Well, what to say about Phillip Karber’s forthcoming report that suggests China might have more than 3,000 nuclear weapons stashed away in all those tunnels that the Second Artillery has been building over the past few decades?

Well, for one thing, Karber’s claims are utter nonsense. For another, Karber is unbelievably successful at generating unwarranted publicity.

Sure, China has lots of tunnels.   But all of Karber’s sources about fissile material production are based on a mid-1990s Usenet posting by an internet troll.

Actually, it’s worse than that, but this will take some time to explain.

Let’s start with my letter to the Washington Post, which the Post refused to publish. The short version is that China simply doesn’t have enough plutonium for all those warheads, tunnels or not.

 I am appalled by William Wan’s article entitled “Digging into China’s nuclear tunnels.”

Nuclear weapons are not made with tunnel spoil. They are made with fissile material.  China does not have enough fissile material to support a stockpile of the sort that Dr. Karber imagines.

Based on publicly available information about China’s nuclear weapons testing, we know that Chinese nuclear weapon designs since the 1970s make liberal use of plutonium. China operated exactly two nuclear reactors for the production of military plutonium through 1991. Open-source estimates reliably band China’s production of plutonium at 2-5 metric tons.  Classified Department of Energy estimates, leaked to the press, provide a narrower band of 1.7-2.8 metric tons.  (Hui Zhang, a former colleague of mine at Harvard who previously worked in the Chinese nuclear weapons establishment, calculates Chinese production as being on the low end of that estimate in the most recent International Panel on Fissile Materials report.) Using a conservative estimate of 4-8 kilograms of plutonium per warhead, that yields a total force of probably no more than 375 warheads, with an extreme upper bound of no more than 700 warheads.  This figure would be for every plutonium-based nuclear weapon China ever produced, not merely those in the current stockpile.

Declassified US estimates of China’s current nuclear weapons stockpile from the mid-1990s, not surprisingly, place the size of China’s nuclear weapons stockpile between 200-300 nuclear weapons.  In more recent years, Chinese officials have stated that China possesses the smallest nuclear weapons arsenal among the so-called P5 states.  The UK and France are believed to have less than 200 and 300 nuclear weapons, respectively.  Notice how all these numbers are copacetic?

So where does Dr. Karber get his wildly divergent estimates? Nowhere does Mr. Wan mention that Dr. Karber’s “analysis” of China’s plutonium production relies on a few Chinese blog posts that discuss a single, anonymous 1995 Usenet post, subsequently plagiarized by a Singapore University student, that is so wildly incompetent as to invite laughter.  (I have mocked this essay repeatedly on my own blog, Arms Control Wonk.com.)

Actually, Dr. Karber doesn’t mention this either.  His research ended with the Chinese blog posts, which is something that no responsible scholar would do.  A real scholar would have traced the blog posts back to the original Usenet posting, then back to the article in a Hong Kong dissident publication that started this nonsense and then gone to the library (I know, such a chore!) to make a copy.  Dr. Karber did none of these things.  My colleague, Dr. Gregory Kulacki, however, did exactly that.  We will be making the original document available, but let me simply observe that it is very clear that this is simply not a reliable source for the size of China’s nuclear arsenal.

If I take any solace out of this pathetic episode, it is that Dr. Karber’s students will have learned first-hand how not to do research.

Jeffrey Lewis
Monterey Institute, Washington, DC

The Post Letters editor Michael Larrabee objects, by the way, to my claim that the Post “refused” to print the letter — although not so strongly that he would agree to publish it. Larrabee also would not agree to publish a letter from Gregory Kulacki. It will be interesting to see if the Post will permit any criticism of the story to appear on its pages.

I also received a form letter from the reporter, William Wan, similar to one he sent to several other people in the arms-control community.  Wan, by the way, was aware of much of the story I am about to relay, since Gregory Kulacki talked extensively with him in advance. Wan didn’t let that stop him, of course.

Gregory has detailed a lot of what I am going to say in a series of blog posts at All Things Nuclear: Research in the Internet Age: Karber and China’s Nuclear Arsenal, The September 1995 Trend Magazine Article, and Prof. Karber Adjusts His Report on China’s Nuclear Arsenal.

You should totally read Gregory’s posts. (While you are at it, also read commentaries by James Acton and Tong Zhao.) But this was a collaborative effort, and I’ve been looking forward to telling what I think is a pretty interesting yarn that ends in a very embarrassing way for Dr. Karber. And, since Gregory is so nice and professional, I sort of feel someone should tell it my way. You know, mean.

