Old Books, New Ideas: Realigning Naval Intelligence for Great Power Competition

Naval Intelligence Week

By Matt Wertz

The statesman of the twentieth century, Winston S. Churchill, cautioned about both the prelude to war and actual war, saying: “However sure you are that you could easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.” Therefore, intelligence as a whole should be looking for the other man’s chances, and to stay one move ahead of his. For Naval Intelligence, the maritime portion of the Great Power Competition (GPC) is nothing new; it is the 21st century version of former Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Paul Nitze’s, Cold War sea power tome, this time concerning both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation.1 Naval Intelligence will prove its relevance by maintaining its wartime footing daily through the experiences and insights that its competitors do not have. Naval Intelligence is the decision advantage for GPC, using “old school” tools, honed through combat, the Cold War, and combat again, supplemented by “new school” techniques. All of these tools will be that decisive advantage just in case “competition” becomes “combat.”

What Intelligence is, and is Not

Intelligence is to provide a game plan, a scouting report concerning the competition. Others say that intelligence exists to narrow the range of uncertainty, and to predict patterns, and not events.2 Unfortunately, these opinions are written from a swivel chair in an airconditioned office in Washington, DC, and not underway from the Flag Bridge. Tactically speaking, “the single most important role of intelligence is to provide warning.”3 In the past, the failure to provide warning, the intelligence community’s “one job, one task, one mission” resulted in catastrophes at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11.4

The strategic signal regarding indications and warning is clear: the United States has returned to a state-versus-state paradigm against China and Russia for the foreseeable future, other missions, such as humanitarian assistance and counterterrorism, notwithstanding.5 The analysis that “as [China’s and Russia’s] denial and deception abilities increase, intelligence collection and the realm of the possible will be even more important, requiring greater preparedness and increased readiness, since warning time will be a thing of the past” is truer now than when first published in 1980.6 Naval intelligence must answer the question: when will China and Russia achieve their own GPC goals and objectives?

Intelligence and operations work best symbiotically, and lacking this symbiosis, the best possible intelligence will not be produced.7 This has proven true from ancient times to the modern day: “Those engaged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan will attest that genuine ops-intel integration is a two-way street where warriors and intelligence specialists feed one another to produce genuine synergy and sharpened effects.”8 Additionally, the events surrounding the fall of the Shah of Iran taught: “History provides ample illustration to suggest the futility of warning if decision makers are unwilling to accept warning or are unprepared to deal with the terms on which the warning comes.”9 So, if Naval Intelligence’s job is “tomorrow,” i.e., warning in advance of conflict or catastrophe, then how can it accomplish this?

The current realignment to a navy-on-navy focus means that Naval Intelligence must reemphasize traditional intelligence disciplines (the “old school”), and learn new, tech- and data-savvy ones (the “new school”).

Old School

One “old school” theme has echoed across two centuries of naval intelligence: language training. Others, discussed for decades, include: geographic specialization expertise; operational intelligence (OpIntel); and targeting (i.e., war at sea targeting and strike). 

With perfect hindsight, the pre-World War II U.S. Navy should have developed in parallel the Rainbow War Plans and the skills from pertinent specialties, including the intelligence, communications, and medical communities, capable of working language, culture, and regional fluency in theaters where the United States expected to operate. However, the realities of the budget, especially concerning the interwar, post-Great Depression hardware needs may have outweighed the development of linguistic capabilities. Impressment of musicians for a perceived skill is no way to run an intelligence division, or to plan for combat operations. The Navy is now looking itself in the mirror a hundred years after the inception of these interwar operational plans with only a handful of Cantonese, Mandarin, (North) Korean, and Russian-fluent personnel, and even fewer fluent in allies’ languages. 

