Category Archives: Naval Intelligence Week

Intel Owns Red: How Red Teaming Can Prepare the Fleet for the Fight Ahead

Naval Intelligence Topic Week

By Lieutenant Commander Christopher Blake and Lieutenant Grace Jones

History has shown that a deep understanding of the adversary and the operating environment can deliver decisive victory and prevent calamitous defeat. It brought about the miracle of Midway. It could have prevented the shock and surprise of 9/11. It is what the Navy needs to focus on to prepare for the complex and irregular nature of modern and future warfare. Building such knowledge is best achieved by embracing Naval Intelligence (NAVINTEL)’s role as the Navy’s lead community for comprehensive ownership of Red. Holistic understanding of the adversary and empowered application of contrarian analytical techniques at all levels of warfare will close the gap between understanding one’s own force and adversary plans. This can enhance a commander’s decision advantage and yield victory even in the most challenging of circumstances.

The most effective way to reinvigorate NAVINTEL’s focus on owning Red comes via two main methods: deep understanding of the adversary and the application of structured contrarian analysis. We describe these combined phenomena as Red Teaming, a two-pronged analytical methodology that can and should be applied at all levels of war.

For this to happen, NAVINTEL must encourage and value deep cultural and contextual understanding of the adversary and implement structural and educational changes that ensure consistent application of outside-the-box thinking. Solutions must be simple, repeatable, and low-cost for maximum effect. Moreover, such a change will require buy-in and a shift in warfighting ethos at all levels of leadership. Through such a shift, real and meaningful change can come about at the individual and organizational level that prepares NAVINTEL, and by extension the fleet, for the complex fight ahead. Thankfully, the Navy’s culture and history of innovation and contrarian thinking provide an environment that is ready-made for Red Teaming.

Naval Intelligence: A Culture of Understanding, Autonomy, Innovation, and Ingenuity… but Not Red Teaming

From its birth, Naval Intelligence has demonstrated the values of innovation, ingenuity, and creative problem-solving founded in understanding of the adversary and the operating environment. In the early 1880s, when Navy Lieutenant T.B.M. Mason lobbied for the creation of a naval intelligence agency that would send forth attaches to collect information on fleet modernization around the world in order to inform America’s own naval development, he embodied the two prongs of Red Teaming advocated here. Lt. Mason’s focus on understanding and appreciation for contrarian thinking helped prevent the Navy from languishing in its post-Civil War decline and ensure that the development of America’s future fleet would produce the right force to fight capable foes like Germany and Japan.i The Navy continued this culture of innovation and ingenuity, resulting in world-changing inventions such as the computer, GPS, nuclear-powered maritime vessels, and virtual reality.ii Such a culture seems to be fertile ground for Red Teaming to thrive; the Navy, however, finds itself lagging behind other services when it comes to fostering an environment that encourages deep, creative thinking at all levels of war.

The U.S. Marine Corps had the Commandant’s Red Team,iii the U.S. Army had the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS),iv the Air Force has “The Air Force Red Team,”v and the Office of the Secretary of Defense recently established its own Red Team,vi but the Navy, and NAVINTEL in particular, have languished without a community-wide commitment to Red Teaming. A 2003 report on “DoD Red Teaming Activities” only mentions the U.S. Navy in the context of the Subsurface Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) Security Program,vii and the service has not meaningfully devoted more resources to Red Teaming in the 20 years since. No doubt elements of the Navy have conducted Red Team-like activities and have certainly demonstrated deep understanding of the adversary, but such activities traditionally lie at the strategic level of war and only in centralized pockets of expertise and excellence. That model will not be sufficient in today’s operating environment, nor in the foreseeable future. The democratization of Red Teaming expertise through cultural shifts, training, and staff integration is required for the fight ahead, where Distributed Maritime Operations will be the American concept by which victory could be achieved against adversaries who view warfare very differently.viii

The Problem Today: Three Warfares, Active Measures, and Blind Spotsix

“Today, defense and national security professionals face a number of critical challenges: emerging threats from state and non-state actors, technological disruption, socio-economic upheaval and political uncertainty at home and abroad. Even the rate of change is accelerating rapidly. In addition, leaders must also contend with internal and interagency friction as they develop and execute critical plans, operations, and strategies. What organizations need now more than ever is flexible planning capabilities that allow them to sense and respond effectively to these pressing problems.”—Bryce Hoffman and Marcus Dimbleby, Red Team Thinking LLCx

