What’s Down There? China’s Tunnels and Nuclear Capabilities

Dean Cheng /

Recent news reports have highlighted Chinese construction of a system of underground tunnels and raised serious questions about what they might imply regarding China’s nuclear capabilities. One story highlighted that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) may have some 3,000 miles of tunnels, sufficient to move systems underground across the breadth of the country. Much of this was apparently dug by the Second Artillery Force, which is responsible for China’s nuclear forces, so the assumption is that many of these tunnels are related to China’s nuclear deterrent.

The most commonly enunciated fear is that China has far more nuclear weapons than it is generally credited with. Among the initial group of nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, U.K., France, and the PRC), the Chinese are generally believed to have the smallest nuclear arsenal, with only a few hundred warheads. This is consistent with a strategy of “minimum deterrence”—fielding only enough warheads to severely damage other nations. The existence of these thousands of miles of tunnels raises the possibility that, in fact, China has much more than a “minimum” deterrent.

The larger points, however, are neither about the tunnels nor the number of warheads that might be hidden in them. Rather, this story should remind readers:

None of this means that the tunnels necessarily conceal thousands or tens of thousands of warheads or missiles. Half of the tunnels were apparently dug during the Cold War, when Mao warned the nation to “dig deep holes, and store grain,” in preparation for a possible Soviet or American nuclear attack. But this should be cold comfort, for the reality is that it is not clear what those tunnels conceal.

In this context, it is irresponsible to be arguing for “global zero” when the actual number of nuclear weapons fielded by potential opponents is simply not known. President Obama’s push for yet another nuclear arms control treaty with Russia to further lower the number of nuclear forces, as well as his advocacy of global nuclear disarmament, presumes that only Russia can rival the U.S. in nuclear forces. The President appears totally unconcerned that the Chinese might have substantial numbers of nuclear weapons (including launchers) hidden away. The fact that the United States is also the only nuclear nation with no program of nuclear force modernization raises further questions about what “providing for the common defense” means for this Administration.

All of this should be food for thought for Congress and the Administration as defense budget cuts are debated.