Friday, January 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘No MUOS’: Sicilian protesters expose rift over US militarism  

The story of a Sicilian town's fight to stop the Pentagon from installing massive antennas for its new MUOS global satellite communications system at a secluded military base is part of a decadeslong struggle by anti-U.S. and anti-war movements against America's military and political influence in Italy.

NISCEMI, Sicily (CN) — At the height of protests against the Pentagon's plan to install gigantic satellite dishes and transmitters close to this town in arid southern Sicily, locals and activists laid down in front of delivery trucks and even clambered over the fences of the secretive American military communications and radar base where the Star Wars-like devices were being erected.

For years, townspeople protested against the Pentagon and NATO and their new global satellite system called MUOS. Locals were joined by Italian anti-war activists, communists, feminists, environmentalists, anti-war Catholic groups, anarchists and also politicians.

Cries of “No MUOS!” “No to war!” “Enough of American imperialism!” were a regular occurrence in Niscemi's squares, streets and at the entrance to the secretive base for years.

The Niscemi protests, in fact, were not novel in themselves: Ever since at least the early 1980s, Washington's navigated recurring bouts of anti-U.S. demonstrations in Italy and faced down currents of political opposition to its military foothold in a country it defeated in World War II and then forcefully steered away from communism and the Soviet sphere. Italy's Communist Party – whose members led the partisan resistance against Benito Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship – was the largest in Western Europe after the war and the country's second-largest party well into the 1990s, second only to the arch-conservative Christian Democracy party.

In Italy, U.S. political intervention in the devastated country's post-war development remains a bitter and contested subject that galvanizes anti-American sentiment. Debates continue to rage over U.S. interference in Italy's post-war elections, on how it empowered Sicily's mafia, uses the country for imperial ambitions and allegedly had a hand in some of the nation's most high-profile political assassinations and political intrigues.

Seventy-seven years after World War II, the U.S. and its military continue to play a major role in Italian affairs. The Pentagon has about 12,500 troops up and down the Italian peninsula and it has stationed nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers, fighter jet squadrons, spy planes and other military hardware at several large bases. Since the 1990s, Italy has been used as a launching pad for military operations in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. Its Italian bases are playing a role in Washington's efforts to counter Russia today.

The Niscemi protests started in 2009 and reached a climax in 2013, when daring activists prostrated themselves in front of trucks delivering the mega-powerful tilting antennas and gigantic helical transmitters for the MUOS project. Audacious protesters even stole into the base over fences and chained themselves to the Space-Age communications towers.

Students in 2013 protesting against the U.S. Navy's installation of gigantic military antennas at a secretive base in Niscemi, Sicily. (Fabio D'Alessandro)

All of this anti-war activity and the slew of legal fights that paralleled the demonstrations hardly made it into American newspapers and got little notice outside of Italy even though years of opposition over the installation of this next-generation communications system at Niscemi were a big setback for the Pentagon.

MUOS – an acronym that quickly became the rallying cry of the “No MUOS” protest movement – stands for Mobile User Objective System. It is a typically obtuse military term that's a mouthful to say and conveys almost nothing.

But its importance cannot be overstated: Under this multibillion-dollar Pentagon project, the Lockheed Martin Corp. – the Maryland-based aerospace and defense giant – built a global ultra-high frequency satellite communications platform that allows soldiers almost anywhere in the world crystal-clear, fast access to the internet and communications channels of the U.S. Department of Defense.

"The base and most of all the global satellite communications system MUOS are fundamental for American armed forces, in particular for the U.S. Navy,” said Gianni Piazza, a political sociology professor at the University of Catania in Sicily and an expert on MUOS. He said Niscemi's geostrategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean is key to making the MUOS system possible.

ADVERTISEMENT

MUOS is now used by the Pentagon's command and control centers and its 18,000 military radio terminals, and guides its cruise and Global Hawk missiles as well as its armada of unmanned drones. Lockheed Martin started work on MUOS in 2004 and the system finally became operational in 2019.

But it likely would have gone online years sooner if not for the pesky fight Niscemi took up against the construction of the 82-foot-tall and 60-foot-wide parabolic satellite dishes and huge transmitters. Besides the Niscemi base, the MUOS system relies on similar relay stations in Hawaii, Virginia and Australia. The other three stations met little resistance.

