China’s Nuke Arsenal May Be Bigger Than We Thought

So, a team of Georgetown University undergrads has just published research claiming to show that China’s nuclear arsenal may be far bigger than we think it is! The best part? The arsenal is hidden inside thousands of miles of tunnels all over the massive country.

After three years of work analyzing open-source documents (press reports, blog postings, PLA publications, Google Earth and even Chinese TV shows), the students led by their professor, former Pentagon strategist Phillip Karber, to say 3,000 miles worth of tunnels may be hiding up to 3,000 nuclear warheads in China.

Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post article on the subject:

The Chinese have called it their “Underground Great Wall” — a vast network of tunnels designed to hide their country’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear arsenal.

For the past three years, a small band of obsessively dedicated students at Georgetown University has called it something else: homework.

Led by their hard-charging professor, a former top Pentagon official, they have translated hundreds of documents, combed through satellite imagery, obtained restricted Chinese militarydocuments and waded through hundreds of gigabytes of online data.

The result of their effort? The largest body of public knowledge about thousands of miles of tunnels dug by the Second Artillery Corps, a secretive branch of the Chinese military in charge of protecting and deploying its ballistic missiles and nuclear 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.

Most of the attention has focused on the 363-page study’s provocative conclusion — that China’s nuclear arsenal could be many times larger than the well-established estimates of arms-control experts.

“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.

Western estimates have pegged China’s nuke arsenal at 80 to 400 warheads.

Based on the number of tunnels the Second Artillery is digging and its increasing deployment of missiles, he argues, China’s nuclear warheads could number as many as 3,000.

Still, not everyone is buying into the validity of the student’s open source intel work:

Gregory Kulacki, a China nuclear analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, publicly condemned Karber’s report at a recent lecture in Washington. In an interview afterward, he called the 3,000 figure “ridiculous” and said the study’s methodology — especially its inclusion of posts from Chinese bloggers — was “incompetent and lazy.”

“The fact that they’re building tunnels could actually reinforce the exact opposite point,” he argued. “With more tunnels and a better chance of survivability, they may think they don’t need as many warheads to strike back.”

Reaction from others has been more moderate.

“Their research has value, but it also shows the danger of the Internet,” said Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. Kristensen faulted some of the students’ interpretation of the satellite images.

“One thing his report accomplishes, I think, is it highlights the uncertainty about what China has,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank. “There’s no question China’s been investing in tunnels, and to look at those efforts and pose this question is worthwhile.”

Click here for more on China’s Underground Great Wall


  • Thunder350

    “3,000 miles worth of tunnels may be hiding up to 3,000 nuclear warheads in China. ”

    So China needs a mile of land to hide and protect a bomb?

    Oh well, its coming from the experts in the field that do this for a living, it must be… oh wait.. “a team of Georgetown University undergrads”

    Nevermind… alls ok!

  • Having used open source intelligence to research certain topics, I learned that you can find out an awful lot you shouldn’t be able to. To dismiss it as not trusting the internet is just short sighted and a very old way of looking at it. From the sounds of their research they used the internet to find satellite pictures, chinese news articles, read the Chinese versions of Defense Tech, official statements, gaffes from Chinese leaders that revealed quite a bit, etc. This isn’t a one night research wikipedia session we’re talking about here.

    I would guess that their estimate for the number of nukes is far more accurate than the official count, just because of the variety and amount of material that they covered to write the paper. People with access to classified information tend to discount anything not classified. If you know what and how to look, a person can get a better feel for a situation than the information coming from the classified sources, key word being feel which can help someone know what questions to ask and what data to look for in the classified materials.

    The Arab Spring is a good example of a situation where if you were following local news, and reading response from locals it was pretty easy to predict which dominoes would fall after the first in Tunisia. Whereas I can’t really think of anything classified that would have been able to predict that event that wasn’t already in the public sphere.

    • SJE

      And “official” sources of intelligence can be captured by group think, or political ends that cloud their judgment

    • PMI

      “People with access to classified information tend to discount anything not classified.”

      —Not at all accurate. Agencies have long used open source information as important data. And no you are not getting more accurate intel by relying on open sources.

  • DougieR

    Experts as always should decide if the open source intelligence is credible but the question should still be asked. If you were China and had that much land, air, and sea to cover would you be comfortable with a max (published) of 400 warheads? I think the answer in a lot of people’s minds would be no….

  • Uncle Bill

    Interesting that the UCS and FAS both denigrate the study as it infringes on their turf, their area of expertise.

