Ukraine Snake Island Flag - Buy it Here!


Russia and Signals Intelligence

The Russian Federation is the only member of the European space community known to operate ELINT satellite systems. Since 1967 approximately 200 spacecraft have been orbited by the former Soviet Union/Russian Federation for dedicated ELINT missions. Additional spacecraft may have carried ELINT packages as secondary payloads.

A secret 1985 General Accounting Office [GAO] stated the ELINT-3 (third-generation electronic intelligence satellite): "These satellites operate in a record-playback mode and can locate pulsed emitters to a best accuracy of about 10 kilometers," the secret report explains. They can pick up anything that sends out a radio signal, whether it's a radio station or a hand-held transmitter, and locate it within 10 kilometers on the first orbit.

secret 1985 General Accounting Office [GAO] stated Pentagon intelligence experts anticipated deployment of a new ELINT system by the end of 1985. - "Of particular concern," the GAO warns, "are improvements in the data resolution accuracy, the storage capacity and possibly the ability to transmit data in real-time to tactical users." Tactical users are the units out on the battlefield, as opposed to strategic weapons forces and units that must be sent long distances from their home base

During 1993-1994, a total of 11 Russian ELINT spacecraft, representing three classes of vehicles, were launched, although one satellite failed to reach orbit due to a booster malfunction. At the beginning of 1995 the integrated Russian ELINT constellation consisted of 11 primary spacecraft.

Two of the three ELINT networks established and maintained by the USSR/CIS are believed to be global in nature, i.e., they are designed to detect land-based as well as sea. based electronic signals. The principal mode of operations is for each satellite to record the type of signal received and to determine the direction of the transmitter from the satellite's position. These data are then stored and forwarded to special receiving stations or are relayed in near real time via data relay satellites. Analysts on the ground can then combine the data from seven satellites to pinpoint the location of the receiver and to determine the type of the emitter. For mobile targets, the frequency of ELINT over flights is crucial to maintaining an accurate knowledge of the target's position.

Historically, ELINT systems have played a major role in Soviet military doctrine. With the dramatic increase of radio and radar emitters on the battlefield during the past 30 years, the value of ELINT satellites has also risen. In the former Soviet Union, the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff (GRU) was tasked with the primary responsibility for global ELINT satellite systems. Collection activities were managed by the Satellite Intelligence Directorate, while the data analysis function was performed by the Decrypting Service (References 63-65).

At the end of 1994 the Russian global ELINT satellite capability was distributed between a second-generation, store/dump system nearing the end of a long (15 year) service record and a more advanced model which will probably remain the principal intelligence gathering system for the remainder of this decade. The former has apparently been reduced to a constellation of three or less spacecraft, known as Tselina D, placed in orbital planes 30 degrees apart at altitudes of 635-665 km, while the latter is now represented by four spacecraft, known as Tslenia 2, in orbital planes 40 degrees apart at altitudes of 850 km.


By Charles S. Sheldon II*



In the summer of 1975, hints had begun to appear that the Russians have other data relay systems of a covert nature. Newsweek magazine reported that the Russians have buried special detection equipment near U.S. military bases, including SAC Headquarters at Omaha . which broadcast their data to passing Soviet satellites.(10) Another story appearing in newspapers said the mysterious Glomar Explorer which earlier brought up part of a Soviet submarine from the mid-Pacific is now assigned to locating and removing Soviet sensors placed on the ocean bottom around California missile development centers. If these stories are inspired by real facts rather than being inventions, then we should be looking for any signs of supporting satellites in the Soviet program. One cannot expect them to be identified for us by the Russians. It is possible that a relatively secure system of space communications could be constructed which would collect and store signals from clandestine sources, whether these were remote, automatic devices, or live espionage agents, and then dump these findings by narrow beam to collection stations in the interior of the U.S.S.R.


