Developing better regional threat expertise will help Naval Intelligence refocus on its core mission and most indispensable service—delivering a deep understanding of the adversary. This will require more than lip service or adding a few blocks of training curriculum, however. It demands freeing its personnel from an endless sideshow of distractions and instituting more disciplined career paths. External demands notwithstanding, the problem Naval Intelligence finds itself in today is largely one of its own making.
The OPINTEL Myth
For at least the past decade, if not longer, Naval Intelligence has repeatedly and reflexively sought to justify its continued relevance by pointing to operational intelligence (OpIntel) as the indispensable art that helped ensure hot and cold victories since the Battle of Midway. OpIntel is a practiced art, and doing it under pressure makes one better at it. But any good OpIntel enterprise rests on a deep foundational knowledge of the adversary. In the pressurized watchstanding environment, deep knowledge is the reservoir from which good OpIntel analysis draws. Any competent naval officer or enlisted professional can be taught to stand an OpIntel watch. But it takes years to accumulate real threat expertise, which encompasses much more than knowledge of an adversary navy’s platforms. OpIntel watchstanders rarely were left alone to deliver consequential assessments: they had (and needed) experienced threat analysts supporting them.
In addition to all the expectations of a still-inchoate information warfare community, fleet and theater commanders never should stop demanding and expecting superb threat expertise from Naval Intelligence officers and enlisted professionals. Unfortunately, Naval Intelligence no longer fully meets that expectation, and a failure to remedy this is the quickest path to irrelevance.
History’s Real Lesson
Naval Intelligence began in 1882 as a modest effort devoted to discovering and understanding the technological innovation of potential adversaries at a time when maritime warfare was changing rapidly. The need to acquire better knowledge spurred a reconnaissance industry to feed it. In the ensuing decades, a small but capable intelligence-collection capability—mostly human intelligence from attachés and others, but also including code breaking (signals intelligence)—served the Navy well.
Yet the Navy did not rely on this alone to understand potential adversaries. It invested, modestly perhaps, in what today would be called “cultural immersion” programs. No cultural immersion experiences are more famous and consequential than those of Captain Joseph Rochefort and Rear Admiral Edwin Layton, who both occupy heroic and indispensable historical roles in World War II in the Pacific. As a mid-grade officer, Layton spent six years in Japan between 1929 and 1939. Rochefort was with him from 1929 until 1932, learning the Japanese language and culture along with getting a firsthand view of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s growing power and capability.
By 1940, Layton was serving under Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Husband Kimmel as his senior intelligence officer. And while neither Layton nor anyone else precisely forecast the attack on Pearl Harbor, Layton’s experience in Japan inculcated a deep understanding and respect for the soon-to-be enemy of the United States, so much so that Layton was regarded as a voice of caution by many who summarily dismissed the possibility that Japan would undertake such an audacious surprise attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii. As the attack on Pearl Harbor was under way that fateful Sunday morning, Kimmel’s naval war plans officer, Rear Admiral Charles McMorris, who 11 days prior had told Kimmel he was not worried about a Japanese air attack, came across Layton in a headquarters hallway and reportedly said, “If it’s any satisfaction to you, you were right and we were wrong.”1
Less than six months later, Naval Intelligence would have perhaps its finest hour when Layton and Rochefort led the codebreaking and all-source analytical effort that gave Admiral Chester Nimitz the assessment that Japan would next attack at Midway, allowing the Pacific Fleet commander to position his forces accordingly, win at Midway, and turn the tide of the war. One could say the culture of Navy OpIntel was born in the months before Midway.
The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 significantly reprioritized the Naval Intelligence community, further reinforcing the shift from regional specialization to a generalist approach. Photo by Alamy
The Cold War and the Global Threat
The World War II lessons for the Navy were many and included a need to further develop and protect the specialties of intelligence and cryptology. In 1953, Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Anderson, in a speech to graduates of the Naval Intelligence School, said, “The day has long since passed when the intelligence responsibility of our naval establishment could safely be entrusted to officers as a collateral duty to other assignments. The good intelligence officer today must be a person with specialized training.”2 As such, by the mid-1950s specialized restricted line communities were established for both intelligence and cryptology.
For nearly the next four decades Naval Intelligence was primarily, although certainly not exclusively, focused on the Soviet Navy. And because the Soviet Navy was a global threat, spanning all regions, there was no compelling need to specialize Naval Intelligence personnel by region. Officers and enlisted carried their knowledge of Soviet Navy platforms, tactics, and techniques, not to mention an understanding of communist ideology and Russian military and political history, with them from tour to tour, regardless of where they served in the world.
While attaché assignments and a PhD program in Soviet studies offered a select few opportunities to specialize deeply, all Naval Intelligence personnel could acquire and hone their Soviet Navy threat expertise while experiencing geographic diversity in assignments. This certainly made the officer and enlisted assignment process easier. By the end of the Cold War, however, geographic diversity, not threat expertise, became the virtue to protect—a value prioritization that haunts Naval Intelligence to this day.
