The Navy Turns a Sharper Eye Toward Information Warfare
A relatively new type command accelerates servicewide efforts in a dynamic domain.
The U.S. Navy is consolidating its information warfare efforts to ensure effective operations across the breadth of the fleet and its ashore assets. This endeavor ties together training, doctrine and equipping as new threats and technologies rapidly change the nature of the information operations realm.
The Navy has signed a charter to establish an information warfare (IW) enterprise that focuses on aligning IW development, generation and execution across the service. The executive committee comprises Vice Adm. Brian Brown, USN, commander, Naval Information Forces, as the type commander; Vice Adm. Matthew Kohler, USN, the OPNAV N2/N6, as the resource sponsor; and Rear Adm. Christian Becker, USN, Space and Naval Warfare Systems commander, as the primary systems command lead for IW capabilities. Below this command level is a broader board of directors representing other systems commands, program executive officers and type commanders.
The Navy stood up the Naval Information Forces command in 2016, and Adm. Brown is its second commander, following Adm. Kohler. Adm. Brown hopes that in the next three years the IW command will have matured to the level of other type commands. This would be defined by having a future-looking IW-centric maritime strategy, the right culture and stability in its mission area. “As a relatively new type command, we are still adjusting to what our supported commanders desire,” he says.
In this view, the Navy will have a fully developed information warfare enterprise similar to those of aviation, surface, subsurface and expeditionary warfare. Pursuing this goal will do more, in just the next year, for aligning capabilities, projects and processes to meet challenges in command, control, communications, computers, combat systems and intelligence (C5I), he offers. Ultimately, IW would be recognized as a warfare discipline across all naval operations worldwide.
The new command may not be well understood today in the Navy, Adm. Brown suggests. But, as its effects increase across the service, that will change. “The mainstreaming of information warfare and complete understanding of how we fit in the picture is coming fast,” he declares.
The admiral points out that his command’s platforms tend to be nonmobile. They include the Navy’s communications stations, its meteorology and oceanography commands, its information operations and cyber centers and its intelligence centers under the Office of Naval Intelligence. He provides services to more than 18,000 people and 88 organizations, but the information warfare community across the entire Navy comprises about 56,000 people on fixed and mobile platforms. He is a supporting commander to the larger part of the IW community outside of his command, he notes.
The first tasking for the Information Forces Command’s newly chartered enterprise is to align activity that generates fleet readiness with IW forces and activities. This includes ensuring interoperability, reliability and actionability for commanders, he says.
The command’s work involves maintenance and modernization, personnel distribution, training tracks, advanced development of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) and deployment. With that in mind, the command has assembled and is rolling out a C5I campaign plan. This effort entails working across the optimized fleet response plan for Navy ships, the admiral explains, and the next step will be to include other platforms as well. He characterizes this plan as the most important part of the command’s effort, as it focuses on “the one area we need to get right in terms of great powers competition.”
“In modern warfare, we are facing increased competition in the information environment,” the admiral states. “We’re seeing a complexity in warfighting across the domains that we have not been challenged in the past.” He adds that the United States traditionally has been able to operate and maneuver in most domains unimpeded.
As the Navy moves forward in its efforts to increase lethality, its ability to maneuver and posture the force and fight in a multidomain environment has become increasingly complex. Operations such as traditional information, intelligence, meteorological and oceanographic, communications, cyber and space have become more difficult to combine and employ successfully.
This is complicated by the new threat picture. Adm. Brown points out that the Navy traditionally keeps the fight away from U.S. shores and into other areas. But now, adversaries are able to “increase their position in the home field,” he says, using a sports analogy. Naval information warfare is about the United States having that home field advantage in an away game, he emphasizes.
And the Navy faces maritime-specific challenges, the admiral continues. The first is being able to communicate in a distributed yet interconnected fashion across a large battlespace. He points out that while the other services often can connect to and through a robust land-based component, the Navy cannot often do that in the maritime environment. The sea service must rely on a multitude of different paths to communicate across vast areas.
Another challenge is posed by the size of the Navy’s platforms. It does not have the capability to depot and modernize a large number simultaneously, as current operations require the deployment of many platforms. The Navy must maintain a continuous program of modernization to provide necessary upgrades to platforms without pulling them out of service, he explains.
Cybersecurity and cyber resiliency also are challenges because the Navy must implement each into older systems. That is a process for which the service has an ongoing plan, he notes. The admiral adds he prefers the term cyber resiliency over cybersecurity, because the latter implies a complete lockdown of systems—which is neither feasible nor the way the Navy is proceeding in this information domain. “We can’t be overconfident that we’re 100-percent secure,” he adds.
Complementing the C5I plan are improvements in nonmobile or shore readiness pieces. The goal is to standardize these elements in the same way as afloat platforms, Adm. Brown says. This involves modernization planning and capability-based metrics developments, for example. “In the end, to get after C5I, wholeness and readiness from shore to ship—or from nonmobile to mobile—has to be aligned and interoperable. That’s a challenge given the pace of technology,” he states.
