Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The mystery of Huangyangtan

In internet terms this is a relatively ancient mystery, being first identified by a German, KenGrok in 2006. Much has already been written about the 1:500 replica landscape constructed in the deserts of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region of China, but the consensus is that this remarkable facility is in fact a scale facsimile (complete with snow-peaked mountains, valleys, tributaries and lakes) of the Aksai Chin contested region on the Indian-Chinese border 2400km away. It has been suggested that this 700 x 900 metre facility is used for tank training but the size and scale of the replica suggests a use in reconnaissance or visualization training of some kind. This image from the Sidney Morning Herald (obtained from a Chinese web forum) seems to show technicians at the Huangyangtan site or a similar terrain fabricated elsewhere. Whatever its purpose, I was reminded of the one paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, which I've copied out in full here:

… In that Empire, the art of cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire the entirety of the Province. In time those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographer Guild struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point to point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Discipline of Geography.

Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones Prudentes
Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Military Globalisation

Tarak Berkawi’s excellent short piece for Aljazeera reminds us that Military Globalisation is Nothing New. It outlines the historical principle that colonial and imperialist ambition projects military might abroad, circulating soldiers from place to place or training indigenous militias to suppress popular uprisings. The piece also shows the seldom connected back story to those positive narratives of global free trade and economic liberalism, a world in which the military act as the ‘steel frame of globalisation’. Much of this may seem obvious, but it is refreshing to read something that doesn’t root military activity simply to territory or ‘national defence’ but exposes the trans-national complexity of current military activity.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Government Pipeline and Storage System (GPSS)

With all the panic about the vulnerability of North African and Middle Eastern pipelines and related infrastructure, I thought I would post some notes on the British Government Pipeline and Storage System (GPSS). According to the Oil and Pipelines Agency (OPA),

‘GPSS consists of some 2,500 kilometres of underground cross-country pipelines of differing diameters, together with storage depots, salt cavities, associated pumping stations, receipt and delivery facilities and other ancillary equipment […]. Most of the storage depots are connected to the pipeline ringmain, which in turn is supplied by the majority of the major refining centres and port areas in England. Other self-standing pipelines and depots are situated elsewhere in England and Scotland. The GPSS receives, stores, transports and delivers light oil petroleum products for military and civil users’.

However, according to Alan Turnbull (of,

‘…the whole of the MoD's GPSS network is controlled from the Defence Fuels Group at West Moors near Wimborne, Dorset. It is a tri-service fuel storage, distribution and training centre, designated the Defence School of Petroleum and also known as the Defence Petroleum Centre’.

As an integral part of the infrastructure of national defence, GPSS has few visible or geographical manifestations. In this respect, it remains very much a part of the hidden military geography of the UK. Many large storage depots only began ‘appearing’ on Ordnance Survey maps within the last decade in response to a softening in the British government’s attitude to potentially sensitive geographic information. Recent aerial and satellite photographs reveal field-sized enclosures, sets of uniformly circular mounds and undulations suggesting buried tanks and sub-surface facilities. Some are quite pronounced such as the one at Killingholme, Humberside, within the Lindsey Oil Refinery complex, while others are small and barely discernable even from the air. Similarly, Padworth Common (which is adjacent to AWE Aldermaston), is studded with subtle undulations, tiny out-buildings and slip-roads that seemingly lead to nowhere. Like many military establishments they are accessed by prior invitation only. Rusty fences and padlocked gates usually prevent any unsolicited attention and some sites seem thoroughly neglected despite occasional visit from private security contractors. The existence of GPSS storage depots is not a secret but it is one of the most visually unobtrusive and least known aspects of military planning or infrastructure. The closure of a number of RAF and USAF airbases during the 1990’s means that some GPSS terminals, pumps stations and storage depots are actually not in use. These sleeping sites, while still owned by the MoD and maintained in some capacity by nebulous public and private sector organisations, hint at fluctuating levels of obsolescence in the British Defence Estate.

Much of the information about GPSS in the public domain relates to Health and Safety since the environmental cost of accidentally hitting a high-pressure aviation fuel pipe-line with a mechanical digger, for instance, would be enormous. For this reason the path of the pipe-lines are marked at various intervals by six-foot white posts crowned with slightly improbable yellow and black striped roofs (beautifully photographed by Patrick Keiller's in his recent film 'Robinson in Ruins'). These discreet markers pepper the edges of roads and byways like government issue bird houses or Beatlesque periscopes spying on passing surface dwellers. They barely hint at the complex infrastructural network beneath, stretching across the country and supplying major military bases with the fuel required to train aircrews and fly to war zones around the world. GPSS is the ‘hidden’ arterial system for the British defence capability, a buried network pumping fuel to sites around the country.