The U.S. Navy’s 2016 strategic guidance, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, invokes lessons from the masters – Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, Carl Von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong. The Design also cites emerging challenges to U.S. military advantages. U.S. naval intelligence must reshape itself by similarly examining historical truths and leveraging its understanding of potential adversaries to divine whether the nature of warfare has changed in the Information Age. Moving forward, naval intelligence should take a leading role in evolving the Information Warfare Community (IWC) that the Navy created in 2009 to integrate the Intelligence, Cryptology, Information Professional (information technology and communications), and Oceanography Communities.
The Blackest Day
The Design mandates, “Begin problem definition by studying history—do not relearn old lessons.” Considering an example of how not to fight reveals a history that must not repeat itself. The Battle of Savo Island on 8-9 August 1942 was the opening naval engagement in the Guadalcanal campaign to dislodge the Japanese from the southern Solomon Islands. Then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Fleet Admiral Ernest King called the battle “the blackest day of the war.”1
Savo Island overlooks the western approaches to Savo Sound, where the Marines had staged their Guadalcanal landings on 7 August 1942. In response to the surprise invasion, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Eighth Fleet immediately dispatched a surface force to destroy the Allies in night combat. At 0130, 9 August, the Japanese task force commander, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, gave the order to attack the Allied Western Screening Group protecting the amphibious transport ships still offloading. Forty minutes after the shooting started, Mikawa gave the order to withdraw.2
The night action resulted in the sinking of four Allied heavy cruisers—the USS Quincy (CA-39), Vincennes (CA-44), and Astoria (CA-34) as well as the Australian HMAS Canberra. The destroyer USS Jarvis (DD-393) was heavily damaged and sunk later that day in a Japanese air attack. In the end, the Allies counted 1,275 dead and more than 700 wounded. The Japanese losses amounted to only 58 dead, 70 injured, and light damage to three ships.3 Despite Mikawa’s decision not to continue his attack, the devastating Allied losses had the intended effect. The United States withdrew its transports from Guadalcanal, leaving the Marines stranded ashore with limited supplies to press their attack. The Battle of Savo Island remains the worst open-water defeat in the U.S. Navy’s history.
Intelligence and information played a prominent role in the Battle of Savo Island. The Japanese capitalized on insightful intelligence assessments, signals intelligence, coordinated reconnaissance, and excellent command, control, and communications. Admiral Mikawa enjoyed superior battlespace awareness, to include a practiced understanding of deception and the operational environment—using cover of night and thunderstorms to obscure his approach.
By comparison, the U.S. Navy and its allies failed to manage the information environment. The Japanese emphasis on night tactics had been well documented by U.S. intelligence. In the interwar period, the Office of Naval Intelligence had noted Japanese Navy night combat developments. Subsequent Naval War College wargames demonstrated the devastating effects of Japanese night torpedo attacks.4 Still, U.S. Navy leadership failed to anticipate a Japanese night raid at Guadalcanal.
On 7 August, after getting under way from Rabaul, New Britain, the Japanese task force was sighted sailing toward the Solomons by a U.S. submarine and at least two B-17s.5 U.S. commanders dismissed the reports, believing the small task force would not attack the numerically superior Allies. Besides, they believed any Japanese approach would be detected by Allied aircraft. But long-range reconnaissance and intelligence were poorly coordinated among the Allies and between two major commands, the Southwest Pacific and South Pacific Areas. Lack of synchronization compounded by communication breakdowns and time-late reporting inhibited the flow and exchange of information.6
There also had been a significant setback in U.S. signals intelligence, but there was no corresponding effort to compensate with more robust reconnaissance. U.S. victories at Coral Sea and Midway had been enabled by deciphering Japanese codes. But the Japanese had changed their cryptographic keys on 28 May 1942, thwarting U.S. collection. Their communications about plans for a night raid at Savo Island had been intercepted but were not decoded until after the attack.7
In addition, U.S. commanders were overconfident in their ships’ new radar capabilities. The limitations of the new technology were not well understood, especially in the cluttered environment of the Solomons. Japanese ships were never detected on radar. Even after the attackers were sighted at a range of 3,700 yards, the Allies suffered from poor command, control and communications, which threw any attempt at a coordinated defense into disarray.8
Professor Thomas Mahnken wrote of Savo Island and other Guadalcanal naval engagements, “In each of the campaign’s battles, the side that possessed a superior awareness of the tactical situation prevailed. It was, in other words, the ability to collect, interpret, and act upon information rather than technology that marked the difference between victory and defeat.”9
The official Navy explanation for the losses at Savo Island was “complete surprise.” That surprise resulted, not from a failure of any one element of intelligence, but from a systemic failure to integrate intelligence analysis, coordinate surveillance and reconnaissance, and understand the operating environment. It was an example of how not to achieve battlespace awareness. Today’s IWC must embrace those lessons as it looks toward future conflicts.
