The U.S. Navy’s history is rich with inspiring achievements in information warfare, from Station Hypo’s successes in World War II to supporting raids against high-value targets during the Global War on Terror. Inspiring as U.S. Naval Intelligence history has been, achieving victory in the next fight will require specific training focused on developing the skills required to cope with all the data available to today’s information warriors.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has greatly expanded its data-technology and collection capacity to meet analytical needs, creating a challenging paradigm: a data glut and an information deficit. Data literacy is key to reducing the disparity.1
Data literacy centers on reading, analyzing, and communicating with data. It is not a science:2 Reading requires understanding what data is and the aspects of the world it represents. Analyzing data refers to aggregating, sorting, and converting it into useful information. Finally, communicating with data means using that data to support a logical narrative to a particular audience, and is of the utmost importance to any navy’s information warriors.3 A naval intelligence example of data literacy at work is determining adversary reconnaissance aircraft sortie schedules and maintenance days, and then effectively communicating the derived intelligence to improve and better inform the Warfare Commander’s decision space.
Operational Intelligence Center
Pressured by advances in the speed, precision, and destructive force of naval weapons, operational intelligence (OPINTEL) is critical, and empowering U.S. Naval Intelligence through data literacy may be the key. This is not a new concept. Analysts harnessed these techniques during the Cold War when Navy Ocean Surveillance Information Centers (NOSIC) developed and employed databases of prior Soviet activities to inform analyses of ongoing operations.4 These successes in data literacy facilitated a favorable Cold War OPINTEL asymmetry that proved a key advantage over the Warsaw Pact.5 Available battlespace awareness technology is already making this task easier. However, making sense of the battlespace requires more than just using automated OPINTEL applications.
Data literacy, not science or analytics, is the answer, as it provides Naval Intelligence professionals with the ability to synthesize information and further aid tactical commanders in making informed decisions. OPINTEL centers can become tailored centers of excellence through data literacy. To streamline scouting the positions of Soviet forces in the 1970s, Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility (FOSIF) centralized collection, exploitation, analysis, and dissemination, as scouting is not complete until the collected information is delivered to the tactical commander. Fusing information from national and tactical sensors, FOSIF’s dedicated support provided the intelligence needed for the fleet to operate further forward resulting in more efficient scouting.6,7,8
What and Why … Data-Driven Decision Making
Advances in digital technology produced exponential data growth, and the private sector began to develop essential technology and skills to understand this ever-expanding resource. This development mirrored similar operations analysis and research advances during World War II. Adding data and analysis in the private sector built an innovative school of thought: data-driven decision-making, emphasizing data literacy over science.9
Data literacy is an essential component of an organization’s strong data strategy. It promotes understanding and fosters workforce incorporation of data into daily operations. Not laying such a foundation and skipping right to higher-end approaches like data science will not achieve the macro-level result of making data more useful across the entire organization. The “godfather” of data literacy, Jordan Morrow, notes: “One doesn’t go from not being a runner to racing a 50-mile ultra-marathon the next day.” 10
Instead, Morrow emphasizes the three Cs: Curiosity, Creativity, and Critical thinking. Morrow’s proven approach promotes literacy and data “democratization.”11 An entire workforce using data can lead to a more adaptive and successful organization, as highlighted by a ThoughtSpot and Harvard Business Review study. The report found that successful companies enable all employees through data literacy to make more informed decisions resulting in higher customer and employee satisfaction and higher productivity.12 This increased productivity reduces the glut and bottlenecks by enabling data use among frontline workers.
Data experts recommend a three-step framework: defining literacy goals, assessing the workforce’s current skills, and laying out a learning path.13 Naval Intelligence’s goal should be to create a confident and curious force that can critically think with data to support better and faster decisions throughout the spectrum of conflict. This simple goal focuses on people, as they matter most.
The assessment process aims to set measurable goals and lay the foundation for making Naval Intelligence more data literate. Assessing baseline data skills begins with examining how Naval Intelligence uses data in battlespace awareness, assured command and control, and integrated fires. Understanding how data is applied across the community identifies core skills and helps foster a culture that appreciates the value of data literacy.
The assessment process should also include examining data tool usage and functionality. Experts believe such analysis is crucial to improving return on investment and developing a tailored learning path that fully leverages technology. The final part of the assessment process is surveying the force by testing a sample of personnel on their ability to read, work with, analyze, and communicate with data in ways that support better warfighting.
Informed by the assessment, the data literacy-learning path will align with the Naval Intelligence training continuum. A data-literate cadre begins with exposing personnel to data during accession schools. Initial instruction will teach new personnel the value of data by introducing common concepts and language. The foundational education cultivates the three Cs by building confidence and demonstrating data’s possibilities while reducing barriers. Training will continue throughout accession and intermediate schools as personnel will receive instruction on data tools and functionality.
The learning path will not end at the schoolhouse. Each step of the Fleet Response Training Program (FRTP) will reinforce data literacy by teaching information warfare teams afloat how to use data.
The Three Cs: Applied to a Taiwan ADIZ Case
Data literacy empowers a workforce to see the world differently. Economist Tim Harford wrote: “Whatever we’re trying to understand about the world, each other, and ourselves, we won’t get far without statistics.” 14 Applying these skills to publicly available Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone (TADIZ) data can exemplify the power of data literacy.
