During the Cold War, the USA used Britain as a base for military operations – primarily to station aircraft, early warning radar and missile systems.
With the ending of the Cold War in the early 1990s, many of these bases have wound down their operations or closed altogether – for example, the former USAF Upper Heyford nuclear bomber base (one of the bases from which the 1986 air strike on Libya was launched), a few miles to the south-west of Croughton, closed in 1991.
During the 1990s, seeking to consolidate their advantage in the post-Cold War world, and moving on from the over-ambitious Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. "Star Wars") programme, the US military instituted a new policy called "full spectrum dominance".
Full Spectrum Dominance was an attempt to introduce new, practical technological capabilities to the military which sought to control not just land, sea and air, but also space, the radio spectrum and computer networks. This involved far more than just networking US military installations; the technology grew symbiotically with the development of the Internet itself. As the use of digital and mobile communications has increased around the globe, so the use of ground- and space-based information gathering to monitor these networks has grown alongside them.
With these new capabilities, the agencies which used that information, such as the NSA, DIA and CIA, swelled too (one curious note, the CIA's headquarters is based in Langley, Virginia, and the main road through USAF Croughton is called "Langley Avenue").
As the use of the Internet and social media services has grown, the govern-mental monitoring of these networks has grown to exploit the new mass surveillance capabilities that these systems create. From the recent revelations about the organised state surveillance of Western citizens by Edward Snowden, to the indiscriminate war-fighting techniques documented in the classified files disclosed by Chelsea Manning, to the greater use of drones and computer technology to track, target and destroy "the enemies of freedom" – all these developments have evolved from the impetus for greater technological capabilities ushered in by the "full spectrum dominance" policy... ...and Croughton is an important way-station in maintaining the operation of those systems.
The end of the Cold War, and the shift in emphasis in foreign policy to the Middle East, has led to a change in the technology that the USA deploys in Britain.
One task which the USAF specialise in is the provision of radio communications links – and as technology and foreign policy has changed, so the USAF's use of their bases has changed to reflect this. In the 1980s most military radio communications used the high- (HF) and very-high-frequency (VHF) wave bands. This was because radio signals could be bounced-off the Earth's ionosphere (similar to the way light is bent/reflected by water) in order to skip the signals for greater distances around the curvature of the planet. The problem was, just like everyday weather at ground level, the "weather" for radio propagation changes from day-to-day and season-to-season. That meant a lot of equipment had to be maintained to use different radio frequencies, and the amounts of information which could be reliably communicated varied all the time.
Croughton used to have one large microwave satellite dish, giving it direct communications to the USA. Microwaves pass straight through the atmosphere, usually unaffected by the weather, meaning that they can be relied upon at most times. This meant that the low bandwidth information gathered by Croughton and Barford – and other associated bases such as the USAF's intelligence detachment at Chicksands – could be bundled up and sent via satellite back to the US for analysis. Communications could also be sent from the US via satellite and then relayed at lower frequencies to diplomatic missions and military units around Europe and the Middle East.
Then the Cold War ended, and US foreign policy began to focus more on the Middle East and the geopolitics of oil. Sites such as Chicksands closed (it was no longer required to pinpoint the position of Warsaw Pact military units), and Croughton began to rebuild – reflecting the changing role of the USAF. And as the "full spectrum dominance" policy took hold, the emphasis shifted towards supporting information gathering and intelligence, and latterly to supporting new semi-autonomous weapons systems that enable the US to "project force" around the globe.
From the mid-1990s the large arrays of radio antennas at Croughton and Barford were slowly taken down. In their place more radomes were built. These domes do not just protect the equipment from the weather – they prevent other agencies seeing which of the many communications and surveillance satellites the US now has in orbit are being used at any moment in time.
As computers have taken over more aspects of everyday life, so intelligence gathering has shifted towards capturing more of the digital information they generate. Unlike voice communications, which always required human operatives to listen to each transmission, computers can scan hundreds of digital communications to gather information about the time, location, duration and source/destination of the transmission.
The satellites themselves have little computing power, and act merely as signal relays. It's the equipment at the satellite ground stations – such as Croughton – which direct and control the process of communications or surveillance. For the latest autonomous surveillance and weapons systems – such as the Reaper and Predator drones currently used in the Middle East – sites such as Croughton relay the command information which enables them to be operated from their control base at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA.
The big difference with the latest weapons and surveillance systems is that they are not government-controlled technologies. They are in most cases designed and built by private contractors in the defence industry. However, many of these technologies are being manufactured using research grants from governments, and then these companies will ultimately sell these systems for civilian use at a large profit (as is happening now with drones). Also, as these systems are manufactured by private companies, other governments are buying them and setting up their own surveillance and remote attack capabilities. For example, Britain has bought 500 drones and has established a control centre for them at RAF Waddington.
Around Britain, we've seen the same kind of changes taking place. Britain's GCHQ has a new high-tech headquarters in Cheltenham – packed to the gunnel's with high-powered computer systems. The sister facility to Croughton, RAF Menwith Hill in Yorkshire (click for a map), has also undergone a large expansion to it's surveillance capabilities.
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