Ships Designed for Intelligence Collection

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Ships Designed for Intelligence Collection


The concept of using ships as modern intelligence-gathering platforms evolved, along with larger modern ideas of intelligence operations in general, from World War II. The Cold War saw the deployment, on both the Soviet and American sides, of ships tasked with gathering communications and electronic intelligence. Some of these were disguised as fishing vessels, a practice common on the Soviet side, while the United States favored vessels operating under the guise of research craft. During the 1960s, United States ships designed for intelligence collection figured in a number of unfortunate incidents that contributed to the end of the seaborne passive electronic intelligence (ELINT) program.

The Soviet Union. Due to their relative lack of electronic listening posts overseasin comparison to the Americans, who possessed signals intelligence (SIGINT) facilities throughout the worldthe Soviets initially took the lead in the use of ships to gather intelligence. From the 1950s, they began using what came to be their preferred intelligence-gathering craft, a fishing trawler. The design of the trawler, which was made to store many days' catch in insulated compartments, made it ideal for extensive activities below deck.

As the Cold War continued, the Soviets expanded and improved their intelligence-collection ships, known to U.S. intelligence as AGIs, the AG being code for "miscellaneous auxiliary" and the I a designator of enemy craft. Later models were designed and built specifically to serve as collection platforms. Eventually they became large enough to include on-board intelligence processing facilities, greatly improving the speed with which raw data became usable intelligence for Soviet operatives.

During the Vietnam War, a pair of Soviet AGIs, one near Guam and the other in Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin, kept a close watch on U.S. forces, and in some cases may have provided Hanoi with advance notice of U.S. airstrikes. Near the end of the Cold War, the Soviets had a fleet of about five dozen AGIs dispatched throughout the globe. A particular area of interest lay just to the east of Florida, in international waters and close to friendly ports in Cuba, from which Soviet AGIs could monitor activities at U.S. naval bases in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

The United States. Among the few places where the United States, like the Soviet Union, lacked sufficient electronic listening posts were South America and Africa, to which the first U.S. spy ships were deployed in the early 1960s. Most such craft were cargo ships from World War II, converted by the National Security Agency (NSA) into craft for gathering SIGINT, particularly ELINT. Ships in this first phase of the U.S. maritime intelligence-gathering effort were designated T-AG, or civilian miscellaneous auxiliary craft.

Simultaneous with the T-AG phase was that of AGTR, or technical research craft. The U.S. Navy and Marines, in collaboration with NSA, operated these craft, which NSA had also converted from war-era cargo ships that had been converted. The first AGTR, Oxford, provided information on movement of Soviet arms into Cuba in the build-up toward the missile crisis of 1962.

ELINT ships in history. Of the five AGTR craft, the best was the Liberty, which in June 1967 was off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. During the Six-Day War, Israeli air and naval craft, mistaking it for an enemy ship, attacked and sank it, killing 34 men and wounding 171 more. Israel later apologized and paid damages to the families of those killed. A dozen studies by U.S. and Israeli authorities each concluded that the regrettable incident was simply a result of confusion in the midst of heavy fighting.

Two other intelligence-gathering craft also figured in well-known events. One of these was the destroyer Maddox, part of an ELINT-gathering mission known as DESOTO, conducted in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. (The Maddox, operating openly as a naval vessel, was not part of the AG series.) After North Vietnamese gunboats fired on it on August 4, Congress hastily passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which greatly increased the scope of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In the meantime, the Navy and NSA, taking a page from the Soviets' book, developed the AGER (environmental research) series, using trawler-based designs for craft smaller than AGTRs. The second of three AGER craft was the Pueblo, captured by the North Koreans in January 1968. The Pueblo incident, coming as it did on the heels of the Liberty tragedy, brought an end to the large-scale U.S. deployment of maritime intelligence-gathering ships equipped with passive ELINT capabilities.



Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets: U.S. Naval Intelligence Operations in the Pacific During World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979.

Packard, Wyman H. A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1996.

Parker, James E. Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. New York: Random House, 1998.

Tourison, Sedgwick D. Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.


NMIC (National Maritime Intelligence Center)Pueblo Incident
SIGINT (Signals intelligence)
Undersea Espionage: Nuclear vs. Fast Attack Subs
USS Liberty
Vietnam War

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Ships Designed for Intelligence Collection

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