This makes it the largest conventionally powered submarine in naval service today with its maximum submerged displacement of around 6600 t and a length of 92.6 m. The hull can withstand pressure up to a depth of 200 m. The submarine has an endurance of 30 days with a standard complement of 85. The endurance is reduced when the crew needs to be enlarged to conduct tests and other experiments.
The Type 032 includes an escape pod for the crew similar to certain Russian nuclear attack submarine (SSN) such as the Sierra class. The submarine can carry a Chinese version of a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) externally on the hull, which can hold a crew for special operations and for rescue operations of submarines in need.
The Type 032 is compatible with a wide range of weapons such as vertically launched ballistic missiles, cruise and other types of missiles that can strike at targets on land, on the surface and even against airborne aircraft in a manner somewhat similar to the IDAS missile in development for the German Type 212 submarine.
The development of a new class of submarine dedicated for testing purposes and the resources required is a sign of the importance attached to the role of submarines in the Chinese Navy.
One notable aspect of the Type 032 is that certain design aspects seems much more optimized and refined that one would consider necessary if the design was meant to be strictly for testing purposes only.
This could be an indication that the design took into account a possible combat role in the future if a decision was made to go into that direction. So while the Type 032 is initially a testing platform, it could also serve as a basis for other uses.
Conventionally-powered Submarines vs Nuclear-powered Submarines
There exists a line of thinking in some circles which basically advocates the return of large conventionally-powered submarines which are capable of operating in the blue waters of the deep oceans, a role currently performed by nuclear submarines.
Proponents of this theory argue that conventionally-powered submarines are not to replace nuclear-powered submarines, but to supplement or complement in larger numbers than the latter which are present in fewer numbers.
The conventionally-powered ballistic submarine (SSB) was superseded many years ago by the nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) due to their superior ability to perform required tasks, but there are those who are convinced that technical developments since then have reduced some of the advantages that nuclear power enjoyed.
The gap between the two in terms of performance has shrunk to such an extent from what it used to be that it warrants re-examining the option of utilizing conventionally-powered submarines in roles that are currently the exclusive domain of nuclear-powered submarines.
Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) is one area that is now mature enough to be employed on a wide scale to significantly increase the amount of time a submarine can stay submerged to several weeks and possibly even longer in the future.
Although that is still not enough to match nuclear power, the SSBN / SSN does not necessarily have such a huge advantage as was the case in the past in this regard compared to conventional submarines, especially if they are made large enough.
Conventional submarines are still at a speed disadvantage which makes them mostly unsuitable to to be deployed quickly to an area where can can be used to engage an adversary. Nuclear power will also continue to have an advantage in range.
Unlike a SSN or SSGN, diesel-electric equivalents in the form of SSK / SSG submarines do not have the speed necessary to hunt down surface vessels and need to lie in wait to find targets in an opportune manner.
However, proponents of conventional submarines argue that this can now be negated to a certain extent by utilizing the ability to strike very accurately and from very long range in a way that wasn't possible in the past.
By employing very long-range and highly accurate missiles on conventional submarines, the subs would no longer need to travel to a specific area to be in such close vicinity due to the longer reach of these weapons.
The submarines could be pre-positioned, but would not need to travel at high speeds which either way tends to negatively affect their acoustic signature and which is best avoided by all types of submarines.
Long-range strike requires an extensive C4ISR network
Long-range strike itself presents a range of technical challenges, which for a very long time made it unfeasible to implement properly. Detecting and tracking naval units from long range and relaying information to submarines is not easy and requires an extensive C4ISR network among other things.
However, proponents argue that modern technology has advanced to such a stage that the required C4ISR network can now be worked on. The data bandwidth needed for communications is now available for instance, where in the past it wasn't.
In such a C4ISR network, various types of satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), especially High-Altitude Long-Endurance UAVs, would play an especially crucial role.
Combining all the different elements making up the whole network which are also spread over large distances is complicated, but there's the conviction, which other people may or may not agree with, that any potential hurdles can be overcome and such a strategy is worth exploring.
Conventional power may be more suitable to wartime conditions
Proponents also point out that using conventional power has its benefits. Nuclear power offers many advantages over conventional power, but they are very complex and expensive to build. Diesel-electric submarines could be build faster, cheaper and in greater numbers.
Underlying this belief is that it's not so much what you have available at the start of a war, but what you have left remaining at the end of the war. The ability to not only replace inevitable losses, but to augment existing units could be a decisive advantage.
This could be the case during a conflict between two roughly evenly matched opponents where neither side has a clear-cut advantage and which generally boils down to a war of attrition.
Therefore, it's important that systems are designed in such a way that they take wartime conditions into account and avoid overly complex systems that are difficult and time-consuming to build. It can be argued that the trend recently in most countries has been in the opposite direction.
Proponents believe that conventional power better adheres to this philosophy than nuclear power, which is why conventional submarines need to be available in addition to nuclear submarines and deserve an expanded role.
Possible future roles for conventional submarines
Large diesel-electric submarines are primarily intended for conventional roles, but could reintroduce the role of the SSB as an alternative allowing greater numbers to complement a smaller number of SSBNs.
The submarine itself would only carry a limited number of ballistic missiles, but will be present in greater numbers than full-fledged SSBNs. With nuclear missiles more widely dispersed than a SSBN, there is a greater amount of redundancy which reduces their vulnerability.
For further protection, a number of submarines could be contained within a protected area, similar to the bastion strategy employed by the former Soviet Union. An adversary would find it harder to keep track of a large number of submarines protected within a bastion and the loss of some units would not be as catastrophic as in the case of a SSBN which tend to be fewer in number.
The submarines could also serve a dual-role and carry very long-range and low-flying nuclear-armed cruise missiles instead of ballistic missiles only. Cruise missiles would be intended as an alternative to bypass certain ballistic missile defenses that are geared towards intercepting high-flying Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles.
Another more suitable conventional combat role is to strike at surface warships from long-range using conventionally armed anti-ship missiles or even from Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (AShBMs). These SSBs/SSGs could complement the land-based units and offer alternative strike angles that can be exploited.
Even now cruise missiles can offer a range of over 1500 km which can go up to 3000 km using a AShBM. Future missiles could offer even longer range and at higher speeds. Certainly the trend in the past decades has been in that direction.
Photos credit original poster, via Chinese Internet