Information warfare in the maritime domain includes space, network, and cyberspace operations; electromagnetic warfare (including free space optics at the high end of the spectrum); and maneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum that directly affects fleet operations and planning. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel underscore that operational planners need to prepare for information attacks by state actors as well as nonstate organizations and civilians. Whether because of competing priorities or an incomplete assessment, the Navy has not fully embraced that access to space operations supporting distributed maritime operations requires cyberspace access and capabilities; that naval platforms have inherent access advantages to support both cyber and space operations; and that service leaders need to understand, assess, defend against, and defeat cognitive warfare campaigns.
The Navy lacks an agreed to strategic, operational, and tactical view of what it believes war in the maritime domain will look like over the next five to ten years, when advanced capabilities brought on by accelerating technologies such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, quantum computing, and free space optics complicate an already challenging environment. China, on the other hand, has been planning and conducting a global campaign in the information domain since the mid 1990s. Today, China can employ its growing control over the cyberspace technology ecosystem—from submarine cable systems to satellite constellations—along with its control over software platforms and information supply chains and growing dominance in algorithm-driven consumer and media platforms to change the character of war decidedly
in its favor.
Based on the War of 2026 scenario published in the December 2023 Proceedings, the U.S. information war could go one of two ways—very bad or bad.
A Very Bad Day
The first lesson from the “Information War of 2026” would be that the conflict—an information “cold war”—had been going on for years, but the U.S. Navy had not committed to fully participating. In the information domain, there are no forward and rear areas—no home sanctuary. By 2026, cognitive campaigns waged in the prior decade would have left the U.S. public under a persistent state of cognitive manipulation, and, in many cases, as participants in conflict against the United States. Despite warnings from senior civilian and uniformed leaders, including Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNOs), the Navy failed to prepare for how war in the maritime domain would intersect with war in the cyber domain. Consequently, the Navy would not be ready for hot war.
In 2026, the Navy was still operating on timetables of years—even decades—to develop operational concepts for naval cyber power in the information and maritime space domains. Specifically:
• It had not begun meaningful investment in people, processes, and systems or employed them at scale. This is because it lacked a clear vision of how information warfare should be integrated into fleet operations and the strategies, advanced technologies, and platform architectures necessary to achieve that vision.
• It lacked the institutional will to adapt beyond legacy programmatic requirements, lethargic acquisition systems, and exquisite but fragile technologies and information systems that required uninterrupted access to the electromagnetic spectrum to function optimally.
• It did not adequately plan for disruption and denial of the information space at scale and depth, nor did it establish wartime reserve capabilities for resiliency and robustness.
In the scenario, China was able to attack the sources of U.S. naval power with cognitive warfare capabilities it had been investing in, deploying globally, and employing against the American public for more than a decade. Naval leaders were cognitively outflanked—unprepared because fundamental assumptions were flawed. Thousands of U.S. sailors—avid users of TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and other media under China’s influence—were being manipulated to the point that many refused to fight for a cause they questioned and a country in which they no longer believed.1 The Navy was unprepared because it did not recognize that the conflict had started several years prior to 2026.
A Bad Day
Leading up to the 2026 scenario, the Navy’s investment in the information warfare and cyberspace operations organizations and resources necessary to support fleet operations would be barely adequate to permit the Navy to adapt and reorient itself after suffering tremendous casualties. Strategic surprise in the cognitive space would be slightly mitigated by the expectation among senior leaders that China would employ novel information warfare capabilities to disrupt U.S. maritime power.
Through deliberate fleet experimentation and concepts for off-net cyber operations, the Navy would be able to reorganize information forces and capabilities that had suffered significant attrition to transition to alternative employment means.2 It would do so while the force was under tremendous cognitive strain, which it would be able to limit only through aggressive sailor intervention and investment programs. This process, while slow and inefficient, would at least put the Navy back in position to contest the information space, occasionally gaining the initiative for limited employment of fleet power. While the Navy and the nation avoided outright defeat at the beginning of the conflict, it is uncertain whether they could adapt fast enough during a global war that would last for years and bring it to a successful conclusion.
