Analysis: How the UK connects to the US global drone network

A single acronym in a US defence contract provided the clue that established the role of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure in US drone flights

A single acronym in a US defence contract notice provided the clue that established the role of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure in supporting controversial US drone flights.

It was buried in an official notice unearthed by legal charity Reprieve last year. The document showed the US Defense Information Systems Agency (Disa) had awarded BT a contract to provide a fibre-optic line between a US military communications base at RAF Croughton, Northamptonshire, and Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, the base for US operations in the Horn of Africa.

Overlooked with other technical acronyms in Disa's contract summary was the stipulation that the UK to Djibouti line would feature "DISN" routers. That was the start of unravelling the story behind this contract.

A Computer Weekly investigation established he UK's crucial role in supporting the US military network, by providing part of the core communications backbone used by drone operations.

DISN is the Defense Information Systems Network, the fibre-optic backbone of US military and intelligence communications, and the foundation of targeting systems used in drone operations.

"Service shall be between a DISN service delivery point at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti and a DISN ODXC at RAF Croughton, UK," said the notice.

The UK connection upgraded Camp Lemonnier's communications to handle a greater frequency of operations. It coincided with the camp's promotion as an outpost for US Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO - what used to be known as the war on terror) to an officially designated military base.

"Funding is required for hardware and software systems and equipment at Camp Lemonnier to enable NIPRNet/SIPRNet/CENTRIXS networks to be remotely operated from Stuttgart," said the US Navy's 2013 budget justification in February 2011, eight months before BT won a contract to provide the connection.

Stuttgart is the location of Kelly Barracks, the headquarters of US Africa Command (Africom), which shares responsibility for operations on the Horn of Africa with US Central Command. Its operations include an extensive humanitarian and state-building mission, as well as counter-terrorism operations.

The US Navy requested funding in 2012 to connect a fibre optic DISN connection at the base with technology matching BT's contract specification - a DISN Subscriber Services (DSS) Node and a Multiple-Service Protocol Platform (MSPP).

UK telecoms infrastructure used to support controversial US drone operations

The UK’s telecommunications infrastructure is being used as part of a global defence intelligence network that the US government uses for controversial drone operations and other military purposes.

Click here to read the Computer Weekly news story.

Daily communications delays 

The justification was a need for more capacity for military operations, notably "increased OCO requirements for NIPRNET, SIPRNET, and JWICs bandwidth/throughput," according to the document.

"DSS/MSPP will alleviate congestion/data packet loss on existing circuits. Camp Lemonnier tenants are experiencing TCP/IP communications delays daily," it said.

The DISN connection would "provide all US Africom network users the same look and capabilities, regardless of location in Africa or Europe".

The US military uses JWICS and SIPRNET for classified communications. Computer Weekly understands the DISN connection would be routed to Stuttgart via the US air force base at Landstuhl/Ramstein and RAF Croughton in the UK. Disa would not confirm the existence of a DISN trunk between the UK and Germany, but a map of SIPRNET published by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in 2004 shows it was an established route.

A recent job advert for an intelligence analyst to work in Information Operations at US Africom in Stuttgart gave an indication of the capabilities of its DISN connection.

The job, advertised on 14 February 2014 by US defence contractor CACI International, involves operating the GCCS-I3 and JWICS systems, and Prism. The analyst is required to build an intelligence portfolio of potential targets.

The job would "identify adversary forces, adversaries' capabilities for planned activities ("deny", "degrade" and other such military terminology) and "High Value Targets" and "high-payoff C2/C4I targets".

Stuttgart – which is also the location of the Disa-Europe office that contracted BT – had its own DISN connection upgraded in 2012, according to Disa and DoD 2012 budget estimates.

Lemonnier could only receive top-secret SIPRNET communications over its DISN connection if it was adequately protected. Another reference in the contract notice indicated that it would be built to operate at the highest security levels.

The concept of a sensor will extend to virtually every piece of equipment capable of sensing and passing data, from orbiting satellites to an individual soldier's gun sights

US Department for Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005

Disa stipulated the UK-Djibouti connection would be terminated with "KG-340 encryption devices". Technical specifications published by SafeNet, the original manufacturer of KG-340 devices, said they were built to National Security Agency (NSA) "Type 1" specifications. Type 1 means use NSA algorithms to protect data to the Top Secret classification level.

