Jeffrey LewisCollected Thoughts on Phil Karber

Well, what to say about Phillip Karber’s forthcoming report that suggests China might have more than 3,000 nuclear weapons stashed away in all those tunnels that the Second Artillery has been building over the past few decades?

Well, for one thing, Karber’s claims are utter nonsense. For another, Karber is unbelievably successful at generating unwarranted publicity.

Sure, China has lots of tunnels.   But all of Karber’s sources about fissile material production are based on a mid-1990s Usenet posting by an internet troll.

Actually, it’s worse than that, but this will take some time to explain.

Let’s start with my letter to the Washington Post, which the Post refused to publish. The short version is that China simply doesn’t have enough plutonium for all those warheads, tunnels or not.

 I am appalled by William Wan’s article entitled “Digging into China’s nuclear tunnels.”

Nuclear weapons are not made with tunnel spoil. They are made with fissile material.  China does not have enough fissile material to support a stockpile of the sort that Dr. Karber imagines.

Based on publicly available information about China’s nuclear weapons testing, we know that Chinese nuclear weapon designs since the 1970s make liberal use of plutonium. China operated exactly two nuclear reactors for the production of military plutonium through 1991. Open-source estimates reliably band China’s production of plutonium at 2-5 metric tons.  Classified Department of Energy estimates, leaked to the press, provide a narrower band of 1.7-2.8 metric tons.  (Hui Zhang, a former colleague of mine at Harvard who previously worked in the Chinese nuclear weapons establishment, calculates Chinese production as being on the low end of that estimate in the most recent International Panel on Fissile Materials report.) Using a conservative estimate of 4-8 kilograms of plutonium per warhead, that yields a total force of probably no more than 375 warheads, with an extreme upper bound of no more than 700 warheads.  This figure would be for every plutonium-based nuclear weapon China ever produced, not merely those in the current stockpile.

Declassified US estimates of China’s current nuclear weapons stockpile from the mid-1990s, not surprisingly, place the size of China’s nuclear weapons stockpile between 200-300 nuclear weapons.  In more recent years, Chinese officials have stated that China possesses the smallest nuclear weapons arsenal among the so-called P5 states.  The UK and France are believed to have less than 200 and 300 nuclear weapons, respectively.  Notice how all these numbers are copacetic?

So where does Dr. Karber get his wildly divergent estimates? Nowhere does Mr. Wan mention that Dr. Karber’s “analysis” of China’s plutonium production relies on a few Chinese blog posts that discuss a single, anonymous 1995 Usenet post, subsequently plagiarized by a Singapore University student, that is so wildly incompetent as to invite laughter.  (I have mocked this essay repeatedly on my own blog, Arms Control

Actually, Dr. Karber doesn’t mention this either.  His research ended with the Chinese blog posts, which is something that no responsible scholar would do.  A real scholar would have traced the blog posts back to the original Usenet posting, then back to the article in a Hong Kong dissident publication that started this nonsense and then gone to the library (I know, such a chore!) to make a copy.  Dr. Karber did none of these things.  My colleague, Dr. Gregory Kulacki, however, did exactly that.  We will be making the original document available, but let me simply observe that it is very clear that this is simply not a reliable source for the size of China’s nuclear arsenal.

If I take any solace out of this pathetic episode, it is that Dr. Karber’s students will have learned first-hand how not to do research.

Jeffrey Lewis
Monterey Institute, Washington, DC

The Post Letters editor Michael Larrabee objects, by the way, to my claim that the Post “refused” to print the letter — although not so strongly that he would agree to publish it. Larrabee also would not agree to publish a letter from Gregory Kulacki. It will be interesting to see if the Post will permit any criticism of the story to appear on its pages.

I also received a form letter from the reporter, William Wan, similar to one he sent to several other people in the arms-control community.  Wan, by the way, was aware of much of the story I am about to relay, since Gregory Kulacki talked extensively with him in advance. Wan didn’t let that stop him, of course.

Gregory has detailed a lot of what I am going to say in a series of blog posts at All Things Nuclear: Research in the Internet Age: Karber and China’s Nuclear Arsenal, The September 1995 Trend Magazine Article, and Prof. Karber Adjusts His Report on China’s Nuclear Arsenal.

You should totally read Gregory’s posts. (While you are at it, also read commentaries by James Acton and Tong Zhao.) But this was a collaborative effort, and I’ve been looking forward to telling what I think is a pretty interesting yarn that ends in a very embarrassing way for Dr. Karber. And, since Gregory is so nice and professional, I sort of feel someone should tell it my way. You know, mean.

Now, Karber basically omits any discussion of the declassified US intelligence estimates of the size of China’s nuclear weapons (200300) and plutonium stockpiles (1.7-2.8 metric tons) from the mid-1990s which, when cross-referenced against open-source reconstructions of plutonium and highly enriched uranium production from Albright, Wright and Gronlund, and Zhang, really should end this discussion. There is nothing in Karber’s sources that would undermine these estimates.  Instead, Karber acts like the only publicly available estimates are from old DIA projections or the rantings of NGO-hippies like NRDC or me — ignoring the fact that we both rely heavily on US government estimates that pretty clearly demonstrate there just isn’t enough plutonium to go around. Hans Kristensen has a post using this method, titled simply No, China Does Not Have 3,000 Nuclear Weapons.

