Today’s information environment is rapidly evolving and the ability for naval officers to critically think through complex situations is essential. This is especially true for Information Warfare offers (IWOs) responsible for Assured Command and Control, Battlespace Awareness, and Integrated Fires. Critical thinking allows IWOs to analyze and evaluate information, assess the validity of sources, and recommend the best course of actions to decision makers. IWOs must be able to weigh the benefits and risks of each decision or recommendation and to understand the potential consequences of these actions. The ability to critically think also allows IWOs to identify and mitigate potential threats and vulnerabilities. Not only should IWOs need to understand red and blue forces capabilities and vulnerabilities but the tactics techniques and procedures of both sides while operating at the tactical and operational edge.

If conflict arises, U.S. forces will operate in an Anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment. This is where red forces will seek to prevent U.S. forces from entering or operating within a particular area, typically by denying access to sea or airspace, or by restricting the mobility of ground forces.  This strategy is designed to exploit our vulnerabilities and force U.S. forces to operate in a less optimal manner, including operating in a communications denied environment.

There are several elements that are typically associated with A2/AD.  The first is the use of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, such as radar, sonar, signals intelligence, and satellite systems, to detect and track U.S. forces and their movements. This allows red forces to find (detect) and fix (locate) U.S. forces in order to finish (destroy) U.S. naval forces.

Another element of A2/AD is the use of long-range precision weapons, such as anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, to target U.S. forces. These weapons are designed to have a long range and high accuracy, allowing them to strike targets from a safe distance and with a high degree of precision.

In order for U.S. forces to successfully operate in an A2/AD environment, there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of the adversary’s ISR capabilities and limitations and how to counter the ISR threats.  This is the responsibility of the IWOs, more specifically, the Information Warfare Commander (IWC) on the carrier strike group staff.  The IWC must ensure the strike group is maintaining a tactical situation (TACSIT) that allows a tactical advantage – the time needed to project power or to maneuver inside and outside of the adversary’s weapons engagement zone.  Navy doctrine uses TACSIT to describe the probability of the adversary being able to track, locate and target U.S. forces for an engagement. TACSIT are defined as:

TACSIT I – U.S. forces located and targetable
TACSIT II – U.S. Force location is known and disposition is unknown
TACSIT III – Forces not located

The likelihood of operating in a TACSIT III environment is not attainable. The IWO must know the historical precedence, geography and technology to critically think and maneuver within the information environment of adversary and blue forces. The strike group commander is relying on the IWO to recommend the right course of action(s) to counter the adversary’s attempts to use ISR to find, fix and finish U.S. forces, while at the same time conducting offensive strikes in the adversary’s red space. However, this is not just for IWCs on carrier strike staff, but this also applies to the junior information warfare officers onboard an independent cruiser or destroyer operating at the tactical edge alone and unafraid.  In both cases, each officer needs similar knowledge with the skill to critically think in order to operate and survive.

Where do professional naval officers learn to critically think?

Where do IWOs learn how to critically think?  According to Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (Retired), critical thinking comes from reading and studying the classics.  He writes in “The relevance of history to the military profession: an American Marine’s view,” … well-rounded professional officers study the classics, such as Stephen B. Luce, Tasker Bliss, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Elihu Root as well as studying wars like the Peloponnesian War to further the professional development of officers.  Senior officers like Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance, Eisenhower and MacArthur probably studied the classics and learned how to critically and creatively think.

Unless the U.S. Naval Academy, Officer Candidate School (OCS) or Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) dedicated a significant time delving into the classics, which means reading, writing and debating doctrine, it is unlikely officers interring their initial training pipeline have been introduced to critically thinking and creative thinking as it applies to naval operations. The only exceptions are those officers who take the initiative to develop these skills on their own.

Some may argue, however, officers learn these skills during workup cycles such as Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX).  But the purpose of COMPTUEX is to certify combat-ready naval forces are capable of conducting a full-spectrum of integrated maritime, joint, and combined operations.  This is where tacticians should execute and test their critical thinking and creative thinking skills during the exercise.  Sure, many will learn by mistakes made, but they go into the exercise with an advantage.

To answer the question, where do professional naval officers learn to critically think?  The Naval War College!   The Naval War College recognizes the importance of critical thinking skills and intentionally focuses on their development through education, not training. It is not by coincidence the Naval War College mentions in their 2023 Syllabus & Study Guide, “thinking” over 100 times and in every module the course learning outcome states one of the objectives is to “Demonstrate the ability to apply critical and creative thinking.” This objective is repeated 15 times throughout the syllabus. It is obvious critical and creative thinking is highly valued at the college.

Additionally, the syllabus states regarding essay and short answers:  “All U.S. Naval War College programs encourage a free and open exchange of ideas. Students are exposed to a broad spectrum of opinions to encourage individual analysis rather than learning preconceived doctrine. Two things about this methodology are worth noting: First, the views expressed by the faculty are their own and not necessarily related to an official Navy position. Second, the Program provides few clear-cut answers to the issues addressed. This approach may be frustrating to some, but it more accurately represents the complex and uncertain nature of issues students will face in their profession, and is considered a more effective method to develop the ability to analyze, draw conclusions, and make sound decisions. While there may be no single right answer to a question, there are still good and bad submissions. Written work should be formal, comprehensive, and in an academically acceptable style. Guidance for each submission will be delineated in the instructions for each assignment in Blackboard.”

The Naval War College is not the Model

Unfortunately the Naval War College model does not support the standard navy training model for new accession officers training. Many training lectures are delivered by PowerPoints – some better than others – several often without graphics.  These page-turners, super PowerPoints routinely average between 60 and 110 slides per lecture leaving everyone in the classroom mentally drained by lunch.

Unlike the Naval War College model, most of the testing is multiple choices allowing no room to express objective opinions. These knowledge checks are often administered throughout the modules or at the conclusion of a module to test student comprehension on their ability to regurgitate facts and figures.  Although there is a time and place for this type of training and testing, such as introduction to security, organizational structure, and orders of battle, etc., this should be limited to build foundational knowledge for a particular officer designator.  A well-rounded new accession officer course that accurately reflects fleet requirements should incorporate a balance of the fundamentals, applying these fundamentals in realistic practical exercises (set and reps) with increasing levels of complexity, and time to read, research, write and even debate the classics. In college this is where true learning actually occurs, not in the lecture halls. This should also include today’s national security strategy documents, after action reports and intelligence estimates. Integrating these three training/education methods will give officer students a comprehensive foundation to successfully navigate their naval careers and adapt to today’s rapidly evolving information environment.

Very Respectfully,
Mario Vulcano