SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The U.S. Navy’s information warfare community has several ongoing initiatives to understand the actual state of its IW capability and to further integrate it in with the rest of the Navy.
For Vice Adm. Kelly Aeschbach, the commander of Naval Information Forces, a key hurdle has been the inability to train with information warfare systems during live events, either due to the harm they may cause nearby in the electromagnetic spectrum or because they don’t want to reveal their tools and tactics to anyone watching.
“My number-one priority right now is that we need to get information warfare fully into live, virtual and constructive training, and we’re focused on that this year through a partnership with [Naval Information Warfare Systems Command] in a series of tests and pilots,” she said during a Feb. 16 panel presentation at the WEST 2022 conference, cohosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA International.
“Until we deliver that, we’ll remain challenged in being objective about how well we’re executing.”
Aeschbach explained several issues related to understanding how good the service’s IW force is.
First, she said, it’s unclear if the systems the Navy is buying are as good as the Navy expected, or if the sailors can use them properly — “in some cases we are probably more effective than we know we are, and in some we are not as effective as we think we are,” she said.
Additionally, in an actual operation, multiple information warfare sailors might be using multiple systems or techniques at once.
“We are at risk, I think, of some fratricide in the spectrum — and we also may have the ability to bring even more compelling effects through the innovation of our sailors in the concurrent use of some of these capabilities that we actually don’t fully understand yet,” she said in separate remarks at the conference on Feb. 17.
“I’ve been uncomfortable, especially with the increase in complexity of what we do, that we are guessing about what we’re delivering,” she said, and that won’t be resolved until the IW community has an LVC training system where they can safely operate in a virtual environment.
She said NAVIFOR and NAVWAR are in their third pilot this month, which brings in classified information. Aeschbach said some IW systems have been connected into the LVC pilot and that the effort to get an LVC trainer up and running would continue throughout this year.
Aeschbach said in the panel discussion that an LVC trainer would allow NAVIFOR to understand how each sailor performs in various mission areas and give them more training in specific skills or scenarios to raise their proficiency at an individual level — something that’s hard to measure and improve today.
At a force level, though, she praised the two training strike groups — Carrier Strike Group 4 and CSG 15 — for “developing more complex scenarios and events that … are forcing, across all of our mission areas, integration” of information warfare forces within the carrier strike group that’s reflective of how a CSG would operate if called upon to fight.
In 2019, the Navy deployed its first information warfare commander in a CSG, adding the new position to supplement the air warfare commander, surface warfare commander and air warfare commander under the CSG admiral.
Aeschbach said that she just last week submitted the concept of operations for the information warfare commander role to U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Fleet Forces Command for signature. These information warfare commander CONOPS show “the goodness and the superb capability that we’re delivering with an information warfare commander now,” she said.
In an expansion of IW operations at the tactical level, the last few amphibious ready groups (ARGs) to deploy from both the East and West coasts have included a Navy commander and a Marine Corps major whose full-time jobs are to coordinate “operations in the information environment” across the three-ship amphibious ready group and the embarked Marine expeditionary unit, Aeschbach said.
“The feedback from the leaders that go out on those deployments has been resounding that that’s been incredibly powerful, so we’re committed to working with the surface warfare community on how we turn that position into a permanent one and maintain that integration” in ARG/MEU deployments, the way the Navy has committed to continuing the role of the information warfare commander in carrier strike group deployments.
And, she said, the submarine force is also looking to integrate an IW professional into submarine crews for better integration at the tactical level. Commander of Naval Submarine Forces Vice Adm. Bill Houston, who took command last year shortly after Aeschbach took command of NAVIFOR, “fully embraces information warfare, so much so that he is carving out billets from within the submarine force to pilot permanent party information warfare onboard submarines.”
She said Houston recognized that having submarine officers conducting information warfare part-time was “insufficient,” and that it made more sense to have IW sailors conduct the work themselves as a full-time member of the crew.
Two submarines will conduct a pilot program this summer. Each will have a junior officer —an information professional on one submarine, a cryptologist on the other — as well as two cryptologic technicians and an independent duty intelligence specialist. This group of one officer and three enlisted sailors will help integrate IW capabilities into everyday undersea operations, even as NAVIFOR continues to provide direct support for specialized missions on a temporary basis.
Aeschbach said only the Navy’s IW community could provide battlespace awareness, assured communications and integrated fires under the sea, and it was important to start practicing that capability and deploying it around the globe.
At the operational level, she said, the Navy is experimenting with putting IW sailors at maritime operations centers. During last year’s Large Scale Exercise 2021, the Navy fielded an information warfare cell at a MOC for the first time, which Aeschbach said demonstrated the role of IW in maritime operations and the importance of having IW professionals integrated at the staff level.
Counting that LSE21 demonstration as a win, she said it was now on her as the type commander to figure out what types of trained individuals are needed to support MOC operations, what equipment should be located at the MOC and what doctrine and tactics are needed to support information warfare at the operational level — as opposed to the tactical level in a carrier strike group or amphibious ready group.
In a further sign of the fleet embracing IW, Aeschbach said Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo asked her to establish an Information Warfare Task Force for the Pacific, which she’s been working on since last summer. The capability was demonstrated at a few exercises since last fall, and she said later this year she’d send an IW flag officer to lead a permanent IW task force to support Pacific operational requirements.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.