The US military is planning to deploy at least 129 airmen to British territory on Cyprus by next year, Declassified can reveal.
The number of US troops on the UK’s so-called Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs), which comprise 3% of Cyprus’s landmass, has long been secret.
“We do not propose to release the numbers of US personnel participating in current or future operational activities [on British Cyprus]”, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) recently told parliament.
The US Department of Defense (DoD), meanwhile, claims it only has 14 personnel deployed in Cyprus, including nine Marines and just one airman. The department did not respond to Declassified’s request for more information and comment.
But Declassified has seen a US Air Force (USAF) document with details of a construction project on RAF Akrotiri, the UK’s “extremely busy” air base on Cyprus from which it flies bombing sorties across the Middle East.
The document, prepared in March 2019, notes there were then 87 US airmen deployed to RAF Akrotiri in 2018, including 12 officers.
But the US planned to increase its personnel levels by 48% over the next six years. By 2024, the US plan was to have 129 airmen deployed to the base, 15 of them officers.
The real figure for US military personnel based on British Cyprus is likely to be higher.
There are multiple other garrisons and military installations across the two British SBAs – known as Dhekelia in the east of the island and Akrotiri in the west – and at the UK’s so-called “retained sites” in Cyprus proper. These likely host some US military personnel.
The US spy squadron
The document contains details of the construction of a new dormitory facility on RAF Akrotiri for USAF personnel.
The US military planned to demolish eight facilities to build a new dormitory for its airmen over 1.5 acres, at a cost of $27m (£22m).
The dormitory is to house personnel from the 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS), the document notes.
This squadron is the US military’s oldest flying unit and responsible for training all high-altitude intelligence and reconnaissance aircrew for the U-2 spy plane, which was originally operated by the CIA.
The ERS, which is headquartered at Beale Air Force Base in California, also flies 2,400 hours of “combat support” missions annually with the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a surveillance drone manufactured by US arms company Northrop Grumman.
It is unclear if any of these US combat support missions are flown from the British base on Cyprus.
“United States Air Force (USAF) operations and facility requirements in the construction location are not to be identified and should be protected”, the document noted.
The previous living accommodation for the US personnel on RAF Akrotiri consisted of 104 bed spaces spread across eight dormitory facilities and was provided by the British. In 2019, the buildings were over 60 years old.
“The current prefabricated wooden facilities were only built to last 20 years so they have far exceeded their useful life,” the US concluded. “Approximately 4-5 rooms are closed for maintenance at any given time, therefore reducing operational capacity.”
The facilities were not sufficient for the US military presence, it added. “During changeover there are not enough open bed-spaces, forcing outbound personnel to stay up to three weeks off-base at a premium rate,” the document continued. “Due to the classification and sensitivity of the mission, this raises Anti-terrorism and Force Protection (AT/FP) concerns.”
‘Fire risk is too high’
The US is also scathing about the health risks of the existing British-provided accommodation. “The fire risk is too high due to the age and condition of the electrical system, and furthermore, several of the facilities do not have operational fire detection systems,” the document noted.
It also references a March 2007 fire at one of the prefabricated dormitories on Akrotiri in which RAF Corporal Andy Greenough and his two young children were killed.
An inquiry “recommended that all prefabricated buildings no longer be used,” the document goes on. “However, as this is a Royal Air Force (RAF) station the availability and provision of current accommodation is limited by the RAF.”
There were other problems with the UK-provided facilities. “Asbestos, termites and mold are present in each of the facilities,” it continued.
The US military concluded: “Failure to construct new accommodation will have a significant negative impact on the [squadron’s] mission.”
The MoD reports that US personnel have been stationed at RAF Akrotiri since 1974, when a monitoring operation in support of Middle East peacekeeping arrangements started.
But the ministry has always refused to provide US deployment levels, an anomaly compared to its other reporting.
The UK military deployment on Cyprus is public knowledge, for example, with the MoD recently disclosing that 2,490 British personnel are permanently assigned to its SBAs on the island.
Likewise, the US military deployment in Britain itself is public with the MoD recently saying that 12,147 US military personnel are deployed across 11 sites in England.
The failure to divulge US personnel numbers on British bases in Cyprus, however, is another example of the extreme secrecy under which the UK military directly rules the territory.
Asked why the UK divulges information on US personnel levels in Britain proper, but not the SBAs, the MoD said: “As a UK overseas territory run and administered by the MoD, the Sovereign Base Areas are unique within Defence.”
It added: “For operational and security reasons, we do not release details of US personnel…in this specific location.”
The US military claim that it only has 14 personnel deployed in Cyprus indicates the true American troop levels on the SBAs are also being kept from the US public.
The USAF document notes that the American personnel in Cyprus are part of USAF-Europe, whose commander is James Hecker, previously head of NATO air operations in Afghanistan.
