Unlimited Endurance After a Single Load, Enhancing the Submarine Force’s Combat Power

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China, the latest news circulating on the internet suggests that a new type of nuclear-powered submarine, equipped with a domestically produced mini nuclear reactor, has been launched by a certain shipyard in Wuhan, based on the 039C conventional submarine.

The domestically produced mini nuclear reactor in China belongs to the technology of low-temperature and low-pressure subcritical nuclear reactors. Unlike nuclear reactors that “boil water” to generate steam to drive ships, this reactor directly charges the batteries on board, effectively becoming a “nuclear battery.” Constantly generating abundant electricity, it enables the submarine to navigate continuously underwater.

If the source of this news is reliable, it implies that the Chinese Navy will possess a nuclear-powered attack submarine similar to the French Navy’s “Rubis” class. However, while the maximum submerged displacement of this French design mini nuclear submarine is only 2700 tons, the domestically produced mini nuclear submarine approaches a displacement of nearly 4000 tons.

Being a mini nuclear submarine, the domestically produced one boasts a displacement larger by over 1000 tons compared to its French counterpart. This allows it to carry more onboard equipment, including weapons, thereby possessing stronger anti-submarine, anti-ship, and even land-attack capabilities.

According to open-source information, the new mini nuclear submarine developed by the Chinese Navy, possibly to be designated as Type 041, based on the modification of the 039C submarine, represents China’s initial attempt at miniaturizing nuclear submarines and naturally carries certain experimental characteristics.

The author speculates that initially, Type 041 may not be mass-produced in large quantities. Perhaps one or two vessels will be developed and equipped, delivered to the naval submarine force for operation. During the operational process, various issues related to onboard power systems, electronic equipment, onboard weapons, etc., may be more or less exposed.

Once the relevant issues are resolved, this mini nuclear-powered submarine will be put into mass production. It is judged that Type 041 will probably become a masterpiece of “small steps and quick running.” China’s development and equipping of mini nuclear submarines are relatively cautious.

In this regard, netizens can refer to the development and equipping process of the domestically produced Type 052C first-generation large-scale air defense destroyer. The first batch consisted of two vessels, followed by a second batch of four vessels, with a gap of seven to eight years between the commissioning times.

Type 041, with a displacement close to 4000 tons, is indeed classified as a mini nuclear submarine compared to nuclear-powered attack submarines, which easily reach seven to eight thousand tons or even tens of thousands of tons. However, compared to conventional-powered submarines with submerged displacements of two to three thousand tons, it can be considered a larger-tonnage submarine.

As an attempt by the Chinese Navy to miniaturize nuclear submarines, the trial sailing and commissioning of Type 041 mini nuclear submarines are extremely inspiring for netizens. It can be seen as the vanguard of China’s conventional-powered submarines being nuclear-powered, embodying China’s technological innovation and military strategic layout.

Once Type 041 is put into trial service in the Chinese Navy’s submarine force, and Chinese researchers solve the relevant issues on board, future conventional-powered Type 039 series submarines, including some AIP-equipped submarines of 3000 tons class, may be refitted with domestically produced mini nuclear reactors.

Even if the onboard electronic equipment, weapon systems, etc., remain unchanged, replacing diesel engines and AIP devices with mini nuclear reactors will give all models of the Type 039 series submarines nuclear power. With this transformation, they will all become nuclear submarines.

The submerged endurance of all Type 039 series submarines will be significantly increased. Conventional submarines need to surface to snorkel for air after a few days underwater, and even AIP-equipped submarines need to surface every approximately 20 days for several hours of charging.

These drawbacks or shortcomings make it easy for surfaced submarines to expose their positions during wartime, making them vulnerable to attacks from the opponent’s naval and aerial anti-submarine weapons.

In the future, with the conventional and AIP-equipped submarines of the Chinese Navy being all equipped with mini nuclear reactors, they will no longer need to surface for air and charging, making them less likely to be detected and locked onto by the opponent’s naval and aerial anti-submarine devices, thus enhancing the safety of submarine combat patrols.

As long as the psychological and physical endurance of the crew can withstand it, Type 041 mini nuclear submarines will have underwater endurance comparable to other large nuclear submarines such as the 093/094.

Imagine, in the near future, after the conventional-powered submarines of the Chinese Navy are equipped with mini nuclear power, it will undoubtedly provide a feasible solution for long-duration voyages and combat patrols, greatly enhancing the overall strength of the Chinese submarine force.

In summary, Type 041 mini nuclear-powered submarines, the news circulating on the internet about them is probably not groundless. China already has the capability to develop mini nuclear reactors and incorporate them into submarines with a displacement approaching 4000 tons, offering endless possibilities.

Looking at one of the illustrations in this article, the Type 041 depicted appears cute, belonging to the category of mini nuclear submarines. Yet, it represents a significant innovation in China’s underwater equipment field, with unlimited endurance after a single load, and radiation and noise levels comparable to conventional submarines.

The emergence of Type 041 mini nuclear submarines undoubtedly adds a cheap and practical yet formidable nuclear-powered attack platform to the implementation of China’s maritime strategy. This will enhance the strategic flexibility and tactical stealthiness of the Chinese submarine force, indicating a new tactical ideology for the Chinese Navy, calmly responding to increasingly complex situations in China’s surrounding maritime areas and the international security environment, and contributing significantly to enhancing China’s defense capabilities and international competitiveness. (Guo Ping)

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