The latest stealth submarine of China, the one of its kind in the world Type 039C, had a chance sighting in the East China Sea. Fishermen caught the upgraded submarines on their cameras as the undersea dragon was probably heading for a training exercise.
The video was shared widely on the Chinese social website Weibo by a user based in China’s coastal province of Zhejiang. The Type 039C is the latest design of the Yuan class of Chinese submarines.
Defense commentators on Weibo said the Type 039C was likely to carry torpedoes and the YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which have an operational range of up to 340 miles.
After the social media post, the PLA also released photos of the submarine in the sea. The submarine was built in Wuhan and sailed to Shanghai for fitting out. It was commissioned in 2022 as an operational boat, just over a year after launch. This is very fast for a new class of submarine.
The commissioning ceremony took place in Ningbo, which serves as the headquarters for the PLAN’s East Sea Fleet. According to the media report, the submarine is stationed alongside older Yuan Class submarines at Daxie Dao Submarine Base. This base is safeguarded by a rocky archipelago and is located near several naval bases.
This makes its deployment just opposite the Taiwanese Navy. The East Sea Fleet’s submarine bases are situated north of the main Taiwanese Island, approximately 500 km (310 miles) to the south. Additionally, it faces the island chain of Japan, which acts as a natural barrier to the open Pacific. China’s operations in this area have been steadily increasing.
China’s growing fleet of attack and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines is shrouded in a haze of mystery to a large extent, given the lack of available detail about their technologies and performance parameters. Very little information is available about China’s new Type-039C Yuan submarines. Repeated reports from the Pentagon have asserted the Chinese Navy’s numerical superiority over the US Navy, particularly in undersea fighting capability.
The Chinese Navy has numerical supremacy over the navies of other countries. A recently released report says that after five decades since it inducted its first nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarine (SSN), the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) is on the verge of producing “world-class” nuclear submarines with its propulsion, quieting, sensors and weapons capabilities approaching that of Russian Akula-I class SSN.
The Chinese Navy has 17 Yuan-class submarines in its fleet. The Yuan-class diesel-electric boats are considered one of the quietest classes of silent killers. The US Naval Institute has, in a series of essays, examined the technology of the Yuan-class submarines from what little is available in the public domain.
The essay says that the Type 039 was initially planned to be used as an anti-ship cruise missile platform, capable of remaining submerged for prolonged periods. To this end, the Chinese developed an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. The indigenous AIP was installed in the Type 039A submarines for the first time.
China’s mass production capability has made the Yuan class the most numerous air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines worldwide.
Succeeding the Type 039 class of submarines, the 039A saw improvements in the hull design by installing indigenously developed shock absorbers and anti-sonar tiles to reduce noise levels and risk of detection.
The satellite first caught public attention in May 2021 when satellite caught a glimpse of it. The upgraded Type 39C has a stealth sail to reduce detectability.
Evading Active Sonar
The open-source intelligence community has concluded that the attack submarine was designed to evade active sonar. Its stealth sail, angled in shape, could counter medium-frequency sonar by complicating enemy classification and delaying response times.
The Chinese submarine is a one-of-a-kind vessel currently operational with an angled sail. The use of angled stealth shaping is gaining momentum. The Swedish A-26-class and Germany’s Type-212CD-class will incorporate similar features, even encasing the whole submarine in an angled outer hull.
The predominant factor behind this trend is mainstream usage transitioning from passive to active sonar. As submarines are being constructed with enhanced stealth capabilities, the effectiveness of passive detection has diminished, leading to a surge in the adoption of active sonar. Active sonar entails emitting a sonar signal and analyzing the resulting echoes, while passive sonar relies on listening for sounds emitted by submarines.
China's Type-039C submarine sea trial.
Super quiet conventional submarines like these are perfect for defensive wars in seas around China. pic.twitter.com/n3HDRzxPjP
— Zhao DaShuai 无条件爱国🇨🇳 (@zhao_dashuai) December 20, 2023
Active sonar is anticipated to have a growing role in underwater warfare, including among submarines. Simultaneously, advancements in uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs) allow navies to relocate the active sonar emitters from the primary submarine to a disposable drone. Although the strategies and technologies are still being developed, the overall trajectory is evident. Hence, it is unsurprising that submarine designers are willing to compromise hydrodynamics to integrate these innovative sail shapes.
The Type 039C Yuan-class submarine incorporates stealth capabilities to counter medium-frequency sonars and create challenges for enemy vessel identification. China’s Type 039C submarine signifies a significant advancement in conventional submarine designs and could have been utilized in military drills simulating a blockade around Taiwan.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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