Signals intelligence operational platforms by nation

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34 min readSep 17, 2019


Signals intelligence operational platforms are employed by nations to collect signals intelligence, which is intelligence-gathering by interception of signals, whether between people (i.e., COMINT or communications intelligence) or between machines (i.e., ELINT or electronic intelligence), or mixtures of the two. As sensitive information is often encrypted, signals intelligence often involves the use of cryptanalysis. However, traffic analysis-the study of who is signaling whom and in what quantity-can often produce valuable information, even when the messages themselves cannot be decrypted.

Ground platforms

It can be difficult to draw the line between a ground-based SIGINT receiving station, and facilities that have control, coordination, and processing functions in the “bigger picture” of signals intelligence. Many stations, for the countries with stations in many parts of the world, do have both aspects. There are also some that are clearly intercepted only.

The first signals intelligence platforms were listening stations on the ground. Early tactical stations were in use as early as World War I, but permanent strategic signals intelligence stations were established as world tensions grew before WWII.

Arguably, one combined intercept and jamming technique of WWI was the use of shotguns against carrier pigeons, followed by reading the message attached to the bird.

While pigeons can probably be safe, other collection techniques may enjoy a resurgence. One specialized technique, originally used in the First World War but again in the Korean War, was interception using the ground return from wired telephones. In mountainous terrain, it might again have applications, such as Afghan caves where wire might be run without the danger of free-space interception.

Satellite communications generally must be intercepted by large parabolic antennas on the ground, although there are possibilities that aircraft, intelligence satellites, and ships might also intercept. “To receive satellite signals … only parabolic antennas are used. If the parabolic antennas are standing on an open site, it is possible to calculate on the basis of their position, their elevation and their compass (azimuth) angle which satellite is being received. This is possible, for example, in Morwenstow (UK), Yakima (USA) or Sugar Grove (USA).”

Australia: Ground platforms

A facility at Geraldton, Western Australia, with Australian and British personnel was built in the 1990s.

The European Parliament report stated that the Shoal Bay facility is “run solely by the Australian Intelligence Service. Of the satellite antennas visible on photographs, the five larger ones have a maximum diameter of 8 m, and the sixth antenna visible is smaller still. According to information provided by Richelson, the antennas are trained on the Indonesian Palapa satellites. It is not clear whether the station is part of the global system for the interception of civilian communications.” Of the additional bases are in Cuba, two of which are operated by China:

Chinese personnel, in 1998, began operating the Bejucal and Santiago de Cuba facilities. The first seems concerned with intercepting US telephone communications and data traffic, while the second appears aimed at US military satellites One is a large complex at Bejucal, just south of Havana, which has ten SATCOM antennas, and which is primarily concerned with intercepting telephone communications in the US. Reports by journalists, cited in the European Parliament report, confirm the Domme installation, and also a facility at Alluetts-le-Roi near Paris. There were also reports of stations in Kourou in French Guyana and in Mayotte.

France: tactical ground platforms

At the tactical force protection levels, Thales was awarded a contract to build SAEC (Station d’Appui Electronique de Contact) force protection stations, by the French defense procurement agency (DGA). The contract was awarded in 2004 and initial operational capability is expected by 2007.

The SAEC is an armored vehicle carrying ELINT and the Thales XPLORER COMINT to complement EW platforms. It will have wideband acquisition, direction-finding and analysis sensors, for real-time monitoring and recording for subsequent analysis. It can operate standalone, or network using VHF (PR4G) and HF (TRC3700) communication systems for networking with other SAEC and the SGEA higher level EW system.

SGEA will do intelligence fusion, including from UAV-carried sensor, and coordinate with the electronic attack.

Germany: ground platforms

Germany: strategic ground platforms

Germany operates a strategic ground station at the Kommando Strategische Aufklärung (Strategic Reconnaissance Command) of the Bundeswehr, in Gilsdorf, which is responsible for controlling Germany’s SAR Lupe system and analyzing the retrieved data. A large data archive of images will be kept in a former Cold War bunker. Its data is shared with the Bundesnachrichtendienst BND.

Germany: tactical ground platforms

Germany operates several tactical ground platforms for SIGINT gathering.

  • Bad Aibling: ex-US Army SIGINT now BND Satcom and cellular monitoring
  • Bramstedtlund: BND direction finder
  • Butzbach: BND direction finder
  • Gablingen: ex-US Army SIGINT now BND direction finder
  • Hof: ex-US Army SIGINT now BND Satcom intercept
  • Langen: ex USAF Rhein/Main site now BND cellular monitoring
  • Rheinhausen: BND Satcom intercept
  • Schöningen: BND Satcom intercept
  • Übersee: BND direction finder


New Zealand: ground platforms

During the Second World War, New Zealand established seven radio interception stations to support the Anglo-American war effort against Japan. These seven stations and their Wellington intelligence headquarters were linked to the Allied analysis centers in Australia. In 1949, the Royal New Zealand Navy established a permanent radio-receiving station called NR1 (Navy Receiver 1), which was located south of Waiouru. NR1 was situated beside the Navy’s main radio receiving Station, NR2. NR1 operated for thirty-three years until being closed down in 1982. On February 15, 1955, the New Zealand Combined Signals Organization (NZCSO) was established to collect signals intelligence and to operate the NR1 station. Between 1955 and 1974, New Zealand signal officers were also regularly posted to a secret interception station in Singapore which was jointly run by Britain and Australia. According to the peace researcher and journalist Nicky Hager, this station was used to support British and later American military operations in Southeast Asia.

