China’s Noisy Nuclear Submarines

China’s newest nuclear submarines are noisier than 1970s-era Soviet nuclear submarines.

By Hans M. Kristensen

China’s new Jin-class ballistic missile submarine is noisier than the Russian Delta III-class submarines built more than 30 years ago, according to a report produced by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).

The report The People’s Liberation Army Navy: A Modern Navy With Chinese Characteristics, which was first posted on the FAS Secrecy News Blog and has since been removed from the ONI web site [but now back here; thanks Bruce], is to my knowledge the first official description made public of Chinese and Russian modern nuclear submarine noise levels.

Force Level

The report shows that China now has two Jin SSBNs, one of which is based at Hainan Island with the South Sea Fleet, along with two Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN). The Jin was first described at Hainan in February 2008 and the two Shangs in September 2008. The second Jin SSBN is based at Jianggezhuang with the North Sea Fleet alongside the old Xia-class SSBN and four Han-class SSNs.

The report confirms the existence of the Type 095, a third-generation SSN intended to follow the Type 093 Shang-class. Five Type 095s are expected from around 2015. The Type-95 is estimated to be noisier than the Russian Akula I SSN built 20 years ago.

Missile Range

The ONI report states that the JL-2 sea-launched ballistic missile on the Jin SSBNs has a range of ~4,000 nautical miles (~7,400 km) “is capable of reaching the continental United States from Chinese littorals.” Not quite, unless Chinese littorals extend well into the Sea of Japan. Since the continental United States does not include Alaska and Hawaii, a warhead from a 7,400-km range JL-2 would fall into the sea about 800 km from Seattle. A JL-2 carrying penetration aids in addition to a warhead would presumably have a shorter range.

Julang-2 SLBM Range According to ONI

Although the ONI report states that the Julang-2 can target the Continental United States, the range estimate it provides is insufficient to reach the lower 48 states or Hawaii.

Alaska would be in range if the JL-2 is launched from the very northern parts of Chinese waters, but Hawaii is out of range unless the missile is launched from a position close to South Korea or Japan. The U.S. Defense Department’s 2009 report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China also shows the range of the JL-2 to be insufficient to target the Continental United States or Hawaii from Chinese waters. The JL-2 instead appears to be a regional weapon with potential mission against Russia and India and U.S. bases in Guam and Japan.

Patrol Levels

The report also states that Chinese submarine patrols have “more than tripled” over the past few years, when compared to the historical levels of the last two decades.

That sounds like a lot, but given that the entire Chinese submarine fleet in those two decades in average conducted fewer than three patrols per year combined, a trippling doesn’t amout to a whole lot for a submarine fleet of 63 submarines. According to data obtained from ONI under FOIA, the patrol number in 2008 was 12.

Since only the most capable of the Chinese attack submarines presumably conduct these patrols away from Chinese waters – and since China has yet to send one of its ballistic missile submarines on patrol – that could mean one or two patrols per year per submarine.


The ONI report concludes that the Jin SSBN with the JL-2 SLBM gives the PLA Navy its first credible second-strike nuclear capability. The authors must mean in principle, because in a war such noisy submarines would presumably be highly vulnerabe to U.S. or Japanese anti-submarine warfare forces. (The noise level of China’s most modern diesel-electric submarines is another matter; ONI says some are comparable to Russian diesel-electric submarines).

That does raise an interesting question about the Chinese SSBN program: if Chinese leaders are so concerned about the vulnerability of their nuclear deterrent, why base a significant portion of it on a few noisy platforms and send them out to sea where they can be sunk by U.S. attack submarines in a war? And if Chinese planners know that the sea-based deterrent is much more vulnerable than its land-based deterrent, why do they waste money on the SSBN program?

The answer is probably a combination of national prestige and scenarios involving India or Russia that have less capable anti-submarine forces.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

18 thoughts on “China’s Noisy Nuclear Submarines

  1. Your answer is based on the premise that the ONI report is correct. Given the obvious inconsistency about the range of JL-2, how reliable is the premise?

    Reply: One fallacy is to assume intelligence estimates are always correct. Another is to assume that because some is incorrect all is incorrect. The ONI report is one reference point that should be critiqued but also takes seriously; after all, it is the Navy’s submarines that are trailing the Chinese submarines. Let me know if there are other sources that provide other information. HK

  2. Didn’t a Chinese diesel submarine pop up in a carrier group a few years ago? Wasn’t it able to do that since it was running on battery, while the US navy focus on detecting on nuclear subs and until then ignored conventionally powered craft?

    Reply: I don’t know. Is that what really happened? There have certainly been a lot of rumors about that incident, ranging from the U.S. carrier being caught by surprise to it knowing full well the Chinese sub was near. Diesel electric subs can certainly be a challenge, but given that the U.S. Navy practices against allied conventional subs all the time it seems curious that a Chinese conventional sub from a fleet with very little operational experience would suddenly be able to do better. HK

  3. Is it possible the Chinese are using deception and deliberately operating their subs at noisier levels? Or the actual range of the JL-2 is higher?

