Over the past decade, the Navy made significant strides in developing an information warfare community to mirror traditional unrestricted line warfare communities. However, the Navy’s commissioning guidelines have not kept pace with this dramatic evolution in information warfare. Midshipmen at the Naval Academy and in NROTC units around the country have been flooded with energetic language from senior leaders about the importance of the “information domain” in modern warfare. To be sure, there have been real changes and investments of note, such as the creation of a cyber operations major and construction of a $106 million cyber center at the Naval Academy. But despite the grand promises, in many other areas the information warfare community is viewed just as it always has been—four relatively small restricted line designators that are their warfare peers’ equal in name only.
To demonstrate its sincerity about the importance and future of information warfare, the Navy should make a dramatic and immediate change to its officer commissioning policy by apportioning approximately the same percentage of Naval Academy and NROTC ensign quotas to the four information warfare designators—intelligence, cryptologic warfare (CW), information professional (IP), and meteorology and oceanography (METOC)—that goes to the traditional unrestricted line communities. It took a step in this direction by opening CW and IP to physically qualified Naval Academy midshipmen in 2015, and by adding Intelligence and METOC in 2018. However, the overall the percentage of ensigns commissioned into information warfare from the Naval Academy and NROTC remains far below that of the traditional warfare communities. And naval intelligence—the largest information warfare officer specialty with 74 ensign requirements in 2019—gets the smallest percentage of the four (and most are still non-physically qualified midshipmen, meaning naval intelligence cannot compete for most of the top midshipmen).
While the number of physically qualified midshipmen commissioning CW and IP has grown each year, it remains rare that a physically qualified Naval Academy midshipmen interested in intelligence and METOC commissions directly into one of those two designators. For physically qualified NROTC midshipmen, it remains essentially impossible. Therefore, the threshold for opening restricted line officer communities to midshipmen physically qualified for the unrestricted line has been crossed, but for all practical purposes for only half of the information warfare community.
This is unsatisfactory, as it still leaves the information warfare community as a whole a second-class warfare community. Furthermore, it reaffirms a disparity within the information warfare community itself between CW and IP, on one hand, and intelligence and METOC on the other. Essentially, the message the Navy is sending to intelligence and METOC officers is that they are not really as important to warfighting as are the two other specialties.
This is not an insubstantial issue. Naval intelligence meets most of its annual ensign requirement (approximately 75 ensigns) through Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. While it has and will continue to access outstanding officers through this commissioning source, by limiting to single digits USNA and NROTC ensigns from commissioning into intelligence, the Navy is not optimally utilizing all officer commissioning programs. USNA and NROTC institutions recruit and develop top academic and leadership talent from across the country, and in a world of increasingly complex security challenges, the Navy must allow the information warfare community to maximize this talent to its advantage.
In examining the commissioning source data for fiscal year (FY) 2019 and what the Navy intends to program out to FY 2025, it is clear the Navy has no intention of treating information warfare as an equal to other warfare communities. The four traditional unrestricted line warfare communities will continue to get the pick of physically qualified Naval Academy/NROTC graduates for the foreseeable future.
A Hard Look at Navy Commissioning Data
In 2019, the four traditional unrestricted line communities will meet greater than 50 percent of their ensign commissioning requirement from the Naval Academy and NROTC. According to the FY 19 Active Duty Officer Accession Plan signed by the Director, Military Personnel, Plans, and Policy (N13) on 10 April 2019, the specific community goals for Naval Academy/NROTC commissioning sources are as follows:
- Surface warfare: 546 of 975 ensigns (57%)
- Naval aviation: 587 of 1,103 ensigns (53%)
- Submarine warfare: 273 of 399 ensigns (68%)
- Special warfare: 52 of 78 ensigns (67%)
By contrast, in FY 19 the information warfare community’s goal is to access approximately 28 percent of its ensigns from the Naval Academy and NROTC (52 of 188). Inside the information warfare community, the individual branch goals for Naval Academy/NROTC commissioning source are as follows:
- Cryptologic warfare: 31 of 64 ensigns (48%)
- Information professional: 10 of 42 ensigns (24%)
- Meteorology and Oceanography: 2 of 9 ensigns (22%)
- Intelligence: 9 of 73 ensigns (12%)
These numbers are even smaller when highlighting the fact that almost all the intelligence and METOC spots are designated for midshipmen who are not physically qualified to commission into unrestricted line communities. On 19 February 2019, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Manpower, Personnel, Training and Education (N1) approved the officer commissioning strength and inventory plan for FY 20–25 with the exact same information warfare commissioning source goals as FY 19. This plan does not commit the Navy to these percentages, but it does reveal that, as of spring 2019, the Navy has no plan to adjust course, and will continue to allow only CW and IP to access the vast majority of physically qualified Naval Academy midshipmen who screen for and express a preference for the information warfare community.
