China's strategic missile squadron, the Second Artillery Division, has built an "Underground Great Wall" stretching for more than 5,000km in the north of the country, according to a report in Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao on Saturday. Citing the People's Liberation Army's official newsletter, the paper said the underground tunnel system has been built to conceal nuclear weapons to ensure the nation's second strike capability.
According to state broadcaster CCTV, the tunnel network, reportedly hundreds of meters underground, has been under construction since 1995 and can withstand several nuclear attacks. A documentary broadcast by CCTV in March 2008 revealed that the PLA had been building underground facilities enabling it to launch a counterstrike in case of a first strike scenario. The news has received very little attention both in the west and in Asia, despite the vast scale of the project.
"The early version of China's mid- to long-range missiles had all been deployed above ground and were vulnerable to detection by spy satellites and attacks by interceptor missiles. That prompted the Chinese military to move all of their missiles hundreds of meters underground," reported Taiwan's Asia-Pacific Defense Magazine. PLA squadrons deployed below ground would be completely undetectable.
For a country to convince potential opponents that it possesses a credible means of retaliation is a vital element of a nuclear deterrent. China has long had a minimalist posture in this regard, holding a small amount of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Previous estimates put the numbers of China's nuclear warheads at between 150-400. However, some military analysts have recently estimated the number could be much higher, even reaching into the thousands, which could be accommodated in the new tunnel network.
The New START accord signed by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year limits US and Russian nuclear forces to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece. If the PLA has covertly departed from minimal deterrence then this balance could be overturned, with China on equal or near-equal terms with the United States and Russia in deployed nuclear weaponry.
Therefore, whether the news reinforces strategic stability between China and the United States or alternatively marks the start of a new arms race between the world's largest and second largest economies will be a source of much debate.