The Navy is adjusting to the return to great power competition but has not gone far enough culturally in shifting its priorities and budget to win the competition. In many ways, a mind-set that prioritizes hardware over software pervades. Twenty years ago, then-Captain James Stavridis warned that while the nation and its defense industry were preoccupied with the first revolution in military affairs, peer competitors would leapfrog over and “skim the cream” from our technological advances to achieve “regional information dominance.”1 From China contesting international norms at sea to Russia using information operations to help seize Ukrainian territory and vessels, this prediction has come to pass. Great power competition today involves a constant state of multi-domain warfare.
To win these competitions, the U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) directs the nation to “make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to field a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force.”2 For its part, the U.S. Navy has recognized the changing character of war identified in the NDS, but from an organizational and fiscal perspective, the Navy’s information warfare (IW) community remains a second-tier outlier. In the last ten years the Navy has established an IW Type Commander (Naval Information Forces in Suffolk, Virginia) commanded by a three-star admiral, an IW warfare development center, a fleet-focused training group, and a cyber-focused operational numbered fleet command (U.S. Tenth Fleet in Fort Meade, Maryland). The new IW enterprise aligns strategy, resources and funding just as the surface warfare and aviation communities have done. With those initiatives the rudder is over and the turn is in progress to prepare for what could be a century of multi-domain, great power competition. Yet to win, the Navy must make difficult choices and move faster to get beyond a platform-focused paradigm.
IW’s prominence and influence in the Navy is on the rise, but not fast enough to pace the threat. In the Navy’s 2016 “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) directed the Navy to “advance and ingrain information warfare” and expand IW to encompass space and cyberspace as part of naval and joint combat.3 Building on its predecessor, Design 2.0 released in December 2018 implies a need to wage IW from the sea and directs the Navy to ensure its “behaviors and investments” are aligned.4
As a behavior, the Navy acknowledges the importance of IW, but its investments are lagging and relegate IW to its traditional role of enabling fleet operations. This is a mixed message. Through its enduring peacetime forward presence, the Navy’s global access and technological edge make it the nation’s perfect institution to operationalize IW and deter peer competitor aggression. Currently, adversaries observe the Navy’s decisions and take note at the Andy Griffith-era way in which the steel comes before the electrons, data, and algorithms.
The Navy should, at a minimum, do three things as soon as possible to elevate IW to the same status as the traditional warfighting communities— make the necessary policy and legal changes to allow IW officers to command at sea, conduct a rigorous and holistic mission analysis of IW, and increase the resources devoted to IW-centric programs. These actions would show adversaries and allies alike that the Navy is serious about IW and ready for great power competition in the twenty-first century.
Information Warfare Command at Sea
IW officers and Sailors think about warfare differently. Belonging to the Intelligence, Cryptology, Oceanography, Information Professional and Space Cadre communities, they operate in the space, cyber, information, electronic, and physical domains whether their ships are underway or not. In both peace and war, they execute IW tasks against adversaries, often acting autonomously within intelligence community or interagency decision processes. Compared to their unrestricted line counterparts, IW officers routinely operate in and across many levels of war—from aircraft carriers, to mountain caves, to large centers ashore. This expansive and blended expertise makes them seasoned 21st-century warfighters with the proven competence and character to command sea-going forces.
Navy IW leaders have already instilled a command ethos, creating more opportunities for command (and senior enlisted leadership) earlier in career paths. In 2016, board-screened IW officers became the sole source to serve as the IW commanders (IWCs) on afloat strike groups, a key leadership role in the composite warfare commander structure. Yet the IWC does not enjoy command at sea authority on par with the carrier air wing commander or destroyer squadron commodore. The IWC makes command decisions every day that require the same accountability, authority, responsibility, and expertise, leading a multi-million-dollar IW enterprise afloat and leveraging the multi-billion-dollar U.S. IW enterprise for the carrier strike group commander. Allowing an IWC to earn the command at sea badge is a first step, although it will require changes to U.S. law if the IWC remains in the restricted line.5 Furthermore, if the Navy is serious about IW it will slate an IW flag officer to serve as a carrier strike group or numbered fleet commander.
There is a precedent for the Navy changing who is eligible to command at sea. Naval aviators were integrated into command at sea selection as the carrier went from a novelty to a primary battery of naval power.6 Now, the Navy should select the most qualified IW officers to command an expeditionary strike group as a captain, and a carrier strike group as a junior flag officer. A post-strike group IWC flag officer could then be considered for numbered fleet command. Just as select aviators are given pre-command training in deep draft surface navigation and nuclear power plant operations before commanding an aircraft carrier, so the “best of the best” post-IWC captains should be considered for a similar pipeline if selected for IW flag. If IW is maneuver warfare, as Navy leaders contend, then keeping IW officers in the restricted line is anachronistic. Many IW officers with the right fleet experience should be groomed now for the step after their IWC tour. Is it too fanciful to believe the first-ever IW carrier strike group commander is at least a lieutenant commander now?
