Behind the closed doors of imposing new construction halls, bedecked with a ginormous Chinese flag, workers are busy with the serial production of submarines. The subs are known to include versions of the current Type-039A Yuan Class AIP (Air Independent Power) submarines. Evidence seen by the author shows that several boats are being constructed at once. This means a much greater capacity than many other submarine yards around the world.
The submarines will be for the Chinese Navy ( PLAN – People’s Liberation Army Navy) as well as export customers. The Pakistan Navy and Royal Thai Navy are known to be customers of the types of submarine being built here. And the vast production facility is likely to be a factor in the China’s competitiveness on the international submarine market. China is beginning to compete with traditional Western countries like France and Germany. And in terms of capacity, it is likely that Chinese yards can out-build their competitors.
The Wuchang Shipyard used to be in the center of Wuhan but has now moved to a much larger site further down the Yangtze River. The yard is approaching ten times the area of the older one where these submarines were built and stretches for over 1.5 miles long the river bank.
Work at the new site began in 2012. Construction of surface vessels had started in the open by 2015 but the site was still being developed. Large covered construction halls have been added one by one, with the the third being finished in 2019. These covered halls are where the submarines are believed to be assembled.
The Royal Thai Navy’s first modern submarine is being built at the site. Known as the S26T design, it is in fact an export variant of the PLAN’s Type-039A Yuan Class. The keel laying ceremony took place in one of the new construction halls on September 4 2018.
Another export customer is likely to be Pakistan. The Pakistan Navy’s 8 new submarines will be of the Type-039B Hangor Class, another Yuan Class derivative. Production will be split between China and the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW) in Karachi, Pakistan. The Chinese batch will likely be built at this site.
Thomas Shugart, a retired submarine captain and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believes that the submarines will be strategically important:
“When seen in combination with the ongoing major expansion of China’s nuclear submarine shipyard capacity, an expansion of China’s diesel submarine production capacity as well may point toward a strong effort to try to erode the advantage in undersea warfare that the U.S. and its allies currently enjoy.”
The nuclear submarine construction Shugart is referencing is at Huludao on the Bohai Sea. This yard has also been massively expanded in recent years and the first evidence of new submarines has been seen in recent months.
However the new Wuchang site is a strong indicator that China will continue with the combined nuclear and non-nuclear submarine fleet mix. The Wuchang site is therefore expected to play a key role in China’s continuing naval expansion.