Living In Zulu Time - Why GMT Watches Are Important to Special Operations & Intelligence Officers

Living In Zulu Time - Why GMT Watches Are Important to Special Operations & Intelligence Officers

Tracking Multiple Time Zones In Austere Circumstances

By J.R. Seeger, former CIA SIS

Greenwich Mean Time or “GMT” is an internationally accepted timing standard by which all other time zones are defined. A GMT watch tracks one or two additional time zones by way of a fourth hand, a bezel or chapter ring with 24-hour markings, or some combination of the two. Revered by enthusiasts for invoking a sense of nostalgia, GMT watches serve as a throwback to the golden age of travel before cell phones. But for those at the tip of the spear living in Zulu Time, the GMT has a more practical function.

Living In Zulu Time

While there were earlier attempts at tracking multiple timezones, like the watches US Navy officer Philip Van Horn Weems developed with Longines in the ‘20s, GMT watches as we know them today took off in the 1950s, first with the Glycine Airman in 1953 and followed by the Rolex GMT-Master in 1954. Robust and relatively attainable at the time, this burgeoning category of watches provided the ability to ascertain the time of day in two or even three time zones around the globe at a glance.

tudor black bay gmt rolex gmt master pepsi bezel
The Tudor Black Bay GMT (Photo Credit: James Rupley) 

For pilots or the then-novel community of international business travelers, watches like the GMT-Master were exceptionally helpful. But why are GMT watches important to the world of Watches of Espionage?

In The Shadow World - Timing Is Everything

We regularly point out that time is an essential factor in both espionage and special operations, sometimes acting as the difference between life and death if a case officer or agent is not at a given meeting place precisely on time. Lingering on “the X” invites scrutiny and, in the shadowy world of espionage, scrutiny can mean arrest, prison, or even execution. Special operations missions are also exceptionally choreographed, meaning every second counts when a team is linking up on the ground, at sea, or in the air. And this is where a GMT watch serves as an essential piece of kit.

Billy Waugh cia operator special forces rolex gmt master watch
Rolex GMT Master Reference 1675 on Billy Waugh’s wrist in retirement. Waugh was a legendary Special Forces operator and CIA contractor. (Photo Credit, Recoil Magazine and Tom Marshall)

This level of choreography across assets often involves traveling across multiple time zones. Coordinating a multifaceted mission based on various local timing standards invites uncertainty and risk, with the entire concept of local time potentially meaning different things to different people for any number of different units or assets involved. This is why case officers and special ops personnel live in what is known as Zulu Time. Being on Zulu Time ensures everyone is on time and minimizes the risk of operations failing due to timing errors.

Utilized by the military, various government organizations, and the world of aviation, Zulu Time is so named for the Z timezone in the ACP 121 military timing standard of 25 letter-designated zones, with each zone referring to a longitudinal swath of the Earth. As you may have surmised, the Z, pronounced “Zulu” in NATO’s phonetic alphabet, indicates Greenwich Mean Time or GMT, which is also often referred to as UTC or Coordinated Universal Time. If everyone involved in a given mission is working in Zulu Time, no matter where they are in the world, everyone is on the same page. If your watch happens to display Zulu Time in addition to local time, all the better.

bulova accutron astronaut vintage advertisement ad
Vintage Bulova advertisement for the Accutron Astronaut.

The 1960s & 1970s: Traveling At The Edge Of Space In Zulu Time

The most celebrated story in the history of GMT watches is the legendary affiliation between Pan American Airlines, the Boeing 707, and the aforementioned GMT-Master. While the pages of that story are well-worn, several other GMT watches deserve their place in history especially when being viewed through the lens of our community.

In the late 1950s, the CIA and Lockheed’s Skunk Works were working on the Archangel program to produce a manned, aerial reconnaissance aircraft. That program produced the A-12, an aircraft that would fly at the edge of space at speeds greater than 2000 mph. Given the incredible speed, every piece of the aircraft, the cameras, the film, and even the pressure suits for the pilots had to be redesigned to handle the rigors of the mission. 

Lockheed A-12 aircraft airplane spy plane
Lockheed’s A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft 

Neither Lockheed nor the CIA were certain what would happen to a standard mechanical watch at the edge of space with the incredible g-forces caused by accelerating to such high speeds. At the same time, the Agency needed their pilots to have a watch that would track both local time at their base as well as Zulu Time, the basis for all of their communications.

vintage bulova accutron astronaut spyplane lockheed a-12 gmt watch
W.O.E.s Personal Vintage Bulova, Accutron (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

Rather than a Glycine or a Rolex GMT-Master, both of which were popular with more conventional pilots of the day, early A-12 pilots were issued a Bulova Accutron Astronaut equipped with a GMT-hand as well as a friction-fit 24-hour bezel. At the A-12’s incredible speeds, a pilot traveled through various time zones in minutes, making the ability to easily track Zulu Time with their watch essential for coordinating and communicating with ground crews and higher levels of operational oversight.