As of 2013, New Zealand has two ground-based signals intelligence stations at Tangimoana in the North Island’s Manawatu-Wanganui region and the Waihopai Valley in the South Island’s Marlborough region. These two stations are currently run and operated by the Government Communications Security Bureau, the successor to the NZCSO and New Zealand’s main signals intelligence agency which was established in 1977. The GCSB is also a member of the five-member UKUSA Agreement, which also includes the SIGINT intelligence services of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia. The Tangimoana Station was built in 1981 by the Third National Government and began operations in 1983. Its existence was first revealed by the peace activist Owen Wilkes and subsequently confirmed by the National Party Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in June 1984. Meanwhile, the Waihopai station was built by the Fourth Labour Government in April 1988 and began operations on September 8, 1989. According to Nicky Hager, the Waihopai Station was established to operate in tandem with the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station near Geraldton in Western Australia.

According to the academic Teresia Teaiwa, New Zealand, as part of the UKUSA alliance, collected and analyzed low-frequency radio and international satellite communications from the South Pacific region. Known targets have included Vanuatu, the French overseas departments of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands. Besides Pacific governments, other targets have included not-UKUSA diplomatic missions businesses, and international organizations operating in the South Pacific. According to Hager, the GCSB’s ground-based signal stations have in the past intercepted a wide range of foreign electronic communications including Japanese diplomatic cables, French military activities and nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific, Pacific states’ military maneuvers and trade agreements with the Soviet Union, and Russian/Soviet ships in the region and research bases in Antarctica.

Russia: ground platforms

Russia: strategic ground platforms

Russia closed its major ground collection stations at Lourdes in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Stations remain at the Ras Karma Military Airbase, near QaDub on Socotra Island in Yemen, across the Red Sea to Somalia, and at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean. An inactive station at Ramona in North Korea may reopen. used in the Second Chechen War.

Turkey: ground platform

After 17–25 December Operations against the government, the existence of Genelkurmay Elektronik Sistemler (General Staff Electronic Systems) revealed. In 2012 the institution assigned to MIT(National Intelligence Agency).

United Kingdom: ground platforms

United Kingdom: strategic ground platforms

Journalist Duncan Campbell alleges that Ayios Nikolaos Station on Cyprus is a British SigInt collection installation. He further alleges that GCHQ Bude in Cornwall is also a SigInt collection system associated with the Echelon network.

  • Europe
  • Germany
  • Bad Aibling. After deactivation in 2004 area handed over to the German authorities. Bundeswehr installed a communications unit on the premises using most of the antennas and several buildings. They are converted into a Technological Park. Current status: Bundesheer Bundesnachrichtendienst and various civil investment groups.
  • Dagger Complex. The INSCOM European Cryptologic Center (ECC) — Darmstadt, also comprising the ICEBOX facility at 49°51'20″N 8°35'12" E and the TENCAP facility at 49°51'18″N 8°35'43″E. All are assigned 66th Military Intelligence Brigade — Wiesbaden.
  • United Kingdom
  • GCHQ Bude — Morwenstow, United Kingdom
  • RAF Menwith Hill, United Kingdom
  • Asia
  • North America
  • NSA/CSS Colorado
  • NSA/CSS Georgia
  • NSA/CSS Hawaii

The Marine units report the National SIGINT Operations Center at NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, MD. These facilities often have both a SIGINT receiving and a higher-level management and control function.

Jeffrey Richelson, for the George Washington University National Security Archive, links the Air Force’s 544th Intelligence Group with ECHELON operations. He places its Detachment 2 located at Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico; Detachment 3 at Sugar Grove, West Virginia; and Detachment 4 at Yakima, Washington.

In the 1994 Air Intelligence Agency (AIA) history, Misawa is specifically associated with ECHELON only in the context of a collection system called LADYLOVE. Misawa, although many of its SIGINT units were deactivated in 2000–2001, still had an RSOC coordination role. The AIA history says the “Misawa LADYLOVE activity was initiated during the Cold War to intercept Soviet military communications transmitted via satellite-along with similar operations at Menwith Hill, UK; Bad Aibling, Germany; and Rosman, North Carolina.”

According to Duncan Campbell, “In 1999, the Sabana Seca field station appeared to have at least four radomes for satellite communications, one located beside an existing high-frequency interception system targeted on Cuban radio communications.” Detachment 3 of the US Air Force 544th Intelligence Group is a tenant at Sugar Grove, and the 544th has been associated with ECHELON activities. While the main subordinate command at Sugar Grove is redacted, it would appear, given the presence of large satellite antennas at Sugar Grove, but it not appearing in lists of NSOCs, that it is principally an intercept facility. Each combat BCT has an organic military intelligence (MI) company, with improved SIGINT capability. In addition, five battlefield surveillance brigades (BfSB), of which an MI Collection Battalion is the core element, are being formed. Each of those battalions is 1/3 SIGINT; the Army expects to have more than 7,000 new MI soldiers by 2013.

Prophet Block I began rolling out in 1999–2000 and was operational in Afghanistan. It replaced the AN/TSQ-138 Trailblazer, AN/TRQ-32 Teammate, AN/TLQ-17A Traffic jam, and the AN/PRD-12 systems. The system will be getting incremental improvements, which reflect both improvements in technology and in the military organizational structure. At the time of initial operational capability, the assumption was that PROPHET would be issued six systems per division, four per armored cavalry regiment (ACR), three per Initial Brigade Combat Team (IBCT). Tasking for Prophet will come from primarily from the division-level Analysis and Control Element, modified by brigade-specific priorities and then send them to the Prophet via SINCGARS radio.

Physically, the basic Prophet platform is built around a mounted AN/PRD-13(V)2 direction-finding (DF) system designed to provide force protection in a DS role to the maneuver brigade. This system operates in the HF, VHF and UHF spectra. It provides line-of-bearing (LOB) data and intercepts on unencrypted, single-channel push-to-talk transmissions.

It can be put into subassemblies that can be carried by a four-man team individual soldiers, although the more common deployment will be in an M1097 HMMWV. In the vehicle-mounted variant, it can operate while moving; the vehicle also has racks for two AN/VRC-92 SINCGARS Combat Net Radios with backpacks and carries an antenna mast and other equipment.

