Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How to build a $5,000 dollar UHF SATCOM antenna for under $20

Ultimate DIY: Military UHF SATCOM antenna
By Steve Douglass

I remember the first time I saw a Dorne & Margolin UHF portable SATCOM antenna. I know that may seem a bit weird and esoteric (an antenna leaving that kind of lasting impression) but the moment I saw one - I knew I wanted one.

It was many years ago at the annual “ROVING SANDS” military exercises held in southern New Mexico. I was there covering the games as an aviation journalist.

The world's largest air and missile defense exercise, ROVING SANDS overseen by the JFACC, combines Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force units and pits them against each other over the White Sands Missile Range and Biggs Army Ranges.

For many years Roving Sands afforded me a unique opportunity to observe (very up-close and personal) military aviation operations that didn’t require going through the laborious task of obtaining government-vetted-sanctioned press credentials, which is exactly what I didn’t want.

Once one is allowed on the inside - you only see the stuff they want you to see. Sure you have better access-but it is chaperoned access.

My job (then) was to look for the “unacknowledged” black-project aircraft that were rumored to be involved in the games, reporting for magazines such as Popular Science and Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Almost needless to say, my compatriots and I weren’t disappointed- but that’s different story for another day.

Anyway, (being a rabid military-monitoring hobbyist) I couldn’t help but spot the uber-cool milspec-looking-fishbone-yagi antenna on a building at the Roswell Industrial Airfield (where the Red Forces were based) pointing up at what I could easily deduce was a military satellite hanging 22,000 miles above the equator in geosynchronous orbit.

Later in the week, I summoned up my courage and asked an airman (eating his lunch near the antenna at a picnic table) what it was. Apparently he was the right man to ask.
He said it was a Dorne & Margolin portable antenna used for UHF-TACSAT/DAMA voice, data and telemetry work.

The airman (a com-tech) was proud of his MOS and even took time from his lunch to show me his radio rig. It was impressive, big and bulky over-built by Harris and looked like you cold have dropped it out of the back of a C-130 without damage.

He then graciously demonstrated it for me by doing a radio check (voice) with the Joint Training Analysis and Simulation Center (JTASC) in Suffolk, VA.

I was surprised at the high-fidelity and clarity of the return com-check, considering it was relayed off a rotating hunk of spinning metal and wires located some 22,000 miles in space, making the round-trip just under 50,000 miles.

As the tech continued with his demonstration, he rattled off a list of technical specifications, frequency ranges and communications parameters and protocols that I’m sure he thought I wouldn’t understand. I played dumb, scratched my head all the while trying as hard as I could to take it all in. He had no idea that he was talking to man who had written a hobbyists guide to military monitoring.

As impressive as the radio equipment was, I knew I’d never be able to afford one - even sometime in the far-flung future, when it had become obsolete and sold as surplus. It was kind of like taking a test drive in a Ferrari, all the while knowing you couldn’t even afford a Yugo.

But the antenna was a different matter entirely. I did own more than one receiver that could (with the right antenna) intercept satellite signals in the bands the airman had detailed (240 to 310 MHz) and had done so (with very limited success) from time to time.

The trouble was – UHF TACSAT satellite downlink transmissions were what was technically described as being (right-hand circularly polarized) making reception on commercial and consumer grade antennas (usually vertically or horizontally polarized) problematic at best.

Without getting too technical, rotating satellites have forced the use of circular polarization. The fundamental advantage of circular polarization is that all reflections change the direction of polarization, precluding the usual addition or subtraction of main and reflected signals. Therefore there is far less fading and flutter when circular polarization is used at each end of the link.

Over the years I tried building my own high-gain UHF Yagi antennas to receive military satellite communications with very limited success. Main trouble was, as the satellite rotated, the signal would swing out of phase and fade (rapidly) in and out and sound much like a record skipping – making interception just plain irritating.

To put it simply, it was like trying to have a conversation with someone riding on a merry-go-round. If you weren’t running along side them (constantly) all you would here were bits and bursts of voice.

Radio hobbyists (with more technical knowledge than moi) had built home-brew helical antennas and were reporting (via Internet news-groups) great success but the antennas were difficult to engineer and build, especially for a man who barely squeaked by with a C in high-school algebra.

For me, looking at the formulae for calculating the spacing and turns on a helical antenna was like trying to read Greek, but that wasn’t what turned me off to ever attempting to build one.

The main problem was, none of the antennas looked like the one I saw at Roving Sands, with the majority of the home-brew designs looking like the coils of razor wire ringing the local prison, plus they were huge -sometimes doubled-arrays hardly portable or easily mounted on the back balcony of my tiny apartment.

