China's Underground Great Wall
Image Credit: Flickr / Chinaoffseason

China's Underground Great Wall


The impending sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier set commentators abuzz in the West and Asia over the past couple of months. I weighed in myself. And for good reason. The cruise of the yet-to-be-officially-named flattop, which finally took place last week, heralded a decisive break with the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Maoist past as a coastal defence force. This is a development worth exploring in detail. As it happened, the Naval War College also convened its first Asian Strategic Studies Conference in Newport last week, in conjunction with the American Enterprise Institute and the Journal of Strategic Studies. My assigned topic was to determine whether there exists a common Asian culture of sea power (no, say I) and how influential the Western canon of maritime theory is among seafaring Asian nations (very, mainly by default).

To me, though, the most provocative presentation delivered at our conference related not to the sea but to the future of China’s land-based nuclear arsenal. In March 2008, China’s state-run CCTV network broke the news about a 5,000-kilometre-long network of hardened tunnels built to house the Chinese Second Artillery Corps’s increasingly modern force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Tunnelling evidently commenced in 1995. Located in, or rather under, mountainous districts of Hebei Province, in northern China, the facility is reportedly hundreds of meters deep. That makes it an exceptionally hard target against conventional or nuclear counterstrikes.China Defense Daily, a publication of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), confirmed the CCTV account in December 2009.

What should have been a blockbuster story occasioned barely a peep in the Western press, and elicited little response even in Asia. For lack of a catchier metaphor, call it the dragon that never roared. The most prominent outlet to report on what Chinese pundits dubbed the ‘underground Great Wall’ was Chosun Ilbo, in South Korea. The Washington-based Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief covered the story shortly afterward. That was basically it for original reporting. The story isn’t so much that Beijing has constructed hardened sites to safeguard its missile force. An invulnerable second-strike capability has been the gold standard of nuclear deterrence since the early Cold War. In theory, a military able to ride out an enemy first strike with a substantial portion of its missile force intact can deter such an attack. No sane adversary would launch a first strike if it knew its actions would summon forth a cataclysmic reply.

A more survivable nuclear deterrent, then, should bolster strategic stability between China and the United States. China has long contented itself with a ‘minimalist’ deterrent posture, fielding a small, rudimentary force of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The logic of minimalism—sound in my view—is that so long as even a single missile survives to retaliate against an enemy’s homeland, that adversary will desist from actions China deems unacceptable. Estimates of the total number of Chinese warheads even today, well into Beijing’s nuclear modernization effort, generally range from 150 to 400 devices. Even in this age of renewed US-Russian arms control, this remains a modest force. But minimal deterrence could employ a more robust force than the People’s Liberation Army fielded in past decades. ‘Minimal’ is a squishy term. Furthermore, Chinese officials and pundits have taken to debating adopting a ‘limited deterrent’ strategy. ‘Limited’ too remains hazily defined.

The very scale of the underground network opens up new vistas for Chinese nuclear strategy. The presenter at our conference reported piecing together various bits of data, and concluding that China may have constructed a far larger warhead inventory than most estimates hold. He projected an upper limit of 3,600 doomsday devices and delivery platforms, namely ballistic missiles of various types. The underground Great Wall could presumably accommodate such a force with ease. At a minimum, it presents Beijing new options. Think about it. The ‘New START’ accord inked by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year limits US and Russian nuclear forces to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece. Because of the fudge factor often built into international treaties, notes the Federation of American Scientists, the actual numbers permitted under New START come to over 2,000 warheads for each side.

Even so, if the PLA has covertly departed from minimal deterrence—secreting hundreds of new weapons in the Hebei tunnel complex—then it could upend the strategic balance overnight, achieving parity or near-parity with the United States and Russia in deployed weaponry. I’m not sure how much of this to credit, and the presenter freely admitted that there was a significant guesswork quotient in his figures. But then there was a significant guesswork quotient to the long-running speculation surrounding the Chinese aircraft carrier project, a project of far smaller consequence than a clandestine Chinese nuclear build-up. At a minimum it would be worthwhile to inquire into the veracity of Chinese reporting on the underground Great Wall, and to ponder the implications if reports are accurate. Let the debate begin—at last.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

June 15, 2013 at 00:19

Well done ! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me… I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

In return, I also found a great blog of Jinshanling travel tips, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers.

