The Chinese could have built a foundation as capable with friction piles, but this would have required piles that were longer, stronger and spaced about as close as those in the deep support footings. The piles would also need to be grouped together for mutual support and covered with a thick pile cap and finally, a thicker slab. The new Chinese assembly hall’s foundation is not in the same league as the one in Bath, Maine.
Based on the analysis of the new building’s foundation, it can be concluded that it was most likely designed to support objects that weight on the order of several hundreds of tons, not several thousands of tons. This raises serious doubts as to the claimed function of the new assembly hall’s production bays. Also, it is not the only major obstacle on the path to nuclear submarine production.
Lack of a Continuous Path
By May 2016, the exterior of the new assembly hall was proceeding at a brisk pace and the production bay gantry cranes were visible through the open roof areas on the hall’s east end. The satellite imagery also showed pile drivers placing the same fifteen-meter-long concrete piles into the soil outside the west end of the building, and along a path leading toward to the second three hundred thousand DWT dry dock.
The driven piles in front of the new hall covered a sizeable area, over thirty thousand square meters, indicating the shipyard was building a large transverser to facilitate moving completed objects from the assembly hall to a railway system. The spacing of the piles in the transverser area and along the rail lines is consistent with the foundation of the assembly hall, indicating they have a similar load-bearing capacity. By June 2016, slab sections for the transverser and the railway tracks had begun being poured. Imagery from December 2016 showed considerable progress on both the transverser and the railway lines. This photograph also provided a clearer understanding of the arrangement of the rails and the railway’s length. From the end of the transverser to the dry dock, the railway is an impressive five hundred meters long with four rails. The spacing between the inner two rails matched the rail gauge (≈six meters) from the production bays. The outer rails are probably for prime movers/tractors that will push structural cradles on wheeled bogies carrying completed objects to the dry dock.
Even if the railway could support the weight of a completed submarine, there are several “roadblocks” at the western terminus that prevent the transfer of any large vessel into the dry dock. Google Earth imagery shows the rail lines end at a massive dry dock wall. This wall is about six meters wide and at least one meter tall—there is no way to move a large, very heavy vessel over this wall. Furthermore, there are no rail lines in the shallow slipway. This indicates that there is no way to directly transfer objects to the slipway by rail. Rather, objects will have to be lifted off the structural cradles and placed in the slipway or dry dock by the gantry crane. The crane’s rails extend past the dry dock wall, enabling the crane to position itself directly over the railway. A significant limiting factor, however, is the gantry crane’s weight limit of six hundred tons—sufficient to lift hull sections, but an order of magnitude less than the weight of a completed nuclear submarine.
The last obstacle is the shallow depth of the slipway. According to BSHIC’s Production Capacity webpage, the three hundred thousand DWT dry docks have a depth of 12.75 meters. Comparing the two in satellite imagery shows the slipway has a depth of 3.5 to 4 meters—far too shallow to float a submarine off of its support cradles. The slipway would have to be completely rebuilt to be able to transfer a submarine from the railway to the dry dock. And while such an option is feasible, recall that the planned expansion in the Huludao Shipyard’s production capability was proposed and approved nearly a decade earlier. If the Chinese had intended for the assembly hall to produce the next generation of nuclear submarines, then a lifting dry dock similar to the fifty thousand DWT dock on the other side of the bay would have been installed. Without a dedicated path to transfer a large completed vessel from the rail line to the dry dock, the only way in is by the gantry crane, and then only up to the crane’s lifting capacity of six hundred tons. This means only sections of a large ship’s hull (grand blocks) can be moved into the dry dock. A more detailed examination of these issues can be found at http://www.admiraltytrilogy.com/wardroom.html
Given the clear limitations of this facility, why has there been so many articles reporting that it is intended to produce nuclear submarines? The answer can be found by looking at how the information contained in BSHIC’s original announcement was altered and then spread by individuals with varying degrees of personal bias. As noted earlier, many of the Chinese blog posts and populist magazine articles can be traced to the August 18 post on tieba.baidu.com, where the terms “nuclear” and “submarine” are only present at the end of the blog’s title; there is no reference at all to these terms in the body of the post. That is because the August 18 post is not the original announcement of the BSHIC chairman’s visit to the new assembly hall.
On August 17, Huludao Radio & Television published an announcement from the Center for New Media Communications Bohai Shipbuilding on mp.weixin.qq.com, a website that is virtually identical to the August 18 post. Four out of five photographs in the August 18 post are also in the August 17 announcement and the main text is identical. The only textual difference is that the August 17 announcement makes no mention of nuclear submarines in the title. What this suggests is that the author of the August 18 post reposted the same article with an additional photograph and modified the title, adding “or will build new nuclear submarine(s)” (或将造新核潜艇) at the end. This modification was the snowball that began an avalanche of misinformation that has permeated Chinese and English language reporting on this new assembly hall.
A popular graphic technique used to promote the idea of new submarine construction at Huludao is the merging of a photograph from the August 18 post with a shot of a Western or Russian submarine construction hall. Invariably, the blogger stresses the point that the two photos look very similar. In fact, an assembly hall’s interior will look similar regardless of what is built in it. A more apt comparison would be to juxtapose the same photograph of one of the new assembly hall’s production bays with an image taken from BSHIC’s production-capacity website, which shows one of the production bays in the 2008 assembly hall. One can just as easily make the argument that the two photos look very similar. The only major difference between the two BSHIC assembly halls is the presence of a rail system in the new one, which is required because of the unusually long distance from the assembly hall to the dry dock.
From a comprehensive review of Google Earth imagery and Chinese language sources, it is extremely difficult to support the claim that Huludao’s new facility will build the next generation of Chinese nuclear submarines. Analysis of the foundation of the new assembly hall indicates that it is insufficient to support the load of a completed nuclear submarine that weighs in excess of four thousand tons. Even if it could, the lack of direct access precludes a completed submarine from being transferred to the dry dock. This means that only grand blocks—prefabricated sections of a ship—can be physically moved into the dry dock; and only up to the six hundred ton weight limit of the gantry crane.
Together, these conclusions point toward the most likely explanation for Huludao Shipyard’s latest production facility: high value commercial ship construction. If China’s Medium and Long Term Development Plan for Shipbuilding Industry 2006–15 is the driving force behind the entire expansion effort at the Huludao Shipyard, then the goal of this plan is the more likely reason for this new assembly hall. And that goal is to be able to produce large, high-tech, high-value-added merchant ships, such as Very Large Crude Carriers, high-capacity twenty-foot equivalent unit container ships, and liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas tankers—not nuclear-powered submarines.
Christopher Carlson is a retired naval officer and scientific and technical intelligence analyst specializing in naval warfare issues. He retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2010 as a senior intelligence officer overseeing the production of technical intelligence products and presentations to national decisionmakers and the acquisition community. He is also an award winning war-game designer who has numerous products in the Admiralty Trilogy series. Additionally, he has coauthored eight military thriller novels with New York Times bestselling author, Larry Bond.