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Stealth Suprise: Is Japan’s New Submarine a Game Changer?



In June 2019, submarine manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries hosted a presentation (subsequently shared on Twitter) revealing plans for Japan’s next-generation submarine, dubbed the 29SS or “New 3,000-[metric] ton Submarine.” 

Documents reveal the 29SS will begin development in 2025–2028, and is targeted for entry into service in 2031. The lead ship is estimated to cost 76 billion yen ($710 million) and will likely serve primarily for testing and development purposes.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) is planning to increase its submarine fleet to twenty-two operational diesel and AIP-powered submarines, plus one testing and two training submarines. The increase is likely meant to counterbalance China’s burgeoning undersea fleet of around seventy submarines, including several nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines.

To enable this expansion, Japan’s 2019 defense budget includes funding to upgrade and increase the service life of seven older Oyashio-class diesel-electric submarines which entered service in the 1990s. 

Meanwhile, Kawasaki Heavy Industries is currently completing a twelfth Soryu-class submarine weighing 2,900 metric tons surfaced, with three more likely to be built by KHI and MHI. Unlike earlier Soryu boats, the final flight has swapped out its air-independent propulsion system for long-lasting lithium-ion batteries (LIBs)—a larger-scale, ruggedized adaptation of the lightweight, high-power-density batteries used in smartphones and laptops.

You can see a provisional drawing of the 29SS design by submarine analyst H.I. Sutton here. Earlier Japanese articles have also cataloged several technologies expected to be integrated in the 3,000-ton submarine.


The 29SS appears to be a further evolution of the LIB-powered Soryu, retaining its same essential hull form and its X-shaped rudder, which improves maneuverability and resilience. However, the Soryu’s bow has been inclined and its tall sail (conning tower) squashed downwards and blended into the hull of the 29SS. Diving planes formerly located on the sail are moved to the front of the hull. 

These modifications appear intended to improve aquadynamics, thus enhancing acoustic stealth and decreasing drag, which could result in increased speed and range. A “floating floor structure that can mitigate vibrations and shocks” may also make the 29SS quieter.

Pump-jet Propulsion

The 29SS’s shrouded propulsion system configuration suggests a heavier pump jet propulsor system instead of a conventional propeller. Pump-jets are unlikely to produce noisy cavitation, and allow quieter running at higher speeds. One source claims a “thirteen-blade” pump-jet would be 20 decibels (two orders of magnitude) quieter than the seven-bladed propeller on the Soryu.

However, pump-jets are usually only incorporated on much faster nuclear-powered submarines such as the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class or Russia’s Borei-class SSBN. Diesel-electric submarines, however, can rarely afford to burn through battery with sustained high-speed cruising. 

Thus, the incorporation of pump jets suggests the 29SS may be designed to cruise at higher speeds for longer than is typical of a diesel-engine submarine.

Advanced New Sonars

Japan has also been developing advanced conformal sonar systems. The 29SS’s bow sonar will reportedly be optimized for discretion, long-distance detection, and also function better in shallow coastal waters. This last is particularly a concern in the rocky shallows off the Korean peninsula, in which North Korea operates dozens of small submarines that could prove difficult to detect.

The 29SS’s side-array hydrophones will reportedly use a fiber optic sonar which “senses sound not by the pressure of sound waves but by the interference effect of light.” This sensor may also be effective for detecting electromagnetic emissions.

There will also be a towed sonar array for long-distance, omnidirectional tracking, a reverse-search sonar array, and a broadband transmission array.

Returns from multiple sonars will reportedly be integrated into a synthetic sensor picture on the submarine’s new combat system, which can perform target-motion analysis and suggest firing solutions.

New Torpedoes

So far, there are no indications as to the 29SS’s precise armament configuration, though it will undoubtedly include at least a half-dozen torpedo tubes.

However, in 2012, Japan began developing a “high-speed, long-distance, long-endurance” successor to its standard Type 89 torpedo called the G-RX 6. Supposedly the new, optionally wire-guided system will use a stealthy hydrogen/oxygen combustion turbine, and it sonar will better be able to discriminate between decoys and real targets and time the detonation of the warhead for optimal effect depending on target type. The torpedo will be designed for both deep-sea and shallow-water engagements, and is due to enter service in 2030.

