Gaining valuable and actionable intelligence is important in both war and peacetime, and perhaps no intelligence discipline has seen such rapid advancement over the past 100 years as Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). In this article, you’ll learn what signals intelligence is, how it has evolved and changed the nature of modern warfare, and how we’re helping warfighters and decision-makers enhance and perfect their signals intelligence capabilities.
What is Signals Intelligence and Why Does It Matter?
Signals intelligence is defined as the collection of signals from the environment to gather intelligence. This can include intercepting electronic communications, as well as detecting non-communication electronic signals (such as radar). Signals intelligence is divided into three sub-disciplines which are distinct but complement one another to achieve comprehensive intelligence gathering:
- Communications Intelligence (COMINT). This is the interception of communications in the form of radio signals, phone calls, email, and more. Much of the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) are related to communications intelligence.
- Electronic Intelligence (ELINT). This term applies to the interception of electronic signals which serve some other purpose than communication, such as radar waves and enemy electronic warfare measures.
- Foreign Instrumentation Signals Intelligence (FISINT) is the detection of signals created by the testing and use of foreign weapons systems. For example, monitoring the signals emanating from the testing of nuclear weapons or the launching of missiles would be examples of FISINT.
Signals intelligence in the modern sense traces its roots back to the early twentieth century when the British and Japanese military first learned how to intercept radio communications by the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War. Signals intelligence techniques continued to advance as the years went by, and it would play a critical role in both World Wars in turning the tide in favor of the Allied Powers.
It’s hard to overstate what a revolution the development of modern signals intelligence represented; for the first time in history, it was possible to gain real-time insight into enemy communications and learn what their intentions were and then take proactive steps to counter them. The development of reliable signals intelligence-gathering methods such as radio interception also led to the development of modern cryptography, which has become a very sophisticated discipline unto itself.
Modern Signals Intelligence
With the rise of the internet, smartphones, and 24/7 global connectivity, signals intelligence methods and technologies have had to evolve to meet these demands. Many countries now devote considerable resources to intercepting and monitoring digital communications for intelligence purposes during both war and peacetime.
Another example of how innovations in signals intelligence have changed warfare is the rise of Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles (UAVs). In prior decades, collection of signals intelligence by aircraft was accomplished with manned planes like the U-2 and other reconnaissance aircraft. While manned ISR aircraft are still in use, modern radio-controlled UAVs like the Army’s Global Hawk are playing a major role in gathering signals intelligence in battlefields around the world.
UAVs offer many advantages; they are far cheaper to build and operate than manned aircraft since they don’t require life support systems nor the hundreds of hours necessary to train a human pilot. They also eliminate the risk of losing a pilot to enemy fire or an accident. But UAVs are not a magic bullet solution to all signals intelligence needs, and they come with their own set of challenges.
For one thing, UAVs fly much slower and closer to the ground than manned ISR aircraft, this makes them much more vulnerable to attack from anti-craft systems. There have also been techniques like GPS spoofing which can trick the drone into entering and even landing in unfriendly territory. For these reasons, manned aircraft like EA-18 Growler have been developed. These planes feature advanced SIGINT capabilities and can even intercept cell phone calls from miles away. These aircraft also represent the bridge between the fields of signals intelligence and electronic warfare and demonstrate the increasingly complementary relationship between the two.
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