Sharper Minds, Sharper Sailors
By Lieutenant Adam Thomas Biggs, Medical Service Corps, U.S. Navy, and Captain Rees L. Lee, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy
Comprehensive military training is essential to our national security. We train our sailors’ bodies through physical exercise, their actions through procedures, and their skills with new technology. But for
the single system that manages all these operations—the mind—we provide no targeted training. If we improved the mental capabilities of our sailors, would we get a better fleet?
The idea is often referred to as “cognitive training” or “brain training,” although both monikers can be deceptive. All training is cognitive or brain-related in some way—even learning to march requires mental decisions about when and where to turn. But cognitive training refers to enhancing a specific mental function such as attention or memory. The notion is that the brain is simply another type of muscle, and that just as lifting weights may make you stronger, so could, in theory, exercising those brain “muscles” get you mentally ripped.
This type of training aligns perfectly with the Chief of Naval Operations’s (CNO) strategic guidance to achieve high-velocity learning at every level.1 Cognitive training is, after all, not only a learning-centered technology, but one that could help us learn faster.
The science of cognitive training remains in its infancy. Insufficient evidence, however, has not prevented companies eager to make a buck from flooding the market with dozens of products. Some have made outlandish claims about the potential benefits of these cognitive “workouts,” contending that brain training could even prevent Alzheimer’s. Such statements have prompted the government to intervene. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) slapped Lumos Labs, the makers of Lumosity, with a $2 million lawsuit in response to their deceptive advertising.2 The FTC representative stated that “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”3 Lumosity is not the only brain-training product whose advertisements have invoked the FTC’s wrath.4
Some scientists also have come forward to refute the claims of commercial brain-training products. In an open letter from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Stanford Center on Longevity titled, “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community,” more than 70 distinguished cognitive scientists challenged the industry’s inflated claims.5 They wrote:
We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date. . . . Exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.
Although the list of scientists who object to predatory companies selling snake oil to cure cognitive ailments is long, not everyone in the field agreed with the “consensus.” More than 100 similarly prominent scientists drafted a response, arguing that a “large and growing body” of evidence points to the benefits of cognitive training, and noted, “Evidence now includes dozens of randomized, controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals that document specific benefits of defined types of cognitive training. . . . While we can debate the strengths and limitations of each study, it is a serious error of omission to ignore such studies in a consensus reviewing the state of this science.”6
The controversy is unlikely to end soon. However, on one point there is agreement: To date, no set of cognitive exercises has been developed to improve all aspects of life and stave off all cognitive decline. These hypothesized exercises remain the Holy Grail of cognitive training, and if such a chalice exists in the training world, we have yet to find it.
Well Trained and Trainable
The importance of a well-trained Navy has been recognized since our establishment 240 years ago. However, with the tremendous onslaught of new technologies and exponential information growth of the 21st century, simply having a trained force is not enough. It is vital that we have a trainable force, receptive to new processes and technologies. The traditional approach has been to ensure that our people are well trained for their specific duties. By contrast, a highly trainable force would be versatile and capable of easily adapting to new and evolving circumstances.
Senior leadership gets this. In January 2016, the CNO articulated the importance of having a trainable force in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.7 In fact, one of the four lines of effort, subtitled, “Achieve High Velocity Learning at Every Level,” specifically tasks the Navy to “apply the best concepts, techniques and technologies to accelerate learning as individuals, teams and organizations.” The Navy’s mandate to achieve the vision of cognitive training could not be clearer. Even so, academic debates and clinical interventions are one thing, but the military is another beast entirely. How can we put this training to good use?
The connection is more direct than one might think. Academic debates primarily focus on whether one form of cognitive training generalizes beyond the training task to improve performance, behavior, or symptoms in some other aspect of your life. There is much greater scientific consensus—using the term accurately this time—that cognitive training can work within a specific realm. For example, some response-inhibition training involves training an individual to make a behavioral response (e.g., pressing a key on a keyboard) to one stimulus while withholding a response to another. These stimuli then take the forms of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to which people are either responding or not responding. When the individual then encounters alcohol in the real world, the mind has been trained accordingly (reach for the soda, not the beer). This approach does not mean that the training will prevent Alzheimer’s. However, the training could be effective in reducing alcohol consumption.