Navy Information Forces in 2023
In 2009, the Navy established the information dominance corps—now (thankfully) the information warfare community—to manage officers, enlisted members, and civilian professionals with extensive skills in information-related fields, such as intelligence, meteorology and oceanography, information technology and network administration, communications, cryptology, space operations, and cyberspace operations.3 The Navy has reorganized enlisted ratings and officer designators since that time and continues to grow its cyber-related cadre of active-duty and reserve component personnel. Since 2020, the Navy’s cyber and information forces have been organized under structures comparable to those of its other warfare communities, principally Fleet Cyber Command and U.S. Tenth Fleet.
Along with personnel and organizational evolution, Navy information forces were part of a larger conceptual shift in the employment of cyber operations, adopting an “initiative persistence” framework and discarding the 2015 “doctrine of restraint” that had long been U.S. policy. Under this framework, U.S. cyber operators frustrate adversary operations through a “defend forward” philosophy to defeat malicious cyber activity “at the source.” This conceptual shift mirrors the long-standing naval core function of forward presence by operating daily in the global commons to secure free trade, defend U.S. and allied national interests, and conduct military operations. Since the 2018 shift to initiative persistence, the Navy published its Information Superiority Vision in 2020 to address deficiencies in its own information networks, and the Cyberspace Superiority Vision in 2022 to secure its networks, survive through resilient deployment of capabilities, and strike the adversary in and through cyberspace. In November 2023, the Navy released Cyber Strategy, building on the Cyberspace Superiority Vision. Further, the Department of the Navy has sustained continuity between its chief information officers and continues to fill the principal cyber advisor position, as mandated by Congress.4 While these are important steps, there remains no overarching framework or vision that includes Navy space superiority, electromagnetic superiority, integration of artificial intelligence, or the infrastructure and bandwidth—from the operational center to the tactical edge—required to execute distributed maritime operations.
Also in 2022, then-CNO Admiral Michael Gilday, who previously served as Commander, Fleet Cyber Command, issued Navigation Plan 2022, which prioritizes readiness, capability modernization, cost-effective capacity to mitigate warfighting risk, and investment in a trained, resilient, and educated combat force.5 The plan’s goals include long-range fires, counter-C5ISRT, terminal defense, and the ability to operate in an environment in which logistics is contested. Supporting these goals are live, virtual, and constructive training; naval operational architecture; artificial intelligence; and unmanned systems. The Navy will be unsuccessful in realizing these goals or developing the enabling capabilities if it fails to support fully the vision it outlined for its information systems and cyberspace operations capabilities.
In 2026, the Navy’s information and cyber forces and capabilities will not look much different than they do today, unless major investments are made quickly. The Navy needs to decide not only how it wants the first day of the war to go (D+1), but also how it wants the 730 days prior to the war to unfold. It must address this fundamental question: Does the Navy require its own cyber forces and capabilities to fight and win war at sea—its core mission—or can it rely on national and joint cyber and information capabilities?6
What the Navy Should Do
Although the CNO proposed creating Navy-service cyber teams in 2019, as of 2023 such teams do not exist.7 The Navy does not have service-retained cyber forces, operating on Navy-owned cyber infrastructure, and employing Navy-developed cyber tools. Fleet commanders are not provided Navy cyber teams under their control. Until these teams and capabilities exist, the Navy remains merely a cyber force provider to the joint force in support of U.S. Cyber Command. The Navy still lacks a coherent vision of information warfare at sea and the operational concepts, tactics, and capabilities required to conduct it.
As a result, carrier strike group (CSG) and amphibious ready group (ARG) information warfare commanders (IWCs), while part of the composite warfare construct, do not have full authorities to wage combat operations in the electromagnetic spectrum. The IWCs remain simply staff officers to the CSG or ARG commanders. Unlike other warfare commanders, the IWCs do not “command at sea” or come with their own dedicated staffs and unique warfare authorities. In theory, an IWC can be either the supported or supporting warfare commander to the other warfighting domains. In practice, information warfare remains a secondary warfare area to fleet and deploying group operations.8 Concurrently, ship combat teams and fleet staffs must “fight at the highest classification level.”9 To be able to leverage all C5ISRT resources in all domains—especially space and cyberspace—requires integrated planning and maneuver across all combat arms of naval and joint forces.
