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HMS Sheffield
The HMS Sheffield after it was struck by an Exocet missile. The UK received extensive support from the US in the Falklands War, including access to signals intelligence data from a new satellite. (credit: © Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 64))

The Lion and the Vortex

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In early April of 1982, Argentine forces invaded the small, sleepy archipelago known as the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Very quickly British forces mobilized in response to retake the islands. One of the long-standing questions about the conflict is the degree of help provided by the United States to Great Britain. A newly-declassified document from the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) reveals that a top secret American signals intelligence satellite launched only a few months before the conflict was pressed into service to provide intelligence to the United Kingdom. The satellite was known as VORTEX (classified code words are often printed in all-caps) and it was launched in October 1981 from Cape Canaveral.

The reality was that the United States was offering extensive support to Britain, but in such a low-key manner that even many in the British government were unaware of it.

British warships sailed from ports in the United Kingdom only a few days after the invasion, but it took them several weeks to arrive at the cold, wind-swept islands. After that, the war became a bloody slug-fest. The Argentines suffered 649 killed, including 323 men lost when the cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine, and Great Britain suffered 258 of its soldiers, sailors and marines killed. The Royal Navy lost two destroyers, two frigates, and three other vessels to Argentine Exocet missiles and bombs.

Last year was the thirtieth anniversary of the war and, in response, the British government released a number of new documents, many of them concerning diplomatic relations with the United States soon after the Argentine invasion. The Reagan Administration initially sought a diplomatic solution in order to maintain favor with Latin American countries that it was enlisting in opposition to communist influence in Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The public American position created the impression, even among some within the British government, that the United States was not helping out its longstanding ally. The reality was that the United States was offering extensive support to Britain, but in such a low-key manner that even many in the British government were unaware of it.

In October 2012, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman published an article for Naval History magazine about the conflict and the US Navy’s role in it. He recounted a May 1982 dinner party he was invited to in London that occurred on the same day an Exocet missile had struck the destroyer HMS Sheffield. Lehman found himself sitting across the table from Sir Frank Cooper, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. “He spent much of the evening sullen and silent,” Lehman wrote. “After the wine had loosened tongues, he began lamenting to his neighbor, in a voice intended for me to hear, that the Americans were ‘weaseling’ and ‘as usual, were fair-weather friends, deserting Britain in her hour of need.’ Before challenging him to a duel, it suddenly dawned on me that Cooper and other senior officials, perhaps including Prime Minister Thatcher herself, had no idea what the United States was really doing. When he found out some weeks later, he apologized.”

The cooperation between the US Navy and the Royal Navy was extensive. What Cooper had learned was that the Americans made available any weapons that the Royal Navy required, essentially opening up the armories and allowing the British to take whatever they needed with the proviso that they would eventually reimburse the United States. What has remained still classified to this day is the intelligence sharing that took place between the United States and Britain.

There were some interesting and unusual revelations about intelligence operations and other covert actions that followed the thirtieth anniversary of the war. On the British side, one revelation was that the submarine HMS Conqueror, which sank the Argentine navy’s cruiser General Belgrano, later engaged in a highly secret operation to use a form of underwater scissors to cut and grasp a towed sonar array from a Warsaw Pact naval vessel.

The mission of the satellite is deleted, but Kerr said, “It had to go to war with one of our allies shortly after launch and supported the United Kingdom in the Falklands War.”

There were also revelations about covert American involvement as well. For instance, Lehman revealed that the United States planned on loaning the Royal Navy a US Navy helicopter carrier if they lost one of their carriers, HMS Hermes or HMS Invincible, in the conflict. The American vessel would be manned by US contractors—presumably recently-retired sailors—in order to avoid direct American military involvement in the battle.

The new information about the intelligence satellite comes from a declassified transcript of a speech given by former National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr at an NRO town hall meeting in December 2006 and released to In a partially censored section of the transcript Kerr referred to the “25th birthday” of a satellite system. The NRO had celebrated this event both at its headquarters near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and at another location, probably an overseas ground site. “It’s extraordinary that this machine born in the analog age is still serving the country in the digital age,” Kerr said. The mission of the satellite is deleted, but Kerr said, “It had to go to war with one of our allies shortly after launch and supported the United Kingdom in the Falklands War. It then came back, in fact to the central Asian theater, and provided notable service there. Now it’s covering the sub-continent India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, still doing significant work. It had a mean mission life of three or four years. Here we are 25 years later and it’s a tribute to the designers and more importantly those that have nursed it along as it displayed all of the symptoms of old age many times over.”