Many cognitive tasks in the military operate in the same way. Take the decision to shoot, for instance. It includes stimuli to identify (i.e., hostile targets versus noncombatants) and a behavioral response (i.e., squeezing the trigger or refraining). The decision to shoot or not is really just a response-inhibition task. Recent evidence has even demonstrated, in simulations at least, that the cognitive ability of response-inhibition can be linked to the likelihood of inflicting an unintended casualty such as a friendly-fire incident or a civilian casualty.8 More important, cognitive training produced a reduction in the civilian casualties inflicted during pretraining versus post-training simulations. This is precisely the sort of cognitive training on which the military should capitalize.
The military can benefit from the same theoretical and research-based approach that scientists have used to design successful, focused training modules. But this requires specific goals when designing, assessing, and implementing a cognitive training agenda.
For example, the Cognitive Cascade Hypothesis suggests that every step in the act of shooting a firearm can be linked to a specific cognitive ability: finding a target involves visual search; identifying friend-or-foe requires object-recognition abilities, taking aim requires perceptual judgments of distance and motion, and squeezing the trigger involves response execution (or inhibition).9 These collective cognitive indices could indicate why particular errors are being made, which abilities should be improved, and which tasks should be targeted for further training initiatives. By analyzing such data, research can evolve toward training for specific abilities with specific goals.
The Army has already made progress in the field of cognitive training. With a significant investment, the Tactical Human Optimization Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning Program (THOR 3) reflects the number-one truth of special operations forces: “Humans are more important than hardware.” When the RAND Corporation wrote an assessment of the THOR 3 project, they used the phrase “cognitive enhancement” 129 times in a document only 108 pages long.10 It emphasizes the Special Operations Center for Enhanced Performance (SOCEP), the organization primed to translate scientific findings to field personnel. Unfortunately, RAND’s conclusions were underwhelming: “The one element in which there does not appear to be an adequate understanding of assessments is cognitive enhancement. Metrics for measuring cognitive performance are not well developed, though progress can be measured. It is particularly important to develop assessment protocols before cognitive training begins because baseline measurement data will be valuable.”11
In other words, cognitive training is not ready for military use—yet. The groundwork has been laid, and the ideas are in place, but research needs to be done before the Navy and Marine Corps can start cognitive training on our personnel.
The first step will be to put research-and-development dollars into scientific projects intended to innovate and validate various forms of cognitive training. Marksmanship is one place to start. Marksmanship training would primarily involve the perceptual judgments step of the cognitive cascade about taking aim, and other forms of training could similarly map onto a particular step. This example highlights the importance of having a theoretical model in place when approaching cognitive training. We will need similar theoretical models when approaching other training initiatives.
There is another important benefit to cognitive training: not only might it help improve combat efficiency by making sailors and Marines better able to perform their duties, but, depending on how long the effects last, the training could also improve their general quality of life. Few people have been left worse off for having better memory or sharper cognitive abilities. The extent of those benefits, including whether the concepts of cognitive training could achieve a generally more trainable force, remains subject to further testing.
Military research-and-development organizations should begin to pursue these possibilities in earnest. The potential has been established, making the risk/reward trade-off favorable. It would be ideal to develop a form of cognitive training that could universally apply to all military personnel and improve all aspects of cognition. Unfortunately, despite the brain-training industry’s claims, such a Holy Grail has not been discovered. Perhaps the Navy will be the organization to find it.
2. Federal Trade Commission, “Lumosity to Pay $2 Million to Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges for Its ‘Brain Training Program,’—FTC Charges Lumosity,” Jan 2016, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2016/01/lumosity-pay-2-million-settle-ftc-deceptive-advertising-charges.
4. Federal Trade Commission, “FTC Charges Marketers of ‘Vision Improvement’ App with Deceptive Claims.” Sep 2015, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2015/09/ftc-charges-marketers-vision-improvement-app-deceptive-claims.
5. “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community,” Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Stanford Center on Longevity, http://longevity3.stanford.edu/blog/2014/10/15/the-consensus-on-the-brain-training-industry-from-the-scientific-community/.
