Brains and Brown Shoes: Building a Better Naval Aviation Intelligence Officer

Naval Intelligence Topic Week

By Lieutenant Peter McGee, USN, Lieutenant Gretchen Arndt, USN, and Commander Christopher Nelson, USN

Naval intelligence has historic roots in naval aviation, and like naval aviation, the heroes and legends of naval intelligence were born in the great carrier battles in the Pacific. Though seldom as glamorous as Kelly McGillis in Top Gun or as juvenile as the targeteer in Flight of the Intruder, naval intelligence officers are a familiar sight in ready rooms.1 Their names color the cruise plaques covering O-Club walls, generally identifiable as the junior-most officer in the mess. During the time-honored rhythm of pre-mission briefings, these Aviation Intelligence Officersor ‘AIs’present the most up-to-date threat situation, often the product of considerable coordination with the aviators throughout the planning process. From World War II through the Cold War, aviation intelligence epitomized excellence within the naval intelligence profession.

Times changed. The post-Cold War strategic environment and demands of the Global War on Terror shifted the focus of the Navy and naval intelligence. In turn, naval intelligence training shifted away from the high-end war at sea. Now, after a period of atrophy and the erosion of its military advantage, the U.S. is refocusing to compete against major powers.2 Today’s AIs are unprepared to support their aviators, and history suggests that naval intelligence will be called to redevelop a deep expertise in support of conventional missions against peer adversaries.3 Intelligence support to naval aviation will not only require a re-assessment of manning, training, and equipping but a re-evaluation of how we provide tactical and operational intelligence support to the fleet. A promising roadmap for reform lies in the EA-18G Growler squadrons of the electronic attack community.

Today’s Aviation Intelligence Officer

Aviation Intelligence Officers, mostly newly-minted ensigns, report to their squadrons eager to get involved as valuable contributors to their ready rooms by providing actionable intelligence to aviators. Their formal training consists of the Naval Intelligence Officer Basic Course (six -months) and the Basic Aviation Intelligence Course (two weeks). More recently, Air Force’s Intelligence Formalized Training Unit (IFTU) courses have been added to the AI training curriculum. Fresh from classroom learning, the AIs are excited and a bit nervous to get to the fleet.

Until this point, an AI’s training has largely consisted of PowerPoint montages, rote memorization, and briefing drills to inculcate technical language as well as the core skills and principles of intelligence tradecraft. These new officers have not received any training on the type of aircraft their aviators fly or even dedicated instruction on the principal threats to these aircraft. These two knowledge areas are the critical components to providing actionable intelligence. So, many eager AIs joining their squadrons quickly learn they were taught to play checkers while the aircrew they are supposed to be supporting are playing chess.4

An AI’s days at the squadron quickly fill with collateral duties that consume most of the workday.5 If fortunate, they have computers connected to a classified network in their local workspace and they may have access to other necessary networks somewhere on base. Even when they do have network access, however, the reliability of the connection is fitful at best.6

Despite multiple network accesses, AIs usually have little experience with relevant resources on each network and little time to devote to learning them. So, oddly, most air operations in the fleet are planned and supported only with the most basic intelligence resources, despite the wealth of information and analysis available on relevant computer systems. 

Squadron intelligence personnel must develop their own tactics, techniques, and procedures, often by trial and error. While squadron Training Officers oversee the in-squadron syllabi all aviators work through to advance their tactical knowledge and skill sets, no such program exists for AIs.7 Most AIs have regular contact with their Carrier Air Wing Intelligence Officeror CAG AI. This is a mid-career intelligence officer attached to their respective Carrier Air Wing staff. Due to geographic separation, possible lack of exposure to relevant aircraft-specific intelligence, and significant operational-level duties, CAG AIs are unable to fill a Training Officer-type role for squadron AIs. Isolated in an intelligence desert, countless squadron intelligence officers still successfully learn to thrive and make valued contributions to their ready-room and air wing. Those who do not thrive are deemed incompetent by their squadrons and ignored, and often depart for their next tour deeply disenchanted or elect to leave the Navy after a single tour. 

It is not all bad. AIs attend exercises and pre-deployment workups with their squadrons that focus on honing tactics and the operational capability of the squadron. During these evolutions, many intelligence training teams run effective syllabi to teach AIs to translate intel lingo to aviator speak, produce planning aides, and analyze blue and red capabilities. Exercises provide AIs with operational experience, valuable practice repetitions, and exposure to working closely with their aviators, all of which are salient skills. 

