Expansion of NSA ELINT Responsibilities:

In 1971 the Collection and Signals Analysis organization, elements of the Research and Development organization, and other SIGINT operational elements merged to form the “Electronic Intelligence and Systems Management Group.” This group provided a good institutional base for NSA to manage ELINT, including collection activities and the development of new collection and processing systems for ELINT efforts. Similarly, it created a cohesive way to develop the ELINT portion of the Combined Cryptologic Program (CCP) program and budgets with the DoD military departments. One of the offices in the group concentrated on TechELINT, one on OpELINT, and one on TELINT.

TELINT attained its status as a separate “INT” in 1971 with the publication of the revised DoD Directive 5100.20, which gave NSA its updated charter. TELINT activities were focused in the NSA organization as the Advanced Weapons and Space Systems Office within the new group.

By the early 1970s NSA had completed a network of ground-based foreign telemetry collection facilities and worked with the DoD military departments and services to develop aircraft and shipborne TELINT signal collection facilities.

National Security Council Intelligence Directive No.6 was updated in 1972 and retitled “Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).” This directive gave NSA even more ELINT powers. Based on NSCID 6 concepts, SIGINT within DoD had been implemented by Department of Defense Directive 5100.20, issued in 1971 and commonly referred to as the “NSA Charter.” The DoD Directive charged NSA with the responsibility of managing SIGINT within DoD and specifically defined SIGINT as including COMINT, ELINT, and TELINT. As previously mentioned, the term TELINT has fallen into disuse and has been replaced by the term FISINT, which includes telemetry, missile and satellite command signals, and beacons.

During the Cold War years, NSA continued to sponsor — or participate with the DoD military departments, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the CIA in — the development of sophisticated signal collection equipment for target signals to keep pace with the ever-changing technology of those signals.

Now-closed 1970s missile and space TELINT facility

One of the premier ELINT data collection platforms is a modified US Air Force RC-135U aircraft. The primary function of these TechELINT specially configured aircraft is ELINT reconnaissance and surveillance. They collect, analyze, and sometimes locate foreign target electronic signals to help determine detailed operating characteristics and capabilities. They have been in operation, with a continuing series of advanced configurations, since 1964.

Modified RC-135U advanced ELINT airborne collection platform

Another long-time ELINT collection platform is the US Army GUARDRAIL aircraft. This aircraft is configured to locate enemy fire control radars and thus provide OpELINT. The aircraft can fly near or over a battlefield and communicate directly with Army and Air Force units. The GUARDRAIL collection and related analysis and reporting efforts have served in conflicts starting with the Vietnam War through DESERT STORM in 1991.

RC12 GUARDRAIL COMINT and ELINT collection platform

During the Cold War many technological advances were made in ELINT collection and analysis equipment. These advances made increased capabilities possible with more reliable configurations and by consuming less electrical power. As the “state-of-the-art” of foreign radar and other electronic equipment advanced, ELINT receivers had to keep pace. One such receiver, developed in the 1970s for both ground site and airborne use, was the QRC-259. Some thirty to forty receiver systems were deployed and operated into the 1990s.

NSA also continued to modernize and expand its ELINT signals processing and analysis equipment “positions.” The Agency likewise upgraded positions at selected field facilities with emphasis on more timely reporting of ELINT results.

NSA also developed and operated special-purpose telemetry processing equipment, often computer-based, in the National Telemetry Processing Center (using the abbreviation NTPC).

RISSMAN, a special-purpose telemetry processor

Different types of equipment sets were needed to process and analyze different forms of telemetry used by various telemetry transmission equipment. One example is RISSMAN, a special-purpose telemetry processing system used at NSA during the Cold War.


Starting in 1958, and working with other US and allied ELINT organizations, NSA technical and management initiatives and expertise have made significant intelligence gains for the United States and its allies. These gains provided vital intelligence information for use by electronic warfare equipment designers and operating personnel. They also provided critical information on foreign missiles and space vehicles that were a threat to the United States. NSA continues today in its role as the lead US organization for ELINT matters.

About the Author

Post Script: This post is a product of the National Security Agency history program. It presents a historical perspective for informational and educational purposes, is the result of independent research, and does not necessarily reflect a position of NSA/CSS or any other US government entity.

Richard Bernard is a consultant and volunteer in the NSA Center for Cryptologic History (CCH). He has held a number of ELINT planning, engineering, and operational positions at NSA. He has been a member of the Association of Old Crows, an electronic warfare technical association, since 1979.

Featured Image: SA-2 “Guideline” ground-to-air missile system

By Richard L. Bernard