Inside Asia’s arms race: China near ‘breakthroughs’ with nuclear-armed submarines, report says


HONG KONG, – A submarine arms race is intensifying as China embarks on production of a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines that for the first time are expected to pose a challenge to growing U.S. and allied efforts to track them.
Analysts and regional defence attaches say evidence is mounting that China is on track to have its Type 096 ballistic missile submarine operational before the end of the decade, with breakthroughs in its quietness aided in part by Russian technology.
Research discussed at a conference in May at the U.S. Naval War College and published in August by the college’s China Maritime Studies Institute predicts the new vessels will be far harder to keep tabs on. That conclusion is credible, according to seven analysts and three Asia-based military attaches.
“The Type 096s are going to be a nightmare,” said retired submariner and naval technical intelligence analyst Christopher Carlson, one of the researchers. “They are going to be very, very hard to detect.”
The discreet effort to track China’s nuclear-powered and -armed ballistic missile submarines, known as SSBNs, is one of the core drivers of increased deployments and contingency planning by the U.S. Navy and other militaries across the Indo-Pacific region. That drive is expected to intensify when Type 096s enter service.
The Chinese navy is routinely staging fully armed nuclear deterrence patrols with its older Type 094 boats out of Hainan Island in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said in November, much like patrols operated for years by the United States, Britain, Russia and France.
But the Type 094s, which carry China’s most advanced submarine-launched JL-3 missile, are considered relatively noisy – a major handicap for military submarines.
The paper notes that the Type 096 submarine will compare to state-of-the-art Russian submarines in terms of stealth, sensors and weapons. It said that jump in capabilities would have “profound” implications for the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies.
Based partly on Chinese military journals, internal speeches by senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers and patent data, the paper charts more than 50 years of the PLA navy’s often-glacial nuclear submarine development.
It contains satellite imagery taken in November at China’s new Huludao shipyard showing pressure hull sections for a large submarine being worked up. That puts construction on schedule to have the boats operational by 2030, the timeline stated in the Pentagon’s annual reports on China’s military.
The research also details potential breakthroughs in specific areas, including pump-jet propulsion and internal quieting devices, based on “imitative innovation” of Russian technology.
Neither the Russian nor the Chinese defence ministries responded to Reuters’ requests for comment.
The vessel is likely to be significantly larger than the Type 094, allowing it to contain an internal “raft” mounted on complex rubber supports to dampen engine noise and other sounds, similar to Russian designs.
Carlson told Reuters he did not believe China had obtained Russia’s “crown jewels” – its very latest technology – but would be producing a submarine stealthy enough to compare to Moscow’s Improved Akula boats.
“We have a hard time finding and tracking the Improved Akulas as it is,” Carlson said.
Singapore-based defence scholar Collin Koh said the research opened a window on discreet research projects to improve China’s SSBNs as well as boosting its anti-submarine warfare capabilities.
“They know they are behind the curve so they are trying to play catch-up in terms of quieting and propulsion,” said Koh, of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Carlson said he believed China’s strategists would, like Russia, keep SSBNs within protective “bastions” close to its coasts, utilising recently fortified holdings in the disputed South China Sea.