Last year, Undersecretary of Defense Michael Griffin released a list of defense technology priorities. Much of what the Navy IW command does intersects with that list, Adm. Brown offers. “When you think about information warfare, you think about pillars of capability,” he says. “One pillar of capability that we provide as an integrated information warfare community is the battlespace awareness picture.” This encompasses the full intelligence picture, along with meteorology and oceanography to provide a combined view of the battlespace.
Technologies such as hypersonics, directed energy, microelectronics, quantum science and computing, and nuclear modernization all are areas in which the command is involved, the admiral says. This includes activities such as man, train and equip along with support, and the command works with other elements of the Navy in these pursuits. “All these things are linked very tightly with our work with our resource sponsor, N2/N6, and then coupled with work happening at the Office of Naval Research,” Adm. Brown explains. “I think we have a very tight linkage there with battlespace awareness from both looking at red threat and looking at the environment, and then helping acquisition develop toward those things.”
He adds that the IW force command directly intersects with the second pillar, command, control and communications, along with space offense and defense. The admiral serves as head of the Navy space cadre, which looks at manpower in that domain. This connects with the Navy’s work with the joint world as the new Space Force comes into existence.
Adm. Brown says that the command works closely on cybersecurity initiatives with the N2/N6G, the Navy’s Cybersecurity Division, which is headed by Rear Adm. Danelle Barrett, USN (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2018, page 26, “U.S. Navy Programs Shore Up …”). The IW force is responsible for key programs as they come to the fleet, including their training and manning, and it is closely involved with the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command.
The third pillar is integrated fires, which constitutes the command’s “effects side of the house,” according to Adm. Brown. This includes information operations, cyber, electronic warfare and other nonkinetic activities.
“Most of what we do directly is work with the fleet to develop information warfare requirements that we pass to N2/N6, and make sure that N2/N6 is working them into the program of record,” the admiral states.
Any discussion of information operations includes a role for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The command is influencing other Navy elements in their development, and Adm. Brown interacts directly with the Navy Digital Warfare Office in these areas. As the command works on fleet requirements for a tactical grid, it must take into account data strategies and frameworks and standardization, with which it is closely tied to the Digital Warfare Office. Once frameworks and standardization are established, the pathway is open for AI and machine learning, the admiral offers.
He adds that he does not have a lot of direct input into incorporating the two disciplines; instead, he examines how to employ them for efficient communications and how to be “spectrum nimble” in a warfighting environment in which decisions must be made at the speed of machines, not humans. As AI and machine learning are fielded, the command must step up with manning and training aspects—both for current sailors and for the next generation of Navy personnel. This must include ensuring user-centric design, he emphasizes.
Last year, the command stood up its internal Naval Information Warfighting Development Center, or NIWDC. This center works across the spectrum of development and TTP, and it will be instructing experts in AI and machine learning. The NIWDC also runs the training program for the information warfare commander afloat. Challenges learned in this training lend themselves to AI and machine learning, Adm. Brown notes. Lessons learned contribute to the command’s influence in the development of the two disciplines.
“We’re generating lots of requirements that we’re passing to those that will work on funding it and developing it,” he says.
Even with the advent of AI, personnel will be the dominant factor in naval IW. The admiral says the command looks at a broader aspect of IW training than just how it affects the people directly under its purview. One challenge is the split between what is under the command’s direct control versus what is under the control of the other fleet type commands, as well as how it manages the distribution of skill sets across the fleet. “We spend a lot of time managing that piece,” particularly with regard to ratings within the specialization, he adds.
Another personnel challenge is technology. The rate of change in technology is faster than the rate of change in curriculum development or training aids, the admiral observes. The command is working toward implementing virtualized training equipment to address that challenge. The traditional method of delivering new gear to the schoolhouse falls short as technology changes faster than the gear can be delivered for training, he points out. The command is adapting an approach used in the submarine community, which employs virtualized systems, he says. The IW community largely uses software-defined systems, so it can dial in a ship or platform on which a sailor works and simulate the C5I environment that sailor will face.
The command is taking a system-of-systems approach to training, especially on the C5I side, the admiral continues. This reflects the growing presence of IW across domains, especially in terms of its broad effect on naval operations.
For cybersecurity, the command has stood up the IW Training Group, which was carved out of former naval information operations commands. These groups, based in San Diego and Norfolk, previously focused on information operations and electronic warfare. Now, they focus on fleet training, Adm. Brown explains.
This group has taken over the role of cybersecurity training for Navy ships going through the advanced phases of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, he notes, and it also supports all Navy commands in advance of U.S. Cyber Command-directed cybersecurity inspections. A set of teams visits commands to provide training both in compliance and in cybersecurity culture, and the admiral says positive results already are apparent.