“While conventional warfare—set-piece battles between large military forces—largely defined twentieth-century conflict between major powers, irregular warfare will likely define international politics over the next year and beyond. Countries like China, Russia, and Iran compete with the United States using irregular methods because conventional and nuclear warfare are far too costly. The tools of irregular warfare are not strategic bombers, main battle tanks, or infantry soldiers, but hackers, intelligence operatives, special operations forces, and private military companies that often operate in the shadows.” —Seth G. Jones, Center for Strategic and International Studies xi

The operating environment today is more complex and volatile than the nation has seen since the Cold War, yet NAVINTEL’s training, ethos, and culture are not structured to consistently and reliably prepare its people to think on their feet at the individual or tactical unit level. Traditional views that bifurcate warfare into conventional force-on-force conflict, nuclear deterrence, and irregular warfare are insufficient for the types of challenges facing the fleet in an era of great power competition. The nation’s most significant competitors and adversaries (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and non-state actors) do not see “warfare” as massed, organized conflict as the West often does. Rather, soft power often lands a more powerful blow than conventional military operations in today’s international landscape. Checkbook diplomacy, cyber warfare, misinformation, and state coercion abound as regular occurrences despite prevailing preferences to bin such actions as “irregular warfare.” When the irregular becomes the most regular threat at hand, our forces must adapt.

Thankfully, the NAVINTEL community is full of individuals who have developed deep knowledge of the target set and the ability to think beyond the pro forma most likely/most dangerous construct of adversary analysis. Lessons learned in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia can and should translate over to the rest of the NAVINTEL community. True in-depth understanding of a target by counterterrorism targeters has provided valuable assessments that enabled countless successful kinetic operations. Even beyond the counterterrorism realm, there are NAVINTEL professionals who have found their way into language training, cultural expertise, repeat area tours, and progressive assignments at multiple levels of warfare such that they have become true experts on competitors and adversaries in the 5th, 6th, and 7th Fleet Areas of Operations. Sadly, these individuals thrived in spite of the system, not because of it.

That said, the Navy should not abandon a focus on the worst-case, force-on-force scenarios at the heart of the Navy’s Operational Plan (OPLAN)-informed training. Rather, implementing Red Teaming as a core competency and cultural bedrock of the NAVINTEL community will enable Sailors at every level to respond to the expected while training for the worst. This is core to mission command, especially when battlespace awareness and communications capabilities are far from guaranteed. As Admiral William S. Sims said, “it often happened that the faults, more or less inevitable, of the higher authorities were repaired by their subordinates who thus won for them victories which they had not always deserved.”xii And so, inculcating Red Teaming as a core part of NAVINTEL’s baseline competency encourages the kind of thinking the Navy needs today.

The Red Teaming NAVINTEL Needs

It is essential to define the methods that need to be adopted. Doctrinally, the typical role intel plays in staff planning is the “red cell,” with a focus on the adversary, whereas the “red team”—where it does exist—is a separate unit focused on challenging assumptions (and usually enjoys direct access to the commander). This type of red team generally challenges widely-held views and scrutinizes analysis. As a result, the intel red cell focuses only on predictable adversary actions rather than broadly challenging assumptions or offering alternative assessments.

The Navy should stop decoupling these efforts and empower NAVINTEL to take ownership of Red Teaming beyond just adversary analysis. By also leading the development of structured contrarian analysis of own-force plans, alongside in-depth analysis of the adversary and the environment, NAVINTEL professionals will develop wider understanding and contextual analysis that will truly empower commander’s decision advantage. NAVINTEL teams must move beyond the capability side of the Deadly Force Triangle (capability, opportunity, intent) to holistically consider adversary plans, intentions, culture, and societal impacts that influence adversary decision-making. Only then will NAVINTEL empower commander’s decisions with sufficient understanding of not only what an adversary can do, but also with a consideration of all facets.

