Signals intelligence from 1980 to 1989

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This was a decade of world change, with changes in Cold War emphasis and alliances, the first submarine attack since World War II in the context of a regional war involving extensive power projection, low- and medium-intensity operations, and continuing national policy development.

1980s Cold War SIGINT

Roughly from the late 1980s on, there was cooperation between the US and the PRC in collecting SIGINT of mutual interest, principally against Russia [1]. It is believed that the Qitai and Korla sites, in Xinjiang (Sinkiang) are operated jointly by the Chinese and the US CIA Office of SIGINT Operations against Soviet missile tests and space launches, but their current status is uncertain.

Spruance-class destroyers sailed on collection missions in the Black Sea, Baltic Sea, and off the coast of Libya, a Soviet client.[2]

1980s Middle East SIGINT

In the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, UN peacekeeping#peacekeepers, 241 Marines of the 1st Battalion 8th Marines died in the attack; another attack on the same day killed 58 French paratroopers of 3rd Company of the 6th Parachute Infantry Regiment. SIGINT teams were attached to the Marine force there. Unfortunately, SIGINT had little role to play in planning for defending the force.

Western hostages were a major concern to the US and UK. The US approach was the Iran-Contra Affair arms-for-hostages swap. Urban wrote SIS learned about the plan, although the UK had not been officially told about it.[3] The British did not discuss their information, learned from a HUMINT source, with the US, according to one British officer "All we could do was tuck it away in a box, we couldn't have discussed it with them. This was UK Eyes Alpha, after all!" Britain may later have gotten information from the US, which, according to Andy McNab[4]. had prepared a rescue mission by the Special Air Service. Troops deployed to the Middle East, including a team in Beirut, but the mission was called off.

1980s Falklands War SIGINT

During the Falklands War in 1982, Argentina used Boeing 707s, with visual reconnaissance capability only, to surveillance of the British Task Force. These were driven away by British Harriers and missiles, at which point their use was stopped. The experience, however, convinced Argentina that it needed a SIGINT aircraft, and Israel later converted a Argentine 707.[5]

Under the UKUSA Agreement, Great Britain called upon NSA SIGINT satellite resources to collect relevant information. Tension existed because the controversial British investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, had published information considered sensitive. According to one former British SIGINT officer, "We can ask the Americans to do things, but we cannot compel them. There may be targets they don't want to cover. The Falklands was a factor here. It brought going it alone back into fashion."[3]

Policy and doctrinal evolution

Aside from public multinational activities such as the abortive 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, there were less obvious discussion and negotiation among nations seeking to deal with the immense cost of space-based SIGINT.

1980s French SIGINT policy

Pike wrote that the Socialist government, elected in May 1981 and led President François Mitterrand were unknown at the time of his election in May 1981 marked the attempt to put SDECE under civilian control.[6] 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 Osirus and then Horus, and a SIGINT satellite to be called Zenon when operational. France would launch technology demonstrators before a fully operational SIGINT satellite.

1980s United Kingdom SIGINT policy

To obtain some autonomy in SIGINT, while simultaneously strengthening its role in the UKUSA Agreement, Britain planned to launch its own SIGINT satellite, codenamed Zircon. Proposed in 1983 to be in a geosynchronous orbit over the Soviet Union, it was cancelled, principally on grounds of cost, in 1987. Urban stated that Britain did contribute to the cost of one of the NSA MAGNUM SIGINT satellites, possibly having one dedicated to UK use.[3]

After the decision not to develop the independent ZIRCON, the possibility of cooperating with France on space-based intelligence was considered by the Cabinet, along with other discussions with France about co-developing an air-launched nuclear missile. While France might have welcomed the investment, the cost still would be very high for Britain, and the traditional antagonism between France and the UK would have to have been overcome.

According to Urban, by 1987, the UK concluded working with the French was not a real alternative. Perhaps based on experience with the UKUSA Agreement, a British civil servant observed, "Investing anywhere else [than the US] would have bought far less capability. The French don't even know how far behind they are." [3]

1980s United States SIGINT policy and doctrinal evolution

1980s US Strategic SIGINT policy and doctrine

In 1980, U.S. intercepts of Soviet communications generated a fear that the Soviets were about to invade Iran. In 1983 intercepts allowed the United States to piece together the details concerning the sinking of a Soviet submarine in the North Pacific.

