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Who is Building New Surveillance Radars in Cuba? Why North Korea, Russia and China are All Prime Suspects

June 12th - 2018

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A new surveillance radar installation has reportedly been detected near the town of Bejucal in Western Cuba, as part of a sizeable new signals intelligence facility being built in the area. The facility, located just a few miles from the United States mainland, is in an ideal location to gather valuable intelligence on American activities. The facility is reportedly capable of intercepting signals, tracking ballistic missiles and even monitoring U.S. space launches, providing invaluable data to whichever party is operating it. With Cuba itself almost certainly not having constructed the facility on its own initiative, as not only is such a facility well beyond the Caribbean state's technological capabilities to build, but it is also a stretch for Havana's small military budget. While Cuba's relations with the United States are poor, at times outright hostile, the country's relatively basic armed forces, primarily a ground based defence force lacking significant air, naval or missile capabilities, have little use for the intelligence gathered by such a facility. This has led to much speculation as to which party could be responsible for funding, constructing and operating the facility.

One potential suspect for the construction and operation is North Korea, which since the collapse of the Soviet Union emerged as Havana's prime defence partner. There have been a number of signs that, amid mounting pressure by the United States on both former Soviet allies, the two countries are seeking closer defence ties as part of a broader effort to improve relations. In November 2017 North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho travelled to Havana for talks with his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, with the formation of closer defence ties being widely speculated to be a central subject of their discussions. With Cuba on its part undertaking efforts to modernize its long neglected military capabilities, Pyongyang is considered an ideal partner for the country. Defence ties are already strong between the two states, and are expected to grow considerably. Cuba could in turn offer to provide Pyongyang with a staging ground from which to survey the U.S. mainland and gather key intelligence, an invaluable asset which the East Asian nuclear power could well benefit from considerably in its ongoing conflict with the United States - particularly given the potential usefulness of this information to Pyongyang's own missile and space programs. With construction of the facilities having begun just months after the visit of the Korean Foreign Minister, and North Korea well within its capabilities to construct such a complex installation, it remains a possibility.

Russia is another prime potential suspect, and with the beginnings of a new Cold War between the country and the Western Bloc Moscow could well have financed the construction of surveillance facilities similar to those used by the Soviet Union to gather intelligence on the United States in the past. The U.S. for its part has long operated similar such facilities near Russia's own borders. While these facilities disappeared shortly after the Cold War's end, in November 2017 Head of the Russian upper house's Defense and Security Committee Viktor Bondarev suggested that Moscow should consider restoring its military presence in Cuba and Vietnam. He referred to these countries as Russia's "historical partners" and said that restoring a Russian military presence was in response to "intensified U.S. aggression," and in the "interests of international security." He further stated regarding ties to Cuba in particular: "I believe under the condition of increased tension in the world and frank intervention in the internal affairs of other countries - Russia's historical partners - our return to Latin America is not ruled out. Of course, this should be coordinated with the Cubans." Bondarev was hardly alone in calling for such steps to be taken, with his statement coming just hours after the first deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's upper chamber's Defense and Security Committee, Frants Klintsevich, also calling for a reopening of military facilities in Cuba. In 2016 Russian lawmakers Valery Rushkin and Sergei Obukhov also submitted a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu calling on them to consider the restoration of Soviet era overseas facilities - including those in Cuba.

A third potential suspect in the new surveillance facility's construction is the People's Republic of China. Though China and Cuba do not have a history of close Cold War era defence ties as Russia and North Korea do, indeed Beijing and Havana often sponsored opposing factions in a number of theatres as a result of the Sino Soviet split and the Caribbean state's close partnership with Moscow, Cuba's unique combination of close proximity to the U.S. mainland and a government which is not a Western client provides Beijing with an invaluable opportunity to invest in signals intelligence in the country. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio claimed in 2016 hinted as the existence of a "Chinese listening station in Bejucal," though there was no sign of faculties on anything near the same scale as those erected today. A number of U.S. media reports have speculated at Cuba's emergence as a base for Chinese listening posts, with the Dallas Morning News reporting in 2001 that "China is making Cuba a military and intelligence gathering center." With Havana in need of foreign investment in light of the massive economic pressure applied by the U.S. and its allies, China could well be providing aid and economic benefits in exchange for the opportunity to collect data from the Bejucal facility. Ultimately the party responsible for the restoration of Cuba as a major center for intelligence gathering remains unknown, but it is highly likely that one of the United States' three major adversaries is responsible. In light of the importance of the opportunity presented by constructing such facilities, it could well be a joint effort by more than one of these three parties to jointly collect and share intelligence gathered. Given the close defence partnership and intelligence sharing between Russia and China, joint responsibility for the surveillance facility remains a distinct possibility.

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