Retaining a qualitative advantage over great power rivals entails intelligence practitioners at all levels who understand the military and nonmilitary underpinnings of adversaries’ capabilities or intentions.
As the United States’ technological advantages recede, people will remain its best “weapon” to outthink opponents. Yet, the naval intelligence community’s (NIC) recruitment, education, training, and billeting paradigm is not adequate for great power competition. Russia and China can now challenge the United States across multiple domains, using all instruments of power. Meanwhile, NIC assessments of rivals’ capabilities focus on military capabilities, with scant attention to nonmilitary, historic, or cultural factors, which often drive decision-making. This narrow focus reflects the NIC’s traditional cultivation of broad military analysts. A great power competition context demands more holistic analyses, which means the NIC must realign its recruitment, training, education, and billet structure to develop the community’s understanding of nonmilitary aspects of its operating environments.
Retaining a qualitative advantage over great power rivals entails intelligence practitioners at all levels who understand the military and nonmilitary underpinnings of adversaries’ capabilities or intentions. Such insight can speed friendly leaders’ decision-making. Transient jobs in disparate regions preclude many analysts from developing such needed insight. The NIC should therefore expose personnel to tactical, operational, strategic, and interagency billets that focus them on great power competition rivals’ military and nonmilitary features. Such exposure must then be reinforced with education and training.
Education and training opportunities between changes of duty stations rarely marry up with a Sailor’s forthcoming assignment or build on experience gained during a previous one. Such a fragmentary approach leaves NIC personnel with at best an intermediate level of knowledge or cultural understanding of America’s adversaries.
In 1996, years after the Cold War’s end, Naval Intelligence reviewed its “core competencies” and instituted a “generalist,” approach for the community, to support an easier assignment process, a better officer promotion system, and a better alignment with the Navy’s needs. Peer competitors’ emergence necessitates that the community now focuses where and how it allocates and develops its personnel
Chinese and Russian capabilities now match, and in some cases exceed, U.S. capabilities. This is a paradigm the United States has not experienced since the Cold War. Compounding this unfavorable environment is the cyberspace and space domains expansion, which further strains intelligence resources. The NIC’s disconnected billeting, education, and training structure exacerbates the community’s inability to truly understand U.S. peer competitors and to give U.S. decision-makers advanced insight into enemy intentions and capacity. The community should anchor its recruiting, billets, education, and training on strategic regional threats going forward and develop individuals with geographic expertise. Furthermore, Naval Intelligence could build “off ramps” at certain career points for individuals who wish to shift regional or threat foci, minimizing disruption to regionally centered training and career tracks.
Recruiting People with Requisite Knowledge about U.S. Adversaries
Naval Intelligence’s first step to better position itself for great power competition is recruiting and retaining people with relevant cultural, educational, or experience-based backgrounds. This would include higher education graduates who studied great power competition, regional, or transnational threats within the international community. Those who spent four to eleven years studying a country or region have a wider understanding of potential and current foes than most of their peers. International studies typically center on nonmilitary and societal factors, which are often blind spots in Naval Intelligence.
Ideally, the community should also recruit from among people who have spent a year or more in China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea. Such people could offer the NIC more accurate cultural, political, and economic insights. However, a robust U.S. economy and a small pool of young Americans who are fit and willing to serve makes all recruiting difficult. Naval Intelligence could enact a sign up and retention bonus program akin to what the Service has for the naval intelligence reserve and naval aviation. Between the two programs, the Navy pays nearly $200 thousand dollars in bonuses to eligible sailors. Active-duty Naval Intelligence recruiting needs a similar program to reform its workforce’s training and billeting structures for great power competition.
Refining and Expanding Initial Intelligence Training to Prepare for Complex Threats
The NIC should modify initial training to interweave basic and intermediate instruction on great power competition and regional threats with foundational intelligence, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). The operational intelligence brief should remain the courses’ centerpiece, but should include an expanded rationale for enemy ship and aircraft movements. According to a recent instructor, classes now center on intelligence functions and competitor platforms but offer little nonmilitary or decision-making knowledge about adversaries. Military intelligence practitioners’ primary trades are studying and evaluating enemy platforms, weaponry, and localized patterns of life. Yet, current training provides little Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or North Korean political, historical, economic, or societal insight into how or why such states might use the military instrument of power. A four-week discussion regarding each of these countries’ political, historic, economic, and societal aspects would reinforce the knowledge of those analysts with backgrounds involving these countries and could introduce pertinent information elements to new intelligence members. The courses could hold the four-week block after teaching fundamental intelligence TTPs and intertwine these TTPs into country-specific scenarios.
Tailored scenarios should demonstrate how adversarial nonmilitary sources of power can dictate military operations. Students would produce assessments using intelligence TTPs. The courses’ remaining blocks of instruction could incorporate teaching points or scenarios based on great power competition, regional, or transnational threats, to reinforce the great power competition-dominated operating environment analysts will face.
Beyond basic intelligence training, Naval Intelligence should require some form of Naval Post-Graduate School great power competition education before promotion to lieutenant or petty officer first class.
Reexamining and Restructuring the Billet Structure
Naval Intelligence billeting regularly shifts personnel between Navy and joint assignments, at differing levels of warfare. This inhibits analysts’ development of both geographic and functional expertise. An attempted remedy was to select for great power competition knowledge using promotion board convening orders. For example, the fiscal year 2022 (FY22) and 2023 (FY23) Navy Active Duty Captain and Commander Line Promotion Board placed preference on officers with multiple Indo-Pacific tours. The goal was to focus them on Chinese political-military affairs. Though a start, the NIC must not focus such efforts on China alone, at the expense of other great power competition or regional adversaries.
