China confirms submarine sale to Pakistan
April 16, 2024
The Type-039/041 "Yuan" class conventional submarine, likely the basis for the export-centric S20. Photo credit: Wikipedia

China confirms submarine sale to Pakistan

In a recent conference, the Chairman of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC – the manufacturing arm of China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co. Ltd or CSOC) Hu Wenming confirmed that CSIC had secured a contract to supply eight attack submarines to Pakistan (China People’s Daily).

Notes & Comments:

Hu Wenming’s comments are the first verifiable Chinese comments regarding Pakistan’s submarine order, and they should serve as confirmation that the program is now with no doubt in Pakistan’s procurement pipeline. Pakistan ordered eight air-independent propulsion (AIP)-powered conventional submarines, four of the ships will be built by Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) in Pakistan. CSIC will set up a training centre – in relation to the transfer-of-technology and co-production element – in Karachi.

According to the Chief Project Director of the program, the first submarine will be delivered in 2022, and a subsequent three will be delivered by the end of 2023. The remaining four – i.e. the batch to be produced by KSEW – will be delivered by the end of 2028. Specific details into the make of the submarines have not been disclosed, though it is likely to be the CSOC S20, an apparent export derivative of the Type 039 Yuan.

In light of the relatively heavy order, it is apparent that the Pakistan Navy is being tuned for a strong anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) mission profile. If one is to assume that the submarines are AIP-equipped S20s, then the PN’s forthcoming submarines would have a submerged displacement of 2,200-tons. This is smaller and lighter than the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s Yuan-class, which has viewed – at least by retired U.S. Navy Captain Christopher P. Carlson (via the U.S. Naval Institute) an ocean-faring design, as opposed to a coastal A2/AD-centric design (akin to the ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems Type 214).

For Pakistan, a smaller and lighter submarine could offer a number of advantages. First, as a less costly design, it could be procured in relatively sizable numbers. Second, Pakistan’s A2/AD strategy does not require it to send submarines into the outer edges of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), hence the Yuan’s ostensibly greater range is a non-factor. Third, a smaller submarine offers more flexibility in terms of the Navy’s AIP selection. In other words, a lighter design could enable the Navy to opt for fuel-cell AIPs, which – while low output – could offer superior submerged endurance (via superior fuel efficiency). The low output could be offset by the lighter design, enabling the PN to possess a submarine with reasonable underwater speed (whilst still benefitting from relatively long endurance).