Jeffrey LewisChina's Centralized Warhead Storage

Mark Stokes has a really cool paper out on China’s system for handling warheads (China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System):

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) maintains strict control over China’s operational nuclear warheads through a centralized storage and handling system managed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery. Nuclear warheads are granted special consideration due to their political significance and potential consequences of an accident, incident, or unauthorized use. As a result, warheads are managed in peacetime
through a system that is separate and distinct from Second Artillery missile bases and subordinate launch brigades. Second Artillery nuclear warheads also appear to be managed separately from China’s civilian fissile material protection, control and accounting (MPC&A) system. In addition, the Second Artillery appears to control and manage nuclear warheads that could be delivered by other services, such as the PLA Air Force and Navy.

The narrative is not surprising, but the detail is jaw-dropping.

He’s gotten well-deserved raves in Defense News (Wendell Minnick, “China’s Central Nuke Storage ID’d,” March 8, 2010) and the Washington Times.


  1. Wendell Minnick (History)


    Defense News

    China’s Central Nuke Storage ID’d

    By Wendell Minnick

    TAIPEI — A Washington think tank says it knows where Beijing keeps its nukes, long a matter of speculation by China watchers.

    Called Base 22 (96401 Unit) or the Taibai Complex, the central nuclear weapons storage facility is deep in side the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi province, according to “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System,” a paper by Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute.

    Stokes, a U.S. defense attaché in Beijing from 1992-1995, said he discovered the location while canvassing Chinese-language literature from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other government institutions.

    As a defense attaché, Stokes helped to identify the locations of missile bases, command-and-control facilities, and radar and signal intelligence bases. In 1994, his efforts earned him the CIA’s Exceptional Collector National HUMINT Award, an honor sometimes dubbed “Spook of the Year.” Defense News was given an early draft of Stokes’ paper, which the institute plans to release soon.

    Operated by the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, Base 22 consists of two zones known as Hongchuan and the Hongling Command Center, both in Taibai County south of the city of Baoji, the paper says.

    The underground complex is protected from blasts by granite, and from intrusion by infrared and video cameras, fingerprint access control and more, the paper says.

    “Taibai may be one of the most secure warhead stockpile facilities in the world,” Stokes said.

    He said China kept its location a secret in part to help improve deterrence. “Under a declaratory no-first use policy, the nuclear deterrent of the People’s Republic of China has relied upon quantitative and geographic ambiguity,” he said.

    Stokes also said there had been confusion in the U.S. arms control community over whether the PLA or the civilian government controlled China’s nuclear weapons.

    “One problem may be that the arms control community has been assuming that the guys they deal with in China, the civilians, are in control of the nuclear stockpile,” Stokes said. “It may be difficult to accept that the PLA is in charge, much less that storage is centralized.” The paper identifies a variety of other facilities. The Second Artillery Corps has a separate facility for missile storage, 96176 Unit, in Shangrao County, Jiangxi province, known as a “missile component depot.” Base 22 is supported by a civil engineering regiment under the 308 Engineering Command, based south of Taibai in the city of Hanzhong, and an installation engineering group in Luoyang, the paper says.

    Within a few hundred miles are the warhead-making Factory 903 at Pingtongzhen, Sichuan province, roughly 345 kilometers away, and the Base 067, a new ballistic missile engine and component research and development complex belonging to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

    Central Control

    “The concept of a central storage location is a reflection of Chinese nuclear policy and the Central Military Commission’s interest in maintaining control of China’s nuclear weapons,” said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

    As part of a deterrence strategy, nuclear warheads are moved back and forth from Taibai to missile bases by railroads, roads and by air, Stokes said.

    These other bases “compensate somewhat for that vulnerability; their numbers are limited, too,” Kris tensen said. “Chinese nuclear planners have not been preoccupied with planning for protracted nuclear war fighting but with maintaining a basic nuclear deterrent.” “China has been developing its missile-carrying railroads in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces with impressive sophistication so that missiles can be launched between tunnels on the rail,” said Chong-Pin Lin, a former Taiwan deputy defense minister and author of the book “China’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy: Tradition within Evolution.”

    Under Chinese nuclear doctrine, warheads are stored separately from their delivery systems, said Li Bin, director of the Arms Control Program and deputy director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

    “The simple reason is that the so called Chinese ‘nuclear missiles’ are not nuclear in peacetime. The U.S. and Russian nuclear missiles are on hair-trigger alert and have danger of accidental launch,” Li said.

  2. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Nice study. But I don’t get the point of the dig at the arms control community in the above post. Just because they are stored in a PLA-run facility does not mean civilian authorities do not control the size and disposition of the stockpile.

