Masters or Jacks?

By Commander Henry Stephenson, U.S. Navy

The risk in the IDC’s strategy is that only its first characterization of information dominance—as a warfare enabler—is an observation of reality. The second—information dominance as a naval warfare pillar itself—is not a fact, but is the Navy simply declaring the existence of a coherent operational mission that matches the IDC’s administrative profile. Though widely accepted at face value, that very forward-leaning assertion relies on tenuous metaphors with the traditional warfare areas and on highly speculative doctrine. And it overplays non-kinetic “fires” by associating them with the entire IDC, when in fact the bulk of the community has no unique link to non-kinetic warfare.

The Navy is certainly correct to underscore the criticality of the information domain in modern conflict. But that can be done without forcing information dominance into the category of a warfare pillar, which it just doesn’t fit. The truth is that in the operational environments where the IDC is now asserting its identity, its identity is void. “Information dominance” is not, and should not try to be, a warfighting pillar in the same sense as surface or air.

Two manifestations of the IDC’s strategy that illuminate the problem are the detailing of senior officers across specialties and a range of proposals to incorporate most—perhaps all—IDC elements on afloat staffs under a single IDC senior officer. These and other initiatives sidestep an awkward fact that has troubled the IDC since its inception: Its constituent disciplines have few genuine overlaps and a sparse common core. Even that is probably enough for the IDC’s new type command to yield net gains as an administrative entity. But operationally, there is no reservoir of cyber synergy waiting to be unleashed by treating everything grouped under information dominance as subsets of a general competency. That general competency doesn’t exist. If the IDC pursues that illusory goal, it risks weakening its real center of gravity: the specialization that exists within its disciplines and throughout its ranks.

Generalization and Specialization

It is important to remember that the Fleet’s demand for specialized expertise is what forged the IDC’s restricted line communities in the first place. If we are now going to blur the lines between them, even at the senior level, we should do so only if it will produce a tangible warfighting gain—not because of the IDC’s internal needs, and not because it deepens organizational symmetry with the URL communities.

The IDC’s strategy acknowledges that specialization in its component disciplines is crucial to customers, and it recognizes the tension between the goals of producing specialists and generalists. Many organizations face the same dilemma, and the solutions are usually compromises. The IDC’s component disciplines are themselves bundles of even more highly specialized skill sets, which likely settled on their pre-IDC configurations for a range of practical reasons.

Likewise, on an individual level, every professional must balance the need for proficiency in a specific skill with the need to qualify for positions with greater scope. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course: One performs their own tasks better when they understand how related tasks are executed. Intelligence officers, for example, have always been expected to gain understanding of the primary naval warfare areas. Joint qualification expands the officer’s horizons farther. Internally to the IDC, intelligence officers have a special need to know the basics of cryptology and space operations, and competence in almost any vocation these days demands literacy in information systems and knowledge management.

Critically, however, intelligence officers have heretofore gained this kind of exposure while performing intelligence functions, with the goal of performing those roles better. The broadening was intended to build a more effective specialist in intelligence, not develop an officer who will eventually do something else.

The interesting twist is that IDC officers, while specialists, often have more exposure to multiple warfare areas and joint matters than URL officers at the same grade. Our diversity comes not so much from the functions we perform, but from our mobility across unit types and missions. Generalization along this axis can build highly effective and versatile naval professionals, but their utility for the Navy depends on their continued employment within their specialty.

Here is where the IDC is in danger of going off the rails.

Cross-Purpose Detailing

Cross-detailing—assigning an officer from one IDC discipline into a billet normally filled by another—is a significant departure from the model of building specialists by exposing them to related functions. It aims to create generalists by forcing specialists to actually perform functions outside their lane. While this approach will certainly produce officers with broader experience, it incurs obvious costs and risks in terms of the development of specialists and, potentially, unit effectiveness.

The IDC is managing the dilemma by limiting cross-detailing to its highly screened O-6 command billets. Of the 33 current opportunities, 9 are cross details, but the practice could expand. Examples include the Atlantic and Pacific Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Stations, led not by information professionals (IPs) as one might expect, but by an intelligence officer and an information warfare (IW) officer, respectively. The IPs get those billets back with command of two signature units within the IW community, and so on. The practice also exists at the flag level, with IW officers occasionally serving as combatant command J2s, for example.