Searching for a New Focus in the ’90s
By the mid-1990s, Naval Intelligence, like much of the Navy and military in general, found itself searching for a new organizing principle in a rapidly changing world. In 1996, the director of Naval Intelligence commissioned a review of the community’s “core competencies.” That such a review was deemed necessary is telling, but it was a welcome opportunity to pause, contemplate, and ensure Naval Intelligence was best aligned for the messier, multidimensional threat environment that already was manifesting itself. In that review, the question of regional specialization was examined again, given that the U.S. military was more likely to be involved in lower-level regional conflicts than in global conflict. In the end, the review rejected regional specialization in favor of more general, geographically diverse career paths.
Several reasons underpinned this decision. On a practical level, with a small billet base that Naval Intelligence did not resource or fully control (at the time approximately 1,200 officer and 2,000 enlisted billets), developing viable regional career paths seemed a bridge too far, not to mention the risk that doing so could unfairly disadvantage individuals not tracked into the most active region. Furthermore, at the time, a return to great power competition—where near-peer threats would command sustained, regionally focused threat expertise—could not reasonably be foreseen. Finally, the generalist approach not only made the assignment process easier, but it also was seen, particularly for the officer corps, as being better for promotability and the larger upper management needs of the Navy. For those aspiring to senior levels, broad and diverse is better than narrow and specialized.
It is hard to argue with the imperatives that drove this approach. Yet today, looking back over 20 years, it seems like an opportunity was missed. In part, this may be because a false choice of sorts was set up in framing the approach. Regional specialization was positioned in opposition to other important competencies. For example, by the end of the Cold War, Naval Intelligence had been, rightly or wrongly, saddled with a reputation of focusing too much on threat expertise and not enough on leadership development, community management, and enterprise planning. Retaining a generalist approach to career development better complemented an attempt to rectify these perceived shortcomings. Regional career paths would only exacerbate the problem.
While regional specialization was deemed not suitable for Naval Intelligence at the time, to some extent functional specialization in an increasingly technical world was. Initiatives were undertaken to subspecialize officers (enlisted already were subspecialized through the Navy Enlisted Classification process) in intelligence functions and processes, such as collection management, imagery processing and analysis, targeting, and human intelligence. While this made sense for the business, it quickly bumped up against the realities of the overriding generalist principle. Two tours in any one of these areas was the most that could be expected, and no requirement was ever envisioned for compartmented career paths. In any event, initiatives to improve functional expertise can flourish just as well under a regional career path model.
Terrorism and Information Dominance
Two developments in the 2000s intensified the current against which regional specialization advocates had to swim. The first was, of course, the 11 September 2001 attacks and the ensuing—and almost all-consuming— national effort against global terrorism. This was, and continues to be, an intelligence-driven war like no other, and it is a great credit to the highly talented men and women of Naval Intelligence that demand for their services by the special warfare community grew quickly and has never abated. But to be clear, what Naval Intelligence brought to the fight was not just competence in intelligence functions, such as time-sensitive targeting, but also deep knowledge of the adversary—terrorist-group personnel, ideology, organization, and tactics. Deep knowledge feeds process, and process serves to enhance knowledge. Nevertheless, because the terrorist threat is transregional, it has had an effect similar to that of the Soviet threat for so many years. Every Navy and joint command needs terrorism expertise, and terrorist threat knowledge is to an extent transferrable across geographic commands.
The second development occurred later in the decade when the Navy created the Information Dominance Corps, knitting naval intelligence into a larger community of information-heavy specialties. Regarding naval intelligence, much has been written and discussed about this rather momentous organizational change, which further incentivized a generalist career path. Yet another priority, that of integrating Naval Intelligence with the other three Information Dominance (now Information Warfare) communities, superseded developing regional threat expertise. There are only so many years in a career, and individual community detailers can accommodate only so many priorities and still meet the non-negotiable demand of filling billets on time. For any regional specialization program to work, it needs to be the top priority, not one of many.
The growing Chinese Navy is the elephant in the room in any discussion involving the Naval Intelligence community's quest to build generalists. Admiral Wu Shengli, here on the bridge wind of the Liaoning, commanded the CHinese PLAN from 2006 to 2017.
The 2000s did see a countervailing trend that was most inconvenient to opponents of regional specialization. China’s ambition and commitment to become a global maritime power on par with the United States became clear, and Naval Intelligence was, for the first time since the 1930s, faced with an urgent need to devote more resources to developing regional threat expertise. A “China Hands” program was outlined and approved, although its implementation in the ensuing years was haphazard at best, as many of the aforementioned priorities remained. The program never really had any teeth, and the best Naval Intelligence has been able to do is to retour a limited number of officers in China-focused billets, both in the Pacific and in Washington.