The inequity inside the information warfare community is also apparent from these statistics. CW and, to a lesser extent, IP have taken (or been allowed to take) an important step closer to being an unrestricted line warfare community, while intelligence and METOC have not. To an intelligence officer, this implies that Navy leaders prioritize cyber and information technology skills and assign a higher premium to CW and IP officers when contemplating the future of information warfare. If that is true, it bodes ill for the health of the intelligence and METOC officer communities in the long term. Navy warfare communities have a way of segregating themselves into unwritten hierarchies of senior decision-maker-producing sub-communities. For example, naval aviation senior leaders came predominantly from the tactical aviation side of the house for decades. It would be a bit naïve to assume the budding information warfare community will avoid this fate, and the Navy’s current officer commissioning policy seems to steer it in that direction.
Intelligence Gets Only Scraps from the Naval Academy Table
In 2019, two of the ten Naval Academy midshipman commissioned as naval intelligence officers were physically qualified for the unrestricted line—the first time this occurred. This was the result of a minor change in policy, but not one that will affect the substantial imbalance weighted heavily toward CW and IP.1 Allowing two physically qualified midshipmen to commission into intelligence was a small step in the right direction, but there is no indication this will be anything other than a small step. If intelligence is just as important as cryptologic warfare in the information warfare community, one would expect intelligence to source approximately 50 percent of its ensigns from physically qualified Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen, just as CW does.
Naval Academy midshipmen interested in intelligence do have a variety of impressive professional-development options available that did not exist before the information warfare community existed. With the Office of Naval Intelligence located approximately 30 miles from Annapolis, several midshipmen undertake prestigious internships there and at the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Plot in the Pentagon. Some midshipmen can also partake in information warfare training cruises, which introduce them to the different information warfare specialties before they get commissioned.
But this is hardly enough to ensure naval intelligence is well-positioned for the future. Both the Army and the Air Force commission physically qualified service academy and ROTC cadets directly into their intelligence branches and other information warfare fields. The Marine Corps, too, makes no distinction, assigning physically qualified graduates of The Basic School to its intelligence specialty, regardless of commissioning source. The Navy is the only service that prohibits NROTC/service academy graduates from commissioning into intelligence.
The significant majority of USNA and NROTC midshipmen will continue to commission into traditional unrestricted line communities. Allowing a select number of physically qualified midshipmen to commission into CW and IP in 2015 did not prevent the unrestricted line communities from getting their share of USNA and NROTC talent. Instead, it made our Navy a stronger force, better prepared to challenge adversaries in the 21st century. Increasing intelligence and METOC to an equitable level would only further advance this objective.
People Will Always Be Information Warfare’s Most Critical Investment
The information warfare community operates increasingly as one cohesive community, rather than four separate designators. Ensigns attend the same Information Warfare Officer Basic Course as classmates upon commissioning, sit on each other’s qualification boards, wear the same warfare pin, serve in cross-designated billets, compete in the same fitrep competitive group, source the same carrier strike group information warfare commander position, and on achieving flag rank become redesignated to the common 1860 designator. There is no clear or justifiable reason why a commissioning source disparity exists both for and inside the information warfare community. The Navy made necessary and astounding changes to the information warfare community over the past decade. Now it must follow suit and allow all the information warfare community designators genuine access to all commissioning sources.