Google Earth Spills Secret Chinese Submarine Beans

Monday, October 1, 2007

Imagery on Google Earth revealed a new Chinese submarine to the public eye for the first time, according to a strategic security blogger with the Federation of American Scientists.

"A commercial satellite image appears to have captured China's new nuclear ballistic missile submarine," Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in his July 5 blog entry.

"The new class, known as the Jin-class or Type 094, is expected to replace the unsuccessful Xia-class (Type 092) of a single boat built in the early 1980s," Kristensen added. "The new submarine was photographed by the commercial Quickbird satellite in late 2006 and the image is freely available on the Google Earth Web site."

The image shows what appears to be the new Jin-class submarine moored at the Xiaopingdao Submarine Base south of Dalian, about 193 miles north of Qingdao, Kristensen said. It appears to be roughly 35 feet longer than the Xia-class sub because of an extended midsection that houses the missile launch tubes and part of the reactor compartment, he explained.

In 2004 the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated that the Jin-class would have 12 missile launch tubes, as the Xia-class did; other sources have made different estimates. "The satellite image is not of high enough resolution" to resolve the question, according to Kristensen.

Though not confirmed in the Pentagon's May 2007 report on China's military forces, it is widely expected that China will build five Jin-class submarines, Kristensen noted.
Sensitive Information

This is not the first time images of potentially sensitive military information have been discovered on Google Earth, and it seems unlikely to be the last. Government officials in the United States and abroad have expressed concern over the potential uses of such information, and Google has declared itself open to discussion with governmental agencies if necessary.

"Google's mission is to organize and make accessible the world's information," Google spokesperson Megan Quinn told TechNewsWorld.

"Google Earth is an important component of that mission, as it enables individuals to explore and learn about their world, about places both foreign and familiar, and to gain new understandings of geography, topology, urbanism, development, architecture and the environment," she added.

Google Earth gets its images from a wide range of both commercial and public sources, Quinn said. "The imagery visible on Google Earth and Google Maps is not unique: Commercial high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery of every country in the world is widely available from numerous sources," she noted.

How much of a risk Google Earth actually poses to military information is also open to debate. While the media tend to accentuate the spilling of secrets via Google Earth, most of the information that appears there has long been known already by intelligence organizations.