On To The Main Event

This is a slide from Karber’s presentation at a dinner seminar hosted by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center on September 26 titled “China’s Underground Great Wall: Have We Underestimated Beijing’s Strategic Forces?”  As “Chinese statements on nuclear weapons,” Karber cites a few Chinese blog posts, one of which really got my attention.  When Gregory sent it to me, I immediately emailed back — “It’s the return of Yang Zheng!”

Now, my Chinese is lousy but even I recognized Yang Zheng’s essay. For those of you who don’t remember, some so-called experts cite an essay by a Singapore college student, Yang Zheng, as evidence that China has thousands of nuclear weapons.  (I have dealt with this subject repeatedly.) Suffice to say, this essay is completely incompetent — the list of fissile material facilities is just totally wrong. Yang claims this information all comes from a leaked Chinese military document provided to a Hong Kong dissident magazine called The Trend.

Now, as Gregory has already noted, Karber cites a bunch of Chinese-language blog posts that are best described as general interest discussions of the claims made in the Yang Zheng essay, not as definitive statements of Chinese nuclear-weapons holdings. That’s not to say the authors aren’t clever, but the authors are not professional analysts and have no privileged access to information. They are just random people saying things like Hey! I read on the internet that China has 3,000 nuclear weapons. Is that true?

About the same time, Gregory and I received a forwarded email from Karber defending his estimate, in which he wrote that “The 2350 number was originally reported to have come from a leaked PLA document in 1995 …” Now, mind you, Karber didn’t have a copy of that “leaked document” or even the original article in The Trend. He was just repeating something he found on the internet.  But, since he made such a clear reference to the Yang Zheng essay and the 2350 estimate, Gregory and I decided it was time for someone to actually do some research and get a copy of this article.

The first thing I discovered was that Yang Zheng was a bit player in this whole fiasco — he had plagiarized his essay from this 1995 Usenet thread. Do you remember Usenet? Probably not if you had a life in the mid-1990s. Usenet was an internet bulletin board.  As I say, Yang either plagiarized the essay — either that, or  someone cleaned it up and falsely attributed it to him. Otherwise, Yang’s main contribution was to drop into the discussion and start throwing around racist comments, calling some of the other posters “Bananas” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  Classy.

The actual author of the incorrect list of fissile material production facilities was an anonymous poster named Ma Tuowen — that’s “Mark Twain.” How clever.  It turns out Ma was posting anonymously because “I don’t want my boss to know I’m wasting his time.”  (Ma’s areas of interest range from Chinese nuclear weapons to strategies for the computer game Civilization.) He had quite a history of saying irritating things.  A very young Dwayne Day, now at the National Academies, got very irritated with Ma and his “poorly-written, bombastic, incoherent bullshit.” (D-Day does not suffer fools. It is one reason he is awesome.)

Then I noticed something really interesting — Ma didn’t actually read the original Hong Kong article himself.  (Yang Zheng, in his plagiarized essay, claims Ma is the source of the leaked document, which is totally wrong.)  Ma was just speculating in response to a question by yet another reader, a Chinese mathematics professor named Li Xaolin.  I emailed Li, who is a nice guy and remembered the discussion.  “Now I remember, it was 1996, when Li Denghui (Tenghui Lee), then the President of ROC announced ‘two countries’, there was a debate in soc.culture.china, soc.culture.taiwan. Some Taiwanese claim that China was no match in nuclear arsenal to the west with only a couple of hundreds of warheads.” Ma just read Li’s summary of the article in The Trend, then made up his bogus list of Chinese fissile material facilities, that later appear under Yang Zheng’s name.

So, it turns out the entire discussion is based on a very casual summary of something a mathematics professor thinks he read in Hong Kong paper. Obviously, we needed the source of all this nonsense.

Here is where it gets interesting.

Gregory headed to Hong Kong to track down the original document and try to make contact with the author.  Gregory went through every issue of The Trend until he found it.  And there it was! At that point, it became clear that this was not a very reliable source of information.  The article claims that China, for example, has six Xia-class ballistic missile submarines and was conducting undetected 15-kiloton nuclear weapons tests in Sichuan.  Yeesh! Gregory has placed a copy online and also made available a copy to Karber.

Most importantly, the article in The Trend does not cite “a leaked PLA document in 1995” as the source of the numbers.  The mathematics professor just made a mistake.  All these people have simply been repeating his summary on an internet bulletin board, but the numbers in the article come from someplace else.

Then Gregory noticed something even more interesting. The Trend has a slightly more formal sister publication.  It turns out the two publications each carried an article on the topic of China’s nuclear weapons within an issue of the other, a topic neither had covered before or would cover again.  Although the authors use different pseudonyms, the two articles seem to Gregory to be written by the same person.  Someone who, apparently, lives in the United States.

We are still trying to find the original author of the article in The Trend. But it may not matter because we have found the source of his estimates.  It appears that the numbers in The Trend were copied from a 1986 article in the English-language publication Navy International, written by an American named Bradley Hahn, who published extensively on China’s nuclear forces in the early 1980s.  We are still trying to reach Hahn, but it seems that the author of The Trend piece simply took details from Hahn’s article in Navy International 91:10 October 1986, pp 624-630, and tweaked them slightly.  Let’s compare:

* The Trend: “In the CCP nuclear arsenal, 40% are nuclear bombs, 34% are strategic nuclear missiles, 25% are tactical nuclear missiles, 1% are nuclear mines.”*

* Hahn: “An estimated breakdown of how they employ their current nuclear arsenal reveals about 44% bomb, 34% strategic missile, 20% tactical missile and about 2% mine warheads.”