    India does not have nuclear force levels required for a first strike against the much larger Chinese arsenal. The inadequacy will likely persist for decades to come. A Russian first strike on China is conceivable but far less likely than an US first strike.

    If China has to coerce Taiwan into relinquishing its sovereignty or “teach India a lesson” it will need a credible deterrent against a US first strike.

    It is unlike the Chinese to not have addressed the US threat and be satisfied with a deterrent against the much lesser threat from Russia.

    If the Jin is as noisy as it is believed to be and the Chinese know the US knows, then why would they not be send the Jins on patrol outside littoral waters anyway? If for no other reasons than to develop the Ocean goings skills of their submariners.

    A noisy Jin would makes sense only if the JL-2 has the ability to strike the US mainland.

  4. With all due respect, Vijander, a US first strike on China is not a realistic prospect. About as realistic as a US first strike on the UK or India.

  5. There’s really no advantage to operating a SSBN at a “noiser level.” Once away from the “protection” of Chinese home waters, any PLAN boomer would be tracked by the USN quiet nukes patiently waiting offshore to trail Chinese subs.
    Allowing another nation’s best “hunter/killer” subs to record the engine noises etc. from a PLAN sub would ultimately hurt any Chinese plan to attack the USA.
    As for the rumor that a PLAN DE boat surfaced in the middle of a USN Carrier Strike Group that is hard to really believe. A CSG travels at 18 knots or more, a Chinese diesel sub could not keep up…..if , by some chance, she was ahead of the CSG and stayed quiet and deep, she might have pulled it off…..but I doubt it…..we’ll never know the entire story. I, for one, will not lose any sleep over that story.

  6. Noisy or not, it seems that the acoustic signatures of the 094 subs were captured by the US. That should make the subs easy to detect, given their reported noise levels. What we will not know for a long time, if world peace is maintained, is the range of JL-2. China will not do a full range flight tests for many political reasons. And it seems technically unnecessary, as a full-range flight test of DF31A has never been reported. Since the DF-31A has already been deployed, one can assume that a full range flight test is technically unnecessary. Thus, there are only two logical conclusions:
    (1) The JL-2/094 combo is not for CONUS targets, if we believe the ONI’s guestimate of ~4000 nm.
    (2) The guestimate is wrong and JL-2 can hit CONUS targets when 094 is in China’s coastal waters. Thus, a noise boat matters very little.

    Since Russia and China now has a treaty to tell each other about all rocket launches, it seems that even if (1) is correct, China will fill the gap soon, as US is the primary, if not the only, country that wants to hold China at risk for a first strike.

  7. Can we expect India’s new Arihant class nuclear submarine to be quieter than China’s Jin class submarine since it is based on Russian Charle II Class submarine and was constructed with Russian help?

    Reply: I doubt it. The Charlie II class was built 1973-1980, about the same time as the Delta III that is shown on the ONI chart for comparison. Even if India somehow has managed to make the Arihant quieter, it is still its first nuclear-powered vessel. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up as an experimental vessel for the development of better technology. But time will tell. Looks like it won’t enter service for another two years. HK

  8. In this report from ONI, the new DF-21 variant is said to have TELs (transporter erector launchers), while the old versions have MELs (mobile erector launchers), pp. 26-27. What exactly do they mean? A off-road mobile ability for Chinese ASBM?

    Reply: Interesting difference, which I don’t have an explanation for yet. What off-road launch capability the DF-21D will have depends not only on mobility and weight of the launcher itself but also on the kinds of service support vehicles it requires. I notice that images of DF-31 training include a lot of other vehicles, which might limit true off-road capability and also make detection easier. HK

  9. Do we have a comparison of US submarine noise levels with respect to foreign subs?

    Reply: We do, a chart produced by ONI in 1995, which plots US, British (interestingly), Russian, and Chinese (except the Jin SSBN) submarine noise levels. Jeffrey Lewis has it posted on his blog. HK

  10. I reckon India has significant Anti Submarine Warefare capability backed by technologically advanced assets, procured over the years, it would pay for them to keep expanding on these capabilities, as an effective deterent to the Chinese Subs which are really incapable of any Geo strategic power projection, (unless their Ting tong missles can hit potential adverseries ie US from the Chinese littorals ) and keeping in perspective that their natal submarine assets lack experience and credible technology which are years behind in being an under water force of any significance.

    Off late the Indians have been exercising with the US a lot and it would not be a surprise that the US has already passed on the Chinese Sub signatures to the Indians !!!

