– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
This year is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway. In that battle, a U.S. force soundly defeated a Japanese fleet that outnumbered it three to one.1 This epic naval engagement is credited with turning the tide in favor of the United States in its struggle against Imperial Japan during World War II. It rightfully stands as one of the greatest victories in military history.
Victory at Midway was in no small part the result of the extraordinary work done by naval intelligence. Never before had naval intelligence played such a decisive role that an operational commander would describe it as “deserving a major share of the credit for the victory.”2 The story of how a group of dedicated and resourceful intelligence professionals lifted the fog of war at the moment the United States needed it most is worthy of the “miracle” terminology often used to describe it. The moral of the Midway story is beautiful in its simplicity: Hard work begets sufficient operational intelligence begets victory. To this day, it shapes conventional thought on the mission of naval intelligence. There is only one problem. It is incomplete.
What Is Missing
It is not any factual inaccuracy that leaves the Midway narrative wanting; rather, it is that its alluring simplicity and spectacular result make it too easy to leave out other valuable parts of the story. Without the complete story of its contributions in the Pacific war, naval intelligence is led to two false conclusions that continue to limit how it sees itself within the U.S. Navy. The first is the idea that Midway’s “formula” for victory is easily replicable, that hard-working naval intelligence professionals will always be able to produce the required operational intelligence to ensure victory. The second false conclusion is that Midway represents a sort of apex for naval intelligence, that providing timely and accurate operational intelligence is the best it can be expected to do. Both these conclusions are feeding an institutional complacency that is inherently dangerous as the Navy moves into an age where it will operate on the front lines of great power competition and where control of the information domain is less assured.
The need to adapt to this new age is the driving force behind the Chief of Naval Operations’ “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” which outlines how the service will pursue the maintenance of maritime superiority through four lines of effort: strengthen naval power at and from the sea; achieve high-velocity learning at every level; strengthen the Navy team for the future; and expand and strengthen our network of partners.3 To support the CNO’s vision successfully, naval intelligence must challenge conventional thinking about its roles and missions and critically examine, not just the positive results at Midway, but also some of the unpleasant lessons from events such as Pearl Harbor and the Guadalcanal campaign. In doing so, naval intelligence will find that fulfilling the CNO’s vision presents an excellent opportunity to expand beyond the Midway story.
A Great Story
In the days leading up to the Battle of Midway, then-Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s chief intelligence officer, predicted the Japanese fleet would strike Midway Island “on the morning of 4 June, from the northwest on a bearing of 325 degrees and could be sighted at about 175 miles from Midway at around 0700 local time.” As it turned out, Layton was only five minutes, five degrees, and five miles off. It was a prediction of stunning accuracy.4
The accuracy of that operational intelligence was born out of months of intense code breaking and analysis by Layton’s team. Possessing that depth of operational intelligence was an incredible advantage for U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz. It produced a level of clarity that seldom occurs in battle, especially one with so much at stake. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Nimitz could confidently concentrate his numerically inferior Pacific Fleet to defeat the Japanese naval force.
The path to victory Layton and his team blazed at Midway continues to inform how naval intelligence operates today. A review of Naval Warfare Publications and standard operating procedures for Maritime Operations Centers reveals the primacy the Navy places on—and its outsized demand for—timely and accurate operational intelligence, and naval intelligence is quick to apply Midway’s lessons to current challenges. But the lessons of Midway are too self-limiting to meet the immense challenge set forth by the CNO’s “Design.”
The Rest of the Story
The epic nature of the Midway story tends to overshadow other factors that contributed to victory, leading to the mistaken impression that naval intelligence was solely responsible for the U.S. success. It fails, for example, to acknowledge the role chance played. Layton’s team intercepted only 60 percent of all Japanese naval message traffic, and of that, they decoded just 40 percent.5 It also was extremely fortunate the Japanese decided to postpone a change to their naval cypher in the critical weeks leading up to the battle.6 If not for these occurrences, Layton could not have produced such a clear intelligence estimate for Nimitz regardless of his team’s hard work.
Decisions by the Japanese also contributed to Nimitz’s victory. The Japanese Midway campaign plan was overly complicated by a simultaneous and superfluous Aleutian Islands campaign. In addition, the Midway invasion force’s operational objective remained capturing the island instead of destroying the U.S. carrier fleet. Finally, the Japanese insisted on keeping their navy dispersed across the Pacific Ocean instead of concentrating it at Midway.7 Had the Japanese made different decisions, the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s success would have been in serious doubt, even with the best possible operational intelligence.