From Croughton, according to the contract notice, the DISN fibre-optic trunk line goes to Djibouti via Capodichino, the site in Naples, Italy, of another US communications hub, and the US Navy's European and African command centres.

Naples, like Ramstein, is also where the US Navy has located two of eight antennas called Teleports, which connect satellite communications (satcoms) to DISN. Teleports were designed to connect satellite users to core US defence computer systems and comprise part of a plan to ease network congestion caused by burgeoning numbers of drone missions sending streaming video back to the core DISN systems.

Global Information Grid 

By connecting the satellite system to DISN, Teleports were one of main architectural joints of a grander network project called the Global Information Grid (GIG).

GIG was intended to hook all US defence and intelligence systems, and surveillance and weapons platforms such as drones, into the same network using internet technology. This dedicated military internet connected more than 3,500 US military facilities and bases in 88 countries, said a DoD Task Force on Intelligence Integration in 2008. The DISN was its backbone, connecting the major bases.

The US Department for Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030 said by 2012, the year the BT-supplied line went in, the Teleports would combine with improved satcoms and laser data links on drones to create a seamless network.

The US had established Teleports to link satcoms to DISN in seven locations around the world, including two on the UK route between Stuttgart and Lemonnier - Lago Patria, Italy; and Landstuhl/Ramstein, Germany. The others – according the US Navy's 2013 Program Guide – were: Bahrain; Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Buckner, Okinawa, Japan; Camp Roberts, California; and Northwest, Virginia. DoD's 2014 budget cited another Teleport at Guam, a US island in the Philippines.

Teleports are frequently described in public documents as the interface between US military satcom users and DISN. In the field, US forces rely on radio and satellites to communicate. But since the Pentagon has come to depend on information to conduct its battles, deployed forces need access to global computer systems and big databases. If they can communicate with a satellite, that will bounce them to the nearest Teleport, and that will give them "reachback" into the systems on the DISN.

The work to hook drones into the Teleports was ongoing, however, said the DoD 2013-2036 Roadmap last December. Some drone systems were using old, proprietary communications that did not use the internet protocol, and therefore could not talk to the Teleports.

But the DoD made an interim plan to use network interfaces that would translate "legacy" drone systems so they could communicate with GIG/DISN. Last December, the DoD's 2013 US Roadmap said this had been done. Network gateways ensured even incompatible drones would rely on the DISN for mission communications.

Camp Lemonnier tenants are experiencing TCP/IP communications delays daily

Drone command and control 

US forces use the DISN to transmit command and control (C2) instructions to operate its drones over long distances, the DoD said in its 2013 Unmanned Systems Roadmap.

Drones also rely on DISN to disseminate intelligence imagery and other mission data they gather from their missions. Intelligence analysts and force commanders meanwhile use the DISN to plan and operate their missions.

"DoD and commercial gateways provide access to military and non-military satellites and to the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN) transport and Internet Protocol (IP) net-centric services, which in turn provide global distribution of mission data and enable long-range C2 of unmanned systems," said the roadmap.

"The communications links within this architecture support the C2 of unmanned platforms and their respective payloads and support the backhaul of information from those payloads to tactical, operational, and strategic consumers.

"Wherever possible, payload mission data should instantly reside on globally accessible data centres that enable users worldwide to find, obtain, and consume real-time and non-real-time ISR and other mission data.

"Unmanned systems programs should leverage the DISN core as their baseline terrestrial networking infrastructure for global connectivity."

The DoD was meanwhile pursuing the same plan it had 10 years ago, for Teleports to connect drones, and other remote surveillance sensors, directly to the GIG.

Network-centric warfare 

The GIG formed the basis of a decade-old US effort to transform its war machine into what it called a system of "network-centric warfare". Under this plan, connections such as the UK DISN line will form the basis of collaborative efforts between different US defence and intelligence agencies and allied partners to find, fix, track and attack targets as suspected terrorists.

The GIG plan involves trying to convert all intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, computer and communications systems, and weapons to use the internet protocol as the basis of their communications.

"All DoD Systems shall be able to interact on the GIG," said the 2005 Roadmap. "New unmanned aircraft (UA) systems shall be developed to comply with the GIG architecture from the outset. By connecting to the network, UAs become part of that network," said the document.

