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Navy Ninjas Master Information Warfare Arts

The Cyber Edge
May 1, 2018
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

Newly trained sailors will provide expertise across the sea service.


U.S. Navy personnel with advanced skills in information warfare may be ready to hit the decks and deploy across the fleet by year’s end.

Adding those adept information warriors to the fleet is a top priority for the commander of the Naval Information Warfighting Development Center (NIWDC), which was established about a year ago. Similar to other warfighting development centers, the NIWDC mission includes training and assessing forces in advanced tactics, techniques and procedures at the individual, unit, integrated or advanced and joint levels.

The first course Navy students take is, in part, designed to help them understand the power of bringing together all the different elements of information warfighting, including command and control, cyber operations, electronic warfare, intelligence, meteorology and oceanography, information operations and space. “This first course is really about understanding that synergistic effect. That’s going to be an achievement in and of itself,” says Capt. John Watkins, USN, the center’s first commander. “When you bring that all to bear and you coalesce, and you optimize those skill sets in a synergistic effect, that brings a powerful capability to the greater need.”

The initial focus is on training officers—the first class was expected to graduate in February—but the NIWDC will train enlisted personnel as well. Students will be trained to different levels. Those reaching levels one through four will be designated warfare tactical experts, while those advancing to level five will be certified warfare tactical instructors. Once trained and certified, graduates will receive patches to wear on their uniforms.

Then, both the experts and the instructors will be widely deployed to deliver knowledge and train colleagues in information warfare. “We will create super ninjas, information warfare ninjas, across the fleet,” Capt. Watkins says. “My focus for right now is more on the instructor side. I want to create the level five instructors, and I want to strategically place them throughout the Navy to optimize that capability, those super ninjas.”

The captain stresses that his goal is to have information warfare instructors patched in by the end of this year. “We are really putting the accelerator on heavy to make that happen,” he says. “There’s always that need to peer over the horizon at what’s going on and ensure that our tactics address—to the extent that we can—how our adversaries do business so that we’re No. 1 at the end of the day.”

Students will complete a set of core classes and then branch off into specific strands of study. For example, intelligence officers can specialize in analytics, targeting, collections management and intelligence support to cyber. Those pursuing intelligence support to cyber are in for about 42 weeks of training, whereas most intelligence operations candidates will average about 25-30 weeks.

Deployed graduates will receive an on-the-job crash course in responding to the complexities of information warfare. “It’s those moments when they’re in the fleet that they’re going to see some of the information warfare challenges, and whether it’s process improvement, whether it’s technology insertion, whether it’s a combination, that’s where we’re really going to see their brilliance, their serendipitous resolutions for tackling some of these core challenges,” Capt. Watkins suggests.

Technology will be one of the most daunting challenges the ninjas will face. “The reality is that in the information warfare arena, a lot of the systems we use are dynamic. They’re very fluid, they’re constantly moving, they’re constantly being upgraded,” Capt. Watkins points out. “Not only is it the challenge of all the upgrades to the systems; it’s the challenge of maintaining the interoperability of the systems.”

However, the NIWDC hasn’t waited for graduates before sending experts to the fleet. The commander says members of his team have deployed downrange for a number of reasons, such as helping with military exercises, or in some cases, aiding in situations that he cannot detail.“We’ve already proven in our first year that we are delivering value added to the Navy,” the commander says. “The purpose is to raise the tide, so to speak, across our respective warfighting areas.”

The center is in charge of reviewing and establishing information warfighting doctrine. “We’ve become the clearinghouse for information warfare doctrine. We’ve been able to, in a short period of time, go out and survey the doctrine that exists. That’s a pretty significant milestone,” Capt. Watkins notes.

NIWDC personnel recently helped with a policy issue regarding “strike group positional management,” the captain reports without going into sensitive specifics. “We’ve taken some recent doctrine and worked it through the tactical strike group level, made some changes based on input from the tactical strike group staffs, and have republished that out to the fleet. Now the fleet has a document that they can really sink their teeth into for adequate training.”

Along with doctrine, the center takes on some responsibility for establishing tactics, techniques and procedures. “Right now, with the establishment of the NIWDC, there’s also a sense of a cultural shift mindset, an ethos. It’s a part of my core business line at the command to look at ways to improve and enhance our tactics and our procedures. We aggressively pursue these kinds of things,” he says.

Spreading information warfare experts and instructors across the Navy will help the NIWDC achieve other goals. Having, for example, cryptography or information operations experts throughout the fleet will help validate new doctrine. “If I create those subject matter experts, and I put them back into the fleet sooner rather than later, I will deliver on the rest of the lines of operation. Because back here on the headquarters front, we’re constantly going to be dynamically adjusting doctrine, revising it and making it palatable and usable to the fleet,” he explains.

Additionally, the NIWDC is responsible for information warfare initiatives that advance capabilities in the other warfighting development centers: the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, Navy Warfare Development Command, Undersea Warfighting Development Center and Navy Expeditionary Warfighting Development Center.

Some of those collaborations with sister warfighting development centers, along with other organizations, already have begun. For example, the NIWDC staff is working with the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center during tactical training events such as Trident Warrior. “We want to partner with our surface folks to ensure that we’re getting the information warfare training baked in as well,” Capt. Watkins reports.

Regarding advanced capabilities, the NIWDC commander cites machine learning as an emerging technology that will prove beneficial in the information warfare domain. “We’re making significant headway in machine learning, automation and data standards. Big Navy is doing that, which is a great thing,” he says.

The captain also credits the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command for its work in developing and fielding a wide array of advanced technologies. He specifically mentions the Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services program. “I see a lot of good things moving in the right direction. We need to harness and leverage technology where it makes sense. We’re not going to be able to solve everything just with a new piece of hardware or a new box,” Capt. Watkins states. “In this day and age, he who has the information faster is a step ahead.”

But he also warns against placing too much emphasis on the technology rather than the personnel. “All of this machinery without the people to run it and to understand it is useless,” Capt. Watkins declares. “Don’t think that technology is going to be the salvation to everything. That’s not necessarily the case. I can assure you.”

In an announcement last spring, Navy officials said the NIWDC would reach full operational capability (FOC) next year. That’s still possible, assuming the resources are available, but sometimes the FOC is difficult to define. “We don’t know exactly what FOC is going to look like. We’re kind of building this as we go. We have a rough idea that FOC will probably be around 300 [people]. I think that’s probably still a good number,” Capt. Watkins offers.

A more utopian definition of the FOC, the captain says, would have those trained ninjas in command positions. “I define FOC as when I have a warfare tactics instructor out in the fleet as either an information warfare commander, or perhaps one day as a carrier strike group commander,” he says. “Wow. Then I’ve really achieved full-blown FOC for NIWDC.”

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