Tactical communications, not just for SIGINT, are “flattening”, such that units do not just report up their chain of command, but to adjacent units. One of the rationales for doing so is that a combat unit can see an opportunity and move against it, without it being misidentified by a neighboring unit and being engaged with “friendly fire.”

Prophet Block II adds electronic attack (EA) capability to Prophet, while Block III upgrades the Prophet receiver to collect against advanced and special signals. These enhancements will be coordinated with UAVs and tactical aircraft with expanded SIGINT capability. Blocks IV (expected IOC 2008) and V (expected IOC 2015)

add MASINT along with micro-and robotic receivers to the Prophet Ground system.

MASINT will include ground surveillance radars (PPSSD) and the Improved-Remotely Monitored Battlefield Sensor System (I-REMBASS) aboard a shelter-mounted HMMWV. Prophet, with the I-REMBASS monitoring system, will form the Ground Sensor Platoon of the brigade combat team Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA) Squadron.

Prophet Air will begin in a UAV.

For SIGINT operations, the basic US Marine augmentation to Force Recon is a 6-man detachment from a Radio Reconnaissance Platoon. There is a SIGINT platoon within the Intelligence Company of the new Marine Special Operations Support Group.

Army Special Forces have the Special Operations Team-Alpha that can operate with an SF team, or independently. This is a low-level collection team, which typically has four personnel . Their primary equipment is the AN/PRD-13 SOF SIGINT Manpack System (SSMS), with capabilities including direction-finding capability from 2 MHz to 2 GHz, and monitoring from 1 to 1400 MHz.

US Marine Corps: tactical ground stations

Subordinate to Radio Battalions, US Marines have a multifunction AN/MLQ-36 Mobile Electronic Warfare Support System that gives the operators limited armor protection. It contains

  • Two WJ-8618B(S1) acquisition receivers and a WJ-32850 MANTIS DF system which, together, provide signal intercept and radio direction finding
  • One AN/ULQl9(V) electronic attack set
  • a secure communications system,
  • an intercom system installed
  • logistics variant of the light armored vehicle (LAV)-25

The AN/PRD-12 is a tactical, man-transportable system that provides search, intercept, and DF on communications signals in the HF/VHF/UHF bands. Up to four PRD-12 stations can be networked, providing DF data to a mission control station via radio link with the single-channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) equipment. Any of the four stations can act as mission control.

Ship platforms

Ad hoc installations were placed on US warships in 1940 on. Modern ship installations generally involve intercept stations in mobile vans, which can be put onto the deck of a warship, although some nations, such as Russia and Spain, use essentially unarmed modified fishing vessels.

There is a high level of interoperability among NATO vessels, using the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS). While not all ships have sufficiently secure areas for all-source (i.e., including SIGINT) intelligence sensors, commanders with access to all-source information can distribute appropriate parts to units under their command.

China: ship platforms

China operates at least 10 AGI-type vessels.

Denmark: ship platforms

Denmark can field one containerized SIGINT/ELINT component, to be fitted in its FLYVEFISKEN class patrol-crafts.

France: ship platforms

France has operated several generations of SIGINT ships but is moving to its first purpose-built vessel as the third generation. The first, a German cargo ship built in 1958 by a shipyard in Bremen, was transformed in France into an electronic eavesdropping ship between 1976 and 1977. Decommissioned in May 1999, the next generation was a former supply ship used since 1988 by the Nuclear Experiments Department for the Pacific Tests Centre (CEP), the Bougainville. For its new mission, it was equipped with SIGINT sensors and a Syracuse II satellite communication system and has been operating since July 1999. It carried out significant missions in the Indian Ocean following the 9/11/2001 attacks.

On 14 January 2002, the French Ministry of Defense launched a new purpose-built “Intelligence Gathering Auxiliary” ship project called MINREM and will be named the Dupuy-de-Lôme. This vessel entered service in 2006, to replace Bougainville. Thales is providing the electronics, and Compagnie Nationale de Navigation is building the ship, to requirements defined by the Military Intelligence Directorate (DRM). with a planned 30 year lifetime. Thales is assigning overall systems and COMINT to its Thales Communication division, while Thales Systèmes Aéroportés will do the ELINT.

Germany: ship platforms

The German Navy operates the Oste class fleet service ships which are purpose-built SIGINT and ELINT reconnaissance ships. Also, other Navy vessels, such as the Bremen class frigates, Brandenburg class frigates, Sachsen class frigates, and Braunschweig class corvettes are equipped with extensive SIGINT/ELINT gear.

New Zealand: ship platforms

The Government Communications Security Bureau has trained and used Royal New Zealand Navy Electronic Warfare (EW) operators and vessels for intelligence-gathering missions since 1986. Between 1986 and 1990, the New Zealand Navy equipped four of its frigates-, and -with US$12.5 million worth of new electronic warfare equipment which had been purchased from the United States, one of the other Five Eyes partners.

The Navy’s hydrographic vessel was also used by the GCSB to intercept Fijian military radio communications during the 1987 Fijian coups d’état. The GCSB also outfitted the frigates Canterbury and Waikato with GCSB mobile stations, which were staffed by Navy EW personnel but answered directly to the GCSB. These two warships were also assigned with UKUSA station designations-NZC-334 and NZC-335 respectively-and were deployed on six-week missions to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia during the late 1980s and 1990s.

Norway: ship platforms

Norway uses the F/S Marjata, a purpose-built electronic intelligence (ELINT) collection vessel.

Poland: ship platforms

Poland’s Marynarka Wojenna operates the ORP Hydrograf and ORP Navigator.

Russia: ship platforms

Before and after the breakup of the USSR, the Russian Navy operated a large number of AGI (Auxiliary General Intelligence) intelligence collection “trawlers”. such as the Primor’ye class In 1980 the Soviets built a group of more sophisticated purpose-built vessels, such as the Balzam class intelligence ships and Vishnya class intelligence ships, which are operated by the Russian Navy today.