To succeed in 2026, the Navy would need service-retained, fleet-aligned cyberspace forces for Title 10 cyber-physical military operations. These maritime cyber teams would be charged with generating the access to support the outcomes envisioned in the Information Superiority Vision, Cyberspace Superiority Vision, and Navigation Plan 2022. To that end:
• OpNav N2/N6 would resource them with sufficient talent, infrastructure, and tools. The Navy acquisition process must adapt to generate these resources at speed and scale, and a program objective memorandum needs to be issued now to generate these resources and talent before 2026.
• Naval Information Forces would be responsible for force generation, including but not
limited to capability and tactics, techniques, and procedures development. The Naval Information Warfare Development Command is well on this path.
• Maritime cyber teams would be operationally assigned under Fleet Cyber Command/Tenth Fleet and aligned to deployed naval forces. Their missions would complement those of the joint force component commanders. They would directly support fleet maneuver and warfighting.
The Navy Cyber Requirement
To fully support fleet commanders, the Navy would need at least ten maritime cyber teams, equivalent to a current joint cyber support team and cyber mission team combined—about 900 billets. Further, to ensure the Navy can meet its infrastructure, software development, and vulnerability analysis requirements, it must immediately grow the CWE community from the current 80 people to at least 400 without relaxing its high entrance standards. The new maritime cyber warfare officer (MCWO) community must grow to 900, and in parallel the Navy must recruit and replace the personnel lost to the MCWO community through lateral transitions from the IP and CWO communities.
The Navy should evaluate how the other services created their service-retained cyber and information forces and incorporate those lessons. But this hard rudder turn must be followed by rapid investment in all the information warfare communities, as competencies in the information space cannot be surged, but must be grown.
Creating, employing, and resourcing maritime cyber teams must not come at the expense of the Navy’s necessary contributions to the joint force. In that regard, the Navy must learn from the other services, as it has underinvested there as well. While it should emphasize resources for operations against China, it also should ensure sufficient resources for global fleet operations. The Navy no longer has the luxury of underinvesting when its peer adversary now operates globally in the maritime domain and in cyberspace. It must resource all joint force headquarters cyber teams and, in partnership with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, fund its staff at Fleet Information Warfare Command–Pacific to at least 75–100 information warfare people.
Maritime cyber teams require their own infrastructure and more resources at the Navy Cyber Warfare Development Group (the cyber warfare tool developer in Suitland, Maryland). This would permit the Navy to access, exploit, and act against targets that support its maritime mission. Maritime cyber teams also must develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures; rules of engagement; and additional training requirements that nest within ships’ battle orders and strike group preplanned responses. This would demand close collaboration with fleet staffs and joint component commanders throughout development.
Leading these efforts on CSG or ARG staffs are the IWCs. While at present they have an important role in synchronizing information-related and cyber capabilities across CSGs and ARGs, they do not have weapons-release authorities equivalent to those of fellow composite warfare commanders, such as the surface warfare and air warfare commanders. This is critical when it comes to network defense and emission control and demands serious attention to network insecurities, signal radiation, and frequency deconfliction, as well as the authority to conduct forceful corrective action. IWCs require the authority to order military cyberspace operations in support of the commander’s priorities—no different than an air warfare commander ordering strike operations.
The Navy’s shift to a single information environment (Project Flank Speed) must be completed and include overseas information environments.10 This supports the efforts outlined in Information Superiority Vision to improve cybersecurity readiness by adopting a zero-trust cloud architecture. To ensure maritime maneuver and assured command and control, the Navy must successfully integrate Project Overmatch within its Consolidated Afloat Network Enterprise System (the information backbone on naval platforms). This supports the larger Joint All Domain Command and Control (JAD2C) effort to reliably connect U.S. and allied forces across land, air, sea, and space via cyberspace.11 The Navy has much to do in building a resilient afloat data and transport architecture. Information system access and reliability are as important—and in some cases more so—as system security.