  3. RAJ47

    The study is excellent.
    You will get more details to include launch pads, underground facilities, headquarters etc at Sean’s site

  4. mark hibbs

    The explanation or suggestion that this information is being disclosed more or less intentionally by China through websites and other means requires further elucidation, if Chinese experts are correct that China’s anxiety about increased transparency is increasing as a result of measures taken by the US, such as development of space-based radar and shifting SLBM-carrying nuclear submarines to the Pacific. If that assessment is correct, why would it be in China’s interest to make disclosures like this?

  5. princeton schotch (History)
  6. Mark Stokes

    Thanks for the kind words, Jeffrey.

    Gregory, there was some context to the remark that’s missing, but not a big deal. Bottom line is that I’m quite sympathetic to the arms control community’s nuclear cause. You do raise an issue that I failed to address properly in the paper, which is the extent of civilian cognizance over the nuclear arsenal. But whether there is civilian or military oversight at the senior-most level, China does seem to manage its limited stockpile in a responsible manner. PLA recruitment of civilian designers from CAEP for safety and reliability work beginning at least as early as 2005/2006 appears to be a smart move.

    As an aside, I liked Wendell’s selection of quotes in the Defense News article. Comments from Hans Kristensen, Chong-pin Lin, and Li Bin were thoughtful and helpful.

    For Mark, I don’t know why Chinese censorship seems to be relaxing, and it may not even be intentional for all I know. If it is intentional, I’d offer three possible explanations.

    First, many in China may want to know where nuclear warheads are and if they are safe. Public interest grew in the wake of the May 2008 earthquake, with the epicenter being fairly close to sensitive civilian defense industry facilities. I suspect there has been some conscious effort to calm whatever public concerns may exist.

    In addition, Michael Sheridan from Times Online published a great article last year regarding veteran disability claims stemming from the nuclear testing program (“Revolt Stirs among China’s Nuclear Ghosts”). Claims from 22 Base veterans (pre-1979) have been an issue as well.

    Secondly, increased transparency could reflect greater confidence in the survivability of the country’s nuclear deterrent. Recent conclusion of major Second Artillery infrastructure projects over the last decade, initial operational capability of the mobile solid-fueled DF-31A, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense countermeasures may have contributed to the greater degree of confidence.

    Finally, there could be a desire to show that China does take the security, safety, and reliability of its nuclear warhead stockpile seriously. Pure speculation, but this could be an important issue in the context of upcoming NPT Review Conference and Nuclear Summit, whether Hu Jintao decides to attend the latter event or not.

    As a final note, one possible indication of China’s evolving transparency policy is the state-run media reaction to Wendell’s article. Reporting has been amazingly objective, with the most proliferated headline being “US Report: China’s Central Nuclear Warhead Storage Facility at Taibai World’s Most Secure.” BBS commentary is mixed, with remarks ranging from “ban Mark Stokes from China for life” to “this is just an assessment based on publicly available information.” Obviously, I agree with the second theme, and the heavy footnoting was purposeful to allow access to sources.

    It for now!

  7. Lurking Observer (History)

    If the Chinese are interested only in a minimal deterrent, and uncertainty about the physical location of their nuclear weapons is a central part of their concept of deterrence, should the United States be engaging in trying to locate those weapons?

    Doesn’t this presage (or at least suggest) a move towards a counter-force posture against China’s nuclear forces?

    Wouldn’t it help preserve the minimal deterrent if the United States formally and officially stated that it would not engage in intelligence gathering to find China’s nuclear storage sites?

  8. John Schilling (History)

    Impressive piece of work, that. I do note the claim that the 2nd Artillery controls Air Force and Navy warheads is based primarily on the apparent absence of anyone else handling the job. On the one hand, the Chinese Air Force and Navy are subordinate to the PLA, so there’s no institutional barrier to such centralized control. On the other hand, that’s a lot of nuclear eggs in one basket. On the other other hand, it’s a very secure basket.

    Is it a big enough basket? It’s got the ICBM/IRBM force covered, for sure. The main Chinese heavy bomber base is reported as at Datong, right next door to the “56 base” facility, so that’s probably where the ready-use bombs are kept. Chinese tactical strike aircraft are widely enough dispersed that they could draw nuclear weapons from any 2nd artillery facility, if needed.

    The SRBMs are supported by the “52 base” facility, in a manner that strongly suggests they do have an active dual-use capability. Some estimates of the Chinese nuclear arsenal assume the SRBM force is entirely non-nuclear; that’s still a possibility, but now somewhat less likely.

    There doesn’t seem to be any provision for tactical nuclear weapons, except to the extent that the SRBMs might be tactical – and it’s quite plausible that there are no other Chinese tactical nuclear weapons.

    The big omission, is any apparent provision for supporting China’s nuclear SSBN fleet. The “54 base” facility is over 500 km from Qingdao, and none of the facilities are near the coast.

