Achieving Decision Superiority in Great Power Competition


In 2018, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford described how the changing character of war and strategic landscape have “accelerated the speed and complexity of war” and contributed to a collapsed decision space. This is troubling for a navy in great power competition with potential adversaries who have increasingly capable long-range antiship missiles. This extended range and lethality, combined with the vulnerability of networks and ubiquitous use of communications, means naval forces are increasingly susceptible to adversary targeting. Distributed maritime operations (DMO) strive to counter this with distributed lethality, but  the limiting factor is a commander’s decision cycle. Acknowledging the need for improved decision-making, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson wrote that the competition had shifted “from information superiority to decision superiority.”1 Great power competition in the age of missiles and information abundance means the ability to translate information superiority into decision superiority will be the decisive factor.

This carries significant implications for naval intelligence and the Information Warfare (IW) Community and requires change at the operational level of war. While DMO aims to complicate adversary targeting and provide commanders with more reliable offensive capability, it also requires greater coordination across the fleet and exquisite intelligence at the fleet level. It also means naval strategist Wayne Hughes’ maxim to “attack effectively first,” traditionally viewed as a tactical principle, now applies to the operational level. In addition, former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift believes the return of great power competition in the maritime domain means the “basic warfighting element” is now the fleet, and an independently operating carrier strike group no longer brings adequate combat power or can ensure its own security. Not only do operations demand greater shared understanding across the fleet, they must occur in a challenging and vulnerable communications environment. One answer, according to Admiral Swift, is to enable mission command “by providing precise and widely understandable commander’s guidance and intent before communications and networks are put at risk.” This intent must be built on a foundation of solid intelligence though. Naval intelligence must focus on the operational level of war to lead the IW community in enabling decision superiority.

To do this, naval intelligence must embrace integrating the IW community in all fleet maritime operations centers (MOCs) because of IW’s ubiquity in all aspects of the operating environment. Next, to address declining expertise and information overload, artificial intelligence (AI) and information design must be used to develop penetrating insight and improve decision-making. Finally, increasing red team capabilities will improve support to wargaming and reinforce effective learning behaviors that help the fleet outthink the adversary.

Fully Embrace IW Integration at the Fleet Level

Although the “the effect of information warfare (IW)” is recognized as the “fastest-changing trend in naval tactics today,” further integration at the fleet-level is required to fully realize its potential as a warfare discipline.2 The Navy has embraced integration at the CSG-level but failed to successfully replicate this across the fleets. In fact, as Chief of Naval Operations Admiral M. Michael Gilday recognized, fleet MOCs must fully integrate IW capabilities to “master fleet-level warfare.” One of the primary applications of IW at the CSG-level is electromagnetic maneuver warfare (EMW), using techniques such as emissions control carefully coordinated with maneuver to complicate adversary targeting efforts.3 Close coordination between IW disciplines is paramount to this process and intelligence is foundational. If the fleet is now truly the basic warfighting element, IW lessons from the CSG-level must be understood and ingrained at the fleet MOCs. Traditionally responsible for creating shared understanding through battlespace awareness, naval intelligence is a natural discipline to lead the integration of IW.

The Need for Penetrating Insight

Developing penetrating insight is critical when intelligence officers are expected to think like the enemy, assessing adversaries from significantly different cultures, while avoiding the pitfalls of mirror-imaging.4 Recall the victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, made possible by the efforts of Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton and Commander Joseph Rochefort. As Captain Bill Bray recognized in his Proceedings article, “naval intelligence: Build Regional Experts,” these two were valuable to Admiral Chester Nimitz not only because they knew intelligence and cryptology well, but because their expertise of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Japanese culture meant their advice carried weight. Since the career path of naval intelligence officers is unlikely to change in the near term, time must be spent more efficiently to develop expertise.

One such opportunity is to decrease the level of effort devoted to developing a common operational picture (COP). The COP is fed largely by operational intelligence (OpIntel), which is the all-source intelligence process used at the tactical and operational levels to provide near-real-time locations and assessments of potential adversary activity. Operational intelligence and OpIntel are not synonymous and, all too often, OpIntel comes at a cost of conducting the true operational intelligence tasks required at the theater-level. Admiral Swift recognized the resources of intelligence teams are largely devoted to development of the perfect COP, at an opportunity cost to conducting predictive analysis, and recommended a fleet commander’s window of focus should really be no fewer than 96 hours and perhaps as far as 90 days in the future. This means if naval intelligence is to influence fleet decision-making, it must stop focusing on the here and develop penetrating insight of the adversary.