In 1879, then-Commander Alfred T. Mahan asserted that all officers should have language training,10 and in 1907 Admiral George Dewey said the same thing, commenting on the Russo-Japanese War.11 Other authors made similar observations in 1947,12 2006,13 and 2017, and stressed language and cultural capability for one simple reason: those who receive this education and training will be future chiefs and commanders, and they will have the knowledge and credibility required to be of maximum value to operations in those regions. In 1943, through the use of cultural/language training and expertise, Admiral Nimitz ordered the operation to kill Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Edwin Layton, the man who drafted Nimitz’s order, was the former Naval Attaché to Tokyo before the war, a personal friend of Admiral Yamamoto, and Admiral Nimitz’s Intelligence Officer.14

Open-ocean search and tracking – called Operational Intelligence or OpIntel by the U.S. Navy – has been the staple of intelligence and operations since men first took to the sea. A navy must be able to find its enemy, track its enemy, and if ordered to, engage its enemy using its primary weapons system, whether with its bow on a trireme, or an over-the-horizon guided weapon.15 Otherwise, that navy is useless to its country. OpIntel is the backbone of naval intelligence, requiring deep foundational knowledge of and investment in the adversary’s military doctrine, organizational culture, language, history, and technological trajectories, among others. But to accumulate this expertise, geographic specialists and OpIntel personnel require mutual training and support, before they can produce intelligence for fleet training, capability development, operational plans, etc.

Since at least 1901, authors have discussed collection and reconnaissance in Proceedings. For instance, one author thought that it was “the barest common sense” that intelligence not only be acquired in peacetime, but maintained “in the most persistent, painstaking and methodical way, so that it shall be but a matter of a minute to lay the Government hand upon any portion needed.”16 Today, this includes everything from order-of-battle to technical intelligence,17 and other collections.18

In Ellicott’s 1901 article, he stressed the need for reconnaissance. Forty years later, both reconnaissance and intelligence played their respective roles at Midway; had either failed, the U.S. Navy might have been defeated.19 In 1971, the U.S. Navy discussed the same theme concerning satellite ocean surveillance,20 and then again with the emergence of unmanned amphibious reconnaissance. Satellites cannot detect everything, and more often than not, the best intelligence collector is a human standing watch at sea. However, the intelligence community needs to be responsive to every intelligence report offered by a unit: no commanding officer should ever say, “Well, we sent the message and never heard from them. I don’t know if they even got it.”21 

The 20th century saw a reliance on the concept of coalition warfare, from World War I through the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, continuing into the Global War on Terror in the 21st century. Therefore, intelligence sharing is a rule. Although the current “Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council is an outgrowth of a World War II initiative, other counties and partners are engaged.22 Allied partners have been known to have effective intelligence capabilities.

Secrecy, Counterintelligence, and Security

Although “know yourself and know your enemy” is normally an operationally-associated dictum, American counterintelligence support to warfighting dates back to the Revolutionary War.23 The United States needs to keep its secrets secret. Many times, the United States has been its own worst enemy with respect to operational security, from social media surveillance, to classified material in peer-review publications,24 to open sources, to theft and positive collection from a hostile nation,25 and even espionage.26

Two years ago, counterintelligence (CI) was an award-winning topic in Proceedings as the author showed how important effective CI programs (“knowing yourself”) are, directly impacting operations. The Navy has had its spies, and strong CI operations can upset the game plans of those who try to steal the Navy’s information, a target set not limited to the Chinese or the Russians. The importance for GPC is that the Navy needs to protect its information, to root out the “moles” in the Department, and to prosecute them, or to use them for its own purposes.

The final word concerning security and counterintelligence rests in a comment made immediately following 9/11: “The final intelligence failure is the most telling, and that is our government’s failure to keep our intelligence capabilities secret. This is partially the fault of the intelligence community in its eagerness to brag about capabilities in search of appropriations, but more usually, the ‘leak’ comes from Congress or a senior leader in the administration. A collection capability revealed too often has become a capability destroyed. If we fail to protect our sources and methods, in time our system will be emasculated and intelligence failures will become a certainty.”27

The current COVID pandemic underscores the requirements for planning and executing operations in a contaminated environment (whether biological, chemical, or radiological). These considerations have been constant since World War I,28 persisting through the Cold War,29 the Balkan conflict,30 Afghanistan, and Iraq.31 Medical intelligence in support of force protection and maritime interdiction may play a greater role in GPC than originally envisioned. In fact, medical professionals may have more contact with foreign nationals than intelligence or operations personnel, and will require language and cultural training. Medical intelligence is as valuable as every other functional area of intelligence, especially in support of any operations ashore as those personnel “feet dry” may have contact with not only a myriad of possibly infectious diseases, but may be providing combat medical support simultaneously.