Now, Karber basically omits any discussion of the declassified US intelligence estimates of the size of China’s nuclear weapons (200-300) and plutonium stockpiles (1.7-2.8 metric tons) from the mid-1990s which, when cross-referenced against open-source reconstructions of plutonium and highly enriched uranium production from Albright, Wright and Gronlund, and Zhang, really should end this discussion. There is nothing in Karber’s sources that would undermine these estimates.  Instead, Karber acts like the only publicly available estimates are from old DIA projections or the rantings of NGO-hippies like NRDC or me — ignoring the fact that we both rely heavily on US government estimates that pretty clearly demonstrate there just isn’t enough plutonium to go around. Hans Kristensen has a post using this method, titled simply No, China Does Not Have 3,000 Nuclear Weapons.

On To The Main Event

This is a slide from Karber’s presentation at a dinner seminar hosted by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center on September 26 titled “China’s Underground Great Wall: Have We Underestimated Beijing’s Strategic Forces?”  As “Chinese statements on nuclear weapons,” Karber cites a few Chinese blog posts, one of which really got my attention.  When Gregory sent it to me, I immediately emailed back — “It’s the return of Yang Zheng!”

Now, my Chinese is lousy but even I recognized Yang Zheng’s essay. For those of you who don’t remember, some so-called experts cite an essay by a Singapore college student, Yang Zheng, as evidence that China has thousands of nuclear weapons.  (I have dealt with this subject repeatedly.) Suffice to say, this essay is completely incompetent — the list of fissile material facilities is just totally wrong. Yang claims this information all comes from a leaked Chinese military document provided to a Hong Kong dissident magazine called The Trend.

Now, as Gregory has already noted, Karber cites a bunch of Chinese-language blog posts that are best described as general interest discussions of the claims made in the Yang Zheng essay, not as definitive statements of Chinese nuclear-weapons holdings. That’s not to say the authors aren’t clever, but the authors are not professional analysts and have no privileged access to information. They are just random people saying things like Hey! I read on the internet that China has 3,000 nuclear weapons. Is that true?

About the same time, Gregory and I received a forwarded email from Karber defending his estimate, in which he wrote that “The 2350 number was originally reported to have come from a leaked PLA document in 1995 …” Now, mind you, Karber didn’t have a copy of that “leaked document” or even the original article in The Trend. He was just repeating something he found on the internet.  But, since he made such a clear reference to the Yang Zheng essay and the 2350 estimate, Gregory and I decided it was time for someone to actually do some research and get a copy of this article.

The first thing I discovered was that Yang Zheng was a bit player in this whole fiasco — he had plagiarized his essay from this 1995 Usenet thread. Do you remember Usenet? Probably not if you had a life in the mid-1990s. Usenet was an internet bulletin board.  As I say, Yang either plagiarized the essay — either that, or  someone cleaned it up and falsely attributed it to him. Otherwise, Yang’s main contribution was to drop into the discussion and start throwing around racist comments, calling some of the other posters “Bananas” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  Classy.

The actual author of the incorrect list of fissile material production facilities was an anonymous poster named Ma Tuowen — that’s “Mark Twain.” How clever.  It turns out Ma was posting anonymously because “I don’t want my boss to know I’m wasting his time.”  (Ma’s areas of interest range from Chinese nuclear weapons to strategies for the computer game Civilization.) He had quite a history of saying irritating things.  A very young Dwayne Day, now at the National Academies, got very irritated with Ma and his “poorly-written, bombastic, incoherent bullshit.” (D-Day does not suffer fools. It is one reason he is awesome.)

Then I noticed something really interesting — Ma didn’t actually read the original Hong Kong article himself.  (Yang Zheng, in his plagiarized essay, claims Ma is the source of the leaked document, which is totally wrong.)  Ma was just speculating in response to a question by yet another reader, a Chinese mathematics professor named Li Xaolin.  I emailed Li, who is a nice guy and remembered the discussion.  “Now I remember, it was 1996, when Li Denghui (Tenghui Lee), then the President of ROC announced ‘two countries’, there was a debate in soc.culture.china, soc.culture.taiwan. Some Taiwanese claim that China was no match in nuclear arsenal to the west with only a couple of hundreds of warheads.” Ma just read Li’s summary of the article in The Trend, then made up his bogus list of Chinese fissile material facilities, that later appear under Yang Zheng’s name.

So, it turns out the entire discussion is based on a very casual summary of something a mathematics professor thinks he read in Hong Kong paper. Obviously, we needed the source of all this nonsense.

Here is where it gets interesting.

Gregory headed to Hong Kong to track down the original document and try to make contact with the author.  Gregory went through every issue of The Trend until he found it.  And there it was! At that point, it became clear that this was not a very reliable source of information.  The article claims that China, for example, has six Xia-class ballistic missile submarines and was conducting undetected 15-kiloton nuclear weapons tests in Sichuan.  Yeesh! Gregory has placed a copy online and also made available a copy to Karber.

Most importantly, the article in The Trend does not cite “a leaked PLA document in 1995″ as the source of the numbers.  The mathematics professor just made a mistake.  All these people have simply been repeating his summary on an internet bulletin board, but the numbers in the article come from someplace else.

Then Gregory noticed something even more interesting. The Trend has a slightly more formal sister publication.  It turns out the two publications each carried an article on the topic of China’s nuclear weapons within an issue of the other, a topic neither had covered before or would cover again.  Although the authors use different pseudonyms, the two articles seem to Gregory to be written by the same person.  Someone who, apparently, lives in the United States.

We are still trying to find the original author of the article in The Trend. But it may not matter because we have found the source of his estimates.  It appears that the numbers in The Trend were copied from a 1986 article in the English-language publication Navy International, written by an American named Bradley Hahn, who published extensively on China’s nuclear forces in the early 1980s.  We are still trying to reach Hahn, but it seems that the author of The Trend piece simply took details from Hahn’s article in Navy International 91:10 October 1986, pp 624-630, and tweaked them slightly.  Let’s compare:

* The Trend: “In the CCP nuclear arsenal, 40% are nuclear bombs, 34% are strategic nuclear missiles, 25% are tactical nuclear missiles, 1% are nuclear mines.”*

* Hahn: “An estimated breakdown of how they employ their current nuclear arsenal reveals about 44% bomb, 34% strategic missile, 20% tactical missile and about 2% mine warheads.”

There are lots of other similarities. Put them together and it is a total cut-and-paste job with some salacious details about nuclear weapons testing thrown in.

As far as we can tell, Hahn had some pretty amazing access for an American in the early-1980s. But I think some of his Chinese sources pulled his leg a bit.

Guess how Gregory noticed the overlap between The Trend and Hahn?  He didn’t — one of Karber’s Chinese blogger sources did! Gee, I guess bloggers sometimes know what they are doing. Unfortunately for Karber, this means he and his students knew, or should have known, they were dealing with recycled American estimates. But Karber didn’t share this little detail.

I think it is important to document all this. As Gregory explains over at All Things Nuclear, Karber is already starting to alter his slides — in particular, the one that I have reproduced in this post — in ways that obscure the source of his “estimates” of China’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Gone are any references to 2,350 warheads, replaced with annual production numbers from the same poisoned source.

No, China Does Not Have 3,000 Nuclear Weapons

Wan quotes Karber saying “I don’t have the slightest idea how many nuclear weapons China really has, but neither does anyone else in the arms-control community.” That’s false — a lot of people in the US intelligence community, as well as in the arms control community, have spent a lot of time and energy developing estimates of China’s fissile material production to bound the potential size of China’s nuclear arsenal. To equate Karber’s know-nothingness with these efforts at real scholarship is offensive.

We actually know quite a lot about China’s nuclear weapons, thanks to real scholarly research. You know, the sort of thing that Gregory did — starting with the simple task of going to the library. It is a little tedious, I confess. But it can be fun — like when I trekked to China’s original nuclear weapons design facility near Haiyan and brought home a lot of footage of Chinese nuclear tests and pictures of bomb mockups.

I don’t know how to describe what Karber and his students did, although “threat inflation” comes to mind.  So do a lot of other not very nice terms.  Gregory chose “incompetent and lazy,” which William Wan used to make Gregory’s legitimate criticisms of Karber’s methods seem overheated.

I like “goat rodeo,” but that’s just me.

Karber dismisses criticisms as though his speculations are just part of a healthy debate. But preparing for a debate takes time and money — it is much easier for Karber to sit in his house in Great Falls and make things up than it is for Gregory to get on an airplane and go to the library in Hong Kong. A participant in an academic debate has a responsibility to do his homework — an obligation captured in the notion of scholarship that Karber shirks by simply implying that real estimates are more or less the same as whatever he happens to find on the internet that day.  By Karber’s reasoning, he could just as easily argue that all those Chinese tunnels house aliens. (Hey, maybe this is where the Chinese store all our Treasury securities!)

So, no China does not have 3,000 warheads. But thanks for wasting everyone’s time.