Man-Made Tangshan Earthquake Doesn't Fool China + Laser Satellites Get a New Boss

The Tangshan earthquake in July 1976 was a wake-up call to the Americans and the Chinese while it was a reassuring one for the beleaguered Soviets. Washington, thanks to input by Air Force Secretary and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Thomas C. Reed, realized that it had been barking up the wrong tree with the Soviets, continuing to upgrade its missiles and their warheads under the cover of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, while it should have been involved in upgrading its satellites and developing powerful lasers for them. For Beijing, the earthquake had shown just how vulnerable its defense establishment was. Not only had Moscow left its in shambles during Khrushchev's last days but now showing that what was left of it above ground was vulnerable to attacks by more earthquakes. For the Soviets, the Tangshan earthquake - whose cause was unexpectedly successful - induced the Ministry of Defence despite its bloated status to go full speed ahead at its immense Semipalatinsk facility with the Fon-1 program to develop a variety of similar technologies for its new missiles.

Mao's hand-picked successor, Hua Guofen, went to the Tangshan disaster site, and managed the rescue effort while the infamous 'Gang of Four', especially Mao's wife Jian Qing, avoided it for fear of exposing the regime's weakness during a most serious challenge. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that the socio-political and cultural dynamics put into motion at the time of catastrophic 'natural' disasters," Mark Pelling and Kathleen Dill wrote in " 'Natural' disasters as catalysts of political action" to mark the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, "create the conditions for potential political change - often at the hands of a discontented civil society." Of course, by not identifying why they thought that the Tangshan earthquake, like Hurricane Katrina, might well not have been a natural one, they conveniently left Moscow out of the equation, and apparently out of fear of raising the hackles of colleagues more than the international power players involved. Professionals do not look kindly upon their kind who raise damaging questions about who they are, and what they are up to. The grievances that Hua's men, particularly Deng Xiaoping, exploited were the fallout from Mao's similarly dying Cultural Revolution. Mao's interregnum had left a power vacuum which they exploited after the earthquake struck.

Rather than treating the Tangshan earthquake as the source which triggered the maladaption of socio-environmental relations throughout the Chinese political system, as Pelling and Dill had, Reed just acted as if it was a natural phenomenon irrelevant to the ongoing power struggle. Reed had been a most creative designer of thermonuclear weapon warheads, especially MIRVed ones which were multiple independently targeted, during the 1960s when Livermore was engaged in its massive overkill in alleged deterrence, even gaining Edward Teller's approval for his performance. Hua's and Deng's more pragmatic policies simply triumphed over those of Mao's followers who wanted to continue the revolutionary struggle for a more communist world. If Qing's associates had won, there certainly would have been a military showdown with Moscow whose outcome no one can imagine with any kind of clarity or certainty. "Within a month of Mao's death," Reed wrote, "Hua arrarnged for her arrest and imprisonment along with her key associates." (p. 162) Then the Chinese constitution was changed to suit the needs and expectations of the rebels. "Those shifts would give rise to a booming economy, but they also brought to power a man who had decided to proliferate nuclear weapons into the Third World."

In doing so, Reed took an unexpected great leap forward, acting as if the Chinese already had a fully developed nuclear industry which they could use to help supply friendly countries like Pakistan with tested nuclear weapons. Actually, Reed had only touched on the nuclear weapons industry northeast of Chengdu and Mianyang, acting as if the sum and substance of it was essentially located around Zitong, where the Chinese built their new Research and Design Academy of Nuclear Weapons to get further away from the Soviets. It was spread out all over the place, "...with facilities strung down narrow valleys." (p. 104) While this made for difficult travel between facilities, they were all sitting ducks, being above ground, if the Soviets decided that Beijing needed more 'natural' disasters as catalysts for more agreeable political change. More disasters could open the current Chinese political leadership to further scrutiny that even it might not be able to contain.

