WASHINGTON (February 17, 2006) - According to new satellite photos published today in a U.S. trade journal, China's strategic nuclear submarine base north of Qingdao contains the long-rumored but never before publicly seen underground coastal submarine tunnel. The image also shows at a dock nearby China's only ballistic missile submarine, which has never gone on patrol or traveled beyond Chinese regional waters.
The satellite photo of China's strategic submarine was obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) along with several other images that show some aging strategic bombers and fighters, and the main nuclear weapons laboratory at Mianyang, the Los Alamos of China.
The photos are featured in the Winter 2006 issue of Imaging Notes.
"The Pentagon has been sounding the alarm about China's plans to modernize its nuclear forces for many years, but these photos help us put things in better perspective," said Robert S. Norris, an NRDC senior research associate and co-author of the Imaging Notes article.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon's congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) elevated China to the top of its list of large-scale threats; the 2001 QDR did not mention China at all. The report states that China has "the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages absent U.S. counter strategies." According to the QDR, "China continues to invest heavily in its military, particularly in its strategic [nuclear] arsenal and capabilities to project power beyond its borders. Since 1996, China has increased its defense spending by more than 10 percent in real terms every year except 2003."
"The images also show that non-governmental organizations can play an educational role by using new tools like satellite imagery to qualify or refute Pentagon claims," Norris said. "The U.S. relationship with China is a complex one; we should not exacerbate it by manufacturing or inflating threats."
Quantitatively and qualitatively, China's nuclear forces cannot compare with those of the United States, which has some 10,000 nuclear warheads with more than half of them operationally deployed. China has about 400 warheads. The strongest leg of its nuclear triad is its land-based ballistic missiles, but only 20 of its approximately 85 ballistic missiles have sufficient range to reach the continental United States. Its one nuclear ballistic missile submarine, shown in the satellite image, was built in 1981 and, as the Pentagon acknowledges, has never been fully operational. The satellite images also show some of China's 100 to 120 antiquated medium-range bombers. They are based on 1950s-era Soviet designs and would have difficulty penetrating modern air defense systems.
"Both China and the United States are busy modernizing their nuclear forces with an eye to each other's future capabilities and intentions, but the scale of the two efforts is dramatically different," said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists and co-author of the Imaging Notes article.
Those capabilities and the role of China in U.S. nuclear war planning will be explored in greater depth in a forthcoming joint study by NRDC and FAS.