6. Open letter in response to “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community,” http://www.cognitivetrainingdata.org.
7. Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” Jan 2016, http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf.
8. Adam T. Biggs, Matthew S. Cain, and Stephen R. Mitroff, “Cognitive Training Can Reduce Civilian Casualties in a Simulated Shooting Environment,” Psychological Science 26, No. 8 (2015): 1164-1176.
9. Ibid. The full Cognitive Cascade Hypothesis also is presented in a submitted manuscript: Biggs and Mitroff, “The Cognitive Cascade Hypothesis: Examining the Cognitive Underpinnings of Shooting Behaviors.”
10. Terrence K. Kelly, Ralph Masi, Brittian A. Walker, Steven A. Knapp, and Kristin J. Leuschner, “An assessment of the Army’s Tactical Human Optimization, Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning Program,” RAND Arroyo Center, Santa Monica, CA.
It’s Time to Fix Navy Information Operations
By Commander Michael J. Todd, U.S. Navy, Lieutenant Commander James A. Grant, U.S. Navy, and Commander David A. Jessen, U.S. Navy (Retired)
In 2002, the Chief of Naval Operations established Navy Information Operations (IO) as a primary naval warfare area on a par with other warfare areas.1 The intent was correct. It was time to focus on integrating individual IO elements and synchronize their effects with those of other activities both in and outside the Navy. However, the Navy’s attention was on controlling the core capabilities of IO: electronic warfare, computer network operations, operations security, military deception, and psychological operations.
Too much emphasis was being placed on these areas, which led to confusing the distinction among them and using IO as an integrating planning and execution function. For this and other reasons, information operations is now characterized as:
The integrated employment, during military operations, of IRCs (information-related capabilities) in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.2
The CNO’s issuance of “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” at the beginning of 2016 resulted in a change in Navy terminology from “Information Dominance” to “Information Warfare.” It was thought that the former phrase denoted accomplishment, while “warfighting” is thought of as never to be finished, ongoing. The results of this change included redesignating the Information Dominance Corps as the Information Warfare Community and renamed Navy Information Dominance Forces to Naval Information Forces.
Over the past 15 years, the Navy had failed to develop Information Operations Warfare commanders (IWCs) to plan and execute IO at the tactical and operational level. Further, there had been no plan to identify an IWC role or the “best athlete” to develop its functions and career path.
The strike group commander assigns the IWC. Under current doctrine, it is to be a warfare-designated officer, normally an O-5 or O-6 assigned as an assistant chief of staff, a commanding officer in major command, or an officer assigned to the staff.3 However, the emphasis for filling this position rests with senior commanders at the O-6 level because of operational and strategic implications.4 In strike groups the trend is for the IWC assignment to go either to the staff N6 (communications) or the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier. These officers are tasked with other primary responsibilities, and they have no training or experience in integrating IO as a planning and execution function. The IWCs are supported by a deputy (DIWC), usually an O-5 information warfare-designated officer. Although qualified in their designator, the DIWCs typically have no IO planning experience, and there is no training pipeline to prepare them for their new duties.
The paradigm shift we are proposing would align IO under the N5 (plans) and develop professional planners who can perform the duties of IWC in support of the composite warfare commander organizational construct.
Developing the Pedigree
One option is to establish a Navy officer career path for planners with a sub-specialty as IO planners. These officers would be drawn primarily from the information professional, cryptologic warfare, intelligence, and oceanography officer communities in the Information Warfare Community. The career path also would be open to unrestricted line (URL) officers. Entry would be through a selection board process following completion of an officer’s respective community qualifications, experience, and milestone tours (nominally at the ten-year point of their careers). Specific requirements would be identified for career path accession and correlated to designator assignment opportunities, for example, ship division officers, service in national agencies, or strike group/amphibious squadron staffs. The selection board would comprise representatives from the Information Warfare and the URL communities.
