Project Crossbow: How a Norfolk RAF base plugs into the drone wars

Image analysis at TIW, RAF Marham

A map in the USAF’s new ‘RPA Vector Report’ released on April 4 2014 confirms that ‘Project Crossbow’ based at RAF Marham in Norfolk is part of the intelligence backbone guiding the growing use of US and UK drones.

While British Reaper drones based in Afghanistan are being remotely controlled from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, RAF Marham near Kings Lynn is home to Crossbow, a joint UK-US intelligence analysis project.  Operated by the RAF’s Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW) but “under the tactical control” of a USAF Squadron, Crossbow receives and feeds information into the US Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS).

‘Remote Operations Architecture’ map showing command & control connections and information feeds from US drones.  Source: USAF RPA Vector Report

Distributed Common Ground System

The Distributed Common Ground System is the US military’s key tool for collecting, analysing and distributing information and intelligence collected from U-2, Global Hawk, Predator, Reaper, MC-12 and what the USAF discreetly calls “other ISR platforms” (i.e. the Sentinel).   Other, more traditional manned aircraft also feed intelligence from various electronic sensors into the DCGS.

There are five military DCGS core sites which receive, analyze and disseminate information from “multiple ISR platforms in multiple theaters of operation simultaneously.”   The core sites, which are in turn networked with more than 20 other specialist information processing sites, are located at Langley Air Force base in Virginia, Beale Air Force base in California, Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii; Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Osan Air Force Base in South Korea.

A sixth DCGS, developed and operated by the US ‘intelligence community’ is not marked on the map no doubt for national security reasons.

This 20-second video demonstrates how the communications network works:

According to a Congressional GAO report into the Distributed Common Ground System published in June 2013

“Since the late 1990s, the military services have worked to develop the Distributed Common Ground/Surface System (DCGS) to provide more effective capabilities to process, analyze, and disseminate intelligence data. DCGS is not a single system but has evolved into a family of systems consisting of six acquisition programs managed individually by the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and the Intelligence Community. These programs are collectively referred to as the DCGS Enterprise. Each DCGS system is intended to incorporate a common software architecture and set of data standards to facilitate interoperability with one another. When completed the family of systems is expected to provide an information sharing infrastructure where virtually all military intelligence data will reside and the tools and services to enable users to discover and analyze the data regardless of who owns it.”

The GAO report states that “the total estimated cost of all the [military] service systems is more than $10.6bn for current set of capabilities being developed and fielded.”  With regard to the intelligence community DCGS – known as DCGS-IC – the GAO report states

“[The] sixth program – DCGS for the Intelligence Community – is managed by the National Reconnaissance Office to provide a link between the DoD and the national intelligence organizations; and is funded through intelligence appropriations.”

European Connections

The map clearly shows the connections between US drone operations over south Asia with Europe. Ramstein airbase in Germany, which hosts a DCGS system is one of three key nodes highlighted and is labelled ‘RTCF/PPSL ‘ or ‘Real Time Computer Facility / Primary Predator Satellite Link’. The fact that Ramstein is involved with US drones wars through hosting a DCGS core site has become highly controversial in Germany with many political and civil society groups demanding an end to the operations or at the very least more information.

The map details two other European nodes in the DCGS network besides Ramstein.   Firstly NAS Sigonella  is a US Navy Air Station that hosts US Global Hawk and Reaper drones. Global Hawks and Reapers flew from NAS Sigonella during the air war on Libya.  Italy also has its own unarmed Reapers which are also controlled from Sigonella and NATO’s AGS (a version of the Global Hawk) will also be based there.  Finally ‘Crossbow’ is highlighted on the map.

The Crossbow Connection

According to the RAF, since March 2011 Crossbow has been “providing near real time imagery intelligence analysis in support of UK and Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Analysts receive feed from the US Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), which provides globally-networked Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.”  Air Officer ISTAR, Air Commodore ‘Flash’ Gordon (yes, really) stated:

“CROSSBOW is an innovative, affordable and highly effective force multiplier that significantly enhances our combat Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities; it also serves to demonstrate the close and enduring cooperation between the RAF and USAF”.

Image analysis at TIW, RAF Marham
Image analysis at TIW, RAF Marham

Like much of what happens in relation to the day-to-day use of drones, its hard to know what that means in actual practise.

According to the GAO report into DCGS: “The war efforts in Afghanistan continue to generate huge amounts of full motion video and other imagery data. Current analysis techniques are limited in that they demand the full attention of at least two intelligence analysts tasked with watching video, calling out observations, and transcribing the content.”

Last October in response to a question from Tom Watson MP about Crossbow, the MoD Minister Andrew Robathan stated that the imagery involved was only collected from RAF Tornados. However a month later, in response to a follow up question from Tom Watson, the new MoD minister Mark Francois corrected Robathan’s answer, admitting that “near real time imagery analysis of Full Motion Video collected by a range of UK and USAF Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets” is processed at RAF Marham.

According to the USAF, Crossbow is “under the tactical control or TACON” of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing (the unit which oversees the USAF part of the DCGS network) with an officer from the USAF 480 ISR wing based at RAF Marham.  In March 2014 the current officer, Capt. Brusle Sherburne IV (yes, honestly) was presented to the Queen when she visited the base.

Over the past two years there has been growing controversy around UK intelligence support for US drone strikes taking place in Pakistan and Yemen.  Reports have linked GCHQ in Cheltenham with providing UK intelligence for US strikes in Pakistan, while US bases in the UK – including Menwith Hill in Yorkshire and Croughton in Northamptonshire  – have also reportedly been processing intelligence for such strikes.  While public information indicates that Crossbow is only processing information from and for military operations in Afghanistan, the DCGS itself is clearly linked into the wider US intelligence system and deserves further investigation.  We shall, no doubt return to this issue in the future.


2 thoughts on “Project Crossbow: How a Norfolk RAF base plugs into the drone wars

Leave a Reply