21 May 2013
With New Mini-Satellites, Special Ops Takes Its Manhunts Into Space
By Noah Shachtman


A U.S. soldier participates in a night-raid training mission during Emerald Warrior 2012, an exercise put together by U.S. Special Operations Command. Photo: USAF

In September, the U.S. government will fire into orbit a two-stage rocket from a Virginia launchpad. Officially, the mission is a scientific one, designed to improve America’s ability to send small satellites into space quickly and cheaply. But the launch will also have a second purpose: to help the elite forces of U.S. Special Operations Command hunt down people considered to be dangerous to the United States and its interests.

For years, special operators have used tiny “tags” to clandestinely mark their prey — and satellites to relay information from those beacons. But there are areas of the world where the satellite coverage is thin, and there aren’t enough cell towers to provide an alternative. That’s why SOCOM is putting eight miniature communications satellites, each about the size of a water jug, on top of the Minotaur rocket that’s getting ready to launch from Wallops Island, Virginia. They’ll sit more than 300 miles above the earth and provide a new way for the beacons to call back to their masters.

The officers in charge of SOCOM say their forces will soon do less manhunting, and more training of foreign troops. Perhaps so. But with senior Pentagon officials predicting “at least another 10 to 20 years” of combat with al-Qaida, these special operations forces will continue with their mission of “tagging, tracking, and locating” suspected militants. In this fiscal year alone, SOCOM will spend $88 million on new tagging gear.

This isn’t SOCOM’s first mini-satellite. In December of 2010, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket put into orbit a $25,000 special operations spacecraft small enough to fit into the palm of a hand. The satellite stayed more than 170 miles up for about a month. But that first flight was mostly a proof of concept that something so cheap and small could have any military value at all. (“Just to test the theory that we could do it,” Douglas Richardson, SOCOM’s executive in charge of Special Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Exploitation Technologies, explained in 2011.)

The Operationally Responsive Space-3 mission (.pptx) will carry eight satellites for SOCOM (plus another 20 for other government agencies). This array of configurable “cubesats” is designed to stay aloft for three years or more. Yes, it will serve as further research project. But “operators are going to use it,” Richardson promised an industry conference in Tampa last week. His presentation showed a cubesat under the heading “tagging, tracking, and locating.”

Special operators are already using a dizzying panoply of equipment in order to perform “TTL,” as it’s called within the military. Last fiscal year, SOCOM put into the field 7,000 TTL kits, Jennifer Powers, the project manager in charge of tags, tells Danger Room. Those kits are individually tailored to the environment – jungle or desert, urban or rural — and can be filled with a mix of 190 different pieces of gear. While SOCOM funds mid-term research to make the beacons more compact and less power-hungry, new gear can also be fielded in as little as three days.

A slide on TTL (tagging, tracking, and locating) technology presented at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. Photo: SOCOM

Some of the beacons use infrared flashes to signal their location; in 2009, al-Qaida propagandists claimed they found them all over villages that had been hit with U.S. drone strikes. Others are implanted into seemingly-innocent commercial electronics. Under “TTL examples,” Richardson’s presentation (.pdf) showed pictures of a cell phone and a key fob, like the kind used to open a car. Still other tags are affixed to cars or people, and transmit their whereabouts using satellite or CDMA, GPRS, and other cellular networks.

Until 2009, the market for these tags was dominated by the secretive, Virginia-headuqartered Blackbird Technologies, Inc., which counts a former chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center as a executive. That year, the firm won a contract from the Navy for up to $450 million in TTL equipment.

But since then, SOCOM has decided to introduce some competition into the tagging market. (Blackbird, meanwhile, saw one of its employees fall victim to a gruesome murder-suicide last fall.)  Cobham Plc, a British firm, is now one of several firms supplying American special operators with TTL gear.

Cobham claims its UniTrac system can perform “tracking and command/control of over 70 different tracking devices and communications networks.” The 2.5-inch GPS tags themselves weigh about 2.5 ounces and can send out SMS messages when someone walks or drives nearby. ”These solutions give valuable intelligence as to the ‘pattern of life’ of subjects, as well as being used for live tracking, location and apprehension of criminals,” the company promises in an online brochure.

TTL also means keeping tabs on targets’ data, in addition to the people themselves. So Virginia-based EWA Government Solutions, Inc. not only markets a line of radio frequency tags for “High-Value Target Tagging Missions” and “Intelligence Operations.” (.pdf)  The firm also sells a “Black Hole” wi-fi intercept system (.pdf), which is allegedly able to crack the encryption keys protecting 802.11 networks, and suck up all the traffic being communicated therein.

That gives operators “the ability to filter, display, and reconstruct e-mail messages (POP3, SMTP, IMAP), instant messaging (Yahoo, ICQ, AOL, MSM), or web page (HTTP) activity,” EWA asserts. “A simple double-click will reconstruct e-mail messages, web pages, and instant message conversations.”

EWA says its technology is being used in “real-world operations with various Department of Defense and national- level agencies.” The company won’t say which agencies or which divisions of the Pentagon, exactly, have used their technologies. But a look in a federal purchasing database shows that the company has signed multi-million dollar contracts in recent years with the Army, Navy, and, of course, U.S. Special Operations Command.

The commandos were already using all the gear they could in order to zero in on their targets. Come September, they’ll have even more, orbiting at 300 miles up.

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