Written by Kevin Jennings
Countries often like to keep the inner workings of their militaries as secretive as possible, and for obvious reason. While revealing certain information or demonstrating the overall strength of a nation’s military may be helpful as a preventative measure against war, should war actually break out then the less the enemy knows the better.
China’s Central Military Command is particularly secretive. The CMC is the highest national defense organization in China, operating as both a part of the Chinese Communist Party and the military branch of the central government. Given their normally clandestine nature, China surprised the world on April 20, 2016, when Xi Jingping conducted a televised inspection of the CMC’s Joint Battle Command Center, giving the world its first look inside.
The Command Center
The Joint Battle Command Center is located about 20 km northwest of the central government’s downtown headquarters in Beijing. The first time the existence of the command center was made known was in 2015, immediately following China’s 2015 military reform that saw the previous structure of the CMC replaced with 15 new departments. Construction of the site allegedly had taken place over the course of decades, with major upgrades in more recent years.
Xi Jingping’s inspection of the command center was the world’s first glimpse inside the location, much of which went pretty much exactly the way you would expect. The visit began with Xi greeting top military personnel, though there were immediately two interesting details about the visit itself.
The first was that Xi was wearing the Chinese military’s new digital camouflage uniform. It was only the second time Xi had ever been seen publically wearing camouflage, though given the setting it’s hardly an unusual decision. The other interesting detail was that, as of that visit, Xi had adopted the title of Commander in Chief within the CMC. This is believed to be a tactical move as part of an attempt to consolidate his power and gain a tighter control over the military.
The Joint Battle Command Center is referred to as the brain of the People’s Liberation Army, as it is the place where all military decisions are made. The purpose of this joint center is to streamline the process of these decisions, with the command center having members from and control over China’s army, navy, and air force as well as all 15 departments of the CMC.
There, the highest levels of military leadership can work together to address time sensitive issues. Even without some important, pressing matter to deal with, the command center spends each day analyzing military intelligence, issuing orders to the military home and abroad, and monitoring the situation in China’s five “battle zones”, areas designated under Xi’s 2015 military reform.
Inside the base of operations, the command center looks almost exactly like you would expect. There are military personnel seated at computer workstations throughout the entire war room, a large desk at the head of the room for Xi, and red phones galore. The wall opposite Xi’s desk features several massive LCD screens which he used during the televised visit to video conference with members of the military.
In the center of the room is a massive, digital war table, traditionally known as a “sand table”. There are no measurements given, but both the length and width of the display appear to exceed the length of eight of the room’s workstations.
Overall, the Joint Battle Command Center looks pretty typical for military operations. Given the sensitive nature of military intelligence, a four minute TV broadcast from China Central Television obviously wasn’t going to give many details about the inner workings of the center. Though the facility looks impressive and reasonably high tech, it’s well in line with what you would expect from the military of any world power.
However, in 2018 a geological survey found that there was something far more interesting underneath the command center itself.
The World’s Deepest Nuclear Bunker
Nuclear shelters are nothing new. They were all too common throughout the Cold War, and they can be found in nations all across the world. The US Military boasted that Cheyenne Mountain Complex, home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was the “most secure facility in the world” thanks to the 500 meters of granite above the complex. As it turns out, this may no longer be the case.
With the Joint Battle Command Center being only 20 km away from the central government’s headquarters, it was the perfect location to hide a secret and secure government bunker. Being such a short distance, officials could quickly make it to the shelter in the event of a nuclear emergency to continue government functions. The main entrance to the facility is located in the Western Hills National Park, so in the event of a nuclear emergency the bunker’s residents will also get one final reminder of what nature looked like before beginning their potentially years long stay underground.
Just like with the command center itself, no one actually knows when this was built. It again is claimed to have been the result of decades of construction including recent upgrades, but there’s no way to know for sure. It’s believed that several fallout shelters have been built in China since the 1950s, but their locations are naturally classified.
This location may have remained classified as well, had it not been for a geological survey performed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institution of Geology and Geophysics. Associate researcher Qin Dajun said that there are karst caves located more than 2 km underground, beneath the command center.
Karst caves are the result of limestone being eroded away by water over the course of millions of years. Most karst caves either open directly to the surface or reach very close to the surface, but those underneath the Western Hills are different. Between the caves and the surface, there is a thick layer of granite averaging 1 km in depth. It is believed that a rock wall at least 100 meters thick would be necessary to protect a shelter from a nuclear blast, which would make these caves ideal. It also makes these caves the most deeply buried caves in the entire world.
Not only are these karst caves unique because of how much granite there is between them and the surface, but they continue downward extremely deep into the Earth. Previously, the four deepest caves in the world were all located in the country of Georgia, only two of which extend beyond 2 km. The exact depth has yet to be measured, but the caves beneath the Western Hills may be the deepest caves in the entire world.
The Chinese bunker is alleged to be large enough to house a small city’s worth of people, and it would have enough water to support up to 1 million people. However, radioactive particles following a nuclear detonation would remain in water and soil much longer than in the air. Because the bunker’s water supply is almost if not entirely from groundwater, this could pose a danger to those needing to reside in the bunker for years.
According to Liu Yong, a nuclear scientist at the University of South China who headed research into the matter funded my China’s military and nuclear industry, “China has developed cutting-edge technology and equipment for exactly this purpose. It’s among the world’s best.”