Since September 2020, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has publicly reported on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air operations inside the TADIZ. The PLA flew 3158 TADIZ sorties as of 5 March 2023, likely as part of a larger effort to erode Taiwan sovereignty and message against outside interference. 15,16,17 This begs the question, is there an operational objective that aligns with the strategic intent?
PLA aircraft reportedly entered the TADIZ on 67% of days between 9 September 2020 and 5 March 2023.18 Most (77%) of the daily incursions involved less than the mean number of aircraft (5.04), and about a third (34%) of daily incursions had only one aircraft enter the TADIZ. The majority of single sortie missions (63%) occurred between October 2020 and September 2021. Reconnaissance aircraft primarily (95%) flew these missions. Such domain awareness sorties also normalized incursions and reinforced Chinese interests while challenging Taiwan’s ability to enforce its declared ADIZ.19
These actions likely forced Taiwan to choose between either not responding to the incursions or expending finite military resources (aircraft and pilot hours), thereby achieving China’s goal of pressuring Taiwan, according to Dr. Ying Yu Lin.20 If Taiwan did not respond, the flights could be perceived as legitimizing Chinese claims and eroding those of Taiwan.
The PLA transitioned to predominantly fighter incursions (a mean of 64% of monthly TADIZ activity) in September 2021, further bolstering its claims of control over the airspace while increasing the pressure on Taiwan. Fighter sorties also accounted for an even more significant portion (89%) of TADIZ incursions in reaction to then Speaker Pelosi’s 2 August 2022 Taiwan visit.
During the month-long response to the Speaker’s visit, the PLA persistently flew a larger volume of incursions. The daily mean (15) number of aircraft throughout the response was well above the mean (11) number of aircraft flown in reaction to other international engagements with or exercises near Taiwan. Previous reactions also only lasted 1-3 days. The PLA likely increased its sorties to explicitly demonstrate airspace control and force Taiwan to expend more resources as punishment.
The Need for Data Literacy
Applying the Three Cs to recognize patterns like the transition to predominantly fighter TADIZ incursions increases operational awareness in near real-time and can support ongoing analysis similar to the NOSIC’s databases. This renewed emphasis on data can improve fleet operations by providing tactical commanders with objective facts, increasing OPINTEL support and understanding of adversary objectives.
Achieving such an OPINTEL advantage requires a data-literate U.S. Naval Intelligence community that can rapidly turn the glut into usable information. An entire force able to discover critical insights and efficiently communicate will tightly couple intelligence and analysis to the engagement of targets during distributed maritime operations. As ADM Gilday noted: “Information has become the cornerstone of how we operate.”21 Gaining favorable OPINTEL asymmetry enables the decision advantage by providing commanders with the information required to “…decide and act faster than anyone else.”22,23,24
Andrew Orchard is a U.S. Navy intelligence officer and selected Mansfield Fellow, currently serving as the Officer in Charge of the Joint Reserve Intelligence Center New Orleans.
The views expressed in this article is that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
1. Sharman, CAPT Christopher. China Moves Out: Stepping Stones Toward a New Maritime Strategy. Washington D.C.: Nation Defense University, 2015.
2. Morrow, Jordan. Data Literacy – The Human Element in Data United Nations Office of Information and Communications Technology. 25 November 2020.
3. Brown, Sara. “How to Build Data Literacy in Your Company.” 9 February 2021. MIT Sloan Management School. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/how-to-build-data-literacy-your-company.
4. Rosenberg, Christopher Ford and David. “The Naval Intelligence Underpinnings of Reagan’s Maritime Strategy.” The Journal of Strategic Studies (2005): 397.
5. Ibid, 402.
6. Hughes, CAPT (ret) Wayne. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. 175.
7. Rosenberg, Christopher Ford and David. “The Naval Intelligence Underpinnings of Reagan’s Maritime Strategy.” The Journal of Strategic Studies (2005): 402.
8. Ball, Desmond Ball and Desmond. The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015. 93-96.
9. Stobierski, Tim. “The Advantages of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” 26 August 2021. Harvard Business Review. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/data-driven-decision-making.
10. Morrow, Jordan. Data Literacy – The Human Element in Data United Nations Office of Information and Communications Technology. 25 November 2020.
11. Morrow, Jordan. Jordan Morrow and Qlik’s Mission to Create a Data-Literate Workforce. 15 April 2020. https://medium.com/digital-bulletin/jordan-morrow-and-qliks-mission-to-create-a-data-literate-workforce-c450a01714f5.
12. ThoughtSpot and Harvard Business Review. The New Decision Makers. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review, 2020.
13. Brown, Sara. “How to Build Data Literacy in Your Company.” 9 February 2021. MIT Sloan Management School. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/how-to-build-data-literacy-your-company.
