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Satellites spot likely new Chinese nuke-powered attack sub

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type-39B submarine. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor/U.S. Navy)
May 17, 2022

Satellite photos taken over a shipyard in northern China may indicate it is developing a new type of nuclear-powered submarine.

Earlier this month, the U.S. geospatial intelligence firm AllSource Analysis tweeted a photo taken by the commercial satellite imaging firm Planet Labs, with the caption, “GEOINT analysis from 26 April to 03 May 2022 shows a possible new class of submarine at Huludao Port, China.”

AllSource Analysis said the images showed the likely submarine measures approximately 110 meters (360 feet) long, with a beam measuring approximately 10-meters. The vessel also has forward control fins on its sail. The geospatial intelligence firm observed little evidence of large hatches along the vessel’s hull casing, save for two possible escape hatches. The firm also noted a cruciform rudder at the back of the vessel with a “possibly shrouded propulsion system.”

Based on its observations of the vessel, the firm assessed “that this could possibly be a new type” of nuclear-powered attack submarine, “although at this stage GEOINT is not able to confirm.”

A naval expert who spoke to Defense News said he has “moderately high confidence” that the likely submarine also has a row of vertical launch system (VLS) cells for submarine-launched missiles. Those features are indicative of construction on a submarine equipped for land-attack and anti-ship missions, which fits with assessments that China is pursuing long-range offensive strike capabilities for its naval forces.

In a November report, the Pentagon predicted the Chinese military will start to build a new submarine model, the Type 093B “Shang-class” guided-missile nuclear attack submarine.

“This new Shang class variant will enhance the [Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s] anti-surface warfare capability and could provide a clandestine land-attack option if equipped with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs),” the November Pentagon report said.

The naval expert who spoke with Defense News said the satellite images showed the vessel at the Huludao shipyard may also have a shroud for pump-jet propulsion. Collin Koh, a researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Defense News that China has been studying submarine pump-jet propulsion.

China has been rapidly expanding and modernizing its naval forces in recent years. In 2019, China overtook the U.S. as the nation with the largest naval force by sheer number of ships. China has continued to expand its lead over the U.S. in terms of ships in its fleet.

At the same time these images suggest China is building vessels with VLS missile cells, the U.S. Navy’s 2023 budget has it set to shrink its number of VLS missile cells over the next few years.