Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mysterious Burmese facility revealed on Google Earth

The "interesting enigma" in central Burma, which some pundits say
may be part of a clandestine nuclear operation. Photo: Google Earth

By Stephen Hutcheon

(SMH) -Amateur spies and armchair sleuths using Google Earth have discovered a suspicious development in the Burmese jungle thought to be linked to the pariah state's clandestine nuclear program.

The main facility, which measures 82 by 84 metres, can been seen on satellite images published on both Google Earth and Google Maps (see embedded map below).

It features a pitched, blue corrugated roof, which, at first glance, makes it look like an over-sized swimming pool.

The large industrial complex is located in a rural area of central Burma, east of Mandalay near the town of Pin Oo Lwin.

That's the same zone in which defectors recently told two Australian researchers that the Burmese army had been building a nuclear research and engineering centre with support from North Korea and Russia.

The defectors' testimony was collected over two years by Professor Desmond Ball, a strategic studies expert at the Australian National University (ANU) and Phil Thornton, a freelance journalist based in Thailand.

Details of their investigation, which concludes that the secret reactor could be operational and producing a bomb a year by 2014, was published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age earlier this month.

Sean O'Connor, a blogger specialising in open source military analysis and Google Earth imagery interpretation, said that, while it might not be related to the nuclear program, the facility "does represent an interesting enigma".

"The most likely explanation for the [unidentified] facility, apart from the previously mentioned decoy site, is a support function for the significant amount of tunnelling which must be undertaken in order to construct the [underground facilities] required by the [nuclear] project," he wrote in the Arms Control Wonk blog.

He speculates that the main structure, which appears to be dug into the ground in the foothills of the Setkhaya Mountains, could also be a "security and site support base for the facility".

One prominent NGO, which monitors international nuclear activity, told us that the building and related infrastructure is "a machine shop with no connection to a nuclear program".

The Google Earth images, which are provided by Digital Globe, a leading supplier of satellite imagery to commercial and governmental organisations, are dated from October 2005.

The NGO, which did not want to be named for "tactical reasons", said that it first became aware of the structure in early July and subsequently obtained 2009 imagery, which it is still assessing.

The NGO's conclusion is similar to the one reached by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington-based non-profit organisation specialising in international security issues.

In a statement released this month, it described the structure as an "anomalous building buried in the ground" without "obvious nuclear industrial characteristics".

That hasn't been enough to stop the speculation, given the scale of the development, the new infrastructure (roads and powerlines) and the fact that access roads look to be guarded by checkpoints.

One commenter on Arms Control Wonk, who investigated the topology, found the elevation of the structure suspicious.

"The only purpose that comes to mind is building an earth-covered structure inside an artificial mound and disguising it by putting a normal-looking warehouse type building on top," George William Herbert writes.

"The only type of facilities worth doing that [which] I can think of would be nuclear or military command and control."

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