So far, there’s no evidence the 29SS includes vertical launch cells for missiles. While submarines can deploy missiles like the UGM-84 Harpoon out of their torpedo tubes, vertical cells allow ripple-fired salvoes that are more likely to overwhelm a target’s air defenses.

Propulsion: Lithium-Ion Batteries, New Diesel Engines and “High Power Snorkels”

The SS-29 class will be built around the extraordinary battery capacity offered by lithium ion batteries (LIB). At the blog Submarine Matters, analyst Peter Coates speculates the new design might boast up to ten days cruising submerged.

However, ditching the Stirling air-independent propulsion system used in earlier Soryu boats involves a tradeoff.

LIBs may allow a submarine captain more flexibility in aggressively using battery power—and a submarine running purely on battery with its diesels off can be quieter than a nuclear powered-submarine. 

But once a LIB-only sub exhausts its battery, it must surface or use its snorkel to suck in more air to run its diesel engines—during which time it will be much more vulnerable to attack. By contrast, AIP-equipped submarines can sustainably run for a few weeks confined to low speeds before surfacing, and nuclear-powered boats can operate underwater indefinitely even at high speeds. 

As Japanese submarines are likely to go on patrols closer to port, this tradeoff may be deemed acceptable. Still, the 29SS will incorporate technologies designed to minimize the length of “indiscretion” time at or near the surface, including a “more compact, quiet and powerful” “Snorkel Power-Generating System” which presumably will allow the submarine to snort air and generate electricity more efficiently. 

Japan has already studied optimizing the snorkel for the diesel engines on the Soryu class. Though LIBs are faster charging, given the SS-29’s huge planned battery capacity, the improved snorkel may be necessary to avoid taking longer than the claimed 100-minute charging time for the LIB-equipped Soryu.

Technically, LIBs could be combined with the AIP system, and indeed Japan reportedly studied possibly developing a Fuel-cell AIP, which is quieter and enables longer endurance than the Stirling AIP on the Soryu. However, the Japanese defense ministry decided this would be excessively expensive and time-consuming to develop.

It’s also estimated the 29SS will use two new larger-stroke Kawasaki 12V25/31S diesel engines producing 25 percent more electrical output.

Coates is skeptical that even advanced LIB-equipped submarines will fare well facing Chinese and Russian nuclear-powered submarines.

“…even with LIBs, Japanese and Australian subs will need to loudly snort with supercharged diesel engines every 10 days, thus blowing their residual discretion out of the water.”

Submarine nuclear propulsion would be an attainable but expensive project for Japan. South Korea appears to be considering developing submarine nuclear propulsion despite legal obstacles, but the technology might be even more politically sensitive in Japan.

For now, Japan is committed to deploying much less expensive yet still highly capable conventional submarines. The JMSDF’s submariners will need to leverage superior stealth and situational awareness when contending with the increasingly formidable naval forces of potential adversaries in the western Pacific.

Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Military rituals and military culture in China



China slams EU for remarks on Hong Kong electoral reforms

Military culture influences military thinking and military strategy. Today, the armed forces of the major powers have the goal of defending their national interests and contributing to world peace.

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Forget the SR-71 Spy Plane: Meet the CIA’s A-12 (Was It Even Better?)



Key point: Both spy planes played key roles in the Cold War.

Analysis of Week’s photos located the USS Pueblo near Wonsan anchored next to two patrol boats—and also revealed that Pyongyang had not mobilized its troops for war. This led Johnson to rule out plans for a preemptive or punitive strike in favor of diplomatic measures which eventually saw the ship’s abused crew released nearly a year later.

On October 30, 1967, a CIA spy-plane soared eighty-four thousand feet over Hanoi in northern Vietnam, traveling faster than a rifle bullet at over three times the speed of sound. A high-resolution camera in the angular black jet’s belly recorded over a mile of film footage of the terrain below—including the over 190 Soviet-built S-75 surface-to-air missiles sites.

