Chinese Submarine Accident… or Hoax?

Chinese Submarine Accident… or Hoax?

by Matt Collins

On August 21, 2023, social media outlets began releasing unconfirmed reports of a Chinese submarine accident that claimed the lives of fifty-five sailors earlier in the month.

According to the reports, the Shang Class (Type 093) submarine was testing a secret new pump-jet propulsion system in the Taiwan Strait when it collided with a chain-and-anchor trap laid by the same Chinese navy.

Horrifyingly, the crew spent six subsequent hours struggling to fix their submarine before the onboard oxygen systems failed, killing the entire crew via hypoxia and air poisoning.

Of course, it's important to remember that this story is still pending confirmation from military analysts and open-source intelligence (OSINT) enthusiasts. The original source for the claims, after all, is an account called "Lude Media," which typically publishes anti-Chinese news and content.

Satellite image of the alleged crash site of the Chinese sub

Satellite image of the alleged crash site. (Image courtesy of X)

Following their report, the U.K.'s Daily Mail (not exactly a reliable source) published a purportedly leaked British intelligence report on the incident just last week, and other news outlets have already begun to carry the story in turn.

Now, there are a few inconsistencies to the story that should give any reader pause.

First, defensive anti-submarine warfare (ASW) traps are nothing new. Typically taking the form of nets or obstructions, they're meant to snag propellers and ensnare submarines that tread on foreign territory. (These Chinese ASWs were no doubt meant to trap snooping Western submarines.) But they're rarely deployed in open/international waters, where this submarine was claimed to have crashed into one.

Besides, modern nuclear submarines shouldn't run out of air after six hours. After all, they have the systems to make their own breathable air. And they've got nearly endless power to do it.

At the same time, this kind of military SNAFU isn't exactly unprecedented. 2000's Kursk disaster, for example, was an avoidable tragedy—and one the Russian government fought to conceal from foreign observers.

Are we seeing history repeat itself with this Chinese submarine disaster? Or is it all just a red herring?

Let's find out…

Table of Contents

  • 01

    The Silent Threat of the Chinese Growing Submarine Fleet

  • 02

    A Twenty-first Century Submarine Powerhouse

  • 03

    Russia's Kursk Disaster

  • 04

    China's Sub Crash Disaster? Or Dirty Rumor?

  • 05

    Submarine Meltdown Survival

  • 06

    Silent But Deadly

The Silent Threat of the Chinese Growing Submarine Fleet

When we think about military submarines, we typically think of Russia vs. America.

That’s because the two Cold War enemies built whole fleets of subs equipped with nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons, and the most state-of-the-art propulsion and detection gear.

But China's submarine fleet has been around for decades. And lately, it's been growing fast—reflecting the country's desire to enhance its maritime capabilities and assert itself as a global naval power.

In the early years of China's submarine program, the Soviet Union played a crucial role, providing technical support, training, and even submarines. This began in the late 1950s, when China received its first two submarines from the USSR. They were Whiskey-class boats used as training vessels for a new generation of Chinese submariners. Soviet advisers like Igor Spassky played pivotal roles in training Chinese personnel and transferring submarine technology.

Whiskey-class subs diagram

Whiskey-class subs were simple diesel-electric boats, ideal for training. (Image courtesy of Naval Encyclopedia)

By the early 1960s, however, relations between China and the Soviet Union had soured, so the Russians withdrew support, bringing China's submarine development to a grinding halt.

In a strategic pivot during the mid-twentieth century, China chose to prioritize its "Two Bombs, One Satellite" initiative. This meant that, for a time, resources were primarily directed towards the development of nuclear weapons and advancements in space technology. Consequently, the progress in submarine development was temporarily put on hold during this time frame.

However, this shift didn't mean that China discounted the long-term strategic value of submarines. Recognizing the significance of its sprawling coastline and the ongoing territorial considerations in the South China Sea, China maintained an underlying commitment to submarines as crucial naval assets.

By the late 1970s, China reaffirmed this commitment by accelerating its focus on submarine development–marking a pivotal resurgence in this maritime program.

Ultimately, four critical factors over the following decades allowed China to stop relying on foreign assistance for its submarine program and start building its own:

  • Admiral Liu Huaqing: Admiral Liu Huaqing, commonly called "Father of the Chinese Navy," played a critical role in reshaping Chinese naval strategy. Working to spur development in the 1980s and 1990s, he saw a capable and modernized submarine fleet as a critical component for naval effectiveness.

  • Type 091 Han-class Submarine: China's first actual nuclear submarine, the Type 091 Han-class submarine was a success–proving that China's naval power was rapidly evolving.