    Just because the internet is full of BS doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t out there also. These undergrads have demonstrated what a good effort of looking for it can do. This is an eye-opener and should point the way foreward for many.

    It also doesn’t mean though that the classified intelligence is lacking. It’s classified and may be both different and better quality.

  • Roy Smith

    Please,China is our friend. We NEED each other. They send us money,they send us checks. Where would Walmart be without toxic products from China to poison us to death. We need their faulty tires to explode on the roads & cause yet another traffic death. Look how much our defense needs their counterfeit circuits & chips. Where would we be without their toxic poisonous toothpaste,pet food,lead painted toys to kill our children & pets. This is just some silly attempt to start another cold war & have us buy more weapons form the dreaded “Military-industrial Complex.” C’mon man,can’t we all just all get along,sing kumbaya,& proclaim peace & safety on earth?

  • VC70

    I think you’ve got to hand it to the 2nd Artillery, that’s a lot of digging. Well done them.

  • SJE

    I would not dismiss this work as just internet rumors collected by undergraduates.
    1. The foreign policy people at G’town are among the best in the world: a lot of top military, intelligence and state dept people have been students there, or taught there.
    2/ A lot of secret information can be gleaned from non-secret sources, accidental releases, etc.
    3. “Official” intelligence can be disastrously wrong: e.g. the USSR is not going to collapse, Iraq is developing WMDs, Arab regimes are stable, the Japanese are not going to attack the USA…

    Given that, I’d say lets see what this project finds and look further. If the Chicoms have 3000 miles of tunnels, how can we verify their warheads. I always thought it was very odd that the USA and Russia had thousands of warheads, but the Chinese seemed happy with a few hundred.

    • Guest

      They’re Chinese. Do you really think that they will tell the world everything? One of their main strategic concepts is deception. Which by the way, has worked pretty well for thousands years, ever for relative newcomers like the US.

    • Commisar12

      I know, I guarantee the Chinese have more than the “official” tally of 300 or so. Probably double that.

      • Belesari

        Yes that should have been obvious to any but the eyes in the sky politicans and diplomats that make up state.

    • justsaying

      1. Possible.
      2. Nobody in the know actually believed that except for dupes. It was just a bit of deception to start a war for multinational corps to make some profit. Dead soldiers don’t matter to them. There’s plenty of conservative dupes who will buy into the WMD lie.
      3. Arab regimes are stable. The instabilities are ClA backed coups.
      4. It was well known the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor. The president allowed it to happen. Can’t enter a war without a reason.

      You are a poor student of history.

  • dddd

    Interesting research, and I would have to withhold full judgment until I have actually read the paper, but I, too, find the 3,000 number ridiculous. If you study the history and current practices of the CCP, which would certainly have to sanction this sort of thing, it is pretty hard to come to the conclusion that they would authorize such an expansion of their warheads. See Volume 35 of International Security. First, if some undergrads with open source research could discover this, then the PLA would most likely assume that US intelligence would find out, as well. Engaging in a renewed nuclear arms race with the U.S. does not serve any of China’s interests. They simply do not need 3,000 nuclear weapons, and if you read research on their military journals, their military seems to place far more emphasis on funding practical weapons systems that actually contribute to the nation’s defense. Nuclear retaliation for conventional strikes are simply not credible, particularly when the U.S. will always possess escalation dominance. Then again, the Chinese do like that thing called deception…

    • Jeff Ferguson

      3,000 is a bit excessive. But — whatever US Intelligenc knows, we have already found out the past four Presidential administrations have fielded “China Experts” who have deliberately buried valid intel about China’s military work in order to preserve our “relationship” with China. As I mentioned in another reply, many many of these experts were culled from the Corporate business community with strong economic ties for themselves personally and their corporations with China. Nothing wrong with that on its face… but they have a motive to preserve their personal interests at the very real expense of the United States and southeast Asian security interests. Yeah, they LIE about it. So the assumption that US Intelligence would have learned the truth– oh, and SHARED it with us, is a fallacy. Maybe they know the truth, and it was suppressed. ONly NOW are other voices about China’s aggressive military posture being listened to and acknowledged by the Pentagon publicly.

    • blight

      I’m sure the CIA was given a separate white paper a while ago.

      The big question is: How much fissile material they could have produced (remember, the Soviets did not supply the Chinese with anything nuke-related due to Sino-Soviet split). Then one has to calculate annual production and try to simulate if the PRC would produce nuclear weapons with the materials of the day, or to stockpile for another generation of nuke tech which would produce more bang for the same amount of fissile material. That gives you an upper limit to nukes.

