The Science behind the Intelligence – MASINT
Why have global leaders from the 5 eyes countries started to blame Iran for shooting down Ukrainian airline flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800 from Tehran on Thursday? How would they know not having access to the on the ground investigation? Philip Ingram MBE a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence explains the science behind the intelligence, MASINT.
Talking about the crash, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, said in a news conference in Ottawa in Canada on Thursday “We have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence. The evidence indicates the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.”
Before that, CBS News in the US said, “U.S. intelligence picked up signals of a radar being turned on, sources told CBS News.”
The UK’s Daily Mail said, “US intelligence says the Boeing 737 was tracked by satellite data which showed the plane airborne for two minutes before detecting the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles.
That was quickly followed by an explosion, officials say, before infrared emissions from the plane showed it burning as it crashed to the ground.”
US President Donald Trump said, ‘It was flying in a pretty rough neighbourhood. Somebody could have made a mistake,’ and went on to tell reporters at the White House on Thursday. ‘I have a feeling that something very terrible happened, very devastating.’
The official Iranian line remains the aircraft suffered mechanical failure, so what is the truth and how can we believe reports from unnamed ‘intelligence sources’ that to the nay-sayers will smack of what the Russians love to call – маскировка (maskirovka) or masking. This is “Fake News” in Donald Trump’s vocabulary, at a time when accurately apportioning blame is critical in the international powerplay and need to de-escalate an unfolding crisis.
It was fascinating that CBS first quoted the unnamed intelligence source describing what had been seen from satellites, most of the intelligence derived from satellites is classified at a level of above TOP SECRET simply because the US doesn’t want the world to know what it sees.
The quotes in the press allow me to introduce the little-known world of what is called MASINT, or Measurement and Signature Intelligence, again a discipline where little is released because of the sensitivities of capabilities. However, the science around what has been mentioned is relatively straight forward and it is that science that gives a degree of certainty as to what has happened.
According to US intelligence publications, “Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) is technically derived intelligence (excluding traditional imagery (IMINT) and signal intelligence (SIGINT) which when collected, processed, and analysed, results in intelligence that detects, tracks, identifies, or describes the signatures (distinctive characteristics) of fixed or dynamic target sources. MASINT includes the advanced processing and exploitation of data derived from IMINT and SIGINT collection sources. MASINT sensors include, but are not limited to, radar, optical, infrared, acoustic, nuclear, radiation detection, spetroradiometric, and seismic systems as well as gas, liquid, and solid material sampling systems.”
From the reporting we have 2 signatures that have been analysed. The first is the “signals of a radar being turned on.” There is no one radar signature that does everything for everyone, different radars are designed to carry out different task, for example a long-range air traffic control radar will use a particular frequency to look out long distances, will rotate relatively slowly looking for objects a long way away and all around it. Radar uses a radio wave frequency and then analyses how that bounces off a particular object as it moves, using what is called the doppler shift, to work out how that object is moving and where it is relative to the Radar.
There are 3 signatures that are examined with Radars to identify their purpose and unique signature, every type of radar has a unique fingerprint of signals. These are the frequency of the signal it transmits and the way that transmission is coded, what is called the PRF, or pulse repetition frequency, and the rotation (including speed of rotation, if any) of the radar transmitter, some Radars are fixed and some, like those you see at airports, rotate. Putting all 3 together you can easily classify a radar as “Air Defence, fire control associated with TOR M-1 (SA15),” and rule in or out what the radar is usually used for, i.e. If it is a search radar or a fire control radar.
The second signature is more interesting. The quote that, “satellite data which showed the plane airborne for two minutes before detecting the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles. That was quickly followed by an explosion, officials say, before infrared emissions from the plane showed it burning as it crashed to the ground.” This tells us a lot.
It mentions heat signatures and infra-red signatures, simplifying the science behind these terms they are effectively the same but hide the detail within those phrases. It is widely reported in scientific journals how astronomers can tell the make-up of a star or the atmosphere around a planet by looking at the different light signatures received by the Hubble, other space or ground based optical or wide spectrum telescopes. That is looking billions of miles into space and examining the minutest electro magnetic signatures received. Infra-Red, is merely an electromagnetic signature.
When you burn coal on a home fire it gives off a different heat signature to burning wood or when the fire brigade is using their thermal cameras, through temperature differentials they can see the seat of a fire and in some cases if there are accelerants feeding it.
It is the same with a missile launch, compared to a rocket launch, compared with an explosion. The spectrum of visible and infra-red radiation detected is different for a solid rocket motor, liquid propelled rocket or an explosive substance going off and these are vastly different to a fuel or oil fire in an engine. For the geeks amongst you the energy released with the breaking of molecular bonds in the fuel or explosive compounds is different depending on the way the molecule breaks down and the excitement of different elections in atoms as they move between different valence levels. Apologies, my degree was in Applied Science from the Royal Military College of Science, and apologies to my old professors for the inaccuracy caused by oversimplification.
If scientists can use these techniques to work out what is happening billions of miles away, it is reasonable to believe that satellites a few hundred miles into space can detect the same and the intelligence analysts make the same conclusions that scientists can. In addition, a rocket, propelling a warhead to a target will ‘burn’, give an Infra-Red signature for a lot longer than an explosive incident that lasts a fraction of a second and then burning debris will have yet another different Infra-Red signature. Again, this is all part of MASINT. The Lockheed Martin Space Based Infra-Red Surveillance programme (SBIRS) provides the US with such a capability.
Putting all of this together is not a rapid task when it comes to properly identifying a system, putting it together in a way you can release information outside the classifications used with the systems deployed is a challenge. The science is in the public domain, the claims are in the public domain, putting both together is a naturally logical process and this is how I can be confident that the claims made by Justin Trudeau, reinforced by Boris Johnson, initially reported by CBS and now others, are probably true.
This can easily be reinforced by the suspicions raised when the pilots didn’t transmit a MAYDAY, they were probably incapacitated or killed in the missile explosion, the aircraft was new and had been inspected 2 days beforehand reducing the probability of mechanical failure, the crew were experienced and the Iranians have cleared the crash site before international inspectors could get there. Additional intelligence from SIGINT transmission around the time of the incident will probably tell more if, as is likely, Western intelligence can and has intercepted them. I am more certain than not by a large degree that this was a shoot down and almost certainly accidental. The only positive is that it could cause Iran to rethink the need a spectacular event as a revenge for the killing of Soleimani, at the very least in the short term.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and has studied the science behind many different systems at The Royal Military College of Science bot at degree and masters level. He remains available for comment.