14. Harford Tim. The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021. 16.
24. The author wishes to thank Christopher Underwood and Ryan Meder for advice on this article.
Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 6, 2023) U.S. Navy Ensign Bradley Davis stands watch aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Mykala Keckeisen)
“From a proud tower in the town, Death looks gigantically down.” —Edgar Allan Poe
In late January 2023, the American public came into close, almost personal contact with a portion of China’s globe-spanning surveillance complex as a high-altitude balloon drifted across the United States. The balloon maneuvered and loitered over American intercontinental ballistic missile installations and other sensitive national security sites before the President ordered the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina. Imagery and the recovered debris cut against the Chinese narrative of a simple weather balloon – it was designed to gather intelligence and communicate it back. Congress and the American people demanded answers as to how a balloon could get into the United States almost untracked. A joint statement from Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) stated that “The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace” and that the threat from China “is here at home, and we must act to counter this threat.”1
The revelation that Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloons may have crossed the United States before unsettled national security leaders and the American public. Suddenly, a threat normally contained to the Western Pacific was made tangibly real to the average American. In Helena, Montana, a retired state judge told The New York Times: “I can’t believe they are spying on Billings, [Montana]… There’s not much there.”2 American security officials reported to the press that the Chinese balloon surveillance program had conducted operations in 40 countries across five continents.3 At least one theory rapidly emerged that the operation was a practice run for a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse attack or delivery of other effects.4 While Americans understood on some level that China had satellites and other systems capable of monitoring them, the drifting balloon became urgently personal and real, with several news outlets reporting this as a “Sputnik moment” for the country.5 In the 1950s, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite’s constant beeping across the night sky profoundly and fundamentally altered how Americans perceived the Soviet Union and behaved in response.
We have been here before. The concept of a “hyperobject” can help provide national security leaders with a new framework to grasp, understand, and engage with China’s C4ISRT complex.
What is China’s C4ISRT Complex?
C4ISRT is a long-range network of active and passive sensors designed to identify, track, target and engage hostile forces across warfare domains (air, subsurface, surface, etc.). In addition to sensors and datalinks, the concept also encompasses the thousands of human analysts and IT professionals working to process and make sense of all the data. Each node —human, sensor, or otherwise—is linked via a complex web of network connections.
What separates a C4ISR network from a C4ISRT network is Targeting (the ‘T’)—the ability to use sensor data from a variety of systems to accurately direct long-range fires. If the data collected by the sensors lack sufficient detail or is “old” (as in out of date) it cannot be used for targeting precision weapon systems. As Beijing’s 2019 defense white paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, states, the operational requirement for greater data fidelity, speed, and accuracy has compelled the Chinese military to continue investing heavily in both “informatization,” the development and deployment of ever more sensors to fill gaps and provide overlapping coverage, and “intelligencization,” the use of machine learning programs to assist in processing all the data collected.6 Both terms have grown in prominence through China’s last two defense white papers in 2011 and 2015. The combination of this evolving C4ISRT complex with modern precision weaponry creates non-linear battlespace effects greater than the simple sum of their constituent parts.7
Hyperobject as Conceptual Framework
Taken as a whole, China’s C4ISRT complex is best described as a “hyperobject,” a term first pioneered by philosopher Timothy Morton in his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. As defined by Morton, hyperobjects are very large objects distributed unevenly across time and space that operate at non-human timescales.8 Hyperobjects are not an abstraction or an intellectual parlor game. In fact, Morton’s goal is to refocus modern philosophy toward engaging with real objects in the real world and away from what he believes is a dead-end of recursive abstract analysis. Morton writes “Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. Indeed, for reasons given in this study, hyperobjects end the possibility of transcendental leaps ‘outside’ physical reality.”9
In Hyperobjects, Morton draws the majority of his examples from ecology and the physical sciences, citing the sum total of all plutonium created since 1942 as a hyperobject par excellence.10 A primarily man-made chemical element that occurs very rarely in nature, plutonium is currently spread unevenly across the Earth’s biosphere, densely gathered in nuclear weapons caches, power plants, and storage facilities.
One key feature of hyperobjects is their ability to impact human social behaviors. Morton describes this feature as a hyperobject’s viscosity – its ability to enter our mental frameworks and get stuck there. In the case of plutonium, the combination of its radioactivity, its historic use in extremely destructive weapons, and its 21,400-year half-life means that even when plutonium is stored out of sight in nuclear weapons bunkers or at the plutonium waste store site at Savannah River, South Carolina, it is never out of mind. The existence of plutonium has compelled humans to alter laws, customs, and individual behaviors to account for the plutonium hyperobject they now share the planet with. During the Cold War, plutonium preoccupied national leaders in the United States and Soviet Union for decades and shaped how they engaged with each other.
In addition to their large, unevenly distributed mass, or their scale and viscosity, Morton notes two other distinctive features of hyperobjects – non-locality and the way in which they operate at non-human timescales. Non-locality means that a human being will only ever experience a part or portion of a hyperobject, never the whole hyperobject. We see one balloon over Montana but a dozen Chinese spy satellites whiz overhead each day, barely registering in Americans’ consciousness. Hyperobjects’ ability to operate at non-human timescales follows a similar logic. You might occupy the planet at the same time as a chunk of plutonium but, owing to its very slow rate of decay, it will outlast you, your family, and possibly your civilization. It is important to note that “non-human timescales” can refer to hyperobject behaviors that occur very quickly over a short period, such as a machine speed kill web, and not just slowly over a relatively long period as is the case in plutonium decay. The point is that a hyperobject’s timescale is out of sync with human biological, social, and organizational speeds.
