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)

2 thoughts on “Intel Owns Red: How Red Teaming Can Prepare the Fleet for the Fight Ahead”

  1. Excellent Article. A couple of comments are offered.

    An effective red team will have to include not only ONI Intelligence expertise; but also, Navy expertise in cryptology/EW, cyber, communications and network infrastructures. Therefore, Red Team leadership and sponsorship would logically be assigned to the VCNO for Information Warfare.

    The mission of the red team would be to assure that US Navy operational concepts, tactics, acquisition systems, war games, fleet exercises, and analyses of alternatives are tested against known adversary (Red) nation’s irregular and conventional warfare capabilities, concepts, and tactics. This would include the identification and analysis of vulnerabilities in US Navy and non-Navy supporting mission essential infrastructures to identify and exploit those that could be exploited in irregular warfare and conventional warfare scenarios.

    The Red Team’s objective would be to defeat blue in the planning and execution maritime operations and generate lessons to be learned.

  2. Excellent piece. And one more part of the solution: involve the best and the brightest from outside the Command, outside the Navy, and even outside Government. Don’t settle for less.

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