The destroyer’s commanding officer squinted at the growing silhouettes on the horizon. He had been called to the bridge by the officer of the deck per the standing orders regarding visual contact with Chinese warships. Their Taiwan Strait transit would very likely be tense, especially considering China’s recent assertion that the strait was no longer international waters. The ship and all sailors on board were preparing to move on the global chessboard in a strategic manner, assuring regional allies and making a statement regarding the rising threat of Chinese military power.
“OOD, let’s get our SIO up here,” said the captain, and the OOD relayed the command to the boatswain’s mate of the watch. Over the 1MC, the word was passed: “Ship’s intelligence officer, your presence is requested on the bridge.”
Minutes later, an enlisted sailor walked onto the bridge.
The Navy concentrates intelligence manning, training, and readiness resources on board aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious ships. These ships have the physical space for large intelligence teams led by commissioned intelligence officers. The primary officers leading these teams are the ship’s intelligence officers (SIOs—commanders on aircraft carriers and lieutenant commanders on large-deck amphibious ships) and embarked carrier strike group or amphibious squadron staff intelligence officers (the N2s, also commanders and lieutenant commanders, respectively). The SIOs are responsible to their commanding officers for all intelligence matters and are the liaison to the larger intelligence community.1
It may be surprising to learn that commissioned officer SIOs constitute less than 20 percent of the entire SIO community in the Navy. Most SIOs are enlisted personnel—intelligence specialists—and either chief or first-class petty officers, serving on more than 100 destroyers, cruisers, and San Antonio–class amphibious transport dock ships in independent duty intelligence specialist (IDIS) billets. A product of the operational intelligence training path, intelligence specialists serving in IDIS billets are undertaking what is well-known in the naval intelligence enlisted community as “one of the most challenging opportunities in our rating.”2 Unlike the aircraft carrier or big-deck amphibious SIO, “the IDIS role is unique as the only intelligence analyst on board.” Despite the difficulty of this billet, there is no screening process or training pipeline to select and prepare intelligence specialists for this most-challenging tour.
An Expanding Community
Intelligence specialists serving in IDIS billets are naval intelligence’s sole practitioners for daily, unit-level intelligence integration with tactical-level operators. And the IDIS billet base is growing: The first fast-attack submarine IDIS checked on board this year. While only a pilot program, if validated, this could add up to 50 IDIS billets. The coming Constellation-class frigates will almost certainly have IDISs on board as well.
Furthermore, unofficial IDISs deploy on Whidbey Island–class dock landing ships, typically sourced from the amphibious squadron staff to meet the growing demand for afloat intelligence support. There are even IDIS manning discussions for littoral combat ships (LCSs). The IDIS billet base could grow to as large as 200 by the mid 2030s. Now more than ever, naval intelligence owes commanding officers enlisted SIOs with a high degree of expertise, adversary threat knowledge, and tactical acumen.
IDISs have similar responsibilities to those of large-deck SIOs at a smaller scale, but often greater opportunities to affect operations. As the sole all-source intelligence analyst on board ships, each is alone responsible for assessing the adversary in daily wardroom briefings, designing combat systems training team scenarios that represent an ever-complex threat environment, directing the ship’s photographic and human collections functions, and mentoring and training enlisted and officer tactical watchstanders. IDISs are the first impression of naval intelligence and the greater intelligence community for new sailors and junior officers.
Rectifying a Training Shortfall
Having no IDIS screening or tailored training has resulted in more than a decade and a half of inconsistent intelligence support for the Navy’s surface combatants. In the early 2000s, a Navy IDIS “C” school was defunded. This was a mistake, and the Navy is rectifying it with the already behind schedule Senior Enlisted Maritime Intelligence Analyst Course (SEMIAC), (re)creating the IS-3905 (now K41A) IDIS Navy enlisted classification (NEC). While this course is an overdue step in the right direction, graduates in IDIS tours must provide feedback to improve the course, and it will take years to hone the course for maximum effect. However, classroom academics alone will not prepare a prospective IDIS if naval intelligence does not carefully select students and provide better waterfront resources to support them.
In the early years of the war on terrorism, expeditionary and naval special warfare commands invested heavily in naval intelligence billets.3 Naval special warfare billets have a screening process, yet there is no screening process for the premier naval intelligence surface warfare enlisted billets. In the war on terrorism, this was probably an acceptable risk to limit cost. But with the possibility of war at sea in the Pacific increasing, it is unacceptable.
In addition to screening and routing IDISs through the SEMIAC, hands-on training is crucial for the demands of the position. With SEMIAC located at the information warfare training centers both in Virginia Beach (close to Norfolk) and in San Diego, the curriculum should incorporate underway time with current IDISs as running mates whenever possible. There are almost always ships underway off both coasts for unit-level certifications or advanced-phase maneuvers. This experience is vital, as many IDISs do not get a face-to-face turnover with their predecessor. Moreover, underway time on one or more platforms, even for only a few days, would give prospective IDISs the opportunity to learn about the different ships on which they will deploy. Intelligence analysts who traditionally focus on adversary forces need to better understand U.S. and allied forces.4
Different Types of IDIS Duty
Intelligence specialists screened for IDIS duty will need community-specific training as well. The Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) proponents envision small footprints of Marines equipped with over-the-horizon weapon systems to support a high-end fight.5 Most often, smaller amphibious ships such as LPDs with IDISs on board will deliver Marines to EABO sites. While the small crew of the future light amphibious warship (LAW) may not initially include an IDIS, the LCS program also omitted IDISs initially—until operations caused the Navy to rethink the need for onboard intelligence support. IDISs on board LCSs and potentially the LAWs should be schooled in EABO doctrine and be able to tailor intelligence for their Navy commanders tasked to deliver and support Marines at EABs.6
Moreover, Marines are not the only amphibious intelligence customers, as naval special warfare looks to the surface navy for future operations.7 Since amphibious ships lack the combined offensive and defensive capabilities of a destroyer or cruiser, IDISs on board amphibious ships must think differently. They must focus on an adversary’s “find and fix” capabilities and processes in the “find, fix, track, target, and engage” cycle. To an amphibious ship in a denied environment, detection is death.