Does China’s C4ISRT complex, taken as a whole, qualify as a hyperobject? An analysis of each of the four characteristics of hyperobjects indicates that it does.
Scale. China’s efforts to construct a C4ISRT complex began with the deployment of air surveillance radars along China’s coastline during the Cold War and greatly accelerated in the early 2000s with the deployment of modern active and passive surveillance systems along the Taiwan Strait. Over the last decade, China has supplemented its air and maritime surveillance capability with new, indigenously produced sensors designed to search the undersea domain as well as dozens of new spy satellites. Collectively, this sensor network is assessed by Western analysts to cover at least the Western Pacific, out to Guam, if not further.11
In addition to these investments in sensor capabilities, China’s military underwent significant organizational reforms in 2017-2018. The People’s Liberation Army is now organized into five Joint Theater Commands, each responsible for a different geographic area: Eastern Command is responsible for Taiwan; the Southern Command for the South China Sea; Northern Command for Russia and the Korean peninsula; Western Command for India and Tibet; and Central Command for Beijing and central China.12 This division of labor along geographic lines has simplified the human and organizational dimensions of the C4ISRT complex, making it more focused and efficient by aligning the sociotechnical aspects of the C4ISRT complex to optimize information flows, use of national resources and technical means, and joint planning for theater operations and achieving desired national outcomes.13
As Western observers have watched the Chinese C4ISRT network expand in scale, the influence of that growth, the near global reach of the system, and the continual expansion and alignment of resources and capabilities has altered the way in which Western policymakers perceive the system and the threat it poses. Two decades ago, the Chinese C4ISRT complex was an afterthought, easily accounted for and countered with existing tactical means. Today, however, China’s C4ISRT complex has become their schwerpunkt – their center of gravity – that enables them to conduct a range of kinetic and non-kinetic actions throughout the Western Pacific and even globally.
Non-Locality. Hyperobjects are unevenly distributed in time and space and China’s C4ISRT complex is no exception. China’s side of the Taiwan Strait and its outposts in the South China Sea are assessed to have relatively dense concentrations of active and passive sensors, with varying capabilities and quantities of weapons to match. Historically, it has been assumed that as one moves further away from the mainland the fidelity and accuracy of China’s targeting capability drops off.14 However, the last decade of satellite launches have complicated this assessment, as it is no longer clear that a unit’s physical proximity to Chinese-controlled territory corresponds to how accurately that unit can be tracked.15 Still, satellites must either orbit around the Earth or hold a geosynchronous position above it, and as such China’s spy satellites and balloons cannot be everywhere, seeing everything at once—at least not yet.
Non-locality therefore takes on a double meaning. Any interaction an individual unit (such as a U.S. Navy destroyer) has with China’s C4ISRT complex is “local” and this local instance of the C4ISRT complex represents only a fraction of the total system (i.e., you are never interacting with the whole C4ISRT complex at once). Additionally, it is difficult to reliably ascertain the density of sensors at any given point on the map and, therefore it is difficult to be sure one is not being tracked at any given time. China’s increasing deployment of passive, dual-use space-based sensors makes this aspect of non-locality even more pernicious.
Non-human Timescale. China’s C4ISRT complex operates at a non-human timescale in much the same way all modern digital communication systems do. A sensor at the edge of the network can detect a target and report its location, speed and direction back to a fusion center or watchfloor thousands of miles away in tens of seconds. We have become somewhat inured to the speed of digital communications in an age where anyone can place a Zoom call to a family member living on another continent, but this near instantaneous detection speed has real ramifications in a battlespace where the fastest warship can only make 35 knots and an F-35 can only fly at Mach 1.6, still well short of the speed of digital sensor transmission – the speed of light.
Latencies and entropy creep back into C4ISRT systems wherever humans are involved. Double checking or cross checking a “contact” using another sensor can add minutes or more to a targeting process. One goal of China’s “intelligencization” campaign has been to use machine learning tools to speed up sensor data processing, relegating human beings to a secondary, supervisory role in many cases.
Viscosity. The existence of China’s C4ISRT complex certainly seems to have the ability to shape behaviors, particularly among the West’s military and political elites, paralleling the historical debates around nuclear weapons (also a hyperobject) doctrine during the Cold War. At the time of this writing, a debate is raging among American navalists as to whether China’s C4ISRT capabilities, paired with long range precision anti-ship missiles, has rendered U.S. aircraft carriers obsolete. That discussion has even spilled out of professional military circles and into the mainstream, with outlets like Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, and Investor’s Business Daily running articles summarizing the debates.16 In a similar vein, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) leadership has approached Congress about increasing air and missile defenses at Guam.17 Places that once seemed remote from China’s sensors, such as northern Australia’s Air Force bases, are being compelled to reassess their position relative to the C4ISRT hyperobject.18 As the C4ISRT complex grows and evolves, we become more aware of it and it roots itself more firmly in our minds.
An Uneasy Coexistence?