The Soviet Government has long had a reputation for giving special attention to the gathering of elint (electronic intelligence), also referred to ferreting, or sigint (signal intelligence), comint (communications intelligence), and radint (radar intelligence). In basic definition, all spacecraft which receive and report on electromagnetic radiation are performing the same basic task, whether that is for purposes of solar studies, astronomy, weather reporting, Earth resources work, communications, or weather reporting. Electromagnetic radiation varies in frequency or wavelength, in strength for natural reasons and may be modulated deliberately in amplitude or in frequency by man. It ranges from gamma radiation of very short waves and high frequency, to X-rays, to ultraviolet, to visible light, to infrared, to radio frequencies of many kinds, to very long waves of low frequency. The kinds of detectors and the classification or use of that information differ from one satellite to another, and whether the signals are relayed in analog form or first converted to digital form, and whether various forms of sampling or other processing are necessary.

It is still useful, however, to sort out categories of difference in origin and use of these signals. Some data are part of the natural environment, and these may obscure the receipt and recognition of a second major group of signals. The latter are those generated by manmade activities. In turn, the man-made signals or emissions fall into two major subgroups: (a) those directed toward space deliberately to be picked up and relayed by satellite, and hence supporting the function of communications satellites as part of a cooperative system; (b) those not intended to be picked up by the receiving satellites, such as private messages, or inadvertent leakages of signals, and hence supporting the function of elint, radint, comint and related categories.

Military interests extend to all natural phenomena, partly to understand the difference between natural signals and those which are manmade, and partly because many natural emissions, such as reflected light or radiated heat, translate into pictures and data of use to defining ground activity or airborne and space activity. But those emissions which were generated by electronic devices such as radio stations, radar equipment, microwave towers, and other spacecraft give us a general category of signals whose frequencies, power level, location direction, and times of emission may answer questions of military interest. Although detection of the signals presents technical challenges, understanding the signals after their capture may be an even bigger challenge. For example, if the signals seem to be verbal, can the signals be read as a known language, or have they been encrypted in some fashion through use of a cipher or code? If they are the output of a radar set, what is the exact nature of those signals and their ability to discriminate targets under what conditions? Recent newspaper accounts have said that today even the inadvertent signal emissions of an electric typewriter may be capturable beyond the building where the machine is in use, and those indirect signals translated back into the text of the message being typed. Now it is probably unlikely that typewriter signals can be found in space in attenuated form because they would be overwhelmed by other background "noise" or the jumble of other signals. Even when signals can be understood, the sheer volume presents large problems of selecting which to single out for preservation and study.

Soviet interest in elint or ferreting—the capture of communications signals and of radar signals as two examples—is evident in such activities as the trawlers manned by Soviet crews in civilian-type clothes who follow NATO naval maneuvers, attend missile launchings and recovery areas, or cruise off our coasts, with a forest of antennas on their craft. Soviet craft loiter near Holy Loch, Guam , and Rota . Soviet military writings also show a keen awareness of the importance of signal discipline to minimize the capture of their own emissions by others. Since their trawlers, their overt naval vessels, their embassies, and their air and space defense systems all engage in signal gathering, we have to assume they also gather signals by spacecraft which then are relayed either in real time or taped for delayed rebroadcast to analytical centers in the Soviet Union. Such activities are not judged here as to their moral value; they presumably are of practical use since such a large collection effort has been maintained for so many years. Hence this study will look for signs of space elint or ferret payloads.


The United States space program authorities in the Department of Defense regard as non-sensitive some kinds of supportive space flight activity which improves military capabilities. For example, even when the public information flow has been generally restricted, details on some types of multiple payloads were still being released. Among such announced U.S. military payloads are a variety of calibration devices of different shapes, sizes, and materials. Also, there have been hardware elements such as gravity stabilization experiments, and payloads of different densities to measure rates of decay from orbit due to air friction. There have been tests of solar cells and of structures, and of small thrusters.

Hence, one should expect to find somewhere within the Soviet program counterpart devices carried by flights, since the same kinds of technological problems are faced.



10. Newsweek , New York , September 8, 1975 , pp. 19-21.

* Dr. Sheldon, was Chief, Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 26-08-2018 04:41:45 ZULU