Military Book Reviews

Rise of the Mavericks

Rise of the Mavericks: The U.S. Air Force Security Service and the Cold War, 1948-1979 by Philip C. Shackelford, Naval Institute Press, April 15, 2023, 212 pages

Rise of the Mavericks traces the beginnings and subsequent development of the U.S. Air Force Security Service. Established in 1948 as part of the emerging U.S. national security apparatus, this communications intelligence organization was meant to place the fledgling U.S. Air Force on a competitive footing with its Army and Navy counterparts. As World War II ended and the Cold War began, Air Force leaders understood that an effective cryptologic capability would be crucial for maintaining and enhancing the Air Force as a strategic and decisive component of America‘s national defense. Successfully deploying air-atomic strategy in the event of a future war would require reliable information on the capabilities, intentions—and potential targets—of an opposing force, in particular the Soviet Union. Communications intelligence would be a critical source of this information, and Air Force leaders were adamant that their service not remain dependent on other service structures for this capability. The Air Force Security Service rose to the occasion, quickly establishing itself as one of the preeminent communications intelligence agencies in the United States. Rise of the Mavericks fills the gap in the military and intelligence history literature and further complicates the literature surrounding the history of the NSA, which too often ignores or hastily addresses the contributions and role of the service COMINT agencies during the early Cold War period. The book explains how Air Force Security Service personnel were viewed as mavericks by other U.S. military and government organizations. The airmen lived up to this characterization by creating and developing an independent communications intelligence capability while persistently resisting the controlling efforts of the Armed Forces Security Agency and the National Security Agency.

A historiographical gap in Cold War history has now been filled and advanced by Philip C. Shackleford’s forthcoming book entitled, Rise of the Mavericks: The U.S. Air Force Security Service and the Cold War, 1948-1979. Many of you reading this book, me included, may be asking, what in the world was the USAF Security Service (USAFSS)? As a 30-year USAF veteran, and former vice chairman of the board on the Cold War Museum (, I had not really heard of it! Shackleford began studying and writing about the topic of the USAFSS because his grandfather, Thomas W. Shackleford, served in the organization. Shackleford the younger is credibly poised to tell this story because of his master’s degrees in both history and library science!

In tracing the roots and origin of the USAFSS, it may be useful to work from present day, back. As the title indicates, the USAFSS was shuttered in 1979, yet its vestiges continued and exist today. We might recognize the organization’s parts and function within Air Forces Cyber and 16th Air Force, located at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. Their focus, today, is information warfare in the modern age, and includes the military mission sets integrating intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, cyber warfare, electromagnetic warfare, and information operations amongst a handful of others. One can make the intellectual leap, then, back in time from this current day mission set to the end of WWII where the USAFSS was born.

Out of WWII, and capitalizing upon the intelligence techniques and advances, the US was poised to institutionalize its national security system with the establishment of the National Security Act of 1947. One year later, the USAFSS was created as a communications intelligence adjunct to capitalize on what was learned during WWII as it would apply to the Cold War. Singularly focused on the Soviet Union during the bipolar world struggle, the fledgling US Air Force, also a product of the National Security Act of 1947, began its official life in competition with the US Navy over the resource battles that would ensue over the mission set the USAF would eventually inherit. Shackleford covers this topic in detail never before available nor described to the public. The USAF’s persuasion and argument-winning strategy to strap on the Security Service mission was borne from its air-atomic weapons systems and nascent, but powerful cryptologic capabilities that were the core of the USAFSS’s weapon quiver.

As USAFSS was evolving, other national security elements complementary to its mission were also created, like the National Security Agency, as a further hedge in the Cold War struggle. Shackleford spends part of his time honoring his grandfather by conveying stories of his USAFSS service, which is woven with the historical fabric of the USAFSS. The maverick descriptor in the title pays homage to the Air Force officers who helped carve the Service off from the Army through their savvy argumentation and logic of why America needed a separate and equal air arm on the same level as the Army and Navy. These disruptors, or mavericks, worked very hard to create separate and distinct mission sets from the Service brothers to not only receive their share of the budget, but to help ensure their institutional survival. Ultimately, the USAFSS became a steadfast part of winning the Cold War and spawning new and intelligent organizations to pick up its mantle and evolve capabilities being used today across the intelligence enterprise. Cold War buffs and historians alike will appreciate this refreshing look at history not previously told! 

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