Four Star General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Stormin' Norman GMT watch seiko rolex gmt master rolex pepsi

1990-1991: Fighting A War In Two Time Zones

In addition to the necessity of Zulu Time, there are examples of managing two critical time zones with two separate watches. Nearly every photo of General Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) during the First Gulf War, shows the general wearing two watches. In a previous Dispatch, Stormin’ Norman explained that he needed to track the time in both Saudi Arabia and Washington, DC, balancing the needs of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the President, all of whom were operating on Eastern Standard Time (EST), with troops on the ground operating on Arabian Standard Time (AST). 

Norman Schwarzkopf rolex gmt master seiko pepsi bezel gmt watch

Why the general opted for a pair of Seiko watches as opposed to any number of GMT watches available in the early 1990s is anyone’s guess, but it’s possible the general simply found two watches to be the easier, or perhaps more attainable, option. 

CIA intelligence officers special operations afghanistan iraq global war on terror
CIA’s Team Alpha prior to Insertion into Afghanistan. Seeger Back Row, Third From Left. (Photo Credit: CIA)

2001: The Global War On Terror

Fast forward to 2001 and post-9/11 conflicts in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. When I deployed to Afghanistan as a team leader of one of the CIA’s first teams to enter the country, the most common watches on the wrists of most Special Forces operators and specifically on my team were plastic digital watches from brands like G-Shock and Timex. While not often considered among the GMT category, these straightforward digital tool watches (D.T.W.) displayed a single time zone with another one available at the push of a button. What was the second time zone? Zulu Time or UTC was the most common option. Given the amount of military and government assets in the country at the time, Zulu Time was essential for coordinating complex operations in theater.

digital tool watches casio f91w special operations cia

When a Special Forces ODA in Afghanistan requested logistics support from TF Dagger at Karshi-Khanabad airfield in Southern Uzbekistan (with a half-hour time difference from Afghanistan) or close air support aka “steel on target” from a USAF aircraft based outside the theater or a US Navy fast mover from a carrier battle group in the Arabian Sea, all of the players could be working off of the same time “hack.” Similarly, when my team communicated with CIA headquarters, our satellite communication – whether data or voice – was keyed to Zulu Time so that all of the participants knew when that vital communication would take place.

Rolex gmt master II vintage pepsi bezel jubilee bracelet cia
A trio of Rolex GMT Master II models. (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

Today: An Abundance Of Choices

While digital watches are exceptionally robust and in many cases offer convenient features such as solar charging, many do not provide an at-a-glance view of two time zones. Looking to the world of analog quartz and mechanical timekeeping, there are a number of options available today for GMT enthusiasts whether managing Zulu Time is at the top of your list of priorities or not. Starting with the most basic, certain watches including the Benrus Type I and II of the 1970s utilized a simple time-only movement and display in conjunction with a rotating bezel with 12-hour markings. By rotating the bezel to reflect a given time difference, an operator could relatively easily track another timezone including Zulu Time.

vintage benrus type I 1 dive watch navy seals special forces watch
Using a time-only caliber, the Mil-Spec Benrus Type I provided a measure of GMT functionality using nothing more than a rotating 12-hour bezel. (Photo Credit: Analog Shift)

By a wide margin, the most common format for an analog GMT leans into a fourth hand used in coordination with either a chapter ring or bezel equipped with 24-hour markings. In many ways cemented by the GMT-Master and its modern descendant the GMT-Master II, which is still making its way beyond the boundaries of the Earth’s atmosphere on the wrist of a certain Saudi astronaut, the format can now be found in both quartz and automatic watches at a wide variety of price points.
Though technology has drastically improved our operational capabilities when working across time zones, a straightforward and robust GMT watch still serves as a useful tool in any modern operator or case officer’s arsenal. No matter where they are based, and no matter what GMT watch they might use, today’s members of the WOE community will continue to live in Zulu Time.


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This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.


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About The Author: J.R. Seeger served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and as a CIA officer for a total of 27 years of federal service. He served 17 years in multiple field assignments focused on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and irregular warfare.  During his final, 3-year assignment in CIA Headquarters, he first served as a chief of operations for a geographic division in the Directorate of Operations and then served as a deputy director and deputy chief of the CIA Counterterrorism Center.

His seven-part MIKE4 series is about a family who have served in the special operations and intelligence community from World War II to the present.


One would think the US Military has a straightforward approach to its time zone names, however, I found them to be anything but.

Z “Zulu” is in the middle (London). A “Alfa” through M “Mike” goes forward (toward Asia) from Z. N “November” to Y “Yankee” goes backward (right to left) from Z. Japan is in the “India” time zone. India isn’t in a time zone because it’s 30 minutes between UTC+5 and UTC+6. Sydney is in the “Lima” time zone. Lima is in the “Romeo” time zone. Halifax is in the “Quebec” time zone. Quebec is in the “Romeo” time zone.

Putting it all together, from Alaska to New Zealand:

Maybe someone else can find logic in this?


This is exactly what keeps me coming back to WoE every week. Well done.


Great article as usual.

I’m currently looking to celebrate a recent promotion with another GMT watch. Tudor Black Bay Pro or Rolex Explorer 2.

Tudor doesn’t have a white face, but the “Shield protects the Crown” massively appeals to me as a Hatchet Wielding Enlisted Deviant.


Article was so interesting I had to read twice.

Basilio Reyes

Another great Dispatch. I always appreciate JR’s writing and perspective.


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