China’s Secret Submarine Catastrophe
In 2003, a tragic incident occurred involving a Chinese submarine, where all 70 crew members on board suffocated to death.
The submarine in question was the Ming-class 361, which was part of the North Sea Fleet’s 12th Submarine Brigade based in Liaoning province.
The Ming-class 361 submarine is a specific unit of the Type 035 Ming-class diesel-electric submarines used by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China. The Type 035 Ming-class submarines are an older generation of submarines developed from the Soviet Romeo-class, which in turn was a Soviet adaptation of the German Type XXI “Electric U-Boat” from World War II.
The first two Type 035 Ming-class submarines became built in 1975.
However, due to their relatively outdated design and easy detection compared to modern American or Russian submarines, they were primarily used for coastal defense and rarely ventured far beyond Chinese coastal waters. Despite their limitations, Chinese shipyards continued building updated Ming-class submarines into the 1990s.
Submarine 361, in particular, was a Type 035G Ming III model, introduced in the 1990s with the capability to engage opposing submerged submarines using guided torpedoes. Submarine 361 entered service in 1995, along with three sister ships numbered 359 through 362. These four submarines formed the North Sea Fleet’s 12th Submarine Brigade, based in Liaoning province.
The typical crew complement of a Type 035 submarine is between 55 and 57 personnel. The Ming-class submarines have a displacement of around 1,800 tons when surfaced and 2,110 tons when submerged. They have a length of 76 meters (249 feet) and a beam of 7.6 meters (25 feet). The submarines are powered by two diesel engines and an electric motor, with a maximum speed of approximately 15 knots surfaced and 18 knots submerged. Their diving depth is around 300 meters (984 feet), and they have an operational range of around 8,000 nautical miles at 10 knots surfaced.
On April 25, 2003, a Chinese fishing boat spotted a periscope drifting aimlessly on the water’s surface.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was alerted and sent two vessels to investigate. Initially believing it to be a foreign submarine, they discovered it was their own Ming-class 361 submarine. When the crew boarded the vessel on April 26, they found all 70 personnel lifeless at their stations. Clearly there was an event on board. As the submarine held considerably more than its usual crew numbers. In addition, a senior Chinese Naval officer was on board. Commodore Cheng Fuming.
The tragedy became acknowledged by military commissioner and former president Jiang Zemin on May 2, 2003, who honored the deceased sailors and attributed the cause of the incident to “mechanical failure.” However, kept mostly quiet from western media for years. Thanks to Beijing’s massive censorship. The story was largely contained.
We spoke with a US Navy Admiral off the record who told us;
“I asked ADM Pruher (former Ambassador to China and Navy 4 star Admiral) what he thought the threat of the PRC carrier program (back when they had 2 and we’re building a third).
He said he hoped they would build 20, as it will take them 50 years to figure out how to operate them!
Just having the equipment does not equate to competence nor capability to operate it.”
U.S. Navy – Admiral Joseph W. Prueher
The exact reason for the suffocation of the crew remains unclear, however several theories have become proposed over the years:
- Experimental Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) System: Some suggested that the submarine was testing an AIP system, which would have provided greater stealth and underwater endurance. A malfunction in the system could have resulted in the depletion of breathable air.
- Chlorine Gas: Another theory is that seawater leaked into the submarine and mixed with battery acid, creating deadly chlorine gas that poisoned the crew.
- Diesel Engine Suffocation: The most widely accepted theory, initially published by the Hong Kong Wen Wei Po newspaper, suggests that the crew suffocated due to the submarine’s diesel engine. According to this theory, the submarine was running its diesel engine while snorkeling, and either the air intake valve closed due to high water or failed to open properly due to a malfunction. The diesel engine didn’t shut down as it should have, causing it to consume most of the submarine’s air supply in just two minutes. This led to the crew losing consciousness and ultimately suffocating.
This tragic incident serves as a stark reminder of the dangers associated with operating submarines, even during peacetime. High standards of maintenance, manufacturing, and crew training are essential to prevent such disasters in the future.