Integrate Artificial Intelligence into the Process

Providing “quality over quantity” is a challenge when faced with an overabundance of information. A 2016 Intelligence and National Security article examining intelligence tasks of the future found the number of words an analyst must read per day was ten times greater than 20 years prior, which is more than would be possible in a day, assuming no other tasks were accomplished. This influx of data is staggering and the implications are troubling. While intelligence will always remain a very human-centered process, the relationship with information and technology must change.

By embracing the power of AI, naval intelligence can leverage technology to automate many of the processes associated with current intelligence, allowing more time to develop the penetrating insight required to enable decision superiority. AI will allow analysts “to move away from questions of ‘situational awareness’–the compilation, processing and repackaging of data,” such as COP development, and toward the development of anticipatory intelligence useful to a fleet commander. This has significant implications for OpIntel, where the central effort is to generate and test a hypothesis that results in an estimation many refer to as the “so what.” Although hypothesis generation is not yet algorithmic and therefore not possible with AI, hypothesis testing can be subjected to data and is thus algorithmic. Therefore, it is possible for an informed analyst to create a hypothesis, recognize which pertinent data to include, and use AI to run possibilities. As former Pacific Fleet director for intelligence Captain Dale Rielage asserted, the use of AI in OpIntel “is a great example of where human-machine teams could be a game changer. Not only would this create more time to develop expertise, it would likely improve the accuracy of OpIntel assessments.

Mind the (Information) Gap

Significant effort also continues to be expended finding methods to communicate the right intelligence in the right medium to rapidly impart meaning to the commander, which requires an understanding of the customer and information design. Studies across the military and intelligence community found that “information needs to be designed” because as consumers become more “digital savvy,” their expectation for visualization increases. This should come as no surprise with the amount of thoughtfully designed information available at the fingertips of anyone operating a smart phone. The effective depiction of information reduces mental load and maximizes the potential for understanding, retention, and recall along with improving receptivity while decreasing the likelihood of “mind-set and information overload.” The cost of not designing information effectively can be tremendous.

The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center are poignant examples of how, despite the intelligence system arguably blinking red, policy makers who suffered from mirror imaging and lack of receptivity remained unconvinced by reports. Although these particular failures lacked a specific, tactical-level warning and clues may have been lost in background noise, a third explanation is possible.5 Decision-makers were not presented information in a manner that enabled an effective decision. This is referred to as information-gap theory, which describes the gap between what someone knows and what someone needs to know to make good decisions. Naval intelligence must design intelligence effectively to communicate what the commander needs to know for decision superiority.

Investing in a Red Team is a Win-Win

Robert Rubel recalled the phrase, “the medium is the message,” to emphasize the meaningful influence of wargaming and how it nurtured critical thinking in participants. While official wargames are often thought of occurring at the high-operational and strategic levels, they can occur in many fashions, such as exercises or during staff discussions, and help to create the shared understanding across a staff necessary to achieve decision advantage. Some of the broad objectives of wargaming are to test concepts and plans, experience the consequences of decisions and to analyze the decision behavior of leaders, but it also tests the signals that are produced by actions and how inputs, such as information, impact decisions. Greater participation in wargaming will allow naval intelligence officers to refine assessments of adversary reactions, potentially augmented with AI, and experiment with alternative forms of information “designed” for decision-makers.

While the utility of wargaming is proven, its effectiveness is limited by the accuracy of the adversary portrayed, typically referred to as red, and although naval intelligence is integral to the wargaming effort, it does not have a sufficient capability writ large. Several Proceedings articles have sounded the alarm, and Rielage has urged, “to fully exploit the value that war gaming can bring to the Navy, a deliberate effort to build our red is required.”

The critical issue is making this a deliberate and formal function at the operational level of war. Pacific Fleet was successful in this endeavor and established a red team in 2014, referred to as the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team, which assumes the role of adversary decision-makers in wargames and, as Admiral Swift found, not only does this improve wargaming and exercise efforts, it ultimately improves the quality of intelligence analysis. Wargaming benefits intelligence personnel in helping them gain a greater understanding of the adversary, while also gaining a greater understanding of the decision-makers they support.

Naval intelligence must focus on initiatives at the operational level of war to achieve the decision superiority necessary to enable the fleet to “attack effectively first.” The full integration of IW at the fleet MOCs; focusing on the decision timeframe relevant to a fleet commander, along with leveraging the power of AI; and institutionalizing red team support to wargaming will allow fleet intelligence to enable decision superiority and win the future fight.

Lieutenant Commander Hoadley is a naval intelligence officer and member of the Information Warfare Community. He is a 2007 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a 2020 graduate of the U.S. Naval War College. His career has included tours at SEAL Team Two, Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command (NMAWC), Sixth Fleet (CTF-69), and on board the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). He is currently the OIC of Joint Reserve Intelligence Center (JRIC) Denver.


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