There has been remarkable continuity in naval intelligence since the early 1970s. Today, it remains focused at the strategic and operational levels of war, and its personnel excel at the tactical level in maritime and even in nonmaritime environments. Organizationally, it has large operational intelligence, scientific, and technical commands in Washington, D.C.; assigns officers, enlisted, and civilians to fleet squadrons, ships, and major fleet staffs; and fills joint positions in the combatant commands, Joint Staff, and national combat support agencies.
However, naval intelligence does not exist for its own edification. It exists to support the fleet and joint forces, both of which have shifted their focus to the high-end, peer threat while still managing requirements in the Middle East. Naval intelligence must anticipate the operational requirements that will accompany this shift and position itself accordingly. The decisions it takes regarding what requirements to fund and what ones to abandon must be based on a sound understanding of the key drivers of the future environment. It must start making the tough choices now, as organizational changes, new personnel policies, and new tactics, techniques, and procedures take time to mature.
Finally, naval intelligence must be ever mindful of its place in an era of rapid technological change. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s Third Offset Strategy noted in December 2015, advances in artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), autonomous systems, and man-machine teaming are driving massive change in naval warfighting concepts. More recently, the Army’s Project Convergence and the Air Force’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control, joining the Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air project, are attempting to operationalize these concepts in peer-competition kill chains. Executing all these concepts in practice in the future will first require detailed and accurate intelligence data to support digital modeling for advanced simulations throughout the acquisition cycle, testing and operational evaluation phase, and fleet training. This data also will be used to fill combat system libraries for the F-35 joint strike fighter, advanced acoustics systems, and other programs.
The Future Fight: Pacific Fleet Perspective
Fleet requirements can experience some strange transformations on the road to being acted on by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) staff (OpNav). Whether by accident or bureaucratic necessity, the OpNav’s response to fleet statements of requirement can sometimes be summarized as, “What they meant to say was . . . .” So, when a clear set of requirements arrives directly from a fleet commander, one should take note.
This happened in early 2018, when Proceedings ran a three-part series by then–Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift. The articles are the unclassified summation of his perspectives on the potential fight in the Pacific, how the fleet should carry out that fight, and the state of the supporting elements within the Navy and the joint force to support it. Read carefully, they are also a statement of requirements for naval intelligence.
In “Master the Art of Command,” he emphasized the importance of distinguishing between command-and-control (C2) tools and C2’s human aspects—the central role of the human element in warfare. Swift noted that “commanders must understand as much as possible of the enemy’s intentions and actions, maintain a current picture of their own forces, and understand when they may be losing that awareness.”1 In a fast-moving, multidomain fight against a peer competitor, the commander will be overwhelmed while executing the mission. “No matter how flawless the information or the network, it will be impossible for the commander to perfectly assimilate all areas of command and control while maintaining cognizance across all dimensions of the battlespace, moving at the speed of war.” The role of artificial intelligence in augmenting the commander’s decision making in this fight—not directing the commander but organizing the presentation of the battlespace and providing options—will be crucial.2
In the March 2018 article, “‘Fleet Problems’ Offer Opportunities,” Swift described how the Pacific Fleet was using operational problems identified in the Naval War College’s Global Wargame Series as the starting point for free-play exercises for deployed carrier strike groups. The War College’s new Fleet Problems series focuses on those issues that allow strike groups to develop, after limited mission command–type orders from the Pacific Fleet, their own plans and concepts for execution. Failure is expected and learning encouraged.
The role of naval intelligence and the larger information warfare community (IWC) in the new Fleet Problems includes being a critical part of the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team (PNAT), which originally was established to support the Global Wargame by accurately representing the Chinese order of battle and known doctrine, tactics, and procedures. As Admiral Swift noted, the “team’s strength is a firm grounding in adversary doctrine and tactics. They were creative, often vexing, as adversaries, but always kept their actions within the realm of plausible adversary responses.”3 Beginning in late 2015 (when Pacific Fleet’s operational challenges were designated the focus for the Global series), the PNAT’s new red team—and actual operational commanding officers from the fleet playing blue positions—resulted in increased real-world value and determined which issues were chosen to be addressed in forthcoming Fleet Problems.
