NEWS

US base joins intelligence battle

As American and British forces launched air strikes against the Taleban regime and camps of the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan, the US naval base at Souda Bay is fighting on another front – intelligence. The base – the last on Greek soil after the closure of two US Air Force bases, at Hellenikon near Athens and in Iraklion on Crete in the early 1990s – has seen increased activity by electronic reconnaissance aircraft, while security measures have been the highest in years and unprecedented in scale. According to base sources, an increased number of US Air Force RC-135 and US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance planes have been flying in and out of the base, with a greater number of reconnaissance plane crews arriving at the base. The same sources noted that on Sunday night, a large number of transport aircraft made a refueling stop at Souda on their way to the US base in Incirlik, Turkey, though it was not clear whether they were carrying special forces or cargo. Strategically located just 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Libya – known to harbor Islamic militants and Al-Qaeda cells – the base is on the front line of surveillance of North Africa, supporting both navy and air force reconnaissance detachments. But aside from its traditional role of surveillance, the base also undertakes intelligence-gathering operations in the current theater of operations. Located approximately 4,000 km (2,485 miles) from Kabul, the US naval base on Crete is also one of the forward locations for surveillance of that region. The RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft – which during the Cold War flew from remote bases in Alaska and elsewhere to collect data on Soviet ballistic missile testing – have a range of 9,100 km (5,650 miles) while if necessary they can also be refueled midair by KC-135 refueling aircraft. The aircraft, operated by a crew of 32, use passive sensors and gather imagery intelligence (IMINT), telemetry intelligence (TELINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT). The specific type of aircraft, which has been in service since 1956, also saw action during the Gulf War when they supplied intelligence through datalink to AWACS (advanced warning airborne communications systems) and navy command ships. The American base at Souda Bay back then also played a key role in supporting the theaterwide contingency operations. The second type of intelligence-gathering aircraft stationed at the base is the navy’s EP-3, a four-engine, low-wing, electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft. Known to the military intelligence community as Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System II (ARIES), it is the navy’s only land-based signals intelligence (SIGINT) surveillance aircraft. The $36-million aircraft – which also saw action in Bosnia and in the Gulf War – has a crew of 24 and can fly autonomously for 12 straight hours and over 4,500 km (3,000 miles). Intelligence gathered by these aircraft flying out of Souda Bay is processed on the base, which is also the site of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Consolidated Reconnaissance Operations Facility (CROF), and then relayed back to the United States for analysis by the security agency. Security measures Since the September 11 attacks in the United States, security has been a concern for the US forces abroad, and heightened measures have been taken at US military installations and diplomatic missions around the world. According to a US base official at Souda Bay, right after the September 11 terrorist attacks the installation was instructed to raise its alert posture to Force Protection Level Delta, defined as: A terrorist attack has occurred or intelligence has been received that action against a specific location is likely – the highest alert posture possible. Within hours of the attack, armed US security personnel from the base had been deployed at housing facilities outside base grounds to protect US servicemen from any possible attack, while Greek authorities provided additional police units that patrolled those areas in squad cars. The base has a total of 875 personnel, 500 of which are military. According to sources that requested anonymity, most of these measures are still in force, after a brief relaxation of security measures last Saturday. But the alert posture has been scaled down to Force Protection Level Charlie, which applies when an incident occurs or intelligence indicates some form of terrorist action against personnel and/or facilities is imminent. According to an official estimate, if threat condition Charlie measures last for more than a short period, it will probably create hardship for personnel and units. Some of the current measures include: joint Greek and American military patrols on base grounds; base perimeter patrols by several police overt and covert units; several checkpoints on base grounds for ID and base-pass check; the creation of special sentry posts with sandbags on rooftops and entry points; joint boat patrols by US Marines and Greek navy frogmen at the port facilities of the US base at Souda Bay harbor, while Greek security police officers have been assigned to the protection of housing facilities outside base grounds in cooperation with base security officials.