What I wanted was a Dorne & Margolin (now EDO) portable SATCOM antenna, transportable, easy to set up and tear down – and not to mention – tough-looking and black-like those used by covert operators, Rangers, SEAL teams and DELTA.

I wanted an antenna that didn’t say “ham radio operator” but instead said “government spy” and “If I tell you what it is I’d have to kill you – so don’t ask.” type of antenna.

Anyways –

Over the years I’ve held out hopes that some military surplus outlet advertising on the Internet would acquire one of these beauties (and not knowing what it was) offer it for sale at a reasonable price.

A few years ago – it happened. Dorne & Margolin/EDO and Trivec Avant (the major military contractors building SATCOM gear) surplus antennae began showing up sporadically on Ebay.

Unfortunately they were snapped up fast (and at premium prices) by the well-heeled radio hobbyists.

The going price was around 3K to (for pristine units) with even broken or heavily used and abused specimens going at over 1,000 dollars.

Refurbished (and new) antennas can also be (now) bought through various re-sellers, who equip shady-military-security for hire companies like Blackwater/Xe Services LLC.

These controversial firms are authorized to communicate with the military via SATCOM in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Blackheart International (http://www.bhigear.com/) offers a mini-satcom antenna on their site for the walk-away price of $3,000. Heavy-duty antennas (Bigger-more gain) could be had for 5K.

I couldn’t (and still cannot) fathom why a simple assembly of electronics and aluminum sticks could cost so durn-much! For the life of me – they looked like a simple X-wing Yagi design. Was there something super-secret or complicated (hidden within the design) that made their construction complicated and thusly (and rightly-so) so expensive?

Still, hope springs eternal and I thought it would only be a matter of time before one popped up at a price I could afford.

In the meantime – I acquired a new super-scanning radio released by Uniden the BCD-996XT. The 996XT is a computer-controlled-programmable scanner with a 25,000-channel capability.

To quote Uniden: "This new scanner significantly raises the bar with much improved APCO-25 digital decoding as well as a host of new features and more memory. For those who like GPS scanning, a feature no other manufacturer offers, you can now enable and disable not only Systems but Groups as well depending on your location (the optional GPS antenna that we sell is required).

The radio offers a band-scope feature, a Fire Tone Out search feature to help you determine the tone out frequencies being used, improved Close Call, APCO-25 NAC code decoding, and more. The 996XT is a big leap forward."

The main reason I acquired the BCD-996XT was for its digital-decoding capabilities. I run a small news-gathering company for the local and (sometimes national) news media called “The Reporter’s Edge.” Recently, the Texas Department of Public Safety had “gone digital” employing APCO-25 digital encoding.

It is my job to scan the public safety bands for their producers and reporters and be a sort of safety net for the breaking-news stories that sometimes fall between the cracks while already over-tasked and under-staffed TV journalists took time to write, edit and produce the news as well have a life that didn’t dictate them spending their sacred off-time with their ears glued to a scanning radio.

Since I always have a scanning radio droning on in the background wherever I am- it was only natural I found a way to make my obsession (for intercepting radio communications) pay off. Once the Texas DPS went digital, the only way to listen in on their communications was with an APCO-25 digital scanning radio. The BCD-996XT filled the bill nicely.

The BC-996XT didn’t disappoint. In fact I can say without hesitation it is the finest scanning radio I have ever owned, only second to the handheld version Uniden’s BC396XT which I also own. Computer aided scanning software of choice is Butel’s ARC396, followed closely by Freescan.

The BCD996XT (with its’ more than ample 25,000 channel capacity) freed my BCT396XT for use as a MILCOM scanner, something I have wanted to do for a long while.

I love intercepting military aircraft (MILAIR) and associated communications on all the bands and to have a scanner dedicated to just MILCOM was a real treat.

I even went so far as to custom outfit a case (containing an ASUS netbook computer loaded with scanning software) that also housed the BCT396XT making it look somewhat like a retro SAC “nuclear football” capable of sending the emergency action messages triggering WWIII. It comes complete with an Cold-War era SAC badge that General Jack D. Ripper would trade his Cuban cigars to have.

Okay, I admit-its’ kind off geeky – but that’s just my way.

The “football” does have a utilitarian function. Underneath the netbook are two gel-cell batteries that can power the scanner and computer for up to twelve hours. Both can be charged by plugging it into a wall or a cigarette/accessory plug in an automobile.

(C) Steve Douglass

Continued soon in PART II


Today's excerpt from "The Interceptors Club & the Secret of the Black Manta.

