Author Topic: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s  (Read 23678 times)

Online Blackstar

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Starting a new thread.

My next Space Review article is about the Interim Tactical ELINT Processor/Tactical User Terminal (ITEP/TUT) program in the 1970s-1990s. This was the first Tactical Exploitation of National CAPabilities (TENCAP) program, and it brought data from the Program 989 satellites (and possibly others) down to tactical users in the US Army.

I may be following it up with other articles on the development of this and related programs, although I don't have anything on that in the works yet.

 

Online Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #1 on: 06/20/2023 12:24 am »
https://thespacereview.com/article/4606/1

From the sky to the mud: TENCAP and adapting national reconnaissance systems to tactical operations
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, June 19, 2023

Throughout the 1960s, the United States invested billions of dollars in developing various intelligence satellites to collect imagery and signals data on the Soviet Union and its allies. From the start, this data was intended to serve “national” level leaders, starting with the president, his senior advisors, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other parts of the intelligence community. It was also intended for the National Command Authority and strategic forces by providing images, maps, and electronic data for bomber and submarine crews to increase their ability to perform their missions. The US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command was a major customer for the signals intelligence as well as imagery produced by these national-level systems.

But by the early 1970s, the customer base for these expensive and top secret systems began to change. The Navy had already started exercises to use satellites to detect and track Soviet naval vessels, and ocean surveillance would become a major mission by the middle of the decade. The United States Army became interested in using intelligence satellites to provide information to tactical forces as part of what came to be known as the Tactical Exploitation of National CAPabilities (TENCAP) program. The early focus of TENCAP involved bringing data collected by low Earth orbiting electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites, primarily small Program 989 satellites, directly to deployed US Army units in Europe and Korea, bypassing the large ground terminals and satellite dishes in fixed locations in the United States—and also bypassing the National Security Agency, which sought to control the flow of signals intelligence data.

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #2 on: 06/20/2023 02:45 am »
I'm very familiar with the Air Force piece of this program which was Constant Source https://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/systems/constant_source.htm .  While assigned to an F-16 Unit from 1999-1999, I had the "joy" of being the system administrator with 2 whole weeks of school on how to run this UNIX based system with associated COMSEC hardware http://www.jproc.ca/scam/kgr96.html and keying material--yuck.  The bundle of joy was "deployable"--actually a nightmare to pack on pallets especially when it migrated to CIS as detailed in the llnk.--and would be our way to update threats to our operations.  Not sure how far into detail I can go about strengths and weaknesses, but in the days before widespread classified network digital access, it was a good tool to have.

I find the initial Army interest both intriguing and confusing.  You site the SA-6 that was indeed a threat to helos and the A-10, but arguably MANPADs and AAA were far more numerous and threatening.  If memory serves me right, during  OIF over 30 Apaches attacked an Iraqi Armored Division south of Baghdad and over half were shot to pieces, one had to make an emergency landing, and all the damage was by MANPADs and AAA.  Even "near real time" data on the SA-6 didn't mean much.  It's rapid mobility made it a true pain in the XXX to mission plan against during Southern Watch and the Balkans--ask Scott O'grady--but there is a whole separate story about him and that incident.  You knew the systems were around and as Intel you made sure the crews were aware and refreshed their training about counter-measures and tactics while the Mission Planners made sure SEAD (F-16 HARM shooters, not useless F-18s) and Spark Vark/Prowler jammers were available.  I debriefed one of our Viper Flight leads, who made General, after his flight during OSW was engaged by a probable SA-6 and broke hard after a "missiles in the air" call.  He was stunned how quickly the missiles got to him and passed by despite our repeated briefs on it's speed.
« Last Edit: 06/20/2023 03:14 am by Targeteer »
Best quote heard during an inspection, "I was unaware that I was the only one who was aware."

Online Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #3 on: 06/20/2023 11:42 am »
I find the initial Army interest both intriguing and confusing.  You site the SA-6 that was indeed a threat to helos and the A-10, but arguably MANPADs and AAA were far more numerous and threatening. 

But a satellite could do nothing about those other threats. And knowing where the SA-6s were helped the Army know where the armored forces were.

I will also add that the SA-6 is the only radar target mentioned in the declassified documents. Everything else is deleted, although the SA-6 does make the most sense because it was mobile.

« Last Edit: 06/20/2023 01:34 pm by Blackstar »

Offline edzieba

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #4 on: 06/20/2023 04:31 pm »
There's also the possibility of survivorship bias: that AAA and man-portable systems were only the majority cause of damage because satellite signals intelligence was so effective in blunting the capability of SAM systems.