The aircraft was an A-12 “Oxcart,” a smaller, faster single-seat precursor variant of the Air Force’s legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

The jet’s driver, Dennis Sullivan had earlier flown one hundred combat missions in an F-80 Starfighter over Korea for the U.S. Air Force. But Sullivan was technically no longer a military pilot—he had been “sheep-dipped,” temporarily decommissioned to fly the hi-tech jet on behalf of the CIA. He now sat in the cramped cockpit in a refrigerated space suit, as the friction generated by his plane’s Mach 3 speeds heated the cockpit to over five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Sullivan noted warnings light up on his instrument panel as Vietnamese Fan Song radars locked onto him. But they did not launch missiles. In twelve-and-a-half minutes he completed his run and looped around over Thailand, where he received aerial refueling. Then he embarked on a second pass.

But the North Vietnamese were waiting for him. A missile launch notification warned him that a 10.5-meter-long missile was heading towards him.

Decades later, Sullivan described in a speech seeing one of the missiles streak just past him, two-hundred meters away.

“Here comes a big’ol telephone sailing right by the cockpit—going straight up. That’s interesting . . . So I continued down the route, and didn’t see anything—until I got down the road, and then I could see behind me in the rear-view periscope at least four missile contrails, all spread out. Those four contrails went up about 90-95,000 feet and all turned over, bunched up in a line, headed for my tail end.”

The A-12 officially had a maximum speed of Mach 3.2—but the missiles that were following Sullivan could attain Mach 3.5.

“I said, ‘Holy smokes—those things fly pretty good up there for something which doesn’t have much in the way of wings.’ So I watched them come.… They’d get up right behind me, very close, and all of the sudden there’d be a big red fireball—a big white cloud of smoke—and you’d immediately pull away from it. You were going thirty miles a minute. [Note: actually, 41 miles per minute!] Every one of those SAMs guided absolutely perfectly and did the same darn thing.”

The missile’s 440-pound proximity-fused warhead was designed to swat planes out of the sky within 65 meters of the point of detonation. However, in the thinner air of the upper atmosphere, its fragments could travel up to four times as far.

Sullivan escaped and landed his A-12 in Kadena Air Base, where it spent several minutes cooling on the tarmac before mechanics could even touch its friction-heated skin. The stress of the heat and high speeds exacted a steep physical toll on the jet’s pilots, who lost an average of five pounds of body weight on the completion of their three to four- hour missions.

He was sitting for debriefing when mechanics burst in the room to show him two metal fragments from a missile’s nose cone they had found buried under his low left wing—just shy of his jet’s fuel tank.

Later when, Sullivan’s camera footage was found to have captured the ghostly white contrails of six surface-to-air missiles surging towards him from the ground.

Operation Black Shield

The CIA’s twelve ultra-fast A-12 jets were doomed to a brief operational career after the first flight in 1962. Following on the heels of several U-2 spy plane shootdowns, Washington was no longer willing to authorize overflights of Soviet territory which the A-12 had been designed to perform. Meanwhile, the Air Force ordered a larger SR-71 variant of the A-12 that was deemed superior in a “fly off” in November 1967. Unwilling to fund both highly similar aircraft, the CIA’s A-12 fleet was promptly scheduled for retirement.

However for ten months, the A-12 briefly filled a vital niche providing rapid high-value photo intelligence over Asia, where the political and military risks were deemed acceptable. Between May 31, 1967, and March 8, 1968, CIA drivers flew A-12 on twenty-nine spy missions over Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam in an operation codenamed Black Shield. The jets flew out of Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan, supported by over 250 support personnel.

Initially, President Lyndon B. Johnson was concerned by reports that North Vietnam had obtained Surface-to-Surface (SSM) missiles for attacks on South Vietnam. On May 31, 1967, CIA driver Mele Vojvodich took of in a rainstorm and recorded a mile-long reel of camera footage covering most of Northern Vietnam. The reel was then air-transported for development by Kodak in Rochester, NY. The verdict, confirmed by subsequent overflights, was that Hanoi had no SSMs after all.

A-12 intelligence often directly influenced LBJ’s decisions to commit to air raids during the Vietnam War. However, the Oxcart’s stealth features never proved adequate to avoid detection by Soviet-built radars.

On October 28, 1967, an S-75 launched a missile at an A-12 flown by Miller, but did not come particularly close. However, after Miller’s close call two days later on October 30, the Black Shield flights were temporarily suspended. A later January 4 mission on the same route over Hanoi also elicited a missile launch, to no effect.