This approach to Red Teaming incorporates two interrelated but distinct models: emulative Red and decision-support Red. These two are not mutually exclusive; rather, there is great benefit from borrowing techniques from both. For an emulative Red Team, the most important factor is in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the adversary like culture, history, organizational structure, and weapon systems characteristics. For a decision-aid Red Team, fluency in and application of structured analytical tools will help prevent blind spots, groupthink, or other unintended negative effects of human analysis and decision-making from taking root in the planning process.xiii Although the models differ in emphasis, borrowing techniques from both models is critical for NAVINTEL to institutionalize the type of thinking suggested here.

The Red Teaming principles developed by the Army’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFCMS, often referred to as Red Team University) are the simplest way to structure the recommended problem-solving methodologies. UFMCS’ approach is based on four principles: self-awareness and reflection (SAR), applied critical thinking (ACT), groupthink mitigation (GTM), and fostering cultural empathy (FCE).xiv The first three are cognitive concepts, whereas FCE is more akin to traditional adversary understanding, and all are critical for NAVINTEL. One additional key element that is absent, however, is own-force understanding. This should be considered the fifth principle. NAVINTEL often strays away from focusing on own-force, or Blue, which is rightfully the domain of our operations and logistics counterparts. But without a good grasp of what one’s own force can do, NAVINTEL professionals are unable to contextualize threat and environment intelligence in a way that effectively informs what should be done. These five pillars should be the baseline for the concepts NAVINTEL needs to adopt to tackle the complex challenges of today.

Incorporating Red Teaming into NAVINTEL Culture, Training, and Processes

NAVINTEL needs to train for, establish a culture of, and take the lead in conducting full-spectrum Red Teaming across all levels of war in order to re-establish a legitimate and holistic focus on understanding Red. For decades, memorization of weapons ranges, ship characteristics, and unit nomenclature has been at the heart of NAVINTEL training. This approach provides a necessary foundation for analysis, but is insufficient as it does not equip the force with the cognitive abilities necessary for the challenges at hand. NAVINTEL needs to breed a culture full of professionals who fully own Red and truly see the world through the eyes of the adversary.

This does not happen by promulgating another 300-page handbook or adding more training requirements to the litany of annual computer-based training courses. Rather, change of this magnitude comes about by addressing root-cause issues like culture, training, and organizational structures and norms. This does not happen overnight; rather, a consistent focus on the core tenets of deeply understanding the adversary and a keen focus on preventing analytical traps and blind spots will bring about the changes needed to ensure decision superiority.

The foundations of intelligence analysis are developed in training, and therefore the shift in culture and ethos must start with incorporating Red Teaming methodologies there. Current graduates of the Naval Intelligence Officer Basic Course (NIOBC) state that the curriculum is centered around the simple rote memorization of adversary systems, with little focus on the importance of understanding adversary culture and the subsequent effects on decision-making.xv Recently, training that focused on mitigating groupthink was incorporated—which is an exceptional first step—but it failed to challenge students to exercise when and how this analytical pitfall comes into play in military decision-making. Furthermore, it did not incorporate understanding of the adversary and the environment as part of the discussion. Implementing a block of instruction on self-awareness, critical thinking, and groupthink mitigation, followed by experiential-based scenario training that integrates concepts central to understanding of the adversary would go a long way to ensure that NIOBC graduates have baseline competency in Red Teaming. This is relatively low-cost compared to the possible alternative of establishing a standalone Red Team University, like the Army and the Marine Corps did. This simple solution has the potential to serve as a catalyst for further change and more capably meet today’s demands.

In order to leverage this baseline exposure to Red Teaming in a way that creates meaningful cultural and organizational change, the initiative needs a sponsor. The Navy Information Warfighting Development Center (NIWDC) could serve as an exceptional training and doctrine hub, as well as cultural champion, to help cement Red Teaming as part of NAVINTEL’s way of doing business. NIWDC is well-positioned to be aware of, understand, and influence training, doctrine, standard operating procedures, and warfighting methodologies across NAVINTEL. With a handful of adherents and experts, at little to no cost,  NIWDC could develop a knowledge and resource repository. NIWDC should be empowered to build out resources to support individuals as they transfer between geographic areas, as well as curated reading lists spanning cultural, political, and economic subjects. The burden of developing this caliber of awareness and understanding must shift from the motivated individual acting of their own volition (as the system currently works) to the NAVINTEL community embracing these tenets institutionally.

