The Navy Information Warfare Communities’ Road to Serfdom

By Bill Bray

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)

10 thoughts on “The Navy Information Warfare Communities’ Road to Serfdom”

  1. The author is making a lot of good points here but I think he’s making a case for IWC reform, not disbandment.

    The IWC remains the least worst option for the 21st century battlespace; it looks like a Frankenstein’s monster until you compare it to Army or Air Force and realize for much gets lost in the seam issues between their 2 and 6 shops.

    The only part of the IWC that really needs more specialization (and maybe breaking off from the IWC) is Navy Cyber but I think the issues there are the Cryptology community not wanting to make it happen – I.e. it’s a problem of one community within the IWC, not the IWC itself.

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Today’s Navy Intel, Cryptology and METOC officers are way better informed and trained as part of the IWC than they would be otherwise.

  2. NAVADMIN 189/21 of 26 August 2021, established the Maritime Space Officer (MSO) community, and described it as: a milestone in building out the Navy space community, describing MSOs as the maritime space integration and planning professionals of the Navy.
    Space systems and their requirements, architectures, designs and fleet interfaces are focused on satellite reconnaissance, satellite METOC, satellite communications, and satellite navigation. The separation of space from the intelligence, cryptologic, METOC, and communications specialties makes no sense. Are intelligence officers no longer required to know NRO and Space Force satellite reconnaissance capabilities, tasking, fleet interfaces, and the integration of space, air and surface ISR information?

    Navy requirements for future NRO and Space Force capabilities of all flavors are in theory grounded in some level of analysis of space and non-space alternative solutions to Navy mission requirements. On what knowledge foundation will MSOs base their analysis and representation of Navy intelligence, targeting, communications, and METOC requirements for satellite capabilities?

    Lastly, an intelligence officer has to understand the sources and methods used to produce the information used in the production of reliable intelligence products of all types. They have to understand satellite reconnaissance systems, their products, tasking, strengths and limitations. Will intelligence officers be required to understand satellite reconnaissance, or will MSOs be the experts.

  3. Bravo, Bill Bray. I can’t help but think there is a missing component to your argument: the lack of fielded integrated, information-related capabilities. My understanding is that N2N6 and the IDC were brought together to function mostly at the OPNAV requirements management level and to take advantage of new information technologies that were accelerating in the commercial world. For example, why not converge C2, Battlespace Awareness, and integrated fires into single, interoperable platform instead of the terribly slow and disjointed silos they existed in? That seemed a good bet. But nothing of this sort occurred and we largely have the same information stovepipes but with “integration” happening at the personnel, careers, and organization levels (these are much easier to manage and influence). I think they ran too far, too fast and failed to integrate where it matters: concepts and capabilities development. They could have left the rest of it alone (tactical level organization, training, performance evals, etc).

  4. Bill misses the point on why URLs are in key leadership roles. They have to earned not quota awarded.
    The opportunity to build and place IWC Flags in other than TYCOM position is ignored and that there are no longer IWC officers contending for these positions says a lot.
    Rather than articles like this and per Shane above, when will the challenge be honesty faced and IWC embark on building the leaders for Naval Warfare that are needed vice honing and protecting specialities that define a career as serfs.
    For example, since when if DNI or others a god given right to a particular specialty—it has to be earned, so start earning and quit whining.

  5. Mr. Bray makes a good point that for any expert of warfare to draw a functional connection between intelligence, cryptology, meteorology, and communications systems requires a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. The concept failed to gain traction since there is no clear warfighting task which all four support. Proponents claim that integrated fires qualifies, since it requires knowledge of the adversary and environment, systems to run it, and both understanding and manipulation of the electromagnetic domain. This is like claiming logistics is part of OCA because jets need fuel and bombs to run. Something like the cohesion between fixed wing martime patrol, rotary wing hunting, and subsurface pursuit seen in ASW is needed. I would offer that to make information warfare a respected area we would need to combine practitioners and leaders in electromagnetic warfare, CI, information operations, and cyber, since all give commanders an advantage by depriving the adversary of knowledge under a unified mission. However, rather than truly integrating these areas we have let our doctrine and talent management either be dominated by outside groups or confined to such narrow lines within in the community that no true masters of the information domain are created.

