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Tom Cochran, Matt McKinzie, Stan Norris, Laura Harrison and Hans Kristensen have a cool article, China’s Nuclear Forces: The World’s First Look at China’s Underground Facilities for Nuclear Warheads, in Imaging Notes.

The images, particularly the SSBN sitting at the dock near a massive underground facility (taken by Digital Globe), are pretty cool (I’ve known the SSBN image was floating around since Tim Brown showed the image at a talk to some Georgetown students in January).

Here is how John Lewis and Xue Litai describe the bunker in China’s Strategic Seapower:

In preparation for the 09 deployments, the navy added base construction to its seeming endless list of requirements. In February 1966, Mao, ever concerned to protect the country’s defenses from air raids, urged the navy to “build more shelters” for its ships in man-made caves. “In building [such] shelters you do not have to adopt underwater operations,” he wrote. “You can begin by digging a vertical shaft just like the miners do. Then dig through the rock horizontally to let seawater in. After that, add a hardened cover over the shaft.” At this, the navy embarked on a search for a place where the nation “shelter its submarines.”

About two years later, Mao approved the navy’s choice of an inlet neat Qingdao. And ordered the building to commence. The navy immediately transferred several engineering regiments to work on the project’s first phase, and they proceded to remove 810,000 cubic meters of rock and to pour 200,000 cubic meters of concrete. The gigantic sea cave completed, construction crews then installed 17,000 pieces of equipment and laid 220 km altogether of pipeline, much of it related to maintaining nuclear power plants. By the mid-1970s, the concealed base was camoflauged and hardened against attack and made ready to receive the first nuclear boat, nulcear boat No. 401. In 1975, the navy authorized the North China Sea Fleet to form the Nuclear Submarine Flotilla.

The base comprises multiple shelters, each of which has a number of facilities to load and unload nuclear fuel rods, move supplies,
monitor the performance of various subsystems, repair breakdowns, and conduct magnetization. The cavernous shelter where the boats are docked is as high as a 12-story building. Large-sized cranes in this shelter can load or off-load the JL-1 missiles. Partially protected against nuclear or chemical attack as well as conventional air raids, the shelters can maintain communication and independent operations under combat conditions. The base commander can conduct effective command and control of his submarine for extended periods even when cut off from all outside support. (p. 123)

I have a minor gripe about the subtitle of the article—the images properly show underground facilities for delivery vehicles. An underground shelter for aircraft or submarines could, but would not necessarily, include a facility for warhead storage.

Hans and friends didn’t publish images of missile bases, which would have allowed one to make judgments about possible warhead storage facility signatures (such as security perimeters), or images of conventional airbases, which would provide a “control group” (how much tunneling occurs at evidently non-nuclear bases).

And, someday, I would love to see the classified analyses of patterns of movement in and out of the bunkers—China probably remanufactures its warheads on a periodic basis, meaning the warheads would have to go in and out on a regular basis.

Still, pretty damn cool.

Late Update I see Gertz has put his usual spin on the document, suggesting that Hans et al found evidence of “China’s hidden military buildup.”

That is most certainly not what they found, as the bunker was constructed in the 1970s. If the bunker is associated with a buildup, it was one that happened during the Mao-era. Deng Xiaoping actually canceled construction of a follow-on SSBN, leaving China with the lone (not operational) Xia-class SSBN for the past 20 years.

Even later updateThe folks on the China Defense forum have posted some cool pics from inside the sub cave.