Lost in translation: how one Chinese submarine breakthrough was mistaken for another
It began on the 30th May, 2017
On that day, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV showed a new episode of its documentary programme Focus Report, titled “科技强国的追梦人”. Loosely translated, it means “The pioneers of science and technology and national power” (it sounds more snazzy in mandarin).
This episode was meant to showcase two pioneers behind a number of recent technological breakthroughs in China over the past few years, and was a sort of an opportunity for those individuals to showcase their work and receive some well deserved limelight for their efforts. The first half of the programme was dedicated to Zhang Ping (张平), a pioneering researcher in the field of telecommunications and whose work has been and continues to be instrumental in China’s development of data and information technology, including 4G.
The other individual, is a professor, researcher, and Chinese Navy Rear Admiral by the name of Ma Weiming (马伟明), who for the rest of this piece we will refer to Prof Ma for sake of brevity.
In the video (which has been uploaded to Youtube, where Prof Ma’s segment begins at 8:04), he makes various remarks about developing a number of new systems over the years which have benefited the Chinese Navy’s modernization, as well as his role in training and mentoring a large number of new engineers and researchers who will continue his achievements and supersede them after he is retired… but all of this information is not new to seasoned Chinese Navy watchers, as Prof Ma has been known to be instrumental and the leading figure for a number of recent and up and coming naval technologies, including but not limited to integrated electric propulsion systems (IEPS), the electromagnetic catapult (EM cat) project, and new weapons systems including rail guns.
However, in this video it is his supposed statements regarding China’s next generation nuclear submarine’s propulsion which caught the unfortunate attention of various English speaking defence media and commentators.
Rise of the rimdrive
Yes, apparently, Prof Ma claimed the next generation Chinese nuclear submarine will feature a rimdrive.
Such a system, long hypothesized as a potentially game changing form of propulsion for submarines, could provide a significant leap or even game changing advancement for submarine propulsion and acoustic stealth… if it was successfully fielded, as Prof Ma claimed.
Unfortunately – spoiler alert – Prof Ma made no such claim or statement (though more on this later). But first, let’s take a look at what some rather prominent and highly circulated English language defence media and commentators wrote.
Popular Science, on its Eastern Arsenal blog, wrote:
The piece alludes to the fictional Red October’s groundbreaking stealthy propulsion system as something that the Chinese Navy may soon have a real world counter part to, and references the CCTV programme, but in an inaccurate manner (bolded below);
This month, Chinese state TV channel CCTV 13 broadcast an interview with a top Chinese naval engineer, Rear Admiral Ma Weiming. The admiral is notably responsible for the development of multiple Chinese naval electromagnetic programs, including the electromagnetic catapult and railguns. In the interview, he stated that the PLAN is fitting its newest nuclear attack submarines with a “shaftless” rim-driven pumpjet, a revolutionary and silent propulsion system.
Continuing with this, the South China Morning Post kicks up a storm, with:
The piece starts off accurate, but then takes a dive into complete inaccuracy (again, the bolded part, below):
In a recent interview with China Central Television, Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a leading Chinese naval engineer, showed a component of a new Integrated Electrical Propulsion System (IEPS) for naval warships in a laboratory. He said the system, which turns all the engine’s output into electricity, and a rim-driven pump-jet had been fitted to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s newest nuclear submarines.
The National Interest, on the beat as always, fires off two rather alarming titles, including:
This piece directly cites the previous South China Morning Post article (it is tempting to just to bold the whole passage given the author of this article did not apparently consult the original video source himself and is relying on the incorrect claim from SCMP for the basis of this write up):
“A rim-driven pump-jet has a ring-shaped electrical motor inside the pump-jet shroud, which turns the vane rotor inside the pump-jet cavity to create thrust,” as South China Morning Post reporter Minnie Chan described the system.
Theoretically, without a drive-shaft, a submarine should be much quieter, and thus much more difficult to detect. Additionally, the Chinese are claiming that the new propulsor could reduce cavitation, which would also significantly help to improve a submarine’s acoustical signature performance.
“This is one of our work team’s first world-leading projects, which has been used on [China’s] next-generation nuclear submarines,” PLAN Rear Admiral Ma Weiming told China Central Television in May according to SCMP.
