Chinese navy soldiers in formation during a port visit to Yangon, Myanmar. Today’s complex and sophisticated maritime threat environment demands a basic intelligence officer course devoted to higher-level analysis and critical thinking. (Alamy)
Each morning in the Office of Naval Intelligence briefing room, the commander (ComONI) listens as junior naval intelligence officers brief the latest adversary operations and threats spanning the waters of both hemispheres. Throughout the briefing, ComONI directs focused questions to the officers, pushing them to assess not just adversary activity but also intent and operational and strategic implications. ComONI might direct his China briefer to characterize People’s Liberation Army Navy operations during the past year and assess where and when they will next deploy. On Russia, he might ask, “Which Russian vessels are operating in the Western hemisphere? What is the target of their activities?” These inquiries are not intended to embarrass the briefers, but instead reflect the need to develop officers who can produce intelligence that enables operational forces to defend the homeland and ensure a favorable balance of power in the face of increasing great power competition—key 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) objectives.
Naval intelligence’s raison d’être is to provide to fleet and national decision-makers a thorough understanding of the maritime operational environment and potential threats posed by adversaries. Junior officers contribute by delivering short-term operational intelligence (OpIntel) analysis. They scour reporting from a variety of sources to build a “common intelligence picture” in support of their commanders’ battlespace awareness. Experienced junior intelligence officers with extensive on-the-job training are adept at the who, what, when, and where of current adversary naval activity, but explaining the why or forecasting future activity often challenge their analytic capabilities because of shortcomings in their initial training. Failure to make changes to naval intelligence officer training will leave new analysts at a disadvantage when informing commanders of adversary threats. At worst, this deficiency could lead to intelligence failures that put U.S. naval forces at risk.
The NDS highlights “cultivating workforce talent” as a key component of building a more lethal force: naval intelligence officers contribute to lethality through their analytical competence. Retired Navy Captain Bill Bray wrote in the December 2017 Proceedings: “Today, most naval intelligence officers are more dilettante than expert on the threat. . . . Regardless of how many other skills naval intelligence cultivates, a weak knowledge base of threat expertise risks it someday being inconsequential at best.”
Bray’s criticism is warranted, but he understates the gravity of the situation. Many junior intelligence officers lack the threat knowledge necessary to recognize indicators of future hostilities or to anticipate hostile actions directed against U.S. forces. This could prove fatal. Shortcomings in training need to be addressed, including developing a basic course curriculum that instills the knowledge and skills officers need to help the Navy compete against great power rivals. Initial naval intelligence officer training must more effectively develop critical thinking and analytical skills, while honing students’ understanding of great power adversary history, culture, and military capabilities.
Junior Varsity Training
The six-month Naval Intelligence Officer Basic Course (NIOBC) introduces newly commissioned intelligence officers and lateral transfers from other warfare communities to critical thinking and analytic tradecraft. However, NIOBC’s effectiveness is diminished because it functions primarily as an intelligence briefing course. Because students arrive from a variety of backgrounds with uneven levels of experience, the curriculum is watered down to include introductory instruction in Navy vernacular. Officer candidate and midshipmen training is a topic for a different paper, but it is imperative that
NIOBC not bear the burden of educating new intelligence officers about Navy fundamentals.
NIOBC’s current curriculum does not devote enough time to critical thinking and analytic tradecraft, skills necessary to answer operational commanders’ “so what” questions. During recent NIOBC iterations, fewer than eight hours focused on critical thinking and analytic techniques, barely enough to inform students that such skills exist, much less to instill best practices in support of fast-paced operations. This is due in part to a pervasive assumption that a college degree is sufficient for newly minted intelligence officers to function as competent analysts. In fact, officers who lack an understanding of critical thinking tenets are less aware of their own reasoning deficits, increasing the probability they will present flawed assessments to commanders. Given the varied academic backgrounds of prospective intelligence officers, it is essential that each should receive a baseline education in thinking critically and applying structured analytic techniques to mitigate the effects of bias and false assumptions.1
It may surprise some to learn that NIOBC’s curriculum prioritizes easily referenced material, while missing opportunities for skill and knowledge building. The curriculum does not address adversaries’ history or explain relevant aspects of their strategic and military cultures. Students spend weeks memorizing threat information that is readily available in open source, but they expend little energy developing an understanding of adversaries’ tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). The former type of knowledge is fleeting given the rapid pace of innovation, while rendering shallow assessments of potential opponents’ intentions and their likely force employment in future conflicts. Because a country’s history and culture are linked to its military doctrine, strategy, and TTPs, naval intelligence officers must know adversaries holistically to accurately assess their actions. Those who would oppose the interests of the United States and its allies are pouring tremendous energy and resources into understanding U.S. history and culture and the way those influence U.S. military operations. We must exert the same effort if we hope to prevail in future great power competition.
