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The Questionable Quality of Mainland Chinese Submarines

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


Some analysts suggest that China is getting aggressive in the West Philippine Sea for a good reason. It’s a part of its long-time strategy to establish itself as a global power, and exceed the west in terms of military might. And one way China can do that is to put on a scary face, flex its armed forces, and intimidate the smaller nations of South East Asia into submission. In this way, it could easily occupy a territory and establish a foothold in the Pacific, without armed struggles. At some point, though, some South East Asian Nations are learning to hold their ground, though Philippines is criticized for the seemingly cowardly way it handles the Chinese incursions.

Occupation without firing a shot is crucial for China here, for any violent actions would earn it the ire of the world. For as of now, despite improvements in its military hardware, the PLA is still way behind most of the western powers. Men and machines are still flawed. Its inexperienced army personnel, with questionable qualifications and training, are a far cry from the battle-hardened soldiers of the U.S. who saw action in the Middle East.

And as for machines, the Mainland Chinese homegrown equipment has some quality issues to deal with. And one of them is their submarine programs.

The PLA Submarines

An underground submarine base in Yulin.

An underground submarine base in Yulin.

Mainland China has a dedicated branch in its armed forces for submarines. The People’s Liberation Army Navy Submarine forces comprises three fleets; North Sea, East Sea and South Sea Fleet. Under its command are many types of submarines, both nuclear and conventionally powered. It operates a number of bases, equipped with underground facilities accessible by tunnels.

At present, it has 66 submarines. Again, the fleet consists of conventional and nuclear-powered subs, though sources suggest that some are of obsolete designs. Nevertheless, the nuclear-powered Type 094 and the Type 092 classes are equipped to launch ballistic missiles, while the Type 093 and 091 (also nuclear powered) are attack subs. China was the first Asian country to produce its homegrown nuclear submarine, and the fifth in the world to do so, though conventional powered subs are still an important part of its assets. These subs use diesel-electric engines instead, and as in the case of the currently being developed Type 032, they can remain submerged for 30 days and fire ballistic missiles.

With boomer subs in its fleet, and the ability to produce nuclear-powered underwater vessels, we could say that China’s submarine fleet is a force to be reckoned with, not something to underestimate. It's not considered topnotch though; the variety of issues it faces suggest that it is not ready to take on Western submarine forces yet.

The 2003 Chinese Submarine Disaster

The Chinese Sub involved in the disaster.

The Chinese Sub involved in the disaster.

The quality of the Mainland Chinese military equipment has always been a source of concern, particularly for the buyers. Faulty is how other countries define it. That was the case with Myanmar and Kenya, who expressed displeasure over the weapons they received. In one incident, few Kenyan personnel died after a disastrous failure of its Chinese-made VN-4 armored personnel carrier.

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And now that we speak of deaths due to substandard equipment, China itself once became a victim of its own faulty weapon.

The Type 035 submarine class is a modernized redesign of the older Chinese models. To power itself, this attack sub relied on conventional diesel engine, and it could launch cruise missiles from its torpedo tubes. But back in April 2003, a submarine in its class with a hull number No. 361 was involved in a fatal accident.

Back then, China was increasing its training of its submarines, to prepare itself against the much more powerful U.S. Pacific fleet. But somewhere in the Yellow Sea, the submarine 361 suffered a mechanical failure while doing its exercise. It failed to surface, with its entire crew suffocating to death. It remained adrift until a small flotilla of fishermen discovered its periscope sticking out of the water.

Going back to the submarine itself, again, it is worth noting that it is a modernized version of the already outdated “Ming-class”. The Ming-class itself was described as nothing special, just a copy of an old Soviet designed sub.

The Noisy Chinese Submarine

The noisy Shang-class.

The noisy Shang-class.

Stealth is why submarines are feared. Their ability to swim under the tides, unseen by surface ships as they advance to their intended target, was first realized when the Confederate Hunley sank her first ship. In the Second World War, U-Boats were the bane of the Allied vessels, and with ever-evolving modern technology, subs are more of a threat now than ever.

In the case of PLA, harnessing the stealthy potential of the subs was never a smooth journey, particularly with their nuclear boomers. Their development was marred by difficulties, and sometimes accidents involving radiation leak, and fires. The way the subs fired their missiles was underwhelming, with the range barely reaching the northern half of Japan. And by the time a newer boomer sub took the place of the troubled Xia class, it inherited a problem that still plagued the modern submarine force of China: noise.

In one incident in East China Sea, a nuclear attack sub belonging to PLA (the Shang-class) surfaced around Japan’s Senkaku islands. Sounds familiar? Indeed, China was up to its game again of entering someone else’s territory uninvited to claim it as its own, and in this case, it was within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. But this incursion ended in failure, as rumors had it that the sub was forced to surface after being detected by Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force. In fact, after the sub surfaced, it simply sailed home.

The thing here was that the Shang class was claimed by China as quiet, rivaling western subs. Yet it was estimated that it was noisier than the Russian Victor Class III. And the fact that Japan managed to track it down for two days was not exactly a great thing. When war broke underwater, the quieter sub wins. Being louder makes one a good target for incoming torpedoes. To make matters worse, the Jin-class, a boomer, also displayed the same problem of noise. According to estimates, the noise level exceeds that of the Russian Delta III subs.

The Mental Health of the Crew

PLA Submariners.

PLA Submariners.

From the looks of it, the PLA submarine fleet never met the standards of western safety and performance. People point out that prestige matters for PLA over might. And if that’s the case, then PLA needs to consider the mental health issues of its submarine crews. Compared to the army troops, Chinese submariners showed higher rates of anxiety, paranoia, phobia and somatization. As China upped their claims in the South China Sea, its submariners were subjected to more demanding tasks of sailing in the contested water for three months. During this time, the crew were confined to the dark and cluttered corners of their vessels, exposed to artificial lights and noises that could induce sleep deprivation. The stress doubles when serving in a nuclear submarine, where the threat of a disaster fuels ever-looming nightmares.


  1. "China's submarine force: an overview". IISS. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  2. Sutton, H. I. "Chinese Navy Submarines Are Protected By Underground Tunnels". Forbes. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  3. Roblin, Sebastien (16 February 2018). "In 2003, a Chinese Submarine Sank Mysteriously. How the Crew Died Is Horrifying." National Interest.
  4. Mizokami, Kyle (29 January 2018). "Are China’s Nuclear Subs Too Noisy for Their Own Good?" Popular Mechanics.
  5. Chinese submarine sailors report significant mental health problems in rare study. (2 February 2021). Retrieved from

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