The Underwater Force
Updated 16:03, 19-Apr-2019
By Han Bin, Huang Xiaodong
04:39

"Don't ask me where I am, and even if you ask, I can't tell." This is from a well-known song of the Chinese submarine force. It sums up life on board: usually beneath the ocean's surface, away from prying eyes.

The submarine is one of the most lethal weapons in or on the sea. Due to its stealth nature, missions are seldom reported. And once on a mission, all signals stop under water and the crew "disappears". We were given exclusive access to one of China's conventional submarines and its crew at a military port on China's east coast.

Strength in silence 

"Serving on a submarine is a risky job. But I think this risk can be controlled," said Zhao Haijun, a captain in the North China Sea Fleet.

Zhao graduated from the PLA Naval Submarine Academy 20 years ago. The veteran submariner has experienced challenging situations, and he constantly drills into his crew the need to remain on high alert when it comes to safety, and to know how to handle emergencies.

A bird-eye view of two 039B type submarine at a military port on China's east coast. /CGTN photo

A bird-eye view of two 039B type submarine at a military port on China's east coast. /CGTN photo

The 039B type submarine he now captains is representative of some of the PLA Navy's current core strength. Its hydrodynamic design helps keep it invisible under water. It is equipped with air-independent propulsion technology, and advanced systems that help it dive deeper, and move faster and more quietly. Zhao also points out its high level of automation.

Nameless heroes 

"We are the nameless heroes. We can't see, and there's no concept of day and night. The 24-hour clock tells us whether it's night or day," said Wang Xiaolong, a North China Sea Fleet sailor.

He showed me around the vessel. The 26-year-old has been serving on this 039B type vessel ever since it was commissioned six years ago. Wang said the cramped quarters are not the biggest challenge - it's living under water.

Captain Zhao Haijun and CGTN reporter Han Bin on the 039B type submarine. /CGTN Photo 

Captain Zhao Haijun and CGTN reporter Han Bin on the 039B type submarine. /CGTN Photo 

After a late start in the 1960s, China prioritized submarine development in its military modernization. Today, the fleet includes both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric submarines. China may already have the largest number of submarines, though not the most advanced. But with the upgraded naval strategy, the PLA Navy's submarine force is on course to more distant waters.