So what should Allied militaries do about the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject? Here we must diverge significantly from Morton’s ecology-centric understanding of hyperobjects. It is decidedly a philosophical theory, and Morton asserts that the only viable way forward for human philosophy, art, and culture is to attempt to attune ourselves to the hyperobjects now impinging on our world and through this attunement, achieve a form of coexistence. Morton seeks a new type of ecology that is not premised on a “return to nature” rejection of the modern industrial civilization, but a more mature, thoughtful approach that incorporates the reality of hyperobjects into our understanding of the “natural” world.19 This approach leaves the tangible applications wanting.
This, frankly, is not an option for Allied militaries dealing with an adversary C4ISRT hyperobject which is designed to identify, track, and kill them. The Chinese C4ISRT complex is a key enabler for Chinese kinetic and non-kinetic actions. Thus, the ultimate goal of military planning must be to destroy or at least significantly degrade China’s C4ISRT immediately in the event of a conflict and operate effectively in the liminal space before then. Until then, however, a very uneasy coexistence with the hyperobject seems to be our only option. Life did go on after humanity entered the Atomic Age after all. To that end, here are three rules of thumb for practitioners to guide day-to-day interaction with the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject.
1. There can be no complete picture of the C4ISRT hyperobject. Even if one mapped out all the Chinese land-based sensors, there would still not be a complete picture of the hyperobject. If one added all the orbits and capabilities of the Chinese spy satellites and balloons, one would still not have a complete picture. If one held their breath, dived deep, and sketched the location of all the underwater sensors, one still would not have a complete picture. Even if one added all of the Chinese intelligence and surveillance activities in cyberspace, one still would not have a full picture. Hyperobjects are, by definition, far more than the sum of their parts.
At a minimum, the picture would fail to capture the network connections and the organizational dimension of the data processing, such as the humans working to turn raw data into a holistic understanding of what is happening. Even if one were to somehow add in those dimensions, there would still only be a static snapshot of a complex, dynamic, and constantly evolving system of systems with emergent and potentially chaotic behaviors. The map is not the whole territory, and the inclusion of humans at multiple levels makes the picture even more messy and unpredictable. The emergent behaviors that hyperobjects bring forth cannot be accurately predicted. Despite knowing all the technical capabilities and locations, leaders, engineers, and policymakers simply cannot know or accurately predict how different commanders in China will use them, or how many Chinese actions will drive behaviors in U.S. or allied national security leaders.
We must accept that fact and reorient information and decision-making processes to operate under greater uncertainty, seeking opportunities to experiment and reduce uncertainty. In many respects, the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject conducted another experiment on the United States with the high-altitude balloon flights, looking for how the U.S. would respond to help them shape their future actions and anticipated responses.
The reality of this systemic dynamism means that discrete, timebound snapshots have to give way to something like simulation or understanding degrees of uncertainty to ever hope to understand how the hyperobject is actually operating at any given time. Today, there are two ways that humans can simulate complex, dynamic behaviors of systems in the world – either by using their own minds or by using a sufficiently powerful computer. Neither of these is perfect, and the flows of data and information to feed that simulation are subject to the same laws of entropy, chaos, and uncertainty as what is trying to be simulated.
Unfortunately, both approaches have limits when it comes to modeling hyperobject behavior. The human mind struggles to grasp something as large, multi-dimensional, and extra-temporal as a hyperobject. Modern computer systems fare better—we are able to model climate change using supercomputers after all—but computer simulations require detailed, up to date, probabilistic data to simulate complex behaviors. The challenge here is that almost every part of the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject is a tightly-guarded Chinese state secret, including the capabilities of the individual sensor systems, and much of the needed data about individual Chinese behaviors is essentially unknowable. Thus, it is near impossible to feed a computer enough ‘good’ data regularly enough to ensure the computer simulation will be accurate, which itself is a probabilistic concept. And there may be cognitive biases that will hold onto the model even after key Chinese leadership or technical capabilities change.
2. You’ll never be 100% certain if you are being detected (or not). The difficulty of simulating hyperobject behavior with either one’s mind or a computer means that it is very hard to know whether it is collecting information on you, your unit, or your platform at any given time. The C4ISRT hyperobject is perhaps the most elaborate incarnation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon—a theoretical prison structured in such a way that the inmates must assume a warden is watching them, but they can never be sure.20 This superimposition places the target unit in an uncertain state where they must at least double their contingency planning for scenarios in which they are and are not being detected. An avenue for future research would examine the applicability of quantum principles to see if they may provide any assistance in grappling with the duality of Bentham’s Panopticon and its analog with a hyperobject.
This duality may drive commanders and leaders at all levels mad contemplating whether a servicemember’s seemingly random tweet has been observed, collected, and analyzed by the Chinese C4ISRT complex, and what that tweet might compromise about the unit’s readiness, capabilities, or operational security. Even if that does not directly reveal anything, could that tweet provide another one of the thousand grains of sand China needs to effectively target and counter American or allied power?21 Will that new grain of information be used tomorrow, a year from now, a decade from now, or never?
In that light, the daily contact with the hyperobject demands we acknowledge we might be getting collected on at any given time. Thus, we should simply act prudently and strive to minimize the amount of information we leave exposed for the Chinese to find. Practice good operational security. Foster good relationships with domestic intelligence and law enforcement services to understand the area threat. Strive to become a harder and more unpredictable target, whether one is a deckplate sailor on a destroyer, a defense contractor, Congressional staffer, or the Secretary of Defense.