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #5 on: 06/20/2023 09:12 pm »
There's also the possibility of survivorship bias: that AAA and man-portable systems were only the majority cause of damage because satellite signals intelligence was so effective in blunting the capability of SAM systems.

I would not give the satellites too much credit. They are just one part of a very complicated equation. There are assets that are actually in-theater that are useful. There is the issue of defensive systems on the aircraft that can warn of an attack, and how effective are they? Plus, there's the issue of tactics and how well you understand the enemy: if they charged in thinking that the Iraqi MANPAD threat was minimal and they were unprepared for it, then it's not surprising that it is more effective.

On a tangential note, one of the subjects I have long been interested in, but have never really researched that much, is the Wild Weasels and Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). It's always struck me as really fascinating and impressive that there were a group of pilots trained to specifically go after the missiles that were trying to kill them. If you want a fun and interesting rabbit hole to dive down, you can listen to the interviews that Col. "Starbaby" Pietrucha has done for the YouTube channel 10 Percent True-Tales from the cockpit. He is very knowledgeable and interesting, and also often funny. He's now done maybe a dozen interviews for the channel and has discussed many different aspects of how the USAF detects SAM threats and deals with them. He thinks that USAF has given up an important capability by eliminating the Wild Weasel mission, and has hinted that this is going to come back and bite them in the future. Once you start listening to his interviews, you're going to get hooked. Here are two of the most recent ones:






Online Targeteer

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #6 on: 06/20/2023 10:15 pm »
There's also the possibility of survivorship bias: that AAA and man-portable systems were only the majority cause of damage because satellite signals intelligence was so effective in blunting the capability of SAM systems.

I would not give the satellites too much credit. They are just one part of a very complicated equation. There are assets that are actually in-theater that are useful. There is the issue of defensive systems on the aircraft that can warn of an attack, and how effective are they? Plus, there's the issue of tactics and how well you understand the enemy: if they charged in thinking that the Iraqi MANPAD threat was minimal and they were unprepared for it, then it's not surprising that it is more effective.

On a tangential note, one of the subjects I have long been interested in, but have never really researched that much, is the Wild Weasels and Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). It's always struck me as really fascinating and impressive that there were a group of pilots trained to specifically go after the missiles that were trying to kill them. If you want a fun and interesting rabbit hole to dive down, you can listen to the interviews that Col. "Starbaby" Pietrucha has done for the YouTube channel 10 Percent True-Tales from the cockpit. He is very knowledgeable and interesting, and also often funny. He's now done maybe a dozen interviews for the channel and has discussed many different aspects of how the USAF detects SAM threats and deals with them. He thinks that USAF has given up an important capability by eliminating the Wild Weasel mission, and has hinted that this is going to come back and bite them in the future. Once you start listening to his interviews, you're going to get hooked. Here are two of the most recent ones:







The F-4G with the APR-47 was a fantastic airframe and the last true Wild Weasel.  50 antennas gave it the ability to DF threats to within 1 degree and pass that info to HARM, drastically improving it's effectiveness.  The F-16 with Harm Targeting System has only a fraction of that capability. The SA-8 would also have been a target of interest and likely far more numerous near the front.   
Best quote heard during an inspection, "I was unaware that I was the only one who was aware."

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #7 on: 06/20/2023 10:28 pm »
There's also the possibility of survivorship bias: that AAA and man-portable systems were only the majority cause of damage because satellite signals intelligence was so effective in blunting the capability of SAM systems.

During OIF both the RC-135 and U-2 were ever-present and passage of threats from them to aircraft via AWACs was practiced (Red Flag), standard, and rapid.  Images of the RJ flying East of Baghdad early in the campaign were widely publicized.

Arguably the biggest SAM threat to crews during OIF was from PATRIOT.  One Navy F-18 was shot down, killing the crew, and only a reactive HARM launch by a locked up F-16 with HTS saved that aircraft.  The HARM seriously damaged the offending PATRIOT radar, severely pissing off the US Army...

The true revolution of intel feeds to aircrews started with the fielding of MATT receivers https://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/systems/matt.htm into aircraft.  The first were AFSOC MH-53Js (became Ms with MATT) then MC and AC-130s.  Crews could then see, and react to, threats rapidly.  i spent 3 years in AFSOC and MATT integration into flight planning and execution was extensive.
« Last Edit: 06/20/2023 11:22 pm by Targeteer »
Best quote heard during an inspection, "I was unaware that I was the only one who was aware."

Online Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #8 on: 06/21/2023 01:37 am »
The F-4G with the APR-47 was a fantastic airframe and the last true Wild Weasel.  50 antennas gave it the ability to DF threats to within 1 degree and pass that info to HARM, drastically improving it's effectiveness.  The F-16 with Harm Targeting System has only a fraction of that capability. The SA-8 would also have been a target of interest and likely far more numerous near the front.   

