PALERMO, ITALY—Where there was once a cork forest, there is now just barren land. Nothing grows behind the tall fences that mark the 410-acre perimeter around the US Navy area in Niscemi, Sicily. Behind the fences, atop the only hill, three huge satellite dishes dominate the panorama, standing 60 feet wide (about 20 meters) and as tall as a 10-story building.
This is one-fourth of the most sophisticated military communication system in the world, designed by the most powerful military of our time. The three giant disks should be a monument to military technology, but for the time being they are merely a testimony of how a military power—even one as big as America’s—can still be forced to answer the law of the land.
It’s a story that begins in 2006, when the US Navy made a large investment in a technology called Mobile User Objective Systems (MUOS)—a massive communications and data transmission system bigger.
MUOS, built around a satellite system, will allow soldiers to have an encrypted mobile phone that can text, send emails,and receive data exactly like a civilian smartphone with 3G connectivity—anywhere in the world, and without a cell tower.
An omnipresent satellite system
The US Navy thinks this will make communication easier, better, and safer. The system would help prevent mistakes and bad decisions caused by lack of information and confused orders, some of which, in the past, have resulted in front-page news.
“The military has the capabilities, but [it] does not have the network to connect everything together,” Austin Long, associate professor of International and Public affairs at Columbia University, said. “With MUOS we are going to have an omnipresent satellite system that can link everything together, whether it’s a drone, a fighter plane, a tank. They can be all on the same network.”
Physically, the MUOS system is comprised of four ground stations—each with three large antennas—linked to four satellites (plus a fifth emergency satellite that is yet to be launched in outer space). Each satellite’s signal will be connected with two ground stations at the same time, so if a satellite loses the signal from one base, there will be a second option, reducing the risk of a sudden interruption.
Beginning in 2008, the ground systems were installed in Virginia, Hawaii, Australia and in southern Sicily, a key position for communications in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
This investment proved sound, given the increasing tensions in Libya, and the Arab region. After seven years of work and an overall cost of over $7 billion (so far), the Navy is finally ready to use the MUOS in Sicily as a safe channel for all its communications.
Except, it can’t.
While the American and Australian MUOS were built in areas where they didn’t meet opposition, the Italian MUOS is in the natural reserve of Sughereta, by Niscemi—a town of nearly 30,000 people—who do not like the idea of being exposed to the electromagnetic fields generated by antennas. The area is already home to 46 antennas of the US Naval Radio Transmitter Facility, built in 1987.
As soon as the MUOS construction began, so did the fight to have it dismantled. Several years later, while the machine is still standing, it can’t be used legally by the US Navy—at least not until its legitimacy is confirmed in two trials (one administrative, the other judiciary).
What’s worse: a microwave or MUOS?
For both trials, the main defendant is the Italian ministry of defense, who acted as a guarantor of the agreement allowing the US Navy to build the receptors. The plaintiffs are a group of organizations (including the World Wildlife Fund) led by the No-MUOS committee, who oppose the MUOS on grounds that range from the ethical and environmental to protection of health.
They fear the electromagnetic emissions will increase the risk of cancer, as well as threaten the health of people with cardiac devices living in the area, and potentially affect the local fauna.
The US commissioned an independent assessment by John Oetting, the project manager and lead system engineer for MUOS, on exposure risks. He concluded that it is actually more dangerous to cook with a microwave or to have a cell phone conversation than to live near a MUOS ground station (pdf), as the electromagnetic emissions were much higher in those cases.
Italians weren’t convinced by this report, which members of the No-MUOS repeatedly pointed to as partisan. Massimo Zucchetti, a nuclear energy expert at Turin University and a research affiliate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted an independent study, with his colleague Massimo Corraddu, also a researcher in nuclear energy. They concluded that MUOS is dangerous and should not be activated. “Some people might start developing strong headaches or nausea while close to the system, but when walking away they are fine,” said Zucchetti. Further, he claims, longterm exposure to such powerful electromagnetic fields could lead to diseases such as childhood leukemia or brain cancer.
A legal battle without the US Navy
In any case, considering that “the health issue remains vague” (the disagreements and lack of long-term studies make it hard to come to a conclusion), Paola Ottaviano, one of the No-MUOS lawyers, said their charges have been focused on a logistical element: they claim the ministry of defense (the agreement was signed during the latest government led by Silvio Berlusconi) bypassed the law, granting permission to build in an area where all construction is forbidden without debating the matter in parliament.
To make the matter worse, in a memorandum of understanding signed in 2011, the Italian defense ministry agreed to spend about €4 million ($4.6 million) in Niscemi as compensation for constructing the MUOS ground station. The money was supposed to build a new cancer ward at the local hospital and contribute to fixing streets in great need of repair. As of April 14, no work has been done.
There have been several decisions made in the case already, often contradictory. Five administrative trials have merged into one; concessions to build were given, repealed, and then given again by the Sicilian region; full verification of the total electromagnetic emission was ordered, but couldn’t be conducted for technical reasons. The judge ordered another test—appointing a commission of five experts, three of which were ministers (members of the same government as the plaintiff); a judicial trial was open, with a verdict independent from the administrative one (it’s currently unclear what would happen were the decisions different).
In short, it’s been a classically Italian series of decisions and counter-decisions, with no clear end in sight for either parties. The next verdict is expected for May—though it doesn’t look like it will mark the end of the story, or even this chapter.
Meanwhile, Steven A. Davis, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command spokesman, said the communications system is operational today: “MUOS is already providing legacy communications to combatant commanders via active satellites on-orbit.”