China continues to surprise the defense world. It is probably the only country on earth who can build a full-size submarine without any details leaking out. By comparison the name, size and general characteristics of US Navy submarines are well known long before they roll out of the shed. A year ago China surprised everyone by launching a submarine which no one had been expecting. Only now are further details emerging via Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).
An official publicity photograph of the launch ceremony of the so-called ‘sailless’ submarine in October 2018. The name or purpose of this submarine has not been revealed.
Until now we could only estimate her size based on the launch photos. Thanks to fresh analysis commercial satellite imagery, which caught the new submarine outside the shipyard, we now know that she is 150 feet long and about 15 feet across. This is slightly smaller than my initial estimates and makes her compact for a submarine but still too large to be described as a midget submarine. The satellite passed overhead in September, demonstrating that she is undergoing some form of builder’s trials. She is not yet posted to an operational base.
This submarine is a unique design which has no sail to speak of. All other submarines have this fin-like structure rising up from the middle of the deck where the periscope goes. Until now it has been a defining characteristic of a submarine: this boat is flatter and has a tiny bump where the sail should go. The reason for this has been the subject of speculation. One theory is that the submarine is uncrewed, and so does not need a sail for the captain to stand in when navigating on the surface. This would make it the world’s largest and most impressive Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). China recently revealed a large AUV but that is nothing in comparison.
I suspect that this is not the case. Instead the most likely explanation is that it is a test submarine to evaluate radical ideas for future Chinese attack submarines. One day we may know this mystery submarine’s name and mission, but for now the Chinese Navy has the West guessing.