"Everyone on the GIG will become both a producer and a consumer of information. The concept of a sensor will extend to virtually every piece of equipment capable of sensing and passing data, from orbiting satellites to an individual soldier's gun sights.

"The vision is a ubiquitous network where every entity exists as a node and can share and use any data produced by any other node, anytime."

Weapons targeting 

GIG had been built at the same time as systems that would use its global infrastructure to improve targeting for surveillance and weapons platforms like drones. These included the Network-Centric Collaborative Targeting System (NCCT) – which the US began building in 2002 with help from the UK – and the Distributed Common Ground System, which shared ISR data and imagery from drones and other sources across DISN.

Unmanned systems programs should leverage the DISN core as their baseline terrestrial networking infrastructure for global connectivity

US DoD 2013 Unmanned Systems Roadmap

These were allied to the “data fusion” programme, a scheme to combine disparate ISR sources over the GIG to improve weapons targeting. This was the modus operandi of net-centric warfare.

The idea was that, if you had one drone with one sensor flying over a target area, its chance of spotting a target, keeping track of it and getting a good enough fix to shoot at was many times smaller than if numerous sensors from different drones and other intelligence sources like the DCGS were combined to create a composite, real-time picture.

DoD had invested in the GIG/DISN in order to make this possible. It had by 2008 become a "dedicated, encrypted core communications network which connects all major ISR sources to all major command centres," said the Task Force.

"The DISN is the GIG's communications backbone. It provides a very high speed, robust, fibre-based, terrestrial IP network linking all major fixed installations worldwide."

The fundamental mechanism for this was metadata. ISR intelligence, such as video from drone sensors, was transported over DISN for storage in the DCGS library. The 2005-2030 Roadmap said both Predator and Global Hawk drones used the DISN to feed data to the DCGS.

Sharing data 

By last year, the priorities and mechanisms of the GIG had been adopted across the entire US defence and intelligence community.

Craig A. Franklin, USAF Major General and vice-director of Joint Staff, issued an order in 2012 that apportioned responsibilities for defence and intelligence agencies to ensure they could share data across the GIG.

This order, called DISN Responsibilities, authorised a list of "cross-domain" network services, or facilities that would bridge defence and intelligence operations.

A seamless, single information environment optimised for the warfighter to achieve and maintain the information advantage as a critical element of national power

Craig A. Franklin, USAF Major General and vice director of Joint Staff

At that stage, in the year when BT was contracted to lay the DISN connection between the UK and Djibouti, those services included data synchronisation, file transfer, command and control support, email, secure chat, weapons control, mission intelligence, tactical communications and streaming video.

It assigned DISN responsibilities to directors of Disa, the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

"GIG 2.0 is the DOD effort to evolve the GIG, including the DISN infrastructure, into a seamless, single information environment optimised for the warfighter to achieve and maintain the information advantage as a critical element of national power," said Franklin's order.

"The DISN infrastructure is an integral part of the GIG."

RAF Croughton routes DISN connections across the GIG using an Optical Digital Cross Connect (ODXC) - a high-speed fibre-optic junction box. ODXC was specified in the BT contract. It is also given in DoD system diagrams that display the functional parts of the GIG network.

According to the Navy budget justification and Disa contract notice, the same line would be connected at Djibouti by a DISN Subscriber Services Node / Multiple-Service Protocol Platform (MSPP). An MSPP is a network multiplexor, which takes multiple fibre-optic lines of the type used to construct the GIG.

The encryptor specified in the Disa contract notice was a type given in GIG network diagrams in public documents. SafeNet classified the KG-340 as High Assurance Internet Protocol Encryptor - a HAIPE device of the sort designed to build the GIG.

BT has consistently said it has no knowledge of how the connection it provides for the US military is used and could not be held responsible for what anybody did with the communications infrastructure it supplied.

"BT can categorically state that the communications system mentioned in Reprieve’s complaint is a general purpose fibre-optic system. It has not been specifically designed or adapted by BT for military purposes. BT has no knowledge of the reported US drone strikes and has no involvement in any such activity,” said a spokesman.

The UK Ministry of Defence refused to comment. The US DoD has yet to respond to questions.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

Data Center
Data Management