Meanwhile, on January 23, 1968, North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship operating in international waters, taking her crew into captivity. Worrying the incident, combined with a failed commando raid on the South Korean presidential palace, might herald a second Korean War, Johnson was persuaded to dispatch an A-12 flown by Jack Weeks over North Korea on January 26.

Analysis of Week’s photos located the USS Pueblo near Wonsan anchored next to two patrol boats—and also revealed that Pyongyang had not mobilized its troops for war. This led Johnson to rule out plans for a preemptive or punitive strike in favor of diplomatic measures which eventually saw the ship’s abused crew released nearly a year later.

A-12s flew two additional missions over North Korea to keep tabs on the ship, which was eventually moved to Pyongyang. Tragically, Weeks died a half-year later on June 5 when a malfunction in his A-12’s starboard turbojet engine caused its to overheat, breaking his plane apart over the South China Sea. Sixteen days later, a CIA A-12 made its last flight before the type was retired from service.

Sullivan’s close brush over Vietnam suggests its fortunate no A-12 overflights were authorized over the Soviet Union, where they would have been exposed to even greater peril, from high-speed interceptors and more advanced SAMs like the S-200 (SA-5). Today, such high-risk photo intelligence is largely acquired by satellite, or by expendable drones.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. (This first appeared in June 2019.)

Image: DVIDShub.

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SUN: China’s Military Deserves America’s Respect, But Not Its Fear



Key point: China’s military is advancing rapidly, but it is still plagued by corruption and discipline problems.

China’s new defense white paper has been eagerly awaited by Western analysts searching for clues to Beijing’s national security strategy.

The 2019 white paper (the last one was in 2015) lays out general principles of China’s defense policy. It avows the new face of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Cyberwarfare, more flexible command and control, long-range naval operations. Change the names and numbers, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was a planning document from the U.S. military or an American thinktank.

But before we fear the onslaught of the Dragon, take a look at the problems that the white paper says China’s military must solve.

The most glaring is corruption, which has led to numerous senior officers being punished for crimes such as selling promotions. “China’s armed forces are tightening political discipline and rules, investigating and dealing strictly with grave violations of CPC discipline and state laws,” the white paper says. “China’s armed forces punish corruption in strict accordance with CPC [Communist Party] discipline and relevant laws, and rectify any malpractice in key construction projects and the procurement of equipment and material…They have worked to implement full-spectrum audit, intensify the audit of major fields, projects and funds, and perform strict audits over the economic liabilities of officers in positions of leadership. Active efforts have been made to monitor the cost-effectiveness of applied funds, conduct whole-process audit, and combine civil and military efforts in auditing.”

The U.S. military has no shortage of faults. Careerism, inflated prices for military equipment, weapons that don’t work as advertised, the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the Pentagon having to cite corruption as a major impediment to military efficiency.

The U.S. military also has its share of discipline problems, such as Alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment that has derailed the careers of several senior officers. But these pale compared to the discipline problems that worry the Chinese military:

“China’s armed forces are building a military legal system with Chinese characteristics and pressing ahead with a fundamental transformation in how the military is run…They are promoting legal awareness through public communication and education campaigns, establishing and improving the support mechanism of legal consultation and service, and advancing law-based management in the military. China’s armed forces are striving to manage the troops more strictly in all respects. They have fully implemented military rules and regulations, restored and improved the traditional mechanism of using bugles to communicate and command, carried out safety inspections to identify and tackle potential problems, stepped up garrison military policing, strengthened the management of military vehicles by targeted measures, and set up a mechanism of regular notification on garrison military policing.”

There was nothing truly surprising in the white paper. It’s no secret that China has been moving away from a huge, low-tech peasant military to a smaller, more agile and high-tech force. Still, there is plenty in the paper to disturb the West as well as China’s Asian neighbors. China will continue to replace older aircraft and ships with more advanced models.  It is setting its eyes on distant horizons: the PLA will “address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, builds far seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities, and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks.”

And the Chinese military still has its eyes on Taiwan. “China has the firm resolve and the ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will never allow the secession of any part of its territory by anyone, any organization or any political party by any means at any time,” the white paper says. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of “Taiwan independence” separatists and their activities. The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.”

Nonetheless, behind the curtain of hypersonic missiles and stealth fighters, is a military that worries about corruption and discipline. The Chinese military is to be respected, but not to be feared.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. (his article was originally published last month and is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.

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