  6. When the IDC/IWC* establishment was publicly announced in 2010 at Washington DC’s Mayflower Hotel by then CNO Adm Gary Roughead and N2 Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, both claimed “that information was the new ‘main battery’ of the Navy”, i.e. a warfare community on par with the Navy’s surface, aviation, submarine, and special forces warfare community. Hence the need for a new information centric Navy community. This caused me to ask them at this public announcement of the formation of the IDC/IWC if the Navy planned to shift intel, cryptologic, information, and meterological officers from the “restricted” (RLs) to the “unrestricted” line (URLs) so they would have weapons release authority for this new main battery of the Navy? The then CNO and N2 quickly dispatched my question with a polite “we are not ready to deal with that question yet”. Curiously (to me at least) there has been little public discussion since then of whether IDC/IWC officers should remain in the restricted line.

    From that answer I knew immediately the IDC/IWC would not be a standalone warfare community on equal footing with the Navy’s other warfighting communities. And as if to make that point, a few months later the first head of the IDC/IWC was an unrestricted line helicopter pilot with no background in intelligence, cryptology, IT, or weather beyond being and enthusiastic consumer of these information services. As Bill Bray authoritatively articulates, this trend of URL’s being placed in leadership positions across the IDC/IWC has continued unabated. As a result, information has never become a “main battery” of the Navy as predicted by those championed the formation of the IDC/IWC. Rather it remains an “enabler” for the Navy’s traditional lines of warfare.

    Bill Bray also implies correctly that at its formation and throughout its now 12 year existence the Navy set no performance metrics for the IDC/IWC to measure how it was performing against the organization construct it was replacing. To the best of my knowledge neither DoD, the IC, the Navy, nor the IDC/IWC has done either a quantitative or qualitative analysis of the IDC/IWC of improvements over time or relative to alternative organization constructs.

    While I had my doubts about how effective the IDC/IWC would be if its discipline specific officers did not become URLs, I was willing to wait and see if the IDC/IWC would be most more effective and efficient for the Navy as it adopted information as a new main battery. Bill Bray chronicles here, though, that the IDC/ IWC has actually diminished the impact of information for the Navy by putting it in the hands of those more familiar with aviation, surface, subsurface, and special forces warfare.


    • Originally announced as the Navy’s “Information Dominance Corps” (IDC), but subsequently changed to “Information Warfare Community” (IWC)

  7. Over the decades of watching this play out, one trend remains that is neither helpful or enlightening. That is regular selective dissection on the woes under the guise of analysis.
    As with any effective analysis “so what” is the driver for awareness and change. The so what is not that URLs are in leadership positions or somehow IWC is not given it’s “share.”
    Where are the forthright discussions on causal factors and proposed reforms, solutions?

  8. I am an outsider looking in to the Navy IW community as a Marine Corps Intelligence Officer working in a Navy command. I believe there is a lot of goodness in the integration of the IW fields of Intel, integrated fires, and communications that the Marine Corps under one commander/staff officer because they are all inextricably linked. I also believe from my position that information Warfare is crucial to the defensive and offensive side of warfare and these professionals need to think like operators to maneuver deftly in the info domain to enable kinetic action and maneuver. I believe the Navy has done a great job in pioneering the tactical relevance of space operations and SAP/STO/Cryptologic functions that Marines can learn a lot from. While there are problems that need to be overcome, I agree that throwing the baby out with the bathwater as one commentary made is not advised.

  9. The needed analysis is understand the slope downward from CNO Roughead’s excitement in 2010 to the state that CAPT Bray has documented. He rightly mentions the golden rule; the N2N6 FYDP TOA was $17B in 2014 but $11B just two years later and still less today. Admiral Roughead’s understood that N2N6 needed resources to compete with other resource sponsors. The original impressive portfolio that might have shaped future warfare was gutted. A cynical view would be that the IWC was could be depended up as caretakers of existing programs but not trusted to shape the Navy’s future. The flag billets went with the resources.
    The path to success today seems to be what we expected in 2010 – performance in a demanding IW Commander jobs. The concept evolved but the outcome isn’t all that different. Promotion to flag officer coming after having thrived in Navy and Joint war fight jobs and with that the evolution of IW. I think that it would have been equitable across the four specialities.

  10. Kudos to Bill Bray for tackling this thorny issue and also asking the right questions. When the consolidation was proposed, many of us thought it was a solution in search of a problem. From its earliest days, the four RL communities worked very well together without consolidation.
    In the mid-2000s, the 1610/CT community was experiencing an identity crisis as it tried to determine if it should emphasize cyber over traditional ELINT and COMINT. Adding three other distinct communities only exacerbated the identity crisis. Why should an 1830 command FNMOC? Or METOC officer command a NSW support organization? Do these IWC command screening boards serve a useful purpose? Seems like we are undermining the need for RL communities if anyone without deep expertise and experience can lead them. Fortunately, the talent remains very high, but it is not clear if we are properly using that talent.

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