China’s latest nuclear submarine design appear to include a shelter capable of holding a miniature submarine for special operations forces (SOF) not unlike vehicles used to deliver Navy SEALs to shore from U.S. nuclear attack boats, according to an image in wide circulation in Chinese online networks.
The Chinese boat — a Type-93T or Shang-class nuclear attack submarine — features a hangar for the SOF submersible that would allow People’s Liberation Army troops to discrete deployment much like U.S. forces, according to a translation of a March 17 story in the state-run Reference News.
The image was first reported in English by Jane’s Defence Weekly on Tuesday.
Reference News said unlike hangars for U.S. SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDV), the hangar on the improved Shang-class attack boat could only accommodate the first two-thirds of the vehicle so “it enters [the] dock space as simple as an ink pen cap.”
The description implies some limitations on the capability.
“Consequently, as transfer of personnel to the SDV cannot easily be achieved with the submarine dived, the graphic shows SF personnel being transferred to the submarine by helicopter,” read the Jane’s report.
The Chinese report on the delivery vehicle follow a consistent trend in Chinese ship design, according U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World author Eric Wertheim.
“It shows that they are really looking at Western designs and take lessons learned and look at how we use our subs and incorporate some those features into their own,” he told USNI News on Wednesday.
That trend is also evident in the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) latest guided missile destroyer (DDG) designs which bear striking resemblance to Western DDGs.
Aside from the SOF capability, the revelation of the improved Shang sheds some light on the otherwise secretive PLAN submarine program.
The first Shang-class attack boat was launched in 2002, but the Chinese paused production after launching the second boat in 2003, according to a 2014 U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence assessment of Chinese shipbuilding.
“After nearly 10 years, China resumed production with four additional hulls of an improved [Shang] variant, the first of which was launched in 2012,” read the study.
The boats were slated to replace the aging Type-91 Han-class boats that entered the PLAN fleet in the mid-1980s, however there were wide reports the Chinese had problems silencing the reactor plant that may have led to the pause in the improved class development.
In addition to the hangar, the image showed what appear to be four sonar areas along the side of the boat and fixtures for a towed sonar array, according to the Jane’s analysis.
In a wider context, China’s submarine abilities improve and their operations expand beyond their home waters it is making neighbors nervous.
On Tuesday, the Indian Navy expressed concern over a Shang SSN that patrolled near its coastline from December to February, according to a report in The Telegraph.