Royal Air Force Menwith Hill is a Royal Air Force station near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England, which provides communications and intelligence support services to the United Kingdom and the United States. The site contains an extensive satellite ground station and is a communications intercept and missile warning site.[1] It has been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world.[2]

RAF Menwith Hill
Air Force Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Air Force ISR Agency.png
Part of USAF Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (AFISR)
Near Harrogate, North Yorkshire in England
RAF Menwith Hill is located in North Yorkshire
RAF Menwith Hill
RAF Menwith Hill
Shown within North Yorkshire
Coordinates54°00′29″N 001°41′24″W / 54.00806°N 1.69000°W / 54.00806; -1.69000Coordinates: 54°00′29″N 001°41′24″W / 54.00806°N 1.69000°W / 54.00806; -1.69000
TypeRoyal Air Force station
Area605 acres (245 ha)
Site information
OwnerMinistry of Defence
OperatorRoyal Air Force
United States Air Force
Site history
Built1954 (1954)
In use1958–present
Battles/warsCold War
Garrison information
Garrison451st Intelligence Squadron

RAF Menwith Hill is owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), but made available to the US Department of Defense (DoD) under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement 1951 and other, undisclosed agreements between the US and British governments. Her Majesty's Government (HMG) is entitled to possession of the site and retains control over its use and its facilities, though the administration of the base is the responsibility of the US authorities,[1] with support provided by around 400 staff from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in addition to United States Air Force (USAF) and US National Security Agency (NSA) personnel.[3] In 2014, the number of American personnel was reduced as part of a streamlining of operations due to improvements in technology.[4]

The site acts as a ground station for a number of satellites operated by the US National Reconnaissance Office,[5] on behalf of the NSA, with antennae contained in numerous distinctive white radomes, locally referred to as "the golf balls", and is alleged to be an element of the ECHELON system.[6]


A Menwith Hill radome

Menwith Hill Station was opened on 545 acres (2.21 km2) of land acquired by the British War Office in 1954 and leased to the United States. Extension of the site means that it now covers 605 acres (2.45 km2).[7] The United States Army Security Agency established a high frequency radio monitoring capability, monitoring communications emanating from the Soviet Union, operating from 1958.

In 1966 the National Security Agency (NSA) took on responsibility for the US operation of the site, expanding the capabilities to monitor international leased line communications transiting through Britain. The site was then one of the earliest to receive sophisticated early IBM computers, with which NSA automated the labour-intensive watch-list scrutiny of intercepted but unenciphered telex messages.

During a 1997 court case, British Telecom revealed that in 1975, its predecessor, the Post Office, installed two cables between Menwith Hill and a coaxial cable that connected to the microwave radio station at Hunters Stones, which was part of the long-distance telephone network. This connection was replaced in 1992 by a new high capacity fibre-optic cable. Later, two additional cables were added over which telephone and other communications could go to and from the base. These cables were capable of transmitting over 100,000 phone calls simultaneously.[8]

According to an article in a 2003 issue of an internal NSA newsletter, "Menwith is a large site (several hundred NSA civilians)".[9] In March 2012 researcher Dr. Steve Schofield of BASIC produced a 65-page report called "Lifting the Lid on Menwith Hill",[10] funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and commissioned and published by the Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Menwith Hill's primary mission is to provide "intelligence support for UK, US and allied interests". The base's multimillion-pound expansion, Project Phoenix, is "one of the largest and most sophisticated high technology programs carried out anywhere in the UK over the last 10 years". Of the 1,800 employees in 2012, 400 were British and 1,200 were American employees of the NSA.[11]

During an interview with Russia Today in April 2012, Schofield alleged that Menwith Hill was "involved in drone attacks". He said: "The UK’s providing a facility here that’s involved in drone attacks that we know, from independent assessments, are killing and injuring thousands of civilians, and because of the covert nature of that warfare, it's very difficult to provide information and accountability through the UK parliament. And yet these are acts of war. And normally when we have war, parliament should normally inform people that we’re involved in those. And we're not being informed. We're kept entirely in the dark about them."[12]

During the 2009 G-20 London Summit NSA intercept specialists based at Menwith Hill attempted to target and decode the encrypted telephone calls of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.[13]

In November 2017, the British Government advised that 1205 personnel worked at the station, comprising staff from the US military (33), US contractors (344), US civilians (250), the UK military (5 Royal Navy and 2 RAF), UK contractors (85) and UK civilians including those employed by GCHQ (486).[14]

ECHELON Interception SystemEdit

In 1988, investigative journalist Duncan Campbell revealed, in an article entitled "Somebody's listening" and published in New Statesman, the existence of the ECHELON surveillance program, an extension of the UKUSA Agreement on global signals intelligence Sigint. He also detailed how the eavesdropping operations worked.[15] Duncan Campbell presented a report commissioned by STOA concerning the ECHELON system, at a "hearing of the Committee on Citizens Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs on the subject the European Union and data protection" which prompted the European Union to set up the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System.[16]

On 5 July 2000, the European Union set up the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System stated that the global system for the interception of private and commercial communications was operating by means of "cooperation proportionate to their capabilities" among the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the UKUSA. ... It seems likely ... that its name is in fact ECHELON." The Committee raised concerns about the incompatibility of the interception of private and commercial communications with the fundamental right to respect for private life (Article 8 of the ECHR). They were also concerned that interception of commercial communications could be used for "competitive intelligence-gathering rather than combating corruption."[16] During the early 1970s, the first of what became more than eight large satellite communications dishes were installed at Menwith Hill.

