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What does USAF Croughton do?

Croughton is one of a number of bases operated across Britain (including Menwith Hill, Alconbury, Molesworth and Fairford) by the United States Air Force's (USAF) 501st Combat Support Wing (501CSW).

It was announced in 2015 that, as part of the creation of a NATO 'Joint Intelligence Analysis Centre', Molesworth and Alconbury would close and their functions transferred to a new establishment at USAF Croughton.

Croughton is the headquarters for the 422nd Air Base Group (422ABG), as part of which it co-ordinates communications support operations for the US Department of Defence and "civilian agencies" (which includes other US government departments and agencies, such as the FBI or DEA, but also the NSA and CIA). According the 422ABG's own publicity information, Croughton handles a quarter to a third of of all the US military traffic between Europe and the continental USA, and supports over twenty different communication and defence systems. According to the US Department of Defense's guide to military installations

In November 2013, The Independent newspaper identified Croughton as a "relay centre for CIA clandestine and agent communications" – which was used to ferry the intercepted data from Chancellor Merkel's mobile phone back to the USA. It also noted that Croughton is used as a way-station for communications with the US forward operating base in Djibouti, used to co-ordinate drone strikes over Yemen – a claim elaborated upon in an article in the Mail on Sunday.

RAF Barford antenna masts
USAF Barford St. John's directional antenna masts

Together Croughton and Barford make us a "transceiver complex" – one site mostly transmits signals, whilst the other receives, and the few miles distance between the two prevents excessive interference occurring between the transmission and reception of signals. The two bases are tied together with a point-to-point microwave link – easily recognised by the identical tall masts at the centre of each site, and which are lit with red warning lights at night.

However, since the end of the Cold War, changes in technology have meant that whilst Croughton has grown to become a globally important satellite waystation, Barford St. John has been slowly winding down as its HF (shortwave) and VHF equipment has become progressively obsolete – as shown in the 'sunset silhouetter' of Barford's antenna installation at the beginning of the 1990s: title image

Barford is being maintained, but it may be that at some point in the near future the site is used for a new type of communications development – perhaps augmenting the functions of Croughton, or to support a wholly new communications system.


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