The “Form of War”
This highlights three interrelated forces that are increasingly important and pose growing challenges for the U.S. Navy: the expansion of the global maritime system; the rise of the global information system and the force of expanding technological creation; and adaptation. The Design underscores the prominent role of information in modern warfare, describing information systems as accelerating changes that could undermine U.S. military advantages, and change the nature of conflict.
The Design mandates that the Navy concepts address an ability to operate in a “highly ‘informationalized’ environment.” Generically, “informationization” has been described as being to the Information Age what “industrialization” was to the Industrial Age. But in the context of a naval strategy, it represents a decidedly Chinese concept.
More often than not, Chinese “informationization” is mischaracterized by Western commentators. DoD’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military power describes it as being “roughly analogous to the U.S. military’s concept of ‘net-centric’ capability—a force’s ability to use advanced information technology and communications systems to gain operational advantage over an adversary.”10 Regrettably, that definition falls short. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work got closer with his characterization of Chinese informationalized warfare as “the combination of cyber, electronic warfare, information ops, deception and denial to disrupt [an adversary’s] command and control” and deliver decision advantage to the Chinese.11 Informationization does acknowledge the prominence of information technology in warfare, but, as Work suggests, the Chinese military conceptualizes informationization much more broadly.
Informationization was first featured in China’s strategic military guidance in 2004.12 By Chinese assessments, informationized warfare had emerged as a new “form of war”—the objective basis that drives military operations and modernization.13 According to the People’s Liberation Army seminal publication, The Science of Military Strategy, informationized warfare involves the struggle for “three dominances” – air, maritime, and information – with information dominance as the most significant. Air and maritime dominance cannot be achieved without information dominance; information dominance cannot be sustained without the other two.14
To answer the information dominance imperative, the Chinese conceptualize information operations (IO) more broadly. While U.S. doctrine describes IO narrowly as an offensive capability used to influence an adversary’s decision making, Chinese writings describe IO in terms of both offense and defense—more akin to the U.S. definition of information superiority—ensuring that China obtains timely, accurate, and relevant information to gain initiative and decision advantage while denying an adversary the same.15
The Chinese have evolved their information warfare (IW) concepts from a different origin than the United States, which holds cyber capabilities as the foundation for future IW. The Chinese military has built its IW doctrine on the Soviet concept of “radio electronic combat.”16 Chinese IW incorporates hard-kills and soft-kills, and includes elements not traditionally associated with IW or electronic warfare (EW), such as “electro-optical confrontation” and “hydro-acoustic confrontation.” Cyber capabilities only recently have been integrated to realize the Chinese concept of “integrated network electronic warfare (INEW),” pioneered by Chinese IO luminary General Dai Qingmin in the early 2000s.17
China further elevated informationization in defining the “form of war” in its 2015 military strategy.18 Wen Bing, a researcher at China’s Academy of Military Sciences, explained that this was a qualitative change: information previously had held a leading role, but in 2015, information had assumed a dominant role.19 In early 2016, Vice Admiral Ted Branch, then Director of Naval Intelligence, stated, “The CNO has directed that we ‘double-down’ on the information domain and information warfare.”20 One wonders if that was because the Chinese had doubled-down first.
Achieving information superiority in a future conflict will not be a supporting action for China. It will be the main line of effort. The degree to which the Chinese have emphasized information warfare to gain an asymmetric advantage cannot be overstated. Just as the Japanese effectively used intelligence and information where the Allies had failed, China will seek to develop tactical, operational, and strategic capabilities across the information domain to challenge U.S. maritime superiority.
Information Warfare in Combat
The Design’s mission statement stresses that the U.S. Navy will deter aggression, but if deterrence fails, the Navy will conduct decisive combat operations to defeat any enemy. Information warfare likely will play a decisive role in future conflicts whether the United States faces the comprehensive juggernaut of Chinese IW, an IW dagger wielded by the Russians, or a truly free-form IW threat from a non-state actor. The battlefields of Southwest Asia have presented challenges, but those information environments have been largely free from active interference. The IWC has yet to be tested against a high-end IW threat, especially in a maritime environment.