3. Finally, a hyperobject is not easily reducible to its constituent parts. Our inability to reliably map out the hyperobject’s shape or model its behavior also impacts our ability to identify key points of strength or weakness within the system and to understand how disabling or destroying one part will affect the performance of the whole. Practitioners must resist the temptation to assume that knowledge of constituent parts yields knowledge of the whole. Understanding the technical specifics of a Chinese ISR satellite or balloon does not mean that you understand the overall behavior of how Southern Command will utilize them, which may be different from Eastern Command’s approach, which may be different from the global or meta-level behavior of the hyperobject—the effect of non-human time scales, viscosity, scale, and non-locality.
Military leaders in particular are best equipped to grapple with this rule of thumb. Military leaders train against adversary orders of battle and seek to create overmatch conditions for tactical victories. But at the strategic level, the familiar treatises of Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz provide surprisingly sage advice for dealing with the irreducibility of the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject. Sun Tzu detailed the challenges; ephemerality, and general uncertainty of warfare, and how actions by one side’s leadership might create unpredictable behaviors from the enemy. Clausewitz spoke of the centers of gravity, the paradoxical trinity of emotion, chance, and reason, and principles—not laws—of war. These theorists understood that all the knowledge could not dictate the outcomes and that the friction or fog of war meant warfighters had to operate to clear the fog and reduce the uncertainty to be prepared for the unexpected.
Today, we must reacquaint ourselves with these concepts with a view toward how we might understand the uncertainty of the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject. It will always be in some corner of our minds. We must accept that we will never fully know and be able to predict its actions. Seek opportunities to test their system to see how they respond—does Southern Command respond the same as Eastern Command to the same event? How does China respond to a notable cyber breach of a state-owned enterprise compared to economic sanctions against the same enterprise? These types of tests help leaders at all levels better understand the hyperobject and modifies their behaviors from determinism to probabilities.
The End of the World?
Perceptive readers may have noted the subtitle of Morton’s book “Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” The end of the world alluded to here is more prosaic than it first appears. Morton is not talking about the apocalyptic climax of all human events. Instead, he highlights the ability of hyperobjects to destroy—or at least severely alter—the small, local, and temporal mental ‘worlds’ that humans inhabit on a day-to-day basis. Once one is made aware of a hyperobject, its viscosity ensures it will stick in your mind, altering the way you think about the world, or at least requiring a Herculean mental effort to deny its existence.22
Morton points out how discussing the weather with a stranger has historically been considered a safe, albeit boring, way to pass the time.23 Our contemporary understanding of climate change has altered the experience of ‘talking about the weather.’ Weather is revealed to just be a localized experience of the climate overall, which means talking about the weather risks you bringing up the topic of climate change with a stranger. The hyperobject of climate change has intruded into the normal conversation about the weather, turning the whole experience into a fraught social tightrope.24 The little world of the boring weather conversation has been forever changed.
Decades of Chinese investment in sensors, networks and data management means that Allied operations in the Western Pacific are now occurring within a dynamic, complex, shifting, and expanding Chinese C4ISRT ecosystem. The national security community should heed Morton’s hyperobjects and how they provide a better framework for understanding the reality-altering nature of the Chinese C4ISRT complex as a hyperobject. The exact extent and scale of the hyperobject is difficult to ascertain, thereby making it hard to say definitively whether one is being tracked by it at any given time, particularly during this uneasy period of great power competition. Through decades of hard work and investment, China created this hyperobject, and by doing so, it has changed the long-range surveillance and targeting game.
Has knowledge of the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject altered the worlds of the U.S. destroyer captain, the Australian F/A-18 pilot, or the INDOPACOM command team? Arguably yes, but probably not as explicitly as it should have. The carrier debate in the U.S. indicates we are likely in the early phase of understanding the impact of the C4ISRT hyperobject crashing into the rigidly structured world of the U.S. Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan and the DoD’s anachronistic acquisition system. These disruptions to our preferred way of doing things are likely to increase in frequency and intensity over the coming decade, putting a premium on our ability to understand and adapt to a hyperobject dominated battlespace. Practitioners would do well to reflect on what they actually know about the Chinese C4ISRT hyperobject—and more broadly, what can be known—to better understand how it influences their daily actions. From there, leaders can begin to respond in kind. Until then though, the Western response will be suboptimal at best, or catastrophically misinformed at worst.
Lieutenant Commander Shane Halton is an intelligence officer currently serving in California. He has previously served on exchange with the Royal Australian Navy and as a requirements officer at the Navy’s Digital Warfare Office.
Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Florida. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School and is a doctoral student in systems engineering at Colorado State University.
These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.