A singular focus on naval intelligence’s decisive contribution at Midway minimizes discussions on where naval intelligence failed or was used inadequately in the rest of the war. The most glaring examples appear in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when stove-piped cryptanalysis and disjointed intelligence dissemination within the U.S. Navy permitted crucial indications and warnings to fall through the cracks.8 Other examples can be found in naval intelligence’s uneven role in the planning and development of War Plan Orange—the series of war plans created in the interwar years to fight Japan—as well as its minimal incorporation into the design and opposing force characteristics of the U.S. Navy’s signature fleet exercise Fleet Problems and the Japan-related wargames conducted at the Naval War College.9
These failures and absences of naval intelligence were not without deleterious effect. A few short months after Midway, the Battle of Savo Island demonstrated that the U.S. Navy still did not understand or appreciate Japanese proficiency at night fighting. On what would be called the “blackest day of the whole war,” a Japanese task force of eight surface combatants attacked 12 Allied ships off the island’s coast under cover of darkness, resulting in the loss of four Allied ships and more than a thousand lives.10
Later in the Guadalcanal campaign, during the Battle of Tassafaronga, a numerically superior U.S. task force was defeated by a smaller Japanese force that, once again, used Japan’s expertise in night fighting, as well as its exceptionally capable torpedoes. The necessary insights into the capabilities of the Japanese adversary were in Office of Naval Intelligence prewar reports but were never incorporated into battle plans or fleet training and so had not filtered into the average tactical commander’s decision making.11
The reasons for naval intelligence’s shortcomings are numerous but included the changing and largely ill-defined mission, authorities, and role of the Office of Naval Intelligence. It was unclear whether the office was to be an information collector and repository, an enabler of war plans, or primarily a security agency focused on domestic surveillance.12 In the lead up to Pearl Harbor, there was even debate over whether it should be the final arbiter on intelligence estimates of adversaries.13 In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that the war plan and training for defeating the pacing threat of its era lacked an institutional mechanism through which naval intelligence could effectively contribute.
Midway’s False Conclusions
At a time when the “margins of victory are razor thin,” naval intelligence must raise and discuss its failures with the same enthusiasm reserved for Midway’s successes.14 Without such discussion, the community simply reinforces Midway’s false conclusion that what naval intelligence accomplished in June 1942 was its acme, which suggests that all an operational commander needs is an exceptional intelligence officer with a hard-working staff that consistently produces exquisite operational intelligence. That is the standard by which most major Navy commands and staffs judge their intelligence departments today, and it explains the lack of emphasis on naval intelligence’s participation in planning and training. Considering the challenges posed by peer competitors such as China and the objectives set forth by the CNO, that standard needs to be set higher.
So why does naval intelligence continue to operate in such a self-limited manner? Perhaps it is, to paraphrase Andrew Gordon’s description of the British Royal Navy’s complacency following the Battle of Trafalgar, because naval intelligence has been permitted a certain laxity in the “long calm lee of Midway.”15 In other words, naval intelligence can remain complacent because it has not had to face a peer naval challenger since the Japanese.
Unfortunately, that “long calm lee” is fast passing into history. The days of the U.S. Navy’s assured information superiority are coming to a close. Peer competitors such as China possess an increasing ability to degrade or deny naval intelligence’s ability to deliver the battlefield clarity commanders have come to expect.16 Successfully operating in this environment is the central challenge in the “Design.” This challenge presents naval intelligence with an opportunity to articulate and demonstrate that it is capable of far more than producing operational intelligence under miraculous circumstances.
No Need for Miracles
Naval intelligence still will need to do what it traditionally has done—provide timely and accurate operational intelligence to commanders—but that no longer will be enough. Instead of being simply a provider of operational intelligence that others act on, naval intelligence must take greater ownership of how operational intelligence is applied as it filters into other U.S. Navy warfare areas, such as planning and training.
What this will mean is that in all things involving the application of naval intelligence, presence will matter. Planning and training to fight against the Japanese Navy suffered not from a lack of available operational intelligence but from a lack of naval intelligence’s physical presence and authority in how that intelligence was applied. Empowered naval intelligence presence was simply not there or not there in sufficient capacity to ensure the intelligence being provided was integrated effectively. To move forward, naval intelligence will need the authorities to expand its physical presence into each warfare area.
