Chinese nuclear weapons: here we go again

Philip Karber is at it again.

You may remember Karber as the adjunct at Georgetown who had his students engaged in a project about China’s huge tunnel system, and how the Chinese could be hiding thousands of extra nuclear weapons in them. I posted about that story, which got wide coverage until people actually read the report, back in December. It has since been demolished by experts on proliferation more versed in the magic of fissile material production than I am.

Dude, we were so supposed to bury this in a tunnel, not park it in front of the frat.

Now Karber claims to have data from Russian General Viktor Yesin, a former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, proving that the Chinese have squirreled away far more weapons than anyone thought possible. The report was published in the Epoch Times, a paper run by China’s Falun Gong religious community. Needless to say, it’s since been picked up by the conservative press, and tweeted by Bill Gertz.

Yesin claims, according to the story, that the Chinese have 5 or 6 times the number of warheads we think they do:

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) notoriously opaque nuclear arsenal could be much bigger than the estimates prevalent in the United States—up to 1,800 warheads as opposed to the 300 or 400 currently thought—according to a report authored by a retired Russian colonel general.

In addition, the report says that the PRC has rail-mounted intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, and nuclear warheads on a series of ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) and cruise missiles—statements that contradict dominant understandings of China’s nuclear posture.

Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk has decimated this claim pretty handily, noting that Yesin’s views have always been alarmist, and that worse, he’s probably relying on the same internet-generated numbers that led Karber down the wrong path, too.

No, no…come on. Show me what’s in your other hand, the one behind your back.

Or as Jeffrey puts it in his post: “As far as I can tell, all of these claims, from Karber to Yesin…[are] simply an exercise in laundering bad data.”

Why does this story keep popping up? Lewis’s theory is that Karber can’t let it go for political reasons, and as with the “tunnel” story, was more interested in shock value than truth:

Here is what Karber did not do when he found Yesin’s essay — he didn’t forward it to colleagues for comment and analysis.  He tried to keep it a secret (as though the rest of us don’t have friends who read Russian) and then tried to surprise the Administration with a press story.  That’s not research, it’s advocacy. The fact that Karber doesn’t consult with his colleagues suggests that he is more concerned with the headline than the real answer. The only comfort that I draw from any of this is that Karber is down to the Epoch Times as a venue for his bullshit.

 Aside from the question of why Karber keeps wanting to bang this gong — “bang this gong,” I slay me — there is the unstated assumption that it would somehow matter in some material way if we found out that China had 1800 warheads instead of 400.

Professional counter

Sure, it would matter in a political sense, insofar as it might make make us wonder, or confirm our fears, that the Chinese are lying paranoids who dig holes in the ground and bury nuclear bombs in them like chipmunks storing acorns in burrows while preparing for winter. And it might worry the Russians somewhat, since it could suggest that the Chinese were preparing for a two-front, or three-front nuclear strategy.

But would it really matter to the strategic balance? Would the United States be under a suddenly increased threat if the Chinese could land 100 missiles on CONUS instead of, say, 25? Would either side act differently toward the other?

And if so, why keep them a secret? Isn’t the whole point of building nuclear weapons to be able to put them out in full view of the enemy in order to gain the full deterrent potential of a larger retaliatory force?

None of this makes much sense from any angle, and since both Yesin and Karber (again, according to people a lot smarter than me on this) get some major facts wrong, we don’t need to dwell too long on this report.

But we should ask ourselves why we think it would be important, when the actual effect of an extra 800 bombs on deterrence and the strategic relationship between the US and the PRC would be virtually nil — unless Yesin or Karber or anyone else really wants to make the case that China would take risks with 1000 nuclear arms that it won’t take with only 400 weapons.

It’s always a solid assumption in general that the Chinese are up to no good and do not wish us well. But to worry about hidden nukes in underground tunnels is not only based on poor research, but also misses the point about why anyone would think that an extra few hundred bombs would change things so drastically.

 

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4 comments

  1. The fissile material issue is important, as that’s not super easy to conceal, unless you use uranium, maybe, like in a very de-centralized fashion, almost Great Leap Forward style.
    Would it matter? Maybe, if probably not. For either the Russian Federation or the United States, to use any weapons against them it must be on a theory of casualty aversion, in which getting to larger numbers would create a situation in which theoretically one could say,”You might lose 10 million, but never 80 million, even if in either scenario, there were dead Chinese all the way to X’ian,” their favorite metaphor of the “there’s a lot of Chinese even with a lot of dead Chinese.” If we put down 1,000 warheads on Chinese urban areas, that’s an awful lot of dead Chinese still, and if you targeted to split the country per policing and military commands, you might not really need to do one tenth of that in reality, which you have correctly pointed out as to how manageable a nuclear war would really be, not very. [edited for length]

  2. To be brief, sorry, look at the source: Putin advisor. That has all sorts of games to be played with.

  3. The West is racist and hates and mistrust Chinese after being blinded and brainwashed by their biased and one-sided media. I have linked this to Chinese forums for their info and understanding of American and Western intentions on the Chinese

    • I’m not sure how Karber’s report translates to “everyone in the West is racist,” especially since Karber was pretty quickly dismissed by most of the experts on this issue.

      But a lot of the problem here is that China is not an open or transparent regime when it comes to stuff like this. Like the Soviets before them, we’re left having t0 guess at what they’re doing, because the regime (or at least that part of it that controls security policy and military programs) is still locked in a paranoid, Cold War mindset against the West, not the other way around.

      It’s a shame that the Chinese regime acts in ways that seem to vindicate the suspicions of people like Karber. His research isn’t reliable, but we still don’t know what those tunnels are for, either.