The folks over at the Federation of American Scientists broke an awesome story the other day with the publication on their Blog of a picture clipped from Google Earth of a purported Chinese Jin Class nuclear missile submarine.
The FAS write-up is interesting in its own right, but what never ceases to amaze me is the availability of information these days that at one time might have been considered a major intelligence breach. It reminds me of the story of Sam Morison, a former Navy Intelligence official who leaked sat photos of Russian shipbuilding pens on the Black Sea to the media.
Morison was convicted of espionage in 1985 and sentenced to two years in prison for providing the hazy, low-rez photo to Janes Defense Weekly. He was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001. But its interesting that in todays age, freely available satellite photos with much higher resolution such as this one can make it around the world on the Internet in just a few seconds with no fingerprints.
(Update from Norman Polmar)
A commercial satellite image appears to have led to revelation of details of the new Chinese nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) of the Jin or Type 094 class. The new submarine was initially photographed by the commercial Quickbird satellite in late 2006 and the image was available on the Google Earth web site. Coupled with later satellite photography, the submarine was identified by Hans M. Kristensen, Director, Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.
The Type 094 submarine has long been expected by Western analysts and intelligence experts. China has previously constructed only a single SSBN, the Xia or Project 092 submarine, launched in 1983. That submarine has twice test fired the JL-1 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), but is not considered an operational submarine. The improved JL-2 SLBM will probably arm the Type 094 submarine, with that missile expected to become operational between 2007 and 2010, according to U.S. officials.
The lead Type 094 submarine is apparently undergoing trials. One or more units may be under construction with U.S. naval intelligence estimating that up to five will be built. That number could enable the Chine Navy to maintain at least one SSBN on continuous patrol.
The Type 094 appears to be a modification of the Type 093 nuclear-propelled attack submarine (SSN) now in production. The Chinese have added a missile compartment and other equipment to the SSN design, similar to the approach taken by the U.S. Navy in developing the George Washington (SSBN 598) missile submarine from the Skipjack (SSN 585) design.
Chinas long delay in developing a modern SSBN indicates that Chinas strategic offensive goal is for regional nuclear strike capabilities with primarily long- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from land sites. Still, many Westerners have long believed that SSBNs would be a major component of Chinas long-range strike forces.