Central Asia

All eyes on Sino-Russian sub deal
By David Isenberg

China has struck a deal with Russia to buy eight more Kilo-class (Project 636) submarines for US$1.6 billion, according to a report in the June 25 Washington Post. This is significant for economic, political, and military reasons.

The Kilo-class submarine was designed for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare in the protection of naval bases, coastal installations and sea lanes, and also for general reconnaissance and patrol missions. The Type 636 submarine is considered to be one of the quietest diesel submarines in the world. It is said to be capable of detecting an enemy submarine at a range three to four times as great as that at which it can be detected itself.

The Project 636 design is a generally improved development of the Project 877EKM Kilo class that represents an interim design between the standard Kilo and the new (Project 677) Lada project. The Rubin Central Maritime Design Bureau in St Petersburg designed it. The Project 636 is actively promoted for the world market by the Rosvoorouzhenie state-owned company. In the spring of 1997, the first Project 636 submarine was launched, and China became the first customer for this submarine. China had already acquired four Kilo-class submarines from Russia, including two of the more advanced Project 636 class.

Purchase of new submarines not only means a significant commercial deal, it also means that considerable investments will be made in the development of the coastal infrastructure, as well as in the training of specialists and crews.

The Pentagon is closely watching the impact of China's naval modernization on Taiwan's sea lanes and ports. The submarines would enhance China's ability to blockade trade-dependent Taiwan and challenge US naval supremacy in the area.

Under the agreement reached in May, Russia agreed to equip the submarines with long-range Club-S anti-ship ballistic missile systems and expedite delivery within five years. The Club missiles, with a range of 220 kilometers, could be an added deterrent to intervention by the United States.

The deal for additional submarines is part of a $4 billion weapons package that Russia has committed to provide China over the next four to five years. Included in the package are two more Sovremenny-class destroyers, adding to a pair China has already received, a new batch of S300 PMU2 anti-aircraft missiles and 40 Su-30MKK fighter-bombers.

To meet the deadline, Moscow is likely to spread the contract among more than one of the four Russian shipbuilders bidding for the contract. According to a report by Jane's Defence Weekly, five of the submarines on order are likely to be built at the St Petersburg-based Admiralteyskie Verfi shipbuilding plant, which recently finished repairing two Project 877EKM submarines for the Indian Navy. Two boats should be built at the Amur shipbuilding plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, and one would be completed at the Krasnoye Sormovo shipbuilding plant in Nizhny Novgorod. The Krasnoye Sormovo yard already has a hull nearly two-thirds completed, and this could be the first ready for the installation of on-board equipment and weapon systems.

But even as China ramps up its capabilities to threaten Taiwan, its purchases of big-ticket foreign weaponry point to deficiencies in its efforts to develop cutting-edge defense industries at home. The proposed acquisition raises doubts over the status of Beijing's indigenous Type 039 Song SSK program. Analysts previously believed that China would buy one or two additional Kilo-class subs to supplement the four already obtained. They more recently raised their expectations to six platforms, in part because of a lack of any evident progress with China's Song program. An order for eight boats further supports this view that the Song appears to be in trouble.

Thus, China has become the world's biggest importer of weapons, buying $1 billion a year from Russia alone, according to the Russian government.

From Russia the view is positive, for reasons aside from the profit. According to press reports the deal is a reason to believe that the brief lull in the export of Russian submarines is over. The export of diesel-electric-powered submarines kept the Russian naval shipbuilding going throughout the worst years for its military-industrial complex. The industry now hopes to build up from the success, the more so since two submarines of the fourth generation are already under construction at the shipyards in St Petersburg.

A fact that has largely gone unnoted in the general press coverage is that the Kilo-class submarines will be able to be upgraded, should China chose to do so, with equipment now being developed for the Amur 1650, which represents the fourth postwar generation of Russia's conventional submarines.

Furthermore, if China chooses not to do that, it could still take advantage of a Project 636M modernization package, which offers a missile complex, the latest inertial navigation system, periscope with night-vision channel, TV channel and laser range finder, towed VLF (very low frequency) and SW (shortwave) communications antenna, more powerful sonar system, storage battery of the same capacity but with the service life increased 2.5 times, more powerful power plant, etc. Thus equipped, Kilo-class submarines of the third generation will be competitive up to 2010, while retaining room for further modernization.

Russian submarines' unique capabilities and powerful armament are the two major attractions for foreign customers. In underwater duel modeling, Russian Kilo-class submarines invariably emerged the winner in virtual competition against German, French and Dutch submarines.

Predictably, the Taiwanese viewpoint is gloomy. Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Yao-ming said the deal would threaten security in the Asia-Pacific region. "Communist China is seeking to expand its naval power from near sea to far sea which would threaten regional security," Tang told reporters.

In 1996 two US battle groups faced down Chinese threats to the island, days after China had fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait. Such a speedy response would become impossible once the new submarines were operational, military analysts said.

In any repeat of the 1996 incident, US commanders would first have to send a fleet of their own submarines to chase away the Chinese. One former submariner said: "No commander in his right mind would send a carrier group into the strait when there's a dozen Chinese submarines circling. It completely changes the situation."

To help counter China's naval buildup, US President George W Bush last year approved the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan as part of Washington's most comprehensive arms package to Taipei since 1992. But the United States has encountered problems in handling the submarines sales to Taiwan. The US stopped building diesel-electric submarines about 40 years ago. And because of various export restrictions, it has indeed become very complicated for the United States to persuade other countries that do build them, notably Germany, to consider doing so.

Currently, Taiwan operates two Dutch-built Sword Dragon submarines and two aging US ones.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact ads@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Jul 2, 2002


Click here to be one)



No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.