By Mike Kaszuba
Twice during the past two years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given permission to a notable defense contractor to help conduct an unusual mission: Fly a sophisticated high-altitude balloon over a six-state area – including southern Minnesota – to help the government deter drug trafficking and homeland security threats.
But in early August of 2019, a representative for the company – the Sierra Nevada Corporation – suddenly asked the FCC to not only rescind its clearance for the project, but to erase it from a database.
The reason? Too much media attention.
“I am E-mailing seeking information for a situation I have yet to experience hoping that you can advise me on what to share with my client,” Sierra Nevada representative John Winch wrote in an August 7th e-mail to the FCC. “Sierra Nevada Corporation has an STA (Special Temporary Authority) for a high altitude stratollite over South Dakota that is attracting too much media attention and has asked about rescinding their STA. Specifically, they are curious about the amount of time it will take for the STA to be removed from the database.”
Surveillance balloon project covered multiple states
Documents obtained by Public Record Media, a non-profit based in Saint Paul, provide a partial picture of the plan to have an unmanned stratollite – balloon – launch in South Dakota; travel at a height of roughly 65,000 feet; and finish its mission over Illinois. The documents indicate that the experimental project was undertaken by Sierra Nevada in 2018; was renewed for 2019; and was intended to fly over most of Iowa and parts of four other states (including Minnesota) before ending in central Illinois.
FCC documents also show that the flights were not the first high-altitude surveillance projects over the Midwest undertaken by the company which – among its other defense and space projects – has developed the “Dream Chaser” space utility vehicle for low-Earth orbit missions, including to the International Space Station.
In addition, the documents reveal that Winch, the Sierra Nevada representative, at one point told the FCC that the company was feeling “uncomfortable” because too many details about the project were being made public.
The exact nature of the stratollite project – and why the six states were chosen – was not detailed in the FCC records. The records instead describe the project as necessary “to provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats.”
The FCC records do not state whether the project was halted prematurely after Sierra Nevada’s request in August to rescind its special authority. FCC records show that the special authority was granted to the company in 2019, and covered the period from July 12 to August 31. Despite a request from Sierra Nevada, the company’s STA was not removed from the federal agency’s database.
However, the federal agency told PRM in late September that, pursuant to federal law, it was withholding some documents that showed internal, “predecisional” FCC discussions in order to “prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions.” The agency added that the “release of this information would chill deliberations within the Commission and impede the candid exchange of ideas.”
Company’s request to end program came after media coverage
Sierra Nevada’s August request to rescind its special authority came five days after The Guardian, a British daily newspaper and online service, first reported that the U.S. military was conducting the wide-area surveillance tests using as many as 25 high-altitude balloons. The Guardian said the balloon flights, which flew over Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois, provided a cheaper alternative for surveillance than aircraft.
The story was immediately carried by – among others – the Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in Iowa. Meanwhile, FCC records showed that the Forum News Service in South Dakota contacted the federal agency on August 2, the day of The Guardian story, to confirm the account. “Am I interpreting this correctly to mean that the launch point will be Baltic, SD?” a reporter asked the FCC in an e-mail. The documents did not show whether the FCC answered the reporter.
The balloons also attracted the attention of the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader, which in August quoted a U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson as saying that the balloon test flights “fully comply” with the “prohibition of surveillance activities directed at U.S. citizens” under U.S. law. The spokesperson said the tests were part of a Defense Department project named Cold Star, and said the purpose was “to advance stratospheric radar imaging capability.” The spokesperson added that no tracking information was collected during the flights.
Prior to the publication of the Guardian article, Sierra Nevada seemed to be progressing with a stratollite project similar to one that flew over the same states in 2018.
“I was wondering if there was any information to be had for STA File Number 1201-EX-ST-2019,” Winch wrote in a July 10, 2019 e-mail to two FCC officials. “Sierra Nevada Corporation is hoping to begin testing this week.”
The next day the FCC’s Behnam Ghaffari replied: “Your STA should return soon.”
However, after the media coverage of the flight occurred, Sierra Nevada seemed anxious to stop the project.
Less than an hour after Winch first asked FCC officials about rescinding the STA for the project, he sent a second e-mail asking the FCC to rescind the STA “immediately”. Added Winch: “Please let me know how soon this can be completed.”
Push for secrecy preceded media publicity
FCC records indicate that Sierra Nevada sought more secrecy for the project even before media reports surfaced in early August 2019.
In a July 17 e-mail to FCC officials, Winch stated that Sierra Nevada was “uncomfortable” with the amount of information about the project that would be publicly available. “The issue is the public access of the application and the justification exhibit attached to it. Sierra Nevada Corporation is now uncomfortable with the amount of information contained within the justification exhibit and is curious if the exhibit could be removed from the application or if there is another option to attain a higher level of confidentiality,” Winch wrote.