Achieving this will require a number of efforts on the part of the information warfare community (IWC). The first is to create intelligence billets within the planning departments of all major naval commands. Currently, IWC officers possessing operational planner qualifications are billeted only within the intelligence—not planning—departments of these staffs. It is too easy for intelligence directors to focus on the operational intelligence problems of today instead of the planning challenges of tomorrow. As such, opportunities to integrate highly capable intelligence officers with planning fall down the priority list. Naval intelligence needs to be in plans, not be just a supporter of plans.
The next effort is to address shortfalls in fleet training. There currently is no rigorous and formal process for ensuring training is integrating the most current insights about the pacing threats facing the U.S. Navy. To avoid the dangers of training against less-capable threats and missing opportunities to teach and inform tactical commanders and their staffs, naval intelligence must be an equal partner in training standards and certifications. The IWC, through the new Information Warfighting Development Center, should review how well the latest operational intelligence is being integrated into fleet training. Serious consideration should be given both to expanding the dedicated opposing force (OpFor) model used at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center to other warfighting development centers and to establishing permanent and dedicated red cells, consisting predominantly of naval intelligence personnel, within major naval commands. Being responsible for integrating the latest operational intelligence on pacing threats, these OpFors and red cells would become the yardsticks by which the U.S. Navy could measure the readiness of its operational units should great power competition turn into great power conflict.
In pursuit of these efforts, the IWC also should consider expanding the number of seats it has in the Maritime Advanced Warfare School to grow the number of IWC officers who understand the planning process; reinvigorating what is now a perfunctory Asia Pacific Hands qualification into something that improves the integration of adversary insights into other warfare areas; and making greater use of the high-caliber senior IWC officers who walk out the door after failing to screen for milestone or their next rank. The impact of these initiatives on IWC budgets and billets is an obvious concern and would need to be carefully weighed; however, the common objective of strengthening naval power and achieving high-velocity learning should weigh heavily in any cost-benefit review.
At the end of the day, it is essential that naval intelligence becomes an integral part, not just of the process that provides the U.S. Navy useful operational intelligence, but also in determining how that intelligence is applied. A wider examination of naval intelligence beyond Midway demonstrates how powerful the application of operational intelligence can be, as well as how harmful not applying it can be. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, naval intelligence must ensure operational intelligence is used to its fullest potential for the U.S. Navy to act wisely or, as the CNO writes, to “conduct decisive combat operations to defeat any enemy.”17
This is not to suggest the exceptional operational intelligence provided at Midway did not matter or to denigrate naval intelligence’s traditional support to commanders in battle. In fact, it is the opposite: operational intelligence matters greatly. Just ask the Japanese Navy at Midway. But exceptional operational intelligence is just that—the exception—and naval intelligence should never be complacent about what more it can contribute in preparation for the day of battle. Just ask the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal.
Instead of satisfying itself with the laurels from Midway’s victory, naval intelligence needs to reflect on other battles, such at Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal, where its actions were found wanting. The need for this type of reflection speaks to a critical point in the CNO’s “Design” that has not received the attention it deserves. In his introduction, the CNO writes, “Moving forward, we’ll respect that we won’t get it all right, and so we’ll monitor and assess ourselves and our surroundings as we go. We’ll learn and adapt, always getting better, striving to the limits of performance.” This is the level of conversation that naval intelligence needs to get to—where it can honor and talk about what it got right and, more important, be equally comfortable talking about what it got wrong. When naval intelligence holds these types of honest conversations, it will realize it is not dependent on miracles but instead is creating its own.
2. Edwin T. Layton, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway – Breaking the Secrets (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985), 448.
3. Admiral John M. Richardson, U.S. Navy, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” (Washington, DC: 2016), 6-8.
Layton, And I Was There, 448.
4. Layton, And I Was There, 430, 438.
5. Layton, And I Was There, 420..
6. Layton, And I Was There, 392.
7. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), 400-409.
8. See Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword; and Elliot Carlson, Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).
9. Jeffrey M. Dorwart, Conflict of Duty: The U.S. Navy’s Intelligence Dilemma, 1919-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), ch. 14; and Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War (Newport: Naval War College Press, 2010), ch. 3.
10. James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 89, 435.
11. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno, 392.
12. See Jeffrey M. Dorwart’s Conflict of Duty and The Office of Naval Intelligence: The Birth of America’s First Intelligence Agency, 1865-1918 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979).
13. Layton, And I Was There, 98-99.
14. Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” 8.
15. Andrew Gordon, Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
16. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016” (Washington, DC, April 2016), 74-75.
17. Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” 1.
Photo Credit: Sinking of the IJN Mikuma by John Hamilton