- In recent days, photos of a new submarine anchored at Shanghai have emerged on social media.
- The submarine is a derivative of an existing design, but features a new sail.
- While the sail is similar to that on the Swedish A-26 sub, it may be a coincidence.
Images of a bizarre new Chinese submarine are making waves on social media. The submarine, tentatively designated Type-039C/D by western observers, is a non-nuclear attack sub that could use lithium-ion batteries to stay quiet underwater.
The most prominent feature of the sub is a new sail, which appears designed to lower its radar signature while surfaced.
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The photos first filtered out of China last month, and open source naval analyst H.I. Sutton discovered the submarine in satellite imagery. While the unnamed sub is currently tied up on the Huangpu River in Shanghai, it comes from Wuhan, a city that’s fairly deep in China’s interior, but home to many shipyards. Surface ships and submarines are built in Wuhan and then floated 570 miles down the Yangtze River to Shanghai on the Pacific Ocean.
The submarine has an oddly shaped sail: a large, dorsal fin-shaped protrusion on the top of the submarine where the periscope, snorkel, and sensors are mounted. Instead of being smooth and featureless like other submarines, the new sub’s sail features straight angles and facets.
Why the faceting? Sutton speculates that the fin shape is designed to reduce the submarine’s radar signature. Diesel-electric subs require air for their diesel engines to operate, and so they must remain surfaced or at snorkel depth to operate. Unlike nuclear submarines, which can cruise at depth for weeks at a time, non-nuclear subs often spend a great deal of time on or near the surface, only submerging once at their patrol area or when they expect enemy contact.
Many modern anti-submarine aircraft, such as the U.S. Navy’s P-8 Poseidon, utilize long-range radar to detect surfaced submarines or submarine snorkels or periscopes. An airplane with a long-range radar could detect a surfaced submarine from many miles away, before the sub spots it, and then close in for the hunt.
A stealthy sail, however, would allow the Type 39C/D to leave port and travel the hundreds of miles to its destination surfaced with less of a chance of being detected. This would save fuel and allow the submarine to patrol even farther. The sail is reminiscent of the A-26 design that’s currently under construction in Sweden, but Sutton says it’s too early to judge the new submarine a copy of the Swedish boat.
The sub likely also has an air independent propulsion (AIP) system, which can power a submerged submarine for up to 2 weeks at a time. The problem? An AIP-powered sub is fairly slow. The new Chinese submarine may also have banks of lithium-ion batteries for extra-quiet running underwater. Submarines have used batteries for silent running for a century, but using lithium-ion could mean more power for much longer than other battery types.
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