China's Huge Underground Nuclear Weapons Storage Complex

April 26, 2012

Two years ago in March 2012, Mark A. Stokes, the executive director of the Project 2049 Institute in Washington, D.C., published a provocative report which identified the general location of China’s principal nuclear weapons storage depot, which the Chinese military has assigned the ubiquitous covername of Base 22.

By carefully mining a wide array of Chinese-language newspapers and magazines, Stokes determined that since 1969, Base 22 has stored its nuclear weapons in a series of tunnels somewhere in Taibai County in central China, about 90 miles west of the city of Xian and 30 miles east of the city of Fengxian. Stokes, however, was unable to locate the site of China’s nuclear weapons depot with any greater specificity with the open source materials that were then available to him at the time.

The answer to this conundrum was just answered by some documents recently declassified by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which inherited from the CIA the responsibility for analyzing all of the imagery being collected by American spy satellites in orbit over the Earth. Going through some recently declassified NGA materials, I found two documents which precisely located the Taibai nuclear weapons depot.

For those of you who want to look at the complex on Google Maps or the commercially-available satellite imagery of your choosing, the exact geographic coordinates of the Taibai nuclear weapons depot are as follows: 33-53-00N 107-16-08E.

But there is more. From the sparse details in the declassified NGA documents, one can deduce that a CIA KEYHOLE reconnaissance satellites discovered the facility in 1981, but the photo interpreters and analysts could not make heads or tails about what the purpose of the complex was. All the analysts saw in the imagery in front of them was a very large and heavily guarded complex outside the bucolic mountain town of Taibai whose sole purpose appeared to be to maintain and guard something unknown that was stored in five very large tunnels dug into the side of a mountain. So the imagery analysts in 1981 labeled the complex as the “Taibai Probable Strategic Storage Facility” and left it at that.

What you see today of the Taibai complex on the Google Maps high-resolution satellite imagery is a high-security complex (lots of guard posts and barbed-wire fences are readily apparent) consisting of several dozen buildings and barracks spread along the length of an isolated north-south valley several miles from the town of Taibai. Along both sides of the valley are five huge tunnel entrances (called ‘adits’ by American photo interpreters) leading deep into the side of the mountain, with each entrance being protected by a set of massive clamshell blast doors. How far into the mountain these tunnels go is anybody’s guess, but it is inside these tunnels that China has deposited its nuclear arsenal.

According to another declassified NGA documents, the nuclear weapons destined for storage and/or maintenance at Taibai arrive at a heavily guarded railway station controlled by 22 Base (the official nomenclature for this facility is a Rail-to-Road Transfer Point) located eight kilometers east of the city of Baoji. They are then transported in a heavily guarded convoy 60 kilometers to the south along highway S210 to the isolated Taibai nuclear weapons depot.

So how large is China’s nuclear weapons arsenal? Compared with the U.S. nuclear arsenal the Chinese nuclear stockpile is tiny by comparison. According to a recently declassified July 1983 CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate, back then the Chinese had an estimated 75 to 140 nuclear warheads for their CSS-1/CSS-2/CSS-3/CSS-4 ballistic missiles, 150 nuclear bombs, and 50 atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), or nuclear land mines. Today, sources inside and outside of the U.S. government estimate that the Chinese nuclear arsenal probably consists of about 450 weapons - 250 warheads for strategic and tactical ballistic missiles and about 200 nuclear bombs and other types of atomic weaponry. Compared with the massive U.S. nuclear stockpile, the number of Chinese bombs is tiny.