US/UK Spy and Communications Bases in the UK

US/UK Spy and Communications Bases in the UK

The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

As mentioned in a previous post, not all military bases of importance are air fields or depositories of tanks, guns or other field equipment. In 1986 a book by Duncan Campbell revealed how, since the 1940s and 1950s, Britain has become a safe haven for many US bases and facilities. However, alongside the cruise missile silos (e.g. Greenham Common) and nuclear bomber bases is a network of intelligence installations, command centres, communications stations – even hospitals, for use only in war.

Campbell also disclosed the interception capabilities of the NSA (National Security Agency – the agency responsible for global monitoring, collection, and processing of information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes) at the US base at Menwith Hill. He also described the existence of UKUSA, a multilateral agreement for cooperation in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) between the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The alliance of intelligence operations is also known as the “Five Eyes” which emerged from an informal agreement related to the 1941 Atlantic Charter. Due to its status as a secret treaty, its existence was not known to the Prime Minister of Australia until 1973, and it was not disclosed to the public until 2005. On 25 June 2010, the full text of the agreement was eventually released by the UK and the US and can now be viewed online.

In the 1950s several other countries also joined the community as “third party” participants such as Denmark (1954) and West Germany (1955). According to Edward Snowden, the third parties are not automatically exempt from intelligence targeting. According to an internal NSA document leaked by Snowden, “We (the NSA) can, and often do, target the signals of most 3rd party foreign partners.”

Also, the Five Eyes are cooperating with various 3rd Party countries in at least two groups:

  • The “Nine Eyes”, consisting of the Five Eyes plus Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway.
  • The “Fourteen Eyes”, consisting of the same countries as the Nine Eyes plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. The actual name of this group is SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR) and its purpose is coordinating the exchange of military signals intelligence among its members.
  • “Third Parties”, last but not least is the US collection of third-party SIGINT partners, which includes thirty-three countries scattered across Africa, Asia, and Europe. Previous to the release of the top-secret documents detailing these countries, many of their higher government officials, possibly even leaders, may have been unaware that they were part of the arrangement, as the agreements were typically established directly with intelligence agencies and were “rarely disrupted by foreign [political] perturbations.” The US also uses a tier system, sorting countries into Tier 1 (Comprehensive Cooperation – the Five Eyes), Tier 2 (Focused Cooperation – 16 countries, mostly in Europe), Tier 3 (Limited Cooperation – countries like France, India, and Pakistan), and Tier 4 (Exceptional Cooperation – countries that are hostile to US interests).

The Fourteen Eyes are the Nine Eyes, plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Sweden, and are in a separate group due to their membership in the intelligence alliance SSEUR, or SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) Seniors Europe

These intelligence gathering stations are the new front line for the military. Whether it is intercepting all forms of electronic messages and using the information to pinpoint targets or the relaying of command and control information for drone pilots, or the transmission of photoreconnaissance from and by satellites, it all feeds in to the global US/NATO military machine.

It is worth highlighting some of those in the network of signals intelligence gathering and communications that operate in the UK.

This slide from a 2012 presentation shows the distribution of NSA collection points worldwide, including 80+ Special Collection Services (SCS) points based at embassies and consulates; 50,000 gained by Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) malware attacks and 20 “major accesses” from undersea cables: see the NRC Handelsblad article NSA infected 50,000 computer networks with malicious software, 23 November 2013.

It is worth highlighting some of those in the network of signals intelligence gathering and communications that operate in the UK.

RAF Croughton is one of the most important of these. Located in Northamptonshire, in the central part of the UK. It is one of the widest military switchboards of Europe. It also deals with more than 30% of the American communicational operations on the old continent.