Author's note: In light of the recent Russian spy-flap - I couldn't help but post this excerpt. It seems the Russian spy ring arrested in New york used the same technique to transmit their reports.
Sometimes fact does mirror fiction.

-Steve Douglass

> Pepper typed up two progress reports on two separate computers. One was on his official AFOSI work computer located in his office, the second he composed a few hours later on his personal laptop he always kept in his sight at all times.

The first report was for General Hogle, a skillfully written fictional report detailing his meeting with the Interceptors and how they were just a bunch of precocious kids who accidentally encountered Excalibur and made a model of it.

It was Pepper’s recommendation he have the kids sign an inadvertent disclosure to a classified program agreement and have the model confiscated and destroyed.

He also explained he had sufficiently put the fear of prosecution into these kids (who really didn’t mean any harm) and who were just in the wrong place at the right time. Since it was displayed as a “hypothetical” design, the damage was minimal and the cat hadn’t been let out of the proverbial bag.

It was Pepper’s recommendation that the case be considered closed.

The second report was for his spy-handler Chin. It also included a report on the Interceptors, and how they could be used unwittingly to fill their needs, gathering intelligence for them on Excalibur.

Although this report did include his interviews with Static and his gang, he did leave out one important fact that he felt that Chin did not need to know.

He didn’t tell them they were just teenagers. He knew his North Korean intelligence contact would not believe kids were able to succeed where their best-trained agents had failed.

The report for Hogle would be printed and hand-delivered to the General via a secure courier.

The other (to his North Korean spy masters) would travel over the internet and be posted on a public site in plain sight, but encrypted to prevent interception.

To insure that he would never be uncovered as a spy, Pepper took great efforts to keep his secret files safe.

He never typed up his reports on a computer attached to the internet. He knew from experience that by hooking up a phone line to a computer it became a gateway to almost anyone and especially to the FBI or CIA.

Although he used a laptop computer to covertly send his reports, he did so in a unique way that left no trace.

As part of his duties as an AFOSI agent, he was well aware there were powerful programs that could recover even erased files from a computer's hard drive,so he took great pains to insure the hard drive on his personal computer remained pristine. To do this he saved his secret files on tiny secure media cards, the type usually used inside digital cameras.

These cards could hold over 2 gigabytes of documents and were only half size of a tea bag (but wafer thin) and could be easily hidden in places that even the most diligent spy hunter would never look.

But Pepper didn’t bother to hide his files in some remote location. He knew they would only be safe if kept close at hand.

Since AFOSI officers were routinely investigated by internal Air Force security agents (charged with finding spies) he kept them close by at all times, inside his compact digital camera tucked away in the breast pocket of his uniform.

Since a camera was part of his normal investigating gear it would not seem out of place for him to be carrying one. If by chance he was ever suspected of being a spy (and the camera was confiscated) all one would find on the card were what looked like ordinary snapshots any amateur shutterbug might take.

But cleverly imbedded in the images were all of Pepper’s stolen secrets, interlaced inside innocuous looking photographs of sunrises, landscapes and vacation snapshots.

To hide his files inside the photographs, he used a commonly available program known as “Outguess” utilizing a technique in intelligence circles known as steganographic encoding.

Since it would also be very suspect to have such a program on his personal computer it was kept stored on another photo media card and never mounted on his hard drive. In this way a routine search of his computer would show nothing to arouse suspicions.

To transmit the imbedded documents to his handlers he just simply posted them on a photography website known as photographio.org, where amateur photographers could display their talents.

It made Pepper smile to think that at any given moments thousands of people could be viewing his photos without knowing they were looking at top-secret military documents. <


Hiding in plain site: Russian couple spies

LONDON — One of the Cold War's most famous defectors says Russia may have as many as 50 deep-cover couples spying inside the United States.
Oleg Gordievsky, a former deputy head of the KGB in London who defected in 1985, said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would know the number of illegal operatives in each target country.

The 71-year-old ex-double agent told The Associated Press on Tuesday that, based on his experience in Russian intelligence, he estimates that Moscow likely has 40 to 50 couples operating under cover in the U.S.

"For the KGB, there's usually 40 to 50 couples, all illegal," said Gordievsky, who defected to Britain after supplying information during the Cold War to the U.K.'s MI6 overseas spy agency.
Gordievsky said he spent nine years working in the KGB directorate in charge of illegal spy teams. "The president will know the number, and in each country how many — but not their names," Gordievsky said.

