2,350 or 3,500? How Many Nukes Warheads Does China Have?

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.


  1. So what? What’s the deal if China has 2,500 or 3,500 nukes? The U.S. has more than 5,000 of them. And only the U.S. can have such figure due to a some sort of heaven’s wish in order to trigger a nuclear war?

  2. The more nukes the better. I think the Russians declared to everyone that they had the most nukes. When it comes to China. They should be able to beat that figure.

  3. @Tienfei

    Oh, how you must love this article … Chinese netizens just love a Westerner singing up China’s abilities… it works so much better than having a Chinese person do it.

    But… alas… this article is only based on a loose speculation between mountain tunnels and missiles – hardly a sound method in counting nuclear warheads

    So, now we have two reasons why China has thousands of missiles

    1) Because Tienfei says so, cus the PLA has been making them since 1964
    2) A Westerner has equated tunnels with missiles

    Hardly a proven case, stacked up against all the masses of evidence, especially from all the international nuclear agencies in the world that China has only a handful of nukes.

    Why for example, has China YET to put nukes on a sub? Now the accepted answer is that the PLAN’s subs are too unstable and China would not risk losing such weapons as they’re too valuable – all this is indicative of a nation that has only a tiny amount of nukes

    No doubt Tienfei will come up with a better, more glorious reason why a nuclear nation that has had both subs and nukes for more than 25 years has yet to marry them up…

    Likewise, as nukes are the ultimate deterrent against coercion, why would China keep 1000s in secret? If it really did have the 1000s of nukes stashed away this would be of no use as it would not prevent possible nuclear coercion from a greater nuclear state.

    Making a surprise nuclear assault on the US with 1000s of surprise missiles would serve no purpose due to the US’s unstoppable second strike capability via its SSBNs. As China desperately seeks parity or even domination over the US on all things….. it would make no sense that it would keep 1000s of weapons hidden, to be revealed only in a catastrophic nuclear exchange. If China truly did have these weapons, they would be out on display, warning the US to BACK-OFF!

    Authoritarian dictatorships thrive in the gaps of knowledge – and so does the US arms industry.

    More than likely, articles like the above are designed to scupper the rearmament of further US missiles

    All the plausible evidence points to the PLA having just a small suite of ICBM and these 1000s of km of tunnels are designed to protect this precious resource and allow them to pop up all over the country unfettered

  4. Now you are talking random. SSBNs have advantages that silo based and mobile units dont have. Which is their ability to operate at sea. But they are significantly more expensive while may lack the fire power of the previous two. In addition, you would actually have to build a nuclear submarine to house these missiles you have constructed.

    It wouldnt be a bad idea for China to mass produce SSBNs at this point. Especially since their naval strategy had been neglected for so long. As China’s navy begins to take more priority we would also expect to see more nuclear deployment at sea.

    China’s ability deter to united states had long existed even before China became nuclear. It was able to drive out the united states in North Korea and likewise, was able to protect North Vietnam from invasion and occupation by guaranteeing its protection. Thus no military invasion ever took place in North Vietnam during the entire war.

    Of course, it would be foolhardy to rely simply on expectations that the united states is too afraid to go to war with China as the only precaution. If war does breakout nonetheless, the nuclear retaliation would be there. Its irrelevant if the us has second strike ability, because war has already been executed. Restraint is no longer part of the formula. The only thing left is to win.

  5. Like I said, Tienfei will come up with any kind reason why the PLA hasn’t been able to marry subs and nukes together – but the simple fact remains – China has subs and it has nukes – but has never put them together – this is because its nukes are just too few to risk losing them in the subs – which after all – are ships that are designed to sink!

    Plus, China couldn’t risk such a precious load in a sea full of Japanese and US hunter killer subs.

    “Ooops, just lost another 30 nukes to the bottom of the ocean, damn!”

    Regarding which is a better delivery system for nukes – my money is on the suite of Ohio’s and Virginia’s sitting unfettered off China’s coast. The PLA would loooooove this capability rather than hiding mobile launchers all over China.

    Going back to this tunnel thing – this system demonstrates that the PLA will go to any lengths to protect its small strike force of missiles – National treasures I believe some CCPs guys call them – and why not?

    So…. All the evidence points to the PLA having just a handful of missiles – despite Teinfei desperately wanting China to have more…

    Regarding the Korean War – if we take your measure of winning, which is who can kill the most enemy (Your definition, not mine) Then China most certainly lost that one hands down

    Approx 900,000 Chinese dead to 36,000 Yanks – I’d say that’s a resounding loss.

  6. Again, you are talking out of your ass. This article even states the large possibility of over 3000 nuclear warheads. There is no correlation that having over 3000 nuclear warheads also requires that China must also have hundreds of nuclear missiles deployed at sea through SSBNs. Especially since China had very little naval strategy up until very recently. This is why we would expect to see more nuclear deployment at sea as China takes its naval build up much more seriously.

    As for the Korean war, fatalities for China were around 400,000 while losses for the us for 56,000. But China fought this war alone against SK, us and the rest of the UN who also lost hundreds of thousands in that war. China had won this war because it succeeded in freeing North Korea and driving the americans out. This successful objective is why victory was achieved.

  7. Mass producing SSBNs at this point is very reasonable. The latest SSBNs would have strike capacity of over 8000 km. They could hit the united states from just hugging along the Chinese and allied coast lines. No one would dare fire on a Chinese SSBN even if they were discovered because it would just be tripwire to have the rest of the fleet to strike.

  8. Tienfei

    You live in a dreamworld.

  9. Nah. I live in reality.

  10. The USA never landed on the moon, there i said it.

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