Matthew Greenwood posted 2020-09-08
Russia and China are working together to create a next-generation attack sub to bolster their submarine arsenals—and analysts are getting worried.
While the U.S. operates a nuclear-only fleet, Russia and China—along with many other countries—still use nonnuclear subs. They’re cheaper to build and have inshore advantages compared to their nuclear brethren. They’re also easier to sell on the international market, where they don’t have to worry about restrictions on the sale of nuclear technology.
China and Russia have been increasing their military cooperation in recent years. This project continues along those lines—and seems like a natural fit. Russia has experience building subs, having created some of the most powerful in the world. In fact, Russia helped China kick-start its own submarine building industry during the Cold War.
But China has been catching up —and is even outpacing Russia in terms of propulsion and battery technology. China builds air-independent power (AIP) subs that Russia pioneered during the Cold War but which the country has fallen behind on since. And China is rumored to be adopting lithium-ion batteries in its subs—which are more energy dense than traditional lead-acid batteries—which would also put it a step ahead of the Russians.
While we don’t have a lot of details from the characteristically tight-lipped countries, we can make some educated guesses about what the new sub could be.
Russia’s Potential Role
Russia has sold subs to China in the past—most recently its Kilo class nonnuclear vessel. Russia usually deploys its Kilos relatively close to home, for conflicts in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, leaving the long-range patrols to its nuclear vessels.
The Russian Kilo submarine.
The Kilo has been a workhorse of the Russian fleet for the past three decades. Measuring 238 feet long and 32 feet wide, with a crew of 53, it can last about 45 days at sea before coming in to port to resupply. With two diesel generators and an electric drive, the Kilo reaches a comparatively slow speed of 10 knots on the surface and 17 submerged. It also doesn’t dive very deeply, usually reaching 787 feet. But it does have a range of 7,500 nautical miles—enough to go from the North Sea to Cuba.
The Kilo can launch Kalibr cruise missiles, a versatile weapon that can be used against land targets, ships and other subs. In different variations, the Kalibr could reach a speed of Mach 2.9, have a range of about 186 miles, carry a 440-pound warhead, and perform evasive maneuvers before reaching its target. It also deploys homing and wire-guided 533-millimeter diameter torpedoes.
More about the Kilo sub.
Where Russia has a distinct advantage is in its weapons systems, which are more advanced than its partner’s—and are some of the most advanced in the world.
China’s Potential Role
As mentioned, Russia has had difficulties in recent years getting air-independent power plants to work in its subs, and is still trying to design one , while China has already installed them in its vessels. But China has been forging ahead with its AIP technologies —and this could be where China could bring value to the partnership.
AIP is a propulsion system that uses liquid or compressed oxygen or hydrogen fuel cells rather than conventional diesel, which uses air. AIP engines are more modern and efficient than the diesels found on a Kilo sub: they allow a submarine to stay submerged for up to two months and sail at a much faster speed—while running as quietly as a diesel. The AIP’s drawback is that it isn’t nearly as powerful as a nuclear sub: their maximum power is typically around 400 horsepower, while a nuclear sub engine can generate up to 20,000 horsepower.
China may have used features of the Kilo for its homegrown Yuan sub, which it rolled out in 2006—and which has an AIP plant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Yuan is comparable in size and capability to the Kilo. But when equipped with AIP propulsion, analysts say the Yuan is one of the quietest in the Chinese fleet. China has used AIP technology purchased from Sweden in the past, but the newest variants of the Yuan reportedly use a homegrown AIP system.
China’s Yuan submarine.
What Could the New Sub Look Like?
This new vessel could combine Russian expertise in shipbuilding and weapons systems with Chinese propulsion and willingness to spend on R&D (it already has the world’s largest navy ).
Another nonnuclear submarine could make sense for both countries. Russia’s navy is geared more toward engagements close to its own territory, rather than extended long-range operations in deep water. And while China is setting its sights afar, it’s still intent on flexing its muscle in the South China Sea.
Current submarines the size of the Kilo and Yuan aren’t an ideal fit for coastal water operations, being better suited for deep water operations in seas near their territories. Both subs are fairly large vessels that aren’t easy to maneuver in shallow waters. Analysts also point out that the sensors in the Kilo and Yuan—low frequency flank arrays—are better suited for deep-water long-range detection of ships, and would be of limited use in shallower seas, which are noisier.
It would seem that a submarine that can operate in coastal waters is a requirement that both navies need to fill—and would be a natural focus of this new partnership.
There’s also a commercial aspect. Both countries compete in the international nonnuclear sub market. In fact, China has the bigger presence of the two, selling its Yuan to Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Russia’s customers for the Kilo include India, Venezuela and Vietnam—as well as its partner China. There could be a significant demand for vessels capable of operating in shallow waters by countries seeking to arm their coastlines.
Russia and China are becoming more and more willing to flex their military muscle on the world stage. The fact that they’re teaming up on a technology as important as a submarine—a partnership that seems to play to both their strengths—should worry their rivals like the United States and India. And while we still don’t know much about the project at this time, we can reasonably assume that it’ll have a significant impact on global naval strategy.
Chinese and Russian sub technologies aren’t the only things the world is worried about. Read more about at Will Hypersonic Weapons Mean a New Arms Race? .