Most important, the Navy needs to understand it has a willing partner in Congress. Recent media reports of infighting in the Pentagon over fleet size and maritime capabilities have frustrated Congress as it seeks to resource the Navy at a time when China’s navy has surpassed it in size and some capabilities.12
Finally, the Navy, in cooperation with the other services and defense and intelligence agencies, needs to reconsider mobilization preparedness. Recent studies have identified significant gaps in such preparation. To the extent that mobilization planning is taking place, it is occurring solely within the Department of Defense, which is not enough. The Navy—and nation—is unprepared for the fact that China and Russia are waging cognitive warfare campaigns and extensive cyber-physical maneuver operations. While influence operations are not new, technology and advanced brain sciences provide the ability to alter cognition within individuals, groups, and populations, leading to changes in understanding, emotion, and behavior. Free societies are uniquely vulnerable. Constant connectivity, combined with attention-based economic models, has only accelerated connectivity. Almost all Americans now live under a barrage of cognitive attacks from U.S. adversaries.13 This challenges the ability of the government to undertake an action requiring significant political will, such as war mobilization.14
In 2012, then-CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert wrote, “[The] EM-cyber environment is now so fundamental to military operations and so critical to our national interests that we must start treating it as a warfighting domain on par with—or perhaps even more important than—land, sea, air, and space [emphasis added].”15 Subsequent CNOs have made similar statements. While some changes and organizational restructuring have been implemented, the pace has not kept up with China’s advances in cyber. In the information warfare domain, China is not a pacing threat, it is the threat being chased. Too much time has been lost and too little investment made for the Navy not to have a bad day at the start of the war in 2026. The question is whether the Navy will take the steps required to at least not have a very bad day.
1. Attention is turning from early concerns about TikTok’s data collection to its AI-driven algorithms designed to shape user behavior in support of the Chinese Communist Party. See the Network Contagion Research Service and Rutgers University Miller Center on Policing and Community Resilience’s December 2023 Intelligence Report, “A Tik-Tok-ing Timebomb: How TikTok’s Global Platform Anomalies Align with the Chinese Communist Party’s Geostrategic Objectives,” networkcontagion.us/wp-content/uploads/A-Tik-Tok-ing-Timebomb_12.21.23.pdf.
2. Sam LaGrone, “Large Scale Exercise 2023 Was Custom Built to Push Fleet to the Limit, Say Planners,” USNI News, 16 August 2023.
3. U.S. Naval Academy, “Information Warfare: United States Naval Academy Careers,” www.usna.edu/InformationWarfare/index.php.
4. In March 2023, Navy CIO Aaron Weis departed and Jane Rathbun assumed the role. We are confident the Navy will soon fill the role of Principal Cyber Advisor to the Navy after the departure of Chris Cleary in November 2023.
5. ADM Michael Gilday, USN, Navigation Plan 2022 (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2022).
6. LCDR Tyson Meadors, USN, “Cyber Warfare Is a Navy Mission,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 9 (September 2022).
7. Meadors, “Cyber Warfare Is a Navy Mission.”
8. CDR Kevin R. Barrett, USN, “Make Information Warfare the Supported Warfare Commander,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 149, no. 9 (September 2023).
9. LT Kyle Cregge, USN, “Ship Combat Teams Must Fight at the Highest Classification Level,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 150, no. 1 (January 2024).
10. Adam Stone, “Flank Speed Moves Navy to a Cloud-Based Microsoft 365 Solution,” FedTech, 27 May 2022.
11. Megan Eckstein and Colin Demarest, “Project Overmatch: U.S. Navy Preps to Deploy Secretive Multidomain Tech,” DefenseNews, 8 December 2022.
12. Lara Seligman, Lee Hudson, and Paul McCleary, “Inside the Pentagon Slugfest over the Future of the Fleet,” Politico, 24 July 2022; and Brad Lendon, “China Has Built the World’s Largest Navy. Now What’s Beijing Going to Do with It?” CNN, 5 March 2021.
13. Freedom House, “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022,” www.freedomhouse.org/country/united-states/beijings-global-media-influence/2022.
14. CDR Robert J. Bebber, USN, “State of War, State of Mind: Reconsidering Mobilization in the Information Age,” CIMSEC, 11 January 2021.
15. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, “Imminent Domain,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 138, no. 12 (December 2012): 16–21.