"Starbaby" has made that point in other interviews. Going from memory, during a recent interview he was asked about how the F-16CJ compares to the F-4G (which has been retired 27 years) and he said something like there are 10 major factors for measuring the effectiveness against enemy radars, and the F-16CJ is only approaching parity with the F-4G on one of them. He would not talk about what the factors are. The host noted that whereas the F-4G had 52 antennas all over the plane, the F-16CJ only has a single pod hanging under a wing, so you can figure that its field of view finding emitters is much more limited.

The other aspect is that there is no longer a dedicated Wild Weasel school to train pilots specifically to hunt SAMs. It's just an add-on mission, and doesn't get a lot of attention. Pietrucha's view is that because the USAF has not had to deal with a SAM-contested environment, they've neglected the mission and it will bite them the next time they face an adversary with significant capability.

Like I said, his interviews are fascinating and funny. You should listen to the one where he talks about the RAF Nimrod crew that showed up at an airshow with a massive amount of booze in their plane.

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #9 on: 06/21/2023 02:58 am »
The F-4G with the APR-47 was a fantastic airframe and the last true Wild Weasel.  50 antennas gave it the ability to DF threats to within 1 degree and pass that info to HARM, drastically improving it's effectiveness.  The F-16 with Harm Targeting System has only a fraction of that capability. The SA-8 would also have been a target of interest and likely far more numerous near the front.   

"Starbaby" has made that point in other interviews. Going from memory, during a recent interview he was asked about how the F-16CJ compares to the F-4G (which has been retired 27 years) and he said something like there are 10 major factors for measuring the effectiveness against enemy radars, and the F-16CJ is only approaching parity with the F-4G on one of them. He would not talk about what the factors are. The host noted that whereas the F-4G had 52 antennas all over the plane, the F-16CJ only has a single pod hanging under a wing, so you can figure that its field of view finding emitters is much more limited.

The other aspect is that there is no longer a dedicated Wild Weasel school to train pilots specifically to hunt SAMs. It's just an add-on mission, and doesn't get a lot of attention. Pietrucha's view is that because the USAF has not had to deal with a SAM-contested environment, they've neglected the mission and it will bite them the next time they face an adversary with significant capability.

Like I said, his interviews are fascinating and funny. You should listen to the one where he talks about the RAF Nimrod crew that showed up at an airshow with a massive amount of booze in their plane.

I did a Blue Flag Command Post exercise at Eglin/Hurlburt field in 97 or 98 and there was a large UK presence.  When the exercise was over, the Brits sent one of their transports over to pick them up.  It too was full of alcohol... During OIF General Order 1 (GO 1) banning alcohol did not apply to the Brits.  I was assigned to support them in Basrah.  Watching Brits and Scots watch their national teams play a soccer match with the everyone hammered was interesting...
« Last Edit: 06/21/2023 02:59 am by Targeteer »
Best quote heard during an inspection, "I was unaware that I was the only one who was aware."

Online Blackstar

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #10 on: 06/22/2023 12:31 am »
The SA-8 would also have been a target of interest and likely far more numerous near the front.   

This is true. The document I have that reveals the SA-6 has other stuff blanked out. That likely includes other possible targets for the satellites at that time. An obvious one that I don't know why they would delete would be the SA-2, which was the big one that shot down Gary Powers' U-2 and many B-52s over Hanoi.


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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #11 on: 06/22/2023 05:50 am »
The SA-8 would also have been a target of interest and likely far more numerous near the front.   

This is true. The document I have that reveals the SA-6 has other stuff blanked out. That likely includes other possible targets for the satellites at that time. An obvious one that I don't know why they would delete would be the SA-2, which was the big one that shot down Gary Powers' U-2 and many B-52s over Hanoi.

Maybe because of how widespread the SA-2 (aka S-75 Dvina)  was, including use by China, Egypt, Pakistan etc, coupled with fact that there are still a few hundred in service now. This applies to SA-6 too, but one current SA-2 operator is allegedly China if Wiki page to be believed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-75_Dvina [see map, blue are currrent, red are ex-operators].

Any support provided to US allies other than via NATO for S-75 spotting might still be politically sensitive.