New School

In recent years, the asymmetric threat,32 cyber warfare, fourth generation warfare, artificial intelligence, and data science/analytics have come to fore as mission and mission support areas. In planning for cyber warfare, certain schools of thought have arisen, including the need for a cyber defense in depth as in traditional naval warfare, force protection, and offensive force application. Nowhere is this more prevalent than social media. “Connections on social media (including LinkedIn and Facebook) may not be who we think they are. The enemy wants to be your online friend and shipmate—and it is putting us all at risk.”

Other areas of importance to the “new school” of intelligence are AI and the rise of data, which affect the military and business sectors alike in areas such as the application of machine learning, the “shelf life” of data before it becomes stale or superseded, and data security, to name a few.33 Data should be taken out of its silo, and placed in more of a horizontal network. However useful as it may be in business, AI and application of data should never overreach beyond its intent, and should never undermine established principles of command: the commander-in-the-loop has the final say. In GPC, these are the tools of a new era of threat collection, reporting, and most importantly, analysis and prediction. 

No Bucks, no Buck Rogers

What is important, what is not, and what is worth paying for in peacetime that will take resources away from another capability that is an “operational requirement?” How much risk is acceptable when deciding not to have a given intelligence capability?

As intelligence is part of the Command Process, “This is no time ‘to begrudge the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver’ for information.”34 However, the Congress has other programs to fund, and in days of austere funding, every budgetary line item will be under scrutiny, including investments in intelligence.

There is a great difference between the meanings of the cost of intelligence, the price of intelligence, and the value of intelligence, but intelligence can provide a clear estimate of how the United States and its allies can cost-effectively compete and therefore drive down the price of defense (shipbuilding, weapons systems procurement, etc.), and the cost of war. 

The Bottom Lines

First, some of the issues raised in this article have been discussed since the Rutherford B. Hayes Administration, and the U.S. Navy has an opportunity to use these timeless lessons to grow and to use its intelligence capability during the early stages of GPC, rather than trying to catch up to current operations with minimal staffing, funding, equipment, and training. These monies start with “knowing your enemy” and progress into language proficiency and geographical area specialists, OpIntel, counterintelligence, medical intelligence (diseases are an enemy, too), and allied intelligence sharing.

Second, emphasis on both the active use of intelligence as well as the active defense of intelligence from the enemy are critical for maintaining information as a precious commodity. The enemy will steal it as fast as it can be produced. The easiest place to defeat an enemy is from the enemy’s computer hard drive, or from the enemy’s blackboard, not from a naval engagement.

Third, GPC is not a single-designator task, it is a service-wide issue. Although Naval Intelligence will play its role to ensure that the competition is favorable to the U.S. Navy, other designators will have to play their part as well. Naval Intelligence has had decades of combat experience, from Operation Desert Storm to Afghanistan, and will be a force multiplier by doing its time-tested job day in and day out to a receptive operational audience. But the other designator will need to do their respective parts as well. 

Finally, addressing these issues today means that the U.S. Navy and Naval Intelligence will maintain maritime superiority through GPC without firing a salvo in anger, and thus prove Mister Churchill correct: the other fellow will realize that he does not have a chance.

Matt Wertz is a retired Naval Intelligence officer with overseas assignments in Korea and Japan, was awarded the Bronze Star in Afghanistan for running Emergency Management Operations in 2004-2005. He made four more deployments to Afghanistan doing Counter-IED support. He has a MBA, and has accumulated language education on his own in: Latin, German, Korean, Hebrew, and Greek. Although born and bred a Pennsylvanian, he is living in Waynesboro, GA, with his wife and is a direct descendant of a veteran of the Battle of Waynesboro who was assigned to the Pennsylvania 9th Cavalry.


[1] For the overarching blueprint for winning the Cold War at sea, see: Paul Nitze, et al., Securing the Seas: The Soviet Naval Challenge and Western Alliance Options: An Atlantic Council Policy Study (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979). Although thorough by 1979 standards, it does not reflect certain post-Cold War missions that Mr. Nitze, et al. could not have foreseen.

[2] Brent Scowcroft, “Intelligence is Not a Crystal Ball,” The Washington Post, 12 January 2000, 18.

[3] T. A. Brooks, “Did Intelligence Fail Us? By October 2001 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 127, no. 10 (October 2001): 54-55.

[4] Joseph J. Thomas, Leadership Embodied: The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013). 76.