Cross-detailing is limited to senior ranks, the number of cases is measured, and the people in the jobs are the kind who will succeed at any assignment the Navy throws at them. On the other hand, the billets are among the IDC’s most critical, and it remains fair to ask: Why would the IDC ever fill an intelligence billet with an IW officer? Assign an IP O-6 to command a unit with an IW mission? Spend 20 years building a specialist in a field, and then give command of a unit with that function to someone with 20 years in a different specialty?

The answer, of course, is that the IDC is grooming senior leaders in the same manner the URLs do. Indeed, IDC seniors have been straightforward in explaining cross-detailing as a way to produce flag officers to lead pan-IDC organizations. Many are also up front about shaping officer billets to get their legacy community its fair share of flag opportunities. These are not sinister motivations. The principal idea behind the establishment of the IDC was that balanced, competitive IDC leadership could influence programmatic decisions to positive effect.

There’s a critical difference, however, between the URLs and the IDC in this regard. When the URLs code certain billets for any URL designator or assign aviators as large-deck commanding officers, for example, they aren’t just grooming leaders for their communities; they are operating the mixed-type maneuver units that constitute our warfighting capability and building commanders for those units in the process. We are organized as strike groups and as theater maritime components, comprised mainly of surface, air, and submarine forces. There can be only one commander of these composite formations, and they must come from one type-specific community or another.

The IDC does not face the same imperative for generalists because there are no operational entities composed of multiple IDC types requiring planners or commanders with pan-IDC competence. At first glance, Fleet Cyber Command or afloat Information Warfare Commanders might appear to fill the bill. This comparison fails, however, because the operational component of those missions that produces operational effects falls upon only a portion of the IDC—elements of the IW and IP disciplines, mainly. Other parts of the IDC are involved, but the support they provide is not unlike what they provide to the kinetic missions.

Because non-kinetic operations have no unique claim on the services of the IDC as a whole, there is scant justification to group the disciplines together as a warfare area. In turn, there is no operational reason for the IDC to trade specialization for general experience—at any pay grade. The solution to producing senior leaders for true non-kinetic warfare forces would be to establish a new officer community for that purpose, a completely different undertaking than producing pan-IDC generalists.

We reach the conclusion that IDC cross-detailing is not well-grounded in the warfighting requirements of the Fleet and stems more from the needs of the IDC itself. Again, those needs aren’t invalid. But we must recognize that the existence of the IDC has created new incentives for officer assignments that have very indirect connections to the operational effectiveness of units.

The IDC would be wise to stay on track by filling billets with the designators most fitting for the duty. Those professionals will naturally accumulate exposure to the other IDC disciplines without incurring the costs of being detailed into them. That, combined with mid-career education and something along the lines of a capstone program for the IDC, might provide a framework for producing senior IDC leaders that is less antithetical to the community’s true nature as a set of functionally distinct disciplines.

Information Dominance at Sea: Not Broken

Strike groups have wrestled with the organization of intelligence, cryptology, information warfare, and electronic warfare for a long time. An evolutionary process has governed the integration of those elements into the staff and composite warfare commander (CWC) structures, with new doctrine and tactics providing the mutations, and operational experience performing the selection. The species that has emerged is more-or-less a Fleet standard, and it works.

But it’s an unsightly animal to those seeking a reflection of the IDC’s identity, with disciplines spread across work centers, staff directorates, and voice-net call signs. If one accepts that IDC elements perform diverse tasks and their roles are to support the primary warfare commanders, it follows that the IDC is in a different category, and the existing organization makes sense. But now that information dominance is credentialed as a warfare area in itself, the community is abuzz with ideas to unify IDC functions at sea under a staff N2/N6, mimicking OPNAV’s organization, or even some version of an information dominance warfare commander in the CWC structure.

A Center for Naval Analyses study by Gregory M. Swider, “Structures for Information Warfare and Information Dominance Afloat,” warily recommends bringing some IDC functions under a new department. At the same time, it suggests downgrading the IWC—currently the most “operational” manifestation of the IDC at sea—from a primary warfare commander to an “integrator.” Those conclusions are hardly ringing endorsements of the idea that information dominance as a whole is really a warfare pillar on par with the others. Yet the belief that the IDC construct should have standing in operational settings continues to animate not only elements within the community, but also senior URL officers rightfully leaning forward into the non-kinetic realm.

