Moving the Navy into the Information Age

By Commander Michael S. Loescher, U.S. Navy

In addition, the Navy understands that the future battlefield is threatened by both carbon-based and silicon-based foes. It is beginning to master information, acquiring a deep understanding of how it changes organizations and command structures; how it leverages combat power; how to buy it; and how to defend against it. Information has changed the nature of wealth and power, and like the combustion engine before it, it is changing war. Wealth no longer flows through straits; it flows at the speed of light through optic cable. Power is shared among nation-states, nongovernmental organizations, transnational corporations, global criminal elements, religious groups, and other human enterprises.

The Navy's transformation is success of the highest order. Turning from an Industrial Age hierarchy to an effective and self-adapting force, it has freed the president, the nation, and the world from the dangerous and limiting doctrines of 20th-century warfare. In particular, the use of weapons of mass destruction by civilized nations has ended: mutually assured destruction as a legitimate doctrine is dead. The post-Vietnam doctrine—take everything you have into the battle every time—no longer is necessary, even as, from a political perspective, it has never been desirable. No president can exercise military power in a complex world if everything including the kitchen sink has to go into the field.

At the close of the century, the president has more, and less violent, options to manage a complex world than military planners ever could have imagined. The Navy has not just reinvented itself; it has reinvented war.

Yet, amid all this transformation, there are two fascinating paradoxes:

  • The Navy did all this during a prolonged decline in defense spending, while building down from a 600-ship service to one half that size.
  • The Navy reinvented itself despite itself—this revolution was not planned. Almost nothing the Navy said it was going to do in its hundreds of master plans over the decade is reflected in its current posture.

Something very interesting is happening here. The Navy did not build down of its own accord. It did not go joint of its own accord. In fact, the Navy did not bring in a single information-system program—the enablers of an information-based organization—on time, on specification, or at budgeted cost. At first blush, it might appear that the Navy was forced into massive change from the outside. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The revolution occurred almost entirely within the service—but not through the formal planning process. Instead, it was a complicated outgrowth of operational and political necessity and the remarkable intellectual depth within the service. The Navy owes its remarkable success not to formal organizational staffing, but to the devotion of thousands of petty officers who made do with little over an entire generation, and to a number of visionary officers, and a couple of downright geniuses, who pushed, prodded, and pulled the naval organization forward.

The Navy now is on the verge of moving out at light speed. Fifteen years of individual effort has paid off, and some of the Navy's principal organizations are learning how to institutionalize innovation in information technology. In particular, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SpaWar) has reinvented itself as a remarkably capable planner, turning its many stovepiped programs of the early 1980s into an institutionalized methodology for creativity. Nowhere in government are there better programs than the Joint Maritime Command and Control System and the Joint Maritime Communications Strategy.

The reason the Navy has not executed a single information-technology program on time, on cost, or on specification is that it pulled money out of the many visible programs to innovate under the rubric of the investment strategies cited above. The result was to put much more equipment in the fleet while leaving the resulting hollow program lines as fiscal placeholders. At the same time, in its move to San Diego two years ago, SpaWar downsized its workforce dramatically, and brought a new generation of talent on board. Its marriage with Pacific Fleet's IT-21 initiative has completed an acquisition revolution that paralleled the oft-touted revolution in military affairs.

But the Navy still is bogged down with unwieldy organizations that have not made the transition. The service simply cannot afford to carry those inefficiencies for the next 15 years as it has in the past 15. Like corporations, militaries will have to reorganize along the flattened, interactive models that information technology makes possible—not consolidation, but reengineering infrastructure to empower its thinkers. For an organization than spends a vast amount of treasure defending the freedom of the nation and its allies and is the principal strategic instrument of power in the world, leaving its future to chance is unacceptable. We must expect great change to continue; to assume that the Navy of tomorrow will be like the Navy of today is to make the same mistake of the past decade. In this world, a master plan is about as much use as a Model T assembly line. We don't need master plans; they are a resource-wasting illusion of order in an inherently chaotic world.

What we need is to foster what did work: to institutionalize innovation and to proliferate intellectual capital until both are ubiquitous within the service. To do that, we will have to change the way we grow our people, the way we think about operations, and the way we husband our resources.


