The radomes of USAF Croughton, dawn, November 2017
Free Range Themes:
This site is devoted to USAF Croughton (and its outstation, Barford St. John) on the border of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire – part of a global electronic communications, control and surveillance that works on behalf of the US military and intelligence establishment, projecting of American military power across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
CroughtonWatch is a co-operative network of interested people and groups working to highlight the work and role of the USAF’s Croughton site. Located on the border of Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, the site’s sparse groups of radomes bely the global significance of the base in the USA’s military and intelligence network; an indispensable ‘hub’ coordinating everything from drone operations to eavesdropping on mobile phone calls across Europe, North Africa, The Mediterranean, and the Middle East. This page gives a short history of the site and its operations.
The old uplink dish at RAF Croughton (built early '80s)
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 wound down 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.
USAF Croughton, 2012
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.
Western SATCOM site from Portway Lane – before they were
repainted after complaints about the colour
With these new capabilities the agencies which used that information, such as the NSA, DIA and CIA, grew their operations 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 capability 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...
Croughton is a globally 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.
USAF Croughton – ‘old technology’
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.
USAF Croughton – ‘new technology’
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 example, The latest autonomous surveillance and weapons systems – such as the Reaper, Predator, and Global Hawk drones currently used in the Middle East – require site such as Croughton to relay the command information which enables them to be controlled
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.
The future – data analysis
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.
That change is now coming to USAF Croughton.
Currently NATO has its ‘Joint Analysis Center’ at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire. It is old, and based within 1950s former-RAF buildings. It cannot work within this new ‘digital domain’ of data analysis because it does not have the capacity.
USAF Croughton – UK-wide data links
In late 2014 it was announced that European Command’s Joint Analysis Centre at Molesworth, and the intelligence operations at nearby Alconbury, together with the intelligence functions of Africa Command, would be merged into a new Joint Intelligence Analysis Centre (JIAC) based at USAF Croughton. The site will not ‘be’ the centre as such. Instead a new data processing centre build at Croughton, using many of existing and new data links across Britain, and across the world, will knit together different elements of the NATO/US military and intelligence systems as a single, interoperable system.
USAF Croughton – international data links
The increasing significance of Croughton as an intelligence site, unifying military and intelligence operations, will make it globally significant. Its use in ‘kinetic’ operations – that is, operations involving actual military force and physical weapons – will certainly increase.
Its parallel expansion as a intelligence-fusion centre – working with military, intelligence and civilian law enforcement across Europe – fundamentally changes its historic pattern of operations. From what we know of the history of intelligence fusion operations in the USA, the JIAC facility at Croughton will pose a new and potentially civil liberties-threatening role in the surveillance of whole countries – from North Africa to the fringes of Europe.
USAF Croughton should be a name synonymous cyber-militarism, and the barbarism of ‘remote controlled warfare’. That it is not is, in part, because these operations can – unlike conventional military army or aircraft bases – be carried on silently; quite literally, with sheep grazing around them.
CroughtonWatch exists to document these operations so that the public can better understand their function, and how they affect not only the lives of people in remote countries, but also the freedoms and well-being of people here.
The purpose of tihs site is to collate information on the facilities at Croughton and Barford St. John, and the network of sites to which they are connected, as well as the policy documents that describe and guide how they are to be used.
Our demand is simple: if these operations cannot operate transparently and accountably within international law, then the site must be closed.