The secrecy around the American presence on British Cyprus also includes US bombing missions being flown from the territory.
The MoD recently said: “UK authorisation would be required for any [US] operations involving the use of the Sovereign Base Areas”, but it added that for “security reasons” it could provide no detail on US operations run out of the SBAs.
Cyprus is strategically placed at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, 66 miles from Syria to its east, and just south of Turkey, whose forces have occupied the northern part of the island since invading in 1974.
Since 2001, the US has bombed a host of countries near Cyprus, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. It is not known how many of these missions have involved the British SBAs.
The only US equipment the British government admits to being located on the SBAs is the U-2 aircraft which have been permanently stationed at RAF Akrotiri for nearly half a century.
But other US military units also appear to be active in British Cyprus. In a DoD newsletter, Major Troy Roberts of the US Air Force is said to have served on RAF Akrotiri as the Chief of Security Forces Detachment 1, a US military policing unit.
‘Big US presence’
Finding officials to talk about the US presence on Cyprus is a fruitless task. However, local people told Declassified Americans are a significant fixture of the SBAs.
“There is a big US presence, I don’t know how that works or why, I think they’re probably collaborating in some way,” the manager of a restaurant on the beach near RAF Akrotiri told Declassified. American personnel from the UK bases come into the restaurant to eat and drink, he added.
“Growing up, I used to go to the bases, being an English-Cypriot, I used to play in the pantomimes and my mum would help out, do the painting and stuff. So I’ve been in and out of the bases. And when I was going in there, I’d spend some time playing football or basketball.
“And a lot of the times, when I was playing basketball, especially, there were a lot of Americans playing, and I always found that weird. Why the Americans were there.”
It appears the US is the only foreign country to have personnel based permanently on the SBAs.
“The continued presence of a so-called British Overseas Territory – the sovereign base area – on the island of Cyprus, is a colonial era anomaly that should be brought to an end,” Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), told Declassified.
“Cyprus, independent since 1960, should be freed from UK military, intelligence and surveillance functions. As if that imperial hangover isn’t bad enough, it now turns out that the US uses the base area for its own undisclosed military purposes which one can only assume includes war-fighting in the Middle East region.”
Hudson, who sits on Declassified’s board, added: “The UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US is increasingly a secretive and subservient military one, whether it’s the junior partner in endless interventions or as a compliant host to US nuclear weapons at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk. Accountability is seemingly absent at every level and this unacceptable situation cannot be allowed to continue unscrutinised.”
‘Wide range of intelligence facilities’
The UK also refuses to disclose which other US agencies have a presence on the SBAs.
But Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 revealed the extensive US National Security Agency (NSA) presence across the British territory on Cyprus.
A top secret document by GCHQ, the UK’s largest intelligence agency, noted: “Cyprus hosts a wide range of UK and US intelligence facilities”.
These facilities were said to include a communication interception facility at Ayios Nikolaos in the Eastern SBA, Dhekelia, which is assumed to hoover up calls, texts, and emails from across the Middle East and North Africa.
The Ayios Nikolaos facility also hosts a measurement and signatures intelligence, or MASINT, component. This highly technical field detects and describes the specific characteristics of target objects and sources.
Two more MASINT locations operating in partnership with the US are found on the Western base, including an unmanned facility at Cape Gata, just up from RAF Akrotiri.
At RAF Troodos, a British “retained site” near the border with northern Cyprus, the US operates another listening post, which utilises covert electronic intelligence gathering.
The Troodos site, GCHQ noted, “has long been regarded as a ‘Jewel in the Crown’ by NSA as it offers unique access to the Levant, North Africa, and Turkey”.
“Weapons-related collection from Troodos is used to support technical [signal intelligence] analysts in the US and UK,” the document noted. This has included hacking Israeli drones.
The intelligence gathered at these four sites in British Cyprus “benefit several strands of reporting” for the NSA, the GCHQ document noted.
It added: “We continue to sustain and strengthen our partnership with the US/NSA…GCHQ’s Cyprus collection facilities are acknowledged by NSA as important assets that make a major contribution to UKUSA.”
UKUSA is the top secret agreement for intelligence sharing and cooperation between the two countries signed in 1946.
GCHQ noted it wanted to “improve performance” from its intelligence facilities “via more effective coordination of [communication satellite intelligence] assets for both UK and USA collection”.
The top secret document also observed that the NSA provides half of the funding for the UK’s listening post at Ayios Nikolaos.
It further stated that the “the expertise of forward deployed staff on Cyprus” and the implementation of “common architectures” will “guarantee a continued positive relationship, with potentially greater opportunities for interoperability and sharing,” between GCHQ and NSA.
However, according to one Snowden document, American intelligence staff are required to dress as tourists around the bases because the UK has promised the Cyprus government that only British staff work there.
GCHQ has never acknowledged its presence on Cyprus.