There are lots of other similarities. Put them together and it is a total cut-and-paste job with some salacious details about nuclear weapons testing thrown in.

As far as we can tell, Hahn had some pretty amazing access for an American in the early-1980s. But I think some of his Chinese sources pulled his leg a bit.

Guess how Gregory noticed the overlap between The Trend and Hahn?  He didn’t — one of Karber’s Chinese blogger sources did! Gee, I guess bloggers sometimes know what they are doing. Unfortunately for Karber, this means he and his students knew, or should have known, they were dealing with recycled American estimates. But Karber didn’t share this little detail.

I think it is important to document all this. As Gregory explains over at All Things Nuclear, Karber is already starting to alter his slides — in particular, the one that I have reproduced in this post — in ways that obscure the source of his “estimates” of China’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Gone are any references to 2,350 warheads, replaced with annual production numbers from the same poisoned source.

No, China Does Not Have 3,000 Nuclear Weapons

Wan quotes Karber saying “I don’t have the slightest idea how many nuclear weapons China really has, but neither does anyone else in the arms-control community.” That’s false — a lot of people in the US intelligence community, as well as in the arms control community, have spent a lot of time and energy developing estimates of China’s fissile material production to bound the potential size of China’s nuclear arsenal. To equate Karber’s know-nothingness with these efforts at real scholarship is offensive.

We actually know quite a lot about China’s nuclear weapons, thanks to real scholarly research. You know, the sort of thing that Gregory did — starting with the simple task of going to the library. It is a little tedious, I confess. But it can be fun — like when I trekked to China’s original nuclear weapons design facility near Haiyan and brought home a lot of footage of Chinese nuclear tests and pictures of bomb mockups.

I don’t know how to describe what Karber and his students did, although “threat inflation” comes to mind.  So do a lot of other not very nice terms.  Gregory chose “incompetent and lazy,” which William Wan used to make Gregory’s legitimate criticisms of Karber’s methods seem overheated.

I like “goat rodeo,” but that’s just me.

Karber dismisses criticisms as though his speculations are just part of a healthy debate. But preparing for a debate takes time and money — it is much easier for Karber to sit in his house in Great Falls and make things up than it is for Gregory to get on an airplane and go to the library in Hong Kong. A participant in an academic debate has a responsibility to do his homework — an obligation captured in the notion of scholarship that Karber shirks by simply implying that real estimates are more or less the same as whatever he happens to find on the internet that day.  By Karber’s reasoning, he could just as easily argue that all those Chinese tunnels house aliens. (Hey, maybe this is where the Chinese store all our Treasury securities!)

So, no China does not have 3,000 warheads. But thanks for wasting everyone’s time.


  1. William Wan (History)

    Jeffrey, Just wanted to say I appreciate the feedback as well as the hard look at the 3,000 claim by Karber. It was not my intention to send you guys a form letter. But I arrived back from a weeklong communication blackout in Burma/Myanmar this weekend and wanted to get in some polite response to you, Gregory and Joshua Pollack by Monday. So I thought it was better to send you guys one well-thought out note rather than several haphazardly written ones throughout the week. Didn’t mean for it to come across that way.
    It’s unfortunate from my perspective that we didn’t run your letter. I welcome the criticism and wish they would have put that up to give further depth to the issue. I don’t know if it was an issue of length or what went wrong, but was glad to read it in its entirety here.

  2. Philipp (History)

    Well, that was overdue. Nicely done, although some of your fan club might bemoan a lack of, say, little rooster figurines or other tangible manifestations of Jeffreysnark. Back to work, folks. Nothing more to see here.

  3. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Bravo! You should consider using this as a case study for your students.

    But first, I’d strongly encourage you and Gregory and james and Tong (and anyone else who cares strongly about this) share all this information with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who “represents readers who have concerns or complaints on topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process” (, and insist that he investigate how Wan’s article got into the paper, and why the Post doesn’t seem interested in running any sort of correction or rebuttal.

  4. Dwayne Day (History)

    “Do you remember Usenet? Probably not if you had a life in the mid-1990s.”


    • Allen Thomson (History)

      I, for one, regard 199[4-7] on Usenet as a golden age of Western Civ. I will not deign to discuss whether I had a life at the time, though it kind of seemed so. Sometimes.

      These days I make do with various blogs.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Some day, the spammers who brought that era to an end will pay dearly for their insolence…

    • Moe DeLaun (History)

      I learned the digital life on Usenet at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 90’s…Usenet, the grad-student parent of the Web and its standards of pungent, profane, thoughtful, goofy intercourse (in the older sense of that word).

  5. BJR (History)

    Towards the end of his talk today Karber said that about a week before the Washington Post piece came out Alexei Arbatov stated in an article that China could have 1000-3500 nuclear weapons. I was surprised to see that Alexei does say something like this although he does cast some doubt that the estimate corresponds to reality (at least according to Google Translate). In the Military-Industrial Courier, vol. 46, n. 412 from November 23rd 2011 [] Alexei says:

    In total, China’s nuclear arsenal is estimated at approximately 200-240 warheads, making it, and not France third nuclear power after the U.S. and Russia in relation to the accuracy of existing unofficial estimates.