However, intelligence training teams are generally undermanned and under-supported, and the limitations of training environments mean AIs don’t develop some of the most vital skill sets required for real-world operations. In training, basic questions about (often notional) adversary equipment and employment are funneled directly to training teams. In real-world operations, there is no one-stop shop for answers. Time-limited training evolutions rarely empower AIs with substantive, functional knowledge of the range and depth of resources available or the ability to draw meaningful assessments from the data. Without dedicated, in-depth aviation intelligence training prior to arrival and at their squadron and with no training team for guidance, the intelligence support that AIs can provide in unscripted, real-world missions reflects their training: haphazard at best.

A New Age, New Threats

By all accounts, aviation intelligence training and equipment have largely stagnated over the years.8 In contrast, adversaries including China and Russia have spent the last three decades studying western air campaigns.9 Advanced systems like the Russian Flanker strike-fighter and S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) families and China’s HQ-9 SAM family represent strong returns on decades of investment in aircraft and air defense technology. Gone are the days when the primary threats facing our aviators were single-digit-range SAMs and early generation fighters. No longer do our adversaries’ air defenses function under the comfortable predictability of the Soviet military hierarchy. 

Today, shooters and sensors are highly mobile, have long ranges, and come with effective countermeasures. Adversary aircraft have upgraded, modern weapons systems and sensors. Thanks to the revolution in computing, command and control networks are digitizing, and electronically-scanned array radars are becoming the norm. Moreover, our adversaries understand the tactical implications of using the electromagnetic spectrum and track our overhead architecture.10 The characteristics of adversary land-based Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) increasingly resemble those of a maritime environment. All the while these same technological advances have migrated to deployed warships on the high seas.11

Just over two decades ago, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, skilled and determined Serbian SAM operators shot down the ‘invisible plane’the F-117with the then-legacy SA-3 system. Today, our adversaries are more skilled and determined but now operate state-of-the-art weapons. This complicated threat requires better intelligence support. 

Need an Aviation Intel Expert? Call the Growlers! 

Thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope for aviation intelligence. It begins in the EA-18G Growler community on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Newly arriving intelligence professionals attend a two-week course on how to provide tailored intelligence support to EA-18G aircrew. Run by the Intelligence Division at the Electronic Attack Weapons School (EAWS), the class’s lectures and practicums cover topics such as “EA-18G Capabilities,” “EA-18G Employment,” “Threats and IADS,” “Mission Planning,” and “Common Operational Picture Management.” In addition to the course, Electronic Attack Wing Pacific (CVWP) manages a personnel qualification standard (PQS) that all EA-18G intelligence personnel must complete. This PQS deepens the understanding of how to support EA-18G tactical employment with intelligence. Armed with pragmatic instruction and reliable access to classified networks on the flight line, there is little excuse for AIs to be idle at their squadrons. 

When their squadrons begin workups, the AIs go through this course again, but this time the learning includes joint intel-aviation mission planning sessions for flights on the range. The senior intelligence officers on staff at CVWP conduct pre-deployment readiness inspections of the squadron’s Intelligence Division. These inspectors examine metrics such as the percentage of intelligence personnel who have completed the EA-18G Intelligence Basic Course and the EA-18G Intelligence PQS. They ensure the squadron is adequately manned and work with squadron leadership to rectify any deficiencies. Furthermore, when the squadron is “on the beach” (i.e. not deployed aboard the ship or on detachment away from home field) these intelligence officers conduct a wide range of supportive actions, including arranging external training, mentoring AIs, and advising Skippers on fitness report language.12

After returning from deployment, AIs may apply to attend the Growler Tactics Instructor (GTI) course in Fallon and earn their patch as a Growler Intelligence Officer (GIO). This rigorous program allows top-achieving intelligence officers to attend one of the most prestigious and intensive training courses in the Navy. The AI graduates bring a superb skill set back to the fleet and to the larger intelligence community, often choosing (like their aviator colleagues) to take instructor duty at EAWS or the GTI course in Fallon, Nevada. 

In the Growler community model, AIs participate in a sensible and structured curriculum of classroom learning, practicums, and on-the-job training that complements the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. They also have the option to continue their training with a postgraduate-level course. By grounding intelligence training in their specific platform, Growler AIs hone their ability to provide relevant assessments to their squadrons, better support to mission planning, and develop a deeper knowledge of the adversary. Many other Weapons Schools are reviewing EAWS’s intelligence syllabus and creating their own platform-specific intelligence training regimes.

