Chinese Navy's Little-Known Cruise Missile Submarine
Chinese attack submarines, like the Type-093 Shang Class Submarine, emphasize anti-ship cruise missiles. The story of the Chinese Navy’s (PLAN) submarine launched anti-ship missiles goes back to a very interesting submarine in the 1980s. The single Type-033G Wuhan class introduced the YJ-8 anti-ship missile.
It seems that the project was started in 1976, in parallel to the YJ-8 missile. Conversion of a type-033 hull into the new configuration started in 1980. By 1985 it was ready for the first test launches. At the time this was a major step forward for the Chinese Navy (PLAN).
The type-033G had a similar configuration to some Soviet cruise missiles submarines. Like the ECHO and JULIET classes it’s missile armament was carried in sealed tubes (bins) on top of her hull. When stowed they were laid horizontal, flush with the casing. To fire, the submarine had to surface. The tubes would be raised to about 20-30 degrees and the doors at each end opened. The missile was then fired in the same manner as on a surface ship.
*Early Soviet (Russian) cruise-missile submarines had a similar pop-up missile tube configuration. The nuclear-powered ECHO (shown here) and conventionally powered JULIETT Classes had 8 and 4 tubes respectively.
The Soviet Union had moved on from surfaced launched cruise missiles decades earlier. Instead, from the PAPA and CHARLIE classes onwards they used slanted bins completely under the casing. These were combined with missiles which could be launched while the submarine was submerged.
By the time that the Type-033G was starting missile trials in 1985, the first OSCAR-II class cruise missile submarines were rolling out of Soviet Yards. Although in some conceptual respects similar the boats themselves were generations apart. The OSCAR-II, which is still in service today, was heavily armed with 24 massive ‘carrier killing’ P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 SHIPWRECK) missiles. These supersonic missiles could be launched from from a submerged position. And they used a combination of internal and external guidable, plus salvo teamwork, to hit targets over the horizon. The Type-033G meanwhile, was armed with just six small YJ-8 missiles. These were relatively modern, roughly equivalent to Exocet, but were quite short ranged. This was because targeting was limited to the submarines own mast mounted radar.
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So in many respects the Type-033G was obsolete before it left the drawing board. It is the definition of how far behind Chinese submarine development lagged in the 1980s. The base hull, the ROMEO class, was loud and generally out dated. Adding the missiles in external bins which could only be launched while surfaced equated it to a early 1960s Russian design. And it still lacked viable anti-submarine capabilities.
But maybe that is too harsh. The Type-033G wasn’t intended as a major submarine class, at least so it seems. Instead it was only a test platform, a proof of concept.
All this criticism doesn’t mean that the Type-033G was not interesting. Or valuable to the PLAN. But it is inevitable that it will be remembered as an anachronistic oddball, curious rather than inspiring. Such a submarine might be easily forgotten, so naturally it is important that we don’t let that happen.
Instead of surface launched YJ-8s, the future of Chinese submarine-launched anti-ship missiles lay in developing a torpedo tube compatible version. This involves adding folding wings and encasing it in a launch canister which shot to the surface before the missile itself was launched. This basic approach is the same as the US Navy’s Sub-Harpoon and famous French SM39 Exocet.
The YJ-8 carried aboard the Type-033G (upper) had fixed wings meaning that it required a large diameter launch tube. The newer missiles carried aboard modern PLAN submarines (lower) have folding wings. This allows then to fit inside a launch container which is ejected from the torpedo tubes.
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This arrangement is much more versatile and can be carried by almost any of the PLAN’s submarines with only modest modifications. Targeting is still challenging but over the years the viability of offboard targeting has improved. So now almost every submarine in the PLAN is much more capable as a missile platform than the Type-033G ever would have been. But the Type-033G provided valuable empierce, it is part of the PLAN's rapid modernization and indigenous drive.
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