      However, China can still produce as many missiles as they wish and hide them. There’s no reason they can’t produce BM’s and fit them with conventional warheads to make their strategic missile forces look much larger. It also means that as warhead production increases, that they can take down conventional missiles and replace them with nukes. It also means that if they are uncovered they can declare that many of the missiles are conventional and defensive in nature. It also confuses people about the nature of the missile programs if you have conventional programs as well, and makes it easier to hide nukes in plain sight, especially if your missiles /are/ hidden in plain sight.

      For example, what if they go double blind and have missile warheads that are identical between conventional and nuclear, and the missile techs don’t know which warheads are loaded onto which missiles? Then when the launch order comes, a “mixed unit” would fire a barrage on target, some of which would make the mushroom cloud, others would not. Not even the generals would know which one is a nuke, making it difficult to decipher such information by foreign intelligence agencies.

      I don’t know if such an idea is feasible or downright crazy, but this /is/ the PRC we’re talking about. There’s no commandment in stone that they should emulate our strategic missile forces command structure.

      • SJE

        The CIA may have been given a white paper, but it gets lost in the bureaucracy. Having someone outside the official intelligence community give a different story can get be a necessary corrective.

  • mhmm…

    How exactly would no one notice the construction. I would assume 3000 miles of tunnels would create an awfully large amount of dirt and other debris

  • Damm Their WMD’s probably suck anyway’s oh wait does ours Also say “MADE IN CHINA”…

  • Jacob

    I would think that whatever data these students used would also be available to the CIA. And since assembling a picture from lots of little pieces is what the CIA does best, I’d think that they would have a good handle on how many nuclear weapons China really has.

  • chuck

    First of all neither UCS and FAS is reliable in there studies both use source material from newspapers rather than official documents on Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons. Anyone with a clue on research know that is lazy and incorrect way of doing busines but they have been dong that for years. Never could understand how anyone could realy accept these info. College studies unlike payed professional amatures can something make good studies the other not so much. Don’t always believe what so call experts know ?

  • Love to see CG 3D models, maps, documents, accounting data IE X00 warheads, X00 missiles, X00 mines etc.
    How Chinese army organized
    Map of complex from Beijing, Shanghai
    Years to build & hide from overhead satellites.
    Tunnel exits, acess points.
    Be awesome Major Find for US Defense.

    • Twidget at large

      Regardless of the nuke threat, I’d like to see those tunnels just to look at the engineering, because I’m wondering if these tunnels of theirs are up there with building the Boulder Dam.

  • Kski

    Regardless, fear the RED MENACE.

  • 3000 miles of underground tunnels? This from a country that supposedly only spends a percentage of what we do on defense?

    Just a small data point to put out there when libs actually believe and state Chinese defense industry budget numbers are in anyway accurate.

    • joe

      3000 kilometres of tunnels?
      Well, Erlang Road Tunnel cost 56.5 million USD in 1999.
      That’s an 8.5 km civil road tunnel but you’d also get massive economies of scale, so we’ll use the same rate for a cost estimate.

      That means your 3,000 km costs you about 20 billion USD.
      Sound reasonable for a strategic weapons project? Certainly over a few decades…

  • James Purdy

    Who to trust:

    A. American politicians that can only unanimously decide that a pay increase is needed for themselves, who probably can’t tell you every capital in the union, and can’t figure out a way to not spend ourselves to death.
    B. The Chinese government that has figured out it’s smarter to spend $10k in espionage rather then spend $10 million in research, who lie to their own people(refer back to option A), and just keep cutting those loans to us.
    C. Some college kids trying to get an A, a passing grade for some, or impress some chick.

  • itfunk

    The Chinese are going to be the worlds most powerful superpower, even the US admits that quietly. It stands to reason that they are going to have all the institutions and capabilities we have but just bigger and better. The only people expressing surprise at these things are living in denial.