The FBI announced Monday the arrests of 10 alleged deep cover Russian agents after tracking the suspects for years. They are accused of attempting to infiltrate U.S. policymaking circles while posing as ordinary citizens. All 10 are charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general — an offense that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

An 11th person allegedly involved in the Russian spy ring was arrested Tuesday in Cyprus.
In Moscow, Russia called the arrests an unjustified throwback to the Cold War, and senior lawmakers said some in the U.S. government may be trying to undercut President Barack Obama's warming relations with Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it was regrettable that the arrests came amid Obama's push for a "reset" in Russian-U.S. ties."

These actions are unfounded and pursue unseemly goals," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We don't understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories."
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that U.S. authorities announced the arrest just days after Medvedev visited the United States and Obama.

"They haven't explained to us what this is about," Lavrov said at a news conference during a visit to Jerusalem. "I hope they will. The only thing I can say today is that the moment for doing that has been chosen with special elegance."

Medvedev met with Obama at the White House last week after the Russian leader visited high-tech firms in California's Silicon Valley. The two presidents went out for cheeseburgers, exchanged jokes and walked together in the park.
When ask if those arrested were Russian spies, the Russia Foreign Ministry and the foreign intelligence service refused to comment.

Countries often have a number of intelligence officials whose identities are declared to their host nation, usually working in embassies, trade delegations and other official posts.
Gordievsky said he estimates there are 400 declared Russian intelligence officers in the U.S., and likely 40 to 50 couples charged with covertly cultivating military and diplomat officials as sources of information.

He said the complexity involved in training and running undercover teams means Russia is unlikely to have significantly more operatives than during his career.
"I understand the resources they have, and how many people they can train and send to other countries," Gordievsky said. "It is possible there may be more now, but not many more, and no more than 60."

The ex-KGB official said deep cover spies often fail to deliver better intelligence than their colleagues who work in the open.
"They are supposed to be the vanguard of Russian intelligence," Gordievsky said. "But what they are really doing is nothing, they just sit at home in Britain, France and the U.S."
He said undercover operatives may report to Russia once or twice a year, but otherwise work largely without any support network.

"The illegals don't have the support of the office behind them, and they are very timid as a result, so they don't produce a lot," Gordievsky said.

In Britain, the case stirred memories of the country's own illegal Soviet spy — Melita Norwood, a civil servant who spent about 40 years passing atomic research and other secrets to Moscow. Authorities ruled against prosecuting the elderly grandmother when she was exposed in 1992. Norwood died in 2005 at the age of 93.
Britain and Ireland's foreign ministries said Tuesday they are seeking clarification over the alleged use of forged passports by suspects arrested in the case by the FBI.

Documents filed at the U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York allege that suspect Richard Murphy used a false Irish passport and accuse suspect Tracey Lee Ann Foley of using a fraudulent British passport.

Ireland's foreign ministry said it had asked the U.S. embassy in Dublin for confirmation. In London, the Foreign Office said it was checking the claim.

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

Update: Russian spy a hottie:

A ring of 10 Russian moles right out of a Cold War spy novel was smashed yesterday — and among those busted was a flame-haired, 007-worthy beauty who flitted from high-profile parties to top-secret meetings around Manhattan.

Russian national Anna Chapman — a 28-year-old divorcee with a masters in economics, an online real-estate business, a fancy Financial District apartment and a Victoria’s Secret body — had been passing information to a Russian government official every Wednesday since January, authorities charged.

In one particularly slick spy exchange on St. Patrick’s Day, Chapman pulled a laptop out of a tote bag in a bookstore at Warren and Greenwich streets in the West Village while her handler lurked outside, receiving her message on his own computer, the feds said. A similar exchange occurred at a Midtown coffee shop at 47th Street and 8th Ave.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The Interceptors Club and the Secret of the Black Manta


Multisource political news, world news, and entertainment news analysis by Newsy.com

Russia says spy allegations baseless

Allegations that Moscow ran a spy ring in the US are baseless and a throwback to the Cold War, a Russian foreign ministry official has said.

The claims had set back attempts by President Barack Obama to reset ties with Moscow, the official added.

The response comes a day after 10 people were arrested in the US.

They are accused of conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of a foreign government, a crime which carries up to five years in prison.

Nine of those arrested also face a charge of conspiracy to launder money.

An 11th suspect named as "Christopher R Metsos" was arrested on Tuesday on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, police there said. They said he was arrested at Larnaca airport as he tried to leave for Budapest and was released on bail pending US extradition proceedings.

The 11 were allegedly part of an operation where agents posed as ordinary citizens, some living together as couples for years.

'Special finesse'
A statement by the Russian foreign ministry official on Tuesday said of the allegations: "In our opinion, such actions are groundless and pursue unseemly aims."

