A consortium of the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) R & D institutions is claiming to have achieved vital developmental breakthroughs in the arenas of integrated electric propulsion systems (IEPS), pump-jet propulsion systems for nuclear-powered submarines, high-energy warship-mounted laser-based directed-energy weapons for air-defence, and superconductive magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) arrays. The involved institutions include the Lake Huangjia-based Wuhan Naval Research Institute, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp’s (CSIC) wholly-owned Wuhan Institute of Marine Electric Propulsion (WIMEP)—also known as the 712 Research Institute—and the Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Department of Micro/Nano Electronics.
Beijing recently established a Scientific Research Steering Committee to help it develop cutting-edge military technology. This new body has been modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was set up after the USSR’s Sputnik satellite launch in 1957 to spearhead R & D on pioneering military systems to maintain the US’ qualitative edge over the Soviet Union. The new Steering Committee is working with the PLA’s Science and Technology Commission, which was set up last year and also reports to the Central Military Commission. The Committee is focussing on developing not only the hardware but also the related applications software packages.
It was in August 2013 that the CSIC-owned WIMEP had first revealed the design of a gas turbine-based IEPS for future warships. An IEPS uses a gas-turbine or diesel-generator to produce electricity that powers motors, which turn propeller shafts or operate waterjets. The system significantly does away with heavy mechanical clutches and highly sophisticated reduction gearboxes that reduce or increase power to the propeller shafts. It also saves space and weight and is easier to control and maintain. It is also quieter to run and can increase a warship’s speed over conventional diesel-engines. The PLAN’s Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, who led the developmental effort of such an IEPS, has claimed that the WIMEP-developed solution is the world’s first IEPS to run on a medium-voltage, direct-current system.
The WIMEP-developed rim-driven pumpjet has a ring-shaped electrical motor inside the pumpjet shroud, which turns the vane rotor (a vane rotor has the fan blades attached to a rotating band built on a cylinder interior, as opposed to a propeller shaft) inside the pumpjet cavity to create thrust. Previous submarine-mounted pumpjets were ‘shrouded propellers’" which consisted of a tubular nozzle covering the propeller.
By removing the shaft of the propeller, the reduction in the number of moving parts decreases the noise made by the pumpjet, as well as saving hull space. In addition, rim-driven pumpjets are easier to maintain, and have less cavitation (bubbles that form during propeller movement), making them even more quiet. The PLAN’ futuristic Type 095 SSNs and Type 096 SSBNs will reportedly incorporate such IEPS and rim-driven pumpjets.
The PLAN’s electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) R & D facility (inclusive of a full-scale operational prototype) is located at Ningbo-Zhuangqiaoin. Developmental work on EMALS negan in the late 1990s and by last year an operational prototype was successfully developed.
The superconductive MAD array, mounted aft of an aircraft, can be used to pinpoint the location of minerals buried deep beneath the earth in Inner Mongolia, for example, with a level of precision as high as anything currently available around the world. The device is described as being a high performance equipment and technical solution to resources mapping, civil engineering, archaeology and national defence. Developed by the the Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Department of Micro/Nano Electronics in cooperation with the Institute of Geophysics and Geomatics, China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, Hubei, such MAD arrays are also used for detecting submerged submarines navigating at shallow depths.
The China-developed MAD sensor is different from conventional designs in at least two ways. The first is the large number of probes the device uses. With this array, it can collect much more data than traditional detectors, which tend to use just one antenna. The new MAD also uses a superconductive computer chip cooled by liquid nitrogen. This super-cool environment significantly increases the device’s sensitivity to signals that would be too faint for traditional devices to spot.
Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, 57, became a household name in 2011 when he announced during a speech to accept a national technology award that his team had successfully developed an EMALS. Ma, a PLA deputy to the National People’s Congress, hails from Yangzhou in Jiangsu. He graduated from the PLAN’s University of Engineering in Wuhan, Hubei, in 1987 and subsequently elected to teach there. He earned a PhD in electrical engineering from Tsinghua University in 1996 and went on to become the country’s youngest engineering academician five years later. A specialist in maritime propulsion, electrical engineering and related fields, Ma has cultivated/mentored more than 400 Masters and PhD students at the Naval University since the late 1980s. Ma’s exalted status in the PLAN was highlighted by a photograph of then PLAN Commander Admiral Wu Shengli holding an umbrella for Ma during an inspection of the University of Engineering in Wuhan, where Ma works, on a rainy day in June 2016. Rear Admiral Liu Dezhi, a colleague at the university, describes Ma as a workaholic and master problem-solver. Dubbed the father of China’s EMALS, Rear Admiral Ma describes himself as a “teacher without any dreams”. He is one of 17 nominees for 10 Order of August 1 awards that were presented by President Xi Jinping on August 1, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Red Army, the PLA’s precursor. In the past, Ma had won the National Science and Technology Progress Award twice and in 2015 also won the science and technology achievement prize of the Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation, a Hongkong SAR-based non-government organisation.
Meanwhile, the first prototype of the S-30 Type 032 Qing-class SSB meant for the Pakistan Navy has been floated at the Wuhan Shipyard. The Pakistan Navy has eight Stirling Engine AIP-equipped double-hulled submarines on order from China: four S-26 Type 032 Qing-class SSKs capable of launching SLCMs, and four S-30 Type 032 Qing-class SSBs capable of launching both SLCMs and SLBMs.
The S-30 Type 032 Qing-class SSB will be capable of firing the 2,000km-range Bukkeukseong-1 or Polaris-1 SLBM, which has been under development in North Korea for the past decade, for which China has provided both military-technical and military-industrial assistance.