Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AO, CSC is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

Submarine development and construction is a notoriously opaque subject, hard enough to analyse in open societies and even more difficult in a secretive environment such as that of China's military. Nevertheless, open sources are providing information that indicates important trends and potential problems in China's ambitious efforts to create a second-strike ballistic missile submarine force, at the same time as it produces both nuclear attack submarines and large numbers of modern conventionally propelled patrol units.

The Taiwanese report cited in Sam Roggeveen's post claiming that none of China's new ballistic missile submarines (or the accompanying missile) is yet fully operational may be a straw in the wind to suggest that the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is struggling to achieve its ambitions in this complex area of naval capability.

Another comes in the recent reports that China plans to order at least four of an export version of the Russian LADA (Type 677) class patrol submarine. Although there are significant doubts as to the status of the plan, what is interesting about this scheme is the suggestion that the Russians themselves have accepted that their protracted development of the LADA needs help. Only three boats have been completed since the first was laid down in 1996 and it is arguable that even the lead unit is not yet fully operational. The failure of the type has forced Russia to revive KILO (Type 636) production for its own navy.

Russia has also now apparently resumed a cooperative relationship with the Italian Fincantieri shipbuilder, with the obvious hope of incorporating western European technology into its boats (something that had already to be done for the water-making systems and batteries of the units Russia exported to India in previous years).

If China is joining this program, even if only as a buyer, this indicates that it is not confident its indigenous production effort will achieve results in good time. This may be an issue of quantity – in China's strategic situation, numbers have a value all their own – but it is much more likely to be one of quality.

This should not be a surprise. China faces extraordinary challenges in effectively managing three separate major submarine programs from its own resources. Despite national security and commercial intellectual property restrictions, most Western submarine operators can and do share a great deal of technology and doctrine through alliance arrangements and bilateral relationships. China enjoys no such access (at least not legitimately so).

It has had to hedge its bets before, with the purchase of a dozen Russian KILO class boats – four in 1993 and eight in 2002. While the first buy could be seen as providing a window on the much more advanced state of Russian design and construction at the time, the second can only have been because the Chinese-designed SONG (Type 039) class was not proving to be all that the PLA-N wanted. Certainly, the first unit needed several years of trials before commissioning and the second and subsequent boats had to be greatly modified. 

The SONG class has been followed by the YUAN (Type 041; pictured), whose appearance suggests that its design was strongly influenced by that of the KILO. This boat is now in large scale production and Jane's Fighting Ships predicts a class size of 20. However, many of its systems and sub-systems represent older technology, and a truly up to date design will be required to meet the operational challenges of the future.

Chinese participation in a Russo-Italian program may provide the access it needs to a range of technologies, although Russia is likely to agree to the scheme only if China buys enough boats to avoid the accusation that its intent is simply reverse engineering. 

This will not, in the short term, solve China's problems with its ballistic missile submarines or the nuclear attack boats, but it will help relieve pressure on China's ship design personnel and facilities – pressure which must be intense, given the number of construction programs the PLA-N has in hand for both surface and sub-surface units. It is not often realised that limited stocks of drawing-office design expertise, draughtsmen and naval architects have long been one of the major constraints for naval development in every nation with pretensions to building its own warships, including, at times, both the UK and the US. This is a reality China is now facing.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence.