HONG KONG, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- Some high-resolution images of China's Type 094 SSBN have shed new light on this mysterious strategic missile nuclear-powered submarine of the People's Liberation Army Navy. Satellite photos released by Google Earth reveal two of these new submarines at the Huludao Shipyard in northeast China.
The 094 SSBN's hull structure has been upgraded from the 092 SSBN, which means the later version is not a new submarine design. This indicates that despite almost 30 years of development, China's technological standard in the design of nuclear-powered submarines is still not very advanced.
Between the tall bulging SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) compartments and the submarine hull, there are quite large drainage holes. Nearly 100 drainage holes dot the SLBM compartment. This type of coarse structure is a sharp contrast to the clean and streamlined design of nuclear submarines in the United States, Britain and France.
The September 2007 issue of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly featured a comparative analysis of the subtle differences between the Type 092 and 094 SSBNs. The sail of the 094 is obviously higher than that of the 092. The section connecting the rear of the sail and the SLBM compartment is at an angle of 90 degrees on the 094, while this angle is approximately 85 degrees on the 092.
This is the most obvious difference between the two submarines; because of this, the SLBM compartment on the 094 is higher. This indicates that the 094 SSBN is fitted for the new 8,000-kilomter-range JL2 SLBM.
Nonetheless, the two 094 SSBNs at the Huludao Shipyard have not been fitted with JL2 SLBMs, because the draught is quite high. From the satellite photos it appears that the two 094 SSBNs are supposed to have the same draught and the same length.
In that regard, it is apparent that the 094 SSBN has not directly fired JL2 SLBMs up to the present time. This also confirms the analysis of U.S. intelligence agencies that JL2 SLBMs are not yet operational in the Chinese navy.
Sea tests of the 094 SSBN began in the summer of 2005. A general impression is that these submarines were constructed in a rush, which would explain the obvious traces of the earlier 092 model on the newer SSBN.
This also shows that the gap between China's technological standard in nuclear submarine design and the world's leading military powers is widening, and the mentality of the Chinese designers is somewhat ossified.
The hull design structure alone tells that the 094 SSBN's noise control technology is not comparable to that of European or U.S. submarines. This could be made up for by the 8,000-kilometer range of the JL2 SLBM, however.
The structural designs of the 094 SSBN and 093 SSN -- China's new nuclear attack submarine -- provide evidence that Russia was never involved in the design of these two Chinese strategic nuclear submarines. An authoritative designer at the Russian RUBIN Central Design Bureau has confirmed this on several occasions.
This author reported earlier that China had imported one Russian automatic welding machine for building nuclear submarines at the end of the 1990s, indicating that Russian technical assistance and guidance would have been expected in the construction of the 094 project. However, Russian experts in this field say they never knew what the automatic welding machines China imported were used for.
It is typical Chinese practice to import Russian equipment, but to seek technical guidance and maintenance work from Ukraine or Belarus. This not only helps China keep secret what it is working on, but also ensures that China does not have to rely solely on Russia.
China's internal military journals have disclosed that in the course of building the 094 China did invite experts from the Ukrainian Badon Research Institute, who provided technological guidance in the welding technologies for the submarine's reactors.
It seems that China built its latest SSBN using the fundamental design concept of the earlier 092 version as a shortcut to enable rapid deployment of strategic nuclear submarines as part of its effort to deter the United States from intervention in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
The 094 SSBN still has only 12 SLBM compartments. Modern strategic nuclear submarines in Europe and the United States are normally fitted with 16-24 SLBM compartments. Too few strategic ballistic missiles might not pose an effective nuclear deterrence against opponents.
The number of nuclear missiles fitted on board alone indicates that the overall operational capability of the 094 SSBN is only equivalent to the standard of U.S. or Soviet SSBNs in the late 1960s. Nonetheless, China has unveiled images of a strategic nuclear submarine fitted with 24 SLBMs, the design structure of which is still quite close to that of the 092/094 SSBN. This indicates that the next upgrade, the 096 SSBN, will carry more nuclear warheads.
The upgrading of the 092 SSBN in the mid-1990s gave the PLA navy the 092M, which was later used as the platform for the 094 SSBM development project. Since the first 094 SSBN has not yet officially entered service, the fact that the navy is building more 094 nuclear submarines implies it is satisfied with the results of a series of tests on the upgraded version 092M.
The 092M and 094's command and control systems appear to be basically the same, judging from the same structure of the sonar rectifier hoods fitted on the two types of submarines. The 092M SSBN is fitted with a 262B sonar system.
China's official documents say that an H/SQ G-207 flank sonar array is fitted on the 093 SSN, but it is not known whether this same sonar system has also been fitted on the 094 SSBN.
(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)