The Navy has been telling itself for decades—rightly—that people make the difference. This is demonstrable fact in the information age. California's silicon valley is built on intellectual capital. The U.S. economic turnaround in this decade is not about commodities but about information-based services. All around us, businesses are organizing on networked models that make organization charts, like master plans, obsolete. This kind of flexibility is crucial in a world in which time and space are compressed.

The Navy's existing outmoded community system forces the service to make progress uphill—against disincentives, rather than putting in place incentives to grow such capital. Not a few of those men and women who made a difference in the past several decades sacrificed their careers in doing so. The result for the Navy is that the central benefits of information technology—synergism and group creativity—are far less than they could be. Plainly put, we are doing it the hard way and paying an unnecessarily high tail-to-tooth cost for doing so.

Within the unrestricted line communities, for example, operations still are stovepiped by communities and platforms. It is difficult to find officers more qualified to command in the information age than submariners. War now occurs in seven dimensions: subsurface, surface, land, air, space, cyberspace, and the spectrum. Much of battle may occur beyond the human senses, with critical actions in space 23,000 miles away from actions on land, or in cyberspace, where distance has no meaning. Who better to appreciate a multidimensional world seen only through surrogate sensors than an under-the-ice driver? Still, the future of submariners today is linked to submarine platforms, not to war itself.

Community perspective is so ingrained that the depth of its impact sometimes is not easy to see. For decades, for example, we have used Korean War fighter pilot John Boyd's observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop as the model for command and control. For Boyd, experiencing war as he did at the beginning of jet flight, the object of command was simple—get inside an adversary's decision cycle. The idea took root in the aviation community, and today the emphasis on commanding rather than controlling forces still is maintained in official doctrine.

Yet, although the speed and reach of weapons are increasing the tactical pace, the opposite is happening at the strategic level. The global media, which enables prolonged and public diplomatic posturing, and the political-economic complexity of modern conflict are slowing war down. That has been the model of Bosnia, Somalia, and the cat-and-mouse play of our relations with Iraq. Because of the aviator's tactical focus, however, the Navy continues to focus its C2 thinking at the tactical level, just at the time when the Navy's value to the nation as a strategic instrument of power is increasing.

In time, the unrestricted line issues will resolve themselves. The need to operate jointly and in combined arms is a powerful motivator. We already are seeing the beginnings in Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John Garstka's network-centric warfare article in the January 1998 Proceedings . Fleet Battle Experiment Delta in the Pacific is a another sign among many that the Navy is moving past routine deployments into creative and well-executed exercises to explore future war.

Within the warfare support communities—already insular and increasingly left to themselves—there is, however, genuine cause for concern. Many not only are on the wrong track with respect to information technology, but also are motivated generally by self-preservation. In addition, by acting independently they dilute precious resources. Community programs exacerbate the tendency to create stovepiped technologies and unnecessarily limit operational solutions. Three examples should suffice, all of which point to these problems in the Navy's second-echelon intelligence, logistics, engineering, and personnel command structures:

The Naval Security Group (NSG). Born out of World War II, the NSG's operational value lay in exploiting unique technologies (e.g., Japanese, Vietnamese, Soviet) and peaked in the early 1980s. Since then, with the global commercial explosion in communications, its systems have provided diminishing operational value. NSG's shore-based commands, limited traditional role in space, and shipboard surveillance all have become obsolescent, technologically and operationally. Technologically, NSG has been a disaster. Its combat direction finding and battle group passive horizon extension systems cost billions, took 20 years to build, were awkwardly engineered as half Navy/half intelligence systems, were obsolete before they were fielded, and have never helped fire a shot in anger.

Operationally, the command is seriously deficient in understanding information technology. Over the past several years, NSG has argued that information warfare—conflict in a realm that has transformed the world in the past ten years—is somehow just evolutionary cryptology. This is a very dangerous doctrine founded in organizational myopia and demonstrates the limited vision of its officer corps.

Most worrisome, just when the Navy needs its intellectual capital most, thousands of its best enlisted minds are being held captive to the self-preservation of NSG and the inertia of the Cold War intelligence bureaucracies with which it is allied. Consider instead the power of a new unrestricted line community grown from the synergy of the NSG mated with the electronics engineering duty officers, the remaining tactical communicators in the 1700 community, and the aviation radar operators.