Similarly, IDISs serving in submarines will need unique skills. The nature of submarine operations precludes consistent connectivity, requiring IDISs to front-load database downloads ahead of departure and develop a robust intelligence preparation of the environment prior to rigging for dive. Submarine IDISs must, at any time, have access to an 80 percent analytical solution on their hard drive, requiring hours of forward thinking and research, in addition to alerting intelligence organizations to be prepared to support disconnected customer operations.
Steep Learning Curve
Intelligence specialists in IDIS billets also require excellent blue-force platform and operational planning knowledge, which can be acquired only from on-the-job experience, to support the unique environments, information requirements, and operational requirements of each commands’ mission. As the intelligence specialist rating is primarily shore or shore-based sea duty (the shore-based detachment model), many IDISs have never been to sea on smaller ships before reporting for duty. And unlike newly reporting commissioned officer SIOs on carriers and large-deck amphibious ships, they do not benefit from having additional, experienced intelligence personnel on board.
The quality of an IDIS turnover also depends on whether the predecessor was allowed to perform the SIO position well and maintain associated programs and functions. Many IDISs do not have time for that because they are viewed as a “free” chief or first-class petty officer to run a division. Yet, if IDISs are fulfilling all their responsibilities delineated in the Commander, Naval Surface Forces Pacific, March 2020 “IDIS Roles and Responsibilities” message, they would be hard-pressed to find the time to run a division of sailors from a different rating.8 This same message states that assigning collateral duties to an IDIS is “not recommended.” Unfortunately, “not recommended” is not strong enough to prevent ship commanding officers from misusing their IDISs. A new IDIS “Roles and Responsibilities” message that clearly directs what IDISs will and will not do is necessary to ensure IDISs can maximize the value of naval intelligence for their commanders.
Undermanned and Undersupported
IDIS billets are also more undermanned than the IS rating at large.9 The IS community needs to address this shortfall urgently. Financial incentives such as better reenlistment bonuses or special duty pay associated with the K41A NEC could entice intelligence specialists grandfathered into the NEC who already have completed IDIS tours to consider returning for a second tour.
Finally, naval intelligence could better support IDISs by forging better relationships between the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and cognizant theater-level intelligence centers. Part of this responsibility, of course, falls on the individual IDIS, who must reach out, but ONI and joint theater intelligence commands have an equal responsibility. Both entities know who is deploying and when, and a product as simple as a well-maintained listing of analyst email addresses and their respective areas of expertise would bolster these vital relationships.
In addition, ONI would benefit from comprehensively reviewing how its much-needed products are being received in the fleet. Not just feedback on the content, but also on how much bandwidth is required and by what methods its customers receive those products. Acknowledging that in a conflict against peer competitors, the assurance of bandwidth and communications the Navy has grown accustomed to could be a vulnerability. How does ONI intend to support units that can only passively receive information?
ONI personnel and resources should be more accessible on the waterfront. If naval intelligence wishes to recapture the analytical primacy achieved during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, it must consider physical presence in the major customer areas, such as San Diego and Norfolk. The IDIS program is an opportunity for ONI to foster analyst-to-analyst and analyst-to-collector relationships with ships before they deploy.
ONI’s mission statement reads, “ONI collects, analyzes, and produces maritime intelligence and disseminates that intelligence rapidly to strategic, operational, and tactical decision makers to meet Navy, DoD, and national requirements.”10 Perception is reality, and to much of the IDIS community, this mission statement is not reality—a long-standing issue for ONI.11 ONI often falls short of its mission statement by disseminating bandwidth-intensive products that only shore-based operators and policy-makers with higher-level clearances than those of sailors in the fleet can read.
Finding and communicating with the right ONI analyst when deployed often takes a long time—if it is successful at all. The names and emails of every current SIO should be somewhere at ONI, fostering a culture in which analysts look at a briefing graphic and see a warship name but associate it with their uniformed counterpart. Such a relationship can create a positive feedback loop, driving better intelligence collection by ships. The uniformed analyst would benefit from having an active relationship with regional or specific subject matter experts.
Naval intelligence must overhaul the manning, training, and institutional relationships that were the norm for most of the current senior leaders’ time in service. While going against the grain is difficult, the Navy information warfare community as a whole prides itself on innovation. Anyone wearing an information warfare device knows Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s famous quote, “The most damaging phrase in the English language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’”
Bringing ONI personnel to the waterfront to integrate with the naval intelligence community afloat would create a direct flow of intelligence from the national level to the tactical end user in combat information centers, on bridges, and in wardrooms on nearly every ship (and potentially soon, fast-attack submarine) in the Navy. On the deckplates is arguably where, more than anywhere else in the naval intelligence community, an ounce of prevention can mitigate unnecessary risk to information and decision-making superiority for the high-end fight.