    Undoubtedly, economic and technical potential of the PRC allows for the rapid buildup of strategic nuclear weapons and for 10-15 years after the decision to create the strategic nuclear forces that are comparable in number with the forces of the United States and Russia. However, we can not exclude that such a status, China has not, potentially, a very real and international assessment of the current strength of China is absolutely wrong. The press periodically information on built or under construction in China, huge tunnels, total length is estimated at about 5,000 kilometers. Interestingly, the construction is carried out by the Second Artillery Corps, responsible for strategic land-based forces (like the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces). These tunnels are too powerful for the storage of nuclear warheads, according to one of the semi-official version, ostensibly to be docked to the missile after a nuclear attack of the enemy. Most likely because of their dimensions tunnels may be for concealed backup ground-based mobile missiles, otherwise such gigantic structures simply do not have an explanation. According to various estimates, including the DIA, to date, China could have between 1,000 and 3,500 reserve warheads and hundreds of spare missiles, hidden in the tunnels.

    If these estimates are at least to some extent correspond to reality, the Chinese version of the unique potential retaliation presents an entirely different light and can be quite capable… [Google Translate]

    В общей сложности ядерный арсенал Китая оценивается примерно в 200–240 боеголовок, что делает его, а не Францию третьей ядерной державой после США и РФ в зависимости от точности имеющихся неофициальных оценок. Китайские ядерные боезаряды относят в основном к термоядерному классу с диапазоном мощности 200 кт – 3,3 Мт.

    Несомненно, экономический и технический потенциал КНР позволяет осуществить быстрое наращивание ракетно-ядерных вооружений и за 10–15 лет с момента принятия решения создать СЯС, сопоставимые в количественном отношении с силами США и России. Впрочем, нельзя исключать, что такой статус Китай имеет не потенциально, а вполне реально и зарубежные оценки нынешних сил КНР абсолютно ошибочны. В прессе периодически появляются сведения о построенных и строящихся в Китае огромных тоннелях, общая протяженность которых оценивается примерно в 5000 километров. Интересно, что строительство ведется силами Второго артиллерийского корпуса, ответственного за стратегические силы наземного базирования (вроде российских РВСН). Эти тоннели непомерно велики для хранения ядерных боеголовок, которые, по одной из полуофициальных версий, якобы должны быть пристыкованы к ракетам после ядерного удара противника. Скорее всего по своим габаритам тоннели могут предназначаться для скрытного базирования резервных наземно-мобильных ракет, иначе таким исполинским сооружениям просто нет объяснения. По различным оценкам, в том числе Разведывательного управления Министерства обороны США, к настоящему моменту Китай может иметь от 1000 до 3500 резервных ядерных боезарядов и многие сотни запасных ракет, скрытых в тоннелях.

    Если эти оценки хоть в какой-то мере отвечают действительности, то уникальный китайский вариант потенциала ответного удара предстает совершенно в ином свете и может считаться вполне дееспособным…

    • Pavel (History)

      As far as I can see, the 3000-warhead crowd is running out of straws. Arbatov is most likely referring to the Wall Street Journal story (or was it an op-ed?) published in October. The story, of course, described Karber’s results. As for the DIA reference, I have no idea which particular DIA estimate Arbatov had in mind, but it’s worth pointing out that he is referring to the U.S. DIA, not to Russia’s GRU.

    • BJR (History)

      Thanks Pavel, Yes Karber’s mention of Arbatov’s estimate in his article was meant to show the audience that other careful scholars were corroborating his estimate. How circular. Also interesting to note that Arbatov mentions a DIA estimate that no one seems to know about. Someone should ask him about it.

  6. RAJ47 (History)

    Hi Jeffrey,
    Do you have a copy of Karber’s research?
    Can it be put online?
    He himself should put it online for all to understand his point of view – if he has one.

  7. Phillip Karber (History)

    RESPONSE TO THE ATTACKS OF THE Union of Concerned Scientists press release on Georgetown student research as “incompetent and lazy:”

    The effort was focused on the Chinese tunnel system (not fissile material), the issue that was raised was why would they build 3,000 miles of tunnels to hide 300 warhead?

    The statistics of the Georgetown students three year research that involved thousands of hours of student volunteer time:

    Source of Translations:

    — 508 Official Chinese Military Periodical Publications (does NOT include any blog material) = 728000 words

    — People’s Liberation Army Textbooks = (including those restricted to Military Officers) = 1100000 words

    — Student Translated total: 464 includes military web sites, news outlets and blogs = 672000 words

    — Videos downloaded from CCTV (Beijing national network) and iFeng (Hong Kong network) = 200 hours;

    TOTAL SOURCES = 2.5 million words (rounded)

    The Washington Post reporter was given access to the complete set of this source material; and we will do the same for an objective peer review by scholars as opposed to a lobbying group with a political agenda.

    No conclusions were made on the basis of ANY blog material but we do use it to help find interesting things on Chinese TV or in Military Journals or via Google Earth.

    The Washington Post article concludes with the following quote from me:

    “I don’t have the slightest idea how many China really has, but does neither any on else in the arms control community. That’s the problem with China — no one really knows except them.”

    The following is my response to their attack on the quality of my students work:

    “How can they call themselves scientists, when they have not seen our report, when they have not looked at or read the mound of Chinese data the students collected, when they take a single briefing slide from a lecture they were not at and attack it for making statements that were not made. This is politically inspired McCarthyism in which a message they don’t like made by me is smeared by an attack on the method of my students. If the organization is going to send out this kind of ad hominem personal attack, they should be called the Union of Concerned Demagogues. Reporters should ask the critics why they missed or ignored the PRC public statement about 3,000 miles of tunnels for 22 months until brought to light by the Georgetown team?”