During World War II it was designated to receive damaged aircraft and repair them. After World War II the base was inactivated. It was turned into a storage site between 1947 and 1950 and given to the US at the end of 1950. It became an extremely important communications base and indirectly served in all US conflicts from the Gulf War to those in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Croughton hosts the 422nd Air Base Group – responsible for providing full force and communications support to serve the interests of the US and NATO regardless of the location and mission objectives – through one of the biggest military telecommunications switchboards in Europe. It handles a third of all the US military communications in Europe and also has a satellite station not far away at Barford St John, near Bloxham

In November 2013, the Independent published a report on how the base is used to route vast amounts of data captured by Washington’s “Stateroom” network of listening posts in diplomatic premises back to America for analysis by the CIA and the NSA. The network is at the centre of revelations that the NSA intercepted a mobile phone used by Mrs Merkel. A spying “nest” on the roof Washington’s Berlin embassy was abruptly turned off following a row between Germany and America about the eavesdropping. Documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden imply that any material gathered from the Berlin embassy listening post would have been relayed back to a joint CIA/NSA facility in Maryland via the secure link within Croughton.


Tom Watson, former defence minister and deputy chairman of the Labour Party at that time, said there was an urgent need for “public scrutiny” of the activities at the base. He said: “The use of RAF Croughton by the NSA, CIA and other US officials puts our country at real risk of complicity in both unlawful eavesdropping and the unlawful killing of civilians overseas by the US. These allegations also undermine our relations with other key allies.”

A secure fibre-optic link was made between the base and the US air base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in 2013 to co-ordinate drone strikes over Yemen. The following year the US announced it would spend £200m on a project to upgrade the base and further concentrate US intelligence activity to provide “world-class combat support” for activities including “global strike operations”.

Washington is to turn Croughton into one of its largest intelligence hubs outside the mainland United States. It is to be the site for an ultra-secure intelligence centre staffed by up to 1,250 personnel and covering operations in Africa, a current focus for US counterterrorism activities. The $317m (£189m) project, which includes an installation for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s main military espionage service, underlines RAF Croughton’s position as a centre for clandestine and classified US communications in Britain.

Due to be completed this year, campaigners and senior politicians agree that the massive investment in Croughton has raised fresh questions about the oversight of US bases in Britain.

Details show that the upgrade will involve the “consolidation” of six existing US intelligence groups, currently based at Molesworth, into a single facility at Croughton. The Pentagon said that this would save at least $75m a year and it will also result in a substantial further concentration of US intelligence at Croughton, whose official purpose is to provide “world-class combat support” for activities including “global strike operations“.

Involvement in US Drone Strikes

In October 2016 human rights groups pointed out that recent job advertisements indicate that personnel serving at RAF bases in the UK are helping to identify targets for drone strikes. One job advertised at Molesworth was for an “all source analyst”, in support of US operations in Africa. The suitable candidate will “perform a variety of advanced targeting operations … in support of employment of GPS guided weapons, weaponeering and collateral estimation, as well as utilizing the tools required for advanced targeting”.

The CV of a US military analyst, uploaded to a recruitment site, states that he was an MQ-9 Reaper ISR Mission Intelligence Coordinator at Molesworth. The MQ-9 is the US’s chief strike drone, capable of firing Hellfire missiles and dropping laser-guided GBU 12 Paveway II bombs.

Molesworth has also been recruiting “full motion video analysts” to study footage taken by drones and other surveillance craft in order to identify potential targets. The consultancy giant Booz Allen Hamilton is advertising for a “maritime multi-level targeting analyst” at the same base. The job involves providing “comprehensive assessments… of intelligence data” to “support the client targeting cycle in order to answer intelligence questions and provide recommendations for further action or collection”.

The MoD insists that the US does not fly drones from the UK but Jennifer Gibson from the human rights group Reprieve declares that the job specifications indicate UK complicity in the US drone programme and that “simply to say that drones are not flown from the UK is missing the point, if it is personnel on British soil that are at the top of the so-called ‘kill chain’ and British agencies who are feeding targets into those lists.” Reprieve believes that “the British government has questions to answer over its own involvement in this secret war”.

Protest at Croughton during “Keep Space for Peace Week”
See also: Croughtonwatch


In the early 1960s, developments occurred which appear to have prompted the establishment of the facility now known as GCHQ Bude. In 1962, a satellite receiving station for the commercial communication satellites of Intelsat was established at Goonhilly Downs, just over a hundred kilometres south-southwest of Morwenstow.

