocet anti-ship missiles. France has five SSBNs in commission, but one of the older ones will be taken out of service when Le Vigilant begins going to sea next year. French SSBNs are a Cold War era weapon, built to give France a deterrent against Soviet Union missiles. It’s not known where the French SSBNs are aiming their missiles these days. In two years, new M5 missiles will be installed, with a range of 10,000 kilometers.