    • b (History)

      Since when is the number of words one has read or hours of TV one watched an expression of the quality of ones research?

    • anon (History)

      Dr. Karber is right and Jeffrey, along with a lot of other critics, are missing the point of his research. His focus was the tunnel networks. That’s been the headlines in the articles and CNN interviews, not the 3,000 nukes. It’s no surprise that the Post didn’t accept your article; you’re playing the wrong sport in the wrong arena.

      Also, the blogs can be as much as a treasure chest as they can be a mine. Yes, some of the Usenet material is a little sketch. However, if you’ve been studying Chinese military power in the past three years, you would notice the substantial amounts quality material coming from blogs. Chinese citizens will sneak images up to the internet that educated analysts will discuss. If China’s attempted AWAC program isn’t a good enough example, then look at the J-20. Or even the PLAN’s aircraft carrier. That all happened on the blogs.

      Lastly, Jeffrey, you’re coming down way to hard on those students. How many UNDERGRAD students do you know can conduct IMINT? The fact that these students used their own connections to obtain these military manuals is impressive. Sure, their research may not be perfect. But the fact that they’re leading this study is impressive. For this reason, when you escape academia to come to DC and actually become involved in policy, you will notice that students/alumni from Georgetown, GW, AU, and the Ivy’s dominate government agencies-not students from Monterey/Middleburry.

      I was quite surprised by your response to Karber’s report.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      “For this reason, when you escape academia to come to DC and actually become involved in policy, you will notice that students/alumni from Georgetown, GW, AU, and the Ivy’s dominate government agencies-not students from Monterey/Middleburry.”

      I live in DC, you idiot. I have since 1997.

    • kme (History)

      A better question is “How do you build 3000 warheads with at most 700 warheads worth of fissile material?”

      Tunnels bear no direct relation to nuclear warheads. Fissile material does. This is why the IAEA concerns itself with the diversion of fissile material and not the construction of tunnels.

    • Stephen Schwartz (History)

      So let’s focus on that extensive and mysterious tunnel network. The study proposes an explanation for why China built it, but does not appear to appreciate that because China—unlike the United States—does not maintain its nuclear forces on constant alert (enabling their launch before incoming warheads detonate), and has had little success deploying invulnerable ballistic missile submarines, it seeks to ensure their survival by other means. And tunnels are hardly an unprecedented solution.

      In 1960, the U.S. Army—eager to ease vulnerability concerns of forward deployed weapons and carve out a strategic role for itself—proposed Project Iceworm, a plan to deploy 600 two-stage versions of the Minuteman missile underneath Greenland’s ice sheet (see and Each missile would be spaced 4 miles apart inside a series of tunnels nearly 2,500 miles long and 28 feet below ground. The entire installation would have covered 52,000 square miles, almost the size of Alabama.

      In 1979, the U.S. Air Force began full-scale engineering development work on a massive and controversial plan to protect 200 MX missiles by shuttling them between 4,600 hardened underground shelters (with 23 shelters per missile). Each shelter was to be one mile apart, and the complex would have occupied 12,000-15,000 square miles across Nevada and Utah. This was merely a baseline. Projections called for 8,250 shelters by 1990 and 12,500 by 1995 to deal with the anticipated Soviet threat (see, chapter 2). And while the MX was well-suited for a decapitating first strike (because each missile carried 10 highly accurate warheads), the entire purpose of that extensive and expensive underground network was to safeguard the missiles from a possible Soviet attack.

      Political, financial, and environmental problems doomed both projects, factors that would have little if any impact on a Chinese decision to dig deep. That China built its missile tunnels does not necessarily make it more rational or threatening than we were.

    • John Hallam (History)

      I do just wonder when we can obtain an actual copy of the famous report so we can make our own judgements as to its credibility and value.

      I’ve spent the last week or so sending around the world what others say ABOUT Philip Karbers work, and still not seen the work itself. I’d kind of like to see it.

      As for the internet – well I spend an awful lot of time on the internet. And sources on the internet are just sources, same as any other sources, some reliable some less so.

      I’d be instinctively sceptical of a 3000 warhead estimate, but the tunnels are of interest, and I might be persuadable that they have a few more warheads than we thought, or that the Chinese arsenal id due for an upgrade and possibly an expansion. Maybe.

      John Hallam

    • John Hallam (History)

      Now that I have read (well, seen – its mostly graphics) the Karber Report, a few garbled comments.

      1) The material on tunneling in Chinese history and on the 2nd artillery tunneling is fascinating, and if not new, at least it was for me.

      2) I see no objection to the use of TV shows or blogs in the particular contexts in which they were used, mainly as sources of graphic images of China’s evidently very extensive tunneling activities.

      3)However, while the report has many utterly fascinating shots of chinese missiles and even an underground reactor, it provides no evidence, and even no real arguments as to the numbers of anything whatsoever.

      4) Actual warhead numbers clearly must be at least upwardly bounded by the quantity of fissile material we know China has produced.

      5) As far as I understood what i was looking at, I never saw even in the report, more than a maximum of 50 ICBMs that could reach the US. Now these, if equipped with megaton – sized warheads as I understand they are, could still incinerate 50 cities. But even according to the report itself there are NOT ‘hundreds’ of long-range ICBMs able to reach continental US.

