Have you ever wondered how the military can gather information, even top-secret ones, from other countries and use them for our nation’s defense? That’s because of cryptologic linguists.

What do cryptologic linguists do?

Cryptologic linguists, or crypto linguists, provide the military with information from foreign communications like news, radio transmissions, cell phones, even overheard street conversations. They do so by identifying and intercepting communications sent through magnetic waves using signals equipment. They transcribe and translate these messages so they can evaluate intentions, predict actions so they can act accordingly based on the information gathered. 

How do you become a cryptologic linguist?

Sgt. Miguel Iles, an Asia-Pacific cryptologic linguist with 3rd Radio Battalion, reads a traditional Chinese legend in his office on Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

Our nation’s defense in no small way relies on the information provided by cryptologic linguists. That is why the training to become one is pretty intense. If we can read the mail of a potential adversary we have quite an advantage over him. Additionally, the fear that we can read their communications can cause an adversary to go to extraordinary lengths to try and hide those intentions, greatly complicating their mission planning for operational security.  They might transmit five different mission plans to a unit, to try and conceal which is the actual mission and objectives.

Step 1: Applicants are screened thoroughly using a testing process to ensure that only the most qualified ones will get to the next step. One of them is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test which assesses skills and qualifications for a military career. They need to have the aptitude for learning other languages, be good at reading patterns, and be very much willing to learn. They should also have great technical skills as they will be using equipment to intercept signals, as mentioned earlier.  Crypto guys tend to be in the highest percentile scores on the ASVAB

Step 2: They will need to attend basic training and language school.

Step 3: Applicants will need to attend language training at Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California. The length of the training depends on the foreign language assigned to them. Aside from speaking and writing, the language, customs, and traditions are also taught to provide them with a deeper level of understanding. If the linguist applicant is already well-versed in the language before the training, they will skip this step and immediately jump to the next one.

Step 4: Advance individual training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. Here, they will be trained to detect, acquire, locate, identify, and exploit foreign communications. They also learn intelligence collections, management, and reporting techniques, so that they’ll know how to handle classified information properly.  This part is extremely important. Some of our biggest intelligence gains have come from adversaries who were sloppy in the way they guarded their own secrets and the reverse is true as well. 

Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. Photo from Center for Land Use Distribution website

Step 5: If the crypto linguist aspirants are able to pass the initial steps, they will be assigned their military units and intelligence agencies outside the military as detached personnel.  Cryptologic linguists may also be deployed anywhere on the globe, including assignment to combat units in the field.