The current composition of NIOBC faculty is another problem for basic naval intelligence officer training. Typically NIOBC instructors are junior intelligence officers with diverse backgrounds and OpIntel experience. These officers can unwittingly perpetuate a curriculum in which structured analytic techniques and critical thinking methods are sidelined in favor of superficial aspects of training such as instruction on slide construction and public speaking. Overemphasizing briefing skills is predicated in part on the fact that the instructors also are NIOBC graduates—they teach as they were taught. Furthermore, while they may understand elemental adversary threat capabilities, they are not selected for their subject-matter expertise in adversary naval force TTPs and operational employment. These instructors care about their students and dedicate tremendous effort training them according to the Navy’s prescribed curriculum, but the course still fails to impress upon students the importance of sound analytic judgment. It is not surprising, then, that many junior naval intelligence officers fresh out of NIOBC settle for the first answer that appears “good enough” when assessing adversary naval activity.2
Junior naval intelligence officers are mission-driven and share the same professional optimism of the unrestricted line community, but they are similarly susceptible to failure. In 2017, the surface warfare community experienced tragic mishaps that resulted in significant loss of life. The Navy’s official report on the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions listed training deficiencies first under findings that contributed to the collisions.3 Referring to each incident, the report states: “The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.” With some minor adjustments, this conclusion could easily describe an imagined future naval intelligence failure: The intelligence team was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves because of a lack of analytic tradecraft, ineffective application of critical thinking skills, and inadequate knowledge of the adversary.
Russian Navy destroyer Severomorsk leads the main naval parade in Kronstadt last summer. A new generation of U.S. naval intelligence officers will need to develop a deep understanding of a soon-to-be-recapitalized Russian fleet. (Sputnik)
Enhance the Faculty and Curriculum
Effectively training naval intelligence officers from the outset of their careers to apply critical thinking skills is essential to avoid a catastrophic defeat of the Navy. The likelihood of a major intelligence failure is growing: increasingly capable adversaries are contesting the maritime environment, improving their denial and deception tactics, and narrowing gaps in technology and proficiency.
It is not enough that intelligence officers have memorized orders of battle. The surface warfare community took its mishaps to heart and is implementing focused, job-specific training requirements to correct seamanship and navigation deficiencies and improve the performance of junior officers. Naval intelligence cannot afford to experience similar failures before reforming its training.
The first improvement to pursue is the expansion and enhancement of NIOBC’s faculty. Institutions of higher learning and training centers of excellence strive to compose faculties with members who hold significant experience and subject-matter expertise. For example, the Naval War College’s mission asserts that it must preserve a world-class faculty and staff to educate and develop future leaders who can advise senior leaders and policy makers.4 Naval intelligence analysis is inherently cerebral, and the Navy must seek similar high-quality faculty from a variety of backgrounds for intelligence officer training. Veteran intelligence community experts could be brought in as speakers or visiting faculty to provide lessons on analytic tradecraft and critical thinking; experts from the War College, civilian institutions, and the intelligence community could serve rotations as regional subject-matter experts; and senior naval intelligence officers who have served in high-level operational billets could provide depth on adversary doctrine and TTPs. Given their recent fleet experience, O-3 and O-4 instructors should continue to teach the processes, tools, and skills of Navy OpIntel, preparing students for the demands of their first assignments. Armed with such a robust faculty, NIOBC could present a truly first-class intelligence curriculum.
