Jeffrey LewisChinese Underground Facilities

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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.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Gertz’ article also mentions a classified DIA estimate of present and future PRC missile forces. The categories and numbers given are a little hard to relate to other such estimates, but if “long-range missiles” means ICBMs, then the figure of 45 would imply that ~20 DF-31 are estimated to be operational, no?

    From the article:

    “According to a classified Defense Intelligence Agency assessment,
    China’s nuclear forces include about 45 long-range missiles, 12
    submarine- launched missiles and about 100 short-range missiles—each with a single warhead. By 2020, China’s arsenal will include up to 220
    long- range missiles, up to 44 submarine-launched missiles and up to 200 short- range missiles, the DIA report stated.”

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Gertz is leaving out a few details (per usual).

    The DIA report is from 1999. It is called: Primer on the Future Threat, The Decades Ahead: 1999-2020 (SECRET/NO FORN), July 1999. Full text

    Here is how DIA described China’s nuclear weapons holdings:





    Elsewhere in the document, “ICBM” is defined as CSS-3 (DF-4) and CSS-4 (DF-5)

    That means “SRBM” includes the 2,800 km range CSS-2 (DF-3) and 1,800 km range CSS-5 (DF-21). Lots of other classified and unclassified documents count these two missiles as having 50 (ish) launchers, so my guess is that DIA assumed a refire capability.

  3. Xinhui (History)

    The link has photos of what a PLAN cave/underground shelter looks like.

    Saw you note on by the way.

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