2011-10-25 (China Military News cited from wsj.com and by BRET STEPHENS) — Shortly after the end of the Cold War, an American defense official named Phillip Karber traveled to Russia as an advance man for a visit by former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. “We were meeting with Russian generals,” Mr. Karber recalls, “and we met a three-star who told us they had 40,000 warheads, not the 20,000 we thought they had.” It was a stunning disclosure. At a time when legions of CIA analysts, Pentagon war-gamers and arms-control specialists devoted entire careers to estimating the size of the Soviet arsenal, the U.S. had missed the real figure by a factor of two.
Mr. Karber, who has worked for administrations and senior congressional leaders of both parties and now heads the Asian Arms Control Project at Georgetown University, tells the story as a preface to describing his most recent work. In 2008, he was commissioned by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency—which deals with everything from arms-control verification to nuclear detection and forensics—to look into a mysterious Chinese project known as the “Underground Great Wall.” The investigation would lead Mr. Karber to question long-held assumptions about the size—and the purpose—of China’s ultra-secret nuclear arsenal.
The agency’s interest in the subject had been piqued following the devastating May 12 earthquake that year in Sichuan province: Along with ordinary rescue teams, Beijing had deployed thousands of radiation specialists belonging to the Second Artillery Corps, the branch of the People’s Liberation Army responsible for the country’s strategic missile forces, including most of its nuclear weapons.
The involvement of the Second Artillery wasn’t entirely surprising, since Sichuan is home to key nuclear installations, including the Chinese version of Los Alamos. More interesting were reports of hillsides collapsing to expose huge quantities of shattered concrete. Speculation arose that a significant portion of China’s nuclear arsenal, held in underground tunnels and depots, may have been lost in the quake.
Mr. Karber set about trying to learn more with the aid of a team of students using satellite imagery, Chinese-language sources and other materials—all of them publicly available if rarely noticed in the West. History also helped.
Tunneling has been a part of Chinese military culture for nearly 2,000 years. It was a particular obsession of Mao Zedong, who dug a vast underground city in Beijing and in the late 1960s ordered the building of the so-called Third-Line Defense in central China to withstand a feared Russian nuclear attack. The gargantuan project included an underground nuclear reactor, warhead storage facilities and bunkers for China’s first generation of ballistic nuclear missiles.
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.