The Egyptian Navy embarked on an expedited force build-up process about a decade ago. As part of this process, the Egyptians acquired four U-209 type submarines from Germany; surface vessels from the USA, Russia, Germany and France; cutting-edge missile and torpedo systems; anti-aircraft systems; Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters; communication, command and control systems; upgrading of old vessels and more.
The Egyptian Navy placed a particular emphasis on their submarine warfare capabilities – a medium where the Egyptian Navy regards itself as inferior to the Israeli Navy. In addition to the acquisition of the four German submarines, along with cutting-edge weapon systems, the Egyptians also initiated significant ASW upgrades in the old vessels they already possessed.
These upgrades included, for example, the upgrading of the old Chinese-made Romeo-class submarines by the USA, and integration of cutting-edge missile and torpedo systems. Additionally, the Chinese-made Hainan-class coastal ASW patrol boats were upgraded by the installation and integration of cutting-edge, US-made sonar systems.
The three German-made submarines delivered to Egypt thus far have recently participated in a large-scale international exercise in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and proved their operational potential.
At the same time as this significant force build-up process, it appears that the Egyptians do not confine themselves to the aspiration of commanding the underwater medium. Recent reports indicated that the Egyptian Navy has been in contact with Chinese government organs and industries regarding the acquisition of additional Chinese-made submarines. The Egyptian Navy expressed an interest in Chinese S26T type diesel-powered submarines. These submarines are manufactured by the China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Company (CSOC), and are, in fact, the export configuration of their Type 39 submarine.
The Chinese Navy employs about 20 submarines of this type, and last year China sold these submarines to the Thailand Navy as well. These submarines, operated by a crew of 38, are about 66 meters long and have a displacement of about 1,900 tons. Their maximum surface speed is about 20 knots. They can operate at a maximum depth of up to 300 meters and remain submerged – according to the manufacturer – for up to 20 days. The maximum sea endurance of this submarine is 60 days.
The ability to remain submerged for 20 days is achieved through an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system. This is a highly significant capability that enhances the stealth characteristics of the submarine and improves its survivability and its ability to execute covert operations. Another strategic capability of the Chinese-made submarines is the ability to launch the CM-708UNB missiles they carry. These anti-ship missiles, manufactured by the CASIC Company of China, are based on the C-802 family of anti-ship missiles. A similar missile hit the Israeli Navy frigate INS Hanit during the Second Lebanon War (2006) off the coast of Lebanon.
The CM-708 missiles launched from the submerged submarine through a launching capsule have a range of about 300 kilometers and are fitted with a cutting-edge guidance head. Apparently, based on similar missiles of the C-802 family, the C-708 missiles can accurately engage deep inland targets through GPS-based navigation.
Additionally, the submarine is fitted with Chinese-made Yu-6 type torpedoes, capable of engaging surface vessels and submarines at ranges of up to 45 kilometers using active homing, passive homing and wake homing. The ability of these torpedoes to engage a vessel by following the wake it leaves behind it is an advanced capability, for which the protective solution is complex and limited. The submarine has six launching tubes through which it can launch a range of missiles and torpedoes and even drop naval mines.
A Future Threat to Israel?
The Chinese-made Romeo-class submarines used by the Egyptian Navy are very old submarines, which exceeded their service life many years ago. The US upgrading, performed through US Aid funding, enabled these submarines to remain in service for years to come.
As this is being written, it is unclear whether the Egyptians regard the Chinese-made S26T submarines as the replacement for their old Romeo-class submarines, or whether the Egyptian Navy intends to increase the number of submarines in operational use, in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It is also still unclear whether the contacts between the Chinese and the Egyptians will mature into a new deal involving the acquisition of new Chinese-made submarines.
In the event that this deal materializes, the Chinese submarines will constitute yet another significant upgrade for the submarine fleet of the Egyptian Navy, as they will provide it, on the one hand, with the ability to operate at very long ranges and covertly, while on the other hand they will enable the Egyptian Navy to attack naval vessels and high-value targets deep inland using the C-708 long-range cruise missiles. Additionally, they will be able to attack enemy submarines and surface vessels using the advanced Yu-6 torpedoes.
The state-of-the-art weapon systems on board this submarine and its various capabilities would add up to a significant threat to the Israeli Navy offshore, deep under the surface and even on land, if these submarines were actually purchased.