China Prepares to Ramp Up its Shipbuilding Process

Kilo-class diesel submarine. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense

Why Washington should pay more attention to China's buildup of undersea forces.

A decade ago, myriad questions hung over the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The only modern vessel it seemed capable of building in a hurry was a coastal fast attack craft, hardly the stuff of a world-class fleet. Where were the large surface combatants or even the frigates that are the workhorses of any sea service? And then there was the biggest question of all: would China actually go all in for the “holy grail” of naval prestige and build an aircraft carrier? Things look very different from today’s vantage point. Not only are China’s simultaneous destroyer and frigate (and cruiser and cutter) programs the envy of the world, Beijing’s aspiration to wield “super carriers” is no longer a laughing matter at all.

On the other hand, media attention focused elsewhere seemed almost to suggest that the Chinese submarine force might have been marginalized by the glitzy carrier program, not to mention the shiny new airstrips dotting the South China Sea. The new leader of the PLAN, Shen Jinlong, is yet another surface warfare officer rather than a member of the undersea service. However, there are some palpable signs that the PLAN submarine force might be seeking a return to the limelight after some years in the shadows. First, my colleague Conor Kennedy has unearthed an article on the China Strategic Emerging Industry [中国战略新兴产业] website that suggests that China is in the process of completing perhaps the world’s largest nuclear submarine fabrication facility. Second, additional bombshells have emerged from the February 2017 issue of Naval & Merchant Ships [舰船知识], which quite casually announced that Beijing might opt to forward base some submarines at Gwadar in Pakistan, while also letting it be known that one of its new Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarines had been active as recently as December 2016 in a continuing escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. Finally, this edition of Dragon Eye also examines some developing discussions among Chinese naval strategists reflecting an apparently new doctrinal concept for the modernizing PLAN submarine force of power projection “from the sea . . .”

According to the article from the China Strategic Emerging Industry site, “Many media outlets are reporting that China’s Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Co. has built a new large-size factory.” Later, the new facility at Huludao is described as a “super factory” [超级工程] and it is noted with great pride that that the fabrication shed was erected in just one year. In terms of size comparisons, this piece asserts that it is the world’s largest: “Western production lines for the most part can only build one submarine, and only the US is capable of building two submarines simultaneously, but China is now capable of building four!”

According to this article, China already has at least four type 094/094A ballistic missile submarines and at least five Type 093/093G attack submarines, so it is speculated that the new facility is to build the successor third-generation classes of Type 096 ballistic missile submarines and Type 095 attack submarines. The new submarines will be built using modular fabrication techniques. The projection is made that Chinese nuclear submarine production will double its rate within two to three years. The advantages of the new facility for production in all-weather conditions, and in terms of hiding the building from U.S. spy satellites, are duly noted. The author reveals that within Chinese Navy circles the question of whether to prioritize the aircraft carrier, or large surface ships or nuclear submarines, has formed a “focal point of debate” [争论的焦点], but concludes that there is a consensus behind “balanced development” [平衡发展] and nuclear submarines are a key part of that balance.