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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China wary of Russian naval repairs

Pic : FAS

China has procured from Russia 12 Kilo class submarines and four 956E/EM DDGs, or guided missile destroyers, since 1993. The first two Vasayanka-class Kilo submarines were exported to China in 1993, and the second two Kilo 636 submarines were delivered in 1996. The first two 956E DDGs were delivered in 1996 and 1999 respectively.

These battleships are now all due for overhaul or technical upgrading. But there are differences between China and Russia as to how this is to be done. Simply, China does not wish to trust its naval equipment to Russian technical experts.

A senior authoritative source from the Russian military industry said that for submarines, maintenance is more important that building the vessels themselves. Maintenance was not a major topic of discussion when the submarines were purchased, he said, but with the PLA Navy submarines due for overhaul, Russia and China have been involved in long drawn-out discussions.
In fact, the discussions have been under way for four years, the source said, adding that providing overhaul services was not necessarily included in the permit to export submarines.

The production and maintenance of submarines and missile destroyers are completely different industrial engineering processes, and the shipyards that produce them may not have the capability to repair or prolong the life of the vessels.

Kilo 636 PLA

Russia has several enterprises that have full sets of manuals, permits, technologies and the proper facilities to maintain the 956E DDGs and Kilo submarines, among which the Zvezdochka Factory is one of the top firms, which has successfully repaired four Kilo submarines for India and is working on a fifth one.

It is well known that the best practice to overhaul, prolong the life or upgrade a submarine is to send it back to the country where it was originally built. So far, all of the Indian Navy’s Kilo submarines have been overhauled and upgraded in Russia.

Under the guidance of technical experts, Club-S cruise missiles were also added to these submarines during their servicing. Meanwhile, the Indian technical staff that was involved in the upgrading also received training in the process.

Unlike the Indians, the Chinese did not want to send their submarines back to Russia for maintenance, however. Instead, they insisted that Russian technicians go to China to train maintenance staff and overhaul or prolong the service life of the submarines. The goal was that the Chinese would eventually be able to overhaul all their submarines themselves.

Impatient to acquire this ability, the Chinese contacted technicians at Sevastopol Shipyard in the Ukraine, through whom they acquired some of the Kilo submarine maintenance blueprints and started to carry out repairs on their own. This has resulted in poor quality repair work, according to the Russian military source.

Under the former Soviet Union, the Black Sea Fleet had Kilo submarines and Ukraine had the responsibility to maintain and overhaul the vessels. The technical information provided to China by the Ukrainians, therefore, was from manuals for the earlier edition Kilo submarines.

The Kilo 636 series has undergone a thorough upgrade since that time, with completely different battery, navigation and fire control systems, as well as weapon systems. The Ukrainian manuals were simply not adequate to instruct China in repairing the submarines.

As for the maintenance of the 956E DDGs, China’s Bohai Shipyard insisted that it would overhaul the destroyers on its own, and that Russia only needed to train its maintenance workers. Thus in 2008 Russia trained 25 technical staff for this shipyard, and another 10 this year.

Still the Russian technicians advised that the Chinese send the destroyers back to Russia’s Zvezdochka Factory for full maintenance, as moving the necessary heavy-duty equipment to the Bohai Shipyard would not be easy. This is why negotiations have continued over such a long period, with no agreement yet signed on the provision of follow-up service.

Meanwhile, the PLA Navy appeared to be repairing Kilo submarines at the Hudong Shipyard in Shanghai for some time. Interestingly, one submarine has been anchored at a berth there for at least two years. It is likely that China has dissected one Kilo submarine for the purpose of reverse engineering and maintenance testing.

It is worth nothing that the physical appearance of China’s Yuan class submarine has been listed by the Russian Defense Ministry as an imitation of the Russian Kilo submarine.

China’s unwillingness to let Russia service its existing Russian-made naval equipment is similar to its attitude toward cooperation with the Russian air force with regard to its fighter planes. In other words, China’s suspicion and distrust of Russia have not abated, and its aspiration to do everything indigenously has become stronger than ever. Source
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