Spain: ship platforms

Spain has been reported to have acquired an ex-East German AGI, which it may operate in cooperation with its SIGINT aircraft. The vessel concerned is the 1,900 ton renamed Alerta, In East German service, she had extensive antennas and a large radome. Based in Cartagena, the SIGINT work is reportedly by two Israeli companies and a Spanish firm. A different source says that the SIGINT equipment is Russian. A Saturn 35 satellite antenna has been, according to Spanish sources, added.

Sweden: ship platforms

Sweden operates the HMS Orion and plans to rebuild the HMS Carlskrona as a SIGINT ship.

United States: ship platforms

After two international incidents, US doctrine is to conduct ship-based SIGINT missions with warships, which can protect themselves as the Pueblo and Liberty could not. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, in 1964, involved two-destroyer DESOTO patrols equipped with intercept vans, backed up with carrier air patrols. Why this level of protection was not available in 1967 is difficult to understand. One exception, the SIGINT auxiliary, generally stayed off the Nicaraguan coast.

Current USN warships carry some version of the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare system, which has ESM capabilities.

In addition to the AN/SLQ-32, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are in the process of evaluating an open-architecture Integrated Radar/Optical Sighting and Surveillance System (IROS3) and Ship Protection system, currently including an AN/SPS-73 radar, an electro-optical/infrared sensor, acoustic sensors and spotlights, coupled with remotely controlled machine guns.

Standardized USN systems go beyond simple direction finding and into COMINT. The AN/SLR-25 is a passive cryptologic exploitation system principally for tactical use, but that can make contributions to higher levels of intelligence. The SLR-25(V)1 Advanced Cryptologic Carry-on Exploitation System (ACCES) is a portable version of the SLR-25(V)2 SSEE (Ship Signal Exploitation Equipment) without dedicated SIGINT spaces. Coupled with AN/SSQ-120 Transportable Radio Direction-Finding system, the ACCES provides a complete SIGINT collection system.

More capable than the AN/SLR-25 with AN/SSQ-120 is the AN/SSQ-137 Ship Signal Exploitation System, an open-architecture system for command & control as well as intelligence.

Submarine platforms

Submarines are the original stealth platforms. When no more than a mast breaks the surface, in the worst case they can become radar targets, so virtually all modern submarines will have the minimum ELINT of a radar warning receiver. Far beyond that, however, many submarines will penetrate hostile areas, raise SIGINT receiver masts, usually with some type of radar-observant covering, and listen. Especially sophisticated SIGINT submarines may tap undersea cables.

The minimum radar-warning receiver is usually a set of spiral antennas, backed with resonant cavities, whose amplitude can be compared to determine the direction of greatest signal strength. To go to the next level of sophistication, the phase is considered as well as amplitude, and interferometry adds further information.

Australia: submarine platforms

Australia’s Collins-cl ass has a SIGINT mission, emphasized when the vessels’ combat system was replaced with an open-architecture surveillance system. Among the systems are the ArgoSystems/Condor AR-740. “However, submarines also have a contribution to make in deterring and countering the asymmetric threats that now preoccupy Canadian/US (CANUS) planners. This is centered upon Intelligence-gathering, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) activities … possession of submarines admits Canada to that exclusive group of states participating in regulated and highly classified submarine water space management and intelligence-sharing schemes. The intention to re-establish a Pacific submarine presence led to the immediate cooperation of the United States in development of a west coast Waterspace Management Agreement with Canada, whereas none existed previously. Likewise, Arctic transits and deployments by allied submarines are generally first signaled when Canada’s Atlantic Submarine Operating Authority is advised of foreign submarine movement across 70 degrees North latitude. Taken together, these various factors result in a capability of strategic importance in so much as it exponentially expands the range of coercive options available to decision-makers.”

As part of the upgrade of the Upholder-class submarine purchased from the UK, the Litton Marine Guardian Star is on the Victoria-class submarines.

Denmark: submarine platforms

Danish subs had the UK Racal/Thales Sea Lion precision DF system.

United States: submarine platforms

Under the code names HOLYSTONE, PINNACLE, BOLLARD, and BARNACLE, began in 1959, US submarines infiltrated Soviet harbors to tap communications cables and gather SIGINT. They also had a MASINT mission against Soviet submarines and missiles. The program, which went through several generations, ended when compromised, by Ronald Pelton, in 1981.

US submarines infiltrated the territorial waters of potential opponents to raise low-observability antennas and collect radio SIGINT. US submarines made extensive clandestine patrols to measure the signatures of Soviet submarines and surface vessels. Various submarines, including the USS Parche and USS Halibut, from the early seventies onwards, reportedly tapped Soviet copper and optical undersea cables, using divers, probes from the main vessel, or remotely operated vehicles.

While the Sturgeon class submarines have been retired, as with any class of submarines, their design had tradeoffs. Sturgeons were more optimized for reconnaissance than the subsequent Los Angeles class, which have greater speed, but less internal space, and optimized for blue water, principally antisubmarine, missions. They used the AN/WLQ-4 “Sea Nymph” SIGINT system, which may have been too large to fit the Los Angeles class. (Some Sturgeon class submarines such as the Gurnard (SSN-662) were fitted with the An/WLR-6 and AN/BRD-7 Systems in the late 1960s.) The Sturgeon class submarine Parche (SSN-683) received an addition hull extension containing “research and development equipment” that brought her total length to. Of the three-vessel Seawolf class, the Jimmy Carter also is of extended length for intelligence systems and special operations. Seawolf and Los Angeles classes were directed at a Soviet threat, so the newer Virginia class has additional capabilities for the littoral environment.