The suggestions below seek to strengthen the ability of the IWC to prevail in combat operations and are aligned to the Design’s four lines of effort.
Strengthen Naval Power at and from the Sea
The IWC must lead development of warfighting doctrine and operational concepts in informationalized environments. The Navy and Marine Corps developed new doctrine for everything from modern amphibious warfare to aircraft carrier operations between 1923 and 1940. Today the IWC must develop its own “Fleet Problems” and test its doctrine in an empirical process that will hone warfighting capabilities and lead to new concepts and technologies.21
The Navy should reconsider its heavy investment in cyber, especially if those investments come at the expense of other elements of information warfare. Cyber will be important in future conflicts, but just as the U.S. Navy did not understand the utility and limitations of radar at Savo Island, how U.S. cyber capabilities will be integrated at the operational level of war with other IW and conventional capabilities is not yet clear.
Information warfare doctrine, organizations, architectures, technologies and processes must be integrated and stressed under combat conditions to realize operational concepts and spur innovation. The Navy must be able to maneuver in the combat information space and not simply offer “resilience” in a distributed architecture. Navy information warriors must leverage war gaming, modeling, and simulation to anticipate threats to intelligence capabilities, perform damage control, and learn to fight intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) architectures and processes in combat conditions.
The Chinese military is organizing around its information warfare doctrine. In early 2016, as part of a broader military reorganization, the Chinese announced the creation of the “strategic support force” (SSF). Reportedly the SSF will integrate all Chinese information warfare capabilities across space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum providing offensive capabilities, targeted reconnaissance and tracking of adversaries, and defense of Chinese physical and virtual networks.22 The IWC, seven years into its integration, still is seemingly consumed with standing up organizations and processes, spreading workloads across federated architectures and renaming itself. None of this is to suggest that the United States must follow the Chinese SSF model. It should be noted, however, that the Design directs that the Navy’s nascent concept of electromagnetic maneuver warfare be expanded to “encompass all of information warfare, to include space and cyberspace.” The IWC would do well to move more quickly than our adversaries on the Design’s direction to integrate.
Achieve High-Velocity Learning at Every Level
Legacy education and training must be turned upside down if the IWC wants to be a warfare community on par with air, surface, and submarines. Today, the IWC places specialization training before establishing a basic knowledge of the information warfare doctrine and operational concepts (which still need to be developed). Naval intelligence and other IWC personnel attend respective individual community training upon accession. They subsequently complete a very basic IWC familiarization personnel qualification, test, and oral board during their first tours to become IWC qualified.23 That is largely the beginning and end of cross-IWC training. Integrated training and application of information warfighting knowledge, skills, and doctrine must become foundational to provide the necessary context for what should be follow-on training in an IW specialty.
Strengthen Our Navy Team for the Future
To develop an integrated information warfighting culture, the IWC must follow through on its commitment to integrate. The Naval Intelligence Strategic Plan, 2013-2017, established a mission objective to integrate the IWC stating, “Effectively integrating the full capabilities of the entire [IWC] is critical to successful Intelligence Operations.”24 Naval intelligence must lead the IWC in this effort because, more than any other component, naval intelligence has been the ultimate integrator, coordinating reconnaissance and collection, analyzing all-source intelligence, assessing the operational environment, and communicating intelligence across the force.
While reorganizing into a new warfare community and establishing an information warfare paradigm, the IWC has attempted to establish credibility by suggesting that IWC officers exclusively should be the information warfare commanders in the composite warfare commander construct or, perhaps, ascend from restricted to unrestricted line officer status.25 These suggestions are ambitious goals that may eventually come to pass. For the moment, however, integration, development of IW doctrine, and honing warfighting skills must be the prerequisite effort.
Expand and Strengthen Our Partner Network
The Design acknowledges that even as we face new challenges, the Navy will continue to face a budget environment that will force tough choices, but must also inspire new thinking. The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s)Third Offset Strategy invites inspired new thinking that will increase military capability while maintaining economy of force. What have come to be known as the First and Second Offset Strategies—characterized by tactical nuclear weapons and precision-guided munitions, respectively—were suites of capabilities to offset superior Soviet numbers during the Cold War.
