'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. ...
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