Once baseline training has been established and Red Teaming guidance made available, NAVINTEL should implement a series of Additional Qualification Designators (AQDs) to encourage Red Teaming and regional/target-centric expertise and professional emphasis. As it stands, NAVINTEL embraces the generalist approach to knowledge and skills development, often detailing personnel from one geographic area to another, from one warfighting function to another, tour after tour. Certainly this provides opportunities for an Intelligence Officer or Intelligence Specialist to develop the breadth of understanding necessary to lead at senior levels of service. However, this approach disincentivizes service members from developing focused expertise, with a few notable exceptions.

By expanding the current professional focus seen in the Indo-Asia Pacific region (encouraged by the awarding of an area-specific AQDxvi) across more of the major challenges facing the Navy today, opportunities for in-depth knowledge and professional career viability can be more fully developed. Additional career pipeline augments are needed, including double detailing in the same region, and investing in junior personnel by sending a small number through the Defense Language Institute (DLI) with a payback tour either in theater or in an intelligence community component.

As related to Red Teaming, we advocate the creation of a Red Team AQD, which will complement the perspective and advice already delivered to fleet leaders by NIWDC’s Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) program and associated cadre. In addition to producing and guiding individuals with subject matter expertise, this also leverages NIWDC as the hub for preparatory and reference material needed to develop in-depth knowledge.

We understand that NAVINTEL cannot make everyone regional subject matter experts, but there can be a greater emphasis on a continuum of learning. There are no shortcuts to developing this deep understanding and the Navy should not mandate such efforts for all NAVINTEL personnel, but it should offer incentives to acquire and maintain regional expertise. Further, by providing roadmaps, resources, and training on critical subjects, the community can develop a cultural standard of performance and incentivize excellence.

Specifically related to the decision support side of Red Teaming, this approach can also make great strides toward the goal of full-scale acceptance of Red Teaming as part of a staff or command’s way of decision-making. The private sector, especially over the last 30 years or so in the tech industry, has done an incredible job of encouraging personnel to be experimental, take risks, and learn through failure. Examples like Google’s Moonshot Thinkingxvii or Amazon’s approach to competition analysisxviii have resulted in world-changing innovation across a multitude of sectors. NAVINTEL would do well to learn from these types of organizations and evaluate how new initiatives and institutionalized contrarian thinking are approached. Simply bolstering the Course of Action (COA) Analysis phase of the Navy Planning Process (NPP)xix would do wonders for this kind of evolution. With a NAVINTEL cadre well-versed in Red Team thinking, the Navy would be better prepared to effectively execute the NPP and scrutinize assumptions and outcomes. Doing so at all levels of operations, planning, and technological development will provide a more agile and adaptive thinking process to commanders and other decision-makers.


Whether it’s a ship’s captain facing an enemy vessel or a SEAL in the heat of battle, during the critical moments, the commander needs to ask for intel’s assessment, and know the analysis is derived from the deepest possible understanding of the adversary. By training and institutionalizing NAVINTEL professionals to more holistically own Red, NAVINTEL can democratize Red Teaming, resulting in a service that will be better suited to tackle the challenges central to current and future generations of naval warfighters.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Blake is a Navy Intelligence Officer with 21 years of experience in the Surface Warfare, Expeditionary Warfare, and Special Warfare communities. He currently serves as the Director of Intelligence and Information Warfare (N2) at Navy Expeditionary Warfighting Development Center (EXWDC), Virginia Beach, VA. 

Lieutenant Grace Jones is a Navy Intelligence Officer with seven years of experience supporting Special Operations and conducting strategic level analysis. She currently serves as the Deputy Chief for Analysis and Production Headquarters at U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM), Stuttgart, Germany. 

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, EXWDC, or USAFRICOM.