The key enablers of the electronic attack community program are the noteworthy investment by CVWP and the cadre of intelligence professionals assigned to MT&E roles. The EA-18G Intelligence Basic Course is designed and taught by a GIO with a team of enlisted intelligence specialist sailors. A GIO is also on staff at the Growler Tactics Instructor course in Fallon, focused on tactical innovation and development. The CVWP N2 and N21 oversee manning, training, and equipping squadron Intelligence Divisions for deployment. Clearly, the AIs on the Whidbey flight line have a coherent administrative chain of command of intelligence officers and access to subject matter experts on intelligence tactics. This is a model the rest of Naval Aviation would do well to examine. 

Build It and They Will Come 

Encouragingly, structured training programs for naval aviation intelligence are under development by Naval Air Forces (CNAF) and Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center (NAWDC). The current CNAF proposal resembles the qualification curriculum of naval aviators, consisting of five qualification levels achieved by a mixture of formal classroom instruction and on-the-job training. This plan essentially formalizes a VAQ-like program for all AIs regardless of platform. Where infrastructure and manning are limited, it creatively substitutes USAF IFTU courses for Navy-led training.[13]

Changes in the broader naval intelligence manning process also complement CNAF’s push for better intelligence: additional qualifications are now available for squadron and WTI experience, and incoming CAG AIs are required to have, at a minimum, prior service in aviation intelligence or as a naval aviator. Initial results from all these initiatives have been positive,[14] but to succeed fully, naval intelligence must consider the following fundamental reforms:

  • Solve the technology issues

Intelligence officers require regular access to the wider intelligence community to do their job. Today, this is chiefly done via computer networks. Every squadron must have a reliable classified network connection and access to necessary networks at the Weapon Schools and Type Wings. Improve the afloat classified networks and install additional network access at every workstation in the critical intelligence centers afloat, and improve the transparency of fleet intelligence acquisitions to ensure a regular and vigorous user-to-programmer dialogue.

  • Increase the intelligence staff responsible for manning, training, and equipping fleet squadrons. 

In the VAQ model, the relatively robust intelligence chain of command provides the resources, products, mentorship, and advocacy that allows Growler AIs to succeed in their squadrons and the fleet. However, for many AIs, the closest mid-career intelligence officer in the chain of command is physically remote and juggles a myriad of duties, the majority of which are the air wing’s operational issues rather than squadron-level AI support.  

  • Incentivize Weapons Tactics Instructor tours by raising their career value, not by double detailing. 

In the VAQ model, a small cadre of intelligence WTIs retains, teaches, and passes on the specialized knowledge of Navy platforms and threat systems to each new class of AIs. This cadre also helps to develop new tactics and relationships for the community to improve the mission performance. Unfortunately, naval intelligence currently disincentivizes officers from becoming instructors by placing its highest value on competitive billets such as intelligence centers. This approach ensures that fleet-level TYCOM or other man, train, and equip assignments remain backwater jobs. Naval intelligence should follow the example of the unrestricted line communities and send its best and brightest JOs to instructor and WTI tours at ashore and afloat fleet training commands. Increase the number of intelligence instructor duty billets at training commands to develop robust and sustainable training environments.

  • Fix the career timeline squeeze. 

The naval intelligence career pipeline does not allow time for both a full competitive tour and a WTI instructor tour before appearing before the O-4 board. Intelligence officers must choose between pursuing excellence in warfighting or batting at a promotion wicket. Consider ranking the completion of a WTI Instructor tour equal to that of the coveted “early promote” ranking (the highest competitive category in officer fitness reports) at a competitive intelligence command. At these large intelligence centers, intelligence officers are vetted for promotion at the end of the tour by intelligence COs. At WTI Instructor tours, however, intelligence officers are vetted before the tour by line COs and held to a competitive standard throughout the tour. 


Today’s naval aviation intelligence training is mediocre. In a future peer adversary fight, inadequate aviation intelligence training will spell catastrophe. A future fight may require matching US forces against an even more advanced Chinese military and an equally determined and deadly Russian bear. The problems facing the naval aviation and intelligence communities are complex, and hard decisions must be made to invest more time in naval intelligence education and training. Naval intelligence must once again return to its historic roots of providing high value actionable intelligence to enable naval aviation success and save aviators’ lives.

CDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is the Deputy Senior Naval Intelligence Manager for East Asia at the Office of Naval Intelligence. He is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. Once upon a time, he was the aviation intelligence officer for the “Topcats” of SEA CONTROL SQUADRON 31. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC and is also the artist behind Vulture’s Row on the USNI Blog

LT Peter McGee, USN, is assigned to OPNAV N2N6 International Programs and Engagement and is a graduate of the US Naval Academy. He served as the Intelligence Officer for Electronic Attack Squadron 136. 

LT Gretchen Arndt, USN, is the Growler Intelligence Officer at the Electronic Attack Weapons School at NAS Whidbey Island. She is a graduate of Northeastern University and the Growler Tactics Instructor Course. Her first tour was with Electronic Attack Squadron 133. She co-authored an article on this topic in the February, 2021, issue of Proceedings with LT Ben Hernandez.


[1] Readers might recall the aviation intelligence officer in the movie Flight of the Intruder who was discovered to be responsible for urinating in the Commanding Officer’s coffee decanter. 

[2]  Jim Mattis, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” 2018.

[3] The following publications outline the development of better aviation intelligence training, standards, and requirements: Wyman H. Packard, A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence (Washington, D.C: Office of Naval Intelligence and Naval Historical Center, 1996); Richard Saunders, “Preparation of the US Navy Intelligence Officer” (Quantico, Virginia, United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 1996); Rana Pennington, “Behind the Green Door,” USAF Fighter Weapons Review, 1999. Improvements in training were most often necessitated by the outbreak of war.

[4]  Navy Intelligence’s ignorance to blue capabilities is well documented in the following article: CDR Christopher Nelson, USN, and Eric Pedersen, “Naval Intelligence Must Relearn Its Own Navy,” Proceedings, March 2020.

[5]  Collaterals such as command security manager, coffee mess, and others seem to consume an overwhelming amount of time in the face of more important work.

[6] Navy network reliability and dependability is a recurring theme over the years. RAND conducted a detailed study exploring reliability and dependability issues of Navy networks, Navy Network Dependability: Models, Metrics, and Tools, the report notes that the issues with network dependability were a combination of software issues, hardware issues, and human error. Also see GAO Report 07-51, titled “Information Technology: DOD Needs to Ensure That Navy-Marine Corps Intranet Program Is Meeting Goals and Satisfying Customers.” Information Technology: DOD Needs to Ensure That Navy Marine Corps Intranet Program Is Meeting Goals and Satisfying Customers.

[7]  Many Training Officers, senior JOs, and Department Heads go out of their way to teach, mentor, and train their intelligence officers. This training is invaluable. However, intelligence officer training is inevitably second priority to aviator training. Besides, aviators typically only have limited exposure to the Intelligence Community. 

[8]  This theme is consistently emphasized across naval intelligence in prizing-winning essays: CDR Wolf Melbourne, USN, “Naval Intelligence’s Lost Decade,” Proceedings, December 2018; LT William Murray, USN, “Reimagine Intelligence Officer Training,” Proceedings, January 2019.

[9]  U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, Chinese Lessons from Other Peoples’ Wars, ed. Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen (Military Bookshop, 2011).

[10]  Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2019; Michael Chase and Arthur Chan, China’s Evolving Approach to “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” (RAND Corporation, 2016).

[11]  For examples, refer to the recent articles in Proceedings on China’s Luyang III DDG and Jiangkai II FFG: Eric Wertheim, “China’s Luyang III/Type 052D Destroyer Is a Potent Adversary,” Proceedings, January 2020; Eric Wertheim, “China’s Multipurpose FFG,” Proceedings, June 2020.

[12]  EAWS provides unit level tactical training to fleet VAQ squadrons. CVWP is the TYPE wing for EA-18G squadrons and is also located on NAS Whidbey Island. The CVWP N2 and N21 also function as a ‘CAG AI-lite’ for Expeditionary (non-boat) VAQ squadrons. 

[13]  NAWDC has simultaneously initiated reforms of its fleet intelligence training curriculum.

[14]  Personal correspondence with Captain John Markley, USN, COMNAVAIRLANT N2.

Featured image: A U.S. Navy E/A-18G Growler, assigned to the “Cougars” of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 139, flies over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Parsons)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.