Los Angeles class submarines have modernized and smaller ELINT, the AN/WLR-18 “Classic Salmon” for lower frequencies and the AN/WSQ-5 “Cluster Spectator” for higher frequencies. The latter is in a series of code names suggesting it is for tactical use, while the former name is more associated with strategic systems, especially for intelligence. Newer submarines have AN/WLR-8 radar signal analyzer and AN/WLR-10 (or AN/BLR-15) radar warning receiver. There are variants, among the classes, of a radar antenna, interferometric direction finder, COMINT receiver. ES contains the AN/BLQ-10 SIGINT system, which gives detection, emitter location and MASINT identification, direction-finding, and strategic intelligence support. It was first implemented in 2000 and should be in all US submarines by 2012. The 18 AP-3C Orion was upgraded to include fitting each aircraft with a new Elta EL/M-2022(V)3 radar, a nose-mounted Star Safire III electro-optical and infrared system, “highly capable” signals and electronic intelligence (SIGINT/ELINT) equipment, the UYS 503 acoustic system, a new automatic information system processor, a new navigation system based on two Honeywell H764G Embedded GPS/INUs, a new communications system and other improvements. In late 2015 it was announced that a number of Gulfstream G550s are being acquired alongside eight P-8A Poseidons, with reports that they will possibly form the replacement for the electronic intelligence-gathering role performed by the RAAF’s AP-3 Orions.

Chile: aircraft platforms

Chile has a full Israeli Phalcon system on a single 707 airframe. This system provides SIGINT as well as airborne radar warning and control.

China: aircraft platforms

Prof. Desmont Ball identified Chinese the first major airborne SIGINT platforms as the four-turboprop EY-8, a variant of the Russian An-12 ‘Cub’ as China’s main ELINT and reconnaissance aircraft a decade ago. C-160 fleets of France, Germany, and Turkey will be replaced by the Airbus Military A400M transport when that enters service from 2009. The French Air Force will begin retiring its fleet of C-160 transports in 2005.

Originally manufactured by the companies MBB, Nord Aviation and VFW formed the Transall group in 1959 for the development and production of the C-160 for the air forces of France, Germany, South Africa, and Turkey. Production of the aircraft by the three companies ended in 1972, with 169 aircraft having been delivered. In 1976, responsibility for the production of the aircraft was given to Aerospatiale in France and MBB (now DaimlerChrysler Aerospace) in Germany. Both companies are now part of EADS (European Aeronautics Defence and Space). Production of the aircraft from 1976 to 1985 included updated avionics, a reinforced wing housing, and additional fuel tanks.

French Transalls were upgraded in 1999, with a new head-up display and an upgraded electronic warfare suite, with a radar warning receiver, missile approach warner and chaff, and decoy dispensers. Navigational systems include EFIS 854 TF Electronic Flight Instrumentation System, which includes an Electronic Attitude Director Indicator (EADI) and Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicator (EHSI). Three new sensors have been installed for aircraft position and attitude control: an inertial reference unit (IRU), an attitude and heading reference unit (AHRU), and a global positioning system (GPS). A flight management system with two Gemini 10 computers and a new radio management system have also been installed.

The Transalls provided NATO SIGINT in Bosnia.

For a number of years, France operated DC-8 aircraft “Sarigue” dedicated to ELINT. A re-engined version, Sarigue-NG, went into service in 2000. The name stands for Systeme Aeroporte de Recueil d’Informations de Guerre Electronique (Airborne Electronic Warfare Information Gathering System) and also is the French word for Opossum, a shy and retiring animal. The updated aircraft was known as the SARIGUE-NG, with the NG standing for Nouvelle Generation or New Generation. Both DC-8s had a SIGINT system from Thompson-CSF and operated in the Baltic, Mediterranean, French Africa, and during Desert Storm and NATO Kosovo operations.

It had a distinctive sideways looking airborne radar (SLAR) in a “canoe” under the fuselage, as well as large rectangular antenna arrays at each wingtip.

The aircraft was fitted with equipment developed by Thompson-CSF, similar to that installed in the earlirt Transall Gabriels. It is believed that the aircraft operated with a 24-man crew and as well as COMINT and SIGINT duties, it could even intercept mobile phone calls. Operated by the French Air Force on behalf of the armed forces and security services, it was seen in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and French Africa, as well as being used in support of coalition operations during the Gulf War and NATO peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.

On 19 Sep 2004, it was reported that in addition to a 50% cost overrun on an electronics upgrade by Thales, the weight of the new upgrade violated safety limits. The French Defence Minister confirmed the Sarigue would be retired because of ‘high operating costs’. An Airbus replacement for the DC-8 was considered and rejected.

Germany: aircraft platforms

During NATO operations in Bosnia, Germany operated four SIGINT version of the French-German Atlantique patrol aircraft.

Israel: aircraft platforms

Israel is reported to have converted at least four Boeing 707 aircraft, codenamed Re’em (Antelope) and based at Lod to an electronic warfare role, two for countermeasures and two or more for SIGINT. An indicator of an ELINT role is the presence of a cheek-antenna array externally similar to the AEELS (Automatic ELINT Emitter Locating System) on the RC-135U/V/W. These aging aircraft are due for replacement, probably by Gulfstream G500 executive jets.

The aircraft is known as Re’em (Antelope) and are operated by 134 Tayeset at Lod. Some other IAF 707s are possibly configured for AAR/SIGINT operations. Israel is currently looking for up to 9 dual role aircraft to replace their 707’s and will purchase a number of Gulfstream G500s.

Spain: aircraft platforms

Spain operates a single 707 variant, modified by Israel and equipped with Israeli and Spanish electronics. As well as an Elta EL/L-8300 SIGINT system, In the baseline version, this multi-operator Elta system contains 0.5 to 18 GHz ELINT (0.03 to 40 GHz as an option), 20 to 1,000 MHz (2 to 1,500 MHz as an option) COMINT, and control and analysis sub-systems.

In addition to the SIGINT payload, the aircraft has a Tamam Stabilised Long Range Observation System (LOROS) high-resolution TV camera and recording systems. The SLOROS is reported to have a range of at least 62 miles (100 km).

