The Chinese Navy’s capabilities are back in focus as satellite imagery shows a whole new class of Chinese submarines docked somewhere in the port of Huludao in Liaoning province. These reports, unconfirmed by the PLA Navy, come amid increased Chinese military activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
Military experts believe a ship spotted in recently obtained satellite photos at a Chinese shipyard could be a new or improved class of nuclear-powered attack submarine.
The submarine is seen in a dry dock at the port of Huludao in Liaoning province, according to images shared by Reuters on social media with private satellite imagery provider Planet Labs and others.
However, it’s unclear if the sub seen in the images is a brand new design, an improvement on an older ship, or something else entirely.
Military observers have been keeping a close eye on China since a November 2021 Pentagon report predicted that the Chinese Navy is likely to develop a new attack submarine with “vertical launch tubes” for cruise missiles in the coming years.
A vertical launch system (VLS) is a modern missile launch system used on submarines and surface ships. A VLS is a scaled down version of the launch systems built for ballistic missiles aboard SSBNs. The VLS is designed to fire cruise missiles such as the American Tomahawk.
GEOINT analysis from April 26 to May 3, 2022 shows a possible new submarine class in the port of Huludao, China. https://t.co/epfzHDle1I #geodata #Intelligence #China #Huludao #Shipyard #NuclearPoweredSubmarine #SSN #Drydock #GlobalSecurity #NavalForceMonitoring #IMINT pic.twitter.com/g5XDE83IVL
— AllSource Analysis (@AllSourceA) May 4, 2022
A VLS allows an SSN (Nuclear Powered Assault Submarine) to use larger weapons with greater variety than torpedo tubes.
Vertical launch system
When asked how the VLS would be a game changer, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, played down the hype and said: “It just allows you to carry more missiles per sub depending on the design. That being said, there is no particular advantage of vertically-launched cruise missiles over torpedo-tube-launched missiles.
Again, this is a sub-function of the size of the submarine. It’s not a new technology, as China already has ballistic missile-capable submarines that can fire missiles vertically out of the water, even before India achieved that capability.”
In the surviving photos, green shrouds obscure areas behind the ship’s superstructure and stern, which analysts believe could house missile launch tubes and a new, quieter propulsion system. Submarines in dry dock are rarely photographed in such detail.
According to Collin Koh, a Singapore-based security expert, the likelihood of a new class of Chinese Type 093 “hunter-killer” submarines with vertical missile launch tubes has piqued curiosity. However, he claimed that recent satellite photos were insufficient to accurately identify the submarine.
The images “are very interesting, but it’s still hard to tell whether we’re looking at some sort of retrofit for testing or a whole new class of submarines,” said Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
New Chinese Submarines
China’s attack submarines are adapting to perform a growing number of missions, including protecting ballistic-missile submarines and the PLA Navy’s aircraft-carrier battlegroups, as well as detecting enemy ships.
According to Jeffrey Lewis, a professor of arms control at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, the latest photos raise more questions than answers as to whether they reveal a new class of ships.
“It’s plausible, but there are questions I’d like answered. It hasn’t been in dry dock very long and it’s unclear how they may have reconfigured this submarine,” he said. “There’s certainly a lot of interest given the Pentagon report.”
The Pentagon, in its annual China Military Power Report released last November, predicted that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy would build the Type 093B nuclear-armed attack submarine with guided missiles.
Type 093B submarine – a modified version of the Type 093 cruise missile-optimized version with vertical launch tubes similar to the Russian Yasen class pic.twitter.com/4GgSvo9VKF
— AIR WARRIORS (@zspcl) May 5, 2022
According to the report, the new “Shang-class” model “will enhance the PLAN’s surface warfare capability and could provide a covert land attack option when equipped with land-attack cruise missiles.”
China’s growing naval capacity gains importance amid tensions between China and Taiwan, which is backed by the US and its regional allies.
A growing nuclear-powered arsenal with sophisticated capabilities like the Vertical Launch System could pose a threat to the US, as well as other regional nations like India and Japan.
“China has realized that it cannot compete with the United States without a powerful global navy. The firing of a cruise missile from a nuclear submarine suggests that distant targets are being attacked without revealing their position.
These are technically very well suited for land targets, since the position of these targets is precisely known and can be fed into the missile while the submarine is submerged.
Whereas targeting a ship at sea requires real-time satellite tracking of the target and its ability to communicate with the submarine either directly or through a ground station or airborne link.
This ability is complex. As far as countries other than the US are concerned, India needs to be cautious, especially IAF airfields whose positions are well known and will be easy targets,” Vice Admiral (retd) Shekhar Sinha told the EurAsian Times.
The Pentagon report on PLA capabilities had already recognized that China has the world’s largest navy numerically, with approximately 355 ships and submarines, including some 145 surface combatants.
“The PLAN (Chinese Navy) has given high priority to modernizing its submarine strength. However, it continues to grow modestly as it works to mature its armed forces, integrate new technologies and expand its shipyards,” the Pentagon said.
Six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines are currently in service with China.
According to the unclassified analysis by the US Office of Naval Intelligence, China’s submarine fleet could grow from the current 66 boats to 76 by 2030, with the project building six new nuclear-powered attack submarines at the Bohai Shipyard in Huludao should be. as already noted by EurAsian Times.
While China has not verified the claim, state media was quick to call the claim speculative and biased.