The downstream link from the Intelsat satellites could easily be intercepted by placing receiver dishes nearby in the satellites’ “footprint”. For that, the land at Cleave was allotted to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in 1967 and construction of the satellite interception station began in 1969. Two ninety-foot dishes appeared first, followed by smaller dishes in the ensuing years. The station was signposted as “CSOS Morwenstow”, with “CSOS” standing for Composite Signals Organisation Station. In 2001, a third large dish appeared and the station became known as “GCHQ Bude”.
From its inception, the station has been an Anglo-American co-operative project. It was the NSA that paid for most of the infrastructure and the technology. The running costs, like payments for the staff, were paid by GCHQ, who also provided the land. The intelligence that was collected by the Bude satellite station was shared among NSA and GCHQ and was also jointly processed.

The Intelligence Services Act 1994 grants GCHQ the power “to monitor or interfere with electromagnetic, acoustic and other emissions and any equipment producing such emissions and to obtain and provide information derived from or related to such emissions or equipment.” This includes Blackberry Messenger and audio messages.

In 1963, TAT-3, an undersea cable linking the United Kingdom to the US, was laid from Tuckerton, New Jersey, US to Widemouth Bay, Cornwall, just ten kilometres south of the site at Cleave Camp. The British General Post Office routinely monitored all communications passing along the TAT-3 cable, forwarding any messages they felt were relevant to the security services.

The site at Cleave Camp presented an opportunity to monitor submarine cable traffic from the nearby landing points, while at the same time intercepting communications meant for the commercial satellite ground station at Goonhilly Downs.

The TAT-14 undersea cable landing at Bude was identified as one of few assets of “Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources” of the US on foreign territory in a diplomatic cable leaked to Wikileaks.

In 2010, the NSA paid GCHQ £15.5m for redevelopments at the site.

There are 21 satellite antennae of various sizes and, on the basis of their position, their elevation and their azimuth angle, the antennae are generally orientated towards satellites of the INTELSAT, Intersputnik and INMARSAT communications networks over the Atlantic Ocean, Africa and the Indian Ocean, as well as towards the Middle East and mainland Europe. Somewhere between 2011 and 2013, a torus antenna was installed, which is able to receive the signals of up to 35 satellites simultaneously. This antenna is not covered by a radome, as shown below.

The Torus antenna at Morwenstow (images: Googe Earth)

Staff are drawn from GCHQ (UK) and the NSA (U.S.) and the station is operated under the UKUSA agreement, gathering data for the ECHELON signals intelligence (SIGINT) network. Comparable stations in operation include Menwith Hill (UK), Sugar Grove (West Virginia, U.S.), Yakima (Washington, U.S.), Sabana Seca (Puerto Rico), Misawa (Japan), Pine Gap (Australia), Geraldton (Australia), GCSB Waihopai (New Zealand) and GCSB Tangimoana (New Zealand) that cover other INTELSAT areas such as South America and the Pacific Ocean.

Torus sites and coverage of the geostationary satellite belt
1. Morwenstow; 2. Menwith Hill; 3. GCHQ Ayios Nikolaos, Cyprus; 4. Seeb, Oman;
5. Pine Gap, Australia;   6. Waihopai, New Zealand.

In June 2013, The Guardian, using documents leaked by Edward Snowden, revealed the existence of an operation codenamed Tempora, whereby GCHQ is able to tap into data which flows along undersea cables and then store it for up to 30 days, to assess and analyse it. The article refers to a three-year trial set up at GCHQ Bude which, by mid 2011, was probing more than 200 internet connections.

A further Guardian report in December 2013 stated that eavesdropping efforts to target charities, German government buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister and an EU commissioner centred on activities run from GCHQ Bude.

GCHQ Bude was featured extensively in the September 11, 2014 BBC2 Horizon television programme: “Inside the Dark Web”. This programme estimated that 25% of all internet traffic travels through Cornwall. Dr Joss Wright of the University of Oxford Internet Institute explained how mirror images of the signals running down submarine Ethernet cables are used to gather and analyse data. The programme claimed that this procedure involves an optical tap device which is inserted at the submarine cable repeater station. A second copy of the data then travels to GCHQ, while the original carries on its intended journey. GCHQ, it was claimed, then have three days to replay the data. It was stated that everything that comes across the internet can theoretically be accessed, including emails, websites, BitTorrent downloads, films that have been watched etc. Wright added that internal documents show that in 2011, 200 10-gigabit cables coming into Cornwall were being tapped by GCHQ. Dr Wright said that the entire digitised contents of the British Library could be transferred down that set of cables in about 40 seconds. On the same programme, Tim Berners-Lee explained how huge volumes of data are analysed by GCHQ computer programmes to identify trends of communication which are deemed to require further examination.