It was only in November 1979 that the Chinese leadership finally admitted the 240,000 killed in the Tangshan earthquake - an alleged natural disaster - to stem more damaging speculation about the numbers dead and why. Since it had occurred, as CHINA.ORG.CN recounted in " Tangshan Earthquake - 30 Years' Sorrow", it had been "...surrounded by speculation, guesswork and rumors because no official information about what had actually happened or casualties sustained was made available." The biggest source of the speculation was that many precursors of an earthquake had occurred, and geophysical and geochemical anomalies detected, but no one had put them all together in a prediction, especially since there were no foreshocks. The Chinese authorities had established stations to check for such precursors in Hsingtai County in 1968 to warn Beijing of a likely quake, and one in Aksu, Sinkiang - right next to the nuclear test site at Lop Nur - in 1971, but had not gotten round to establishing one at Tangshan near the North Korean border. "It was not a man-made disaster," Xu Xuejiang, the reporter for the Xinhua New Agency belatedly wrote, "and the deaths have no direct relation with the government."

Of course, the placing of these test stations - particularly to record animal reactions to possible earth tremors - showed that the government was most concerned about their occurring in the capital and at its major testing center in the desert. The facilities were not just a few shacks, like what the Americans had in Nevada, but a vast complex on the sand which would have been shaken to pieces by any serious earthquake, natural or man-made. "Co-author Stillman had the opportunity to visit there a quarter century later. The dimensions were overpowering. The Chinese Nuclear Weapons Test Base," Reed recounted, "is seven times the size of the equivalent U.S. facility in Nevada." (p. 108) More important, the site had all kinds of underground equipment for recording the results of a test from its inception. Moreover, the Chinese, according to Reed and Stillman, were most vigilant in proecting its secrets, unlike the Nevada test site where American protesters were given pretty much the run of the place whenever they felt like it. (Hugh Gusterson, Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, p. 178ff.)

During the early 'eighties, after Deng had consolidated power as chairman of the Central Military Commission, he built a whole complex of underground nuclear facilities around Dujiangyan - the epicenter of China's export of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to Muslim and communist states - a place only alluded to in The New Express. Reed explained how Stillman opened up the country's whole nuclear industry for US inspection, starting in June 1988. That's when five, unknown Chinese experts attended a meeting of the American Physical Society, along with fellow Chinese Professor Yang Fujia, director of the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Research. Stillman decided to ask him some probing questions about China's nuclear arms industry, starting with: did China possess a prompt burst reactor - a device to test laser design. When Fujia said it did, Stillman asked where it was, and "...much to his surprise, Professor Yang pointed to a location off in the mountains, a considerable distance west of the known Chinese nuclear weapons facilities." (p. 221) This turned out to be Dujiangyan which they personally visited the following year.

This was not the first bit of ignorance that the USA had about what was going on in China. As the Soviet Union was heating up the area around Tangshan with its laser satellites, James W. Plummer, the fifth Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), suddenly retired in June 1976, apparently having learned that there was much more to the satellite business than just creating Corona ones for meteorological, communications, and reconnaissance purposes. Their spotting what Moscow was cooking up over China shook the NRO to its very foundations, and Reed was hastily called in to replace him by the collapsing Ford administration in the hope of somehow stopping the rot. Jimmy Carter, Ford's obvious replacement, was on record that he wanted to negotiate a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) if elected. NRO Director Reed, it seems, got the national laboratories to oppose any test ban treaty because they allegedly needed tests to assure the reliability of their nuclear weapons while, in fact, they just wanted loads more money to catch up in the Star Wars game.

The need for testing was totally belied by the fact that despite all the money for it, the labs only tested, on average, one stockpiled weapon per year. Then there were disagreements about why Carter, once President, gave up on the idea. The directors of the two national laboratories, Harold Agnew at Los Alamos and Roger Batzel at Livermore, claimed that they talked him out of it by stressing the reliability concern. Herb York, a previous director at Livermore, and a proponent of CTBT, claimed that it was because of Soviet and Iranian behavior against American interests that the negotiations failed. Whatever the cause of Carter changing his mind, there was no doubt about why the scientists at the labs opposed it, as insider opponent at Livermore Hugh Dewitt explained. "The laboratories oppose a comprehensive test ban because they want to continue their nuclear weapons development - to refine existing designs and do research in exciting new areas such as the X-ray laser." (Quoted from Gusterson, p. 147.)

