The Submarine Force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Has Made Historic Breakthroughs in Torpedo and Missile Capabilities


The submarine force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has made significant advancements in torpedo and missile capabilities, marking a historic milestone in its maritime military power. The force is now focusing on developing nuclear-powered submarines while maintaining a fleet of conventional submarines, as stated by Wen Xuexing, a captain in a submarine detachment of the PLA Navy, during a report by China Central Television (CCTV) celebrating the 70th anniversary of the PLA Navy’s submarine force.

Wen’s unit, which is recognized as the PLA Navy’s first-ever submarine unit, has been pivotal in testing and training, earning the title of a “seed unit.” According to Wen, the development of the submarine force now includes both nuclear-powered and conventional boats, with an emphasis on nuclear power. China’s nuclear-powered submarines are now conducting regular patrols at sea, showcasing their enhanced capabilities.

Wen highlighted that the submarine force has achieved unprecedented success in maritime verifications of torpedo and missile attacks. These advancements have significantly bolstered the combat capabilities of the PLA Navy’s submarines, allowing them to operate in more distant regions with greater confidence. A rare clip aired by CCTV demonstrated a live torpedo successfully hitting the stern of a target ship, resulting in a powerful explosion that destroyed the ship. This visual evidence underscores the improved precision and destructive power of China’s submarine-launched weaponry.

The strategic role of the PLA Navy’s submarines extends beyond military might; they also contribute to the peaceful development of China’s economy by deterring potential invasions. The sensitive nature of submarine operations, which necessitate stealth and confidentiality, means that public information is often limited. However, occasional public disclosures can serve as a deterrent, according to a Chinese military expert quoted by the Global Times.

Historically, China’s submarine technologies lagged behind the leading global standards. Recent breakthroughs, however, indicate a significant leap forward, positioning China as a formidable player in undersea warfare. Media reports reveal that the PLA Navy currently operates a diverse fleet, including Type 039 series conventional submarines, Type 09III nuclear-powered attack submarines, and Type 09IV nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Moreover, more advanced models are reportedly under development, further expanding China’s underwater combat capabilities.

The Type 039 submarines, also known as the Song-class, represent a significant milestone in China’s indigenous submarine design. Introduced in the mid-1990s, these submarines incorporated Western technologies, including a German propulsion system and advanced noise-reduction features. The subsequent Yuan-class (Type 039A) submarines, which emerged in the early 2000s, further advanced these capabilities with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems, enhancing their operational stealth and endurance.

The PLA Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet has also seen considerable growth and modernization. The Type 093 (Shang-class) and Type 094 (Jin-class) submarines have been central to China’s strategic deterrence strategy. The Jin-class submarines, capable of carrying JL-2 and JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, provide China with its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, capable of striking targets across the globe.

Looking ahead, China is developing the next-generation Type 095 and Type 096 submarines. The Type 095 is expected to be a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN), while the Type 096 will be a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). These new classes are anticipated to feature significant advancements in stealth, propulsion, and weapon systems, potentially rivaling the capabilities of leading Western submarines.

The PLA Navy’s expansion and modernization efforts reflect China’s broader strategic ambitions in the maritime domain. As the world’s largest navy by number of ships, the PLA Navy is extending its operational reach beyond East Asia, conducting extended deployments and maintaining a continuous presence in strategic regions such as the Gulf of Aden and the Western Pacific. This global expansion is supported by a growing fleet of modern, multi-mission ships and submarines.

In addition to hardware advancements, the PLA Navy has focused on enhancing its training and operational doctrines. Since 2018, submarine training has become more rigorous and realistic, aligning with the strategic directive to improve the capabilities of China’s submarine force. This comprehensive training approach aims to prepare the submarine fleet for complex, long-range operations and joint missions with other branches of the PLA.

The development of China’s submarine force is closely monitored by global powers, particularly the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region. The strategic implications of China’s growing undersea capabilities are profound, as they enhance China’s ability to project power, protect its interests, and challenge the dominance of traditional naval powers.

In conclusion, the PLA Navy’s submarine force is undergoing a transformative phase, marked by significant technological advancements and strategic expansions. These developments not only enhance China’s military capabilities but also reshape the strategic landscape of naval power in the 21st century.