  11. [Edited] Interesting if the US has the sound signatures of the Chinese boats. The US has/had a mine system called CAPTOR mine. This mine could be armed with a nuke warhead. If the system has been updated its computer could be programed to go after only ships programed into it by there sound signatures. This would allow the US to close all of china’s ports to Chinese subs and ether lock them in – port or block them from returning to port to reload or repair damage, refuel.

    Reply: No, it is not correct that the CAPTOR mine can be armed with a nuclear warhead. The CAPTOR mine does not have nuclear capability. Even so, if deployed off Chinese ports in a war, the CAPTOR would certainly create problems for Chinese submarine operations. The mine is designed to acoustically detect submarines while ignoring surface ships. Upon detection of a target, the mine launches an acoustic homing Torpedo Mk 46Mod 6. HK

  12. [Edited] I’ve read elsewhere from a Taiwanese news website saying Chinese submarines, diesel-electric or nuclear, are equipped with “noise generators” inside their hull as to deliberately giving off noise as one of their “false intelligence” tactics….I personally think it’s not impossible, giving that “false intelligence” tactics has being mentioned by the Chinese in their own writings many times before.

    Reply: There are more rumors than facts out there. It’s plausible, but who knows? Do you have a link to the article? HK

  13. [Edited] I am surprised by the dumb comments, but maybe it’s not surprising afterall if you know where the folks are coming from who are making these comments. All nuclear submarines are noisy, compare it with the apache gunship which you can hear miles away and you can hear it without seeing it first. The apache is by far the most noisiest helicopter i have ever heard. Now all these nuclear submarines have all these machinery working, how quiet can it be. The latest Chinese boomers are as noisy as the American Ohio class SSBN. What’s noisy anyway?

    You want a quiet sub? It should always be a conventional sub, creeping 2 knots per hour on electric motor. No nuclear sub is really quiet, they are built for endurance and speed and that’s all that matter. The faster it go the better.

    Reply: Rather than thrashing people who are “dumber” than you, why not enlighten them with your knowledge. You could start by backing up your claim: “The latest Chinese boomers are as noisy as the American ohio class SSBN,” and answering your own question: “What’s noisy anyway?”

    Yes, modern conventional subs can be quieter than nuclear subs. The ONI report includes one chart for nuclear and another for conventional subs. But even the Chinese conventional subs are not as quiet as the ones they have acquired from Russia. And if conventional subs are so superior why then does the US Navy only operate nuclear subs? HK

  14. [Edited] New attack nuke sub revealed. Partial translation: ”…better shape design and smaller than current type 093 attack sub, more suitable for shallow water…use natural circulation at low speed for lower noise level….”

    Reply: This is, of course, the Shang class, which, even with this technology, is more detectable than the Russian Delta III SSBN, a class designed more than 40 years ago. Can you, Ted, or someone else, say a little more about who wrote the article attributing “natural circulation” reactor cooling to the Shang? HK

  15. “And if conventional subs are so superior why then does the US Navy only operate nuclear subs?”

    Because conventional subs aren’t fast enough. Best conventional AIP subs like Type-212 can do “only” 20 knots at best when submerged. Los-Angeles goes over 30 knots.

  16. Greetings,

    I’ve been a devoted reader for some time, but there is one thing I have not heard mentioned yet–active signature cancellation. Think Bose headphones in approach, but with a radical military-centric design. I cannot name my sources and or provide ‘proof’, as such. However, I do have it on good account that this is something available to the U.S. fleet (as of 08). If U.S. subs were as quiet as claimed before, now they really are a hole in the water. Furthermore, ANY U.S. nuke boat CAN run on batteries alone (just like their AIP cousins), albeit with performance limitations and other restrictions, but it is doable. I only mention it as it is something people either overlook or are ignorant of. My point here is that China has a LONG way to go before it can filed a truly formidable blue fleet, even beneath the surface.

    Also, the East China Sea is a terrible place to use as a submarine patrol station. It’s average depth is 30-90 meters, with a relatively calm surface. What this means is that the United States can locate and maybe track submarines under way in that body of water using, in part, ‘special’ satellites in LEO. They are equipped with highly classified sensor payloads that contain very sensitive electro-optical and electromagnetic packages. This is not a new capability, nor one fully operational or wholly encompassing, and many nations have taken a stab at it through the years. Even though this alternative has inherent shortfalls in both the method and application of, it remains one of the best remote and unobstructed ways of detecting and tracking a sub.

  17. So, this ONI chart was made in late 90’s? Is there any chart what is based of current data?

    Reply: The ONI report is from 2009, so I assume the chart is up to the same date. HK

  18. This is nice interesting chart , seems like the Chinese have a long way to go in acoustic quitening.

    What does it say about latest Russian Submarine Dolgoroki and Severdvinisk are they as quiter as US Seawolf or British Astute.

    Russian submarine have been very noisier compared to its western peers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *