Monday, December 26, 2011

No, China Does Not Have 3,000 Nuclear Weapons

Via FAS Strategic Security Blog (Dec 3, 2011) -

Only the Chinese government knows how many nuclear weapons China has. As in most other nuclear weapon states, the number is a closely held secret. Even so, it is possible to make best estimates of the approximate size that benefit the public debate.

A recent example of how not to make an estimate is the study recently published by the Asia Arms Control Project at Georgetown University. The study (China’s Underground Great Wall: Challenge for Nuclear Arms Control) suggests that China may have as many as 3,000 nuclear weapons.

Although we don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons China has, we are pretty sure that it doesn’t have 3,000. In fact, the Georgetown University estimate appears to be off by an order of magnitude.



The Georgetown University study has collected an impressive amount of scattered information from the Internet about Chinese underground facilities. That is obviously interesting in and of itself, but in terms of assessing Chinese nuclear capabilities, it does the public debate a disservice by disseminating exaggerated and poorly analyzed information.

Readers can obviously read into the report what they want, but a quick Google search for news article headlines about the report shows the damage: “China may have 3000 n-warheads;” “China’s nuclear arsenal ‘many times larger’ than previously thought;” “China ‘hiding up to 3,000 nuclear warheads in secret tunnels.” Many people will not remember the details, but they tend to remember the headlines. A misperception will stick in the public consciousness that China has 3,000 nuclear weapons hidden in tunnels.

But China does not have 3,000 nuclear weapons. It neither has produced the fissile material needed to build that many, not does it have delivery vehicles enough to delivery that many warheads. The Georgetown University study warhead estimate appears to be off by an order of magnitude.

China is in the middle of a significant military modernization and it is important that it is not hyped or exaggerated but analyzed and understood for what is actually happening.

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