[5] Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962); and Ephraim Kam, Surprise Attack: The Victim’s Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Joseph C. Arnold, “On the Importance of Secret Intelligence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 106, no. 8 (August 1980): 47-53, 53.

[7] J. V. Heimark, “Know Thine Enemy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 85, no. 8 (August 1959): 65-71, 68.

[8] Mike Studeman, “Seven Myths of Intelligence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 135, vol. 2 (February 2009): 64-69, 68-69.

[9] United States. Congress. House. Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Subcommittee on Evaluation. Iran: Evaluation of U.S. Intelligence Performance Prior to November 1978: Staff Report. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1979. Page 7.

[10] A. T. Mahan, “Naval Education,” U.S. Naval Institute The Record, 5, no. 4 (October 1879): 345-376, 352.

[11] Kemp Tolley, “A Century of Foreign Languages in the Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 91, no. 2 (February 1965): 43-51, 45.

[12] R. A. Kotrla, “Naval Intelligence Specialists Trained on Post-Graduate Level,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 73, no. 9 (September 1947): 1061-1063.

[13] Zachary M. Peterson, “UAVs Praised: Intel Officers Emphasize Research, Key Jobs, Cultural Understanding.” Inside the Navy 19, no. 2 (2006): 2. www.jstor.org/stable/24839778.

[14] Edwin T. Layton, et al., And I Was There:” Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets (New York: W. Morrow, 1985), 474-47 

[15] Dan Shanower, “Naval Intelligence Must Focus on Time Critical Targeting,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 126, no. 10 (October 2000): 102-103.

[16] John M. Ellicott, “Naval Reconnaissance in Time of Peace,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 27, no. 3 (September 1901): 561-579, 561.

[17] William L. Sachse, “Our Naval Attaché System: Its Origins and Development to 1917,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 72, no. 5 (May 1946): 661-673, 661.

[18] Chester C. Wood, “The Flow Of Strategic Intelligence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 59, no. 3 (September 1933): 1296-1304.

[19] Heimark, 69. Emphasis added.

[20] Frank B. Murphy, “Ocean Surveillance: New Weapon of Naval Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 97, no.2 (February 1971): 41.

[21] Carl Giese, Commentary on, “Stop, Look, and Listen,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 93, no. 12 (December 1967): 103-104.

 [22] See: James Igoe Walsh, The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Muza Tuzuner, Intelligence Cooperation Practices in the 21st Century: Towards a Culture of Sharing. (Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2010); and, Kevin Jack Riley, and RAND Corporation, State and Local Intelligence in the War on Terrorism (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp, 2005).

[23] Sam Roberts, Spy History 101: America’s Intelligence Quotient, New York Times, 08 September 2002, Section 4, 4. George Washington declared ”the necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged.” He also warned ”for upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned and promising a favorable issue.”

[24] Tracy Barrett Kittredge, “A Military Danger. The Revelation of Secret Strategic Plans,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 81, no. 7 (July 1955): 731-743. Also, Paul H. Backus, “Security and The Double Standard,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 87, no. 12 (December 1961): 36-43.

[25] Takeo Yoshikawa, “Top Secret Assignment Completed,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 86, no. 12 (December 1960): 27-39.

[26] Esmond D. Smith, Jr., “Keeping Our Secrets,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 120, no. 5 (May 1994): 80-84.

[27] T. A. Brooks, 54-55.

[28] C. C. Baughman, “The Use of Chemicals in War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 53, no. 5 (May 1927): 547-550.

[29] Timothy J. Keen, “Artificial Intelligence and the 1,200-ship Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 114, no. 10 (October 1988): 96-100.

[30] Vash Klein, “Chemical, Biological, or Radiological?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 126, no. 6 (June 2000): 74-75.

[31] Thomas C. Hone, “Combining Strategy and Intelligence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 119, no. 6 (June 1993): 59-60.

[32] Rory Berke, “Training for the Wrong Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 134, no. 1 (January 2008): 56-60.

[33] Andrei Haigu and Julian Wright, “When Data Creates Competitive Advantage…And When It Doesn’t,” Harvard Business Review (January-February 2020): 2-9.

[34] Rufus L. Taylor, “Command and The Intelligence Process,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 86, no. 8 (August 1960): 27-39.

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