This article from James Holmes, a Chinese Navy watcher who is fairly experienced, apparently doesn’t do his homework either, and writes in his opening paragraph:
Word has it that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has staged a breakthrough in submarine propulsion. At any rate, that’s the word from marine engineer Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a specialist in electromagnetic systems. Admiral Ma recently reported on state-run CCTV that shipwrights are installing shaftless rim-driven pumpjets in China’s “next-generation nuclear submarines,” meaning attack or ballistic-missile boats. (Click here for a layman’s description of pumpjet technology.) Ma crowed that Chinese engineers are “now way ahead of the United States, which has also been developing similar technology.”
Anotherarticle, cross published on War is Boring, The National Interest, and Scout.com , defiantly proclaims:
Again, the SCMP article is cited, with the new slant expressing skepticism about the supposed rimdrive:
But that’s only if China can build an operationally relevant rim-driven pumpjet propulsor. American naval analysts are mostly convinced that the new Chinese silent propulsion system is a science project that may never make it to sea.
Janes Defence on the other hand, seemed to be the only major English language defence commentary site that got it right, with a few preview paragraphs accurately titled:
The full, limited three paragraph preview will not be quoted here given its brevity, but those three paragraphs end up accurately reporting the truth better than all the other different preceding write ups by multiple authors and consulted experts put together.
So what did Professor Ma actually say?
There are many interesting tidbits in Prof Ma’s section in the video, but the relevant section at the source of this misunderstanding (or incompetence, depending on how much charity one feels), is at 9:19-9:20 in the video.
In this part of the video Prof Ma is talking about his research and development of new IEPS technologies, and in the preceding few seconds from 9:04-9:19 he displays the two previous generations of IEPS that he had developed, and at 9:19 he is presenting the newest generation of IEPS which was a result of the experience and foundation gained from developing the first two generation of products.
And thus at 9:19, in reference to the newest, third generation of IEPS, he makes his statement, shown below in two screenshots with handy Chinese subtitles:
He says “这个是下一代核潜艇现在已经在应用的” — which translates to, “this <referencing the third generation IEPS> is currently already being applied on the next generation nuclear submarine”. Note how there is no mention of a rimdrive. And Prof Ma does not mention the rimdrive anywhere else in the video at all, either.
Prof Ma does reference the US, but not in the context of rimdrive. At 9:13-9:17, when he was still discussing the previous generations of IEPS he says: “这个后来因为有这两个技术，这个就是我说的是我们团队在世界上第一个领先项目， 领先就领先美国， 美国也是沿这条路线走的”.
This can be loosely translated to “<referencing to first two generation IEPS> we had the experience and foundation from developing those previous systems, <referencing to third generation IEPS> this is the system I mentioned which our team developed which is the world first leading system, which also leads the US, however the US is also proceeding along a similar route as us.”
Again, no rimdrive.
Prof Ma does discuss a propulsion related system in regards to the next generation of Chinese nuclear submarines, but the system in question is not a rimdrive, but of course the (third generation) IEPS.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge how groundbreaking this revelation is, as the Chinese Navy is notoriously close lipped regarding its nuclear submarine development and even its in-service nuclear submarines, to such a degree where the exact number of in-service nuclear submarines cannot even be fully agreed upon by experienced Chinese Navy watchers. Thus, for such a credible and authoritative source in the Chinese Navy to openly disclose on CCTV that not only is a future Chinese nuclear submarine likely in advanced stages of development (or possibly even early construction), but that it will use IEPS, is quite unprecedented.
But all this does not mean we can forget the fact that a number of defence media outlets and defence commentators completely misinterpreted what Prof Ma wrote.
How did it happen?
It appears that a combination of poor translation, and/or a lack of anyone actually tracking down the original video source, sprinkled with an intriguing display int he video, was a cause for this debacle.
Let’s start with the intrigue.
At 9:11 in the video there appears to be a small pumpjet and a plaque display in the background, however Prof Ma does not make any reference to it, and spends his time discussing IEPS development instead.
Analysis of the blurred Chinese characters on the plaque display by some enterprising Chinese language defence BBS users speculated some of the characters were consistent with the Chinese words for “shaftless pumpjet” — more commonly known as a rimdrive. That, coupled with the smallscale pumpjet which sorta-maybe-could’ve looked like a rimdrive demonstrator, led some users to believe that China was in the advanced stages of developing a rimdrive for its nuclear submarines. This was further exacerbated when a few studies by Chinese researchers were located, proving at least some research had been conducted on the matter:
However, there is a significant difference between suggesting that China had conducted research into a rimdrive, and claiming that Prof Ma had said China’s next generation nuclear submarine will be fielding a rimdrive.