The aircraft has been reported around the western edge of North Africa, Western Sahara, and the Mediterranean. Under the AirSeeker program 3 Rivet Joint RC-135 signals intelligence aircraft have been purchased for £670 million in 2013. It is reported that one of these is already permanently operating over Iraq as part of the RAF effort to combat Islamic State militants. UK E3D AWACS does not have SIGINT capability.

United States: aircraft platforms

Some platforms considered strategic, including the P-3 and RC-135 RIVET JOINT aircraft, may be assigned in support of large tactical units. There are both MASINT and SIGINT versions of the RC-135, the best-known SIGINT variant being the RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT.

United States: tactical aircraft platforms

In the 1950s and 1960s, SIGINT personnel flew aboard Navy EA-3B aircraft. As a result of ASA casualties during ground SIGINT in Vietnam, ASA developed its own fleet of tactical SIGINT aircraft, starting with the U-6 Beaver. The reconnaissance mission for these aircraft was indicated with an “R” prefix, hence RU-6. Beavers, however, had poor capabilities. The RU-1 Otter had more built-in SIGINT equipment, but the first purpose-built Army SIGINT aircraft was the RU-8D Seminole, which had a Doppler navigation system and wing-mounted direction-finding equipment, although SIGINT operations still required much manual work. Some RU-8D aircraft had MASINT sensors for categorizing specific transmissions. Especially with tactical aircraft, there was a gap between the knowledge of SIGINT personnel and the understanding of warfighters. For example, end-users often expected a direction-finding fix to be a point, rather than an area of probability.

In 1968, the next tactical improvement was the RU-21 LAFFIN EAGLE and the JU-21 LEFT JAB, the latter being the first with computerized direction finding and data storage. Even more advanced ASA equipment was on P-2V aircraft borrowed from the Navy and called CEFLIEN LION or CRAZY CAT platforms.

During the Vietnam era, six UH-1 helicopters were converted to SIGINT platforms, called EH-1 LEFT BANK aircraft and operated in direct support of combat aircraft.

US tactical SIGINT aircraft include the EH-60A Quickfix helicopter, which has interception capabilities in the 1.5–150 MHz and direction-finding between 20–76 MHz. The EH-60L has better communications and upgradability than the A model, with the AN/MSR-3 TACJAM-A system. RC-12 Guardrail aircraft provide a corps-level ESM capability, with the unusual approach of putting all the analysis equipment on the ground, with the RC-12K/N/P/Q aircraft acting purely as intercept and relay platforms. The Guardrail aircraft normally fly in units of three, to get better cross-bearings in direction-finding.

The Navy EA-6 replaced the USAF EF-111 EW aircraft for all services, and the EA-6 is being replaced by the EA-18G Growler. All EW aircraft have some ELINT capability if for no other reason than targeting.

Naval MH-60R helicopters have AN/ALQ-210 ESM suites.

United States: strategic aircraft platforms

The most common aircraft used in a strategic role by US allies are Boeing 707 conversions for the lower-budget, lower-capability installations, and Boeing 767 conversions for the higher-end. Gulfstream executive jets are another platform of interest. The US military is considering, as it’s aircraft age, replacing with variants on the foreign platforms, often built on US-made aircraft.

Some features are common to multiple countries, such as a pair are two “chipmunk cheek” bulges containing SIGINT antennas. There is a US-made set used on the RC-135V and RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft. A US-made variant, reported to have internal differences, is used by Saudi Arabia. A third variant, with a similar appearance, but of Israeli manufacture, is used by Israel and South Africa. In no case, however, are these the only SIGINT antennas on the aircraft.

Dedicated RC-135 aircraft, operated by the US Air Force, is in a variety of SIGINT and MASINT configurations. An effort is underway to develop a standard RC-135 open architecture, allowing at least some of the aircraft to be quickly reconfigured. RIVET JOINT is the most common SIGINT type.

On the long-range Navy P-3, maritime surveillance aircraft is the AN/ALR-66B(V)3 ELINT/MASINT system targeted against radars. Major improvements are an improved direction-finding antenna and an EP-2060 pulse analyzer.

Boeing also has built a “Wedgetail 737” for Turkey and appears to be marketing this as an alternative to the lower-end systems being built for business jets such as the Gulfstream. Australia also has ordered this aircraft.

Satellite platforms

The US launched the first SIGINT satellites, followed by the Soviets. Recently, however, the French have been launching intelligence satellites, on French and Russian rockets, and are exchanging information with the Germans and Italians, both of which are deploying synthetic aperture radar MASINT constellations, with an undefined IMINT or electro-optical MASINT capability on the Italian satellites.

Additional nations have launched IMINT satellites; SIGINT seems to be a lesser priority, with radar MASINT often a higher priority. There are a number of bilateral agreements for satellite cost and intelligence sharing.

European military space policy

European nations deal with a complex set of issues in developing space-based intelligence systems. Many of the operational and proposed systems have bilateral information-sharing agreements, such as France providing ELINT to its radar MASINT SAR and its IMINT partners. SIGINT capability, however, is fairly rare, with France in the Western European lead.

Quite a number of issues are driving European needs for intelligence policy. During the 1991 Gulf War, France’s dependence on US assets convinces it that it needed its own, or at least European, space-based intelligence. Balkan operations and both dependence on US assets, and exclusion from certain information, further pushed the desire, although the topmost levels of government had not yet been convinced.

In 1998, a British-French meeting in St. Malo, France, produced a declaration that the EU needed “a capacity for analysis of situations, sources of intelligence, and a capability for relevant strategic planning (emphasis added). This was a major change in British policy toward the EU, in that Britain had wanted the EU to stay out of defense issues, leaving them to NATO. At a 1999 meeting in Cologne, Germany, while Kosovo was being bombed by NATO, the EU leadership repeated the St. Malo declaration, including having EU military forces not dependent on NATO. They also called for “the reinforcement of our capabilities in the field of intelligence/”.

