The growing provision of private-sector signals intelligence gathering will take an important step forward with the launch of the UK’s IOD-3 AMBER CubeSat in 2020.
The IOD-3 AMBER will be the first of a constellation of satellites providing a global Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) footprint to enhance maritime security for the British government. While the exact number of satellites that will eventually be launched has not been revealed, it is expected to include less than ten spacecraft.
The satellites will possess both an L-band (1.3 gigahertz/GHz to 1.7GHz) and Automatic Identification System (AIS: 161.975 megahertz/MHz to 162.025MHz) SIGINT packages. This is derived from Horizon Technologies’ FlyingFish COMINT-gathering system. FlyingFish routinely equips aircraft particularly maritime surveillance, maritime patrol and signals intelligence-gathering platforms. These furnish several NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) navies, coastguards and border protection agencies. The L-band equipment will detect Satellite Communications (COMINT) from vessels across a waveband of one gigahertz to two gigahertz. AIS is mandated by the International Maritime Organisation for all vessels displacing in excess of 300 tonnes.
AIS transponders equipping vessels transmit an array of regarding a vessel’s voyage, identity and location. By correlating the AIS and the source of the L-band SATCOM it becomes possible to cross reference both sets of transmissions and match them to a vessel’s location. X-band (7.9-8.4GHz to 7.25GHz/7.75GHz) downlink and S-band (two to four gigahertz) SATCOM COMINT receivers will also be carried. Interestingly the concept of operations used for the constellation does not require a number of satellites to receive transmissions and then triangulate the position of a vessel, based upon signal’s time difference of arrival at each satellite. Instead, the IOD-3 uses “a new proprietary geolocation technology which does not include groups of satellites ‘flying in formation’” to perform direction-finding, notes John Beckner, chief executive officer of Horizon Technologies.
Why is such technology needed? The high seas are home to criminal activities whether that be narcotics or people smuggling, illegal fishing or environmental damage. Sometimes such activities are betrayed by a vessel switching off its AIS transponder, or altering its transmissions. This can have the effect of making the vessel appear in a different location, or to be moving at speeds not routinely associated with marine traffic. Should AIS transmissions be spotted from a vessel that seems to be in two locations, the simultaneous collection of SATCOM COMINT will indicate the likely real location of the ship: SATCOM transmissions will not, for example, also be coming from the false position. The version of the Flying Fish COMINT system equipping the satellite can also demodulate L-band SATCOM transmissions. This means that users can directly listen to these communications. This is important for gathering intelligence on what the targeted vessel maybe doing. Secondly, AIS can be switched off by a vessel. Should this happen and then SATCOM be initiated, this could reveal that the vessel is engaged in suspect, or illegal activity. From a humanitarian perspective monitoring L-band SATCOM can enable the user to instantly receive distress calls and to immediately organise assistance given that the vessel’s location can be determined through its SATCOM and AIS transmissions. For example, satellite phones using the Thuraya (1.525GHz to 1.661GHz) network are routinely used by people smugglers in the Mediterranean. The phones are often the only means of communications with the outside world that boats carrying refugees have. In this context, aircraft equipped with the Flying Fish payload have helped saved numerous lives by intercepting distress calls from these craft when they run into trouble.
The IOD-3 Amber satellite will transmit its SIGINT to the Goonhilly teleport in southwest England. There, the data will be analysed using Horizon Technologies’ AMBER Ground Exploitation System. The IOD-3 will be launched from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020. The satellite bus has been developed by AAC Clyde Space. Several undisclosed UK government agencies will receive the SIGINT collected by the satellites. The capability is being procured via a public-private partnership: Horizon Technologies and AAC Clyde has joined forces with the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult technology incubator and Nanoracks which is organising the launch from the ISS. Meanwhile, the British government is funding the initiative and will be the customer for the intelligence.