HOPEFULLY, Irish Military Intelligence (G2) has worked out by now why an anonymous building in a Coolock industrial estate is of such importance to the US that it features in the top secret National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) – published worldwide by Wikileaks. The NIPP lists include the Hibernia Atlantic Cable Network Operations Centre (NOC) at Clonshaugh, Dublin 17.
The Hibernia Atlantic cable is a data super-highway carrying vast amounts of telecommunications (25 million simultaneous calls) between the US, Europe and elsewhere. It is one of a dozen transatlantic high speed fibre optic cables provided by several multi-national companies who make money by renting large chunks of data capacity to firms which supply wholesale internet, financial services links, phones and television. How much capacity on the cable is used by the US military for its huge worldwide communications needs can only be guessed at.
Hibernian Atlantic (incommunicado with the media since being outed by Wikileaks) probably doesn’t know: the data channels used by the Pentagon would be bought indirectly to secure the secrecy which Julian Assange and his whistleblowers have partly blown away in The Guardian and The New York Times. No attempt was made by Wikileaks to elaborate – and there was no mention of the word which explains why Dublin is so vital to US interests – Predator.
The Predator project has been mentioned widely and reported largely as a result of mishaps, as with killings at a school or a wedding party by Hellfire Predator missiles. About 150 of these small, remotely controlled drones are operated 24/7 in Afghanistan by the CIA and the US Air Force. Apart from the adverse publicity they attract for the CIA because of accidental massacres, Predators have another big problem – their remote control systems are unreliable because they are piloted from Creech Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas.
Over 250 USAF pilots work with CIA officers and 90 members of No. 39 RAF Squadron fly the 27-foot drones from computer terminals and TV consoles in Nevada. Their two person crews on the other side of the world from Afghanistan have visual contact with targets through encrypted data links which allow them to see what is happening on TV cameras.
All of this has been reported widely in the US media. The CIA has regularly boasted about the effectiveness of the project, and TV networks have screened pictures of Predator control rooms showing pilots at work in their armchairs. In all these reports, emphasis was placed on the use of earth satellites to control the killer drones. (See web archives of CBS TV and the 60 Minutes flagship programme of Aug 16, 2009, entitled America’s New Air Force). This secret media spin – that Predators are controlled in their Afghan area of operations, 7,500 miles away from the Mojave Desert, through earth satellite links – is a fib aimed at securing the earth-based high speed links like Hibernian Atlantic from attack by jihadists.
Satellite links have one big draw back: they are far out in space (22,000 miles for some) and the speed with which they can transfer data is considerably slower than land-based and under-ocean fibre optic cables. Data takes 500 milliseconds to travel by satellite. But with Hibernian Atlantic’s Dublin connection it takes 60 milliseconds to cross the ocean. The effect is called latency: the Coolock connection has low latency, a Nevada-Afghan satellite link has high latency. TV viewers can see this effect when a reporter using a satellite link has to pause to hear questions put to him from the studio.
US drones are flown over Afghanistan from a forward operating base (FOB) in Pakistan, where they are launched and directed for a short distance by US operators working from trailers via line-of-sight radio links. These links are useless beyond a few miles because of the mountainous topography in the region. When the drones reach a defined height, the skilled jet pilots in Nevada take over. Time delays which result in a two-second pause between joy-stick commands given to the drone by these pilots and the Predator’s response are operationally unacceptable. Hence the need for an earth-based low latency data system which eventually links up with a low orbit satellite over Afghanistan to greatly improve operational speeds.
An earth based system, of course, is more vulnerable to physical attack. A Holy Warrior who arrived at Sutton (where the Hibernian Atlantic cable comes ashore and from whence its east-bound companion heads to Southport and thence the Middle East) could do untold damage to the Predator campaign in Afghanistan, with little more than a spade and a hatchet. It is this, rather than considerations about Irish neutrality, which is the reason for the Dublin 17 centre being on that top secret list of vital facilities. But now the cat is out of the bag. No wonder the Yanks are so cross with Julian Assange. And no wonder the responsible Irish media has failed to follow up with investigation and publication of yet another example of Irish involvement in Uncle Sam’s military exploits.
© The Phoenix 17 December, 2010