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electronic intelligence (ELINT)

What is electronic intelligence (ELINT)?

Electronic intelligence (ELINT) is intelligence gathered using electronic sensors, usually used in military applications. These electronic signals do not contain speech or text (which are considered communications intelligence or (COMINT).

Intelligence, in a military context (and others, such as business, that have adopted the usage), is information that supports organizations' decision-making and can provide a strategic advantage over the competition. The term is often abbreviated as intel.

In ELINT, intelligence gathered generally does not include personal communications. The sensors used to gather data might be active or passive. A given signal is analyzed and compared to recorded data for known signal types. If the signal type is recognized that information can be recorded; it can be classified as new if no match is returned. ELINT is generally classified and made available only on a need-to-know basis.

The purpose of ELINT is often to ascertain the capabilities of a target, such as the location of radar, and for threat intelligence purposes. The target often belongs to a foreign power. In gathering ELINT, a country's military can better understand an adversary nation's intentions, capabilities and activities, and then use this understanding to develop their own countermeasures.

Types of ELINT

ELINT is mainly of three types:

TechELINT

TechELINT refers to the technical aspects of electronic intelligence, including a signal's structure, operational modes and emission characteristics. The emitter functions associated with certain systems, such as radars, beacons and jammers, are also considered TechELINT. TechELINT is mostly gathered by countries for engaging in electronic warfare. Gathering signal parameters and information about emitters enables national militaries to improve the design of their radar equipment and other electronic measures (and countermeasures).

OpELINT

Operational ELINT or OpELINT focuses on gathering the operational patterns of specific ELINT target systems. It is commonly used by military operational planners and tactical military commanders to prepare electronic orders of battle (EOBs) and threat assessments for use on the battlefield.

TELINT

TELINT, also spelled as TelELINT and more commonly known as Foreign Instrumentation Signals Intelligence or FISINT, is telemetry signals intelligence that provides insights into a foreign country's missiles, space vehicles and remote-controlled systems. Intercepting, processing and analyzing TELINT enables countries to capture performance and operational information about these systems, aiding in the development of measures to counter the potential threat posed by those systems.

It's rare for only one type of ELINT to be used for military applications. Generally, all three types are gathered and analyzed to support military planning, intelligence-gathering and warcraft. By combining the insights from the three types of ELINT, a country's military can better understand one or more adversaries' intentions and the electronic capabilities meant to support those intentions. This understanding enables nations to proactively plan and execute their electronic warfare tactics and improve their overall military operations and capabilities.

image depicting the process of intercepting radio signals for surveillance purposes
ELINT or electronic intelligence intercepts, gathers and analyzes electronic signals, such as radio waves, radio pulses and other radio signals for use in military applications.

Applications of ELINT

ELINT is most used by countries' military forces to support their military operations and warfare. ELINT data collection platforms fitted on specialized aircraft enable a country's Air Force pilots to improve their situational awareness, which can be vital during active combat situations. In addition, military personnel use ELINT to precisely locate enemy positions and target them accordingly to increase the probability of mission success.

ELINT also helps nations implement countermeasures to withstand electronic threats like jamming and cyberattacks. In the long term, ELINT is invaluable to understand an adversary nation's electronic capabilities and accordingly determine what measures are required to either withstand or overtake them.

History of ELINT in the U.S.

The invention and use of radar during World War II gave rise to the development and use of ELINT by the U.S. military. At that time, the military started using ELINT to monitor German and Japanese radars. In doing so, they were able to create tactics to evade or jam these systems.

Post WW II, USAFE (the United States Air Forces in Europe -- Air Forces Africa), a major command of the U.S. Air Force, set up a TechELINT and OpELINT program, in cooperation with several NATO partners. Between 1952 and 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) set up the Army-Navy Electronics Evaluation Group (ANEEG) and later the National Technical Processing Center (NTPC) to collect, process and analyze ELINT. The NTPC includes participants from the U.S. Army and Navy, as well as USAFE and the CIA.

In 1954, ELINT was brought under the purview of the National Security Agency (NSA), backed by support from President Eisenhower. With this, the NSA was given operational and technical control of the DoD's ELINT activities. In the 1960s, the NSA built many ELINT collection systems and prepared the National ELINT Plan (NEP) in collaboration with the CIA, multiple military departments, and other partners. ELINT played a major role during the Vietnam War by supporting U.S. efforts to counter the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns, reducing U.S. aircraft losses.

In 1971, the establishment of the Collection and Signals Analysis organization enabled the NSA to improve ELINT management and to develop the Combined Cryptologic Program (CCP) program's ELINT subprogram. In the same year, TELINT was recognized as a separate INT category while the updating of the National Security Council Intelligence Directive No.6 led to the formal recognition of signals intelligence (SIGINT). This directive also specifically defined SIGINT as including COMINT, ELINT and TELINT.

For more than half a century, the U.S. NSA has continued to set up ELINT data collection platforms, which are often aircraft configured to collect, analyze and locate foreign target electronic signals and communicate directly with the U.S. Army or Air Force. The NSA has also continuously upgraded its ELINT signals processing and analysis equipment positions and developed computer-based special-purpose telemetry processing equipment. All these developments have allowed the U.S. and its allies to make significant progress over the years in capturing vital intelligence information for electronic warfare and threat mitigation.

ELINT vs. COMINT vs. SIGINT

ELINT and COMINT are the two main subfields of SIGINT. The terms are defined by the DoD and the categories of studied data are used by intelligence communities in developed nations the world over.

SIGINT refers to information derived from both communications and electronic signals. Simply put, SIGINT includes both ELINT and COMINT. COMINT focuses on intercepting and analyzing the communications between people and may therefore include both speech and text data. ELINT on the other hand, refers to only non-communication emissions from electronic systems like radar, sensors, satellites, RF receivers and telemetry devices.

Information has long been the lifeblood of militaries and today's data strategies are no different. Learn why data is crucial and the golden threat of military defense -- from frontline fighters to logistics, manufacturing, R&D, and recruitment. Also, threat intelligence helps organizations make informed decisions about how best to secure their IT resources. Find out about both the promises and drawbacks of this security technology.

This was last updated in June 2024

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