The Communications Centre,
USAF Croughton, May 2016
Joint Intelligence Analysis Centre (JIAC)
‘Croughtonwatch’ is a monitoring campaign devoted to USAF Croughton in Northamptonshire – part of a global electronic communications, control and surveillance network that projects American military power across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
The Communications Centre
The command complex at USAF Croughton is on the northern edge of the site (see picture above, or the larger panorama below). Due to the topography of the site it is difficult to see from the main gate. The best view is from the public footpath at the top of the hill on the other side of the valley, near Gateridge Farm.
The administration activities of the 422nd Air Base Group are managed at various buildings within the larger secure perimeter of the site.
The Command and Communications Centre (in the centre of the picture at the top of the page, and panorama below) are a site-within-the-site, with their own additional secure compound, security and guards.
This is where the operational activities of the site are carried out. Decisions are not made here. Instead this site manages the communications infrastructure required to support military and intelligence operations.
Croughton is known to be involved in the management of drone operations in the Middle East and North Africa. The extent of this, in particular its links to the drone programme in Yemen, and the maintenance of the infrastructure by civil companies such as BT, was revealed as part of an investigation by Computer Weekly. It has been also implicated in the surveillance of ‘friendly’ states – such as the hacking of Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone.
To the west of the command centre, at the foot of the communications mast, is the communications centre. This is a computer data centre that manages the information flowing in and out of the site via the extensive fibre-optic cable links, and the two SATCOM sites.
Panorama over the Command & Communications centre from the north
move slider at bottom to scroll across the panorama
The most obvious feature of the USAF Croughton are the four large radomes near the middle of the site, along with a handful of unsheltered satellite dishes scattered elsewhere.
Some call radomes, golf balls. In terms of the reality of modern communications, it would be more appropriate to call them puffballs. That’s because, like fungi, though the ‘ball’ is the most visible part of the system, much of the activity within the organism happens below ground – via the mycelial fibres that fan out great distances from the puffball.
Satellite communications are essential for mobile weapons and military forces. For fixed sites it is cables that are the most significant data links. Satellite links between fixed sites are usually only used when the cable network is not available.
The management of these links is controlled by the Defense Information Technology Contracting Organization Europe (DITCO). This is a division of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).
It is DISA who provide the communications between US military and intelligence sites across the globe. Increasingly this network is not maintained by the military themselves. It is routinely contracted-out to civilian operators (e.g. BT or Cable & Wireless). The US military also routinely contracts with satellite operators for mobile links too (such as INMARSAT).
However, while DISA maintains a dedicated communications network that spans the globe, across that network it connects at multiple points to the civil telecommunications network and the Internet. This gives the military the ability to piggy-back across public data networks (using encrypted ‘virtual networks’) whenever they require extra operational capacity.
Military data communications links serving USAF Croughton
Note: The diagram only includes links commissioned by the US military under Congress-controlled military budget – which are openly tendered for. It does not include links created for intelligence agencies which are controlled under a separate, secret, commissioning process.
Networking and automating conflict
The cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains, electromagnetic spectrum, and information environment (which includes cyberspace) that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.
From this policy we get new projects and tactics related to electronic warfare, and the co-ordination of military operations using improved communications links. The ultimate creation of this policy was the concept of Network Centric Warfare (see next subsection).
SIPRNet – Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (Department of Defense);
GWAN – Government Wide Area Network (National Reconnaissance Office);
NSANet – National Security Agency Network (inc. Five Eyes);
JWICS – Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (DIA);
Site operations information – top secret (TS), sensitive information (SI),
talent keyhole (TK), black operations network (B Ops Net).
In the 2000s, with the development of the Internet as a major part of economic and industrial organisation of Western society, the military began to consider cyberspace as a new theatre of operations.
This led first to the inclusion of cyber operations within each branch of the military and special forces.
This change in emphasis was outlined in the US European Command’s recent (2018) Posture Statement, which notes:
C4ISR is a fundamental capability set for the Global Operating Model… USEUCOM’s command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) networks must also become more resilient and survivable. More work is needed to ensure the sustainment of operations and to maintain freedom of maneuver in cyberspace. We are working with the Services to develop infrastructure that will significantly increase C4I capability and resilience...
USEUCOM is expanding its cyber capabilities and integrating cyber operations into full-spectrum military activities. USEUCOM is focused on refining cyberspace information sharing tactics, techniques and procedures. To ensure wartime interoperability, USEUCOM is engaged with NATO Allies’ and partners’ logistics and cyberspace experts to develop a shared framework for cyber security.
The creation of US Cyber Command will lead to a gradual change in the role of sites such as USAF Croughton. More generally though, as Western military forces seek to use technology and automation to project power, the role of sites such as USAF Croughton will become one of the most critical parts of projecting power around the world.
USAF Croughton – present-day communications capacity
Network Centric Warfare
Network Centric Warfare is a theory that has been emerging since the 1980s, alongside the wider use of computers and telemetry by military forces. It focusses on the role that greater information, connectedness and awareness has on military forces – enabling them to become more specialist, smaller and more mobile, and allowing the greater use of automated/self-guided technology.
There have been whole tomes written on this issue, but it can be summed up as consisting of:
- Greater use of reconnaissance (denoted, ‘R’), surveillance (‘S’) and intelligence (‘I’) in the theatre of operations – hence the widespread use of the ‘ISR’ acronym;
- Greater information sharing between forces within operations, as well as command staff and intelligence agencies located elsewhere;
- All agencies/forces involved are connected to a high-speed Global Information Grid (GIG);
- 'Interoperability' allows seamless sharing of the data flowing across the global network;
- Sensors embedded in military hardware collect information, telemetry or signals intelligence automatically, and within expendable resources to aid logistics – adding to the data flowing on the network;
- The high-speed of networking allows a fast response to changing situations, introducing the idea of Time-Critical Targeting (TCT) to shorten delay between detection of and reaction to events; and
- ‘Persistence of vision’ – the ability to watch every event of interest within an area, 24-hours a day, every day, in order to ‘control the battle-space’.
This system is aimed at delivering 'information superiority', as a pre-requisite of physical battlefield superiority in the theatre of operations.
With a persistent view of events, and time-critical response, any and all opportunities for action can be responded to. The aim is not simply to respond to acts of aggression after the event, as was the case previously. The goal is to dominate the space, pre-emptively, so that no one is able to act against the interests of the military force.
Of course the ideal situation is that this persistent view of events is not just within currently active conflicts. Ideally the network, and thus the persistence of surveillance, must cover every part of the surface of the world.
To ameliorate the negative connotations of the idea of ‘dominating’ an area, or deploying mass surveillance over everything and everyone, the actions involved are often encoded in various combinations of jargon acronyms:
- C2 – Command & Control;
- C2I – Command, Control & Intelligence;
- C2ISR – C2I with Surveillance & Reconnaissance;
- C2ISTAR – C2 with Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, & Reconnaissance;
- C3 – Command, Control & Communication (also C3I, C3ISR and C3ISTAR);
- C4 – Command, Control, Communication & Computers (also C4I, C4ISR and C4ISTAR).
USAF Croughton – future communications capacity, after JIAC construction