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Satellite spots secret sub

This photograph, taken by DigitalGlobe's Quickbird satellite, appears to show

China's latest nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile submarine at port.

A policy analyst was making his regular checks of Google Earth when he came upon a rare prize: a photo of China's latest nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile submarine at port. It's the first publicly available satellite view clearly showing Beijing's Jin-class submarine, according to experts on the country's naval program.

The find, made by Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, confirms that China is progressing in its plan to build stealthier nuclear-powered submarines. It also illustrates how commercial satellite imagery adds to the debate over international security.

The fresh image of China's Xiaopingdao submarine base near Dalian, snapped late last year by DigitalGlobe's Quickbird satellite, probably wouldn't tell the U.S. military anything it didn't know about the Jin-class sub, said  Lyle Goldstein, a specialist on Chinese maritime development and nuclear strategy at the Naval War College.

"Any photo that Google Earth has, I'm sure the Pentagon already had a long time ago. ... The Department of Defense has much better capability," he told me. (Goldstein emphasized that he was voicing his own opinion and not speaking on behalf of the Pentagon or the U.S. Navy.)

The picture's value has more to do with what people outside the government know about China's military capabilities. You can focus in on the sub yourself by starting from this wide-angle view of the submarine base, then aiming for the top of the "toe" in a boot of land sticking out from the shore.

Goldstein said he knew of one other unclassified picture purporting to show the Jin-class submarine, but the evidence for the identification is not as solid. Thus, the newfound picture "does advance the ball in terms of public knowledge," he said. 

"I sent it around to all my colleagues here," Goldstein said. "There's been speculation about this for a long time, but in the open press this is one of the first visual indicators that China is succeeding in the second generation [of its nuclear-powered sub program]."

Kristensen said he was of the same mind about the picture's significance: "This enables the public to participate in this debate and ask better questions."

The wider debate focuses on China's military capabilities and intentions. Experts say Beijing's first-generation nuclear missile sub, known as the Xia class, didn't quite make the grade because of its high noise levels and radiation leakage. Another drawback had to do with the nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles it was thought to carry: They had an estimated range of 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers), not enough to project power globally.

In contrast, the Jin-class sub is thought to be bigger and quieter, carrying missiles with a 5,000-mile (8,000-kilometer) reach. U.S. intelligence assets were said to have spotted the sub back in 2004, but the Pentagon has never released any pictures for public consumption. 

Kristensen told me he makes routine checks for fresh imagery of sensitive sites on Google Earth, and when he spotted the new picture from Xiaopingdao, he assumed it was one of the Xia-class subs. "But then I started looking more carefully and comparing the dimensions," he said.

He analyzed the new picture in his posting to the Strategic Security Blog, and surmises that the next-generation sub is still undergoing testing three years after the first reports. "The fact that it's at this particular base, where the missile testing base is located, just probably shows that it's not quite up to speed yet," Kristensen said.

Kristensen found it interesting that the sub was just sitting out in the open. "The Chinese don't seem to be hiding this information in any particular way," he said.

He noted that the Chinese have a Xia-class sub on display at another base, also visible via Google Earth. "That is an open drydock where the [missile] tubes have been exposed, and a portion of the hull has been cut open so you can see directly into the reactor compartment," Kristensen said. "That is normally some of the most sensitive information, if you ask the people on our side."

He speculated that the Chinese might be leaving their subs open for satellite viewing as a kind of deterrent - in effect, letting the world know that they're moving forward with advanced weaponry.

This isn't the first time commercially available satellite imagery has opened a window on weighty international issues: For years, has followed military developments in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere through its Public Eye satellite program. More recently, Google Earth and Amnesty International have documented Darfur's agonies using satellite data.

Kristensen noted that whole communities of citizen analysts have grown up around the publicly available satellite imagery. "It has become an extraordinarily important resource for monitoring the earth and what's happening on it," he said.

Goldstein agreed that publicly available imagery is a boon for analysts. "We have in our possession hundreds if not thousands of images of the PLA [People's Liberation Army] Navy, including the diesel-class submarines," he said. "These are all unclassified. We just get them off the Internet."

However, Goldstein and other analysts still wish the Chinese would show more official openness about their naval aspirations - particularly when it comes to the nuclear submarine fleet, which one Chinese military leader has said would be the "most critical naval asset" in future conflicts.

"I don't think Americans object to China building a strong navy, but the objection is, how do we understand where this is going? That's where most other naval powers are making all the data available on these programs," Goldstein said.

"In 2004, we learned about a new class of Chinese submarine, the Yuan class. How did we learn about it? Some pictures turned up on the Internet," he continued. "Is this the way China wants to get the word out that it's building new capabilities? This is really the worst way of letting other countries know about new military capabilities, because surprise feeds these anxieties around the region and in the United States about China's long-term intentions."

Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concern about China's military buildup, saying it seemed "outsized" for Beijing's regional security role. Later, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated that China might build five Jin-class submarines. And just today, Australia seconded U.S. concerns in its own defense policy blueprint, warning that China's rapid military modernization could lead to "misunderstanding and instability" in the Asia-Pacific region.

Goldstein said the new Jin-class submarines, which are "boomers" built for a nuclear doomsday, are still a subject of "serious debate among analysts." It's not at all clear whether they will play a significant role in China's future military, or whether they're merely a sideshow.

"It's for saber-rattling - to say, 'Hey, we put our boomers to sea, and this could get very ugly,'" he said. "It's the ultimate trump card for the Taiwan scenario."

For his part, Goldstein is more interested in whether China will develop a robust fleet of nuclear attack submarines, which could serve as far more versatile platforms for challenging U.S. naval power in the years ahead. "That is a very good indicator of China's global intentions," he said.

Will the Shang-class nuclear attack sub be one of the coming attractions in satellite imagery? What role do you think such imagery can play in the public debate? Feel free to weigh in with your own analysis below.