Key Point: Asia's first indigenously produced nuclear submarines were could not stand up to their Western counterparts.
In 1974, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) accepted delivery of the country’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Long a cherished goal of Chairman Mao himself, the design was initially a disappointment. Despite their less than ideal performance, the Type 091 Han-class submarines will ultimately be remembered as Asia’s first indigenously produced nuclear attack submarines.
According to historian Benjamin Lai, author of The Dragon’s Teeth, China first expressed interest in developing nuclear missile submarines as early as 1958. The project then stalled for several years, a period coinciding with the Great Leap Forward, but was revived in 1965. Beijing ultimately decided on a more pragmatic approach, building an attack submarine first and only then a missile submarine. The reasoning was that to produce an attack submarine, China would only need to master the reactor technology to be successful, while a nuclear ballistic missile submarine required mastery of the reactor, a missile and the underwater launch system.
In many ways, this “walk before you run” strategy paralleled the American effort to build an SSBN as the Americans first built the Skipjack-class nuclear attack subs and then modified them into the missile-carrying George Washington class. The Chinese defense industry set to work, with designer Peng Shilu initially leading the effort. (Eventually his role would be taken over by Huang Xuhua, who later worked on the Type 092 ballistic missile submarine project.)
Unlike the Americans, who built world-class submarines and were the first to utilize underwater nuclear propulsion, the Chinese were at a serious technological disadvantage. That was evident in what came to be known as the Type 091 class submarine.The submarines were produced at the Bohai Shipyards in Huludao. The keel for the first submarine, pennant number 401, was laid in 1968 and completed in 1974. Four more submarines followed, the last being completed in 1991.