APPENDIX 1 – The Development of China’s Submarine Force and Missile Launch Capability from Submarines – All Types of Missiles in Development

China’s ambitious naval expansion has placed significant emphasis on the development of its submarine force and associated missile launch capabilities. Over the past few decades, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has transformed from a coastal defense force into a formidable blue-water navy. This transformation has been particularly evident in the development and deployment of various classes of submarines, each with increasing capabilities and technological sophistication. As of 2024, China’s submarine fleet includes a mix of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and diesel-electric attack submarines (SSKs), all of which are equipped with an array of advanced missile systems.

TypeType DescriptionCapabilitiesMissile SystemsYear LaunchedCurrent StatusQuantityRange (KM)Speed (knots)Dive Depth (meters)Notes
Type 092 (Xia-class)First Chinese SSBN, nuclear-poweredNuclear deterrenceN/A1981Active1N/A22300First Chinese SSBN, relatively noisy
Kilo-classRussian-built diesel-electric submarineAnti-ship cruise missilesAnti-ship cruise missiles1990sActive12300020300Purchased from Russia, enhanced conventional capabilities
Yuan-class (Type 039A/B)Chinese-built diesel-electric submarine with AIPEnhanced stealth and underwater enduranceAnti-ship cruise missiles2000sActive173000+22300+Equipped with AIP systems for longer endurance
Shang-class (Type 093)Nuclear-powered attack submarineAnti-ship and anti-submarine warfareTorpedoes, cruise missilesEarly 2000sActive65000+30500Improved sonar and stealth features
Jin-class (Type 094)Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarineSea-based nuclear deterrent with JL-2 SLBMsJL-2 SLBMs2007Active6720025400Key component of China’s nuclear triad
Type 095 (upcoming)Next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarineEnhanced stealth, speed, and advanced weapon systemsLand-attack cruise missiles (anticipated)Expected late 2020sIn developmentTBDTBDTBDTBDExpected to include advanced stealth and speed
Type 096 (upcoming)Next-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarineEquipped with JL-3 SLBMs, extended rangeJL-3 SLBMsExpected late 2020sIn developmentTBD10000TBDTBDExpected to significantly enhance China’s nuclear deterrent

This comprehensive table captures the various aspects of China’s submarine force, including the type, capabilities, missile systems, year launched, current status, quantity, range, speed, dive depth, and additional notes.

The roots of China’s submarine force can be traced back to the 1950s when the country acquired Soviet O3-class (NATO: Whiskey) submarines. These early acquisitions laid the groundwork for China’s indigenous submarine development programs. By the late 1970s, China had developed its first ballistic missile submarine, the Type 092 (Xia-class), which was launched in 1981 and commissioned in 1983. This was a significant milestone, marking China’s entry into the realm of sea-based nuclear deterrence. The Type 092, however, was limited in its capabilities and had a relatively noisy design, which made it less effective in avoiding detection.

The modernization of China’s submarine force gained momentum in the 1990s with the purchase of Russian-built Kilo-class submarines. These submarines provided China with advanced diesel-electric platforms capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles, significantly enhancing the PLAN’s conventional strike capabilities. The Kilo-class submarines also served as a benchmark for China’s domestic submarine production, leading to the development of the Yuan-class (Type 039A/B) submarines. The Yuan-class submarines are equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems, which allow them to operate more quietly and stay submerged longer than their predecessors.

A major leap in China’s submarine capabilities came with the introduction of the Shang-class (Type 093) and Jin-class (Type 094) submarines. The Shang-class SSNs, which first entered service in the early 2000s, are designed for a variety of missions including anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. These nuclear-powered attack submarines are equipped with sophisticated sonar systems, improved stealth features, and the ability to launch both torpedoes and cruise missiles. The Jin-class SSBNs, on the other hand, are a crucial component of China’s nuclear triad, providing a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Each Jin-class submarine is capable of carrying 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which have a range of approximately 7,200 kilometers.

The development of China’s next-generation submarines, the Type 095 SSN and Type 096 SSBN, is currently underway and is expected to further enhance the PLAN’s capabilities. The Type 095 submarines are anticipated to feature even greater stealth, speed, and advanced weapon systems, including land-attack cruise missiles. The Type 096 SSBNs, which are expected to enter service in the late 2020s, will be equipped with the new JL-3 SLBMs, significantly extending China’s nuclear reach. The JL-3 missiles are believed to have a range of nearly 10,000 kilometers, capable of reaching the continental United States from Chinese littoral waters.