On November 20, 2014, Channel 4 News broadcast an investigation prepared in collaboration with German broadcaster WDR. This report revealed that a leading UK communications company co-operated with GCHQ to allow access to data, including that carried by a rival Indian telecommunications company. The broadcast detailed an operation centred on fibre-optic cables surfacing at Porthcurno beach and Sennen Cove in Cornwall, with data travelling to a nearby cable landing station at Skewjack Farm, and then onwards to GCHQ Bude.

RAF Digby –
the American presence here is a quiet one but has a profound impact, as soldiers, sailors, and airmen work together with their British counterparts to produce critical intelligence on a wide variety of targets – all tasked by GCHQ.

The SIGINT mission here is incredibly diverse and tailored to intelligence needs from STRATCOM, NORTHCOM, EUCOM, and CENTCOM in addition to UK customers — including direct support to UK forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. DIRNSA’s vision of increasing collaboration with Second Party partners is a reality on the Digby ops floor every day, with collectors, linguists, and analysts working as a virtual team with their counterparts at GRSOC, MRSOC , and the new Alaska Mission Operations Center.

Digby’s function is not limited to that of a passive observer, however. Its central mission, one GCHQ document explains, is to “produce and deliver near-real time intelligence … in order to support military and contingency operations.” It has been integral to a program code-named “AIRHANDLER,” for example, which uses surveillance equipment on Predator and Reaper drones to gather data that is then passed to military commanders. During one six-month period in 2009, there were 148 AIRHANDLER missions flown out of Digby – averaging about five each week. The base was also equipped with a capability enabling it to perform “(near) real-time co-location” of GSM mobile phones.

Indications are that Digby’s assistance to military forces on the ground has centred around missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where British and American troops have been deployed. But the facility also carries out a broader global role when it comes to providing tactical military support. One confidential document describes Digby as a “unique” site because it has a joint British and American navy surveillance department within it. This department – known as a Maritime Cryptologic Integration Center – backs up mobile sea, air, and land units operating in parts of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Barents, Baltic, and Black seas, and across North and sub-Saharan Africa.

RAF Digby

See also:

US Bases in Yorkshire

Two important US bases in Yorkshire

RAF Fylingdales is a US/UK Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and US Space Surveillance and Missile Defence radar facility – a command, control and communications installation for the United States military and its “missile defense” or “Star Wars” project. It lies within the North York Moors National Park..

The area to the north, east and south of Snod Hill on the North Yorkshire Moors had been used as a military firing range from the 1st World War until the 1950s. The US North Atlantic Relay communications system (NARS) was developed using Fylingdales. With the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles the US military needed forwarded radar bases to cover the north and east towards the then Soviet Union. It was the time of the Cold War, the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and “four minute” warning of nuclear attack. Fylingdales continues to be a vital part of the threat and use of nuclear weapons and this includes the Trident system, as well as management of any war.

The site of the radar was originally planned for Fylingdales Moor which is now a conservation area somewhat to east, Snod Hill being higher ground was more suitable for the radar system. It is part of a chain of U.S BMEWS to cover the north and east, the other two being Thule in Greenland and Clear in Alaska.

The first radars, opened in 1963, were housed in 3 radomes on concrete plinths. They were operated mechanically and covered a distance of 3000 miles to the north and east of Fylingdales. With the development of computers, satellites and space technology, Fylingdales has become even more a part of the U.S war fighting machine.

In 2001 a new radar was built. This was in the form of the truncated pyramid and is a Solid State Phased Array radar that generates a powerful microwave beam from its three surfaces that is steered electronically, not mechanically. It has the same 3000 miles range of the old system but has a 360 degree coverage, automatically sweeping the whole area.

