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Analysts Question Research on China Nuclear Arms

Analysts who study China's nuclear forces have criticized research by a U.S. academic suggesting the People's Liberation Army might have massively scaled up the size of its nuclear arsenal and hidden the new warheads in an elaborate tunnel system, Agence France-Presse reported (see GSN, Nov. 30).

Georgetown University professor Phillip Karber said a research project with his students indicates the Chinese military could have an arsenal of as many as 3,000 nuclear warheads. Karber said the research involved study of satellite photographs of tunnel construction, official PLA documents and open-source material such as personal Internet posts and a television drama.

Beijing does not publicize the exact number of weapons it holds but expert estimates generally put the Chinese nuclear stockpile at between 80 and 400 warheads.

"China has not produced enough fissile material to produce 3,000 nuclear weapons," said Hans Kristensen who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project. "Nor do they have delivery systems for so many weapons. It's just inaccurate on all fronts, that estimate."

The Defense Department stands by its own projection of China's nuclear deterrent. Karber's 363-page report on the matter has been studied by Pentagon officials, a high-ranking source said.

"The findings of the report have been noted," the official said. "There is no change in our assessment."

Kristensen criticized the report's reliance on old data and questionable sources. "You cannot extrapolate from old data," he said to AFP.

Union of Concerned Scientists China nuclear forces expert Gregory Kulacki said many of the conclusions about the number of nuclear warheads came from the Chinese blogosphere. He said the report did not disclose that the estimate of up to 3,000 weapons originated with an article in the Hong Kong Trend magazine and not a Chinese government report, as Karber has said.

"This is not competent scholarship," Kulacki said in a Thursday web post for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Kristensen said China's tunnel system was begun in the 1950s and that Beijing's desire to keep the locations of its nuclear weapons hidden to protect them from a feared disarming attack is widely known.

"That's something countries do and China does it too," Kristensen said.

He said the analysis also had "some really serious problems with satellite interpretation." Kristensen highlighted the report's determination that one satellite image taken above South China showed a new ballistic missile installation. "It's not a missile base at all. It looks to be a cluster of storage facilities for military ammunition."

Karber, an ex-high-ranking Defense Department official, is standing by his research and said it has elicited a worthwhile public discussion about China's nuclear forces (Dan De Luce, Agence France-Presse/Google News, Dec. 2). 

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