  • Type 035 Ming-class Submarine: In addition to developing conventional diesel-electric submarines, China simultaneously cultivated the Type 035 Ming-class. These submarines became the workhorses of the Chinese Navy in the 1980s and 1990s, serving in various roles and helping to build the country's submarine expertise.

  • Yuan Wang-class Submarine Support Ships: These traditional surface ships were vital in making China's submarine program possible. The Yuan Wang-class submarine support ships extended the reach and capabilities of China's submarine fleet while facilitating tracking and communication over longer distances.

Building on these early breakthroughs, China's modern submarine fleet has become a force to be reckoned with.

A Twenty-first Century Submarine Powerhouse

Recent years have been marked by relentless innovation and evolution for China's submarine fleet.

Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the People's Liberation Army/Navy, vastly expanded China's presence in the South China Sea during his tenure from 2006 to 2017. And he consistently emphasized how a strong submarine fleet was necessary to safeguard China's maritime interests.

As a result, submarines like the Type 093 Shang-class began to emerge. Quieter and more advanced than their predecessors, these subs are loaded with advanced sonar systems and anti-ship missiles–making them a serious threat that's hard to track down.

By the twenty-first century, China had also begun to develop and deploy the same ballistic missile subs used by Russia and the United States.

The Type 094 Jin-class ballistic missile submarines have JL-2 ballistic missiles and can carry nuclear warheads. So while China's nuclear stockpile is still quite limited compared to the competition, these subs still provide plenty of flexibility in delivering payloads.

China’s Type 094 submarine

China’s Type 094 submarine. (Image courtesy of CovertShores)

Even China's conventional diesel-electric subs have made a significant impact. The Type 039A Yuan-class subs, for example, are often used for ASW and intelligence-gathering purposes.

In this way, China's submarine program is a powerful force multiplier for its navy. But there are still a few very real challenges…

For starters, China still lags behind the US and Russia in critical technological aspects. Their subs are still loud, and their propulsion systems aren't all that great. Plus, their aggressive actions in the South China Sea have triggered closer scrutiny, kicking off an arms race that could reduce the overall effectiveness of their subs if push ever comes to shove.

And even though China's submarine fleet has evolved by leaps and bounds, no one is immune to a potentially catastrophic accident—as the Russian navy learned in 2000.

Russia's Kursk Disaster

On August 12th, 2000, a disastrous accident claimed the lives of 118 Russian sailors aboard the Kursk.

The Kursk submarine was a Russian Navy Oscar II-class nuclear-powered submarine. Loaded with torpedoes and cruise missiles, it was one of the most advanced and formidable weapons in all of Russia's arsenal.

The submarine was stationed with the Russian Northern Fleet in Severomorsk near Murmansk in the Barents Sea. And it was called in to participate in a naval exercise called "Summer-X." The Kursk was tasked with simulating an attack on a Northern Fleet aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, testing the effectiveness of Russia's submarines against its traditional ground fleet.

During the exercise, the Kursk was rocked by two explosions. The first occurred in the forward torpedo compartment. Likely the result of a torpedo fuel leak or a faulty torpedo detonation, this explosion significantly damaged the submarine.

The second explosion was even more powerful than the first. It happened approximately two minutes after the initial blast, and it was the one that ultimately sank the Kursk. The exact cause of this second explosion remains a subject of debate and investigation.

Nearby Russian and Norwegian monitoring stations picked up the explosions, and the international community picked up the Kursk's distress signals. But the Russian Navy was slow to respond. They decided to downplay the severity of the situation to avoid projecting potential military weakness–a move that would later draw substantial criticism from abroad.

Without foreign assistance, Russia's first rescue efforts ultimately came up short. After a few days, the Russian government relented and officially asked for help, but by then it was too late. The Kursk had been trapped at a depth of approximately 108 meters (354 feet) in the Barents Sea, and the water pressure and temperature made it increasingly unlikely that any survivors would be found.

On August 21st, 2000—over a week after the Kursk was rocked by an explosion—a British remotely operated vehicle (ROV) finally managed to open the Kursk's escape hatch and gain access to the vessel. Tragically, all of the crew members on board were found to be deceased. Due to the harsh underwater conditions, the official cause of death was asphyxiation and hypothermia.

The remains of the Kursk after its devastating explosion

The remains of the Kursk after its devastating explosion. (Image courtesy of Warrior Maven)

This tragedy highlights the inherent danger of operating any submarine beneath the waves. After all, the margin for error can be razor-thin, and the potential for failure is ever-present. High-tech gear, meanwhile, can complicate things even further, with the risk of equipment failure, operator error, or even a catastrophic meltdown of a submarine's nuclear power plant.