1. Helene Cooper, “Pentagon Says it Detected a Chinese Spy Balloon Hovering Over Montana,” The New York Times, February 2, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/us/politics/china-spy-balloon-pentagon.html
3. Katie Bo Lillis, Jeremy Herb, Josh Campbell, Zachery Cohen, Kylie Atwood, and Natasha Bertrand, “Spy balloon part of broader Chinese military surveillance operation, US intel sources say,” CNN, February 8, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/07/politics/spy-balloon/index.html
4. Bob Hall, “Chinese spy balloon exposes US vulnerability to EMP attacks,” Washington Examiner, February 13, 2023, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/restoring-america/courage-strength-optimism/chinese-spy-balloon-exposes-us-vulnerability-to-emp-attacks
5. Michael Mazza, “The Chiense spy balloon is a tangible Sputnik moment for Biden and Americans,” New York Post, February 6, 2023, https://nypost.com/2023/02/06/the-chinese-spy-balloon-is-a-tangible-sputnik-moment-for-biden-and-americans/
It has been nearly 14 years since the Navy joined four officer restricted line communities (intelligence, cryptologic warfare, meteorology/oceanography, and information professional) together to form the Information Dominance Corps, later renamed the Information Warfare Community in 2016. Full disclosure: In 2008 I was among a small group of officers asked to help on the early concept papers for alignment, and along the way participated in other initiatives to shape it. Initially I found the idea intriguing and potentially beneficial for the Navy from a training, acquisition, and resourcing perspective.
Gradually, however, I came to oppose it, or at least opposed including my community (intelligence) in it. It is now more apparent than ever that the information warfare community has not been, on balance, a good bargain for all four restricted line communities. This outcome is not surprising for several reasons, but none more so than this: Despite what senior Navy leaders may have said about information warfare over the past decade or so, what they have done and continue to do reveals that they do not believe information warfare is a warfighting domain on par with the traditional warfighting communities.
Navy leaders from the primary warfare communities—surface warfare, aviation, submarine warfare, and special warfare—still treat information warfare as a set of supporting services, albeit of increasing importance. This has led to the situation in which the information warfare community now finds itself a rhetorical prince, but a bureaucratic pauper. Its leaders are losing control of its destiny.
How did this happen? To answer that, one must rewind the clock a bit. By the late 2000s, the digital/information age was well into its second decade and the overarching premise for this organizational change was that officers and sailors with expertise in information-centric disciplines should have more influence in running the Navy. Information warfare needed to be seen and treated on the same level as traditional “platform” warfighting communities, such as aviation and surface warfare. Joining the four information-centric restricted line communities (plus a small quasi-community called the space cadre) would give information warfare the heft (budget and personnel control and perhaps most important, more flag officer billets at the expense of traditional unrestricted line warfare communities) to have influence commensurate with its importance to future warfighting. In a large bureaucracy like a military service, real power mainly accrues to those with control of money and people.
Conceptually, information warfare has always been problematic, evidenced most notably by the Navy’s continuing struggle to define and write coherent doctrine for it. No rigorous mission analysis preceded the major organizational changes. Instead, they seemed to rely on paper-thin power point briefs, exhortations, platitudes, a frenetic impatience fueled by the fear of missing out on digital innovation, and a giant leap of faith. But it was a rocky ride from the beginning, with the conceptual flaws and half-baked organizational shifts proving, time and again, to be houses of sand. Nevertheless, at each roadblock in the journey to be a true warfighting community, information warfare leaders could not avoid the sunk-cost fallacy and refused to revisit the underlying rationale and foundational concepts. Instead, one more organizational tweak or rebranding would do the trick to finally place the new community alongside its unrestricted line brethren, it was believed (or proffered).
Today, the Navy information warfare community is not an unrestricted line community in practice, but it is run predominantly by traditional unrestricted line officers. A submarine warfare officer is the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare and the Director of Naval Intelligence, an aviator commands the U.S. Tenth Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command, the Tenth Fleet deputy commander is a submariner, and the Fleet Cyber Command deputy is an aviator. In fact, an intelligence officer has only been the Director of Naval Intelligence for two of the past eleven years and an information warfare officer only four of those eleven. Four of the seven commanders of the U.S. Tenth Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command have been unrestricted line officers.
Meanwhile, members of Congress and civilian leaders in the Department of the Navy are so frustrated with the information warfare community’s inability to cultivate a real cyber warfare cadre that language in the draft fiscal year 2023 NDAA requires the Navy to develop one separate from the information warfare community, removing entirely its responsibility for cyber warfare. Recently, the Chief of Naval Operations told Congress the Navy will develop a separate cyber warfare designator. It is not clear how this new community will be formed or where it will reside in the Navy’s structure. And, the final NDAA language that comes out of conference this fall may more severely restrain the Navy’s flexibility and could even result in the Navy divesting completely from the cyber warfare mission. Regardless of the outcome, however, that Congress has become so intrusive in managing Navy cyber warfare is a stunning vote of no confidence.
Moving Too Fast
Early Navy information warfare leaders bear their share of responsibility for this disturbing plight. They could not resist indulging in the irrational exuberance of the digital technology craze in the mid 2000s or the temptation to grab more power by subsuming the four communities’ competencies under the grand, overhyped, and flawed idea that they are all just doing “information” stuff. The four information warfare communities all collect, manage, and use information, but for strikingly different purposes.