Kerr was undoubtedly referring to a satellite that originally had the code-name VORTEX and was launched atop a Titan IIIC from Cape Canaveral in October 1981. The satellite was placed in a near-geosynchronous orbit, meaning that it could have been shifted from an initial position over the Atlantic Ocean to later cover Asia and eventually India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (although independent satellite watchers dispute this). The target for the VORTEX signals intelligence satellites, according to Jeffrey Richelson writing in The U.S. Intelligence Community, was originally Soviet “strategic communications,” meaning communications between missile, bomber, and submarine bases. But several American signals intelligence satellites reportedly entered service focused on one kind of target only to have their operators discover that they could be turned on other kinds of targets as well. The VORTEX satellites were a follow-on to an earlier series of communications intelligence satellites known as CANYON.

Kerr’s comments confirm a story that appeared in 1997 a book written by Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha: Inside Story of British Intelligence. Urban wrote:

The Falklands war of 1982 was regarded by most people in the defence and intelligence establishments as a textbook example of Britain’s “special relationship” with the USA in action. The Americans had made certain advanced weapons available to the British and had shared vital intelligence about the location of Argentine ground and naval forces. In Cheltenham, though, there were people who knew that this assistance had sometimes required special pleading. The National Security Agency, GCHQ’s U.S. counterpart, had not achieved global coverage with its sigint satellites by 1982. The craft which was in a position to help Britain monitor Argentine communications was being used by the Reagan administration to eavesdrop on central America, principally El Salvador. One of the GCHQ officers who liaised with NSA recalls, “We had to negotiate very hard to get it moved, and then only for limited periods.” During these spells of a few hours each, the satellite’s listening dish was reorientated towards the south Atlantic in order to help Cheltenham. The NSA did not monitor the downlinked take during these periods, asking GCHQ to alert them if there was anything of U.S. interest in the transmissions.

El Salvador would be an unlikely target for such a satellite considering that the United States already had ground forces in that nation and it seems improbable that a strategic intelligence asset would be focused on rebels operating in the jungle whose communications could be readily intercepted with aircraft and ground-based receivers. If the satellite was indeed focused on the western hemisphere, Cuba and/or Nicaragua are the more likely targets.

This was probably not the only sharing of intelligence data between the United States and Great Britain during the war. It is highly likely that US imagery satellites provided images of Argentine forces and defenses on the islands, as well as targets in Argentina.

So what was the VORTEX doing for the British? The most likely mission would have been intercepting communications between Argentina’s leadership and military forces within Argentina, and the most immediate requirement would have been intercepting any communications indicating the launch of aircraft headed toward the Falklands. The Argentines would have had to assume that the British were listening and it would have made sense for them to launch their aircraft while maintaining radio silence. However, in his book, Urban noted that a British source indicated to him that there were limits to just how quiet the Argentines could be; they still had to communicate, after all. The more interesting aspect of Urban’s story is that this event was apparently what prompted the British to develop a signals intelligence satellite of their own, code-named ZIRCON, a plan they later abandoned in favor of paying the United States for access to its satellites.

Whether or not the United States was eager to cooperate, it may have felt required to cooperate at least as far as sharing signals intelligence data was concerned. In 1954, the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia signed the UKUSA Agreement, also known as the UK-USA Security Agreement, or occasionally the “Secret Treaty.” This agreement obligated the countries to share signals intelligence data, and delineated geographic responsibilities. The United States was responsible for Latin America, most of Asia, Russia, and northern China. Britain is responsible for Africa and the former Soviet Union west of the Urals. Assuming that the VORTEX satellite had initially set up shop over the Atlantic Ocean, it could have been officially used to collect signals intelligence data on Latin America—as required by the agreement—with that data automatically provided to the United Kingdom.

This was probably not the only sharing of intelligence data between the United States and Great Britain during the war. It is highly likely that US imagery satellites provided images of Argentine forces and defenses on the islands, as well as targets in Argentina such as airfields and the location of their remaining stockpile of Exocet anti-ship missiles, which were the target of a failed SAS commando raid. No such information on that subject is likely to be revealed anytime soon.

As for that VORTEX, it was apparently still working as late as 2009. At the 2009 GEOINT Symposium, Director of the NRO Bruce Carlson mentioned an old spacecraft. “We have a satellite up there that is ten times older than we expected it to be. It has been up there this long [extends his arms out wide] and it has been up there this long [extends his arms out farther] and it’s still working. We expected it to do a mission that had to do with strategic, long-haul communications and today it’s helping us kill bad guys in the AOR [Afghanistan Area of Responsibility]. Now that’s as specific as I can get. But we do that because of the incredible contractor and NRO team that we have that nurses that satellite along and the young people that write software to change its functionality and keep it going.”

Who knows, maybe it is still operating today.