China’s Bid to Dominate the Global Submarine Export Market

Chinese shipbuilders will increasingly assume an export profile commensurate with their domestic capabilities.

China is beginning to aggressively court the submarine export market. In the wake of successful deals with Thailand and Pakistan, China’s submarine-building industry is developing new types with an eye towards breaking into the global market.

Given how many submarines China has built over the past decade, interest in the export market is hardly surprising. Historically, Chinese submarines have been uncompetitive with either Soviet or Western models, but the increasing efficiency of Chinese shipbuilding, combined with improvements in Chinese technology, have narrowed the gap.

Export success thus far has involved variants of the Yuan class, China’s most advanced conventional submarine design. The Yuan class subs are similar in size and appearance to the Russian Kilo, although the extent of a direct connection between the types in unclear. The Yuan-class boats displace about 3600 tons, and can be equipped with a variety of characteristics, including air-independent propulsion (AIP).

Thailand and Pakistan have already ordered boats derived from the Yuan type; the three Thai boats are designated S26T, with a displacement of around 2,600 tons. Pakistan has ordered eight boats of the same type, four to be built in China and four to be built domestically. The S20T is somewhat smaller, displacing around 2300 tons.

The Chinese are also investigating smaller boats, including 200, 600, and 1100 ton subs. These could appeal to a wide variety of customers; according to Jane’s, China’s submarine building firm has claimed that Algeria, Bangladesh, Cuba, Egypt, Libya, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela have expressed interest in its boats. It is not difficult to imagine other customers, such as Iran, having an interest in small boats that can protect their littorals.

China might also have some success cutting into European dominance of the submarine market in South America. Many South American navies operate German boats, often of the Type 209. Chile has two 33-year-old Type 209s; Colombia and Ecuador each have a pair of 40-year-old boats; Peru and Venzeula have similarly aged boats. The future of the Argentine submarine force is uncertain in the wake of the loss of ARA San Juan, but at the moment it can boast of only two older boats; a Type 209 and a larger, specialized sub. The relatively long-ranges required for South American navies might incline them to lean towards the large boats on offer from China.

Chinese shipbuilders will increasingly assume an export profile commensurate with their domestic capabilities. Submarines are a natural area for improvement, given domestic successes and the age of the international submarine fleet. Given this new challenge, European and Russian submarine builders will need to work very hard to maintain their positions.