This is where the poor translation and inability to check the original source kick in.
Even if some of the authors had been misled by either forum discussions or by each other, it seemed none of the outlets (outside of Janes) had accurately translated Prof Ma’s words in the television documentary, or even watched the video to begin with. The fact that multiple articles had made references to other articles (in particular the SCMP piece) as the opening basis for the rest of their own write up without directly referencing the original source video itself, essentially meant one initial misstep snowballed into an ever growing larger and inaccurate narrative. And it was a mistake that could have been solved simply through watching the original video and accurately translating those two brief seconds of video.
This is not the first mistake of its kind that English language defence media have made when reporting on Chinese military developments or the Chinese military overall. This author has seen his fair share of missteps over the years of following the Chinese military and the media reports regarding it.
In fact, these sort of basic journalistic mistakes are even not uncommon when English general mainstream media report on China in general. Accurate translators and taking time and effort to track down the original, unbiased source appears to be at a premium when reporting on China related matters, but to be fair this seems to be true for most avenues of journalism.
So what does this mean for China’s future nuclear submarines?
With all this settled, we can finally take a moment to consider the actual consequences of what Prof Ma actually said.
In many ways, the takeaway message is not actually too different to the original rimdrive narrative where the Chinese Navy may soon have a much quieter form of propulsion, but the premise is different.
When Prof Ma talks of the next generation of nuclear submarine using the (new third generation) IEPS, he is likely discussing a turbo-electric propulsion system. Such a system is fairly novel, and both the US Navy and Royal Navy are planning to implement this new propulsion system in their next generation SSBN classes, the Columbia class and Dreadnaught class, respectively. There are multiple potential benefits of a turbo-electric propulsion arrangement for nuclear submarines, but the one most relevant for acoustic stealth is that a turbo-electric system allows a submarine (or a ship in general) to eliminate the reduction gears that their driveshaft connects to, thus reducing a significant source of noise.
For the Chinese Navy’s next generation of nuclear submarine to field a new propulsion system at a similar timeframe or even earlier timeframe (depending on when the submarine in question will be constructed) than the US Navy or Royal Navy would indeed be a significant development… although it is not altogether that surprising for those who have followed the trends of Chinese military development over the last decade or more, and for those who have tracked the exploits of Prof Ma.
Given what little we know about the Chinese Navy’s current nuclear submarine development, it is likely that Prof Ma is referring to the 09V (095) nuclear attack submarine, and/or the 09VI (096) nuclear ballistic missile submarine as the “next generation nuclear submarine” which will be receiving the new third generation IEPS.
If an IEPS/turbo-electric system is installed, and when paired with other likely industry advances in the various subsystems essential to a nuclear submarine’s combat capability — if one remembers that the 09III class SSN and its various subsystems was developed in China using late 1980s and early 1990s technology and industry, and that the 09V class SSN will likely be developed with early 2010s assets at China’s disposal — then one has a bellweather to begin speculating about the potential degree of advancement the next generation of Chinese nuclear submarine may field compared its predecessors.
The prospect becomes even more tantalizing, when considering recent news of the completion of a significant expansion in nuclear submarine construction capacity at Bohai shipyard that will allow for simultaneous construction of a greater number of nuclear submarines, potentially three submarines of up to 9m diameter.
The prospect of a true mass production capacity for nuclear submarines takes ones memories back to the mid 2000s, where the Chinese Navy briefly ceased producing new destroyers for a few years, before starting a mass production campaign at the new production site at Jiangnan shipyard, where the 052C and 052D destroyers were churned out at a pace that had never been seen. Outside observation of their designs and observation of the Navy’s own procurement pattern seemed to suggest these two classes finally provided a combat capability that the Navy deemed to be competitive and enough to fulfill their requirements when compared to preceding designs like the 052B, 051C or 051B classes.
Considering this past trend, if the Chinese Navy has invested in a new large capacity production site for nuclear submarines, then the inevitable implication to consider is whether that is associated with the Navy’s belief that they may soon be able to produce a class of nuclear submarine that they deem to be competitive.