The 1700 Community . At this point in the information revolution, an organization whose primary raison d’être is shore-based infrastructure is exactly what we don't need. Anyone who has struggled with a travel claim, with orders, or with pay at a personnel support detachment can testify to the pain of a headlong, head-knocking bout with this bureaucracy. The Navy is about tooth, not tail, and with the logistics community, the 1700 shore stations are the largest manpower sinks we have. We need to replace personnel support detachments with a good web site on a great intranet. Outsource travel and pay.

The Public Affairs Community . Public affairs offices are vestigial appendages of World War II organizations, and a demonstrable failure in the information age. Tactically, the community is significantly behind other federal agencies—contrast NASA's hundreds of outreach programs and web-based products with the Navy's. Most worrisome, at the strategic level, Navy public relations in the past decade has been a disaster. The service has achieved extraordinary successes, but they have gone largely untold while the nation and Congress instead are confronted with the suicide of a Chief of Naval Operations, a midshipman chained to a urinal, and Tailhook. We need to outsource this community and hire professionals. And the Navy can recapitalize the manpower for tooth.

The top priority of every Chief of Naval Operations in the next 15 years, therefore, should be to continually realign the Navy's intellectual capital. How we organize our people should be as iterative as the technology we buy and the manner in which we operate. Wider horizons necessitate action from the top down to revamp our communities and position our people for the future.

Operational Vision

People create operational vision. Six years after Versailles, while France was building the Maginot Line and Britain was returning to isolationism, Germany had a strategic air force, armored and mechanized divisions, and a doctrine to use them together. The German General Staff and the professionalism of Wehrmacht overcame resource shortages and the restrictions of the Armistice. Organizational inertia—not lack of technology or resources, per se—is the cause of tactical incompetence.

Operational vision is the ability to see what could be done given the trends in conflict and technology. The Navy has profited from a series of remarkable individuals who have possessed it, and, working against the tide, have pushed the service into its present capabilities. If the Navy can harness and focus its intellectual capital to institutionalize innovation, instead of fighting against it, a remarkable operational vision is possible. Again, some examples will suffice:

Cloaking . Science-fiction writers often give us realistic visions of the future—for example, the idea of "cloaking," hiding forces from the enemy. We do not envision developing a single switch to cloak a force in the next decade or so, but SpaWar's success in building visionary information-system programs coupled with platform stealth technologies clearly are showing the Navy the way. An operational vision of force-wide cloaking is not only within long-term reach technologically, but also well within the grasp of the combined programmatic efforts of government research and development laboratories, if electronic and information warfare efforts are coordinated.

Shielding . Shielding is a future capability to put a protective electronic defense in depth across the whole force, not just a single platform. Unlike the science-fiction versions, shielding is less likely to be a single technological device than an organized use of multiple technologies. To achieve it, however, we have to recognize that the electronic defense capabilities of platforms are components of the larger system. We will never make the leap from World War II electronic countermeasures to 21st-century shielding if community considerations get in the way—when Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, Naval Sea Systems Command, and Naval Air Systems Command all are building boxes for separate platforms.

Omniscience . In operational terms, omniscience is the ability to sense events outside the realm of our human senses. In future war, where related events can occur thousands of miles from each other, omniscience has to be a core capability of a military force. Without the ability to sense and model in human terms each operational venue—from undersea to cyberspace—a commander leaves himself open to flanking movements by a sophisticated foe. The Navy's ". . . From the Sea" strategy is built on this concept. It recognizes that operational maneuver now is multidimensional; precision strike weapons have made it so. The other implications are that the potential for attack against us now is multidimensional as well, and that the battlefield is populated by both silicon-based and carbon-based foes. You cannot fight what you cannot see. Operational vision should tell us that our many disparate sensor programs, most of which still are community-specific, are not headed toward omniscience. They are wasteful of resources, aimed at splintered goals, and continue to be controlled by bureaucratic organizations, not by tactical commanders.

Telepathy . If omniscience is the ability to sense in multiple dimensions, telepathy is the means to convey battle knowledge, rather than just communicate data. Operationally, telepathy is an amalgam of technology and doctrine. It is the conveyance of command to highly adaptable frontline forces that operate in concert with the commander's direction but are able to respond to tactical change in flexible ways. Defined in this way, telepathy is the future of military command and control, replacing hierarchical orders and structures with the means to empower self-organizing forces.