      My suspicion therefore is that the assumed 20 long – range missiles may have crept up a little – maybe up to 30 – but not further.

      6) I saw no evidence, and no real arguments, for any specfic total number of warheads at all.

      7) The graphics showing what might happen to the US are i assume, based on higher warhead numbers than even the 50 that actually appear in the reports own graphs.

      8) Even if they are credible (and they are credible if applied to Russian ICBMs, even now), then the reverse of course applies in spades. Diagrams of what the CURRENT US arsenal, still orders of magnitude larger than the Chinese one, would do to China, should have been included for balance.

      9) Finally, a link to Steve Starrs (and Toon and Robock’s inimitable animated graphics showing just what a bad day in STRATCOM or Kosvinsky Mt would do to the planet, should have been included. It is a mockery to do a report like this without mention of the real impact that large scale nuclear use would have on global ecosystems.

      John Hallam

    • FOARP (History)

      A few points/comments from an arms control amateur familiar with China:

      1) iFeng isn’t a TV station. That’s the name of Phoenix TV’s website.

      2) Much is published in Hong Kong and Taiwan about mainland affairs that is totally fabrication. This has been the case for years.

      3) There are more upper bounds that can be applied here than simply the fissile material cap. Consider the lack of the extensive military/industrial plant which supports Russia and the US’s missile arsenal. If the PLA really has 3,000 nuclear weapons, it doesn’t have long-range rockets to launch them, or silos, bombers and submarines on which to base them.

      What would be the point of such an arsenal without any way of launching them?

      – The lack of

  8. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    I have three things I would like to say to Dr. Karber.

    First, the words “incompetent and lazy” were in reference to the methodology used. This was not a personal attack. We’ve never met. Hopefully we will someday.

    Second, I read and evaluated the information in all the sources you provided that refer to the size of China’s nuclear stockpile. The rest of the information in your report does not. I would be happy to look at any additional information on China’s arsenal size that you have uncovered but have not shared publicly.

    Finally, the majority of the material your students worked so hard to collect are products of Chinese state media. Most people in China know, instinctively, after 62 years of living under Communist rule, with no free press and no real independence in their colleges and universities that most of what appears in Chinese state media is propaganda. Just because a number, a description, an opinion or even an image appears on Chinese TV, in a newspaper, in a journal or on the web does not make it true. One thing you may want to consider as you work through the material you collected is that the aim of that propaganda is to make the CCP and its military look stronger, to the Chinese people, and to the world, than it actually is.

  9. Andy (History)

    The correlation between UGF’s and nuclear weapons is a weak one. Just look at North Korea.

    And tactically, it makes sense to build a lot of infrastructure for a small nuclear force because it makes a small force more survivable. If, for instance, the US or Russia (or India) wanted to conduct a counterforce strike they’ll have a very large target list. Those tunnels become a shell-game for targeteers. In essence, this multiplies the effectiveness of China’s modest arsenal as a deterrent.

    In short, it’s completely appropriate to wonder and ask why there are so many tunnels. It’s even appropriate to, in the course of research, speculate that maybe it’s a sign China has more nukes than originally thought. But more research should have followed that speculation. Arsenal estimates based on fissile material are much more accurate than estimates based on tunnels and, absent other credible information, the authors should have realized there is nothing to support the notion that China has 3000 weapons and there are other, more viable reasons, to explain the number of tunnels.

  10. Captain_Canuck (History)

    I’m with Philipp – bring back the rooster! That is all.

  11. Azr@el (History)

    “That’s false — a lot of people in the US intelligence community, as well as in the arms control community, have spent a lot of time and energy developing estimates of China’s fissile material production to bound the potential size of China’s nuclear arsenal.”

    “I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
    And falls on th’other…”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      “I used to have an open mind, but my brains kept falling out.” Stephen Wright.

  12. Gregory (No Relation) (History)

    I’m not really questioning this article and I certainly doubt that Karber’s estimate of 3,000 warheads at all resembles reality, but I do have to ask: seeing how China since 2001 has at least doubled and at most nearly-quadrupled the number of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, a number of which MIRVed, why would we expect the number of Chinese warheads to be the same now as they were in the mid-90s? Did they retire some warheads elsewhere?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The number of DEPLOYED warheads should be slightly higher, but the TOTAL of 300 is still more than the number of DVs thought nuclear armed. An interesting question relates to the disposition of obsolete warheads. Do they recycle?

  13. Jonah Speaks (History)

    From above:
    Wan quotes Karber saying “I don’t have the slightest idea how many nuclear weapons China really has, but neither does anyone else in the arms-control community.” That’s false — a lot of people in the US intelligence community, as well as in the arms control community, have spent a lot of time and energy developing estimates of China’s fissile material production to bound the potential size of China’s nuclear arsenal.

    I was present at Karber’s presentation yesterday (Dec 7) and asked him what his personal sense was of the probability that China had over 1,000 nuclear warheads. He did not answer with a probability number, but I got the sense from his answer that he was not willing to hang his hat on the number 3,000, or even a number above 1,000. His claim, at least as of yesterday, appears to be that the Chinese could have or might have over 1,000 warheads, not that they probably have or actually do have over 1,000.

    Karber’s claims of “maybe” appear to rest on three premises:

    1) If he were advising the Chinese, he would recommend they build over 1,000 warheads and let others believe they had only built 300. He believes the Chinese military approach is neither passive nor minimalist.

    2) The Chinese have maybe built a fissile materials factory underground that could allow them to produce more warheads than estimated above.