Lung Sha Shou
November 27, 2011 at 02:32

Every Shenzou mission leaves an object in space about the size of a small hatchback, no-one has admitted what they are there for, no one knows what they do.

I would not be surprised that warheads on the moon, which are too far away, are already unnecessary, they are already in position 200 kilometres above.

In the meantime China bleats on about the peaceful use of space (while blowing up satellites) to keep your eyes off the ball.

Too late, they are there.

People have no real handle on what this regime is up to, then again you don’t usually come across murderous psychopaths so you maintain your everyday middle class outlook while they sharpen the hatchet (or should I say Assassin’s Mace)

Lung Sha Shou
November 27, 2011 at 02:22

I would that MAD were alive and well, however it is based on assumptions which do no hold true.

Firstly that China is particularly concerned about its people. As the rants of the China Bloggers, the fact that Mao is the person with the highest “body count” in history is conveniently forgotten. They are very much more capable of withstanding punishment than others and will exploit this.

Secondly, the thousands of kilometres of underground tunnels will ensure the survival of the Beijing fascist regime, particularly if they initiate a strike, which their writings and policies suggest they will.

Finally, their bullying and mistreatment of people within their sphere of influence and increasingly strident and shrill calls for aggression demonstrate a willingness to use force – they are eager to do so.

They may well achieve their goals by other means, but nothing in their behaviour demonstrates the slightest concern for humanity and they are willing to say anything whilst they consolidate their position.

johny bad
September 25, 2011 at 07:19

china *s modern great wall strategy space and undersea all under build and soon to joint it to become most destruction weapons for not only u s hegemony also all its ally in this planet will be total destruction evil must against evil for the sake of god

September 22, 2011 at 20:21

What do you mean. China would have no trouble wiping out the united states first strike or second strike. Total Chinese industrial capacity far outweighs the united states.

September 5, 2011 at 07:18

Those still have a reasonable doubt about China`s 5,000km of underground tunnels
must be someone that can`t accept facts easily and have no interest in history especially China`s past thousands of years of civilizations, would still cast doubt about China`s 6,000km of Great Wall! It has been there for thousands of years for you to see and touch and you can even now climb and jump on it! It is not build on paper pulps or Lego but bricks and mortars and you can see it from the moon. China took 15 years to complete that very comprehensive underground tunnels with a
work force of 250,000 PLA personnel. To China it is a relatively simple task as they
have all the engineering and heavy equipments plus a formidable and capable personal second to none. Just judge by what China had done in the past – artificial water way – thousands of km. China traversed the high seas with huge
armada in 1421 well before any one else. Spaniards armada is a midget compare to China`s junks, each junk was huge like a football field! And China had 300 of them roaming the world.
Now just look at China`s ultra fast trains. Look at Three Gorge Dams. Look at China`s train built on top of the Himalayas going through permafrost! Just have a peep at the underground tunnels underneath Shanghai – 24km in total and not
just like what one might like to think, a rabbit hole. Not at all, all well equipped and it is just as pretty as you see what above Shanghai city itself! Go Hainan island south of China,
where China has carved out big holes underneath the mountain range, the undersea tunnels can house aircraft carriers! China`s present aircraft killer missiles
travels at 10 times the speed of sounds! Look at China`s newest stealth fighter
J20 – why 20? The new materials China got is able to withstands a G-force of 20!
I don`t think China building these things to conquer or try to bully anyone as China had never done any in the past so will not now or future. This is the exception ism of China. China could if China civilizations is build on that perspective to start with. Many times over I guess.
Happy reading!

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