“Our goal is not the victory of might but the vindication of right-not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this Hemisphere and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.” — JFK
Such was the goal of President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis on the eve of October 22, 1962 – “the vindication of right”. In the preceding months and years, signals intelligence — provided in large part by cryptologists of the Naval Security Group — revealed that the Soviet Union had been building up troops, aircraft, and air defense and missile sites in Cuba under the guise of self-defense. When intelligence indicated that the buildup was more than just defensive in nature, JFK put the Soviet Union on notice in front of a watching world. On the brink of thermonuclear war, the President of the United States initiated a quarantine in the waters off of Cuba to intercept, search, and turn back USSR cargo vessels destined for Cuban ports. Russia responded with rhetoric of open defiance. The days that followed would prove that their bark was bigger than their bite. As early as October 23rd, U.S. Navy listening posts and direction finding stations along the Atlantic periphery collected on, and geo-located, Soviet ship-ship and ship-shore communications, indicating that the Soviet vessels had stopped or reversed course prior to reaching the ring of surface ships forming the blockade. Communications intelligence collected by naval cryptologists also provided insight into Soviet and Cuban commanders’ intentions, force alert posture and levels, and previously unidentified Soviet submarine activity. Though tensions would remain high for some time, the potential for total war between the world’s two superpowers had been averted.
Fifty years ago, the short narrative above would have said nothing of the role of signals intelligence. Today, we know more. In 1998, 35 years after the crisis, the National Security Agency declassified many documents and reports that revealed the critical role that naval cryptology played not only in defusing the crisis, but in providing Battlespace Awareness to decision makers as early as 1960 and continuing on through the end of the crisis.
Fast-forward to present day — the Navy’s Strategy for Achieving Information Dominance 2013-2017 lists Battlespace Awareness as one of its three fundamental capabilities along with Assured Command and Control and Integrated Fires. As described in the strategy, Battlespace Awareness “is the traditional mission of the Information Dominance Corps and the constituent components of meteorology, oceanography, intelligence, cryptology, communications, networks, space, and electronic warfare.”
Though the Cold War would continue for nearly three more decades — Battlespace Awareness — providing commanders with persistent surveillance of the adversary’s activities, penetrating knowledge of the USSR’s capabilities and intentions, and expertise within the electromagnetic spectrum enabled those very commanders to make informed decisions ensuring that the war did not progress from cold to hot.
*In the coming days, I will be posting short vignettes and historical documents related to the signals intelligence and cryptologic efforts which provided Commanders with time-critical Battlespace Awareness — contributing significantly to the de-escalation of one of the potentially most dangerous stand-offs in history.
CDR David T. Spalding is a former Cryptologic Technician Interpretive. He was commissioned in 2004 as a Special Duty Officer Cryptology (Information Warfare/1810).
The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency – Matthew M. Aid
22 November 2020 at 12:59
I lived in FL at that time and remember it very well, I was 17 and thought I Ishtar be called up if we went to war.
22 November 2020 at 18:09
I was 17 and a senior in high school, and lived in Camden, NJ, right across the river from Philadelphia. Each morning when I awoke, I wondered if I would see an atomic bomb cloud rising above Phila. It was a very unique time.
23 November 2020 at 07:12
I was in TCOM at NSA. You wouldn’t believe our message traffic workload.