With the resumption of the Fleet Problems in 2016, the PNAT became the “thinking” red opposition force challenging blue strike groups deploying from the West Coast. Swift noted: “In each iteration, the players have upped their game. Where once the PNAT could count on easy kills against the fleet units, it must now bring real rigor and subtlety to the fight. Creating success using the other side’s tools builds an appreciation and insight into their application that ultimately infuses intelligence analysis.”4
The final article appeared in May 2018 and was titled “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight.” Admiral Swift provided seven key principles of fleet command in an era of peer competition. Four speak directly to how the IWC needs to transform quickly.
The first two—Watch the (Time) Horizon and Embrace Uncertainty—center on the problems inherent in common operational pictures (COPs). COPs at the unit, operational, and strategic levels all present an incomplete view of reality (an illusion of omniscience) that lures leaders into thinking too much about the “here and now,” to the detriment of thinking about fleet operations beyond the next 24 hours. For the Pacific Fleet commander and his staff in Hawaii, the command center COP display is a distracting object that pulls them into the tactical realm. Embrace Uncertainty discusses the fact that thinking about future campaigns and operations means dealing with increased ambiguity and uncertainty. Admiral Swift makes an important point about the role of intelligence in helping the commander and planners craft future campaigns and operations:
Intelligence teams that are relegated to providing “battlespace awareness” will underperform at the . . . operational level of war, if only because the pursuit of the perfect COP comes with an opportunity cost in time and effort that cannot be devoted to the analysis of alternatives needed to be predictive. . . . If past remains prologue, the failure will be blamed on the intelligence chief (N2 or J2), not the commander’s lack of operational vision.5
The next two principles—Manipulate Time and Space (Tempo) and Kill with Speed—concern changes the Navy will need to make in transitioning from the Central Command–centric fighting construct of the past 30 years. Of tempo and risk, Swift notes that in the counterinsurgency fight, the military can control the tempo and associated risk because it has superior intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage and uncontested communications. In a peer naval fight, however, the reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance struggle takes place in a contested communications environment, thus depriving the commander of a clear understanding of the battlespace and potentially the trajectory of the campaign. “Increasing the tempo (reducing the time factor) generally increases risk. Inversely, when risk levels no longer are sustainable, tempo must be reduced. . . . Once that idea is accepted, all risk discussions must include a discussion about the associated impact on timing and tempo (and therefore impact on objective).”6 Central to that discussion is the role of intelligence in assessing how well the opposing operational leaders are executing their operational designs in an environment of imperfect information.
Finally, Kill with Speed introduces a new measure of effectiveness to the commander’s assessment process. Moving beyond the aviation-centric “Kill Ratio, Kill with Speed” will be critical in a peer fight. He notes:
The reliance on high kill ratios causes us to prize the exquisite engagement, firing from a position of minimum uncertainty and maximum probability of success. The problem with this view is that in major naval combat, it is not possible to generate the number of exquisite engagements necessary to achieve victory.7
Killing with speed will require increasing automation of the maritime COP in an environment with limited ISR collection operations, thin-line C2 networks to support direct sensor-to-shooter links, and an understanding that the shore-based maritime operations centers may be able to designate only the initial set of hostile targets. Therefore, the Navy must endeavor to perfect automation processes before a crisis begins, rather than attempting to maintain an operational level of war COP when combat is already under way.
