Signals Intelligence in The Cold War - 1960s - Early Space-based SIGINT

Early Space-based SIGINT

Soviet sources state the first specialized ELINT satellites, which received the designation of "Ferret", was begun in the USA in 1962. In actuality, the first successful SIGINT satellite was the U.S. Navy's Galactic Radiation and Background (GRAB), designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. GRAB had an unclassified experiment called Solrad, and an ELINT package called Tattletale. Tattletale was also called Canes; CANES was also the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) sensitive compartmented information (SCI) codeword for the control system overall program. GRAB intercepted radar pulses as they came over the horizon, translated the frequency, and retransmitted each pulse, with no further processing, to ground receiving sites. GRAB operated from 1960 to 1962. Again examining space-based SIGINT through Soviet eyes, "The tasks of space-based SIGINT were subdivided into two groups: ELINT against antiaircraft and ABM radars (discovery of their location, operating modes and signal characteristics) and SIGINT against C3 systems. In order to carry out these tasks the US developed ... satellites of two types:

  • small ELINT satellites which were launched together with photoreconnaissance satellites into initially low orbits and then raised into a polar working orbit at an altitude of 300 to 800 km using on-board engines
  • heavy (1 to 2 tonne mass) "SIGINT" (possibly the translator's version of COMINT?) satellites, which were put into orbit at an altitude of around 500 km using a Thor-Agena booster. The Soviet source described the satellites of the late sixties as "Spook Bird" or CANYON, which was the predecessor to the production RHYOLITE platforms. This was not completely correct if the Soviets thought these were heavy ELINT satellites; CANYON was the first COMINT satellite series, which operated from 1968 to 1977.

According to the NRO, the incremental upgrade of GRAB's Tattletale package was POPPY. The second program, Poppy, operated from 1962 to 1977. The "fact of" the Poppy program, along with limited technical information, was declassified in 2004. At least three NRO operators did the preliminary processing of the POPPY data, one measuring the orbital elements of the satellite and the selected polarization, while the second operator identified signals of interest. The third operator did more detailed, non-real-time, analysis of the signal, and transmitted information to NSA.

Before GRAB and POPPY, US information about Soviet radar stopped about 200 miles (320 km) from the coastline. After these space systems went into service, effectively all radars on the Soviet landmass became known to NSA. They informed the Strategic Air Command with the technical details and locations of air defense radars, which went into planning attack routes of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the master set of plans for nuclear warfare. They provided operational information to Navy commanders. Coupled with IMINT from CORONA, they helped CIA, DIA and other elements of the intelligence community understand the overall Soviet threat.

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