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China’s New Type-39C ‘Stealth’ Submarine: Designed for Special Forces Operations?

Type-039C Submarine
Image of a Yuan-class Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s newest submarine, tentatively dubbed the Type-039C, splashed across headlines earlier last month when social media sleuthing revealed the new submarine transitioning a body of water with assistance from several tugboats.

Though a flurry of information about the new submarine surfaced — some definitive, some speculative — there is now more concrete information about the new submarine. Here’s what we know, a sort of “deeper dive.”

What We Think We Know

The Type-039 class and derivatives are also known as the Yuan-class. The first of the class, the Type-039A, first made its appearance in a Chinese shipyard in 2006 and caught many naval experts by surprise. Since the class’ introduction into PLAN service, several variants have subsequently been introduced with the most significant external difference between them being the sub’s sails.

The first Yuan, the Type-039A, featured a sharply outlined and boxy sail that drew comparisons to the Soviet Kilo-class which China purchased from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second Yuan derivative provisionally called the Type-039B, featured a more refined, more smoothly contoured sail that in all likelihood creates less seawater “flow” noise, and would therefore be more difficult to track while underwater and underway.

The Type-039C Yuan has the most complex sail design of the three. The newest Yuan’s sail is chined, potentially an indication of the new platform’s emphasis on surface operations. Though speculative, the chined sail is reminiscent of the kind of stealth contouring used in stealth aircraft and some ships to deflect incoming enemy radar and remain undetected.

One potential application for a submarine with a “stealthy” sail could be special operation forces insertion and extraction when a submarine on the surface would be particularly vulnerable, though this remains somewhat speculative.

Importantly, however, although the several Yuan-classes have differing sail shapes, their sails appear to be mated to more or less the same place in the hull and are relatively similar in size. This is a potential indicator that all three Type-039 variants retain their primary anti-ship, anti-submarine warfare mission profile.

Given the newest of the latest Type-039C and the dearth of information surrounding it and its strange sail, it may be too early to say if the new submarine represents the new Yuan-class standard, a one-off design, or a research platform for testing new technology.

Though the People’s Liberation Army Navy does operate several of the Type-039 and variants, it has also sold several Type-039 export-specific variants abroad, both to Thailand as well as to Pakistan. Perhaps this latest Yuan-class variant will also eventually be exported.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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