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Outer space provides a unique domain for conducting surveillance operation since it is literally the “highest ground” when it comes to military operations. Space based Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capabilities has a very important role in this respect, as it could help countries locate and monitor radar facilities deep inside the enemy territory as well as across the oceanic surface. Hence, ELINT satellites have been deployed ever since the 1960s to augment the technical intelligence of major powers. India has already completed a year since it has deployed its very own ELINT satellite in orbit, and there is a growing need to set up an advanced ELINT constellation.


In the intelligence discipline, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) is a subset of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), and deals with gathering intelligence about the interception of non-communication signals. ELINT can warn about the enemy’s electronic devices which are used in various platforms, especially radars. ELINT had its origins in the World War II, with the invention and utilization of radar. The allied forces soon found the need to identify and monitor German radar systems which were a threat to the projection of allied air power over German occupied territory. Though initially ELINT was attached to aerial platforms, the advent of the Space Age necessitated the deployment of such payloads in the orbit, especially as Cold War tensions ran high. Therefore, by the 1960s, ELINT platforms diversified into outer space.


ELINT satellites are meant for electronic eavesdropping from space. ELINT satellites monitor radar signals and locates their source, thereby tracking down radar systems. They collect and analyse the radio signal emissions from radars and create a Radio Frequency signature of the radar system from where the signals are emitted. These can be used to further identify the radar systems. A single ELINT satellite is not enough to track radars. A minimum of three ELINT satellites are required to receive signals and identify the source through triangulation, and therefore such satellite systems have always been operated as triplets by countries. One major disadvantage of ELINT satellites are their ineffectiveness in finding radar systems if they go silent, or are working in a passive mode. Nevertheless, they are considered vital components in maintaining national security, and there are probably close to 73 ELINT satellites which are currently active in orbit.


It was the US that launched the first ELINT satellites in the 1960s by the joint effort of the National Reconnaissance Office, the US Navy and the National Security Agency. It developed the Galactic Radiation and Background (GRAB) satellite, which was deployed and in operation during 1960-62. The satellite provided key data on Soviet air defence radar systems, and has helped in inferring the existence of Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile systems. The space based ELINT programme was continued with the POPPY programme, which enabled precision location of radar systems since 1962 until its closure in 1977. The GRAB and POPPY programmes contributed immensely to the US understanding of Soviet radar systems. Before these programmes, the technical intelligence gathering of the US regarding such targets were limited to airborne and ground based platforms. Moreover, the access of these platforms were restricted to within only 200 miles inside the Soviet Union. The space based ELINT systems ensured the tracking of facilities deep inside the Soviet territory. They also conducted oceanic surveillance at a period when Soviet sea power was ascendant. Hence, they laid the foundations of the future of America’s space based ELINT capabilities. The US started deploying the Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) satellites since the mid-1970s. Currently, the US operates three generations of 20 NOSS ELINT satellites which is capable of wide area surveillance in the oceanic realm, among others.


The Soviet Union’s ELINT satellite programme was initiated in 1964, and its first such type of system was known as the Tselina. The system consisted of active and passive modes of detection. The Soviet Union launched around 40 Tselina class satellites from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. In parallel to this system, the Soviets also developed ocean monitoring ELINT satellites under the US-P project. Around 37 satellites in this system were launched until the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Federation which took over the programme modified the system into the US-PM system, under which 13 satellites were launched until 2006. Russia also continued with its Tselina programme until 2007. Russia then introduced its Lotos ELINT satellites, and it currently has four Lotos satellites in orbit for the same purpose.


China’s earliest ELINT satellite, the CK-1, was linked to its HQ-18 Anti-Ballistic missile system. It was supposed to provide early warning of any attack from the Soviet Union, which was China’s biggest threat during the latter part of the Cold War. China is currently supposed to have two constellations of ELINT satellites. Many of the Yaogan satellites that China operates are ELINT satellites. The Yaogan 9, Yaogan 16, Yaogan 17, Yaogan 20, Yaogan 25, Yaogan 30 and Yaogan 31 clusters in the JianBing 8 constellation are among the ELINT satellites in the Yaogan series. Their main task is to identify sea borne radar systems, as they are part of China’s Anti-Access Area Denial Strategy to keep US Aircraft carriers outside the Western Pacific. The four Tongxin Jishu Shiyan satellites are also supposed to be China’s ELINT satellites operating from the Geostationary Orbit. Their primary objective is to provide early warning of ballistic missiles for China’s Ballistic Missile Defence system. However, China’s ELINT systems can also provide the country valuable intelligence about its adversary’s air and ballistic missile defence systems. This is especially significant for China as its strategic capabilities are being developed to overcome the ballistic missile shield of the US.


Other countries are also involved in deploying ELINT capabilities in space. France has deployed the Elisa set of satellites for this purpose and are planning to replace them with new set of satellites. Japan has also been developing ELINT satellites, primarily because of the missile threats coming from North Korea. India has very recently initiated the steps in setting up an ELINT constellation. Just days after India conducted its ASAT test, it launched EMISAT, India’s first ELINT satellite on 31 April 2019. It is operated by India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which has developed Kautilya, the ELINT package that the satellite is carrying. Apparently, the DRDO has been working on Kautilya since 2013-2014. It has been supposedly modelled on the Israeli SARAL satellite and has been placed in the Highly Elliptical Orbit to have a prolonged time for surveillance.


Based on the orbital characteristics, it has been inferred that EMISAT will largely be Pakistan-centric in its surveillance activity. The satellite seems to have the capability to monitor the entire spectrum of key military activities. EMISAT is India’s sole ELINT satellite; whereas the US and China have 40 and 33 satellites, respectively. This is not to say that India should build up a similarly large constellation, as its strategic requirements are different. Rather, the point to note here is that India is an extremely new entrant to a club of nations, and needs to fast track the addition of such satellites.


It has been argued that India would require at least three more such satellites which could operate simultaneously. Perhaps, India would need more. India needs to certainly monitor the electromagnetic tracking activity in its problematic continental neighbourhood, especially Pakistan. This is particularly important in operations like the Balakot surgical strike, when vital intelligence is required about the adversary’s air defence capabilities in order to reduce risks during air incursions. At the same time, India also needs to be vigilant in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and its littorals. For instance, China has supposedly placed listening posts in the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal, right across the Western coast of the Bay where India’s missile tests and space launches take place.


Further addition to India’s ELINT satellite capabilities could help in extending surveillance across to China. As India has been getting increasingly entangled in countering the creeping threat arising from China’s Western Theatre Command, it becomes a necessity for the country to prepare for eventualities, should border standoff situations recur and escalate. In such a scenario, the role of India’s air based assets become viral to conventionally tip the military balance across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in India’s favour. In this milieu, the role of ELINT satellites becomes key in detecting Chinese radar systems so that appropriate countermeasures could be deployed to ensure stealthy strike missions. Moreover, in addition to quantity and scale, the quality and depth of intelligence gathering can be further enhanced by incorporating the products of the Fourth Industrial Revolution into the picture. The introduction of technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Big Data analytics into the processing of ELINT, especially when newer satellites are added to the fleet could radically upgrade India’s surveillance capabilities and hence its national security.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.