[i] Captain J.M. Ellicott, USN (Retired), “Theodorus Bailey Meyers Mason, Founder Of The Office Of Naval Intelligence,” Proceedings Vol. 78/3/589 (1952),

[ii] Office of Naval Intelligence, “About: Heritage,”

[iii] LtCol Brendan Mulvaney, “Red Teams: Strengthening through Challenge,” Marine Corps Gazette (2012),

[iv] United States Army Combined Arms Center, “University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies / Red Teaming,”

[v] Defense Science Board Task Force, “The Role and Status of DoD Red Teaming Activities,” September 2003,

[vi] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Department of Defense FY 21 Budget Estimates,” February 2020,

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Edward Lundquist, “DMO is Navy’s Operational Approach to Winning the High-End Fight at Sea,” Seapower Magazine, February 2, 2021,,operational%20dilemmas%20on%20the%20adversary.%E2%80%9D

[ix] Seth Gordon, “The Future of Competition: U.S. Adversaries and the Growth of Irregular Warfare,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 4, 2021,

[x] Bryce Hoffman, “Introducing the Red Team Thinking Academy,” LinkedIn, 2021,

[xi] Seth Gordon, “The Future of Competition: U.S. Adversaries and the Growth of Irregular Warfare,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 4, 2021,

[xii] Benjamin F. Armstrong, “21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era,” Naval War College Review Volume 68 Number 4 (2015)

[xiii] CDR Fox, William. Interviewed by Christopher Blake and Grace Jones. Phone interview. Stuttgart, Germany, and Washington, D.C. March 1, 2021.

[xiv] University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, “Army Red Teaming Overview,” PowerPoint slide deck distributed to Department of Defense.

[xv] LTjg Jackson, Meadow. Interviewed by Grace Jones. Phone interview. Stuttgart, Germany, March 6, 2021.

[xvi] Chief of Naval Personnel Public Affairs, “Navy Creates Designation to Identify Officers with Pacific Region Experience,” February 4, 2015,

[xvii] X.Company, “Moonshot Thinking,”

[xviii] Jeff Bezos, “How Amazon Thinks About Competition,” Harvard Business Review, December 21, 2020,

[xix] Department of the Navy, Navy Warfare Publication, “Navy Planning NWP 5-01,” December 2013, p 3-3

Featured Image: The guided-missile destroyer Hohhot (Hull 161) attached to a destroyer flotilla with the navy under the PLA Southern Theater Command steams in waters of the South China Sea during a realistic maritime training exercise in early August, 2020. ( by Li Wei)

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)

Naval Intelligence Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC will be featuring articles submitted in response to our call for articles on the future of naval intelligence.

Naval intelligence is only growing in its usefulness and criticality. Whether it be tactical intelligence that could unleash heavy accurate fires, or more strategic intelligence that perceives a competitor’s naval warfighting strategy, naval intelligence should form a bedrock for force development and forward operations. The maritime operating environment and the forces operating within them are growing in complexity and sophistication, demanding robust and well-integrated naval intelligence that is carefully heeded by leaders across echelons. How can naval intelligence be adapted to meet the challenges of today’s environment?

Below are the articles and authors being featured, which will be updated with further submissions as Naval Intelligence Week unfolds.

Brains and Brown Shoes: Building a Better Naval Aviation Intelligence Officer,” by Lieutenant Peter McGee, Lieutenant Gretchen Arndt, and Commander Christopher Nelson
Intel Owns Red: How Red Teaming Can Prepare the Fleet for the Fight Ahead,” by Lieutenant Commander Christopher Blake and Lieutenant Grace Jones
The Coastwatchers: Intelligence Lessons Learned for the Future Single Naval Battle,” by Captain Michael Van Liew
Calling in Thunder: Naval Intelligence Enabling Precision Long-Range Fires,” by Lieutenant Commander Gerie Palanca
Trustable AI: A Critical Challenge for Naval Intelligence,” by Stephen L. Dorton and Samantha Harper
The Unique Intelligence Challenges of Countering Naval Asymmetric Warfare,” by CDR (ret.) Dr. Eyal Pinko
Connecting Partnerships for the Co-Production of Full-Spectrum Threat Intelligence,” by Hal Kempfer and John P. Sullivan
Old Books, New Ideas: Realigning Naval Intelligence for Great Power Competition,” by Matt Wertz
If You Build It, They Will Lose: Competing with China Requires New Information Warfare Tools,” by Andrew P. Thompson

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSE’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image:  The Arabian Gulf (Mar. 23, 2003) — The Tactical Operations Officer (TAO), along with Operations Specialists, stand watch in the Combat Direction Center (CDC) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) monitoring all surface and aerial contacts in the operating area. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Tiffany A. Aiken.)