Recommendations for Naval Intelligence
Given that the future environment will likely include limited resources, advancing adversary technology, and increasing fleet requirements, naval intelligence must make hard choices as to which initiatives to continue, which to drop, and which to keep but shift in a much different direction. Specifically, it should take the following steps:
Accelerate the collection and analyses required to grow and deepen its technical knowledge of adversary platforms and weapons. There will not be time to do this after the first shots are fired. Furthermore, all knowledge needs to be digitized and made directly accessible to Navy platforms, systems, and weapons, without additional human manipulation. To this end, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) must focus on those core intelligence functions that are not already accomplished by fleet intelligence elements, such as scientific and technical intelligence, civil maritime analysis, foreign navy exercise reconstructions, red vs. blue tactics development, and Naval War College and Fleet Problem red team support.
This effort must also include a redoubled effort to incorporate AI/ML in naval intelligence systems and processes. AI/ML will play an increasing role in finding valid adversary weapon signature data from which useful algorithms can be built. When it comes to foreign naval platforms or weapons, ONI owns the truth. ONI needs to invest more time, resources, and talent in being the
Navy’s source of threat algorithms that will drive the autonomous and combat systems in the fleet.
To better facilitate this, ONI should simplify and streamline its command structure. ONI is commanded by a two-star admiral with a headquarters staff, and below that the bulk of the workforce falls into five subordinate commands: Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center, Hopper Information Services Center, Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, and Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement. Recoding staff billets in the five subordinate commands to data scientist, analyst, and engineer billets would give additional flexibility to the ONI commander to more quickly reallocate analytical resources to meet critical technical requirements.
Fully embrace automation to maintain a global maritime COP. Too many man-hours are spent caring for the local COP in each maritime operations center. It is also generally wasteful to develop boutique information technology tools and local databases that cannot be integrated globally. The information technology necessary to build and maintain a highly automated, global COP is a critical IWC warfighting requirement—one the Navy needs to take seriously as a top acquisition requirement. The CNO’s recent announcement of Project Overmatch is a hopeful sign.8 Fixing networks, infrastructure, data architecture, tools, and analytics demands naval intelligence’s full participation. If there is a joint solution, then the Navy needs not to be too proud to jump on that bandwagon.
Create and support a subcommunity of intelligence officers and civilians who can think deeply about potential enemy actions and confidently advise fleet commanders and planners. Developing these intelligence advisors cannot be done on the cheap or left to chance. Fleet leaders expect naval intelligence to provide these expert intelligence advisors, and, therefore, naval intelligence and the IWC need to develop a deeper bench from which to select. There must be a deliberate intelligence advisor career path and a willingness on the part of IWC leaders to assign these advisors within the Indo-Pacific for the balance of their careers, so they have the time to become regional experts. Again, only a small portion of the naval intelligence officer corps and civil service is needed for this specialty career path. Those better suited to compete for command and senior civilian leadership positions should remain on a generalist track prioritizing leadership skills.
Finally, developing a deep bench of intelligence advisors should include integrating the Navy’s foreign area officers (FAOs) into the IWC. The quality of the FAO community has improved dramatically over the past five years, as its leaders have focused on selecting more highly qualified and motivated junior officers from the traditional warfare communities. The artificial division between intelligence officers and FAOs now needs to be broken down.
Admiral Swift made clear what fleet commanders need and expect from naval intelligence in preparing for and, if necessary, fighting and winning a war against a peer adversary. Ten years after formally being incorporated into the Navy’s IWC, naval intelligence is at an inflection point. To remain not just relevant but prominent in the Navy warfighting enterprise, it needs to make course corrections.
1. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “Master the Art of Command,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 2 (February 2018): 31–32.
2. Swift, “Master the Art of Command,” 33.
3. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “‘Fleet Problems’ Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 3 (March 2018): 25.
4. Swift, “‘Fleet Problems’ Offer Opportunities,” 26.
5. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018): 40.
6. Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” 41.
7. Swift, 42.
8. Project Overmatch will create requirements to help the Navy connect its tactical data network to weapon systems and sensors across the fleet. See Mallory Shelbourne, “Navy’s ‘Project Overmatch’ Structure Aims to Accelerate Creating Naval Battle Network,” USNI News, 29 October 2020.