The original three radomes were demolished. A weld-mesh fence, and an electric fence was established directly around all the buildings within the base, together with razor wire, police dogs and cameras and lighting. So, while the security was upgraded, the MOD controlled land is less (but not absolutely free of restrictions) and areas of moorland to the east, north and south are not fenced in.

It was not until after the opening of the radar that it was officially announced that Fylingdales was part of the U.S Missile Defence programme and the system was upgraded again in 2010 to enable more accurate tracking and targeting of objects such as missiles and it was fully integrated into the U.S. system. On entering the main building a visitor can see the US influence by the pictures of US Space Command scattered around the walls.

The previous installations of a MILSTAR antennae and the SATCOM radome (now apparently removed from their position around the back of the base – perhaps to be replaced by fibre optic cable communications?) and periodic updates of computer systems, indicate an upgrade of the facilities to watch and gather information of other country satellites, satellite interception, targeting and war fighting capability.

There are no missiles or bombs within Fylingdales but The Independent has reported that the British Government secretly agreed to a US request to station NMD missile interceptors there in late 2004. This has subsequently been denied by the Ministry of Defence and, in fact, missile interceptors are now being installed in Poland and Romania.

Fylingdales’ Role

Fylingdales is one of the 3 stations in an American Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) chain of radars linked across the North Atlantic. It could be information from this radar station that initiates a nuclear response from the US and/or the UK to a percieved threat – real or false; intended or accidental.

Fylingdales was first declared operational in 1953 and served as a key NATO listening post during the Cold War. The other 2 BMEWS stations are Thule in Greenland – operated by the 12th Space Warning Squadron (or SWS) and Clear in Alaska – operated by the 13th SWS – both components of the USAF 21st Space Wing based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. The current radar system at Fylingdales is a 3-faced phased array radar that operates in the UHF (420-450 MHz) frequency range.

During the Cold War, Fylingdales operated under the US “Masterplan for tactical Warning and Attack” which listed the aims of BMEWS as being to:

  • Support and aid the survival of strategic military forces of the US;
  • Provide an accurate basis for national (i.e. US national) command authority response decisions;
  • Enhance the warfighting effectiveness of the strategic nuclear forces of the United States.

The land on which the base sits is owned by the UK Ministry of Defence, but the equipment is owned and maintained by the US Defense Department.

In time of war, it would provide the US President with information on what has and has not been attacked, monitor trajectories of both surveillance satellites and incoming ballistic missiles and allow prioritising and accurate response and targeting on “enemy” satellites and ballistic missiles.

The base employs approximately 80 Service personnel, 80 MOD Policemen and women, and a further 200 civilian staff and contractors. One US military representative is also on the base, and a number of the contractors who maintain the equipment are from the US.

The base performs four main functions:

Primary Function

The detection and identification of an Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) targetted on the US or the UK. The ‘4 minute warning’ of the Cold War was derived from the approximate length of time between the point at which a missile from the Soviet Union could be confirmed and its impact on targets in the UK.

Secondary Function

The detection, identification and tracking of  man-made objects in earth orbit, as a contribution to the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN).The SSN consists of radar, optical, and passive sensors located around the world. The site tracks objects in near earth orbit out to a range of 3000 nautical miles. When an object penetrates the radar’s coverage, the radar tracks the object to identify it as a missile or space object. Over the course of one day, a space object can penetrate the radar’s coverage a number of times and Fylingdales can track something like 55,000 objects in one day. As part of the identification aspect of space surveillance, the site routinely collects Space Object Identification on numerous objects. SOI can be used to discriminate between a rocket body or satellite payload.

Tertiary Function

The base’s third role is to perform a UK specific mission–the Satellite Warning Service for the UK. SWSUK gives UK forces warning of surveillance by satellites of potentially hostile or other nations. Until recently, SWSUK’s primary concern was military satellites gathering intelligence. With the increasing availability of imagery from commercial sources, SWSUK now focuses on any satellite that an adversary could use to gather information on UK forces and operations.

Missile Defence Function

Following the required ‘Star Wars’ upgrade, the base also performs a fourth function of being an active part of the US National Missile Defense System aimed at shielding the US mainland from ballistic missile attack. In this role it is one of the 5 high powered of radars that cover the entire coastline of the continental United States to detect and warn of a missile attack.

