During this week of celebrating our heritage, we would be remiss to not provide a brief history of the The Naval Security Group Reserve (NSGR), which operated from 1945-2005.
Most of the material for this post can be found in the free book SILENT WARRIORS: The Naval Security Group Reserve, 1945-2005, by Rear Admiral William D. Masters Jr., USNR (Ret.), former Deputy Commander, Naval Security Group Command. We encourage you to learn more about the NSGR’s history by delving into Admiral Masters’ superb treatment of the subject.
The Early Years (1945-1955)
Nearing the end of World War II, the Commander of OP-20-G, Captain Joseph N. Wenger, decided it was time to develop a formal reserve program for cryptology. His interest was based in part on the success of reservists who contributed to codebreaking efforts during the major part of the war. The primary objective, however, was to retain top codebreaking talent in the Navy Reserve. Should a surge in Naval Cryptologic capabilities be required, this pool of ready and willing talent could be called upon at a moment’s notice.
Recruiting into the newly formed reserve cryptology program looked nothing like it does today. New recruits generally found their way to the program by knowing a drilling reserve cryptologist. This was a somewhat haphazard way to find new members, but “by mid-1948 the [Communications Supplementary Activities] (CSA) Reserve had eighty units across the United States, including several in Hawaii, with 2,000 sailors.” The CSA was the precursor to the NSG.
During the Korean War, many reserve cryptologists were mobilized to support the war effort. In fact, a good number of NSGR units were depleted of drilling reservists and as such had to shut down. “In mid-1950 the Navy’s Organized Reserve consisted of 25,000 officers and 153,000 enlisted sailors; within a year, the Navy had recalled 182,000 reservists, including some inactive members. Essentially the entire NSG Reserve was recalled, and across the country cryptologic units disappeared into the active Navy.”
The Height of the Cold War (1955-1965)
The period of NSGR’s history post Korean War saw a return to manning levels and force strength which mirrored that leading up to the war. Unfortunately, this period also saw its greatest drop in retention. This was due in part to many NSGR units not having sufficient “live” operational missions to conduct. Much of a drilling cryptologist’s duty days were spent attending to administrative tasks, recruiting, and general training and readiness goals. Indeed a reservist’s primary role in life is to be mobilization ready. But with a highly technical and skilled workforce like reserve cryptologists, the need to contribute to real operational missions, during drill periods, was ever present and an integral part of their DNA. And as mission dried up, so did retention.
A Changing Navy — and Nation (1965-1975)
The non-existent operational mission for the NSGR was a very real problem. But it was due in large part to the Navy Reserve’s lack of proper equipment, training and access to secure locations (known as a Special Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF) in which to conduct mission, not to mention the “part time” nature of reserve cryptologists. Traditional signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations were not conducive to drilling reserve units. However communications security (COMSEC) seemed to be a mission which showed promise of being a NSGR supported mission.
“Vietnam had highlighted glaring COMSEC problems in all the armed services, so the program’s effort to increase COMSEC effectiveness for the active Navy was well timed. Some 1966 experiments conducted by several NSGR units to assess the possibilities offered by the COMSEC monitoring mission led to formal plans of action.”
The COMSEC mission provided a much needed increase in enthusiasm across the NSGR. Reserve cryptologists were happy to participate in and contribute to a real mission. But the prized (and some would argue “sexier”) mission of SIGINT seemed out of reach for the NSGR. Initially there were many things (lack of clearances, access to SCIFs, etc.) which kept reservists from conducting SIGINT missions, “but beginning in the early 1970s select NSGR units began collecting and analyzing SIGINT against defined foreign targets, as directed by national-level intelligence authorities.” This proof-of-concept effort would lead to broader adoption and acceptance of NSGR units conducting SIGINT missions.
From Malaise to Modernization (1975-1985)
Budget cuts and force draw-downs saw the closure of NSGR units, as well as other Navy Reserve facilities. As can be imagined, this hurt morale and retention of reserve cryptologists. But much of the draw-down was halted when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, which contributed to continuation of NSGR units and mission. “Having ‘live’ missions, both COMSEC and SPECOPS, to perform boosted morale, which was otherwise low during a period in which the entire Naval Reserve felt unappreciated.” Note that SPECOPS, or special operations, was a term used by reservists to identify SIGINT.
The Navy’s cryptology dominance in the air, surface and subsurface domains made it the preeminent cryptologic service above others. It was only natural that sister-service reserve cryptologic elemets, primarily the Army and Air Force, were drawn to NSGR units as their own missions dwindled and were combined together. This had added benefit to reserve cryptology. NSGR units had to make-due with the resources they had on hand. In order to increase access to resources and capacity, many NSGR units began to partner with these sister-service cryptologic elements, thus increasing overall effectiveness of reserve cryptology.
Also, during this time, the first reserve cryptologist was appointed an admiral. Rear Admiral Nelson O. Heyer became NSG’s Assistant for Reserve Plans and Readiness.
Cold War Victory and Its Aftermath (1985- 1995)
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1980s would have an impact on reserve cryptology. Desert Storm seemed like an opportunity for NSGR to shine. While reserve cryptologists were mobilized and participated in the effort, NSGR as a whole didn’t play much of a role unfortunately. This was an indication that a refocusing and retooling of the NSGR would need to happen, but it would take time to achieve.
“The identical challenge stood before the entire Naval Reserve. The early 1990s, with their vaunted ‘peace dividend,’ saw cutbacks in reserve funding, units, and missions reminiscent of the post Vietnam era. Again long-serving NR sailors were informed they no longer had pay billets, sometimes without explanation; again SELRES personnel faced an uncertain future.”
Morale within the reserve cryptology ranks worsened as SIGINT missions dried up. The leadership in the NSGR had to make tough decisions in order to weather the coming storm. “More sailors left the program than stayed behind, and not all separations were voluntary. Numerous units that had served for more than forty years, after being reconstituted after the Korean War, were decommissioned. NSGR’s footprint, which had once encompassed over a hundred units in nearly forty states, was reduced to a shadow of that.”
Renewal and Transformation (1995-2005)
A new way of doing business was on the rise. The DoD was keen on developing a new model for how Reserve Component (RC) intelligence and cryptologic units conducted operations. “The new DoD plan, promulgated in January 1995, mandated that RC intelligence personnel — 20,000 in all — begin supporting national-level agencies as their primary mission.” RC intelligence units began to receive updates in facilities, connectivity, training, tools, and access to national intelligence agencies. This then lead to increased recruiting numbers and an emphasis on retaining highly trained reserve sailors.
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 prompted many reserve cryptologists to volunteer and serve in this desperate time of need. “Over 300 NSGR sailors — one-third of the program — were mobilized after 9/11, nearly all of them volunteers.” The groundwork laid by prior NSGR members allowed the reserve cryptologists of the 2000s to stand up and deploy around the world to help defend this Nation and bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice.
Finally, the Naval Security Group was decommissioned in 2005 and its units realigned “under the Information Operations Directorate of the Naval Network Warfare Command, headquartered in Norfolk, VA. NSGR became an integral component of this new organization.” This move was a seminal moment in Naval Cryptology. Our community was finally recognized as a true war-fighting community as opposed to a supporting community.
Reserve Cryptologic Technicians and reserve Information Warfare Officers serve at every capacity in the feet: Air, Surface, Subsurface and Naval Special Warfare. We spend countless hours conducting operations and training to keep ready for deployment worldwide at a moment’s notice. The Navy Reserve cryptologists who came before us paved our way forward and we are eternally grateful to them. We hope this post will whet your appetite to learn more about the history of the NSGR. Please check out Admiral Masters’ book for a more detailed treatment of this topic.