“Everyone is against it,” Franco Spinello, a middle-aged farmer in Niscemi, told Courthouse News on a scorching hot August afternoon in 2021.

Like many others in Niscemi, he believed the antennas' ultra-high radio frequencies are harmful to humans and other living things.

The U.S. Navy base is located inside the Sughereta di Niscemi, a Sicilian nature preserve dedicated to protecting a variety of cork oak, holly oak and downy oak trees as well as local fauna and flora.

“There aren't any wild animals around there anymore,” Spinello complained. “There used to be rabbits, birds, porcupines. You can't find them anymore. What's more, now with the base there, a lot of the reserve is closed off to hunting. We used to go there often to hunt.”

His friend, another farmer named Maurizio Imposa, nodded in agreement as the two men stood in Niscemi's main square.

Farmers Franco Spinello and Maurizio Imposa chat as they stand in Niscemi, Sicily, in August 2021. Both men said they opposed the installation of powerful U.S. military antennas outside their town. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Imposa saw the MUOS base as another example of political corruption and the Sicilian mafia's continuing power over the island.

“They all sell themselves here in Sicily,” he said with scorn.

Initially, the Pentagon studied installing the MUOS antennas at its large Naval Air Station in Sigonella, about 30 miles northeast of Niscemi.

But after the U.S. Navy commissioned defense contractors AGI Inc. and Maxim System to study the effect of the MUOS system on the Sigonella base, the firms warned that modeling showed high radiation levels from the antennas and transmitter might damage Sigonella's infrastructure, disrupt air traffic signals and even potentially accidentally trigger military equipment, including nuclear weapons, according to a 2014 report by the Italian Senate.

Thus, the U.S. Navy decided to move its MUOS project to the Niscemi base. The Senate report said the decision to move MUOS to Niscemi involved limited environmental and health reviews. Meanwhile, Italy's Ministry of Defense had given the U.S. Navy exclusive use over the Niscemi base in 2006.

A 2013 photo of the U.S. Navy's Mobile User Objective System under construction at a military base in Niscemi, Sicily. (Fabio D'Alessandro)

Long before MUOS arrived, the Niscemi site had been used for military purposes.

As far back as World War II, locals say German and Italian troops used it as a radar station. Axis radar technicians apparently chose Niscemi because of its vantage points overlooking the Mediterranean Sea only 9 miles away. In 1943, British and American bomber and fighter planes were launching air attacks from North Africa and Malta in advance of the landing of Allied Forces on the shores of Sicily near Niscemi that summer, the first assault on Adolf Hitler's “Fortress Europe” and a precursor to the Normandy Beach landings a year later.

By the 1990s, as the Cold War raged, the U.S. began using Niscemi as a radar station and by the time MUOS arrived there were already 46 antennas in place there.

Niscemi is an underdeveloped and impoverished hilltop medieval town in sun-burnt southern Sicily with about 27,000 residents. Initially, the town's administration, then under a conservative mayor, welcomed the arrival of MUOS, according to Pino Cincetto, the town's longtime chief engineer.

“We were often invited to lunch inside the base,” Cincetto recalled, sitting at his desk in Niscemi's town hall in the summer of 2021. “We had our photos taken.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Back then, he said local officials joined American military brass every year in commemorations for the U.S. amphibious landing in nearby Gela during World War II. American military officers suggested the U.S. could pay for the construction of a playground and help the town in other ways to compensate for the construction of MUOS. American officers connected to MUOS were seen around town and took up residence.

But then a left-wing mayor and critic of MUOS took office and “all the doors and bridges to dialogue” were closed, Cincetto said.

Pino Chincetto, the longtime town engineer in Niscemi, Sicily, talks in August 2021 about the Pentagon's ultra-powerful military antennas located in a nature preserve outside his town. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

After the protests started, American personnel disappeared from Niscemi and MUOS became a bitter struggle. Any talk of U.S. aid to Niscemi collapsed, he said.

“They [the U.S.] didn't do anything” for Niscemi, the engineer said. “In the beginning it might have been possible to do something with the Americans and the town.”

Opposition to MUOS grew and the town, joined by large international environmental groups, tried to stop the project through the courts in a legal feud that carried on for years. A regional court in Sicily stopped work on MUOS in 2015. But by 2016, Italian courts had mostly dismissed the legal case against the project.