Reed, of course, had long left the position by then, having left the NRO shortly after Carter's inauguration, for more productive pastures in the private sector. It can be safely assumed that he was working behind the scenes with officials like Stillman, the manager of the Los Alamos intelligence program, to insure that the nation's weapons laboratories were gearing up for what a Reagan administraion required. Reed had long worked as a key supporter of the California governor, becoming a member of his cabinet, and had only turned to more important policy possibilities when his election seemed assured, thanks to the infamous 'October surprise' regarding the release of the American diplomatic hostages in Tehran. Reed became Special Assistant for National Security Policy in Reagan's National Security Council. For more on this, see these links:

Before anything could be done regarding space weapons, Reed had to stop the rabid campaign over the MX missiles - how many MIRVed ones to have, and where to place them. The least dangerous, expensive option seemed to be what the former President had proposed - the MX/MPS plan of having 200 MX missiles, and shuttling tham back and forth among 4,600 shelters in the Utah and Nevada deserts - but, of course, the Reagonites wanted nothing to do with anything the former Georgia peanut farmer proposed about MX for closing the alleged window of vulnerability. To make a long, mind-blogging story short, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger persuaded Reagan to go along with placing a few dozen MX missiles in existing Minutemen and Titan ICBM silos, freeing up vast funds for the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative.. "The proposal," Lou Cannon wrote in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, "astonished military planners and was opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it had a virtue that overwhelmed its technological deficiencies: it had not been proposed by Jimmy Carter." (p. 137)

With the MX missile issue finally off the table, the Reagan administration was then able to do what Reed really wanted - the Star Wars program. On March 23, 1983, Reagan announced: "I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves." The proposed system would have high-energy lasers, sensors to locate missiles in preparation for launch or in flight, and command and control centers to direct the lasers to destroy them. To quiet the potential critics, the whole idea was presented as an "anti-weapon weapon", and "...even a small laser system - despite its ineffectiveness as a defense - would create profound instabilities," Daniel Kaplan explained in an article, "Lasers for missile defense," in the May 1983 issue of the Bullentin of the Atomic Scientists, "in the strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Uniion." (p. 5)

While doubting scientists debated all kinds of alleged problems with the proposed system - e. g., disguising the five-megawatt power of the hydrogen flouride lasers while still managing to get the massive machines in the sky, possible use of battle stations in the sky, need of 200 satellites to direct the missiles if the Soviets fired all 2,000 of theirs, would require possibly 14,000 shuttle flights to get the whole system in the sky, etc. - the Reagan administration got the necessary funding to start work, starting with $50 million additional funding in 1982 alone, on the massive program depite claims that even a small system of lasers could be seen by the Soviets as offensive, and "such a huge system of lasers is certainly not practical." (p. 6) Lockheed Martin Missiles has already "...unveilled a model of a space-based laser weapon, though, it seems to have more publicity than technical value." (p. 8)

As I have already discussed in the first article of this series, Washington was technically able to put such a Keyhole-11 satellite in the sky in 1984, though it later failed while there, and a similar one in the Kennan series failed the following August, resulting in the rush job to put up yet another one in the Space Shuttle Challenger - what resulted in the famous disaster which most of us witnessed on television at the end of January 1986. What I did overlook in the article is that the KH-ll satellites' first task was to knock of the Soviet ICBMs if Moscow prepared to launch its liquid-fueled rockets in reaction to the surprise assassination of Sweden's statsminister Olof Palme - what was intended to kickoff a non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War. The missiles would be sitting ducks for the laser-powered satellite overhead - what Moscow was to believe were merely imagery ones - once the container of sensors that Toshiba shipped across the Soviet Union alerted Washington about what was possibly afoot. It was the spying by Rick Ames, Robert Hanssen et al. which ruined Washington's well-disguised plan, and apparently saved all our necks in the process.

In the wake of the disaster, it was now Stillman's responsibility to figure out what to do with the laser satellites remaining as the Cold War collapsed, as Reed had been forced to resign right after the program seriously got started because of alleged insider trading with his father's import-export business which netted him a significant fortune.


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