An enhanced faculty should concentrate NIOBC’s curriculum on three key areas to produce fleet-ready intelligence officers: critical thinking skills and analytic standards, naval adversary capabilities, and OpIntel. To do these topics justice, NIOBC should be expanded from 6 months to 8–12 months to accommodate at least 2 months of training on analytic tradecraft and critical thinking skills; 4–6 months on adversary platforms, TTPs, and operational art; and 2 months of OpIntel.
Providing NIOBC students adequate time to develop the aforementioned skills will improve and standardize their analysis. Junior naval intelligence officers will function more effectively at afloat and shore-based intelligence commands and within the broader intelligence community. Critical thinking skills and analytic standards are the bread and butter of the best intelligence analysts, but they are not innate and not bestowed by a college degree. The Navy already acknowledges that crafting proficient operators takes time—about two years to certify a naval aviator or SEAL. It also takes time to cultivate a critical mind-set that delivers objective, apolitical, timely, all-source analysis of the highest quality.5 Navy leaders might assume intelligence officers eventually will reach this standard with enough time and experience, but the current rapid pace of OpIntel commands precludes consistent, focused, and standardized training in all the areas of concern to this discussion.
Small changes in what instructors emphasize could improve the value of the training. NIOBC commits too much time to student briefings and not enough to the panoply of web-based tools available to all-source analysts. Crucial training steps are missed by teaching intelligence officers how to brief without emphasizing self-reliance in data collection and analysis to bolster what they brief. Intelligence officers need controlled, scenario-driven training to ensure they understand and can use the tools at their disposal in pursuit of correct assessments.
A Better Basic Course for Great Power Competition
Revamping NIOBC to make it more effective will almost certainly pose detailing and budgetary challenges, but the long-term benefits to the Navy are worth the costs. Great power competition demands a thoughtful approach to intelligence, which the current almost exclusive focus on OpIntel barely allows. Fortunately, intelligence community and Department of Defense entities have developed training and educational centers with which the Navy could collaborate to improve NIOBC. The Central Intelligence Agency’s Sherman Kent School “provides [Directorate of Analysis] officers with an integrated, career-long program that combines specialized training in the craft of intelligence analysis.”6 The school emphasizes collaboration and provides training opportunities to Department of Defense and intelligence community personnel; it is a potential partner that could provide advice on best practices in teaching critical thinking and analytic tradecraft. The National Intelligence University offers certificates in strategic warning analysis, China, and Eurasia, while the Naval War College has established China and Russia Maritime Studies Institutes. It seems only natural that naval intelligence should develop partnerships with both the university and the college to collaborate and establish a relevant adversary-focused NIOBC curriculum.
The nature of naval intelligence work in peacetime obscures the significance of the situation the Navy now faces. Junior officers are not sufficiently trained to warn warfare commanders of the next operational or strategic surprise at a time when adversaries are improving their capabilities. A recent Navy study of junior surface warfare officers qualified to stand officer-of-the-deck watch found only 16 percent completed competency checks with “no concerns” assessed.7 If the Navy’s information warfare community devised a similar test for recent NIOBC graduates to gauge their competence in collecting, organizing, and assessing information about Chinese or Russian naval activity, it is unlikely these officers would fare any better. One major step to improve readiness is to reform training, making it relevant for long-term great power competition.
1. David Moore, “Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis,” Occasional Papers 14 (Washington, DC: Joint Military Intelligence College, 2006), 50.
2. Moore, “Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis,” 50.
3. U.S. Navy, “Reports on the Collision between USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and Motor Vessel ACX Crystal and on the Collision between USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and Motor Vessel Alnic MC,” 1 November, 2017.
4. U.S. Naval War College, mission statement.
5. See Intelligence Community Directive 203 for an overview of analytic tradecraft standards. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Intelligence Community Directive 203: Analytic Standards,” 1 February, 2015.
6. Central Intelligence Agency, “Offices of CIA: Training Resources,”.
7. Sam Lagrone, “Navy Study Finds Junior SWOs Have Major Gaps in Seamanship, Ship Handling Knowledge,” USNI News, 6 June, 2018.
Lieutenant Murray is a naval intelligence officer currently serving in the Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center at the Office of Naval Intelligence. He transferred from the surface warfare community and completed the Naval Intelligence Officer Basic Course in February 2016.