Learn About Being a Marine Cryptologic Linguist

Tapping phones and computers isn't just for the National Security Agency. Every military branch has its fingers in the signals intelligence (SIGINT) game for the sake of protecting troops and winning battles, and the Marine Corps is no different.

But it's more difficult to exploit intercepted intelligence when you're targeting foreign enemies instead of English-speaking citizens, which is why the Corps seeks out career-minded applicants with skill or aptitude in key foreign languages to join the cryptologic linguist military occupational specialty (MOS).

Duties and Responsibilities

The Marine Corps MOS Manual begins summarizing cryptologic linguists as Marines that "monitor, transcribe, and translate intercepted target communications," then analyze those communications and find ways to use it on the battlefield. Although everything after that sounds like it was written for a graduate student in military jargon, it gets the basic point across: Cryptologic Linguists intercept any kind of information the enemy may be sending through electromagnetic waves (such as radio or cell phone transmissions), translate it, and figure out how the troops can use it to fight a smarter battle.​

Notice this intelligence-centered job contrasts with the mission of Army interpreters, who generally spend more time on the ground facilitating two-way communications between the troops and the local populace.

Obviously, it would take forever to train one Marine to be able to translate every language he or she might run across, so the job is actually divided into four MOS's that cover different regions:

  • MOS 2671, Middle East Cryptologic Linguist, covers proficiency in languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Somali.
  • MOS 2673, Asia-Pacific Cryptologic Linguist, includes those who can understand Cambodian, Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin), Japanese, and Korean.
  • MOS 2674, European Cryptologic Linguist, involves languages such as Spanish, French, German, and Haitian-Creole.
  • MOS 2676, Central Asian Cryptologic Linguist, translates Persian (Afghan or Farsi), Czech, Hungarian, Russian, and many other languages.

Military Requirements

As always, intelligence is one of those career fields that require utmost loyalty. As a result, the Marine Corps will only accept US citizens as potential cryptologic linguists. In addition, a single scope background check (think credit checks, listing all friends, family, and past addresses, and filling out an uncomfortable amount of paperwork) must determine any candidate eligible for a secret or top secret security clearance.

As for actual skills – because not everyone who is trustworthy is necessarily capable, and vice-versa -- candidates must begin, like all others, by taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). A general technical score of at least 105 is necessary to prove you're ready for the academic and intellectual rigors involved in a cryptologic linguist's training and daily life.

Obviously, foreign language skills are also necessary. Candidates must take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) and score at least 110 for whichever language they are destined to work with, showing sufficient potential to become fluent with further training.

Alternately, a recruit might skip the DLAB by taking the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and proving themselves fluent in listening and reading.

Education

Although surviving the legendary wrath of the drill instructors at Marine Corps recruit training is considered by many to be the toughest part of becoming a Marine, don't underestimate the very different but formidable challenge of cryptologic linguist training. According to Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 2-22, Signals Intelligence (PDF file), "[t]he cryptologic linguist has the longest initial training track of any ground MOS." Cerebral stamina is required.

Depending on how a Marine qualifies for the language requirement of the MOS, training may start less James Bond and more Jack Ryan (the original one, before we started pretending he was a secret agent instead of just an analyst.) It may take up to nine months at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, to become fluent enough to progress to the next phase of training.

That next phase finds trainees attached to the Marine Corps Detachment at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Training there is no longer language specific, but Marines are expected to learn "common cryptologic critical tasks performed at the national, operational and tactical levels" and adapt those skills to working in their target language.