A truly iconic missile-although a keen rather than skillful modeller I even made one myself ;-)

« Last Edit: 06/22/2023 05:53 am by LittleBird »

Offline LittleBird

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #12 on: 06/22/2023 06:05 am »
While assigned to an F-16 Unit from 1999-1999, I had the "joy" of being the system administrator with 2 whole weeks of school

A whole two weeks huh ?;-)

Quote
on how to run this UNIX based system with associated COMSEC hardware http://www.jproc.ca/scam/kgr96.html and keying material--yuck.  The bundle of joy was "deployable"--actually a nightmare to pack on pallets especially when it migrated to CIS as detailed in the llnk.--and would be our way to update threats to our operations.  Not sure how far into detail I can go about strengths and weaknesses, but in the days before widespread classified network digital access, it was a good tool to have.

Dead link for some reason ... Sorry, i'd failed to notice that "scam" had replaced a certain type of currency, as elsewhere on this site ...

But thanks for that-we few, we happy few (or possibly not so few), who were involved in Unix sysadmin in those days (in my case from 88-95ish as a part of a science postdoc) will surely feel your pain. Though I do also resonate with the great moment in Jurassic park "this is a Unix system ... I know this" ... I feel some of this is so engraved on my brain that it'll be the last thing to go ...

I remember seeing an ad from about then for a sysadmin to work at iirc Aerospace, who was required to manage what was politely described I think as a "heterogenous" network of the usual suspects, HP, Sun, SGI, possibly DEC by then etc ec. I thought at the time they'd be earning their money ...

« Last Edit: 06/22/2023 07:13 am by LittleBird »

Offline Star One

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Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #13 on: 06/22/2023 09:09 am »
For a wider context this new podcast talks to former British Army intelligence officer Michael Smith talks about the close relationship between the US & UK intelligence agencies including the NSA & GCHQ. He touches on signals intelligence sharing but obviously a half hour podcast he cannot go into as much detail as the book will. It made me laugh that so close can the relationship be that they’ve even ignored presidents in the past who’ve temporarily asked them to suspend intelligence sharing. His argument being that the real special relationship is between the intelligence agencies not politicians.

https://shows.acast.com/american-history-hit/episodes/the-cia-mi6-the-real-special-relationship

Here’s the book itself.

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/The-Real-Special-Relationship/Michael-Smith/9781471186813
« Last Edit: 06/22/2023 09:48 am by Star One »

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #14 on: 06/22/2023 09:31 am »
While assigned to an F-16 Unit from 1999-1999, I had the "joy" of being the system administrator with 2 whole weeks of school

A whole two weeks huh ?;-)

Quote
on how to run this UNIX based system with associated COMSEC hardware http://www.jproc.ca/scam/kgr96.html and keying material--yuck.  The bundle of joy was "deployable"--actually a nightmare to pack on pallets especially when it migrated to CIS as detailed in the llnk.--and would be our way to update threats to our operations.  Not sure how far into detail I can go about strengths and weaknesses, but in the days before widespread classified network digital access, it was a good tool to have.

Dead link for some reason ... Sorry, i'd failed to notice that "scam" had replaced a certain type of currency, as elsewhere on this site ...

But thanks for that-we few, we happy few (or possibly not so few), who were involved in Unix sysadmin in those days (in my case from 88-95ish as a part of a science postdoc) will surely feel your pain. Though I do also resonate with the great moment in Jurassic park "this is a Unix system ... I know this" ... I feel some of this is so engraved on my brain that it'll be the last thing to go ...

I remember seeing an ad from about then for a sysadmin to work at iirc Aerospace, who was required to manage what was politely described I think as a "heterogenous" network of the usual suspects, HP, Sun, SGI, possibly DEC by then etc ec. I thought at the time they'd be earning their money ...



UNIX eventually became SOLARIS but it wasn't any better.  Talking to our "help desk" went "type back slash, grep..". Me "what the hell is grep?"
« Last Edit: 06/22/2023 09:36 am by Targeteer »
Best quote heard during an inspection, "I was unaware that I was the only one who was aware."

Offline LittleBird

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #15 on: 06/22/2023 12:09 pm »
UNIX eventually became SOLARIS but it wasn't any better.  Talking to our "help desk" went "type back slash, grep..". Me "what the hell is grep?"

I should say that in late 80s, with rather limited prior computer experience, mostly on mainframes or consumer machines like Sinclairs, I actually liked Unix in its HP/Sun/Sequent  etc etc flavours. My headaches came from things like PC to Unix connectivity, networking more generally, and the sheer variety of these flavours.

I had some casual interest in what was being done in huge volumes by the US DoD, eg the Desktop III PC purchase from UNISYS, and the later HP workstation purchase of the "J-class"  https://www.openpa.net/systems/hp-9000_pa-risc_story.html  which I seem to remember was finding its way onto USN ships, from what the company's ads said.