The next day the FCC’s Ghaffari replied. “We really can’t remove the supporting documents accompanied with application/STA when the processing is completed,” he wrote Winch. Ghaffari suggested that Sierra Nevada could re-file the application and submit a “confidentiality request letter”, but he told Winch that doing so would mean a longer approval process.
Wrote Winch: “I will share this information with Sierra Nevada Corporation and move forward as they decide.”
Special FCC authority sought for project
Sierra Nevada’s requests for special authority from the FCC were needed – according to the company’s correspondence – because of “extreme (radio) frequency congestion in the area.” In asking for the special authority in July 2018, the company noted that “there are extraordinary circumstances warranting a grant of the STA request.” A document labeled “FCC Frequency Coordination Notice” states that granting the “request for STA for 2.3 GHz and 9.6 GHz Bands would serve in the public interest.”
According to FCC documents from 2018, the experimental project over Minnesota and other Midwestern states was to run from early September to mid-October.
Sierra Nevada sought FCC approval to use special radio bands to “demonstrate high altitude MESH networking and wide area surveillance for the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM).” Documents from 2018 stated that Sierra Nevada had a contract with USSOUTHCOM (a component of the U.S. military), but the company later filed an amendment with the FCC in August 2019 stating that it instead had a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.
PRM filed Freedom of Information Act requests in August of 2019 for public data on the project with the FCC, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Southern Command, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The FAA subsequently stated that it does not keep records of U.S. military flights, and the Department of Homeland Security referred inquiries to the U.S. Southern Command, which has not yet responded to the request.
Sierra Nevada representatives, including Winch, have not responded to PRM requests for information.
Other balloon surveillance projects
The high-altitude surveillance in 2018 and 2019 was not the first time Sierra Nevada had requested special authority for a project over the Midwest.
In 2017, the company received FCC permission to operate within a specific radio telemetry band for a high-altitude balloon that would fly primarily over Lake Michigan to deter narcotics trafficking and homeland security threats. A flight plan filed with the application indicated that an unmanned stratollite would operate over southern Minnesota, northern Iowa, south central Wisconsin and much of Lake Michigan.
In granting the special authority, the FCC approved the project to run from early December 2017 until April 2018. According to FCC documents, the company contracted with SOUTHCOM and the Joint Interagency Task Force South to conduct the project.
FCC documents also showed that Sierra Nevada was likewise given special authority to conduct “high altitude MESH networking tests over Key West (Florida)” from October 2017 until April 2018.
Sierra Nevada defense and aerospace projects
The company, which has nearly 4,000 employees and is based in Nevada, has a presence in space, national defense and cyber security areas. According to its website, Sierra Nevada’s projects include the Dream Chaser spacecraft, which the company describes as a space utility vehicle that is expected to begin carrying cargo to the International Space Station in 2021.
The company’s website also states that Sierra Nevada “can protect you from the threat of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Using advanced electronic warfare technology, our counter UAS systems can be integrated into both airborne and land-based platforms that are designed to detect and defeat unauthorized systems in your geographic location.”
Sierra Nevada’s website also provides a glimpse into available services that may be similar to the high-altitude balloon surveillance project.
“We are at the forefront of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) development and integration,” the company’s website states. “Our proven capabilities solve UAS command/control (C2) problems with licensable software components and hardware products designed to meet North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Standardization Agreement standards and (FAA) guidelines.
“We possess a robust portfolio of intellectual property that positions us at the forefront of the (UAS) technologies marketplace and (provides) customers with a comprehensive set of unmanned system control technology, magnetic wave radios, manned-unmanned teaming technologies and national air space de-confliction technology,” the company’s website also notes.
FCC records show that Sierra Nevada has asked the agency for special authority for various projects going back at least two decades. According to the federal agency, the company has made 67 applications for experimental licensing authority since the late 1990s.
The FCC documents show the array of projects Sierra Nevada has undertaken. For example, one project was listed as “demonstrating [a] helicopter autonomous landing system” and had authorization from the FCC to run from 2009 to 2011. Sierra Nevada requested special authority for three mobile locations for the project, including one at Felker Army Airfield in Ft. Eustis, VA.
In another instance, Sierra Nevada asked for special authority to test an airborne tracking system sensor “that is intended to track radar to provide situational awareness during mission operations. Test platforms include being attached to a building, atop/in a van, and ultimately on board a RC-135 aircraft.”
In connection with yet another application, the company asked for authority to test a prototype radar.
“The radar will be setup on shore for brief tests of its ability to detect small objects nearby on the surface of the ocean,” an application document stated. “A small boat will be used as the platform to carry the objects. Tests will be brief, usually lasting no more than a couple of hours. No more than a few tests are planned during the 6 month period of the STA.”
The federal agency turned down this particular request in October 2008. “This application was dismissed due to high potential interference to federal operations by the use of the requested frequency bands,” a document stated.