Selected officers would be given planning assignments at the O-4 level (such as Joint Staff, geographic combatant command staff, Navy Staff, major fleet staff, or numbered fleet IO planner). Assignments at the O-5 level would include Joint Staff planner, global combatant command assistant/deputy chief of staff, and Joint Information Operations Planner Course (JIOPC) instructor. Qualifications such as Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) Phase 1, a graduate degree, JPME Phase 2, and JIOPC would be required. The officers would screen for O-5 command, O-6 command, and IWC, culminating in designation and assignment as a Navy strike group IWC.
Fleet staffs have begun the task of establishing this career path, and the importance of this effort cannot be overemphasized. We must integrate IRCs to support our commanders’ objectives. A change of this order will require the Navy’s full commitment. A new designator should be created for this career path.
It is as important to determine the manpower resources for the IWCs on strike group staffs. The current trend is to give the IWC assignment to the staff N6 or the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier. In a recent post-deployment report, Commander, Carrier Strike Group One, recommended the IWC should be a stand-alone O-6 billet, separate from any other staff position.5 This could be accomplished by designating the staff N6 billet as the IWC.
Navy IO planners have a broad scope of responsibility at the tactical staff level. Planning considerations for shaping perceptions and influencing behaviors can include an extremely wide range of information capabilities, but not all are a Navy strength. For example, Navy planners are not thoroughly trained in military information support operations, so they rely on the Army professionals for development and approval. There are information-related capabilities, however, that the Navy employs extremely well. We would benefit from shaping our IO doctrine to include our strengths instead of cutting and pasting from joint doctrine to imply the Navy is fully capable of employing all IRCs and doing them all well.
In moving forward to define and develop Information Warfare, it is just as important to ensure the Navy does not dismiss joint doctrine and create its own that is not understood by the other services. IO is still a valid and and understood definition, and the Navy should first align its doctrine and use it as a baseline in developing Information Warfare.
Navy IO Executive Agency
The Navy directive implementing command-and-control and Information Warfare designated Commander, Naval Security Group Command as executive agent (EA) within the Navy.6 This included responsibility for manpower, training, and equipping. The EA designation transferred to Commander, Naval Network Command, when the Naval Security Group was disestablished in 2005. The EA designation was again realigned to Commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command in 2010.7
The EA is responsible for integrating capabilities into joint plans; reviewing documents for Navy equipment that supports IO; ensuring doctrine and concepts are included in appropriate Navy training programs; reviewing training requirements for equipment and ensuring training and qualification requirements are met; and managing Navy IO technical analysis and vulnerability assessments. Most of these responsibilities are related to a type commander (TYCOM) mission of man, train, equip. As the TYCOM for Information Warfare, the Commander, Naval Information Forces, should be designated the EA for Navy IO.
To operate in the information environment, the Navy must put skilled leadership in place, capable of IO planning and execution and having a common lexicon to support it. The Information Warfare Community should continue to establish a defined the IWC career path for Navy planners in whom strike group commanders have full confidence to assume and perform IWC duties.
The Commander, Naval Information Forces should be designated the EA for Navy IO. The responsibilities currently assigned to Fleet Cyber Command fall under the man, train, and equip functions of the TYCOM and its warfighting development center. The commensurate resources must accompany the designation.
Finally, Electronic Maneuver Warfare (EMW) is the Navy’s warfighting approach to gain decisive military advantage in the electromagnetic spectrum and enable freedom of action across all Navy mission areas. It is how the Navy will generate and develop forces to support and conduct the fight as the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander. We have to get the IWC assignments and qualifications right to become the principal warfare commander responsible for planning EMW force employment.
2. Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations, current edition.
3. Navy Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 3-13.2, Navy Information Operations Warfare Commander’s Manual, Aug 2010.
4. Navy Warfare Publication 3-56, Composite Warfare Doctrine, Sep 2010.
5. Commander, Carrier Strike Group One, “COMCARSTRKGRU ONE Information Warfare (IW) Post Deployment Recommendations,” 101850Z, Aug 15.
6. Chief of Naval Operations, “Mission and Functions of the Commander, Naval Security Group Command,” OPNAVINST 5450.191B, 1 Apr 1994.
7. Chief of Naval Operations, “Mission, Functions, and Tasks of Commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and Commander, U.S. Tenth Fleet,” OPNAVINST 5450.345, 4 Apr 2012.