Unlike the U.S. Navy, both Russia and China continue to operate non-nuclear attack submarines in addition to nuclear ones. They are cheaper and have some advantages compared to nuclear boats, especially inshore. And they can be exported to other countries. Now Russia and China may pool their knowledge to develop a new generation of non-nuclear subs. But exactly what it will be, or why, is still a mystery.
According to RIA Novosti, a state-controlled Russian news agency, Russia and China are collaborating on a new submarine design (in Russian). The project is being coordinated by Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation.
Russia has a proud tradition of submarine building, creating many of the most powerful and largest subs in the world, so it’s not surprising that Russian submarine technology is seen as significantly ahead of China’s. Russia helped China develop its submarine building industry, giving it the plans to the Golf Class ballistic missile submarine and Romeo Class attack submarine during the Cold War. More recently Russia supplied China with Kilo Class diesel-electric attack submarines.
But China has gone its own way with submarine design and has the indigenous capability to build any category of sub. And while there are still categories of submarine where Russia is clearly ahead, in the field of non-nuclear submarines it is less clear cut. Certainly China’s capabilities in this space should not be underestimated.
One important area where China may be ahead is in propulsion. China is building AIP (Air Independent Power) submarines while Russia has struggled to field this technology, though it was a pioneer of AIP in the early stages of the Cold War. Russia’s current Lada Class boat was expected to have AIP but it has yet to be fitted. Given Russia’s prowess in submarine design and construction the issue may be more about investment than engineering. But today it is fair to say that China is ahead in AIP.
Advanced batteries might be another space. Submarines are only now switching to lithium-ion batteries. The world’s first Li-ion subs were Japanese, with South Korean and Italian subs to follow. China has also been rumored to be adopting this technology, making it another area where China might well be ahead of Russia.
So have the roles reversed, and might Russia in effect be looking to buy a largely Chinese non-nuclear submarine?
Combining the hull technology of one nation with the combat systems and weapons of the other is another possibility. For example, giving a Chinese submarine Russian sonar and weapons, or fitting a Russian submarine with Chinese battery and AIP technology.
Meanwhile the famous Russian submarine design bureau Malachite is promoting its own submarine design. The P-750B ‘Serval’ is 214 ft long and features a type of AIP which uses gas turbines fed by stored liquid oxygen. The design has been prominent at recent Russian arms expos, including the Army-2020 exhibition currently underway in Moscow. Chinese ship builders also promote their own designs. It is not clear therefore exactly where this new joint submarine fits into either navy’s future line up.
Possibly the new submarine is not intended for the domestic navies of either country. Both compete on the international market, mainly with conventional attack submarines. China is getting an ever bigger share of this market with sales to Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A combined submarine may be a commercial consideration.
In the meantime Russia continues to order more of its existing non-nuclear submarine designs. An order has just been signed for construction of another Lada Class submarine as well as another of the older Improved-Kilo class boats.
So the prospect of a joint non-nuclear submarine currently raises more questions than answers. And like many defense projects reported in the Russian state media it may not come to anything in the end. Like submarine warfare itself, finding information on new submarines is often a waiting game.