    3) The Chinese have built over 5,000 km of tunnel, just for their nuclear missiles. This seems kind of excessive, if they are only hiding 300 missiles. The economics of this tunnel building make no sense.

    Are there solid refutations to each of the above?

    Stephen Schwartz and Andy take a stab at #3, but does the economics also make sense? Would 500 km of tunnel be just as effective at hiding and protecting 300 missiles?

    I do not see anything to refute #2. Can we be 100%, 99%, or even 95% confident that there is no underground fissile factory hiding in China?

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      1) For what purpose should China build over 1,000 warheads and keep this a secret? To fool the U.S. or somebody into attacking them, so that they can have the satisfaction of hitting us with 1,000 warheads and knowing that we’ll all die together?

      Here’s a good exercise: Start with the largest and most obvious U.S. cities to target: DC, NY, Chicago, LA, SF… See how far you get before you have a list that you can say, Ummm, that’s enough, there’s probably no issue we would ever have with China that would be worth losing all those cities, with all the costs (economic chaos, fallout, cleanup, care for the wounded…) it would impose on the survivors. Then count how many cities you’ve got. Include some major military and economic targets on your list if you don’t think cities matter.

      China’s apparent strategy of minimum deterrence makes sense. We should adopt a similar strategy as a next step.

      2) Hiding major fissile materials and nuclear weapons production facilities underground is hypothetically possible but it is extremely unlikely that such activities could be conducted on a large scale and escape detection for years and decades. Where would the workers live? How would they, and various materials, get in and out of the tunnels? How would you maintain secrecy? How would you contain and dispose of heat and waste products including telltale isotopes in every form including gas? When and if such activities were exposed, it would provoke paranoid reactions from potential adversaries. And it is hard to think of a good rationale for trying to do this. Those are some of the reasons why, in the real world, things are not done that way.

      3) I’m not sure we know what the number “5000 km of tunnels” means exactly; what kind of tunnels they all are, or what they are used for, if anything. Perhaps the tunnel digging program has just continued because it is relatively low-tech and keeps some people employed. Perhaps some of it is or was intended as shelter from the effects of nuclear war. Tunnels, as fortifications, are essentially defensive. Karber’s thesis seems to boil down to, “Well, they could be used to hide huge numbers of offensive weapons.”

    • Seb (History)

      Surely the sole purpose of the tunnels is to frustrate any counterforce strike aimed at China.

      It seems to me that the length of tunnel network China requires doesn’t depend at all on the Chinas nukes (or perhaps only weakly), but on China’s adversaries capabilities.

      The length of tunnel network would then give an indication of China’s assessment on America’s then current and upward bound of future (assume they achieve economies by planning ahead rather than extending tunnels piecemeal) capability to conduct a counterforce strike on the tunnel network by conventional or nuclear means. Such a strike might only need to block tunnel entrances etc.

      The idea of “secret nukes” doesn’t make much sense to me, unless China seriously believes it could conduct a counterforce strike against any rivals that would also reliably take out submarines. That would seem a somewhat delusional belief to ascribe to the Chinese.

  14. archjr (History)

    Sure am glad Karber,, hung that straw man out there, whether by subterfuge, ignorance, slovenliness, or clever calculation. The benefits for all of us are in the aftermath of their research, not whether or not it was artful or ignorant. Now everybody go buy Jeff’s book and read everything else they can get their hands on!

  15. Anon (History)

    It’s too bad the same withering wit and sharp-edged analysis doesn’t get applied to the hordes of apologists for the Iranian nuclear program that march through the comment sections of this blog.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You’re kidding right? I’ve banned more than a dozen IP addresses. If you want to take over moderating comments when the Iranian cyber-brigade hits, be my guest.

    • Peter Green (History)

      I recall one such person was called an “asshole” recently so I think Jeffrey is in the clear.

      I would note that many people cynically referred to as Iran apologists are just trying to point out what the law is and what legal rights IAEA has and what rights states have. It is good to hear their view given the biases in our media instead of living in an echo chamber.

      BTW, Being a USA apologist is no better: would you support your country when it does things like the Iran-Contra affair?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, I did refer to one of the Iranian apologists as an “asshole.” I’ve been swearing a lot in public lately, haven’t I?

  16. Scott Monje (History)

    For people who have trouble reading Google, I’ve done a human translation of Arbatov.

    Overall, China’s nuclear arsenal is estimated at approximately 200–240 warheads, which makes it—and not France—the third nuclear power after the USA and the RF, depending on the precision of the available unofficial assessments. The Chinese nuclear warheads for the most part are classified as thermonuclear in the range of 200 kilotons to 3.3 megatons.

    Undoubtedly, the PRC’s economic and technical potential would allow it to realize a rapid buildup of nuclear missiles and, within 10–15 years from the moment when the decision is made, to create strategic nuclear forces comparable in quantity to the forces of the USA and Russia. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that it’s not a potential, but that China has fully realized this status and that foreign estimates of the PRC’s current forces are absolutely mistaken. Reports periodically appear in the press about huge tunnels that have been built or are being built in China, the overall length of which is estimated at 5,000 kilometers. It is interesting that the construction is led by the forces of the Second Artillery Corps, which is responsible for ground-based strategic forces (not unlike the Russian RVSN [Strategic Rocket Forces]). These tunnels are excessively large for the storage of nuclear warheads, which, according to one of the semiofficial versions, allegedly must be attached to their missiles after the enemy’s nuclear strike. More likely, given their dimensions, the tunnels may be designated for the secret basing of reserve ground-mobile rockets. Otherwise, there’s simply no explanation for such gigantic installations. According to various assessments, including those of the intelligence service of the US Department of Defense, at the present time China may have from 1,000 to 3,500 reserve nuclear warheads and many hundreds of spare rockets hidden in the tunnels.