Treating information dominance writ large as a warfare pillar isn’t the answer. The first problem with that approach is the underlying assumption of gains to be had by bringing IDC elements afloat under a single organization. In operational environments, those elements perform fairly distinct functions. The overlaps that exist are well understood and already reflected in current organization, and IDC functions don’t intersect each other any more than they intersect other functions across the strike group. The truth is that the most important coordination for IDC activities afloat is not with each other, but with the group commander, the primary warfare commanders, and planners.

On occasion, an IDC-centric activity could be the “supported” mission of a naval force. But IDC elements afloat are most accurately organized as discrete capabilities for supporting the strike group at large, not for supporting themselves. Synergy with the strike group’s operations, not necessarily synergy within itself, should be the prime directive for the IDC at sea. If each IDC element is providing solid support to the commander and planners, then whatever coordination those elements are doing among themselves is, by definition, sufficient. Tellingly, the converse is false. The fact that the IDC is working well with itself does not necessarily mean it is fulfilling its roles in the strike group.

The second major flaw in the proposal to reorganize IDC afloat pertains to full-tilt variations that would include the intelligence element in the mix. These proposals contradict the principle that someone has to stay focused on the adversary. Sun Tzu famously placed knowing yourself and knowing your enemy on the same level. Some would reject this ancient wisdom and bury the person responsible for knowing the enemy two echelons below the strike-group commander, to be supervised by an O-6 who could find himself obligated to split attention between monitoring a Kilo-class submarine on the carrier’s track and monitoring the carrier’s email-exchange servers. Are we actually prepared to assign both matters to the same senior IDC officer, using the rationale that both fall under “information dominance?”

Finally, despite the IDC’s new interest in generalists, any O-6 drawn from the current officer corps to fill a pan-IDC role will be a specialist in one discipline or another. Inevitably, he or she will be redundant for one IDC function and an impediment for the others, tempting the community to start growing generalists at ever earlier career points. That motive is already impacting the training and qualification of junior officers, drawing the community closer to a result its own strategy foreswears: the erosion of IDC officer specialties. That trend is unlikely to position the IDC to give operating forces the experts they will need to dominate the information environment.

The Power of the Restricted Line

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s book Crusade in Europe provides a useful counterpoint to the idea that the community’s future depends on asserting some kind of equivalence with the unrestricted line. In more than one place, the former five-star general points out the necessity of retaining some of his most talented officers for staff duties, even though they were qualified and completely deserving of the command of maneuver forces. Eisenhower recognized that a good commander on the front might add to the effectiveness of the Allied Expeditionary Force, but that a good officer on his staff multiplied it.

An IDC professional fulfilling that role does not require affectations of “warfighter” status to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most celebrated commander. Likewise, when some within the IDC cling to a distinction between operators and those who enable them, it is not because we feel ourselves inferior; it is because we want to preserve a division of labor that works, even in this information-saturated world.

The IDC should reaffirm its identity as a set of distinct force-multiplying disciplines. We best fulfill those roles as specialists in relatively narrow fields, and we should embrace the restricted-line status that lets us focus on them without distraction. Navy leadership should reconsider labeling information dominance a unitary warfare pillar, especially if it leads to dilution of IDC specialization or muddling of our integration with the Fleet. Growing non-kinetic capabilities might one day lead to a new URL community, but that community shouldn’t be the IDC. The Navy must retain an organization of unrepentant specialists dedicated to supporting the full spectrum of operations. The needs of the IDC, while important, must never displace warfighting as the first priority of personnel assignments.

No one denies that the explosion of information technology presents a multitude of new opportunities and vulnerabilities in modern warfare. But information has always been critical in the ways, means, and ends of war. Advancements in how we handle it don’t change the mission that distinguishes our Navy from other services and from other instruments of national power: to achieve effects in or from the maritime domain.

In that light, the framing of information dominance as a new naval warfare area emerges as an overreaction to the rise of information technology. Ironically, the consequence could be a degradation of the IDC’s ability to leverage that technology to the benefit of the Fleet. Until we gain more experience with non-kinetic warfare that validates our expansive theories on how transformative it really is, the IDC should temper its revolutionary zeal. Its component disciplines can evolve to support non-kinetic warfare without reorganizing around it.

Meanwhile, the IDC should recommit to the specialized expertise that has proven vital for putting old-fashioned steel on target.

Commander Stephenson is a naval intelligence officer. He is currently assigned to Carrier Strike Group 8 in Norfolk, Virginia.


Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

17 January - Book Talk

Thu, 2019-01-17

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership