June 16, 2015

A mysterious Tektron secure telephone

(Updated: March 17, 2017)

Recently, a mysterious telephone was offered for sale at eBay. The device was made by the little-known company Tektron Micro Electronics, Inc. from Hanover, Maryland, and seems to be a secure phone for military use.

Apart from the pictures shown below, nothing more is known about it, but maybe some readers of this weblog recognize the device and have some more information about its purpose and where it was used (see the update!)

A Tektron secure military telephone
(Photo via eBay - Click to enlarge)

The phone comes without a handset, but it has a display and a common 12-button key pad, with some additional special purpose buttons. According to the seller, all of them are made of some kind of rubbery material instead of hard plastic. The big round buttons reveal that this is a secure phone, capable encrypting the calls: a green button with a green light for Secure and a red button with a (probably) red light for Non-Secure:

Keypad of the Tektron telephone
(Photo via eBay - Click to enlarge)

It seems the small button with "2nd" can be used to select the functions which are marked in blue above the standard buttons. Most interesting are the FO (Flash Override) designation above the "3", the F (Flash) above the "6", the I (Immediate) above the "9" and the P (Priority) above the "#" button.

FO, F, I, and P designate the four levels of a system called Multilevel Precedence and Preemption (MLPP), which allows to make phone calls that get precedence over ones with a lower priority. Flash Override (FO) was designed to allow the US President and the National Command Authority to preempt any other traffic in the network in case of a national military emergency.

This precedence system only works on telephone networks that allow this special capability, like the AUTOVON network that was used by the US military (since 1982 replaced by the Defence Switched Network). One of the characteristics of the AUTOVON network was that most of its phones were equipped with a standardized keypad with four extra red buttons for the precedence levels:

The standard AUTOVON keypad
(Click to enlarge)

So apparently, the Tektron phone was intended for use on the military telephone network, but why it doesn't have the standard AUTOVON keypad is a mystery.

We also don't know when the phone was manufactured. The only indication is provided by the label on the back of the device. It says the model number is EXT-4Rx and has the serial number 271/4.0. The seller had a second device with serial number 111.

There is also a National or NATO Stock Number (NSN): 5810-01-357-8193. Looking up this number on a stock number website returns a "Date Established" of 1992. This indicates the phone must be somewhere from the 1990s, although the way this number is placed, without its own line, also looks like it could have been added later on:

Label of the Tektron telephone
(Photo via eBay - Click to enlarge)

It's not known where exactly this phone was used, which is an even bigger question because in the 1990s secure telephony for the US government and military had largely been standardized after the introduction of the STU-III family of secure voice products.

The STU-III standard was introduced by the NSA in 1987, and three manufacturers were allowed to produce secure telephones based on this standard:
- Motorola
- AT&T (later: Lucent Technologies > General Dynamics)
- RCA (later: General Electric > Lockheed Martin > L3-Communications)
Motorola and AT&T each made a few hundred thousand of these devices. Tektron is not known for having participated in the STU-III program.

Side view of the Tektron secure military telephone
(Photo via eBay - Click to enlarge)

The Tektron secure phone measures 7.75 inches (19,6 cm) wide, a little over 9 inches tall (22,8 cm) and 2 inches (5 cm) thick. The encryption function made it very heavy: it weighs about 5,5 pounds (2,5 kg), as the case is fully made from cast non-metallic metal, perhaps aluminum.

Such a metal encasing prevents electromagnetic radiation from being intercepted from the outside (TEMPEST). The STU-III, and the newer STE phones only have their bottom part out of metal, with the upper part out of plastic.

Meanwhile, a photo was found showing that the mysterious Tektron phone was actually used aboard the E-4B aircraft, which is a highly modified Boeing 747-200, officially known as the National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC). As such, the plane has robust and sophisticated communications equipment as well as the capability to be refueled in flight.

In the photo below, we see two Tektron phones aboard the E-4B on July 24, 2005, during a trip of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to Central Asia and Iraq:

Two Tektron telephones aboard the E-4B aircraft
(photo: Gerry J. Gilmore - click to enlarge)

As can be seen in the following video tour inside an E-4B aircraft, the Tektron phones were replaced by a modified smaller version of the Integrated Services Telephone (IST), made by Raytheon. These phones were seen on the aircraft already in 2008. Unlike the Tektron phone, the IST itself has no capability to encrypt the calls - that's done centralized at the local switch, in this case likely by a central network encryptor.

Currently, there are black telephone units with a large touch screen installed aboard the E-4B, as can be seen in pictures from inside the aircraft during defense secretary Ash Carter's trip to Japan on April 6, 2015. These phones could be custom-made by Telecore, Inc., a small company that also manufactures the IST-2 telephone for the secure defense network.


oldnuke said...

They went Chapter 11 in Jan 2012, so they weren't all that successful.

Anonymous said...

It's a secure desk phone. Likely went bankrupt because the military switched to VoIP like everyone else. Classified/secure VoIP communications are logically separated from the "unclassified" network. If you need a secure and unsecured desk phone, you'll have two on your desk.

Anonymous said...

Well, more likely the phone was for a "NATO friendly" country.
ITT Defense Communications ( Nutley NJ ), E-Systems (Richardson, TX),
were two (2) additional companies that made phones that did not use USG or NATO country algorithms/math-crypto. These companies directly competed with Technical Communications Corporation ( West Concord, MA) and Datotek ( Dallas, TX ) . These types of phones were designed for
sale to foreign governments. TCC had phones that worked similarly to STU-II and STU-III in protocols and key-exchange; so did Datotek.
In fact, Datotek had a non-development item product that worked at 56K--64K for situation room / executive suite use ( Generals / Admirals / PM / Presidents, and High Ministers of State.
/s/ Joe Tag.

liza said...

nice post

In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties