How Many Nukes Does China Have?

Bret Stephens writes in The Wall Street Journal about Phillip Karber, head of the Asian Arms Control Project at Georgetown University, who was commissioned by the Pentagon in 2008 to look into China’s “Underground Great Wall” and the size of its nuclear force:

China’s tunnel-digging mania did not end with Mao’s death. If anything, it intensified. In December 2009, as part of the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the PLA announced to great fanfare that the Second Artillery Corps has built a cumulative total of 3,000 miles of tunnels—half of them during the last 15 years.

“If you started in New Hampshire,” notes Mr. Karber by way of reference, “and went to Chicago, then Dallas, then Tijuana, that would be about 3,000 miles.”

Why would the Second Artillery be intent on so much tunneling? There are, after all, other ways of securing a nuclear arsenal. And even with a labor force as vast and as cheap as China’s, the cost of these tunnels—well-built, well-lit, paved, high-ceilinged and averaging six miles in length—is immense.

The extent of the tunneling was also hard to square with the supposedly small size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, which is commonly believed to be in the range of 240-400 warheads. “So they’ve built 10 miles of tunnel for every warhead?” Mr. Karber recalls asking himself. “That doesn’t make sense; it’s kind of overkill.”

Karber’s research questions Western estimates of China’s nuclear capabilities and, as Stephens notes, calls out the dangers of China achieving supremacy in a field that the United States has pledged to reduce in size. Last week, a U.S. lawmaker warned of China’s extensive tunnel systems and the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear strategy.

See also previous coverage of China’s nuclear weapons plans and the concerns of U.S. officials over the threat of a modern Chinese nuclear arsenal.

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