'How Many Nukes Does China Have?' Revisited

A Washington Post report has reignited controversy over research into China’s nuclear capabilities conducted by Georgetown University students under former Pentagon strategist Phillip Karber. The work began following indications that subterranean nuclear installations were compromised by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. Also the subject of a Wall Street Journal column in October, it argues that the apparent extent of these tunnels implies a much larger Chinese arsenal than is conventionally estimated, comprising as many as 3,500 warheads.

The study is yet to be released, but already it has sparked a congressional hearing and been circulated among top officials in the Pentagon, including the Air Force vice chief of staff ….

“It’s not quite a bombshell, but those thoughts and estimates are being checked against what people think they know based on classified information,” said a Defense Department strategist who would discuss the study only on the condition of anonymity.

The study’s critics, however, have questioned the unorthodox Internet-based research of the students, who drew from sources as disparate as Google Earth, blogs, military journals and, perhaps most startlingly, a fictionalized TV docudrama about Chinese artillery soldiers — the rough equivalent of watching Fox’s TV show “24” for insights into U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

The backlash has likely been sharpened by fears that an unexpectedly large Chinese arsenal could derail delicate arms reduction negotiations between the US and Russia. World Security Institute researcher Matt Durnin expressed some of the more moderate criticism in a China Real Time Report post, ‘More Tunnels, Yes. More Nukes? Not Necessarily‘:

The most obvious fault – and one that has been widely noted – is Karber’s repetition of a fantastical estimate for the number of nuclear weapons in the PLA arsenal, which turns out to come from blogosphere speculation based on earlier misestimates that were long ago debunked.

A more basic, though less sensational, flaw concerns the connection Karber and his team draw between length of tunnels and numbers of nuclear warheads. There is little question that the PLA have been busy diggers—China’s media reported in 2009 that the military had finished over 3,000 miles of tunnels—but there are reasons for tunneling other than hiding nukes ….

In spite of these doubts, it’s premature to toss out the baby with the bathwater. Karber’s suggestion that more tunnels equal more nukes may be a stretch, but there’s no question that China is increasing the quality and survivability of its nuclear forces—the keys to a convincing deterrent. In this sense, the data gathered by Karber and team could be helpful to understanding how China’s attitude toward its nuclear forces is evolving. The outcome will be building blocks to a better understanding of China’s nuclear program and the prospects for disarmament — provided that readers take Karber’s conclusions with a generous dose of skepticism.

China nuclear analyst Gregory Kulacki went further, according to the Washington Post, calling the work’s conclusions “ridiculous” and its methodology—described in some detail in the Post’s article—”incompetent and lazy”.

Kulacki has blamed Washington’s unyielding insistence on greater transparency from China for the general ill health of nuclear relations between the two powers. The US refuses to declare an absolute no-first-use policy like China’s, while China remains unwilling to adopt Cold War-style crisis prevention protocols to prevent inadvertent nuclear escalation. Some progress, however, has been made on the issue of container port screening for nuclear materials. From China Real Time Report:

In a joint U.S.-China non-proliferation initiative, officials [this] week are scheduled to commission and demonstrate a radiation detection system at Shanghai’s flagship Yangshan port, according to a brief statement distributed Friday by the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai.

“This U.S.-Chinese effort is the first project of its kind in China,” the statement said ….

Installation of the port equipment is part of a global U.S. program called the Megaports Initiative, run by a Department of Energy division that aims to equip 100 of the world’s biggest ports with radiation detection scanning systems. A number are already in operation.