Their work also yielded smaller revelations: how the missiles were kept mobile and transported from structure to structure, as well as tantalizing images and accounts of a “missile train” and disguised passenger rail cars to move China’s long-range missiles.
To facilitate the work, Karber set up research rooms for the students at his home in Great Falls. He bought Apple computers and large flat-screen monitors for their video work and obtained small research grants for those who wanted to work through the summer. When work ran late, many crashed in his basement’s spare room.
“I got fat working on this thing because I didn’t go to the gym anymore. It was that intense,” said Yarosh, who has continued on the project this year not for credit but purely as a hobby. “It’s not the typical college course. Dr. Karber just tells you the objective and gives you total freedom to figure out how to get there. That level of trust can be liberating.”
Some of the biggest breakthroughs came after members of Karber’s team used personal connections in China to obtain a 400-page manual produced by the Second Artillery and usually available only to China’s military personnel.
Another source of insight was a pair of semi-fictionalized TV series chronicling the lives of Second Artillery soldiers.
The plots were often overwrought with melodrama — one series centers on a brigade commander who struggles to whip his slipshod unit into shape while juggling relationship problems with his glamorous Olympic-swim-coach girlfriend. But they also included surprisingly accurate depictions of artillery units’ procedures that lined up perfectly with the military manual and other documents.
“Until someone showed us on screen how exactly these missile deployments were done from the tunnels, we only had disparate pieces. The TV shows gave us the big picture of how it all worked together,” Karber said.
A bigger Chinese arsenal?
In December 2009, just as the students began making progress, the Chinese military admitted for the first time that the Second Artillery had indeed been building a network of tunnels. According to a report by state-run CCTV, China had more than 3,000 miles of tunnels — roughly the distance between Boston and San Francisco — including deep underground bases that could withstand multiple nuclear attacks.
The news shocked Karber and his team. It confirmed the direction of their research, but it also highlighted how little attention the tunnels were garnering outside East Asia.
The lack of interest, particularly in the U.S. media, demonstrated China’s unique position in the world of nuclear arms.