Is it coincidence that a revealing photograph of China's latest ballistic-missile submarines appeared online on the same day that China's 17th Party Congress opened in Beijing? Maybe not.
The photograph, apparently taken from the water at a reasonably close range, shows two of China's Jin-class ballistic-missile submarines, which are designed to carry nuclear weapons, alongside a pier at an unknown location in China. The picture appeared on several Chinese Web sites on Oct. 15, the same day that China's Party Congress, held once every five years to choose the country's top leaders and set policy, opened in Beijing.
"Nothing is known about who took this photograph or whether or not it has been digitally manipulated,"said Hans Kristensen, a security researcher at the Federation of American Scientists, in a blog post.
"But if it is authentic, it appears to lay to rest speculations that the Jin-class would carry 16 missiles. Instead the photograph confirms the assessment made by the U.S. intelligence community by clearly showing the wide-open hatches of 12 launch tubes," he wrote.
The Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine is one of the latest additions to the Chinese Navy and was spotted on Google Earth in July. That satellite image of the submarine, taken in late 2006, was first noted in a blog post by Kristensen.
The Chinese military generally likes to keep a low profile, and some observers assumed the military would not be happy to have its latest hardware on view for the world to see. But then something funny happened: another image appeared on Google Earth, this time showing two Jin-class submarines alongside a pier at a naval base in northern China.
That picture, taken in May, was again noted by Kristensen in a blog post. At that time, he questioned whether the image indicated China has so far launched three Jin-class submarines.
The latest photograph offers the best look yet at the Jin-class submarine for the public. And perhaps that's the point.
"Overall, it is not as if the Chinese are trying to hide anything. Indeed, it is almost as if they want to show what they've got," Kristensen wrote.