In 1999 he wrote a report on COMINT entitled Interception Capabilities 2000 for the European Parliament.[17]

In 1996 author and investigative journalist, Nicky Hager in his book entitled Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network, provided a detailed account of ECHELON, the worldwide electronic surveillance system used by an intelligence alliance of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.[18]

On 3 November 1999, the BBC reported that they had confirmation from the Australian Government of the existence of a powerful "global spying network" codenamed Echelon, that can eavesdrop on every single phone call, fax or e-mail, anywhere on the planet" with Britain and the United States as the chief protagonists. They confirmed that Menwith Hill was "linked directly to the headquarters of the US National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade in Maryland."[19]


Between 1984 and 1995 a number of peace camps were established in close proximity to the station. A number of other individual protests have also taken place, predominantly related to nuclear proliferation and strategic missile defense.[20] Protests also occurred at other US military locations in the UK such as Greenham Common.[21]

Objections to the Strategic Defense Initiative have led to demonstrators storming the perimeter fence,[22][23] and to demands in 2007 from Labour MPs for a full debate about missile defence and Menwith Hill.[24] Actions continue into 2006.[25]

One particular local activist, Lindis Percy, was prosecuted, over a protracted period, under a number of different laws.[26][27][28][29][30][31]

In April 2012 activists affiliated with the global Occupy Movement held a four-day campsite at Menwith Hill.[32] Protesters said they hoped the camp would "reignite the debate locally, nationally and globally about whether the subversive and undemocratic nature of activities at the base are acceptable, or indeed accountable, to the British public. This debate however, never happened outside of the fringe elements of society."[33]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "RAF Menwith Hill". Royal Air Force. Archived from the original on 11 September 2008.
  2. ^ "UK agrees missile defence request". BBC News. 25 July 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  3. ^ Cahal Milmo (24 January 2014). "Unknown territory: America's secret archipelago of UK bases". Independent. Retrieved 13 November 2017.
  4. ^ "Technology led to decision to cut Menwith Hill personnel"
  5. ^ NRO-FOIA request Archived 16 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Bamford, James. Body of Secrets, Anchor, ISBN 0-385-49908-6; 2002
  7. ^ "Spy base plans for extra radar antenna shelters". BBC News. 9 July 2019. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
  8. ^ BT condemned for listing cables to US sigint station, 4 September 1997
  9. ^ "Spanning the Globe...Misawa to Menwith Hill: Part 1". 22 October 2003. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ Steve Schofield (March 2012). "Lifting the Lid on Menwith Hill: The Strategic Roles & Economic Impact of the US Spy Base in Yorkshire" (PDF). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Richard Norton-Taylor (1 March 2012). "Menwith Hill eavesdropping base undergoes massive expansion". The Guardian. London.
  12. ^ "Occupy 'spy base': UK activists cry espionage over US surveillance center". RT. 19 April 2012. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ MacAskill, Ewen; Davies, Nick (16 June 2013). "GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians' communications at G20 summit". The Guardian. London.
  14. ^ "RAF Menwith Hill:Written question - 112002". UK Parliament. 13 November 2017. Retrieved 13 November 2017.
  15. ^ Campbell, Duncan (12 August 1988). "Somebody's Listening" (PDF). New Statesman. Retrieved 19 June 2007.
  16. ^ a b Rapporteur Gerhard Schmid (11 July 2001). "Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system)". European Parliament.
  17. ^ Campbell, Duncan (April 1999). "Interception Capabilities 2000". European Parliament, Directorate General for Research, Directorate A, The STOA Programme. Retrieved 19 June 2007.
  18. ^ Hager, Nicky (1 August 1996). Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network.
  19. ^ Bomford, Andrew (3 November 1999). "Echelon spy network revealed". BBC. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  20. ^ "Menwith Hill - The Campaign of Opposition". Retrieved 14 January 2009.
  21. ^ "From Greenham to Menwith: The women's peace campaign at Menwith Hill". The f Word Contemporary UK Feminism. Retrieved 14 January 2009.
  22. ^ "The Battle of Menwith". BBC News. 4 July 2001. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  23. ^ "Menwith Hill protests continue for second day". The Guardian. London. 4 July 2001. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  24. ^ "Why has the US base at Menwith Hill created such a political storm?". Belfast Telegraph. 3 August 2007.
  25. ^ "Keighley grandmothers arrested over spy base protest". Yorkshire Dales Country News. 6 April 2006.
  26. ^ "Who are you calling anti-social?". The Independent. London. 17 May 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  27. ^ Laura Smith-Spark (17 May 2005). "Can Asbos curb the right to protest?". BBC News. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  28. ^ Michael Dickinson (19 May 2005). "The Trouble with Menwith". CounterPunch.
  29. ^ Courtnews, cndyorks
  30. ^ "Peace protest at Menwith Hill". Harrogate Advertiser. 20 January 2009.
  31. ^ Ian Herbert (29 January 2007). "Veteran peace protester sent to jail despite prisons crisis". The Independent. London.
  32. ^ Tim Cook (18 April 2012). "Protest camp looks to raise awareness of Menwith Hill". Harrogate News. Harrogate.
  33. ^ "Why?". Occupy Menwith Hill. 19 April 2012. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)


  • Bird, Kenneth L., "Menwith Hill Station: A Case Study in Signal Intelligence Gathering During the Cold War", Monitoring Times, February 1997

External linksEdit