This kind of operational vision—thinking functionally rather than in the form of systems or programs—gives the Navy a set of far-seeing operational goals. NASA has accomplished much in the past several years pursuing a similar strategy. Rather than building specific programs, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin has given the agency a set of "stretch goals"—to reduce the payload cost in space by a factor of x in y years, for example. Expressed in naval terms, our operational goal should not be just to produce the next generation cruiser or submarine, but rather to achieve the operational ends above, however distant they may seem.


Many prophets of the naval information revolution are advocating increasing resources to information technology. The power of information technology, they point out, is worth the cost of a cruiser. They hope to convince the Navy to put information technology on the budget table beside airplanes, ships, and submarines. At first glance, with straightforward, zero-sum programmatic logic, this argument is attractive. But deeper consideration points to some serious, less obvious flaws:

  • The Navy command-and-control budget has remained between 2.5% and 3.1% of the service total obligational authority since 1980. Put another way, the Navy has created its revolution spending the same percentage of money before the personal computer as after it. The notion that the Navy needs more money for information technology in the future remains unsubstantiated.
  • The Navy has yet to bring in a single information systems program on time, on cost, and at specification, and, as yet, there is no reason to believe it will do so in the future. Without a community of some sort and in the absence of a focused, organizational point of leverage to spend it wisely, increasing the Navy's information technology budget would be a waste of money. People and operational vision have to come first.
  • We don't know where the money we do have is being spent. In 1996, when the Navy was attempting stand up its congressionally mandated Chief Information Officer, the best estimate of Navy expenditure on information technology was somewhere between $3 and $8 billion. While much of the vagary stemmed from differing ideas of what information technology is—whether to count shipboard information systems with medical networks and so on—that is a bit of a spread. We don't know any more detail today, because our internal oversight of the programs remains superficial.

The result is that questions such as which programs consume the most research and development, which programs should be replaced because of high costs in operations and maintenance, and what are our top ten research and development requirements not only cannot be answered—they are not being asked. We need fewer luncheon speeches and more roll-up-your-sleeves work from our information technology leaders before we increase our budgets.

  • We recognize that we no longer can buy computers like torpedoes, but we have yet to create an acquisition process that can take advantage of the rate of change in information technology. This does not necessarily mean more acquisition reform; the regulations put in place in the past three years, by and large, give the Navy the latitude to turn the corner. The problem is not regulatory; it is organizational.

We need an organizational ethos in which iteration is valued more than seven-year programs; products are more desirable than support labor; and contracting officers are freed from red tape to improvise. Today, acquisition is characterized by huge contractors with broad labor contracts suckling about the system commands, preventing real technological innovation from occurring. The result is gridlock, with powerful disincentives to change. Contracting officers correctly view themselves as unable to affect change because they are culpable for failing to observe regulation. Large companies that have contracts don't want changes that could threaten those contracts. Small companies lack the resources to comply with the federal bureaucracy and compete among the larger contractors.

What We Can Do Today

All this is not going to be solved overnight; still, there are immediate gains to be made with relatively little risk. Let me offer four suggestions:

Husband our intellectual capital . The Chief of Naval Operations should commission a thorough examination of the Navy community structure, with an eye toward capturing a flexible process for positioning Navy personnel for a constantly changing future. Because promotion today is the result of community origin, such a commission must be independent of the existing heads of community. No one is better equipped to do this than are some of the business leaders who have had to make similar decisions in the immediate past. A community study panel with the same level of experience and prestige as the Defense Science Board would be a good start.

Create a genuine Navy intranet . Here again, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command is ahead of the game in advocating such an intranet, and its efforts should be promoted among all the support and operational commands. It would provide the basis for business process reengineering, online training, and operational gaming. It should be funded as an infrastructure cost-a flat and constantly improving horizontal capital investment benefiting the entire service.

Explore new warfighting concepts at sea and ashore . The Pacific Fleet battle experiments are a good start, but the establishment of experimental expeditionary forces on both coasts would be even better. These task forces should come to work everyday pushing out new concepts in warfare, new alliances inside the federal government, and new technologies for employment in the future. We need to reexamine the meaning of operational tempo and deployment schedules in the post-Cold War world.

Review current Navy resources and inject professional management into the process . We need to know how much money we have, what we are spending it on, and how to gain efficiencies. The defense budget is not likely to increase anytime soon, so we need to quit whining and reform our own house.

Commander Loescher recently retired to become the executive fellow of the Copernicus Foundation, which is dedicated to the improvement of government through the application of information technology.



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