China’s growing submarine capabilities are also reflected in its production capacity. The Huludao shipyard, one of the leading facilities in China’s shipbuilding industry, has been instrumental in the construction of these advanced submarines. Reports indicate that China’s shipbuilding capacity far exceeds that of the United States, with numerous commercial shipyards capable of rapidly producing military vessels. This industrial prowess allows China to not only expand its submarine fleet quickly but also to incorporate cutting-edge technologies into new designs.

In addition to conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines, China has invested heavily in the development of uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs) and other advanced undersea systems. These UUVs are expected to play a critical role in future naval warfare, performing tasks such as reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, and even combat operations. There have been reports of China experimenting with torpedoes armed on UUVs, although the specifics of these capabilities remain largely undisclosed.

The strategic implications of China’s submarine development are profound. The enhanced operational range and stealth capabilities of Chinese submarines enable the PLAN to project power far beyond its immediate maritime periphery, posing significant challenges to regional security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. The presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean and other critical waterways underscores Beijing’s intent to secure its maritime interests and challenge the dominance of other naval powers, particularly the United States.

China’s SSBNs play a pivotal role in its nuclear deterrence strategy. The development of credible sea-based nuclear deterrents, such as the Type 094 and the upcoming Type 096 SSBNs, provides China with a secure second-strike capability. This capability is essential for maintaining strategic stability, as it ensures that China can respond to a nuclear attack with a retaliatory strike. The JL-3 SLBMs, with their extended range, further enhance this deterrent by allowing Chinese submarines to strike targets deep within an adversary’s territory.

The expansion of China’s submarine fleet is expected to continue over the coming decades. The Pentagon projects that China’s submarine fleet will grow from 65 in 2025 to 80 by 2035. This growth will likely include the introduction of more advanced nuclear and conventional submarines, incorporating cutting-edge technologies such as hypersonic missiles and improved stealth features. The PLAN’s strategic focus is also expected to shift towards blue-water operations, extending its reach into the Indian Ocean and beyond. This shift will necessitate the development of robust logistical and support infrastructures, as well as enhanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities to protect its SSBNs during deterrent patrols.

China’s technological advancements in submarine design are complemented by significant investments in missile development. The YJ-18 anti-ship missile, for instance, is a key component of China’s submarine-launched arsenal. This missile is capable of high subsonic speeds and has a range of approximately 220 kilometers, making it a formidable threat to surface vessels. Additionally, the CJ-10 land-attack cruise missile, which can be launched from both surface ships and submarines, provides the PLAN with a versatile strike capability against land targets.

The integration of these missile systems into China’s submarine fleet represents a significant enhancement of its maritime strike capabilities. The YJ-18 and CJ-10 missiles, along with the JL-2 and JL-3 SLBMs, enable Chinese submarines to engage a wide range of targets, from enemy warships to strategic land-based installations. This multi-dimensional strike capability is a critical component of China’s broader strategy to assert its dominance in regional and global maritime domains.

Furthermore, China’s investments in missile technology are not limited to current platforms. Ongoing research and development efforts are focused on next-generation missile systems, including hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic missiles, which travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5, present significant challenges for existing missile defense systems due to their high speed and maneuverability. The potential deployment of hypersonic missiles on Chinese submarines would represent a substantial escalation in the PLAN’s offensive capabilities.

China’s advancements in submarine and missile technology are closely monitored by other regional and global powers, particularly the United States and its allies. The strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region is significantly influenced by the development and deployment of these capabilities. The United States, in response, has undertaken measures to enhance its own submarine and ASW capabilities, as well as strengthen its alliances with regional partners such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

The evolving nature of China’s submarine force and missile capabilities underscores the dynamic and competitive environment of modern naval warfare. As China continues to expand and modernize its submarine fleet, it will likely pursue further advancements in stealth technology, underwater endurance, and missile payload capacity. These developments will not only enhance the PLAN’s operational effectiveness but also reshape the strategic calculus of maritime powers around the world.

In conclusion, the development of China’s submarine force and missile launch capabilities represents a significant milestone in the country’s military modernization efforts. With a focus on enhancing both nuclear and conventional submarine capabilities, the PLAN is poised to become a dominant player in undersea warfare. This growth brings complex strategic implications, particularly in terms of regional security dynamics and nuclear deterrence. As China continues to invest in and expand its submarine fleet, it will remain a critical area of focus for global military and strategic analysts.

