Google Geek Unearths Military Secret

Hovering cars in Australia, curious concentric circles in Malta, strange things in the Sea of Japan ...

If you're a Google Earth geek, these oddities are old news, shared long ago on countless forums throughout the Web.

They are, so to speak, for amateurs.

But every evening, once the kids have gone to bed, the pros hit the circuit. They trawl through images of foreign lands, trying to find the screen shot that will launch them to blogosphere stardom.

And sometimes, albeit very rarely, they stumble on something big.

Last month, while scrutinizing landscapes in China, German Googler "KenGrok" discovered what appeared to be a terrain model on a Chinese military base. And it was not just any terrain.

KenGrok had unexpectedly found an exact scale replica of China's disputed border region with India -- a piece of land that led the countries into war in 1962 and which remains, to this day, in dispute.

"It's one of the most interesting things anyone's ever observed anywhere," said Tim Brown, a specialist in satellite imagery and a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org. "It's obviously of the disputed border. It's oriented exactly."

KenGrok's discovery rivaled previous sightings, such as the nuclear submarine tunnel, also uncovered this year in China, or the Pakistani nuclear plant detected recently in Kushab.

But unlike past findings, a debate about the purpose and uses of the facility quickly erupted.

Tank Training or Something Sinister?

According to one report in the Sydney Morning Herald, local authorities claimed the terrain as a tank training facility used for "putting tanks and their drivers through their paces."

But military specialists in the United States gave this response little credence.

"Tanks aren't going to be driving through that," said Brown, who added that the facility is roughly 1:500 in scale. "That's guys walking along, looking at it -- it's just too small [for tanks]."

Taylor Fravel, an assistant professor of political science at MIT and part of its security studies program, agreed. "I'm sure it's not for armored training. It has multiple uses, some of which are not hostile."

But while there is some discrepancy about the exact uses of the site, all experts agreed that terrain replicas are an integral part of military training.

"It's just sensible military planning," said John Pike, director and founder of GlobalSecurity.org. "There are all kinds of things that would be peculiar about that type of terrain, and it would be enormously annoying to have to go out to the mountains. Better to bring the mountains to them."

"Militaries love terrain models," Brown concurred. "The Japanese had one before Pearl Harbor ... [and the Chinese] have full-scale airfields, oriented like Taiwanese airfields."

Even so, the presence of this replica terrain model is unlikely an ominous sign that China intends to attack India.

"China's view toward territorial disputes is diplomacy," said Adam Segal, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The existance of these scenarios is standard operating procedure," said Fravel. "[The border dispute] is not settled, but it's in a peaceful phase."

According to Noah Shachtman, editor of Defense Tech, the most important lesson to be taken from this discovery is how geo-spacial information is changing the way that people look at the world.

"Average folks are finding really surprising things on Google Earth because it's accessible to the average Web surfer," Shachtman said. "It's closer to curiosity than military advantage."

Looks like it's a battle for blogosphere bragging rights after all.

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