Technology research and development (R&D) currently drives IW concepts and processes. That trend should be reversed. The IWC should lead the way and partner with other services to advocate for funding of IW doctrine and operational concepts that shape R&D of advanced IW technologies as part of the Third Offset Strategy. DoD has allocated $18 billion over the future years defense program for R&D to help realize the next offset strategy.26
Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, responsible for operations at Guadalcanal in 1942, commented to Admiral Chester Nimitz on the inquiry into the Battle of Savo Island:
I have concluded that our forces, both sea and land, at that time simply were not battle-minded…The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy…The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which included a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct.27
The Battle of Savo Island is a stark reminder of the power of information warfare. In recent conflicts, the United States has been operating in uncontested information environments under benign electromagnetic conditions. In implementing the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, the IWC must be battle-minded in placing the past in context, projecting future threats, and evolving into a combat-capable warfighting community.
1.Ira Wolfert, “Guadalcanal Risk Explained by King,” New York Times, 22 October 1945, 5.
2. Toshikazu Ohamae (Captain, former Imperial Japanese Navy), “The Battle of Savo Island,” Proceedings, vol.83/12/658 (December 1957), 1271-3, 1276.
3. Denis Warner and Peggy Warner. Disaster in the Pacific: New Light on the Battle of Savo Island (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1992) 211-2.
4. Thomas Mahnken, “Asymmetric Warfare at Sea – The Naval Battles off Guadalcanal, 1942-1943,” Naval War College Review 64.1 (2011), 101-102, citing “Night Training and Operations,” ONI Report 261. 18 October 1934, citing R.B. Coffey, “Tactical Problem V-1933-SR (Operations Problem IV-1933-SR),” 16 January 1934, RG 4, Naval Historical Collection, Naval War College, Newport, R.I., 25.
5. Richard Bates and Walter Innis. The Battle of Savo Island, August 9th, 1942. Rep. no. AD/A-003 037. Department of Analysis, Naval War College. 1950. 98-103.
6. Thomas McCool, Battle of Savo Island, Lessons Learned and Future Implications. Thesis. U.S. Army War College, 2002. 16.
7. David Quantock, Disaster at Savo Island, 1942. Thesis. U.S. Army War College, 2002. 18.
8.Bates. 136, 350.
10.U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2016. 43.
11. Robert Work, “Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech.” Army War College Strategy Conference. U.S. Army War College, Carlisle. 8 April 2015.
12.Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2004.
13.See Ming Fangqiu, “Form of War Changing Toward Informationized War,” China National Defense News (in Chinese), 27 June 2003.
14. China Academy of Military Sciences (AMS). The Science of Military Strategy (in Chinese). Ed. Shou Xiaosong. 2013 ed. Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013. 129-30.
15. China Academy of Military Science (AMS). Lectures on the Science of Information Operations (in Chinese). Ed. Ye Zheng. Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013. 5. See also, U.S. Department of Defense, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02, 15 February 2016: 111. “Information Superiority - The operational advantage derived from the ability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary’s ability to do the same.”
16. Larry Wortzel, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Information Warfare. Strategic Studies Institute & U.S. Army War College Press, March 2014. 11.
17. China AMS, Lectures. 7-8.
18. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Military Strategy: Winning Informationized Local Wars,” China Brief, vol. XV. no.13 (2015): 3.
19. Guo Yuandan. “Fight the War at Sea? China Should Make Preparations for Military Struggle at Sea.” Huanqiu Shibao (“Global Times” in Chinese), 26 May 2015.
20. Sharon Anderson, “Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare - Taking the Pulse of the Fleet,” CHIPS Magazine, January-March 2016.
21. See, for example, the “Fleet Problem” proposal in Crooks, DeVere and Mateo Roberaccio. “The Face of Battle in the Information Age,” Proceedings, Jul 2015: 52.
22. Zhao Lei, “New Combat Support Branch to Play Vital Role,” China Daily, 23 January 2016.
23. U.S. Navy, IWCO Qualification Program, OPNAVISNT 1412.13.
24. U.S. Navy, Naval Intelligence Strategic Plan, 2013-2017, 18.
25. See, for example, VADM Nancy Brown et al, “Creating Cyber Warriors,” Proceedings, October 2012.
26. Mehta, Aaron, “Defense Department Budget: $18B Over FYDP for Third Offset,” Defense News, 9 February 2016.
27. Warner. 253. citing RADM Richmond Turner, Memorandum for CinCPac, in Aurthur Hepburn, Informal Inquiry into the Circumstances Attending the Loss of the Vincennes, etc. on August 9th, 1942. 13 May 1943.