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Team Ignites Debate Over China's Nuclear Tunnels


Imagine getting this class assignment in college: Use Google Earth, a few thousand military documents and a couple of TV shows to find out what you can about a major power's nuclear weapons arsenal - oh, and you have to translate all that stuff from Chinese. Three years after Georgetown University professor Phillip Karber assigned that homework, his research team of students pieced together a report that shines new light into the massive tunnel complex that China uses to hide and transport its nuclear missiles and provoked a sometimes outraged-debate about the possible size of China's arsenal. Former Pentagon official and now Georgetown professor Phillip Karber joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

DR. PHILLIP KARBER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I gather this all began in an odd sort of way with the earthquake in China in 2008.

KARBER: It did. I was on a defense panel, and the chairman of that panel had seen some reports that suggested a nuclear weapon might have gone off or certainly there were a lot of cave-ins that would have affected China's nuclear arsenal related to Szechuan. The area where the earthquake occurred was - the epicenter of it was - would be like happening in Los Alamos for the United States because it was the center of their nuclear research. And tragic, I mean, a number of the people lost their kids in those schools...

CONAN: Sure. Yeah.

KARBER: So they knew that I had an arms control class focused on Asia, and we've been looking at a number of issues related to Asian military issues and how to get it constrained. And so I said, hey, how about having your students take a look at it, so we started looking at it. And we didn't - what we found on the Szechuan was - what we concluded conclusively: A nuclear weapon had not gone off. There was clearly a lot of security and concern about radiation and stuff, so there was probably some kind of problem. But we were really not able to have anything conclusive. But in the course of that, we started tripping over a lot of Chinese documentaries and video showing the work they were doing on their missile forces and building a huge complex of tunnels.

CONAN: Now, we are familiar with nuclear missiles being stored underground - silos in North Dakota, silos in Novosibirsk, among other places. This is something on a different order.

KARBER: Yeah, what the Chinese did and have been doing for, actually, several decades is instead of going vertically down, and so you can actually see the hole from Earth and having one location, they went horizontal. And you would - and they would build literally a complex, a honeycomb of tunnels underground - they have described this - a typical complex as having 10 kilometers of tunnels and about 10 - and about one opening for every kilometer.

So you're in this honeycomb network of tunnels, and the missile hides in there. And it can go out. It can fire. And they can drive back in - rearm, refuel, reconstitute the force and go out another tunnel or go from one tunnel complex to another.

CONAN: So this is not just a few of these. This is 3,000 miles...


CONAN: ...of tunnels.

KARBER: We've been doing the work for about 15 months. We're just wrapping up. And we thought we had an interesting story but with a lot of - a lot more questions than answers. And on the 11th of December 2009, the Chinese publicly announced that they had been spending the last 25 years, since 1985, and had built 5,000 kilometers or 3,000 miles of tunnels. And we - you could have picked me up off of a floor.


CONAN: Your jaw at least.

KARBER: Yeah. Absolutely.

CONAN: Now, first of all, that can, you know, that suggests a lot of things. For example, there is one particular unit in China that is in charge of all of their nuclear missiles, particularly the long-range ones.

KARBER: They have an organization called the Second Artillery, which is kind of a weird name because you've got a second, why would you call it second?

CONAN: And why would you call it artillery? Well, missiles - kind of artillery.

KARBER: What was interesting, Zhou En Lai personally named it, so that an outsider, you know, and for 15 years - for its very first 15 years of its existence, it was top secret. The name itself was chosen so that people couldn't figure out that this was really the missile force. But this is their - China's strategic rocket force, like our SAC or the Russian strategic rocket force. And they're also in charge of not only the missiles, but they're in charge of the country's nuclear weapons. So it's a relatively large organization.

CONAN: So they'd be in charge of even the ones on their submarines, for example.

KARBER: It's not clear whether they're in charge of the naval ones. That is frankly ambiguous, but they are in charge of the air force ones. But they don't - they're not the only ones doing tunnels. They're the only ones who do tunnels for the missiles and the nuclear weapons. There's more tunneling going on in China, both civil and military, than every place else in the world combined today. It's - there's a lot of highway construction, railroad construction, the air force, the people's armed police, everybody is building tunnels.

CONAN: Well, one reason is they looked at the results of the war that NATO waged in Kosovo, also in Serbia, and said, that's interesting. First, the United States and its allies have tremendous air power and very accurate too. But when the Serbs hid stuff underground, it didn't get hit.

