Understanding MASINT and Its Practical Uses


MASINT: Information is first collected, then gathered, and finally analyzed.

This is a key process in intelligence gathering, when raw data is transformed into useful intelligence that supports decision-making.

Intelligence collection is a broad science, but we will focus on one specific discipline that is not as widely discussed as the rest.

Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) is a specialized branch of intelligence collection. It is a highly technical field that aims to identify and track the distinct attributes of target sources.

Breaking down MASINT

In layman’s terms, we define MASINT as the information obtained by sensors to describe and record the characteristics of a target.

MASINT uses the scientific process. It gathers both quantitative and qualitative data such as metric, angular, spatial, duration, magnetic, and many more types.

With these, we get to know the target more—and know where they are going.

So how are these data obtained, exactly?

There are specialized electronic sensors with the sole purpose of identifying the characteristics of the source, emitter or sender. The sound of aircraft propellers, fluctuating temperatures, material composition of evidence—these are just some of the numerous features that MASINT can obtain.

MASINT is really just about gathering the by-products of these devices.

Such devices or equipment generate a certain by-product or “signature” that is measured, hence the terms “measurement” and “signature” in MASINT. These signatures can be biological, chemical, thermal, nuclear, radioactive, electromagnetic or mechanical in nature.

Based on this description of MASINT, we can say that it is capable of giving a fingerprint of any weapon system. It can provide unique and useful information that other disciplines may not be able to give.

The complexity of MASINT

However, by no means is MASINT collection as simple as defining it. Unlike human intelligence (HUMINT), where information can be gathered from human sources, MASINT requires complex tools and equipment to obtain information.

Since MASINT is widely used in military operations and warfare, a complete MASINT system involves a variety of electronic and sensory equipment to make intelligence-gathering as accurate as possible.

How MASINT started

The early use of MASINT remains unclear, but the techniques used now hail from an interesting history.

Ancient warship captains were believed to rely on the senses to measure the characteristics of the skies, wind, and water. There was no technology to analyze information, but rather a mental collection of signatures that formed the basis for tactical strategies.

Even engineers from the Middle Ages relied on acoustic phenomena—putting their ears on the ground to gather information from sound.

In World War I, soldiers utilized acoustic and optical intelligence to locate artillery that increased their odds of victory.

In World War II, belligerents used radar to track down foreign aircraft, and employed chemical detectors to identify chemical agents used in warfare.

Compared to HUMINT, SIGINT or GEOINT, MASINT is a more recent discipline. Due to limitations in documentation and evidence-based research, the full potential of MASINT cannot be quantified.

Ongoing MASINT studies also remain classified. However, it is a promising discipline.

The sub-disciplines of MASINT

As if MASINT isn’t complex enough, you’ll learn that MASINT itself is just the tip of the iceberg.

MASINT deals with a lot of signatures with varying characteristics. Here are some of the most common forms of MASINT:

● Radar Intelligence (RADINT)
○ Collates dissimilar elements that do not fall under HUMINT, SIGINT or GEOINT

● Foreign Instrumentation Signals Intelligence (FISINT)
○ Intercepts unknown electromagnetic signals emitted from foreign aerospace systems

● Acoustic Intelligence
○ Deals with the collection and analysis of acoustic signals

● Nuclear Intelligence (NUCINT)
○ Measures information obtained from nuclear weapons, devices, methods and facilities

● Electro-optical Intelligence (ELECTRO-OPTINT)
○ Analyzes information from electromagnetic sources within the light, UV and infrared spectra

● Laser Intelligence (LASINT)
○ Collects information from laser threats and measures power sources, power levels, and frequencies of laser systems

Application of MASINT

MASINT provides intelligence on the weapons of the enemy, their equipment locations, and patterns of life.

For the military commander, MASINT facilitates full understanding of operations. When utilized properly, MASINT is effective in foiling clandestine and deception methods executed by the enemy.

MASINT can identify air missiles and track submarines. It can also detect an unknown radio frequency, but this will need SIGINT in order to decipher any encrypted information. Nevertheless, MASINT makes it possible to collect the information relevant to the transmission, and not necessarily about the message itself.

With the knowledge of a weapon’s location, counter-intelligence measures can be formulated.

Here are some general instances when MASINT can be applied:

● Assessing battlefields
● Detecting strategic and tactical missiles
● Detecting and recognizing aircraft, ships, and submarines
● Detecting nuclear and chemical activities
● Detecting, locating, and identifying explosives

Even though MASINT may seem more strategic than tactical, it actually provides a more insightful approach to the situation when analyzed and disseminated correctly.

Integrating MASINT with other disciplines

There is no all-knowing intelligence discipline, no matter how much we want it. How does an omni-sensor sound—an all-seeing tool that saves valuable resources? Can you imagine how phenomenal it would be for military practice?

But no, there is no one discipline that is one-size-fits-all. We know that intelligence collection has reached its finest when all disciplines are utilized to arrive at the best decision.

To create a true omni-sensor, a multi-disciplinary approach to intelligence collection and analysis is crucial. When you integrate MASINT to HUMINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, and TRASHINT—you will arrive with accurate, insightful intelligence that aids in decision-making.