10:15 GMT +312 December 2019
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    A Chinese Navy submarine attends an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy on April 23, 2009 off Qingdao in Shandong Province

    New Breakthrough Chinese Submarine Tech Changes Balance of Power in Asia-Pacific

    © AFP 2019 / POOL / Guang Niu
    Military & Intelligence
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    A top Chinese naval engineer has revealed that China is fitting the Chinese Navy's next-gen submarines with a cutting-edge silent propulsion technology, putting them "way ahead of the United States." Sputnik contributor Vasily Kashin investigates the new technology, and its implications for the strategic balance in the Far East.

    This week, the South China Morning Post published a story on a new silent propulsion technology, known as the Integrated Electrical Propulsion System (IEPS), perfected by Chinese military engineers for use aboard the People's Liberation Army Navy's next-generation of nuclear-powered attack (Type 095) and ballistic missile (Type 096) submarines.

    Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a highly respected Chinese naval engineer, confirmed that engineers had developed a production-ready IEPS system. According to Ma, the system has already been fitted aboard the Chinese Navy's newest nuclear submarines. "[Our technology] is now way ahead of the United States, which has also been developing similar technology," he said.

    Ma stressed that the Navy's "ultimate goal" for IEPS system "was aimed at solving the problem of deploying high-energy radio-frequency (HERF) weapons onboard," indicating that here, Chinese engineers were quickly catching up with US designs. A form of energy-directed weapon, HERF systems are designed to fire focused energy at targets. Such weapons require vast amounts of energy to function.

    Commenting on the prospects of the Chinese IEPS in an analysis for Sputnik China, military analyst Vasily Kashin emphasized that if this technology is perfected, its most significant implication will be the impact it has on the future of China's strategic nuclear forces.

    Meanwhile, he added, "a number of important points regarding the characteristics and purpose of the Chinese system remain unknown."

    Laying out the basics of IEPS technology, Kashin explained that "an Integrated Electrical Propulsion System assumes the lack of a mechanical connection between the main power plant (nuclear, gas-turbine, diesel, etc.) and the propulsion device (propeller, waterjet impellor, etc.). Solving this problem allows for a reduction in the noise produced [by the vessel], since it means that there is no direct connection between the power plant and the vessel's hull. It also allows for the more efficient supply of power, freely redistributing energy between propulsion and other systems."

    The latter aspect is where the HERF or directed-energy weapons come in, the analyst noted. The efficient use of energy "opens the way for the installation of weapons systems which have extremely high energy consumption – for example, advanced electromagnetic guns or laser weapons." The latter of course, are relevant only aboard surface ships equipped with IEPS.

    According to Kashin, the nations with the capability to build nuclear submarines can basically be broken down into two groups, depending on the propulsion method used. 

    "Until recently, American, British, and Russian nuclear submarines have used steam produced by the onboard nuclear power plant for propulsion; the steam would drive a turbo-gear unit, rotating the propeller. At the same time, French and Chinese nuclear submarines have used the principle of electric propulsion. The nuclear power plant set in motion turbines which are not connected to propellers, and which pump all their power into electric generators. The current from these generators, in turn, sets propulsion systems in motion."

    Generally, Kashin noted, the latter setup means decreased noise, but at the cost of a drop in maximum speed. Furthermore, "a great deal also depends on the quality of the installation itself, and other factors. Despite the fact that the Chinese began to use electric propulsion on its subs before many other countries, until recently, Chinese nuclear submarines were considered to be among the noisiest."

    Effectively, the expert stressed that if China was preparing to equip surface ships with modern IEPS technology, this would be a very serious step in the development of its surface fleet. Nevertheless, "the experience of Western countries suggests that it will take some time to establish the proper operation of such installations, and to reduce their cost," he added.

    "As for nuclear submarines, in this case we are not talking about the introduction of a revolutionary electric propulsion system, as much as some very rapid progress in the creation of [such a] system, including through the use of new types of propulsion systems," Kashin noted.

    Ultimately, the commentator noted that "if China really achieves a sharp increase in the stealthiness of its nuclear subs, it will close the main gap in its military potential – the weakness of its submarine and anti-submarine forces. If Chinese nuclear subs reach silent operation indicators comparable to Western and Russian subs, it will make sense to rapidly increase the size of its submarine fleet. The fact that such a build-up is being prepared is evidenced by the expansion of the Bohai Shipyard [in Huludao, northeast China] in recent years. According to various sources, it is now possible to build 5-6 nuclear subs at the shipyard simultaneously."

    Finally, Kashin explained that the latter development will allow for a rapid growth of the naval component of China's strategic nuclear forces, and alterations in the ratio of nuclear weapons deployed on the ground versus at sea. "It can be assumed that the construction of the prospective large nuclear-powered Type 096 submarines has been timed with the completion of development and testing of the IEPS system, and will now develop at considerable speed."

    Model of Type 096 Tang SSBN submarine
    Model of Type 096 Tang SSBN submarine


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    propulsion system, technology, submarine, People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China
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