In the meantime, the U.S. eventually opened its Niscemi base to experts to verify what levels of electromagnetic waves were emitted by MUOS infrastructure. Cincetto said tests showed levels well under permitted levels.

Still, some scientists, among them world-renowned experts on electromagnetic waves, continued to assert the MUOS system emitted harmful radio signals and they questioned data provided by the U.S. Navy's experts.

“Despite the poor data available, they established that with the activation of new antennas people living around the base would have permanent problems with tissue necrosis,” said Federica Frazzetta, a sociologist at the Scuola Normale Superiore, a Tuscan university, who's studied the MUOS events. “They also established the impact on the civil air traffic.”

She said the problem for the anti-MUOS experts was the difficulty in proving how harmful the MUOS emissions are. She noted that Italy's Istituto Superiore di Sanità, a public health agency, issued a report that found it is not possible to establish “that MUOS (and microwaves) are not a problem for humans at all.”

“Given the uncertainty about the influence of MUOS on human health and environment, policy makers should have applied the precautionary principle” and stopped the MUOS project, Frazzetta wrote in an email. “But in this case, the precautionary principle was not used, and it was preferred to rely on biased reports and incomplete data.”

As the legal tussle carried on, Niscemi became a magnet for protests. On several occasions, thousands of people from all over Sicily and farther afield marched from the town center to the front of the Niscemi base. They screamed, hollered and prostrated themselves in the small road leading to the base in a bid to stop trucks bringing cement and the satellite dishes. The town's left-wing mayor pinned a demolition order on the front gates as news cameras filmed and reporters watched.

The opposition in Niscemi wasn't just about the potential of damaging electromagnetic waves. Townspeople also wondered why they had to be one of only four places in the world with the MUOS antennas, at risk of becoming an obvious target in any war between the United States and another superpower.

A 2021 photo of the entrance to Niscemi, a town in southern Sicily that protested against the Pentagon's plan to install gigantic antennas near the town as part of a global military communications system. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

American officials with the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Embassy in Rome did not respond to queries from Courthouse News about MUOS, the Niscemi base, the protests and legal battles.

Ultimately, the "No MUOS" protests – like others against U.S. military base expansions and operations in Italy – failed to stop the Pentagon's plans.

But the Space-Age antennas remain contentious and the anti-war movement spawned in Niscemi continues to take root. Across Sicily, “No MUOS” graffiti is a common sight. Upon entering the nearby city of Ragusa, official welcome signs are even posted with the words “No MUOS” on them.

Protests continue too in Niscemi and elsewhere in Sicily against MUOS and American militarism. Legal fights over the base are ongoing too. In November, 17 activists were sentenced to two years in prison for their actions during 2014 demonstrations.

Frazzetta, the sociologist, said the anti-MUOS movement should not be labeled a failure because it gummed up the advance of the MUOS project and spawned an anti-war movement that drew in many people who'd not been active in politics before.

“There have been many positive side effects,” she said. “A network of grassroots actors was built and still exists.”

She said the protests also spurred locals into demanding improvements to Niscemi, a town without a hospital, public transport and few public services. “In this sense, the MUOS protest has been a success," Frazzetta said.

But she doesn't foresee a future where America pulls up stakes and abandons its Italian bases.

“I think they will stay where they are,” she said. “The military relation between Italy and the U.S.A. is strong again now because of the war in Ukraine.”

A screenshot image from Google Earth of the U.S. Navy's Mobile User Objective System antennas at a military base in Niscemi, Sicily. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Piazza, the Catania university professor, agreed.

“American bases in Italy are destined to stay because the major political forces – both the center-right and the center-left – are 'Euro-Atlanticists,' pro-NATO and they'd never put up for discussion the alliance – mind you, some see the alliance as a form of subjugation – with the U.S.A," Piazza said.

“Nevertheless, the presence of American bases is challenged and will continue to be challenged by pacifist and ant-war groups and movements,” he said.

The Niscemi base – nestled in a hillside conch of the nature reserve – itself remains a kind of no-go area with Italian army trucks regularly patrolling the roads and grounds around the base and stopping anyone from getting a closer look at the heavily guarded and fenced base with its massive antennas and transmitters that look skyward toward the Pentagon's orbiting MUOS satellites.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...