Each of these threats, it must be stressed, is a daily reality for submariners who strive for perfection in the operation and maintenance of their boats. But mechanical failures and accidents still happen. And when they happen aboard a nuclear submarine, military officials aren't always eager to share the details of what went wrong.

China's Sub Crash Disaster? Or Dirty Rumor?

On August 31, China's Defense Ministry called the crash a "dirty rumor."

Seeming corroboration came from Sun Li-Fang, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence representative, who said, "Military intelligence and surveillance did not detect any evidence of a Chinese submarine crash near the Taiwan Strait."

OSINT observers have likewise pointed out that The Daily Mail is not a credible source, and one of the only analysts to report on the accident (CovertShores) has since deleted their report.

At the same time, similar events like the Kursk disaster have shown us that governments may not always be forthcoming in the immediate aftermath of an accident like this one.

After all, if Lude Media's original reports were true, and the submarine failed while testing a new secret propulsion system, China probably wouldn't want to broadcast that to the world. "Our new secret weapon blew up and killed everyone aboard," doesn't exactly make for a great international headline.

Same goes for the revelation of China laying ASW traps in open waters off the Taiwan Strait. After years of aggression in the South China Sea, the country’s neighbors probably wouldn't have well-received that kind of aggression.

What’s more, China's government has developed an obsession with controlling the flow of information. From banning references to The Tiananmen Square disaster to deleting photos that compare Xi Jingping to Winnie the Pooh (see below), the PRC can be brutal regarding controlling the headlines. So they're not exactly a reliable source either.

Winnie the Pooh and Xi Jingping

China bans images like these to avoid confusion between Winnie the Pooh and Xi Jingping. (Image courtesy of BBC)

But until there's confirmation from outside sources, this one remains in the land of rumor.

If it's not a rumor, and nuclear-equipped Chinese subs start malfunctioning anywhere near American shores, then we'd have a real problem…

Submarine Meltdown Survival

Imagine strolling along the beach at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf when you hear a loud thunderclap bang from offshore. You glance over just in time to see a massive column of water rocket skyward. It's at least a few miles offshore but still visible from where you stand. Whether you realize it or not, you've just witnessed a nuclear explosion.

Of course, the reactors aboard submarines are much smaller than Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. But they're susceptible to the same kind of meltdowns and failures as any other nuclear reactor. And if a submarine's reactor were to meltdown while underway, it could potentially eject massive quantities of highly-radioactive fuel into the seawater surrounding coastal cities.

The risk of this type of meltdown is minimal in the grand scheme of things. But the effects can be far-reaching. Following the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown in 2011, for example, radiation reached as far as the California coast and affected sea life all over the Pacific.

Fukushima fallout map

Fukushima fallout reached across the Pacific. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

So this kind of disaster is undoubtedly worth preparing for, especially for those who live in coastal areas.

Even though the resulting exposure may be minimal, it's important to stay ahead of it. So we recommend stocking up on Potassium Iodide Tablets whenever they’re available.

potassium iodide tablets

These tablets are an extremely easy way to protect your body from the Iodine-131 isotopes that can be ejected after a reactor meltdown. Flooding your body's thyroid gland with safe iodine prevents absorption of I-131 and the potential cancer that can result. These tablets are a must-have in the wake of a major meltdown or nuclear attack, and by then it will be too late to stock up.

We also recommend keeping a dosimeter like the Geiger-2 on hand.


With a dosimeter, you'll be able to track radiation levels in your environment. And the Geiger-2 features an integrated operating system that allows you to set alarm levels and track long-term exposure, all of it accessible through a heads-up LCD display.

With a dosimeter like the Geiger-2, you can track even minuscule changes in background radiation, providing you with advance warning of potential exposure and a critical tool to help avoid "hot spots" and make your way to safety in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

Silent But Deadly

At the moment, the Chinese submarine accident remains a rumor—even if it's a very believable rumor.

China’s government suppressing potentially damaging news would be nothing new, after all. And after years of fast-tracking submarine development, the potential for a catastrophic failure aboard a Chinese submarine has only grown.

The same is true for the rest of the world’s submarine fleets as well. Russia’s nuclear-powered subs are rapidly aging. And even though America’s fleet is extremely well-funded, increasing hostilities abroad have fleets on high alert—and likely working in closer proximity than usual.

South Korean ballistic submarine

Even South Korea now has ballistic missile submarines. (Image courtesy of Naval News)

One wrong move aboard one of these submarines, one disastrous accident or one torpedo fired could potentially result in a global conflict among nuclear powers. This kind of risk is very real, even if it’s invisible in our everyday lives.

For now though, the news of any Chinese submarine accident is still unconfirmed. But even if it’s just a rumor, it’s a stark reminder of what could happen in the event of a disaster like this one—and what you can do to stay prepared.