The program has yielded some fruit. The community currently has a few highly accomplished and knowledgeable commanders and captains serving, or eligible to serve, in demanding operational and staff billets in the Pacific. Yet there is a dearth of active-duty Naval Intelligence flag officer expertise on China, and Naval Intelligence has not been competitive for the Pacific Command Director for Intelligence position (J2) for several years now. As China is today the premier naval threat to the United States, Naval Intelligence should be leading the Information Warfare Community in cultivating China expertise at all officer and enlisted grades. Instead it is lagging at a critical time, in part because regional threat expertise was not and is not valued enough in the larger community.
Beyond China, no other attempt at regional specialization is under way. Russia is investing in a long-term naval modernization program and in recent years has more starkly staked itself out as a geopolitical adversary to the United States. Iran, too, while not a major blue-water threat, has a potent littoral navy and will likely be a regional adversary for years to come.
Where We Are
Naval Intelligence today is confronted with an uncomfortable reality. While it struggles to find its footing inside the Information Warfare Community, a renewed commitment to deep regional threat expertise—arguably its raison d’etre—is largely viewed inside that community as anachronistic and myopic. Naval Intelligence has few in its officer and enlisted ranks that by mid-career truly can be considered leading Navy experts on a major regional threat. The Naval Intelligence civilian analyst cadre, primarily at the Office of Naval Intelligence, is a solid foundation of long-term expertise, but that is not sufficient to support Navy and joint commands at all levels. Expertise resident at the staff and fleet levels matters a great deal, as does physical proximity and access to operational decision makers.
Today, most Naval Intelligence officers are more dilettante than expert on the threat, products of hop-scotch career paths from one region to the next to gain some experience on a new threat and round out their portfolios to be competitive for the next promotion board. The unrestricted line officers they support often have more experience in whatever region they are serving. Regardless of how many other skills Naval Intelligence cultivates, a weak knowledge base of threat expertise risks it someday being inconsequential at best.
What to Do
It will take some time, and plenty of fortitude, to right this problem. But it can be done. First and foremost, Naval Intelligence needs to return to first principles—why does it exist? That it is exerting so much energy right now justifying itself inside the larger Information Warfare Community is an alarming sign. And given that the geopolitical landscape today is more like the pre-World War II era, with multiple regional threats that will endure for some time, a perfect opportunity presents to establish regionally focused career paths, with the aim of having a much different breed of force by the 2030s.
Given the risks of specializing inside a community that already is relatively small, only three regions are feasible: the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Russia/Europe (billets supporting Latin America and Africa will need to be filled with personnel from other regional backgrounds). These three areas each contain a significant naval threat, and the Navy has a large enough billet pyramid in each to support career paths. In addition to Iran, the Middle East regional career path should include terrorism specialization, as the international terrorism threat largely resides and emanates from there.
Starting from the earliest career point possible, officers and enlisted should be regionally designated. From there, as practically as possible, they will follow a career path that best enhances knowledge of their regions and the threats to the Navy therein. All formal education opportunities along the way must focus on that region as well. As chiefs and commanders, they will have the knowledge and credibility required to be of maximum value to operational customers in those regions.
Finally, cyber-threat expertise must be developed inside each regional career path, not separately. Cyber is a warfare domain with its own unique weapons, and is another tool for regional powers hostile to the United States. It should be understood not just technically, but also in a regional context.
Expertise is Always Needed
As Tom Nichols of the Naval War College points out in his recent book The Death of Expertise, specialists get things wrong all the time, and not because of negligence, but often simply due to the limits of knowledge.3 Yet it would be a terrible mistake to undervalue the need for expertise. Intelligence assessments and advice not based on a healthy level of threat expertise are not worth much. Layton and Rochefort were valuable to Nimitz not only because they knew well the business of intelligence collection, analysis, and codebreaking. Their advice carried authority because they knew the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Japanese culture extremely well. Once again, expertise in both process and subject matter are necessary. It is hard to imagine Nimitz being well supported in that first year of war if the head of his intelligence team had been a captain with no Pacific experience and no expertise on the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Many arguments against regional specialization still carry some weight today. In implementing a regional career path program, leaders must be mindful of community health and fundamental fairness for all members. However, Naval Intelligence must be equally mindful that it does not exist to serve itself. It exists to deliver the best understanding of the threat possible to military and civilian decision makers, and if some sacrifices are needed to ensure that end is never compromised, and that every investment serves that ultimate end, so be it. Deep knowledge of the threat has a value that never will have to be justified or defended.
2. Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Anderson, in a speech at the graduation exercises, Naval Intelligence School, 26 June 1953, quoted in ONI Review, 1953, 431.
3. Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 170-208.
Captain Bray served as a naval intelligence officer for 28 years before retiring in 2016. Currently he is a managing director in Ankura Consulting Group’s geopolitical risk practice.