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McClatchy Newspapers September 13, 2006

Discovery of military sites has Web sleuths buzzing

By Tim Johnson

YINCHUAN, China — Tech-savvy armchair sleuths around the world are having a field day discovering military secrets in China.

Three times in the past few months, they've stumbled across unusual military installations using Internet programs that allow those online to view satellite and aerial images of the world.

In the most recent find, users spotted an underwater submarine tunnel off China's Hainan Island. They've also found a mock-up of a Taiwanese air base in China's western desert. In a bizarre discovery, a computer technician in Germany noticed a huge and startlingly accurate terrain model in northwest China that replicates a sensitive border area with India.

The discoveries have stirred up the Internet global-imagery community.

"You can sort of feel the feverish buzz of these guys," said Tim Brown, a satellite-imagery expert at GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., research company that focuses on security issues.

Defense experts such as Brown note that civilians are unlikely to find anything that skilled military analysts haven't already known about and studied in detail.

But the discoveries underscore the shifts occurring as satellite images no longer remain only in the hands of a fraternity of military and intelligence agents but fall into a broader civilian realm.

Some countries such as India, Bahrain, Russia and South Korea are spooked at the idea that ordinary people — or worse yet, terrorists — might see satellite images of installations such as military bases, presidential palaces and nuclear reactors.

There's little they can do to stop such services as Google Earth or MSN Virtual Earth, though. And geographers, hobbyists and those with time on their hands have taken to combing the satellite images for hitherto unpublicized military sites.

"There are people out there who basically scour the Earth looking for this kind of thing," said Stefan Geens, a Swede who runs a Web journal, Ogle Earth, about imagery. It's democratization of this kind of information."

Bulletin-board surge

Early last month, bulletin boards operated by Google Earth aficionados surged with the news that users had spotted an unusual coastal cave entrance southwest of the Yulin naval base near Sanya on Hainan Island, China's southernmost point. Since then, experts have determined that it's at least the second such Chinese oceanic tunnel to protect submarines in case of attack.

Another discovery was more serendipitous — and enigmatic.

One evening in late June, a Californian living in Germany discovered a topographical terrain model in northwest China. The replica, set in arid desert in the Ningxia Autonomous Region, includes artificial snow peaks, glacial lakes and valleys. Its fenced area is huge, measuring nine football fields long and seven wide.

Posting under the user name KenGrok, the American alerted a Google Earth bulletin board to the find. At the urging of a moderator, KenGrok scoured China's border regions to see if the terrain model replicated any existing territory.

Sure enough, it did. About two weeks later, KenGrok matched the model to a portion of the Sino-Indian border, Aksai Chin, at the east end of the Karakorum Range some 1,500 miles to the southwest.

So why has China built a "sandbox" model of its sensitive border with India?

A lot of Google Earth users became curious, and KenGrok parlayed his discovery into a blog titled "Found in China" that reaped global attention.

KenGrok declined to give his real name and voiced wonder at the interest that his sighting has generated.

A McClatchy reporter traveled to the site and found an armored-tank base surrounding it, near the village of Luoxi in Yongning County. Visitors weren't allowed in. Asked the purpose of the terrain replica, an army guard said: "It's for all kinds of military training. You wouldn't understand it."

Although India is one of the countries with national-security concerns about satellite imagery, it may benefit from the China discovery. Some defense analysts think that the publicity brought about by more widely available satellite imagery defuses frictions while making military affairs more open.

India and China have good relations now, but fought a border skirmish in 1962.

"I really don't see a downside," said Theresa Hitchens, the director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C., research center. "The more people have access to this kind of information, the more understanding you have."

Interest in imagery

China's neighbors have taken an interest in imagery. Google Earth users spotted a faux base in Dingxin, Gansu province, this year that's a mock-up of Taiwan's Ching Chuan Kang base. China claims the island of Taiwan as part of its territory and says it has the right to use force for reunification.

Brown, of GlobalSecurity.org, said the discovery of the Hainan Island submarine tunnel had piqued interest among Philippine, Malaysian and Vietnamese military officers with concerns about China's ability to project naval power.

A lot of the Internet comments from Google Earth aficionados are filled "with amateurishness bordering on ignorance," Brown said.

"People see a light [on an image] and say it's a UFO."

 


Copyright 2006, McClatchy Newspapers