    Possibly the PLAN has its own nuclear weapons support facility, and hasn’t chosen to talk about it the way the 2nd Artillery has. Or possibly the Chinese SSBN fleet isn’t yet considered operational and doesn’t need a dedicated support facility. Or possibly the conops for an operational Chinese SSBN force are consistent with having the warheads stored far inland until needed, which strikes me as unlikely.

    Or possibly I’ve missed something.

  9. Pablo Edronkin (History)

    That particular stockpiling doctrine seems rather odd; uncertainty about a centralized location unfolds into certainty very rapidly and thus into vulnerability. I guess that something is missing, especially concerning the transportation of those warheads. Perhaps, in reality, the Chinese are developing mobile forces right in front of everybody else. That would make more sense.

  10. Mark Stokes


    Very interesting questions. I made passing reference to the PLA Air Force and SSBN issues as ticklers for further research, and glad you picked up on them.

    First, I’m a bit skeptical that China has a significant stockpile of tactical nukes, but this is just a going in bias with not a lot of data points to back it up. The PLA may have had a substantial arsenal during the Cold War with Sino-Soviet tensions. But given improved relations over the last 10-15 years, it’s possible that there’s been a drawdown. I don’t think China seriously contemplates WMD in a Taiwan scenario, despite veiled insinuations that Taiwan may not apply to a NFU policy. If there is a tactical nuke option, I suppose some sort of HEMP burst is possible.

    But whatever air deliverable nuclear munitions that China may have, it does seem to make sense from a logistical, training, and security perspective to have a single service custodian. I don’t know enough about our own nuclear management system to understand why we allow the USAF, Navy, and Army to each store and manage independent stockpiles. Based on a preliminary understanding of its nuclear management system, China seems to have the right approach.

    The SSBN question is also interesting, and I am even less familiar with the PLA Navy than I am with the Air Force. Who stores and manages the warheads and missiles for China’s SSBNs? I think there’s been an assumption that the PLA Navy has maintained whatever JL-1 missiles and warheads have been associated with the Xia-class, and would likewise handle logistics support for the JL-2 and associated warheads.

    It’s certainly possible that that the PLA Navy has an operational entity equivalent to a Second Artillery launch brigade and perhaps separate regimental-level support units that train the operators, and provide all the necessary support for the missile and warhead stockpile. But this just seems to be a lot of operational overhead when the Second Arty has the support infrastructure in place already for both the missiles and warheads.

    But most important is what seems to an assumption that new SSBNs would be patrolling the Pacific, South China Sea, and beyond in a high state of readiness with armed nukes mated onto the JL-2s. If Second Artillery keeps warheads and missiles separately, it seems questionable that SSBNs would be any different.

    One last comment on the basket. The Second Arty’s basket does seem to be pretty wide — as many as 21 possible storage/check-out sites per missile base, meaning a total of 126 possible facilities throughout China, not including the central complex.

    I could probably develop better arguments over time, and am quite happy to hear opposing perspectives. But in short, my impression is that nuclear warheads are an incredibly difficult logistical burden, and there’s reason to believe that both the PLA Air Force and Navy could be perfectly happy with the Second Artillery taking care of them. Real gurus on PLA Air Force and Navy doctrine, organization, and operations such as Ken Allen, Andrew Erickson, Bud Cole, Lyle Goldstein, Bill Murray, etc, etc may be able to address these issues better than I can though.

    It for now!

  11. John Schilling (History)


    I’m not necessarily assuming the Chinese SSBNs are going to be running peacetime deterrence patrols with live missiles, at least in the short term. A “sortie” concept where the submarines mostly stay in or near port and only put to sea with nukes in response to (or preparation for) a crisis, is quite plausible. But unless the Chinese are assuming they’ll know about all potential crises several days in advance, I don’t see how that can work with the warheads stored at any of the known 2nd Artillery bases. Too much transit time, too dependent on rail and port infrastructure, mostly negating the advantages offered by an SSBN in the first place

    So unless someone comes up with a clever way to get real operational utility out of submarines at Qingdao with warheads at Luoyang, that isn’t served just as well by another regiment of DF-31s, I’m inclined to assume that operational Chinese SSBNs do or will have a warhead storage/servicing brigade near Qingdao. Whether 2nd Artillery or PLAN, I’m agnostic.

    As far as tactical nuclear weapons are concerned, I also am quite skeptical about Chinese battlefield nuclear weapons, neutron bombs, artillery shells, that sort of thing. But I’d wager real money that some of the DF-11/DF-15 SRBMs have at least a secondary nuclear strike capability, supported by the “52 base” facility. Whether you’d call those tactical weapons, is another matter – they clearly aren’t something a generic PLA division commander gets to play with, but they also don’t count for much in the context of toe-to-toe nuclear combat with the Rooskies and/or Yankees.