Fylingdales is thus part of a global system of US bases that are linked and coordinated to give warning, tracking and targeting capability for US battle management and warfare around the globe. These include Western Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, North America, Northern South America and areas of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for ballistic missile launches (see below).

The base’s role is purely to report (missile and satellite) events. The information gathered by the radar, which stands 120 feet high on the North Yorkshire Moors, is passed to the US and UK simultaneously and those higher up the hierarchy make decisions on what to do about the information gathered from this and other data obtained from other stations.

The central control for US missile ‘defence’ programmes is Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Nebraska.

See below for a description of the base’s Early Warning procedure. The information is sent to both countries via secure landline and satellite connections. The US maintains a Satcom dish at the base for use in the event of a landline fault. The dish is not available for use by the UK.

The radar’s Missile Warning role refers only to Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The radar beam is 3° above the horizon and so at the limit of the beam (3000 miles) it is actually 1200 miles above the grounds. As such, the radar is not able to act as an Early Warning system for smaller missiles, such as cruise missiles, which don’t travel as high as ICBMs during flight.

The radar beam constantly sweeps 360°. Each face of the three-faced truncated pyramid has around 2500 aerials on it. Should it ever be necessary, there would be room for around another 1000 aerials on each face. The aerials can change beam direction in a matter of microseconds, independently, allowing the radar to cover the full 360° in a fraction of a second. Although the beam is not designed to deliberately bend over the horizon, in certain atmospheric conditions this does happen.

The radar beam has created serious concern of radiation risks due to leakage from the sides of the beams -“side lobes”. Although the radiation levels are within UK limits (NRPB), it would be harder for the base to keep within the tighter EU limits (INIRPB), which the UK may soon adopt. There is also concern that even these limits are insufficient for the type of radiation produced by the beam and that the pulsing of the radar each time it changes direction may also be very harmful. Since the missile defence function of the base will require it to pulse more often, the upgrade has caused considerable concern in the local community.

Missile Sequence Example

  • A missile is launched
  • The Defense Support programme satellites pick it up
  • Fylingdales, along with every other BMEW station is advised about a launch, as is Cheyenne Mountain and Missile Warning cell at RAF High Wycombe.
  • Independent assessments of this early data are made in the US and UK and this data is sent to the BMEW stations.
  • If the missile breaks Fylingdales’ beam (it will be within 2 – 10 minutes) then Fylingdales has 60 seconds from that point to make an assessment. They work out if this is a “valid event” – they don’t make a threat assessment. Fylingdales makes its assessment independently of any other BMEW station whose beam the missile may also have broken.
  • If it is a valid event, the crew commander sends a message to the UK and US simultaneously that it is a valid event. They also supply information on the launch point, which will have been worked out, and some information on a predicted impact point. This information is refined during the missile’s flight.

The information goes to the US (and Canada due to their involvement in NORAD) and the UK simultaneously for a decision.

Protest at Fylingdales

RAF Menwith Hill is a huge US National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office base with surveillance, drone operation, missile defence and military intelligence functions. Menwith Hill is one of the United States’ most important overseas bases, playing an integral role in the broader strategy of US global power projection. Nominally an RAF base, it is operated and controlled by the National Security Agency. Established in total secrecy by President Truman in 1952, the NSA is responsible for all US signals intelligence (SIGINT) activities, essentially the interception of electronic communications, both military and commercial. During the Cold War, the NSA rapidly expanded its operations and established a global interception network with intelligence analysis at its headquarters in Fort Meade near Washington.

Drone flight over NSA Menwith Hill by Duncan Campbell (

The MoD purchased nearly a square mile of farmland and moorland near Harrogate in the 1950s, in preparation for a US SIGINT base. But it was only after the development of satellite technologies that Menwith Hill took on its (in)famous characteristics, with giant radome/golf ball structures. From a total of four in the early 1970s, there are now over thirty, reflecting the growth in satellite communications and the base’s interception capabilities. Personnel numbers have also expanded from 400 to over 2,000, mainly US military and civilian personnel and US contractors, supplemented by UK civilian workers and an unspecified number of GCHQ personnel. Essentially, Menwith Hill is run as an American enclave, with its own facilities and with the highest security clearance reserved for senior DoD personnel and US contractors.

