Chinese nuclear-powered torpedoes could be fired in 'swarm' over thousands of miles

Chinese news agencies report that China are developing nuke-powered torpedoes.
Christopher McFadden

In military news, Chinese scientists allegedly develop long-range "disposable" nuclear-powered torpedoes. 

According to Chinese news sources, a Beijing research team says it has completed the conceptual design for a small, low-cost nuclear reactor that would be able to drive a swarm of torpedoes across the Pacific Ocean in about a week.

In contrast to the Russian "Poseidon" crewless submarine, the first known underwater drone propelled by nuclear energy, this new torpedo could be mass-produced with relative ease. Not only that, but the scientists said that the new torpedo could be placed into a standard torpedo tube and launched in vast numbers from virtually any submarine or surface warship.

Each torpedo would use a throwaway nuclear reactor to propel it to and maintain its cruising speed of over 30 knots (56 kph or 35 mph) for 200 hours before being dumped to the seafloor and using a battery to power a conventional weapon strike.

china nuke torpedo
The new torpedo can allegedly be fired from a standard torpedo tube. Source: Snaprender/iStock

In a paper published this month by the peer-reviewed Journal of Unmanned Undersea Systems, a publication run by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, the nation's largest naval contractor, lead scientist Guo Jian from the China Institute of Atomic Energy claimed that there is a fundamental difference between the design and the Russsian "Poseidon".

"Thanks to its high flexibility and low cost, this unmanned underwater vehicle equipped with the nuclear power system can be used as a conventional force like an attack nuclear submarine, rather than as a nuclear missile,” he said.

Russia's "Poseidon", is a theoretically very dangerous weapon that could destroy a coastal city or a larger area using its onboard two-megaton nuclear weapon. For reference, that payload is 100 times more potent than the Hiroshima bomb.

However, the Chinese researchers claimed that using such a weapon may start a nuclear war that would end the world, making the development much more unlikely. They said that the "Poseidon" primarily functions as a strategic weapon, which is not the intended role of their new torpedo. 

Guo said there is a growing demand in China for “small, high-speed, long-range unmanned underwater vehicles that can be used in reconnaissance, tracking, attack and strategic strike”.

Being nuclear powered, these torpedos could have a massive range

Nuclear energy can supply a large quantity of energy to support these tasks; however, most reactors have complex structures and are expensive.

china nuke torp submarine
Source: razihusin/iStock

To build a new nuclear power system with “mature and simple technology that is easy to use and maintain, inexpensive and suitable for mass production, we need to think out of the box,” Guo explained.

So, for their design, the project team removed the majority of the reactor's shielding materials, shielding only a few essential components from radiation. Pricey coatings made of rare earth elements in the reactor core were also swapped out for less expensive materials like graphite.

The experts recommend employing some commercially accessible components from the global market in place of military-grade items to reduce expenses further.

The reactor would produce more than 1.4 megawatts of heat from less than 8.8lbs (4kg) of low-concentration uranium fuel.

Due to the low efficiency of the inexpensive components, only around 6% of the generated heat would be transferred to electricity to drive the torpedo, but there would still be more than enough energy for a one-way voyage, according to Guo's calculations.

“When the manufacturing cost is low enough, even if the nuclear-powered device can only be used once, the overall cost will be low. This, in turn, stimulates us to make the system simpler and smaller,” the researchers said.

nuke torpedo
Source: tzahiV/iStock

The service staff could handle the tiny reactor as a "clean asset" without needing protective gear because it would not produce any radiation, they claimed.

How would the torpedo work?

As soon as the torpedo departed the launch tube, a chain reaction would begin, taking approximately 30 minutes (20 times faster than a typical nuclear submarine reactor) to reach a working temperature of 572 degrees Fahrenheit (300 degrees Celsius) and propel the torpedo to a cruising speed of roughly 37mph (60 kph).

According to the researchers, the reactor could run for up to 400 hours while traveling over 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers), which is roughly the distance between Shanghai and San Francisco.

Eventually, the reactor section would then separate from the torpedo and fall to the bottom of the deep sea, activating a safety mechanism to kill the remaining chain reaction, they said.

“Even if the hull is broken, the interior is filled with water, and the whole body falls into the wet sand on the seabed, the reactor will not have a critical accident. Safety is ensured.”

nuke torps range
Nuclear-powered torpedoes could have a massive range. Source: Alexyz3d/iStock

Future naval fights would heavily rely on "smart torpedoes," said Ma Liang, a researcher at the Navy Submarine Academy in Qingdao, Shandong province, who is researching submarine launch technology.
She stated in another paper published in the same journal on July 13 that AI technology, such as machine learning, will enable the torpedoes to pick and hit targets with little to no human assistance.

According to Ma, sophisticated torpedoes may set up an ambush on the other side of the ocean and "attack submarines as they leave a port in home waters that is impossible to access by manned platforms."