At the onset of the Cold War few USN ships had built-in cryptologic capability. Although the Navy’s cryptologic efforts contributed significantly to the successful conclusion of World War II, SIGINT remained a highly secret business, conducted for the most part from shore locations throughout the world.
As the Cold War progressed, new adversaries emerged and some previously used shore sites, such as those in China, were forced to close as politics changed. Increasing use of higher frequencies (VHF/UHF) and developments in radar technology mandated development of closer-in intercept capabilities. This was a mission tailor-made for the Navy, who already had a seaborne and airborne maritime patrol capability.
Specially equipped maritime patrol aircraft provided quick response to collection requirements, but could only remain on station a short period, limited by fuel. For extended coverage off of a target nation’s coast, a Navy destroyer was ideal. A single destroyer could linger off the coast of an adversary for days, operating under the guise of freedom of navigation of international waters. Problem was, no destroyers had the dedicated space necessary to handle a Naval Security Group team, which had to be segregated to meet security requirements. The solution – the QUIC van.
The QUIC (for Quick Intercept Capability) van was developed from a standard M109 series military equipment van, originally designed to fit on a military 2.5 ton truck (commonly known as a deuce and a half, or 6×6). The van’s outer dimensions were roughly 12 feet long, 8 feet wide, and just short of 7 feet high, and the inside dimensions were even tighter, since the boxes were insulated to provide some temperature control. The vans had no windows, and were slightly reinforced with lifting points installed at the top corners to facilitate installation and removal by a pierside crane. Typically the vans were installed amidships somewhere close to the signal bridge. The location was determined by two factors – a large enough spot to put the van, and proximity to external connections, including power, antennas, and sound-powered phone connection to CIC. Once craned on board, the van was held in place with tie downs, usually pad-eyes welded to the deck (not always popular with the CO or deck force).
Internally the vans were very efficiently designed, with up to three Morse intercept positions (2 R-390A per position); a VHF intercept position (2 R-1279 VHF receivers, R-1283 UHF receiver, panoramic indicator, digital readout, and tape recorder); communications equipment including KWR-37, KG-14, KW-7, KY-8, two RO teletype printers, a KSR teletype for preparing message traffic, R-1051 receiver, and a transmitter keying box (connected to one of the ship’s transmitters). In addition a small desk was available, used primarily by the Leading R-brancher (LRB) who served as analyst and reporter.
During the prime period of QUIC van use (1960s-1970s), a typical NSG detachment consisted of 14-16 members, led by an officer-in-charge (OIC), often a junior unrestricted line officer (1100/1105). A team of that size was necessary to man the positions port and starboard (6 CTR, 3 positions), together with one or two linguists (CTI), 2-3 communicators (CTO), the LRB, and a maintenance technician (CTM). Some detachments had a leading Chief as well. Unlike SupRads of that era, there was no extra space for off-duty team members to hang out; in fact there wasn’t sufficient space for the entire watch section to fit in. As a CTI2 assigned to a Quic van on the USS England in 1972, I stood a good portion of my watch outside the van, only called inside when air activity was detected by one of the CTRs.
One of the most challenging Quic van positions was that of the CTM. Typically filled by a single CTM3/CTM2 on his first enlistment, the mat man needed familiarity with 15-20 different pieces of equipment – receivers, crypto gear, teletype equipment, and auxiliary equipment such as tape recorders, typewriters and air conditioners. In addition to being a CTM, he also worked with ship’s interior communications technicians (IC) and electricians (EM) to ensure van connectivity. Some assistance could also be provided by ship’s Radiomen (RM) and Electronics Technicians (ET), but in the end the repairs fell onto the shoulders of the mat man, since those other ratings were not cleared for van operations.
In most cases the OIC spent little time inside the van. As the primary interface between the detachment and the ship, the det officer typically was in CIC on the receiving end of a sound-powered phone, receiving input from the LRB and providing the same to the CIC crew. Few if any watch standers in CIC were cleared for SI, but the information provided was generally reliable and was taken at face value without questions regarding the source. It came from the “Spooks” and that was good enough. Operations within the van were left to a cadre of junior enlisted personnel, most on their first enlistment. The enlisted complement of NSG Det on the USS Maddox during the 1964 GOT incident only had one senior petty officer, a CTO1. The remainder were E-5 and below, no leading Chief was assigned. Their performance under fire is a sterling testament to the dedication and professionalism of NSG direct support personnel, who weren’t above having fun, but knew when to get serious about work as well.
Sometime in the mid-1970s, after Vietnam, the NSG revisited QUIC vans. The Pacific vans (those prepositioned in Subic and Yokosuka) had seen extensive service during the conflict, since they were required for both the Coontz and Leahy class DLGs when assigned to PIRAZ or North SAR in the Gulf of Tonkin. A slightly larger van called the OICS (Operational Intelligence Collection System) van was developed to replace the QUIC van. Given the JAN equipment designator AN/SSQ-70, the OICS van was a bit more spacious and had some self-contained antennas.
Van usage diminished with the introduction of CLASSIC OUTBOARD to the fleet. A permanent fixture of nearly half of the CGs and Spruance DDs, Outboard provided the fleet with a full-time cryptologic capability, with NSG personnel assigned PCS as regular members of the crew. Although the OICS vans were still used, their deployment was largely limited to ships of the amphibious force assigned to special operations. Somewhere along the way the original QUIC vans were stripped and probably sold for scrap, and today only their memory remains. Anyone who had to work in one probably won’t forget them!
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN, Ret