Commercial satellite photos made public recently provide a new look at China’s nuclear forces and bases images that include the first view of a secret underwater submarine tunnel.
A Pentagon official said the photograph of the tunnel entrance reveals for the first time a key element of China’s hidden military buildup. Similar but more detailed intelligence photos of the entrance are highly classified within the U.S. government, the official said.
“The Chinese have a whole network of secret facilities that the U.S. government understands but cannot make public,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is the first public revelation of China’s secret buildup.”
The photographs, taken from 2000 to 2004, show China’s Xia-class ballistic missile submarine docked at the Jianggezhuang base, located on the Yellow Sea in Shandong province.
Nuclear warheads for the submarine’s 12 JL-1 missiles are thought to be stored inside an underwater tunnel that was photographed about 450 meters to the northwest of the submarine. The high-resolution satellite photo shows a waterway leading to a ground-covered facility.
Other photographs show additional underground military facilities, including the Feidong air base in Anhui province with a runway built into a nearby hill.
The photographs were obtained by the nonprofit groups Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Federation of American Scientists. The photos first appeared Friday in the winter edition of the quarterly newsletter Imaging Notes.
The photographs are sharp enough to identify objects on the ground about 3 feet in size. Such digital images were once the exclusive domain of U.S. technical intelligence agencies, but in recent years, commercial companies have deployed equally capable space-based cameras.
Disclosure of the underground bases supports analyses of Pentagon and intelligence officials who say China is engaged in a secret military buildup that threatens U.S. interests, while stating publicly that its forces pose no threat.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said during a trip to China in October that Beijing was sending “mixed signals” by building up forces in secret and without explaining their purpose.
Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, said he did not consider China “a threat.” But he also said in a speech Tuesday that China’s purpose behind its rapid military buildup is not fully known. “That’s a little unclear,” he said, noting that “increased transparency” is needed from China.
The photographs included several shots of Chinese H-6 strategic bombers and related aerial refueling tankers at Dangyang airfield in Hubei province. Also, 70 nuclear-capable Qian-5 aircraft were photographed parked at an airfield in Jianqiao, Zhejiang province, on the East China Sea coast.
The Pentagon’s four-year strategy report made public earlier this month stated that China is emerging as a power with “the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.” The report stated that Beijing is investing heavily in “strategic arsenal and capabilities to project power beyond its borders.”
The report did not provide specifics. U.S. officials said, however, that the secrecy of the Chinese buildup has fueled a debate within the U.S. government over the threat posed by that country.
U.S. intelligence agencies recently produced a National Intelligence Estimate, or major interagency analysis, that concluded China is using strategic deception to fool the United States and other nations about its goals and programs, including its military buildup.
Pentagon officials have asked China to allow visits to underground facilities such as the submarine tunnel and a command center in Beijing, but either the requests were denied or the existence of the sites was denied.
“The Chinese have denied having any underground submarine facilities,” the Pentagon official said, noting that the satellite photos indicate that China has misled the United States.
Underground submarine sites are one of 10 major types of facilities hidden by the Chinese military, U.S. officials said. The others include nuclear missile storage facilities, other weapons plants, command centers and political leadership offices.
In 2004, China revealed the first of a new class of submarines. The development of the Yuan-class submarines was kept secret through the use of an underground factory in south-central China, the officials said.
Since 2002, Beijing has deployed 14 submarines. And it is working on a new ballistic-missile submarine, known as the Jin class, and two new Shang-class attack submarines.
According to a classified Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, China’s nuclear forces include about 45 long-range missiles, 12 submarine-launched missiles and about 100 short-range missiles each with a single warhead.
By 2020, China’s arsenal will include up to 220 long-range missiles, up to 44 submarine-launched missiles and up to 200 short-range missiles, the DIA report stated.
Richard Fisher, a China military analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said that in addition to the northern submarine base, China also has a major submarine base at Yulin, on Hainan island in the South China Sea.
The southern base gives Chinese missile submarines easier access to firing areas than the Yellow Sea base, which is more vulnerable to attacks from U.S. anti-submarine warfare systems.