About a year ago, I wrote an entry on the Chinese submarine fleet. In that article, I talked about the different submarine classes in service with PLAN and a little bit on their history. When it comes to the development of new submarine classes, China typically follows the line of building one experiment boat of that class, followed by 3 or more boats that fixed the problems found in the first of the class and follows up with a slightly modified variant that gets mass produced. The change from the first unit and the 2nd batch is normally quite significant. The change from the 2nd batch and the third batch is generally quite minor from the outside, but more significant on the inside (improvements in sonar, combat system, fire control system and such). A lot of times we see two programs going on at the same time where one class is getting mass produced at the same time a follow-on class’s first experimental boat is getting tested out. This development process has allowed PLAN’s submarine fleet modernize at a faster rate than any other arm of PLAN (with the exception of Fast Attack Crafts).
A few years ago, most of the China threat group was alarmed at China’s emerging force of conventional submarines. That has changed in the recent years as the ASBM project, the carrier project and nuclear submarines have really shifted their attention. At the same time, the growing fleet of 054As and larger surface ships like Type 071 and No. 866 hospital ship have also garnered a lot of attention. For PLAN followers like myself, it’s easy to get drawn to the monthly updates of photos coming out of HD, JP and JN shipyard. Since most of submarines are produced at WuChang shipyard, we don’t get as many submarine photos during production or during service. Since most of the pictures we get of conventional submarines don’t have number painted on them, it’s also hard for someone like myself to keep track of their numbers and their deployment. All of this leads to less attention paid to the conventional submarine program by everyone. Needless to say, the modernization of conventional sub force has not stopped in the process. So, this entry will look at some of the changes we have seen in the last couple of years.
First, I want to take a look at the structure of the conventional submarine force. There are 6 submarine flotilla split among the 3 fleets. The 2nd and 12th flotilla belong to the North Sea Fleet, 22nd and 42nd belong to the East Sea Fleet, whereas 32nd and 72nd belong to the South Sea Fleet. There is also a hierarchy within PLAN over the disbursement of the submarines. Due to its proximity to Taiwan and the proximity of the first chain of islands, East Sea Fleet is normally the first force that gets the new submarines. At the moment, all of the active submarines in ESF are what I call the 3rd generation submarines (either Song, Yuan or Kilo). All of the recent submarines from WuChang also gets tested out in one of the East Sea Fleet naval bases near Shanghai before they get commissioned. The South Sea Fleet seems to be next fleet in line. Back in the 90s, South Sea Fleet’s submarine fleet was probably the weakness of the three fleets. At the time, the 52nd submarine flotilla had disbanded and SSF was left with just the 32nd submarine flotilla. This decision was probably made due to the many years of reduction in China’s defense budget. The weakness of SSF’s submarine fleet was one of the reasons that Vietnam was able to occupy some of the spratly islands. PLAN realized that it made a big mistake and established the 72nd submarine flotilla early in the 2000s along with the 31st nuclear submarine flotilla. The Ming class submarines from 32nd flotilla was transferred to the 72nd flotilla while it received the newer Song and Kilo class submarines. The North Sea Fleet is probably the weakest of the three fleets. For the longest time, NSF was the only fleet that had nuclear submarines, so it was always left to receive the oldest conventional submarines. With the recently modernization efforts, the 2nd flotilla is now almost completely equipped with Song class submarines. Although, the 12th flotilla probably still consists of the earliest variant of Ming class. These submarines are vastly outclassed by their Japanese or Korean counterparts.