KARBER: Yeah, exactly. The spent a lot of time studying that. And by the way, our report was intended to not raise the question - not to demonize the Chinese for building tunnels. Our interest was from arms control perspective. If you're building these tunnels, then that raises - it challenges certain things that we've had in terms of how you get negotiated constraint the future. And so that was really our focus. It's become somewhat controversial, but I tried to insist that, really, our focus is not to demonize anybody, but rather say, OK, how do we get in a negotiation and then sort of think about having a mutually negotiated constraint?

CONAN: Because, for example, Russia's missiles, going back to the days of the Soviet Union, and American missiles are - everybody knows where they are. There's a degree of transparency. All of this had been negotiated in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. So those silos have caps on them. People understand what's beneath that cap, that sort of thing.

KARBER: Here's – give you how serious this is, we and the Russians are in the INF Treaty in which we abolished an entire class of tactical and intermediate-range missiles. The Chinese now have 1,500 of those missiles. We and the Russians have zero. The Chinese are adding about 100 missiles per year. These are tactical theater missiles, both conventional and nuclear. In the end, we and the Russians cannot stay in that zero treaty. Either we're going to get the Chinese in, or we're going to get out. One way or the other. So...

CONAN: Well, some people might say, what difference does it make if the United States has 5,000 warheads and the Russians have 8,000 warheads and the Chinese have 400?

KARBER: It isn't the warheads, in terms of the INF Treaty.

CONAN: Yeah.

KARBER: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, none of these countries have any missile protection or their own missiles, nor do we have missiles that would respond. So what happens if somebody has...

CONAN: Sure we do. They're in Minot, South Dakota.

KARBER: No. These are - those are ICBMs.

CONAN: Yes. But if the Chinese dropped a nuclear weapon on Tokyo, we would respond, no?

KARBER: No. Because what's interesting is - what makes it challenging is that these are dual-capable missiles. So these 1,500 missiles can attack, conventionally, airfields. They can be - now, a new class can attack aircraft carriers or large ships. So the danger to people living on the periphery of China is that this huge imbalance then can be used offensively. So they then look to us and ask for protection. We say, oh yeah. We'll - in the old days, we'll just reinforce with our air force or we'd send an aircraft carrier. Well, so now, wait a minute. These things can take out an airbase. They can take out Guam. They can sink an aircraft carrier or may in these couple of years. So all of the sudden this becomes a very unstable issue, very much like the INF debate in Europe in the mid-'80s.

So our argument is that - and these missiles are hidden in tunnels, and we see them move out. They will deploy from one tunnel complex, practice firing, and then they move to another tunnel complex, reload and shoot again. So our - from an arms control perspective, you'd like to say, OK. Let's kind of get this under control. It's better off to get you guys in the treaty than us and the Russians to break out of it and try to respond.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting you say it from arms - some of your bitterest critics are in the arms control community.


CONAN: This is based on a calculation that you made in the study that there could be - could be - as many as 3,000 Chinese warheads (unintelligible) the - that's roughly 10 times more than what the generally accepted number is.

KARBER: And let me emphasize. I said it and every reporter has asked: I don't know how many nuclear weapons China has and I don't claim I do. OK? If you look at the tunnel complex, I would argue that no one else, unless they have some top, top secret paper or talked to a Chinese general on the outside knows either. There's a huge complex. So the question is, what's in it? Now, it's interesting. The Chinese - if you look at the Chinese writings, they talk about having a safe distance between missiles of approximately a mile when they're in the tunnel complex. So if you said, oh, there was one mile between missiles, and I got 3,000 miles of missiles - 3,000 miles of tunnels, then that does raise the question of whether there would be a larger number than we have seen or believe.

My own personal belief is they have a lot of reloads. That is that you have a missile launcher and that same missile launcher - just like us and the Russians in the old Cold War - one launcher could fire several conventional missiles. It could also fire several nuclear missiles. And that's - and it's that uncertainty, that question that then - and it's not going to go away. I mean, people can yell at me and they have, but it's only going to get worse as China builds up its force and more attention is given to the tunnels. So we're going to have to get into a negotiation with them and say, OK, guys, you know, do you really want to pursue this? What can we do to constrain it? What can we do have better confidence? And I'm sure they're going to ask stuff of us, so we ought to be willing to offer stuff to them as well.

CONAN: We're talking with Phillip Karber, government professor at Georgetown University, who led a team that researched underground tunnels where China hides its nuclear weapons. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

But you've been around this business for a long time. A report like this will have consequences. There will be people who say, wait a minute. We are basing our estimates on China's nuclear arsenal on old theories. They could have, according to this report, as many as 3,000. Therefore, we should not cut the number of American missiles. And they're going to wave this report in their hands.

KARBER: That's true. There's that effect, and there's also the effect of people who have built a host of assumptions about what the Chinese have. One of the arguments that they have such as small stockpile is the argument that they haven't produced enough fissile material.