In addition to being able to hold a city’s worth of people, the bunker is reported to be large enough to also provide shelter for tanks, planes, and inter-continental ballistic missiles.
While we know that the caves beneath the Western Hills extended deeper than 2km below the Earth’s surface, it is unknown exactly how deep China’s military bunker is located. Regardless of exactly how deep they chose to build it, with conventional wisdom being that 100 meters of rock are required to protect a bunker from a nuclear blast, it sounds like they have more than enough room to work with. But what if, after all of these years, it turns out that conventional wisdom was wrong the whole time?
China Declares Nuclear Bunkers Useless
In 2016 China showed off their Joint Battle Command Center, then in 2018 they were given the opportunity to brag about the security and stability of their secret bunker hidden below the command center. After these revelations, Xi Jingping would almost certainly have been dismayed when research from Chinese scientists revealed in April of this year that it all may have been for nothing.
Fortunately, there has not been a nuclear weapon detonated in combat since August 9, 1945. The downside of that is that it limits the amount of practical data available. That’s not to say that the world’s nuclear powers haven’t done more than enough testing with nuclear bombs, however the vast majority of nuclear testing ended three decades ago. But technology continues to improve, and it appears that much of the existing data on a specific type of nuclear weapon may have been relying on a false assumption that resulted in the actual damage being grossly underestimated.
Those weapons are known as “bunker busters”, weapons designed to penetrate the ground before exploding. These bunker busters are largely seen as the most desirable form of nuclear weapon for a couple major reasons. The first is that they can get the same effect using less firepower. When a nuclear missile penetrates the ground before exploding, it creates an earthquake-like shockwave upon detonation. These shockwaves can cause such extensive damage that a bunker buster with a 400 kiloton yield would be as effective as traditional warhead with a 9 megaton yield.
The second reason bunker busters are so much more attractive than traditional warheads is that they are dramatically cleaner. These are still massive, radioactive explosions so they could hardly be considered environmentally friendly, but the radiation is much more contained. Being able to strike targets much more tactically without worrying that civilians for miles around would suffer the effects of dangerous fallout seems like a major upside. If the missiles can penetrate deep enough, the radiation could even all be contained underground.
While these theoretically safer nuclear weapons were more appealing, they weren’t without their detractors. The largest fear was that the belief that because the missiles would greatly limit collateral damage, able to focus on more specific targets, it would lower the threshold for a military to actually launch a nuclear strike. Luckily this has yet to happen, but it’s a reasonable concern.
The information available to the public indicates that a bunker buster is not able to penetrate further than 40 meters underground. It was believed that nuclear bunkers would be safe from explosions with such limited penetration, but as we mentioned previous scientists may have been working on a false assumption.
The prevailing theory was that the Earth’s crust acted essentially as one solid thing, and that the shockwave from a nuclear blast would spread out through the crust and dissipate, similar to waves or ripples after a giant splash in the water. According to the lead project scientist Li Jie with the Army Engineering University of the PLA, previous models have “severely underestimated the actual impact.”
Rather than spreading out across the Earth’s crust, the shockwaves can jump around, almost echoing, and some of the evidence showed that they could even increase in strength. With careful planning, a bomb could be targeted such that it would result in seismic activity that produced 1,000 times the power of the explosion itself. This destructive power would be orders of magnitude larger than previously believed.
Li and his team used data from underground nuclear tests and modern computer simulations to more accurately measure the effects these bunker busters could have, and it seems that not even the Joint Battle Command Center’s underground bunker would be safe. In one test, five penetrating missiles were detonated one after the other at the same location. This was enough to nearly collapse a simulated tunnel buried 2 km underground.
Even without collapsing the tunnel entirely, it would have caused significant damage. This also would spell certain doom for those bunkers only located a couple hundred meters underground.
Li admits that simulating these explosions in a lab is more than a little difficult. The shock waves change shape and can move seemingly erratically. While we don’t yet know if their initial results aren’t 100% accurate, this news is alarming at best. At worst, Even Li and his team have underestimated the power of these explosions.
It was a proud moment for Xi Jingping and the Chinese people when he had the opportunity to publically reveal the CMC’s Joint Battle Command Center in 2016, but it would seem that a lot has changed since then. The good fortune of building their command center above some of the world’s deepest, if not the deepest, karst caves provided the perfect location for a nuclear bunker. But now, China’s own scientists may have shown that all that construction effort was in vain.
Still, there are a couple potential positives that can come out of this. If China has indeed developed the best technology in the world for filtering radioactive particles out of water, perhaps this technology can be put to good use in other sectors beyond post-apocalyptic survival. The other potential upside is that this new information could be the most effective deterrent against nuclear war yet.
The idea of mutually assured destruction isn’t appealing to most people, but for high ranking government and military officials who would have access to the most secure and resilient nuclear bunkers in the world there was always a plan B. This new research shows that may not actually be the case.
The United States’ Cheyenne Mountain Complex would not be safe. Russia’s Kosvinsky Kamen would not be safe. Not even China’s new bunker buried under 2 km of granite would be safe. If not even the most powerful people in the world can hide away and wait out nuclear Armageddon, perhaps they’ll be less inclined to initiate it. Or perhaps we’re just being naively optimistic.