New U.S. law seeks answers on Chinese Nuke tunnels

New U.S. law seeks answers on Chinese Nuke tunnels

The U.S. military must consider both conventional and nuclear capabilities to “neutralize” China’s underground nuclear weapons storage facilities, according to a Pentagon authorization signed into law.

The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 2, orders the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to submit a report by Aug. 15 on the “underground tunnel network used by the People’s Republic of China with respect to the capability of the United States to use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralize such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels.”

A Georgetown University team led by Phillip Karber conducted a three-year study to map out China’s complex tunnel system, which stretches 3,000 miles.

The 2011 report, “Strategic Implications of China’s Underground Great Wall,” concluded that the number of nuclear weapons estimated by U.S. intelligence was incorrect. His team estimated that as many as 3,000 nuclear weapons could be hidden within a vast labyrinth in several locations in China. U.S. intelligence estimates have been reporting consistently that China had, at the most, 300 nuclear warheads in its arsenal.

Karber’s report presents evidence of a complex system of tunnels in areas noted for nuclear testing and storage — a far greater subterranean cavity than needed for just 300 nuclear weapons.

NDAA sections 1045, 1271 and 3119 all highlight U.S. congressional concerns over China’s nuclear and military modernization efforts. Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubts these sections of the NDAA will have major policy consequences for U.S.-China relations: “The intelligence community tracks China’s nuclear weapons closely — is a federally funded research and development center going to find a new threat?”

Overall, Glaser believes the new reporting requirements are a reaction to Karber’s work, making him one of a few lonely challengers to suggest that U.S. intelligence estimates are wrong.

The NDAA-directed report by STRATCOM must include identification of the knowledge gaps regarding such nuclear weapons programs and a discussion of the implications of any such gaps for the security of the U.S.

The report must also assess the nuclear deterrence strategy of China, including a historical perspective and the geopolitical drivers of such strategy, and a detailed description of the nuclear arsenal, including the number of nuclear weapons capable of being delivered at intercontinental range.

The report will also include a comparison of the nuclear forces of the U.S. and China, projections of the possible future nuclear arsenals of China, a description of command-and-control functions and gaps, assessment of the fissile material stockpile of China, and its civil and military production capabilities and capacities.

Karber takes little credit for the NDAA requirements, which many have begun calling the “Karber effect.” “I believe a number of events, not least of which being Chinese testing and deployment patterns, have motivated this tasking, and I will leave to others to assess what part our research played in stimulating or adding motivation to it,” Karber said.

Naysayers and skeptics of Karber’s conclusions abound. The language in the NDAA reflects several things, said Hans Kristensen, director, Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists.

These include a general concern and fascination with Chinese military modernization; fallout from the Karber study; claims by Karber and retired Russian Col. Gen. Viktor Esin that China has 3,600 nuclear warheads, which Kristensen views as erroneous and rejected by STRATCOM; lobbying by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which “see China as a small Soviet Union”; and “frustration among some, myself included, that the U.S. intelligence community and military is becoming more secretive about what it says about Chinese nuclear capabilities.”

Kristensen said this gradually increases the dangers of war between China and the U.S. “The two countries are dancing a dangerous dance that will increase military tension and could potentially lead to a small Cold War in the Pacific.”

He said most of the U.S. Navy’s ballistic-missile submarine force is operating in the Pacific, nuclear bomber squadrons periodically deploy to Guam and recently extended tours from three to six months, and more naval forces are being shifted into the Pacific.

The final question many analysts are asking is, how does the U.S. “use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralize such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels”? Tests of low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons such as the B61-11 have been disappointing with low penetration results. It is unclear if the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator program or the improved B61-12 have solved the problem, but given the locations, lengths and various depths of the tunnel system outlined in Karber’s report, more than one bomb would be needed to eliminate the threat.

So what has got the U.S. Congress so spooked about China’s underground tunneling program? Karber’s conclusions read like Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road.”

Karber’s paper estimates that China’s true nuclear arsenal, if used against the U.S. as a “counter-value attack,” would inflict 50 million direct casualties; plus-or-minus 50 percent would suffer radiation sickness ranging from debilitating to life-shortening; two-thirds of the 7,569 hospitals would be destroyed or inoperable and half the physicians would themselves be casualties. One-third of the electrical generation capacity and 40 percent of the national food producing agricultural land would be destroyed or exposed to significant residual radiation. 100 million Americans would face starvation within the first 10 years of the initial attack.

“Bottom line,” Karber’s report said, “200 million lost, and surviving Americans will be living in the dark, on a subsistence diet, with a life style and life expectancy equivalent to the Dark Ages.”