Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Friday, 13 January 2006

Libya jamming 'exposed vulnerability'

US troops on operations in Iraq
A jammed satellite could seriously affect troop effectiveness

An incident involving Libya blocking a dissident radio station late last year highlighted the potentially devastating consequences of relying too much on satellites, a British MP has warned.

In September 2005, the London-based station began beaming into Libya via satellite. Almost immediately, it was jammed by the Libyan authorities - but in blocking that signal, several other broadcasters, amongst them CNN and BBC World, were also blocked out.

However, UK Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has since admitted in Parliament that as a result of the jamming, government communications were disrupted, while a British newspaper later suggested US military communications were affected, too.

Andrew MacKinlay, the MP for Thurrock and member of the foreign affairs select committee, told BBC World Service's Analysis programme that this had shown the potential "for people with malign intent - terrorist organisations or regular states - to interfere with vital communications at a critical period."

"I'm very worried about this," he added.

"I fear there's an over-dependence on satellite communications which could leave us vulnerable in the future."

Good intelligence

The radio incident was a clear breach of international regulations, and the UK government complained to Tripoli shortly afterwards.

But Stuart Eves, who spent 16 years with the UK's Ministry of Defence and now works for commercial satellite company SSTL, stressed that the Libyans would have required both sophisticated equipment and expertise to achieve it.

"It would appear that they had some quite good intelligence on exactly which satellites were going to be used," he said.

"They had made such arrangements so that when this signal that they didn't like came on the air, they were immediately in a position to start trying to jam it and disrupt it."

The Foreign Office said there was a short disruption to "elements" of its communications, but that these were not significantly affected.

But Mr Eves said that the potential for satellite blocking to have a major impact was there - in particular regarding national defence.

"We find ourselves in a situation at the moment where the capacity of the UK's military Skynet satellites is not sufficient to support all the communications needs that we have," he said.

"The result is that we are using commercial satellites to carry some traffic, to support our troops in Iraq for example.

"The fact that the information on the frequencies that those satellites use is out in the public domain means that the likes of Tripoli or other nations could, if they had a reasonably sized dish on the ground and a generator, put up a signal that could inconvenience - at the very least - our troops for a while."

Military importance

The impact satellites have had on the workings of the modern military machine is illustrated by the difference in the numbers of troops used in the two recent US-led operations in the Gulf.

In 1991, 500,000 were deployed to push Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. Twelve years later, less than half that number were used in the invasion of Iraq - instead, the US deployed high-tech weaponry guided from space.

Andrew MacKinlay
Mr MacKinlay is a member of the Defence Select Committee

In the 1991 Gulf War, only 10% of Allied weaponry had so-called "smart" capability; in the second one, only 10% did not, with satellites used for weapons guidance.

Craig Covault, senior editor of the magazine Aviation Weekly and Space Technology, told Analysis that the Libya jamming incident had highlighted a "major concern" of the military, which is increasingly dependent on space technology.

If the jamming were to take place on GPS navigation satellites, he said, their effectiveness could be "totally ruined".

And the risk is only going to increase in future, he added.

"The US military budget for space programmes is about $25-30bn dollars a year, with about half of that top secret," he explained.

"There are about four or five new military communications satellite systems alone in development. And we see the same thing happening in other parts of the world - China is putting great emphasis on space capability, learning the lessons from the US from the last 15 years."

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