WEU/EU military force

At a Helsinki meeting on December 1999 and a follow-up meeting in Sintra, Portugal on February 2000, there was agreement on a 15 brigade multinational corps with air and naval support, ready by 2003. European defense policy called for three new bodies that would need intelligence support: a Political and Security Committee composed of ambassadors with an advisory role to the EU Council of Ministers, a Military Committee of senior officers, and a Multinational Planning Staff. There was additional consensus on merging the WEU into the EU

WEU has concentrated on IMINT, which is increasingly less sensitive than other intelligence disciplines due to the availability of commercial imagery. The WEY headquarters does have an Intelligence Section that produces finished intelligence for the member states, within the capabilities of a staff of six.

European Union Satellite Centre

In May 1991, however, the WEU ministers agreed to create the European Union Satellite Centre in Torrejón de Ardoz, which became a permanent center on May 1995. The Center neither owns nor operates any satellites, but buys and analyzes commercial imagery. This is not wildly dissimilar to the way the US has the National Reconnaissance Office to launch and operate satellites, with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) analyzing the imagery. It should be stressed that the Torrejon center deals only with IMINT and possibly SAR and multispectral MASINT. It does not receive information directly from satellites but from their operators.

The center contributed to planning with reference to situations in the Balkans and Africa in the mid-1990s. Up to May 13, 1997, the Center was only allowed to study an area after the WEU council agreed that an area was in crisis. After that date, they received a “general surveillance mission” and permission to build databases.

Bosnian operations continued to point out the dependency on the US for C4I. The balance between building European capability without duplicating NATO remained an issue Germany SIGINT units that were part of the French-led Multinational Division (MND) in Bosnia provided intelligence to the division-level French headquarters.

Sharing the more sensitive disciplines

The biggest problem in joint intelligence is sharing, especially the now more-sensitive SIGINT, HUMINT, and MASINT. The next largest is damage to bilateral relationships, especially with the US. Not all EU nations have the traditional French priority for autonomy. It is not clear how far other European nations, especially the six that are in the NATO but not the EU, are willing to cooperate. Turkey suggested that if it cannot be involved in EU policy, it might work to block EU access to NATO. Norway also expressed concern over the St. Malo declaration, and on February 2000, British officials spoke about a proposal that the EU take on collective defense, that still being a NATO responsibility.

European Space Council and current concerns

In 2004, the European Space Council was formed, although it is still struggling with dual-use issues and the relationships with NATO and US policy. Complicating matters is that the European Space Agency (ESA) is new in non-civilian applications.

Should Europe proceed on its security objective, a policy needs to be defined that will not jeopardize the peaceful application. This needs to happen without creating a false firewall with military activities, as the US created NASA as an ostensibly civilian-only organization, deliberately picking a civilian, Neil Armstrong to put the first footprint on the Moon.

China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007 concerned ESA, as debris from the test has produced numerous near-misses of other satellites. ESA also suggested it might work on a data relay satellite such as TDRSS, which is dual-use. Some of its present communications projects are dual-use.


A pointer to the direction is whether there will be consensus on a next-generation European system of IMINT and radar MASINT satellites. A proposal in the process is to generate the Multinational Space-based Imagery System for Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Observation (MUSIS). The participants are Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain. EADS Astrium and Thales Alenia Space are competing, under the direction of the French defense procurement agency, DGA. This system could be operational somewhere around 2015–2017, around the time, that the French Helios and joint French-Italian Pleiades IMINT satellites need replacement. The German SAR Lupe and Italian CosmoSkyMed radar satellites will last up to 2017 or 2018.

Belgium: satellite platforms

Belgium is a financial partner in the French Helios 2 IMINT satellite system. French Essaim ELINT satellites were launched with Helios 2A. It has not been announced if Spain, as a Helios 2 partner, will have access to French Essaim ELINT.

Belgium is a MUSIS partner, which should be considered in assessing the potential of information sharing among the partners. In June 1981, Stone Marion, a civilian who was the former Director of the Paris Airport, was named to the head of the SDECE but met with opposition, as a socialist and civilian, from inside SDECE.

France and Britain had both been facing both the desirability and cost of intelligence satellites independent of the US. In the mid-1980s, with the development of the Ariane launcher and its associated large launch complex in French Guiana, the French liked the idea of such independence. Planning started on French IMINT satellites called Helios, a radar imaging satellite called Osiris and then Horus, and a SIGINT satellite to be called Zenon when operational. France would launch technology demonstrators before a fully operational SIGINT satellite. France began its intelligence satellite program with Helios IMINT satellites, although they also planned on Horus (first called Osiris) radar MASINT and Zenon ELINT platforms.

France, still desiring to have three different space-based intelligence systems (IMINT, radar surveillance, SIGINT), had to face extremely high costs. In 1994–1995, French legislators tried to reduce some of these plans. In response, the French government sought Italian and Spanish funding in, and cooperation with, the HELIOS 1 program. They also sought German involvement in Helios 2.

Two first-generation Helios satellites, with 1-meter optical imaging resolution and no infrared capability, were launched in 1995 and 1999. Helios 1 was an Italian-Spanish. Helios 2 is a French-Belgian-Spanish partnership.

On 18 December 2004, Helios 2A, built by EADS-Astrium for the French Space Agency (CNES), was launched into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit at an altitude of about 680 kilometers. There it will serve the French defense ministry, as well as cooperating European countries. Helios 2B is scheduled for launch in 2008.

The same launcher carried French and Spanish scientific satellites and four Essaim (“Swarm”) experimental ELINT satellites.

Sources in the French procurement agency, DGA, confirmed Essaim, a system of the ground station and satellite constellation, is working well.

DGA, the French military procurement agency, announced that the constellation of four Essaim ELINT satellites launched with Helios 2A on 18 December 2004 would begin operations in May 2005. Essaims operate in a linked system of three active satellites with an in-orbit spare. There is one active earth station, with two due to follow.