Now, I want to look at the orbat changes in the last few years and the expected changes in the future. From what I can tell, the two flotilla of SSF has not changed recently. The 32nd flotilla consists of 4 Song and 4 Kilos, whereas the 72nd flotilla consists of 8 improved ming class submarines. The 42nd flotilla of ESF also has not changed, since the kilo submarines are still front line submarines. As Yuan class submarines have started joining the 22nd flotilla of ESF, the Song class submarines were getting transferred to NSF. The first four Yuan submarines (330 to 333) were transferred by 2009. Over the past year, there have probably been 3 or 4 more Yuans (334 to 337??) that have joined. At the current time, this flotilla has 2 song submarines and 7 or 8 Yuan submarines. By this point, the 2nd flotilla has already received 7 Song submarines. Obviously, the last 2 song will be transferred out to the 2nd flotilla at some point. One of the questions is what happened to the submarines that were previously there. It seems like PLAN has been fairly reluctant to just retire the old submarines. Some of the 033 submarines have been kept around for training purposes, but they will obviously have to start decommissioning the older 035s and 033s very soon. I think PLAN is unlikely to form a new conventional submarine flotilla, so the overall number of active submarines will be kept around 48. At current time, they have 12 kilos + 13 Songs + 8 Yuan = 33 submarines that would be considered as fairly new. If we discount the first experimental Song that was launched in 1994, they still only have to replace another 16 submarines before the Ming class submarines will all need to be retired. While up to 5 conventional submarines can be produced every year at the two shipyards, we will most likely see 3 submarines getting produced every year (due to budgetary constraints). At this pace, the replacement will be done by late this decade. The ming class submarines in 72nd flotilla were produced from 1994 to 2001. If they get replaced by 2020, they would’ve only been in service for 20 years. It’s really hard to see PLAN take something that’s only 20 years old out of service, even if it’s obsolete. So, I wonder what will happen to them.
Thirdly, I want to look at what kind of threats each fleet are facing and whether the fleet that they have is suited for that task. The East Sea Fleet will continue to be opposite to Taiwan, so it will need to be prepared to be a deterrent against possible US intervention. As such, the most modern conventional submarines will be placed in ESF for anti-shipping missions and also ASW missions. It will likely continue to receive the newest conventional submarines. At the same time, the natural barrier of the first chain island and surrounding naval forces traps in the ESF, so ESF is unlikely to have nuclear submarine fleet in the future. The North Sea Fleet is surrounded by the much superior Japanese and Korean submarine fleet. It is also trapped by the extremely well equipped and trained Japanese ASW units. I think NSF is currently woefully equipped considering it’s conditions. Like the rest of the fleet, the submarine flotillas have been the last to receive the Song submarines. And even when it does receive them, it gets the submarines that ESF no longer needs. For the longest time, this was balanced by the fact that NSF was the only one that had nuclear submarines, but that’s no longer the case. Going forward, it’s hard to see the newer nuclear submarines getting deployed here when it is completely surrounded by Japan and South Korea. For the next decade, this situation is unlikely to change, so NSF will continue to be inadequately equipped to handle possible threats. Finally, South Sea Fleet probably faces the weakest of surrounding navies. Even the Ming class submarines are capable of handling the threats from Vietnam and Phillipines. South Sea Fleet continues to be the main blue water fleet in PLAN, so one would expect that more nuclear submarines will be deployed here. Also compared to the other two fleets, conventional submarines in SSF are not trapped by first chain of island and foreign naval force, so the current conventional fleet is actually already suitable for the threats in its area. Due to the growing influence of SSF, I think it will get newer submarines before NSF even though NSF has much greater needs for those boats.
Overall, it’s to see that the modernization of PLAN’s conventional submarine fleet is still going very rapidly. It will most likely complete ahead of other part of PLAN’s fleet. The submarines are deployed in a very unusual manner where the elite flotillas continue to get upgraded to newer submarines while the other flotilla pick up the scraps. From the service, this seems like something that will be problematic in the future. It will probably create resentment within PLAN toward the elite flotilla, although that might be an accepted practice of PLA. The more concerning part is that different flotilla will be continually trained for newer submarines. Rather than serving 20 years on the same boat, the sailors in the 22nd flotilla are probably changing to new submarines every 10 years. When I think about the time that it takes to properly train sailors to operate a new submarine, that seems to leave not much time for routine trainings and patrols. As mentioned previously, some of the Ming submarines may be removed from active duty after less than 20 years of service. What will happen to these submarines once this happens? As we move forward, the Song submarines are still relatively loud even though they are modern by Chinese standards. Even the latest submarine that we saw out of WuChang shipyard is still behind the acoustic levels of the most advanced conventional submarines around the world. What will the next generation of Chinese submarines look like? As PLAN becomes more of a blue water fleet and expands its nuclear submarine force, what kind of roles will the conventional submarines play? Will Chinese submarines become bigger players in the export market? These are all things that I’m looking forward to see.