The history of SIGINT and the history of computing are so obviously interwined that I hope more about their intersections will be told in due course ... at the moment it tends to be in exhibits like the Crays on show at the National C*****logic Museum.



 Though the National Museum of Electronics near Dulles was an interesting exception-I see its on the move to Hunt Valley, MD https://www.nationalelectronicsmuseum.org/ [Edit: I should obviously also mention the Secret History of Silicon Valley site  https://steveblank.com/category/secret-history-of-silicon-valley/, H/T to hoku]
« Last Edit: 07/01/2023 06:42 am by LittleBird »

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #16 on: 06/22/2023 06:46 pm »


UNIX eventually became SOLARIS but it wasn't any better.  Talking to our "help desk" went "type back slash, grep..". Me "what the hell is grep?"
[/quote]

I should say that in late 80s, with rather limited prior computer experience, mostly on mainframes or consumer machines like Sinclairs, I actually liked Unix in its HP/Sun/Sequent  etc etc flavours. My headaches came from things like PC to Unix connectivity, networking more generally, and the sheer variety of these flavours.


[/quote]

The struggle with now LINUX/PC connectivity continues.  Analysts want to work with Windows (I'm a Mac fan) but huge databases require links that aren't Windows and much instability and downtime results...
Best quote heard during an inspection, "I was unaware that I was the only one who was aware."

Offline LittleBird

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #17 on: 06/23/2023 06:11 am »
For a wider context this new podcast talks to former British Army intelligence officer Michael Smith talks about the close relationship between the US & UK intelligence agencies including the NSA & GCHQ. He touches on signals intelligence sharing but obviously a half hour podcast he cannot go into as much detail as the book will. It made me laugh that so close can the relationship be that they’ve even ignored presidents in the past who’ve temporarily asked them to suspend intelligence sharing. His argument being that the real special relationship is between the intelligence agencies not politicians.

https://shows.acast.com/american-history-hit/episodes/the-cia-mi6-the-real-special-relationship

Here’s the book itself.

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/The-Real-Special-Relationship/Michael-Smith/9781471186813

Interesting. To file next to Bamford's The Puzzle Palace, Aid's The Secret Sentry and Aldrich's GCHQ among other less officlally endorsed books, as well as Behind the Enigma by John Ferris. I was pleased to see Sir John Scarlett's long preface is included in the Kindle sampler as well as some of the book itself iirc.

Offline Star One

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Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #18 on: 06/23/2023 09:20 am »
For a wider context this new podcast talks to former British Army intelligence officer Michael Smith talks about the close relationship between the US & UK intelligence agencies including the NSA & GCHQ. He touches on signals intelligence sharing but obviously a half hour podcast he cannot go into as much detail as the book will. It made me laugh that so close can the relationship be that they’ve even ignored presidents in the past who’ve temporarily asked them to suspend intelligence sharing. His argument being that the real special relationship is between the intelligence agencies not politicians.

https://shows.acast.com/american-history-hit/episodes/the-cia-mi6-the-real-special-relationship

Here’s the book itself.

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/The-Real-Special-Relationship/Michael-Smith/9781471186813

Interesting. To file next to Bamford's The Puzzle Palace, Aid's The Secret Sentry and Aldrich's GCHQ among other less officlally endorsed books, as well as Behind the Enigma by John Ferris. I was pleased to see Sir John Scarlett's long preface is included in the Kindle sampler as well as some of the book itself iirc.
I wonder if books like this have to be cleared by all the agencies he writes about both in the US & UK.
« Last Edit: 06/23/2023 09:21 am by Star One »

Offline hoku

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Re: Satellite signals intelligence in the 1970s-1990s
« Reply #19 on: 06/23/2023 06:04 pm »
For a wider context this new podcast talks to former British Army intelligence officer Michael Smith talks about the close relationship between the US & UK intelligence agencies including the NSA & GCHQ. He touches on signals intelligence sharing but obviously a half hour podcast he cannot go into as much detail as the book will. It made me laugh that so close can the relationship be that they’ve even ignored presidents in the past who’ve temporarily asked them to suspend intelligence sharing. His argument being that the real special relationship is between the intelligence agencies not politicians.

https://shows.acast.com/american-history-hit/episodes/the-cia-mi6-the-real-special-relationship

Here’s the book itself.

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/The-Real-Special-Relationship/Michael-Smith/9781471186813
Peter Wright's (somewhat controversial) memoir "Spycatcher" offers some nice insights into the early (1950s to 1970s) TEMPEST-style ELINT/SIGINT employed by the UK and FVEY, and into the special relationship between US/UK agencies.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Wright_(MI5_officer)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spycatcher

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