Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inside Firedrake: a Tour of the Chinese Shortwave Jamming Facility

Firedrake (conventional meaning): a creature of Teutonic mythology; usually represented as breathing fire and having a reptilian body and sometimes wings

Firedrake (radio lexicon): a shortwave jamming service operated by China from multiple locations in the Chinese mainland, possibly using transmitters from the erstwhile Soviet era, and engaged in jamming of shortwave broadcasts originating from clandestine operatives as well as "some" foreign (international) broadcasters - which according to the National People's Party directives - are active pollutants of the Chinese Renaissance.

I am always fascinated by Firedrake music. The sheer force of its sound, its pitch and tone creates an auditory perception beyond words. Although, as a DXer you are bound to get frustrated when you spot a clandestine operating with low power transmitter and just when at the top of the hour you expect hearing a station id, up comes the Firedrake and disrupts your listening experience. This has been my personal experience and I am sure most DXers have similar experiences with Firedrake.

Even with a considerable amount of search and peer-knowledge exchange, I got very little information about Firedrake. But then, recently, I came across a well-researched post which shed new light on Firedrake. It is written by Steven Handler in his blog

Here's sharing with you this very interesting  post 

West of the central city of Beijing is 16a Shijingsham Road in Baboshan, part of the Shijingshan District of Beijing. As you arrive, you observe a modern high rise building. At the entrance lies a wall of glass rising almost six stories in height; a beautiful and imposing site.
This is the home of China Radio International. “CRI” is horizontally emblazoned toward the top of the concrete wall lying just right of the front entrance. Next to “CRI” is its name in Chinese, running vertically for about a half dozen stories of the building.
You won’t find a sign labeled “Firedrake”, but this building is also reportedly home to the nerve center of the Chinese government’s shortwave jamming effort.
Broadcast studios are arranged throughout the building including six studios on the third floor and seven studios on the forth floor. The studios are used for CRI as well as for China National Radio. The third floor also houses two separate control rooms.
Security is taken seriously near the control rooms on the third floor. They are guarded by armed members of the Peoples Liberation Army. Access is available only by a pass. The larger of the two control rooms handles the distribution of China Radio International’s shortwave programs.
The smaller, but amply sized control room is the more interesting of the two. A sign in Chinese above the control room door translates into English as “blocking of foreign signals room”. This control room has facilities capable of monitoring foreign shortwave broadcasts heard in China. It is also this control room that handles the satellite distribution of the Firedrake jamming music to transmitters within China. The Chinese government’s shortwave jamming sites can also be controlled from here.
There has always been speculation about why Firedrake usually signs off at the top of each hour. Perhaps it is because, while the jamming broadcasts are silent, the Chinese have the ability to use their monitoring facilities to search for their target’s frequencies that are in use. Apparently, if the target of their jamming switches frequencies, the control room can within minutes, commence jamming of the new frequency.
Although it is the control room which has much of the fancy electronics used in the jamming operation, there are other interesting parts to the jamming operation. Moving on with our Firedrake tour, we make a stop at the central tape archive division. This is the repository for tapes made of, and used for, CRI broadcasts. What is interesting is that, unlike most other tapes which are labeled with the full program details, the tapes containing the Firedrake music are simply labeled with the recording date and the notation “16 track”.
No tour of the Chinese government’s jamming facilities would be complete without a stop at a very special studio. Located to your right as you enter the building on the first floor, is Studio 8. Unlike the other smaller studios in the building, this one looks like a large
auditorium. It was in Studio 8 that the Chinese assembled musicians whom they had contracted to produce a musical arrangement. The music composition lasted over an hour and was recorded in just a single evening.
The tapes of the recording session were edited into multiple versions, including a version that is 59 minutes in length. That 59 minute version has been broadcast from the Control center to the Firedrake jamming transmitters throughout China and from those sites, by shortwave, through-out the world. Three or four minutes of the music from this recording session were eventually also broadcasted by the Chinese governments shortwave station during the Spring festival a number of years ago.
The jamming transmitters however, are not located at 16a Shijingsham Road. They are at sites scattered throughout China. Apparently two different types of jamming transmitters may be in use.
The older and more plentiful type of transmitters were designed by the Soviet Union and built in China. They are able to broadcast throughout much if the HF band. However, they appear to be limited to transmitting on increments of five kilohertz.
A newer style transmitters may have been reverse engineered from those bought from a major shortwave transmitter manufacturing company. Reportedly these newer transmitters more frequency agile and may not be limited to five kilohertz frequency increments.
I hope you have enjoyed this modest tour. The next time you hear Chinese government’s shortwave jamming you will have a better picture of from were it originates.
Note: I haven’t had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Chinese jamming facility mentioned in this article. However, I have spoken to apparently credible source (or sources) who had access to China’s jamming facility on numerous occasions and provided information used for this article. I thank my source (or sources) who shall remain anonymous because of concerns of retaliation.