Many very basic problems were presented to those faced with using telemetry as an information source. Consider the following simplified list:

• The signal itself must be reliably identified as containing telemetry data as opposed to some other set of data.
• A reliable connection must be made between an individual signal and a specific weapons test.
• Since a wide variety of test measurements are often conducted on a given missile/weapon test, some determination must be made about the goals of the test.
• Most telemetry signals are multichannel, and the assignment of individual data elements to a specific system test measurement must be made accurately.
• None of the above is generally useful unless the nature of the original instrumentation measurement is understood and the coding schemes are determined.

Now consider what would happen if sources of Soviet missile/space telemetry were to be lost to the U.S. The Cold War made it clear that signals intelligence (SIGINT) challenges are provoked by a wide variety of issues; some are technical, some political, but they all have an important time dynamic. This is one of the features that required continual technical attention from a talented and well-equipped workforce.

The areas of telemetry signals collection, analysis, and reporting all evolved over time. It was not a smooth evolutionary process because of the nature of the problem and had little to do with formal organization of the community. Those who had information or talents did work together. This was partly because of the professionally challenging nature of the problem, but perhaps largely because they all had a personal understanding of the importance of the topic.

From a technical point of view, the collection and analytic challenges were also not smoothly distributed in time because they were associated with a development process that was truly state of the art. Progress in such programs has never been smooth or predictable simply because the programs are, by their very nature, experimental. Thus, the results are unknown to all parties in the early stages of the development process.

A major milestone was reached in May 1972 when President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev signed a document officially called “Interim Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitations of Strategic Offensive Arms.” This soon became known as SALT I and entered into force in October 1972.(5)

Article V (of VIII) of this interim SALT agreement stated in part:

Each party undertakes not to use deliberate concealment measures which impede verification by national technical means of compliance with the provision of this Interim Agreement. This obligation shall not require changes in current construction, assembly, conversion, or overhaul practices.(6)

As is often the case with such diplomatic language, it was not exactly clear what some of the terms really meant. In particular, the term “national technical means” was probably intentionally left to the imagination. The interim agreement was accompanied by a number of “agreed statements, common understandings, and unilateral statements…” regarding the basic topic. Discussions continued under Presidents Ford and Carter, and in June 1979, President Carter and General Secretary Brezhnev signed the SALT II agreement (with minor word changes to make it clear that the telemetric information segment was a part of the treaty) and then added a “Second Common Understanding” which reads as follows:

Each party is free to use various methods of transmitting telemetric information during testing, including its encryption, except that, in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 3 of Article XV of the Treaty, neither Party shall engage in deliberate denial of telemetric information, such as through the use of telemetry encryption, whenever such denial impedes verification of compliance with the provisions of the Treaty.(7)

In 1991 as the Cold War ended, the U.S. and the USSR entered into a new “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty,” abbreviated START. It was implemented on July 31, 1991. This treaty included an agreed “Telemetry Protocol” that called for the exchange of very specific telemetric data on certain ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tests conducted by each party. (8)  The data was to be exchanged on magnetic tapes that contained all of the telemetric data broadcast during the designated flight test. The treaty also contained limitations on the use of telemetry encryption.

Starting in 1954, a number of presidential level committees recommended that all ELINT be brought under NSA’s purview. Both the Mark Clark subcommittee of the Hoover Commission in 1954 and the William O. Baker committee in 1957 made such a recommendation. Strongly backed by President Eisenhower, the Baker committee efforts culminated in the issuance of National Security Council Intelligence Directive (NSCID) No. 6, “Communications Intelligence and Electronics Intelligence,” in early 1958. NSCID No. 6 gave NSA many ELINT/TELINT powers. Within DoD it was implemented in early 1959 by an updated 1955 DoD Directive S-3115.2 and focused DoD top management review withinthe office of the Deputy Director for Research and Engineering (DDR&E)—soon to be headed by Dr. Eugene Fubini, a staunch supporter of ELINT. With certain exceptions, the directive gave NSA “operational and technical control” of all DoD ELINT/TELINT activities. Foreign telemetry at that time was considered part of ELINT. The directive made it quite clear that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, component commanders, and the military departments and services were to fully support these NSA-managed ELINT activities.(9)

The 1960s were a period of extensive development of ballistic missiles by the Soviet Union, particularly medium range (MRBM) and ICBM weapons. Many of the Soviet test ranges were within the borders of the Soviet Union, which often made advance knowledge of the tests and collection of test data very difficult. Fortunately, the Soviet ICBM test range impact area was on the Kamchatka peninsula and provided for limited access by U.S. col lection assets. The Soviet SL-4 space launch booster pictured above was initially developed during the 1960s as the R-7 ICBM.

The SL-4 remains in use today as a Russian space launch vehicle, and the photo shows the launch of a Russian-manned mission to the International Space Station, where the U.S. and Russia now have a cooperative venture.

5. A detailed narrative of the U.S./USSR process of developing SALT I can be found at
6. Full text of the SALT I Interim Agreement can be found at
7. Full text of the SALT II treaty can be found at
8. “The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms” (START) was signed in Moscow on July 31, 1991. It can be found at http://www.
9. Richard L. Bernard, “Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) at NSA,” Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 2009.

Source: Center for Cryptologic History

Featured Picture: Soviet R-7 ICBM booster for the SL-4 space launch vehicle