APPENDIX 2- Chinese Submarines: Technical Data and Capabilities

China’s submarine fleet is a critical component of its naval capabilities, featuring a mix of diesel-electric, air-independent propulsion (AIP), and nuclear-powered submarines. This fleet is integral to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) strategic and tactical operations.

Types of Submarines

Type 094 Jin-class SSBN

  • Role: Strategic ballistic missile submarine
  • Specifications:
    • Length: Approximately 135 meters
    • Displacement: 11,000-12,000 tons (submerged)
    • Armament: Up to 12 JL-2 SLBMs with a range of 7,200-9,000 km
    • Capabilities: First credible sea-based nuclear deterrent for China, capable of reaching regional adversaries like Russia and India.

Type 095 SSN

  • Role: Nuclear-powered attack submarine
  • Specifications:
    • Displacement: Approximately 7,000 tons (submerged)
    • Armament: YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles, HQ-10 anti-aircraft missiles, 24 torpedo tubes
    • Capabilities:
      • Diving Depth: 500 meters
      • Self-sustaining: 90 days
      • Features: Advanced sensors, enhanced stealth capabilities, and equipped with both anti-ship and land-attack missiles​​​ ​.

Type 096 SSBN

  • Role: Advanced strategic ballistic missile submarine
  • Specifications:
    • Length: 150 meters
    • Displacement: 16,000 tons (submerged)
    • Armament: 24 JL-3 SLBMs, with a range of up to 12,000 km
    • Capabilities: Enhanced stealth with a maximum diving depth of 600 meters and reduced noise levels below 100 decibels, making it harder to detect​ .

Type 039C (Yuan-class) SSK

  • Role: Diesel-electric/AIP-powered attack submarine
  • Specifications:
    • Displacement: 3,600 tons (full load)
    • Armament: 12 torpedoes, 6 submarine-launched missiles
    • Capabilities: Diving depth over 300 meters, submersible speed of 22 knots, capable of silent operations and effective strike capabilities​ ​.

Type 039A/B (Yuan-class) SSK

  • Role: Diesel-electric/AIP-powered attack submarine
  • Specifications:
    • Displacement: 2,500-3,000 tons (submerged)
    • Armament: 6 torpedo tubes, anti-ship missiles
    • Capabilities: Enhanced stealth with AIP technology, allowing for extended underwater endurance and operations​​.

    Technical Innovations

    • Rim-Driven Propellers (RDP): Utilized in the Type 096, these propellers eliminate traditional mechanical components, significantly reducing noise and enhancing stealth capabilities.
    • Anechoic Coating: Applied on the Type 096, this silencer tile technology further diminishes the submarine’s acoustic signature, making it nearly silent underwater.

    Development and Future Trends

    • The Type 095 and Type 096 submarines are part of China’s ongoing effort to modernize its submarine fleet, aiming to match or surpass the capabilities of Russian and American counterparts.
    • China’s submarine construction facilities, notably in Wuhan and Huludao, continue to expand and innovate, producing advanced submarines with greater stealth, endurance, and firepower​ ​.

    Strategic Implications

    • The advancement of Chinese submarine technology poses significant challenges for U.S. and allied naval forces, particularly in terms of detection and tracking.
    • The development of long-range SLBMs like the JL-3 enhances China’s nuclear deterrence, capable of reaching targets across the Pacific, including the continental United States.

    Summary Table of Key Data

    Submarine TypeRoleDisplacement (tons)Length (meters)ArmamentMax Diving Depth (meters)Key Features
    Type 094 Jin-classSSBN11,000-12,00013512 JL-2 SLBMs400First credible sea-based nuclear deterrent
    Type 096SSBN16,00015024 JL-3 SLBMs600Advanced stealth, RDP, reduced noise levels
    Type 095SSN7,000~110YJ-18, CJ-10, HQ-10 missiles, 24 torpedoes500Advanced sensors, extended self-sustaining capability
    Type 039CSSK3,600~7512 torpedoes, 6 missiles300+Silent operations, AIP technology
    Type 039A/BSSK2,500-3,000~706 torpedo tubes, anti-ship missiles~300Extended underwater endurance with AIP

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