  • Dean Ob

    Hm. Interesting. Haven’t seen the paper but read the WaPo article.
    But this isn’t really new is it? China has always been building tunnels. Who taught Ho Chi Minh to build underground bases under Vietman? Didn’t China split and disperse its industry and arsenal at one point to counter the larger American numbers of warheads? That they built tunnels for their missles has been around for awhile I think. Doesn’t strike me as any surprise. I’m sure our own classified intelligence is better than open source and our guys know far more about it. Maybe that is why folks like FSA dismiss it. As if to say, “Uh, nothing to see here, move along please…”

  • Dean Ob

    From China’s point of view they have to counter our stealth and precision, our deep penetrating weapons. If you think about it, even if they had only one weapon per ten miles, that makes it all the harder for us to find them and target them. If each missle has ten portals it can launch from, we have to hit ten precision hard targets to prevent that one missle from getting out. They don’t even need 3000 weapons, they just need 3000 targets. Guarenteed we can’t hit them all, a guarenteed retaliation.
    Also, the bad guys are always in those damn tunnels, aren’t they? Gotta smoke ’em out!

  • 3000 warheads is notably larger than the number of operational warheads held by either Russia or the US (I would doubt that the Chinese figure would include a stockpiled reserve to the proportions of Russia or USA as there isn’t the same cold war legacy in China). And 3000 dwarfs the Indian arsenal.

    It seems far too high an estimate, but I wonder whether this number is simply the report’s high end bracket that has been picked up media to make a headline. Without having read the report, I’d suspect that they might have a lower and more likely estimate of Chinese weapons.

  • Lance

    And its sad we are giving our Nukes up while Russia lies and keeps its Nukes. Nukes are like guns once you ban them only the bad guys will have them. By the way we still have enough Nukes to deter China. Hopefully Obama wont get ride of them

    • Nmate

      Oh yes, because the arms reduction treaties are completely unverified. Give me a break. Your stating that the Soviets never had 3,000 warheads in their heyday just underlines you’re obvious lack of knowledge.

      Also, it’s Soviet UNION. Singular.

      • Lance


        I know you love to say the sky is falling with the Chi Com but you lack knowledge that there missile and bomber technology is far inferior to the US or Russia there ICBMs can reach the US west coast but not make it past the Rockies Mountains Its also OK to say the Soviets when referring to the Nation nod addressing the full name pal.

  • Lance

    I doubt the estimates anyway the Chines have atomic weapons but I doubt 3000. The Soviet Unions in its heyday didn’t have that many.

    • PMI

      The Soviets had more than 40,000 warheads by the mid 80’s.

  • Is there a link to this report? I looked on the 2049 site but it didn’t spring out at me and I ain’t reading through them all to find some reference.

  • jamFRIDGE

    Sun-Tzy himself said ALL warfare is based on deception. Make the whole world think you have 400 nukes, then when you get invaded you reveal you actually had double, triple, or even quadruple (I could go on up to seven times) that amount…

    • jamFRIDGE


  • Rabbit

    It’s articles like these that make me giggle every time someone talks about China’s “peaceful rise”.

    I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the value of open-source intel either. Some useful information can be gleaned from high resolution satellite photos – consider the proliferation of stealth shaping principles used in the F-22.

  • Cato

    Derisive statements by establishment organizations are vaguely reminiscent of the MSM sniffing at ‘PJ journalists’ exposing Dan Rather as a fake and a fraud. My guess is the Chinese have no intention of playing by the rules, if there were any. It’s still a very dangerous world and it rankles me that left-leaning collections of scientists take that ‘nothing to see here’ attitude. There’s plenty to see and my guess is, it’s not that hard to find. It doesn’t take a genius to out-maneuver ‘experts’, just some hard work.

  • robertro2


  • It’s just a thought, but if the sinister Chinese plot is a first strike against the USA, then that 3000 kilometers of tunnel could be heading East!

    They could be nearly a third of the way there!!

    Give it a few more years and you’ll have a million armed Chicoms popping up on the West coast.

  • Tad

    Of course China has more nukes than they will admit too – the Chinese government lies about everything and does not honor any agreements.

  • Jason

    Meh whatever, Iran hints that it is trying for one nuke and the world freaks out, Nukes are a political weapon. A nuclear war would actually be just committing mass suicide.

  • Tom

    i dont see what does it matter if china has 3000 missiles or 300??? wouldn’t it be enough to fire 300 NUKES
    who care if its actually 3000 ???

  • steveham

    Tracking weapons underground for 3000 miles shouldn’t be too difficult for the technology of today. I think I saw it in a movie – they did it fine! “We have the technology!”

  • howard


    as long as we keep them in the tunnels…we’re OK-DOKY.

  • Box211

    Possibly, the only thing keeping them from using this on D.C. is that the Americans are too good a customer to lose for marketing their products. Once the US economy becomes too diminished to produce profit, they may use the US population for their own purpose-to continue to generate income.