    If these estimates correspond at all to reality, then the unique Chinese variant of the retaliatory strike potential is presented in a completely different light and may be considered fully capable.

  17. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    The report can now be found here –

    • RAJ47 (History)

      The link does not work.
      Says access denied.

    • RAJ47 (History)

      Full report is full propaganda of the PLA.
      Only two major tunnels seen.
      The GE coverage shows an ammo depot covered by FAS report.
      Nothing substantial in this video.

    • Stephen Schwartz (History)

      Maybe Karber had second thoughts about sharing it. In any case, it can now be downloaded here –

  18. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    For the record, the Chinese blog post from Karber’s first slide (which he removed from the second and third versions of that slide in later reports) did not connect Hahn to the Trend article. He just quoted Hahn and mentioned the name of the journal Navy International.

  19. Jandroid (History)

    It’s official. We had the bomber gap, we had the missile gap: now it’s a hole gap and the US is dangerously behind. Don’t you scientists ever take security threats seriously?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The phrase is “mine shaft gap.”

    • Jandroid (History)

      Chunnel threat?

    • John (History)

      Since there are less people like Karber in China, could we, aside from the hole-gap, also have an asshole gap on our hands — in our favor? Happy Holidays all.

  20. Hippo1 (History)

    In keeping with the spirit of the Dr. Strangelove references: What is the point of having 3,000 nuclear missiles if you don’t tell anybody about them. Is China planning to surprise us with them on Hu Jintao’s next birthday? Stepping beyond the technical dimensions of the issue, it makes little sense for China to build such a large and expensive nuclear arsenal and then to keep its magnitude a secret.
    Separately, is there any evidence as to when these tunnels were actually dug? I apologize if I missed that point, but Mao spent a lot of time digging tunnels and moving stuff underground to protect it from the Soviets. Furthermore, given that the Chinese military conducts a lot of commercial activities, just because the 2nd Artillery built the tunnels (if they were actually responsible for all 5k of them) does not mean that they are related to China’s nuclear arsenal. They could very well have been built for other parts of the PLA or to shelter China’s conventional missile arsenal.

    • Kevin (History)

      “Our source was the Washington Post….”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I actually made the same point in an email conversation to a colleague. Ambiguity only helps if your opponent knows the number to within an order of magnitude.

    • Cameron (History)

      Hmm… I didn’t even consider commercial activities. And it stands to reason that 2nd Artillery would be called in to at least advise on making sure that a high value underground location was unlikely to destroy itself. They’d have extensive experiance with preventing damage to similiar facilities.

      My guess? A new theme park that includes the worlds longest underground rollercoaster.

  21. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Karber and his students also assembled a 50 minute video “compilation of Films and Music shown on Chinese TV since 2000” (aka propaganda) about China’s missiles and nuclear weapons ( But the dramatic footage at the start of the video of China’s first nuclear test in 1964 (1:25-3:38) is taken without attribution from Peter Kuran’s 1995 documentary, “Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie,” (, which edited the original Chinese footage and mated it with an original score by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.” Here’s the relevant clip for comparison –

  22. RAJ47 (History)

    Read the entire report.
    The students seem to have fooled Mr Karber. Agree with Jeffrey Lewis, the report is getting unwarranted publicity and with Gregory Kulacki, it is shoddy research.
    All the tunnels are known. Kunming horseshoe rail is shaped to cover the height difference. All the airports with underground facilities already known.
    Nothing that has not been already taken into account.

  23. Dwayne Day (History)

    The Washington Post Ombudsman column refers to the controversy in Sunday’s newspaper. That column does not appear to be online yet.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I find it very strange that the observations that (1) Chinese nuclear weapons are largely made from plutonium and (2) the Chinese don’t have enough plutonium for 3,000 such nuclear weapons, are dismissed as “wonky” and “arcane” details.

  24. John (History)
  25. Sean O'Connor (History)

    1. The Kunming complex is likely the central storage facility for the 53rd Base. There isn’t enough clearance for a DF-31A TEL to drive in and out of those UGF portals, either. It’s called a ruler, they’re awesome.

    2. Tunnels =/= nuclear warheads. Tunnels may = UGFs for 2nd Artillery Corps missile storage. I’ve found 121 UGF portals potentially affiliated with the 2nd AC. The only problem is that they don’t just store the nuclear missiles like the DF-21 in there, but conventional weapons as well. TELs leave garrisons and head to these places to upload before field deployment. Note how no missile garrison has hardened storage complexes for missiles or warheads or other such explody bits. With the increasing influx of conventional BMs into the 2nd AC, an increase in UGFs or tunnels or whatever actually likely pertains more to the conventional arsenal than the nuclear arsenal.

    3. Tunnels may = new rail lines, given how much the 2nd Artillery Corps and 22nd Base rely on rail transportation for cross-country mobility.

    Back to credible research.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      “It’s called a ruler, they’re awesome.”

      You made my day.

      I’ve been going through your tome on the Second Arty etc. in the December 2011 edition of I&A. It’s magisterial.

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