“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.
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.
The imagery is also not real-time, Quinn explained, but rather anywhere between six months and three years old.
“We expect security concerns to be addressed primarily by the companies and governmental agencies that gather and distribute the images,” Quinn said. Nevertheless, “Google takes security concerns very seriously, and is always willing to discuss them with public agencies and officials,” she added.
Tempest in a Teapot?
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.
“The claim made by some that Google Earth increases the vulnerability of military facilities is, I believe, wrong,” asserted Kristensen, who uses Google Earth routinely to monitor and analyze facilities worldwide.
“Google Earth and the public have merely been allowed to see a tiny fraction of the continuous and routine collection of intelligence from space that all major military powers do every single day,” Kristensen told TechNewsWorld. “Nothing has been disclosed or compromised; the public has simply been allowed to see a little more of what’s already going on.”
As for how the information could be used if put in the wrong hands, “of course Google Earth images can give bad people information they didn’t have before, but better information has always enabled bad people to do bad things,” Kristensen said.
“To argue that Google Earth should be limited because it helps terrorists target facilities is like saying we should ban all maps because they enable terrorists to find out where things are,” he added. “Security of a facility is determined by the security perimeters and forces on site, law enforcement and counterintelligence operations, not whether people know the facility is there or its general outline.”
Indeed, it’s possible China allowed the sub to be photographed because it was ready to disclose it — “this is as good a way as any,” Herbert Strauss, a research vice president at Gartner focusing on national security, told TechNewsWorld. “I don’t think the Chinese were napping in this.”
Conceivably, governments can even use Google Earth and satellite images to mislead other governments with false information, Strauss pointed out, such as by adding unexpected shapes or dimensions to a submarine or airplane.
“Intelligence agencies are pretty practiced at the arts of deception and counterintelligence,” Strauss said. “What you see is not always what you get.”
In short, it’s not at all clear this is even something the Chinese government will be surprised about, he added.
“This is not about secrets, but public debate,” Kristensen noted. “Of course, countries that don’t want a public debate about these issues might try to limit Google Earth.”
Only a Starting Point
Google Earth may be attractive as an inexpensive, preliminary planning tool, but ultimately governments rely more on sources of higher-resolution and more timely images, Strauss said.
Indeed, it tends to be difficult to determine when most images on Google Earth were acquired, making them difficult to use for military planning, John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, told TechNewsWorld.
Google Earth also tends to include just one image of each point of interest, added Pike, who helped pioneer the use of public satellite imagery.
“A picture is worth 1,000 words, but two pictures are worth 10,000 words,” Pike said. “You can tell a story with two pictures, but Google is only one image thick.”
No Real Threat
Google Earth’s inexpensiveness and accessibility have tremendous appeal for many purposes, Pike noted, and in fact “put me out of business” in the area of providing satellite images — something Globalsecurity.org used to provide.
However, it’s no threat to national security, he added.
“It’s turned a huge number of people into amateur photo interpreters,” Pike concluded. “But smart terrorists would never rely on it.”