Thursday, April 03, 2008

Russia's satellite snoopers


Seen from on high

Apr 3rd 2008

Russia's secret satellite snoopers

IF YOU use Google Earth to follow the A-212 road west out of Pskov, shortly before you reach what was until 1940 the Soviet border with independent Estonia, your eye may be caught by a curious black oval to the north of the road.

Look closely, and it turns out to be the shadow cast by a large satellite dish. At maximum resolution the image (pictured) is striking. The biggest dish is nearly 20m in diameter. A second one is about 10m, and five smaller ones are nearby. A shadow cast by a large wire antenna on two radio masts is also visible, as well as shiny new guard houses and an administration block, surrounded by a high concrete wall.

(c) 2008 Digital Globe (c) 2008 Europa Technologies
(c) 2008 Digital Globe (c) 2008 Europa Technologies

The installation has been built recently. (Your columnist visited the area in 2002 and nothing was visible then). What is it for? It is not recorded in any commercial directory under either the topographical name, Durkovo, or the nearest small town, Neyelovo. The military guardtower strongly suggests a close connection with Russian officialdom.

A top western security official notes that this is almost the only point in the Russian Federation (aside from the exclave of Kaliningrad) that is within the footprint of one of the most important Inmarsat satellites, Inmarsat 4-F2, which covers the region known as Atlantic Ocean Region-West. Ordinary users of satellite mobile phones and the like would find the signal this far east too faint. But with a whacking great dish, it would be possible to communicate—or to eavesdrop.

The pickings would certainly be rich. Inmarsat 4-F2 is one of the largest and most powerful communications satellites ever built. The size of a double-decker bus, it carries huge amounts of voice and data traffic, both private and government, some of it secret. It is particularly important for users of 3G mobile-broadband technology. If you are in Europe or the Americas and have a USB dongle on your laptop, there is a good chance that the data you send and receive goes via Inmarsat 4-F2.

Tracing the border of the satellite footprint round to the north does lead to one more intriguing point on the map: the island of Hogland (Gogland in Russian, Suursaari in Finnish) in the Gulf of Finland. That is even further west than Pskov.

The Soviet Union seized Hogland from Finland during the war, deporting the fisherfolk who lived there. Some construction has been taking place there of something but it is hard to make out anything from Google Earth, which has not photographed the island with sufficient resolution. One clue may be that in 2006, the FSB declared the island a border zone, making it off-limits to tourists except those with special permission. Why would that be?

The world of SIGINT (Signals intelligence) is notoriously tight-lipped. Those trying to prise even the simplest data from America’s electronic spying agency, the National Security Agency, joke that its initials really stand for “No Such Agency”. Even the phrase “satellite reconnaissance” was deemed too sensitive and the bafflingly euphemistic “national technical means” used instead.

Russia’s electronic eyes and ears are the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, known by its Russian initials FAPSI. Formerly the 8th and 16th Chief Directorates of the KGB, it is now part of the FSB, Russia’s main security organ. The press service of the FSB did not respond to phone calls, emails and faxes seeking comment for this article.


stalker said...

It's all preparation for the Final Phase, Ed.

Moscow is becoming Mordor. Just look at the similarities!!

Pathetic USA will be crushed by the glorius Russian boot, destroying Western smug, self-righteous hypocrisy and ushering in a new era of global peace and justice under Russia's bening and enlightened rule.

Anton said...

Just another secret location, similar to Area 51 and etc.

Colleen said...

Maybe it's Russia's answer to HAARP, who knows, but here's an interesting story:

Globus II is a radar station in Vardø, Norway, near the Russian border.

And, as per wiki:

When the radar was built the Norwegian official statement was that it was going to be used to monitor objects in space. Such objects include satellites and space debris. This information was to be added to the orbital database provided by the US Space Command.

In April 1998 a Norwegian journalist, Inge Sellevåg, from the daily newspaper Bergens Tidende discovered that NASA had no knowledge of a new radar being added to the system. This led him to suspect it had other purposes and Mr. Sellevåg discovered that it was also going to be used for national purposes such as intelligence gathering [4].

In 2000, during a storm, the radome was torn off and uncovered the radar-dish[5]. At that time the it was pointing directly towards Russia. A local newspaper editor commented: "I'm not an expert, but I thought space was in the sky.". Official comments claimed that the radar was still being tested and that it pointed towards Russia was a pure coincidence. The Russian general Leonid Ivasjov said in a statement to the Norwegian newspaper, Dagbladet, that Russia had programmed tactical nuclear weapons to attack the radar station.

Today, it is believed that Globus II has an important role in the US anti-ballistic missile system. Located near the Russian border it is highly capable of monitoring and building a signature database of Russian missiles. In addition, Vardø is well placed for the radar to collect precision data on the warheads and decoys carried by possible Russian, future Iranian (and, formerly, Iraqi) missiles fired toward the United States. These considerations, together with the questionable nature of the advantages of Globus II as a space surveillance sensor, have led to even more controversy, including a series of official complaints by Russia.


Giustino said...

Thanks for reminding of us of how NATO had already been on Russia's border prior to its 2004 and 1999 enlargements.