Telemetry intelligence (TELINT) (later to be called FISINT) was a critical source of performance information on foreign missiles and space vehicles while they were being developed and tested, as well as a source of telemetry from military aircraft during their development.

TELINT could also provide much operational information on foreign satellites and space vehicles. The National Security Agency (NSA) became responsible for U.S. TELINT under a Department of Defense (DoD) directive in 1959 as part of NSA’s electronic intelligence (ELINT) responsibilities. TELINT prior to 1959 was being conducted by all of the DoD military departments.

All during the Cold War years, NSA continued to sponsor or participate with the DoD military departments and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to develop sophisticated signal collection equipment that could collect and process foreign telemetry signals and keep pace with the ever-changing technology of those signals.

As described later the HARDBALL telemetry data collection system was one of the major systems developed and installed for operational use in the late 1960s. This system design was optimized and located on Shemya Island, Alaska, to collect data from Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that impacted in the Soviet Kamchatka peninsula test range impact area. HARDBALL could also collect data from Soviet military satellites that sent data to Soviet telemetry receiving locations in the far eastern land area of the Soviet Union.

World War II was brought to a formal end just as an increasing variety of new technologies was evolving into an entirely new class of weapon systems. The American development and use of the atomic bomb, delivered by a conventional aircraft, is the most prominent example; however, Germany had effectively used guided cruise missiles (the V-1 series) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (the V-2 series) in significant numbers. Fortunately for the Allies, Germany had only conventional high explosive warheads on its missiles. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States paused in their weapon system developments during the Cold War. Winston Churchill summarized the world situation in his now-famous speech given at Westminster College in Fulton, MO, on 5 March 1946. He titled his speech “The Sinews of Peace,” although today it is usually called “The Iron Curtain Speech.” Only about six months after the formal conclusion of World War II, it was clear that the Soviet Union had a very serious agenda of world domination. In a portion of that speech, Churchill put it this way:

I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines. But what we have to consider here today while time remains, is the permanent prevention of war and the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries. Our difficulties and dangers will not be removed by closing our eyes to them. They will not be removed by mere waiting to see what happens; nor will they be removed by a policy of appeasement….

Just a bit later, he said:

From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness. For that reason the old doctrine of balance of power is unsound. We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.(1)

His observations became a new strategic doctrine, to avoid narrow margins of power, which was soon implemented.

The tension was real, not imagined, and the pace of advanced weapon systems development increased. Thomas Reed, secretary of the U.S. Air Force at that time, has written a book on weapons(2) that provides his personal view of the Cold War and the associated arms race. It contains information about the atomic and hydrogen bomb developments, ICBM developments, and related intelligence systems and activities.

On the weapons delivery side of the weapons development activity:

• The Soviet Union successfully tested its first ICBM, the R-7, on 21 August 1957. (3)
• The Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on 4 October 1957 using a modified R-7 as the booster.
• The United States successfully conducted its first full-range (5,500 nautical miles) ICBM test, with the series B ATLAS, on 28 November 1958.(4)

New technologies and applications always present both challenges and opportunities to the weapon system developers and to those in the intelligence community who must determine, from the outside, not only general developments, but also detailed technical information. Our intelligence community had many new challenges.

U.S. Cold War missile systems intelligence analysts faced an array of questions:

• What type of propulsion systems are being used?
• What is their power?
• What is their fuel composition?
• How reliable are the boosters?
• How much weight can they lift?
• What is the range capability?
• What types of guidance systems are used?
• How accurate are they?
• What are possible flight profiles?
• How do the re-entry systems work?
• What seem to be the developmental problems?
• What is the pace of the development program?

Furthermore, as each general question was answered, there was a natural continuing drive for increasing the accuracy of the answers. Then, as the weapons were deployed, operational readiness and the detailed functionality of the command and control systems became essential intelligence targets.

Sometimes it was not easy to even determine the location or timing of a test flight. The huge landmass of the Soviet Union presented challenges. There were many test ranges and impact areas. Most of these key areas were inaccessible to our existing intelligence systems. As a result, many new collection and sensor systems were developed and operated.

There were many types of both platforms and sensors, including radar, infrared, optical, and, of course, TELINT. Military units from all services were involved, as were all segments of the intelligence community and many of our allies.

No single “technical” (e.g., TELINT, ELINT) sensor system could provide the data required to answer the wide variety of important questions that were being asked. True weapon system performance could be determined only by using a variety of data types in a highly interactive and coordinated manner. A variety of analysis teams were created and worked effectively. Of course, there was also some competition, but that usually provoked a great deal of creativity since the working analysts knew that they were doing important work. As is usually the case, talented and creative people are the key to success in any complex endeavor.


1. Churchill’s speech is contained in many references and is surely worth reading completely. One of the easiest ways to find sources on his speech is:
2. Thomas C. Reed, At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War, New York: Random House/Ballantine Books, 2004.
3. Robert Godwin, editor, Rocket and Space Corporation Energia: The Legacy of S.P. Korolev, English edition, Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 2001. This is an English edition of a Russian publication that covers, with photographs and illustrations, the early missiles and space activities of one of the major contributors to the Soviet Union’s efforts in these areas. It is also a reference for Soviet R-7 flights and “Sputnik” data and booster types.
4. See “Key dates in ICBM history” at

Source: Center for Cryptologic History