Needed: An Information Warfare Mission Analysis
The Navy’s three IW pillars from the 2014 IW strategy—Battlespace Awareness, Assured Command and Control, and Integrated Fires—capture the range and scope of IW. The Navy, however, needs a sturdier foundation from which to take the IW community forward—it needs a rigorous, independent mission analysis to clearly define what IW is and what it is not given the pace of change and advancement of adversary capability. At this point, no discrete agreed-upon definition of IW exists for the Navy, let alone doctrine, and this ambiguity often undermines efforts to advance IW policy, programs, and resourcing.
One of the best things about the creation of the IW community is the realization how interdependent the four individual IW communities are. The IW community has become a team. A mission analysis followed by written guidance (doctrine) will bind the policies and programs, providing a reference for the smallest combatant to the largest program executive office. To ingrain IW as the CNO directs, a mission analysis for the wider Navy will inform how IW and its programs need to expand to meet Navy priorities.
Properly Resource IW for Today’s Fight
IW prioritization at U.S. Special Operations Command (SoCom) over the past 18 years is a powerful example. In his memoir, retired Army General Stanley McChrystal relays how threats drove the creation of a 2004 operational design that was four parts intelligence action and one part operational action—Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit and Analyze (F3EA).7 Many current Navy IW leaders cut their teeth supporting the F3EA process and can attest to its value and effect. Today IW is often the main effort in multi-domain warfare. SoCom commanders at every level gained a deep respect for IW and became vocal advocates. New IW-focused organizations were created—many now commanded by IW officers—which are vital to SoCom’s success. By aligning behaviors with its investments, SoCom adapted to the threat and changed its culture.
For the Navy to follow SoCom’s example, it would make significant resource and program adjustments and redistribute funds to IW systems. Right now, IW requirements usually end up “bolting on” to existing programs of record managed by a URL program office. Typically, IW requirements are not included in initial requirements capability documents, or they are the first things sacrificed when cuts are made.
Design 2.0 reinforces this misplaced prioritization in the “High Velocity Outcomes” section, which focuses on completing bent metal programs, few of which are IW-focused.8 Particularly at the low end of great power competition, IW programs offer a range of creative options to deter or meet gray zone activity with proportional messaging or force.9 To align its behaviors and investments, the Navy must shift from capabilities-based planning to a threat-based paradigm and insist on platforms and concepts that use IW as a main battery.
In contrast to the U.S. Navy’s level of investment in IW, great power competitors have been pushing their information technology sectors to deliver ways to “win without fighting” in space, cyberspace, and at sea for the past two decades. In 2015, the Chinese created a Strategic Support Force to integrate space, cyber, and electronic warfare across all military operations. That same year, the Russian Space Force was re-established as part of the reorganization of Russia’s Aerospace Force. These adversaries have made choices to bundle such diverse capabilities into a joint force and prioritize IW over other warfare domains.
The signal the U.S. Navy is transmitting is: IW matters doctrinally but not fiscally. It is irresponsible to suggest, however, that the Navy can change investment strategies as fast as a consumer buys a new smartphone. For the Navy, shipbuilding and sustainment plans are not purely force structure and national security decisions; they are decisions that have an economic impact from Newport News to Yokosuka. For the first time, however, there are five active duty three-star IW flag officers who can drive change.
A Tipping Point
Even if the Navy chooses not to act on any of these recommendations, it must face three truths. First, great power competitors have been making IW-related improvements across their forces for almost two decades. Second, these adversaries appear to be constantly at war with the United States in a strategic sense, and in the past five years they have accomplished a wide range of the “regional information dominance” objectives that Admiral Stavridis predicted. Third, the Navy is at a tipping point and must act faster. If the status quo remains it will take two decades or longer for the small gains the IW community has made to change fleet culture. That last tenet is arguably the hardest thing to do, but so was giving up the battleship. The Navy must match words with deeds to meet the intent of the NDS, and so help the nation win great power competition.
James Stavridis, “The Second Revolution,” Joint Force Quarterly (Spring 1997), National Defense University, Washington, D.C., 8.
- A Summary of the “2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge” at https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf
- Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 1.0, January 2016.
- Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, December 2018.
- CFR Title 32, Subtitle A, Chapter VI, Subchapter A, Part 700, Subpart I, Section 700.902 at: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/granule/CFR-2009-title32-vol5/CFR-2009-title32-vol5-sec700-902. Title 32 of the Code of Federal Regulations (which interprets USC Title 10) directs that officers of the line performing “special duties” (which includes all officer designators of the IW community) are not eligible for command at sea.
- Title 10, Subtitle C, Part II, Chapter 551, § 5942 at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2011-title10/html/USCODE-2011-title10-subtitleC-partII-chap551-sec5942.htm. The requirement that only aviators can command a carrier first appeared in 1926.
- Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task (New York: Penguin Group, 2013), 220.
- Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, 9. The acquisition of unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles do have IW applications, but the majority of these programs are traditional platforms that will require additional money for IW systems and interoperability.
- Megan Eckstein, “Navy Planning for Gray-Zone Conflict; Finalizing Distributed Maritime Operations for High-End Fight,” USNI News, 19 December 2018.
Captain Butera is a naval intelligence officer and the commander of Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC), Intelligence Directorate, United States Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska. In a previous tour he was commander of an Intelligence Squadron with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). A lateral transfer to intelligence, he earned his surface warfare qualification on board the USS Barry (DDG-52).