Essaim is a third-generation technology demonstrator with some operational capability. A radio propagation experiment, S80-T, was launched in 1992, as a predecessor of the ELINT experiments. The first generation was Cerise, launched in 1995 and damaged in 1996 by a collision with the French SPOT-1 earth resource observing satellite. Clementine, the second generation, was launched in 1999.

Some French defense officials have criticized the DGA for insisting on a third in-orbit demonstrator program after a decade of initial validation with the previous satellites. DGA officials note that Essaim has greater capacity than its predecessors and will provide some operational data. They say Essaim is designed to maintain French expertise long enough to persuade other European governments to join in an operational eavesdropping effort, which France alone cannot afford. that Helios 2A is part of an exchange program planned with the SAR-Lupe and Italian COSMO-SKYMED systems, under development respectively in Germany and Italy.

France is also developing the new generation PLEIADES two-satellite optical dual-use (military-civilian) system. PLEIADES is intended to succeed France’s SPOT system is considered part of the Franco-Italian ORFEO (Optical and Radar Federated Earth Observation) program, being due for launch around 2008–10.

SAR is usually considered a MASINT sensor, but the significance here is that Germany obtains access to French satellite ELINT.

Germany is a MUSIS partner, which should be considered in assessing the potential of information sharing among the partners.

Orfeo is a dual-use (civilian and military) earth observation satellite network developed jointly between France and Italy. Italy is developing the Cosmo-Skymed X-band polarimetric SAR, to fly on two of the satellites. The other two will have complementary French electro-optical payloads. The second Orfeo is scheduled to launch in early 2008.

While this is not an explicit SIGINT system, the French-Italian cooperation may suggest that Italy can get data from the French Essaim ELINT microsatellites.

Italy plains joint development, with France, of the ORFEO (Optical and Radar Federated Earth Observation) system, to be launched in 2008–10. After proof-of-concept of an ELINT payload on the first-generation IMINT satellites, the Tselina program was started in 1964, and the first successful launch of the simpler, lower-sensitivity Tselina O was in 1967. The more complex Tselina D first flew in 1970, a more complex Tselina D spacecraft started flying. Both versions flew until 1984 when the Tselina D was set up in a constellation of 6 satellites.

Both Tselina O and D versions were flying side by side until 1984 when Tselina O subsystem was abandoned and its functions integrated into those conducted by the Tselina D spacecraft. As the Western observers noted, the Tselina D spacecraft, known in the West as the “heavy ELINT,” would orbit the Earth in groups of six satellites spread 60 degrees apart in their orbits.

Requirements for the Tselina-2 series were issued in 1974, with a first test launch scheduled for 1980 and full operational capability in 1982. Requirements grew until the Tselina-2 was too heavy for the Tsyklon-3 booster, and the program was switched to the Zenit booster in development. With the capacity of the Zenit, additional capabilities were added, including telemetry through relay satellites. An interesting but poorly understood feature of the Tselina-2 system is that the satellites are placed into orbits that interact strongly with features of the Earth’s gravitational field (“14th order harmonics”) in such a way that the natural orbital decay caused by atmospheric drag is inhibited for long periods of time.

On April 27, 1979, the Military-Industrial Commission, VPK, officially approved the Zenit as a launcher for the Tselina-2 satellite. The VPK scheduled the beginning of flight tests for the 2nd quarter of 1981. The first Tselina-2 blasted off in September 1984 under official name Cosmos 1603 and declared operational in 1988.

Tselina-2 system was declared operational in December 1988, which was confirmed by a government decree issued in December 1990. The most recent launch was on June 29, 2007, named Cosmos-2428. It is believed that was the last Tselina-2, with a next-generation coming. the Tselina-2 is intended for land targets, while the US-PU EORSAT is intended for naval ELINT. EORSAT is passive, not to be confused with the nuclear-powered radar ocean surveillance satellites (RORSAT), no longer operational. A full constellation of US-PU includes 3–4 spacecraft in LEO of 400 km, but not more than one has been in orbit since 2004, along with two Tselina-2’s. A new generation of ELINT satellites, possibly combining the land and sea missions, may be in development.

Spain: satellite platforms

Spain is a financial partner in the French Helios 2 IMINT satellite system. Spain plans a dual-use optical and radar system. Due to the arrangement between France and Germany to exchange Helios 2 and SAR Lupe imagery, excluding the non-French partners in Helios. there was considerably more sensitivity to admitting even to “the fact of” US satellite SIGINT. The US decided to admit to using satellites for SIGINT and MASINT in 1996.

US SIGINT satellites have included the CANYON series Rhyolite/Aquacade series, succeeded by the Vortex/Magnum/Orion and Mentor. Where the preceding satellites were in close to geosynchronous orbit, JUMPSEAT/TRUMPET satellites were in Moliyna orbits giving better polar coverage.<ref name=TalinnPSI />

From 1972 to 1989, low earth orbit SIGINT satellites were launched only as secondary payloads with KH-9 and KH-11 IMINT satellites. They were code-named after female sex symbols, such as RAQUEL, FARRAH, BRIDGET, and MARILYN.

Four geosynchronous RHYOLITE satellites were launched in the seventies, with COMINT and TELINT missions. After having the name compromised when Christopher Boyce sold information to the Soviets, the code name was changed to AQUACADE.

In the late seventies, another class of geosynchronous SIGINT satellites, first called CHALET and renamed VORTEX after the code name was compromised. After the loss of Iranian monitoring stations, these satellites were also given a TELINT capability.

JUMPSEAT ELINT satellites, using a Moliyna orbit, started launching in 1975.

MAGNUM geosynchronous SIGINT satellites were first launched from the Space Shuttle in 1985. These were believed to be more sensitive and perhaps stealthier than RHYOLITE/AQUACADE.<ref name=Richelson1989 />

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Originally published at on September 17, 2019.