Georgetown Students Help Uncover Chinese Nuclear Weapons

A group of Georgetown students recently completed a study documenting China’s long-rumored nuclear storage system, creating the largest body of public knowledge about the miles of tunnels used by China’s Second Artillery Corps as a nuclear storage facility. The publication of their study highlights how the policy community can tap into the skills and enthusiasm of students to help in sophisticated research while providing them with practical experience — a win-win for both policymakers and academia.

The group of Georgetown students analyzed hundreds of restricted Chinese military documents, satellite images, online data, and even Chinese pop culture in a project spearheaded by Professor Philip Karber of the School of Foreign Service, who worked as a Pentagon strategist during the Cold War. The report concludes that China’s nuclear arsenal is possibly much larger than experts' estimates.

What is impressive about the project is that the students relied on internet-based research, drawing from sources like Google Earth, blogs, military journals, and even a TV docu-drama about Chinese artillery soldiers while putting together the report. The use of public data in compiling the report demonstrates a level of creativity in sourcing information which policymakers, accustomed to their tried and tested ways of researching and compiling information, can learn from. For instance, the team used a semi-fictionalized TV series on the lives of China’s Second Artillery soldiers to understand the artillery unit's complex procedures, which they crossed-checked with the unit’s military manual and related documents.

Karber was also able to find the students with necessary skills to continue his project, hiring one or two Chinese-speaking students every semester, as well as recruiting students from his arms control classes. The sheer variety of backgrounds and qualifications of individuals in universities means they provide a large pool of cheap and enthusiastic talent to conduct research projects.

The policy community should also be harnessing the power of “nerds” in universities that obsess over their pet topics. One of the students, Nick Yarosh, said that the work was so intense and engaging that his schedule and life became secondary to the project, even though there was no credit given. The work was tedious, but the obsessiveness of some of the students help bring the project to fruition. The team had to manually scan individual pages to be converted into digital format for translation. The dedication that “nerds” hold towards their subject is something that should be harnessed.

But Karber was not just using the students as free labor, of course. The students stood to gain some practical experience as well, not to mention an insight into policy analysis and  defense research community work. Some of the students went on to jobs in the Defense Department and Congress. Being able to apply their knowledge to the real world is one of the most important lessons students in university need: for the value of their education is also how much they can use it when they graduate.

Skeptics have been quick to dismiss the report. Gregory Kulacki, a China nuclear analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the 3,000 nuclear warheads Karber and his students believed China possessed was “ridiculous” and had harsher words for the study’s methodology, especially regarding their use of Chinese bloggers as sources. Others like Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists questioned the students’ interpretation of the satellite images. Such criticisms leave us to question whether getting students involved in the research process can produce work of sufficient quality, especially given how they lack real-world policy training. However, the potential is still there.

Even the arms control community themselves cannot give a definite estimate of China’s nuclear capabilities, so who is to say the students’ report is inaccurate? The study has already been circulated among top officials in the Pentagon and is having some real world impact.

The policy community should be looking to tap the enthusiasm, fervor, and ingenuity of university students to help in their research. And best of all, it’s free.

Photo Credit: Kyle Rush

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Brenda Ong

Brenda holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a BA (Hons) in Politics, Psychology and Sociology from the University of Cambridge. She loves her TV, and sometimes, she thinks aloud.

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