No one would seriously contend that a NASCAR driver, a school bus driver, and a fire truck driver are all at root in the gasoline-consumption business. Justifying that naval intelligence, cryptologic warfare, information professional, and meteorology/oceanography personnel are all in the information business required a lot of hand-waving when the tough questions came forth. It also exalted the information generalist and relegated the importance of niche expertise, such as cyber operations, to something short of a primary objective. For the Navy, that mistake has come home to roost with the aforementioned cyber warfare problem.
As Erik Larson explained in his excellent 2021 book, The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do, in the mid 2000s the hype surrounding artificial intelligence and machine learning was running at a breathtaking pace. Adjectives and metaphors such as exponential, revolutionary, and game-changing littered popular tech literature, corporate strategies, vision statements, speeches, podcasts—just about any medium for any organization to prove to its shareholders, followers, customers, and members that it was attuned to the digital innovation culture. Leaders in all organizations—and those running the military were no exception—could be forgiven for believing they were already behind. Fear of missing out, from an innovation standpoint, permeated the mid to upper reaches of the Navy. There was no time for calm, deliberate, and clear thinking ahead of organizational changes. The mantra became move fast and figure it out as we go.
While understandable, this sentiment-turned-imperative resulted in some shortsighted and counterproductive organizational changes. What triumphed early and quickly became impossible to challenge was the view that information, writ large, was a coherent and grand warfighting domain that required information warfare generalists to run it. Alarms were raised that such a shift would weaken the individual community specialties. Assurances to the contrary were never convincing. The fact that today, more than a decade later, the information warfare community is led primarily by unrestricted line officers and is in real danger of losing perhaps its most important specialty from a warfighting perspective (cyber warfare) should at least prompt some introspection on whether the generalist concept was the wrong model.
Generalist champions will undoubtedly point to the success of the information warfare commander afloat position on carrier strike group staffs. This screened, O-6 position ostensibly places information warfare on equal standing with the other Navy warfare commanders at the tactical level. Judged from largely anecdotal reactions, carrier strike group commanders (a position an information warfare officer will never hold, unlike his or her unrestricted line counterparts) are happy with this investment. And why not? The information warfare business, from intelligence to cryptology to oceanography to information systems, is broad and complex and what strike group commander wouldn’t be happier having to hold one officer rather than three or four accountable for results? But the discussions I have had with former strike group commanders on the virtue of the position have invariably centered on the top-notch character of the individual information warfare officer who served in the position, and not on how that information warfare mission was done better than before, beyond uttering some tired bromides about collaboration, synergy, and the like.
Yet when Navy and joint commanders at the operational and strategic levels have had to choose between information warfare officers with a generalist resume and those well-regarded for some specialty, such as real expertise on China, they have mostly valued the latter. As a case in point, the newest Indo-Pacific Command Director for Intelligence spent years as an attaché in both China and Taiwan, most recently as the Senior Defense Attaché in Beijing. His specialization could not have been more focused, yet he is the man the commander wanted, rather than a junior information warfare flag officer with a broad information warfare resume. Why would a mid-grade Navy intelligence officer not look at this example and wonder whether he or she should attempt to replicate the specialized career path, assuming he or she joined the intelligence community with a genuine passion to be expert on the threat?
Welcome to the Information Warfare Subcommunity
No Navy leader or serious commentator on the Navy would venture an argument that the Director of Air Warfare in the Pentagon be led by a two-star submarine warfare admiral, or the Director of Surface Warfare be a two-star naval aviator. Their boss, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements (OPNAV N9) is always an aviator, surface warfare officer, or submariner. Yet, having an unrestricted line flag officer running the information warfare community and the sole information warfare fleet has become routine Navy practice. Many senior flag billets at information warfare commands are apparently opportunities for Navy unrestricted line leaders to get some information warfare experience, not positions that require actual information warfare officers.
Friends assure me that while this may be true today, future generations of information warfare officers will have the broad background necessary to regularly, if not exclusively, hold these positions. I am not convinced. For starters, from an officer accession policy standpoint, the Navy is mostly handling information warfare the way it did the four information-centric restricted line communities. For example, this year the Naval Academy and Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) commissioned only one intelligence officer who was physically qualified to commission into the unrestricted line communities. Not one each. One total. The cryptologic warfare community does slightly better, but not much. NROTC is poised to finally get more information warfare commissioning slots in the coming years, but for the most part, information warfare will probably remain an officer accessions sideshow at the premier officer commissioning programs.
There are some benefits to the organizational merger, such as having a Navy information warfare type command responsible to man, train, and equip the four communities. However, an information warfare type command could have been established while retaining the specialist culture and operational structure of the four communities. It is simply difficult to conclude that naval intelligence is better served in a construct in which the Director of Naval Intelligence is rarely an intelligence officer.
Information warfare leaders should be candid about this reality: Well past a decade from the creation of the IDC, the traditional Navy unrestricted line communities are largely running the Navy’s information warfare business. Prior to 2009, leaders of the four restricted line communities that now comprise the IWC had more control of their disciplines and destinies than they do today. In joining together and reaching for the prominence of unrestricted line status, the four information warfare communities instead paved their own road to serfdom.
Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.
Featured Image: Senior Chief Fire Controlman Michael Cullinan monitors a radar console for air and surface contacts in the combat information center aboard the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Guttierrez III/Released)