In 1983 it began an all-source program targeting Soviet prison camp system, with the specific intent of issuing a study that would embarrass the Soviets[2].

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.

After the Liberty and Pueblo incidents, only combatant ships, destroyers and frigates, were used for collection missions. In addition to SIGINT intercept against the Soviets, combatant ships operated off Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. One purpose-built SIGINT auxiliary, the ARL-24 Sphinx, generally stayed off the Nicaraguan coast.

1980s US Tactical SIGINT policy and doctrine

After the Beirut deployment, the US Marine Corps did an after-action review of the 2nd Radio Battalion detachment that went with that force. LTG Al Gray, then commanding Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, and LTC Bill Keller, commanding 2nd Radio Battalion, did an after-action review. Part of the reason for this was that the irregular units that presented the greatest threat did not follow conventional military signal operating procedures, and used nonstandard frequencies and callsigns. Without NSA information on these groups, the detachment had to acquire this information from their own resources.

Recognizing that national sources simply might not have information on a given environment, or that they might not make it available to warfighters, LTG Gray directed that a SIGINT function be created that could work with the elite Force Reconnaissance Marines who search out potential enemies. At first, neither the Force Reconnaissance nor Radio Battalion commanders though this was viable, but had orders to follow.

Initially, they attached a single Radio Battalion Marine, with an AN/GRR-8 intercept receiver, to a Force Reconnaissance team during an exercise. A respected Radio Marine, CPL. Kyle O'Malley was sent to the team, without any guidance for what he was to do. The exercise did not demonstrate that a one-man attachment, not Force Recon qualified, was useful.

In 1984, CPT E.L. Gillespie, assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command, was alerted that he was to report to 2nd Radio Battalion, to develop a concept of operations for integrating SIGINT capabilities with Force Recon, using his joint service experience with special operations. Again, the immediate commanders were not enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, a mission statement was drafted: "To conduct limited communications intelligence and specified electronic warfare operations in support of Force Reconnaissance operations during advance force or special operations missions." It was decided that a 6-man SIGINT team, with long/short range independent communications and SIGINT/EW equipment, was the minimum practical unit. It was not practical to attach this to the smallest 4-man Force Recon team.

LTG Gray directed that the unit would be called a Radio Reconnaissance Team (RRT), and that adequate planning and preparation were done for the advance force operations part of the upcoming Exercise Solid Shield-85. Two six-man teams would be formed, from Marines assigned from the Radio Battalion, without great enthusiasm for the assignment. One Marine put it"There is nothing that the Marine Corps can do to me that I can't take." [7] Force Recon required that the RRT candidates pass their selection course, and, to the surprise of Force Recon, they passed with honors. Both teams were assigned to the exercise, and the RRTs successfully maintained communications connectivity for Force Recon and SEALs, collected meaningful intelligence, disrupted opposing force communications, and were extracted without being compromised.

From 1986 on, RRTs accompanied MEU (SOC) deployments. Their first combat role was in Operation Earnest Will, then Operation Praying Mantis, followed by participation in the 1989 United States invasion of Panama


  1. Association of Former Intelligence Officers (16 April 2001), China SIGINT Capabilities. Retrieved on 2007-10-08
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jeffrey Richelson (1989), The US Intelligence Community, 2nd Edition, Chapter 8, Signals Intelligence, Richelson 1989. Retrieved on 2007-10-19 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Richelson1989" defined multiple times with different content
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha: the Inside Story of British Intelligence. Chapter 5: Zircon, Urban 1996. Retrieved on 2007-10-19
  4. "Andy McNab" (pseudonym) (1994), Bravo Two Zero. Retrieved on 2007-10-19
  5. The Spyflight Website: Boeing707, 1 Jan 2007. Retrieved on 2007-10-12
  6. John, Pike, DGSE - General Directorate for External Security (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure)
  7. Jeremy Choate (2007), History and Mission [2nd Marine Radio Battalion, Radio Reconnaissance Platoon], 2RRP. Retrieved on 2007-10-19