New submarine may be Type-039C variant of the Yuan-class for the PLAN
A candid photograph of a brand new submarine has surfaced on Chinese social media. We have not been able to corroborate the image with other public sources, so caution is needed. But it appears to show a completely new variant of the Yuan Class family. If so, it is likely to receive the Type-039C moniker among Western defense observers.
The Yuans form the backbone of the Chinese conventional submarine fleet. They are the most modern and powerful of China’s non-nuclear submarines and are believed to be equipped with Air Independent Power (AIP). Their AIP uses closed-circuit Stirling engines to power the electric motors while submerged. This conserves the batteries and means that the submarine can remain underwater for much longer, which in turn makes it more stealthy.
The submarine has a red tarpaulin over the bow. This is not unusual for newly built submarines and can show the country’s flag. It can also be used to hide the potentially sensitive sonar dome from the cameras during launch.
Compared to the existing Yuan class boats, the new submarine has a radically redesigned sail. There are also a number of more subtle changes. The sail, which is partly obscured by the bridge, appears to have a chine running along the upper part, somewhat like the Swedish A-26 Blekinge class. It is also possible that the shadow is part of a scaffolding around the sail, but this seems less likely.
The submarine does not appear to be appreciably longer than the existing boats. This suggests that a vertical launch system for cruise missiles has not been added. However the new boat appears generally cleaner and more modern than existing Yuans, at least on the outside.
I also suspect that China may have been experimenting with new propulsion technologies such as lithium batteries. So a new variant may incorporate some significantly improvements over existing ones.
An Interesting Location
The image was posted on Weibo on May 7 but only got wider attention more recently. It is geo-tagged to a bridge in Wuhan City, which has been conformed by geo-locating the background. The state of construction of some buildings also matches recent satellite imagery. This confirms that the image is relatively recent. And it places the submarine at the Wuchang Shipyard in down town Wuhan.
This shipyard was formally a major part of China’s submarine building program, but production has shifted to a new larger site out of town. We previously reported that submarine construction, of Yuan class boats, had started at the new location.
So it seems odd that a new submarine has been rolled out at the old site. However there have been signs of construction work continuing at the old site, albeit at a much lower rate. Satellite imagery from February clearly shows fresh hull sections of a submarine. These match the Yuan class in general terms, with double-hull construction and three deck levels. And the hull diameter appears correct. They may not be actual production modules, but they confirm a level of activity.
We can speculate that while the new shipyard is the main construction site, first-in-class boats may still be built at the old yard. Additionally, overseas visitors from the Royal Thai Navy, Pakistan Navy and other countries will be present at the new site because it is used for exports. So China may prefer to have the more sensitive models built at a more restricted location.
The Yuan class and its derivatives are proving successful on the export market. The current customers are Thailand and Pakistan. We should be open minded that this may be an export type also. However, on balance I think that it is more likely the next Chinese service variant.
Overall it is too soon to draw major conclusions from this photograph. Analysts will no-doubt be attempting to corroborate it from other sources. However, this may be the first glimpse of the latest and most potent variant of China’s non-nuclear submarines.