The fundamental issue is how the NSA has carried out a secret, multi-billion dollar investment programme at its regional centres to take advantage of advances in technology for integrated intelligence using electronic interceptions and satellite imagery. The NSA and other US intelligence agencies represented at Menwith Hill are now capable of overseeing ‘real-time’ military operations, identifying low-visibility targets and coordinating special operations forces and remote-control technologies like drones. This is described by US strategists as ‘tightening the kill chain’.

In September 2016, the online investigative journal The Intercept revealed that NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden showed that intelligence gathered through satellite technology at Menwith Hill help the US with targeted killings. Advanced surveillance programmes are used to locate ‘suspected terrorists accessing the internet in remote parts of the world‘ and ‘provided support for conventional British and American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.’ The programs (with names such as GHOSTHUNTER and GHOSTWOLF) have provided support for conventional British and American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have also aided covert missions in countries where the U.S. has not declared war.

NSA documents describe GHOSTHUNTER as a way “to locate targets when they log onto the internet.” First developed in 2006 as “the only capability of its kind”, it enabled “a significant number of capture-kill operations” against alleged terrorists. Only a few specific examples are given, but those cases give an insight into the extraordinary power of the technology.

There is clear evidence that the UK and US governments work together to aid Saudi Arabia’s serious breaches of international law by targeting civilians in Yemen. Britain has swept aside the evidence and is silencing the media in a cynical move to maintain lucrative UK arms sales. The UK government has misled parliament by denying its role in these illegal operations. In his book, Web of Deceit, historian Mark Curtis lays out “Britain’s real role in the world” and concludes that, for several centuries, the primary function of the British state is to aid British companies in getting their hands-on other countries’ resources. This means initiating war, military interventions, threats, bullying, and other aggressive actions, usually in support of the US and/or NATO.

This global imperialism is dressed up in propaganda as “countering terrorism”, “improving world security”, “working with our allies” and similar pieties propagated by the ‘mainstream’ media. In this way, Britain is partly responsible for appalling acts of violence, while proclaiming its supposed desire for ‘peace’ and ‘security’. The siting of these critical installations on British soil underlines the close integration of British and American intelligence activities and is an example of how the 800 or so foreign military bases spread around the world are utilised to further the empirical reach of the US.

Jemima Stratford QC, a leading British human rights lawyer, told The Intercept that there were “serious questions to be asked and serious arguments to be made” about the legality of the lethal operations aided from Menwith Hill. The operations, Stratford said, could have violated the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty that the U.K. still remains bound to despite its recent vote to leave the European Union. Article 2 of the Convention protects the “right to life” and states that “no one shall be deprived of his life intentionally” except when it is ordered by a court as a punishment for a crime.

According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Menwith Hill has two main spying capabilities. Firstly FORNSAT, which uses powerful satellite receiving antennae inside the golf ball domes to eavesdrop on communications being transmitted between foreign satellites. Secondly OVERHEAD, uses U.S. government satellites orbiting above targeted countries to locate and monitor wireless communications on the ground below — such as cellphone calls and WiFi traffic.


MOONPENNY, Menwith Hill’s foreign satellite surveillance mission, has been monitoring 163 different satellite data links since 2009. The intercepted communications are interrogated and possibly passed on for further investigation to NSA HQ at Fort Mean, Maryland. It is not clear how many communications Menwith Hill is capable of tapping into at any one time, but in one 12-hour period in May 2011 more than 335 million metadata records were logged, and information retrieved such as the sender and recipient of an email, or the phone numbers someone called and at what time.

Protest at Menwith Hill

It has been made clear by ministers that there are now no circumstances in which British governments envisage the use of military force, except in harness with the US. Even Britain’s own colonial-era overseas bases, such as Diego Garcia, have long been handed over to the US military, while its inhabitants were expelled. Britain’s fake patriots who bleat about the power of the European Commission are more than happy to subordinate the country’s foreign policy to the Pentagon and allow its forces permanent bases on British soil.

Weekly protests are organised by the Menwith Hill Accountability Campaign