Number Stations at the end of the century.
Courtesy Enigma group
We are now just a matter of weeks away from the new millennium (editor's note: didn't start until end 2000), so what does the future hold for 'Number Stations'? Many felt that most stations would close with the ending of the Cold War, but to quote a well-known saying, "the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated". Rather than look at specific stations, we will try to examine the overall scene and see what the future holds.
If we begin at the end of the Cold War, several stations did close, most notably those from the former East Germany, however, there was no dramatic fall off in traffic from other operators. In the last decade, there has been a move away from voice traffic (although there is still plenty about), towards Morse. Rather than closing down, other stations re-configured, and with the sweeping political changes in Eastern Europe and the C.l.S., others simply found new masters.
The major players, those with worldwide interests, continue to spy. Russia, USA, Britain and France remain very active on h.f. The French DGSE, which avoids voice like the plague, has the most impenetrable system, as to be expected from the world's oldest intelligence service. The British mainly operates just two voice stations, but these send 'blanket' transmissions, much being dummy traffic. (MI6's and SAS's Morse transmissions are far more interesting). The USA, although it has a worldwide network of transmitters, operates a very basic h.f. agent-running system (voice only) compared to the other three, but especially to the Russians which use a fiendishly complex, flexible and much more active system, using sites in C.l.S., Cuba and Vietnam.
Yet eclipsing all these in sheer number of voice transmissions is the tiny Israeli Mossad organisation, whose traffic almost certainly serves more than this single agency? Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank & Gaza Strip together make up an area little bigger than Wales, and have a population of 4.6 million (compared to Egypt's 52 million!).
In this region, the other main operators (Turkey, Algeria, Egypt and ex-Soviet Caucasus states) combined are far more modest in their traffic output. No other country is quite so aggressive in its greed for hijacking frequencies, regardless of ITU allocation, as Israel, which holds onto them as if they are their own exclusive territory!
In Europe, there have been many changes. The biggest decline in recent years has been that of the unified Germany, which now sends virtually no voice traffic. Further East, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia all still have operations, but none is a typical Number Station, except possibly Bulgaria, which may operate one of the major families (XV). Poland not only runs its own large (but peculiar) network (Ill), but plays host to a former Western family (Xl), which moved there a few years ago.
However, the Czech republic land Slovakia in the heart of Europe, are far more active than all these other East European countries combined. Like the Russians, the Czechs favour complexity almost for the sake of it, and untangling their numerous different formats is difficult, but challenging.
There have been three major losses, which unlike that of DDR, took place in more recent years: Family IV (Austria?), the 23 hour per day Czech OLX network (Family lXb and the much smaller M27/S8 network (Family VIII) of, most likely, Yugoslavia.
Outside Europe, Taiwan, China (in progress of establishing a relay in Cuba), North & South Korea can also be heard. North Korea has a very large Morse network (M40, formerly M531, which seems to have relays nearer to Europe - these are the two schedules 747 and 515, the only two which use i.c.w. (rather than m.c.w. uses by all the rest frequently reported from Siberia and Japan, which have yet to be reported in Europe). The Cuban DGI also runs a large network beaming to the Americas and Europe - it seems to still have a relay in Russia.
In addition to all the above, there is a vast array of other stations still sending 'Numbers' in Morse over h.f. We can only guess at their purpose: some may be military, some act as status indicators only, some are related to special operations, coming and going without rhyme or reason.Despite the many forms of modern communications from E-mail and the Internet to letters, telex, telephone, etc., nothing is more secure than one-way h.f. radio transmissions, which can be heard over thousands of miles, yet are untraceable to the recipients. This method of agent running will continue to operate in the years ahead, as its simple, robust nature has yet to be improved upon. The encryption systems used may seem inefficient and archaic to some - but they are easy to use and, unless compromised by 're-cycling' or defectors, are impossible, even for the most powerful computers to decrypt - and always will be.