CONAN: Plutonium or highly-enriched uranium.

KARBER: If you look at that - those assumptions, those assumptions assume that they stopped producing in 1991, and in the last 20 years have not produced any enriched-uranium. Those assumptions assume that the Chinese have produced a small amount of plutonium for their military but have not converted any civilian plutonium of which they have - should have a lot, given all the civilian reactors. Not one ounce of that has been converted to the military, and yet you can't account for where it is. So - and I'm not saying they have. I'm not saying they have anymore warheads than the minimum. But the evidence is a lot more ambiguous than it is commonly portrayed. So - and my argument is, we ought to be engaging them and trying to get them to be a little more explicit.

CONAN: As you know, your critics say, some of those estimates you used were based on long debunked Web postings, some, in fact, based on an estimate by an American Naval aide back, I think, about 30 years ago.

KARBER: There's a whole bunch of estimates. So these are sort of - I think, frankly, that specific argument is very much of a cheap shot and sort of (unintelligible), but so let me sort of address it. If you go back to early 1990s, the National Resources Defense Council produced a great book. I actually wrote a very positive review of it on Chinese, British and French nuclear forces. And in that book, they said, oh, they could have around 700 in their inventory. The leading Chinese - the leading scholar on China's nuclear development, John Lewis, said about the same time they had as many nuclear weapons - that he had been told by the Chinese - has many nuclear weapons as both the French and the British combined.

The Russian general staff in 1995 published a report that said they had 2,000 nuclear weapons. And the Russians know them better than just about anybody because they gave them much of the technology for their reactors, and they've been targeting them. So there's - so 15 to 20 years ago, people were talking about a force that was anywhere from twice to five times larger than the number we currently have, we currently estimate. So it's not unnatural to ask, what happened to those warheads? Were those estimates...

CONAN: If they ever existed.

KARBER: If they ever existed, were the estimates off? Or where they old warheads maybe for aircraft, and they've re-mined them, which is very possible. But we're not accounting for it. And that's a legitimate question that needs to be addressed and not just treated as a demagogic issue. Again, I'm not making a claim, and certainly our research didn't say, oh, you know, yes, there's these all these weapons. But it is not illegitimate to go through and address various estimates.

And by the way, the number that's sort of contentious, this 2,350, is the number that's used on Chinese - China's mainline encyclopedia or the online encyclopedia, which would be like their Wikipedia. It's called Baidu. And there's a big article on the underground works, on the underground tunnels that they have now put out. And guess what? In the middle of that article, it says, oh, we have 2,350 warheads. Again, I'm not saying that that's right. But it's not illegitimate to at least raise the question, hey, there's a whole bunch of estimates. We're probably not going to get the answer.

One of the things we found, Neal, that's really interesting is the Chinese had built a nuclear reactor, 21 kilometers of tunnels under a mountain. We knew nothing about it. It sat there for 25 years unused. It was called the Strategic Reserve Reactor. This is (unintelligible). This reactor was to be used only if - after a nuclear war started so that the - so if the other reactors had been taken out, they could produce new nuclear weapons. So you have this entire reactor complex designed specifically to build warheads underground for 25 years that we didn't know anything about until they went public about it.

So it is not unreasonable to say, hey, there's a lot of stuff buried. There's a lot of questions. We're not going to be the last people to raise these. And we raised them in an arms control perspective. Others are going to raise it in terms of, oh, we're doing a build up or so forth. So I think the student research is responsible in the sense of raising this issue, and then people can sit down and discuss it.

CONAN: One of the sources they used - your students - was a couple of Chinese TV shows. The equivalent of...

KARBER: Yes, yes.

CONAN: ...researched via looking at "24."

KARBER: These were awesome. These were - I call it the equivalent of "The Good Wife." The Strategic Rocket Forces, China's Strategic Rocket Forces, they have their own television studio. They had a Chinese general who's a major general, who is a television director, award-winning director. He produced - he wears a uniform. He produced in the Second Artillery two major TV docudramas. They went for about 24 weeks. One was in 2004 and one was in 2008. We found the 2008 one right after the Szechuan. They play once a week. Everybody gets their popcorn and sits down and they - and both of these are extremely accurate in terms of the uniforms, the details. And guess what? There were tunnels all over them.


KARBER: It actually helped us understand things that we would see in the writing in the military literature that we weren't quite sure how they were handling it, so they were insightful.

CONAN: Phillip Karber, a professor at Georgetown University. Thanks very much for coming in today. Appreciate it.

KARBER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. The war on cancer turns 40 this month. Join Ira Flatow for a conversation about how far we've come. We'll see you again on Monday. Merry Christmas, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.