China and Russia, whom the United States has termed as its big power competitors, launched nuclear powered strategic submarines during April-May 2020, perhaps the biggest assertion of naval strike capability with global reach.
On May 7, the Russian Navy commissioned Kazan fourth-generation Yasen-M submarine, its most potent nuclear-powered vessel till date. A few days earlier, another country fighting for the top spot in terms of military power, China, commissioned Changzheng 18 Type 09IV nuclear-powered submarine.
Kazan Project 885M (Yasen M-class) submarine
The Project 885M (Yasen M-class) submarines are built by St. Petersburg-based Malakhit Marine Engineering Bureau. Based on the Akula-class and Alfa-class, it is projected to replace Russia's Soviet-era nuclear attack submarines.
A Yasen-M class submarine has an endurance of over 90 days. The 130 m long, 13 m wide vessel can reach speeds of 30 knots and can accommodate 120 people. It can dive to a depth of 500 m.
Armed with missiles and torpedos, these are available in different anti-ship, land attack, and anti-submarine versions, with optional nuclear warheads, and are delivered from vertical launch system (VLS) tubes. The weapon systems aboard the submarine also include torpedoes, anti-submarine rockets and mines.
The nuclear submarine has 40 Kalibr-PL or 32 Onix cruise missiles in its arsenal. The boat of this project can also carry out salvo launch.
The vessel carries 6 torpedo tubes and 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which fire at a range exceeding 10,000 km. In future, it will also be equipped with the Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic missiles.
Torpedoes are placed on the sides of these submarines, instead of the usual placement in the bow where now sonar antennas are located. Launching shafts of Oniks and Kalibr missiles are behind the wheelhouse.
The Yasen class are based around modular-type launch VLS cylinders that can accommodate different missile types as required.
Kazan completed state trials with the launch of Oniks anti-ship cruise missile in the White Sea in December 2020. The vessel entered the final trial stage with its regular crew and commissioning team onboard on November 21. During one of its tests, the vessel fired a Kalibr cruise missile that hit its target over 1000km away.
It is commissioned into Northern Fleet’s western-most submarine base near the border to Norway.
TV Zvezda, a news outlet owned by the Russian Defense Ministry reports that the “all technical characteristics are kept in the strictest confidence.”
However, some details of its construction are in the public domain. The Yasen-M class features a single hull made of low magnetic steel, which reduces magnetic signature. Talking about Yasen submarine’s stealth capabilities, a military expert told the outlet, “A boat of this class belongs to those that have a low noise level. This is extremely important for the boat because its life depends on it. If the boat is easy to find, its life will be short. Our designers thought very seriously about the design of the propellers, thought about the special coating of the boat, which does not allow the enemy to quickly detect it. The most effective Russian hydroacoustic system is installed on Kazan.”
The Russian Navy’s first Project 885 Yasen submarine, Severodvinsk, that joined service in 2013, was larger by nearly 40 feet. It can carry up to 40 Kalibr missiles plus other weapons, and had low acoustic signature.
The reduction in Kazan’s size has resulted in previous large flank-mounted sonar array being deleted from the forward end. The new design also utilizes a single-hull construction, akin to Western designs, and a break from the Soviet/Russian tradition of double-hull construction.
The Yasen-M reportedly also includes a new reactor that features an updated cooling system that is said to further reduce the noise the submarine generates.
The way these submarines launch their missiles is also different from their predecessors, which had angled launch silos. The Yasen classes are based around modular-type launch VLS cylinders that can accommodate different missile types as required. This also opens up the possibility of launching missiles without even leaving port, something that the Severodvinsk has done on at least one occasion.
Western media claim that these submarines are hard to find. A War Zone source disclosed back in 2019 that a large number of U.S. Navy submarines, warships, and maritime patrol aircraft spent weeks in an unsuccessful effort to locate the Severodvinsk in the North Atlantic.
China’s Changzheng-18 nuclear powered submarine
The Changzheng-18 of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) is a nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarine. It is likely an upgraded version of original Type 094 (Type 09IV Jin-class) nuclear submarine, as it gets enhanced capabilities in noise reduction and missile attack accuracy.
Changzheng-18 is capable launching "second strike," which means counterattacking enemies after they used nuclear weapons to attack China.
"The Changzheng-18 is capable to survive nuclear weapons and retaliate with nuclear missiles, so enemies won't consider attacking us in the first place,” Yin Zhuo, a military expert was quoted as saying by the Chinese state media.
The 137 m-long Type 094 submarines reportedly armed with 12 JL-2 (CSS-N-14) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), each with an estimated range of 7,400 km. Each missile carries between one to three nuclear warheads to an estimated range of 7,200 km. JL-2 is derived from the DF-31 ICBM.
The Type 094 and JL-2 is China's first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. The Type 094 class of boats is said to be “noisy.” In 2009, the Office of Naval Intelligence of the United States Navy listed the submarine as being slightly noisier than Project 667BDR (NATO: Delta III) from the late-1970s, some of which were in service through 2015 with the Russian Navy.
The Type 094A is a variant with a modified and improved sail. The sail appears to incorporate features from one installed on a modified Type 093. It could be equipped with 16 launch tubes, while Type 094 had only 12 launch tubes.
Pictures published in the Chinese media in 2015 showed that the Type 094A has a more prominent “hump” in the missile bay aft of the sail as well as other changes in the contours of the body. The Type 094A has a retractable towed array sonar (TAS) mounted on the top of its upper tailfin, which would make it easier for the craft to "listen" for threats and avoid them.
The Type 094A version could be equipped with new ballistic missile Julang-2A (JL-2A) which has a greater range than the JL-2. The new missile could reach virtually the entire United States from Yulin Naval Base in Hainan Island.
The Changzheng-18 Type 094A submarine is also heavier than the Type 094. "The tonnage is above 10,000 tons and can deliver missiles with multiple warheads on them,” Yin said.