Naval Intelligence should permanently assign members to focus on a specific great power competition or regional threat country, then develop these members’ expertise with assignments going from the tactical to the strategic level of warfare, in order. A sequential movement upward through the levels of warfare would develop analysts’ understanding of the military’s role at each level and would enlarge, refine, and bolster their operational intelligence TTPs. It would also give them insight into a focus country or region’s nonmilitary contours, to mature their overall understanding of the operating environment.
Naval Intelligence should then also reinforce the development of regional and country specific understanding through germane educational and training opportunities.
An example of a level of warfare-based career evolution could be an ensign or a third-class intelligence specialist (IS) who performs all their operational naval tours on the East Coast with a Russia-focus, through their respective commander or chief ranks. An individual could start their intelligence career with a squadron supporting an air wing, and have an intelligence concentration on dissecting Russian air-defense systems. After completing a shore tour at U.S. Second or Sixth Fleet, the individual could remain in place or return to the East Coast and assume a destroyer squadron position as a lieutenant or a second-class IS, who examines Russian activities. After three years’ service at a combat support agency or in European Command, the analyst could become a carrier strike group deputy intelligence officer or an IS Chief in the carrier intelligence center, who studies Russian Northern Fleet activity, for example. From there, a commander could complete a milestone tour as an East Coast carrier strike group intelligence officer, a Second or Sixth Fleet maritime intelligence operations center director, a naval special warfare group intelligence staff officer (N2) or perform attaché duty in or near Russia. Such a path would simultaneously cultivate and refine military and nonmilitary expertise, such as intelligence TTPs, naval power employment, and great power competition or regional threat insights. Naval Intelligence should then also reinforce the development of regional and country specific understanding through germane educational and training opportunities.
Maximizing Formal Education and Intermediate and Advanced Training Opportunities
Current NIC education and training do not reinforce or extend individuals’ previous knowledge or experience. More often than not, NIC instruction does not adequately prepare analysts for current or future assignments. The Naval Post-Graduate School (NPS), Naval War College, and National Intelligence University (NIU) offer a plethora of geographic and functional areas to study. However, the community only intermittently connects a person’s area of study to reinforce or enhance prior operational experience, or to prepare them for their future occupation. The community should require officers or enlisted personnel who attend these schools to concentrate their studies on their assigned great power competition or regional threat country. NIC assignment managers should verify compliance with this requirement by having students submit transcripts and thesis projects to inform billeting decisions. Moreover, these analysts’ time spent at academic institutions with colleagues focused on the same country or region could enhance discussion between officers and enlisted personnel, with a focus on the same target set, perhaps resulting in innovative and unique approaches for examining U.S. great power competition and regional adversaries.
Formal education opportunities offer a possible “off-ramp” for individuals wishing to change their country focus. Typically, officers go to NPS or NIU as lieutenants and enlisted personnel go to NIU when they reach E-5 or E-6, after tactical- and operational-level tours. A shift in country concentration while in school would allow them to study a different country for a year to 18 months to familiarize students with their new focus areas before the Navy assigns them to a billet. Naval Intelligence Community managers could assign a quota to those able to change their concentration, to minimize any disruption to building the community’s regional expertise.
Concurrent with formal education, Naval Intelligence should modify the community’s training to reflect the great power competition and regional threat setting. Curriculum adjustment would entail Naval Intelligence’s collaboration with the Center for Naval Information Warfare training, to formulate realistic, relevant, and agile great power competition-focused intelligence courses. Naval Intelligence should also leverage the U.S. Intelligence Community, sister service, and interagency training courses to widen and intensify its drive to develop regional expertise. Moreover, the community should encourage individuals to become adjunct instructors at these various institutions, to enable them to bring curriculum with them to Fleet concentration areas, thus allowing a greater audience to receive training. Adjunct instructors could inform the curriculum and tailor the training to the great power competition’s maritime environment.
The NIC has an opportunity to better prepare itself for great power competition by examining and improving how the community recruits, trains, assigns, and educates its personnel. Allowing intelligence officers and ISs to attain graduate-level knowledge about a particular challenge would enhance the community’s operational intelligence capacity and capability. Such focus would shorten the time it takes an intelligence professional to become familiar with a new adversary or region, thus permitting more time to lead and mentor others. Unlike the terrorists of September 11, 2001, China and Russia pose existential threats to U.S. interests. Yet, the community spent years developing counter-terrorism expertise. Naval Intelligence does not have this luxury with China and Russia, which continue narrowing U.S. advantages in a potential high-stakes fight. A community insistence on developing country- or regional-specific intelligence experts would enhance and refine predictive assessments of likely enemy intentions, rationales, or actions, and would buy commanders more decision-space to lead in great power competition and other contests.
Todd Moulton is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and the officer in charge at Joint Reserve Intelligence Center near Detroit, Michigan. He is also an Information Warfare (IW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). He is a graduate of the Air University, National Intelligence University, Seton Hall University, and University of Michigan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Chief Intelligence Specialist John Minor, foreground, assigned to the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24), and U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Henry Rodriguez, attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), take photographs as part of the ship’s nautical or otherwise photographic intelligence and exploitation team, May 26, 2022. Arlington and embarked elements of the 22nd MEU are part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group-22nd MEU team, and are on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations, employed by U.S. Sixth Fleet to defend U.S., allied and partner interests.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Bellino