Submarine Guide: Chinese Navy's Latest Type-039C Yuan Class
Already the backbone of the Chinese Navy's (PLAN) submarine force. The AIP equipped Yuan Class now looks set for another major enhancement. The latest version, first seen in May this year, may show that the PLAN is again catching up to leading submarine technologies. It is also a sign that they are innovating and navigating their own route.
Few details of the latest iteration, provisionally dubbed Type-039C by Western analysts, have emerged. What is clear however is that it is very different, and by implication more capable, than previous versions. I have already done a 'What We Know' article for Naval News. This article is a much deeper dive and includes additional insights.
Externally the new boat has a distinctive new sail with a chine running along the upper part creating a stealthy appearance. This bears a passing resemblance to the Swedish A-26 design. But the similarities are only superficial. Other enhancements, possibly more consequential, include an integral towed array and possibly a new anechoic coating.
When it first appeared at a Chinese shipyard in 2006 the Type-039A Yuan Class submarine made quite a stir. Firstly it was evidently much more modern than the preceding Song Class, and secondly because it wasn't forewarned. China has repeatedly reminded us that it is capable of building submarines without giving Western observers prior notice. Other countries, generally, cannot build submarines in such secrecy, which is partly what makes Chinese subs so interesting. And in May 2021 they did it again with this latest version.
The labels of the Yuan variants is ambiguous. Reliable Chinese sources have yet to confirm the official line so Western analysts have resorted to guessing. In general however there are three major iterations of the class, distinguished by the sail. The original Type-039A had a clean upright sail with almost vertical leading edge. Overall the boat showed clear influences of the Russian KILO Class, which China already operated. Then in around 2013 a new more curved sail was seen with blended leading edge ('cusp'). This was dubbed Type-039B. Note that modernized 'A's became 'AGs', and there is some confusion on the designations already. By my way of counting the new submarine becomes Type-039C although many observers favor Type-039D.
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However the overall capabilities of the Yuans, relative to older Chinese designs, are reasonably well appreciated. Over the years China has been slightly less cagey with this design because it is busy exporting them. So far the customers are Pakistan (8) and Thailand (1). In the process several cutaway models of have appeared at defense shows revealing the overall layout. It is a three-level boat with a Stirling generator type AIP (Air Independent Power, also written Air independent Propulsion).
Enhancements over Type-039A/B
Although we do not yet know of internal differences. The basic hull appears to be the same size. And we do know that weapons are loaded / unloaded via the upper pair of torpedo tubes in the exact same manner as the earlier Yuan and Song class boats. This is a strong indicator that the internal arrangement is largely unchanged.
However the sail suggests that surface stealth has become an important consideration for the PLAN. This may be to do with the relatively long transits in and out of ports. Or it may imply a special forces focus where the submarine may be more exposed at times, although there is no supporting evidence of this.
The likeness to the Swedish A-26 Blekinge-class submarine is often over-stated. While they are connected by idea of a chined upper sail, the hydrodynamic configuration is actually very different. The chinese boat has a less blended lower part and the fairwater planes (hydroplanes) are mounted very differently.
More significantly, China was experimenting with angled sails like this on a Type-035 Ming class submarine in around 2010. This was only the upper part of the sail (the Mings had a very old-fashioned sail arrangement with a small upper section around the periscopes).
The Type-035 Ming Class submarines were obsolete before they even hit the water. However at least one boat was modified around 2010 with a chined upper sail, similar to that applied to the latest Yuan class.
The aft casing, which is more angular than previous versions, has been extended aft to contain a towed array sonar (TAS) reel. This feeds out through the upper rudder structure, which has been enlarged. This capability, something which appeared to be missing on earlier versions, may be a major capability jump. It may make them more formidable anti-submarine platforms.
One more subtle difference is that the sail and upper part of the casing appear to have a new anechoic coating. The rubber tiles visible on earlier Yuans appear to be missing, although they are still used on the lower hull. The coating does appear rubberized and is slightly uneven.
We can speculate about the adoption of newer technologies. The sail is in the same location, and approximately the same overall dimensions, as earlier boats. So while optronic masts may be added, it is not likely to be a radical departure from the existing boats.
The biggest question mark concerns propulsion. Yuans feature Stirling generator type AIP. It is possible that fuel cell AIP may be in use but since the overall dimensions of the hull appear unchanged I think that this is less likely. Similarly there is speculation of lithium-ion battery technology but again there is no evidence for this.
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The torpedo room is located on the upper deck. This may mean that the curvature of the hull reduces the total weapons stowage to 16, although 18 is normally reported. (And I used 18 as an assumption in the World Rankings of Submarine Weapons Loads).
Chiefly, the weapons load is likely to include anti-ship missiles, with ship-strike being its primary mission. Anti-ship weapons are believed to include the latest YJ-18B supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. This has a relatively long range, perhaps 290 nautical miles. It is also likely that the legacy YJ-82 weapon, loosely equivalent of submarine launched Exocet, can also be carried. This has a much shorter range, around 20 nautical miles, but it should be remembered that long-range missile shots require offboard targeting.
The torpedoes are likely to include both the Yu-6 thermal powered torpedoes and the electric-powered type (designation unknown). Both weapons are wire guided dual-purpose (anti-ship, anti-submarine) weapons and are relatively modern. Bottom mines are also believed to be a standard part of the PLAN submarine arsenal.
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Outlook - major production model?
The U.S. DoD projects a total of 42 Yuans by 2025, excluding export models. If so, around 20-25 may be the new version.
However it is currently unclear whether this is intended as a production version, or possibly just research & development. Some have speculated that it might be a rebuilt older hull. That seems plausible, although I think that is less likely.
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