So what were the alleged spies up to? The Department of Justice has made clear that none of the information at stake was classified. Most of what the alleged spies were after seems almost anodyne.

While the incident does not look good for the Russians, the initial US reaction has been sanguine.

Russian spy stories may be a throwback to the Cold War and sound alarming but they probably don't surprise anyone in Washington, especially not in the government.

US officials who travel to Moscow routinely turn off their Blackberries and leave them on the plane to make sure data on their phones remains out of reach of any tech-savvy Russian intelligence agents.

Cold War meets 'burger summit'

It added: "In any case, it is highly deplorable that all of this is happening against the background of the reset in Russia-US ties announced by the US administration itself."

Earlier, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow expected Washington to provide an explanation over the arrests.

"The moment when it was done has been chosen with a special finesse," he added with apparent sarcasm, declining further comment.

Mr Lavrov's comments suggest that he thinks it is an attempt by someone or some group within the US power structure to undermine newly warming relations between Moscow and Washington, the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow reports.

One Russian academic told the BBC he believed the case would serve as a warning to US President Barack Obama not to trust Russia and not to get too close to the Kremlin, our correspondent adds.

A senior government official told the BBC that it was unfortunate that such activity was taking place in the US, but that it should not affect the momentum established in the relationship with Russia.

Last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Washington for talks, and was seen having lunch with President Obama.

'Deep cover'

Alleged intercepted messages in court documents suggest the 10 people arrested in the US were asked to find information on topics including nuclear weapons, US arms control positions, Iran, White House rumours, CIA leadership turnover, and political parties.

Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc - all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels

Message to alleged agents

The US Department of Justice says that eight of the suspects allegedly carried out "long-term, 'deep-cover' assignments" on US soil, working in civilian jobs so as not to arouse suspicion.

They were allegedly trained by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) to infiltrate policy-making circles and collect information, according to papers filed in the US court for the southern district of New York.

They were told to befriend US officials and send information using various methods to Russian government handlers.

US officials say the spy ring was discovered in a "multi-year investigation" by FBI agents who posed as Russian handlers and gleaned information from two of the suspects.

Investigators say some of the agents had been using false identities since the early 1990s, using codes and engaging in advanced computer operations, including posting apparently innocent pictures on the internet which contained hidden text.

The FBI also reported observing older techniques, such as messages sent by invisible ink, money being buried next to a beer-bottle marker and "brush pasts" in parks, where agents swap identical bags as they pass each other.

"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," says one purported message to two of the suspects that was intercepted by US intelligence.

"Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc - all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels."

Generally, spies were allegedly tasked with becoming "Americanised" to be able to do this, with some pursuing university degrees, holding jobs, and joining relevant professional associations, court documents said.

The group allegedly got close to a scientist involved in designing bunker-busting bombs and a top former intelligence official.

Five of the suspects briefly appeared in a Manhattan federal court on Monday, where a judge ordered them to remain in prison until a preliminary hearing set for 27 July.

These included a couple known as "Richard Murphy" and "Cynthia Murphy", who were arrested in Montclair, New Jersey; Vicky Pelaez and a man known as "Juan Lazaro" who were arrested in Yonkers, New York state; and Anna Chapman, who was arrested in Manhattan, New York City.

Another three - Mikhail Semenko and a couple known as "Michael Zottoli" and "Patricia Mills" - appeared in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, after being arrested in Arlington, Virginia.

The final two people - a couple known as "Donald Howard Heathfield" and "Tracey Lee Ann Foley" - were arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, and appeared in a federal court in the city.

All the suspects except Ms Chapman and Mr Semenko have also been charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

U.S moves big guns to NK border

CNN) -- North Korean officials are criticizing the U.S. for bringing heavy weapons into a border village in the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean peninsula, state media reported Monday.
State-run KCNA claims U.S. forces brought weapons into the Panmunjom area Saturday morning. A U.S. military spokesperson did not immediately return a call requesting comment.

"The introduction of heavy weapons to the area around the conference hall where armed forces of both sides stand in acute confrontation is a premeditated provocation aimed to spark off a serious military conflict," the agency said.

North Korean military officials have said they will "take strong military countermeasures" if the weapons are not removed, according to KCNA.

Tensions have been running high on the Korean peninsula since the sinking in March of a South Korean warship.

Last week G8 leaders condemned North Korea's communist government for its alleged role in the sinking of the ship.

"Such an incident is a challenge to peace and security in the region and beyond," the G8 final communique said.
"We demand that the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea refrain from committing any attacks or threatening hostilities against the Republic of Korea," the statement said.


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