Assessing the size, strength and location of China's submarine fleet.

Chinese submarine

By Henry Boyd, Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis, and Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis

A substantial increase by 2020 in the size of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine force has been widely anticipated, including in successive US Office of Naval Intelligence and Department of Defense (DoD) reports. However, the actual size of China’s operational fleet appears to have remained remarkably consistent over the last 15 years. And the PLAN seems still to face considerable constraints – with crewing, base facilities and to some extent shipyard capacity – in expanding its force significantly in the near term.

Nuclear-powered submarines

The PLAN nuclear-powered attack (SSN), guided-missile (SSGN) and ballistic-missile (SSBN) submarine fleet is currently comprised of:

  • Four Jin-class (Type-094) SSBNs
  • Up to three Han-class (Type-091) SSNs
  • Two Shang I-class (Type-093) SSNs
  • Up to four improved Shang II-class (Type-093A) SSNs/SSGNs

The Jin-class SSBNs and the Shang I-class SSNs are all based at Yalong Bay, on Hainan island, as part of the South Sea Fleet. Recent satellite imagery shows all four Jin boats simultaneously in port, suggesting that China does not currently have a policy of continuous-at-sea-deterrence. The fourth boat in the Jin class was launched in 2011, but a fifth of class has yet to be launched.

The Shang IIs appear to have started entering service in late 2016, leaving the status of the older Han-class vessels unclear. Without an overall increase in the number of trained crews, the Shang IIs can be expected to replace the legacy Hans on an almost one-for-one basis. Given their age, it seems unlikely that the PLAN would seek to keep the Hans in service with replacements on hand; it is more likely that some, if not all, of the remaining Han-class hulls have been left with, at most, skeleton crews in order to release personnel to ‘work-up’ the new Shang-IIs.

Unless another Jin-class or Shang II-class hull is launched at Bohai – China’s only nuclear-powered submarine yard – later this year, it is unlikely that any additional nuclear-powered vessels will be commissioned into service before 2020. The Pentagon does not expect construction of a new class of Chinese SSBNs to begin before the early 2020s. Meanwhile, Shang II production appears to have stopped for now at four.

Diesel-powered submarines

The PLAN’s three fleets each operate two flotillas of diesel-powered attack submarines. Each flotilla has an establishment strength of eight boats, for a total operational requirement of 48. To meet that requirement, the PLAN nominally has access to some 54 hulls.

However, it is not clear that all of the 25 older Ming-class (Type-035) and Song-class (Type-039) vessels included in this 54 actually remain in service, while a considerable number of the new Yuan-class (Type-039B) hulls still do not seem to have officially commissioned into the PLAN. Based on Chinese media reporting and the latest available commercial satellite imagery, the current composition of the six flotillas appears to be as follows:

  • North Sea Fleet: 15–16 boats
    • 2nd Flotilla (Qingdao) 8 x Song class (Type-039)
    • 12th Flotilla (Lushun) 3–4 x Yuan class (Type-039B) , 3–5 x Ming class (Type-035)
  • East Sea Fleet: 16–17 boats
    • 22nd Flotilla (Daxie Dao) 8–9 x Yuan class (Type-039A/B)
    • 42nd Flotilla (Xiangshan) 8 x Kilo class (Project 877/Project 636/Project 636M)
  • South Sea Fleet: 16 boats
    • 72nd Flotilla (Xiachuan Dao) 8 x Ming class (Type-035)
    • 32nd Flotilla (Yulin) 4 x Song class (Type-039), 4 x Kilo class (Project 636M)

Although there were up to five Ming-class hulls still based at Lushun in mid-2017, it is probable that some of these vessels, like the Han-class SSNs above, now have only minimum crewing, given the availability of new Yuan-class boats awaiting transfer to Lushun. The actual number of crewed and operational Ming-class submarines is therefore probably no higher than 11.

The fate of the original Song-class hull (320) is also unclear. Given the less than satisfactory nature of the original design, which prompted numerous modifications, it is possible that it has been deemed surplus to requirements. Given these caveats, the current operational fleet therefore most likely only comprises 48 hulls:

  • 11 Ming class (Type-035)
  • 12 Song class (Type-039)
  • 12 Kilo class (2 Project 877, 2 Project 636 and 8 Project 636M)
  • 13 Yuan class (Type-039A/B)

China’s shipbuilding industry appears capable of producing three Yuan-class submarines a year; two at Wuchang and a third at Jiangnan, if required. With the successful construction of at least 17 hulls, estimates of a total of 20 Yuan-class boats in service by 2020 seem to be entirely reasonable, offering the prospect of modest fleet expansion should the PLAN seek it. However, such expansion would require the training of additional crews, as well as keeping all of the remaining Ming-class hulls in service despite their age, high-noise levels and relative lack of capability.

The fleet in 2020

In light of the continuing presence of legacy submarine platforms in the fleet, the PLAN is likely to continue to use its submarine-production capacity to replace these older vessels in the near term. This focus on improving quality rather than expanding quantity will limit the PLAN’s requirement for heavy investment in extra personnel and infrastructure, although the 72nd Flotilla’s Mings may need to be retained at Xiachuan Dao until its berths can be upgraded to accept newer submarine designs. Much like today, the operational fleet in 2020 is likely to be around 58 boats, as follows:

  • SSBN: four
    • Four Jin class (Type-094)
  • SSN/SSGN: six
    • Two Shang I class (Type-093)
    • Four Shang II class (Type-093A)
  • SSK: 48
    • Four Ming class (Type-035)
    • 12 Song class (Type-039)
    • 12 Kilo class (Project 877/Project 636/Project 636M)
    • 20 Yuan class (Type-039A/B)

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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