The National Defense Strategy, the guiding principle for everything the Department of Defense does these days, is a little more than a year old. The document stresses the return to a so-called great power competition and cites adversaries such as Russia and China as key competitors.

Following the release of the new strategy, the Navy’s top uniformed officer distributed an updated version of his 2016 strategy for the service titled “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0.” That document charts a path for how the Navy will compete against near-peer competitors.

One of the critical components to the service’s success in that realm will come in the information domain. And the man tasked with making it all work is Vice Adm. Matthew Kohler, the Navy’s top information warfare officer.

Kohler recently spoke with C4ISRNET’s Mark Pomerleau about how the Navy is changing in order to compete in the information sphere.

C4ISRNET: The Navy looked at information warfare around 2009 and organized it under three pillars: battlespace awareness, assured C2 and integrated fires. Is that still the approach? How is the Navy looking at information warfare now?

VICE ADM. MATTHEW KOHLER: This has been a deliberate path with some real deliverables.

There were some very forward-thinking individuals around that 2007, 2008, 2009 timeframe that started recognizing what’s in front of us.

If you recall context at the time … our nation was heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. … They recognized some value of organizing the Navy’s information-based skill sets into more of a combined cohesive look and that started the process.

We created an N2N6 organization — one of the largest Navy staff organizations at the time — created Fleet Cyber Command and then we created Information Dominance, the predecessor of Information Warfare.

We established, about two years ago, an information warfare commander in our carrier strike group concept. It recognized that the information warfare domain had gotten so complex that the function couldn’t be done part-time.

We would not have been able to field, screen, train an information warfare commander two years ago if we had not established a community eight years before that.

C4ISRNET: Can you describe the shift in thinking as the operational environment has changed?

KOHLER: We reconfirmed our path.

The information-based skills — including naval intelligence, navy cryptologic warfare, information professionals, our meteorology, oceanographic and space cadre — [we] reconfirmed that we need those skills.

The Navy still needs great IP officers, needs great cryptologic officers, and so those career paths remain very vital. But there were some things missing that we hadn’t got right in 2010. One was a dedicated organization to make sure those capabilities were ready to fight. A man, train and equipping organization.

The other warfare areas have their type commands, and in 2014 we established ours. Then we established a war-fighting development center, our top gun for information warfare. Those kinds of functions really weren’t envisioned back in 2009.

Now they’re looking at an information warfare construct above the tactical level, above the strike group level. What would that look like for our numbered fleets? We’re starting to see Second Fleet really grapple with that and [figure out] what that looks like …

Vice Adm. Matthew J. Kohler, commander, Naval Information Forces, speaks on the technologies impacting the war fighter and the information warfare domain. (George D. Bieber/Navy)
Vice Adm. Matthew J. Kohler, commander, Naval Information Forces, speaks on the technologies impacting the war fighter and the information warfare domain. (George D. Bieber/Navy)

C4ISRNET: It’s approaching the second year of the Naval Information Warfighting Development Center. Have you noted any tangible successes from there?

KOHLER: We have. It’s now led by a one-star like the other warfare development centers …

It filled in gaps that really weren’t apparent to us before.

NIWDC filled, for the first time, a spectrum of training from individual to basic to advanced war-fighting training and skills that organization is responsible for.

Another thing is it develops war-fighting tactics instructors, or WTIs. We now have WTIs being produced by our war-fighting development center.

We’re starting to develop to the fleet [level]. For example, we have WTIs that will report and work with the carrier strike groups. That is raising the bar. They now have that kind of advanced training that will support any maritime component commander in what they’re doing.

C4ISRNET: They’re focused mostly at the tactical and maybe even operational level?

KOHLER: That’s all afloat. What’s different about our information war fighting is that we have key war-fighting capabilities ashore. There are communication centers, our SIGINT centers, our intel centers.

C4ISRNET: Your predecessor once mentioned an emergence of threats in the undersea landscape. Have you been surprised by any threats that have emerged in recent years?

KOHLER: In [a “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0”], there’s one key figure that talks about the spectrum of rivalry. It talks about a day-to-day operations context to a high-end type of fight that the Navy finds itself having to prepare for.

Information warfare underpins all of that. To be able to do ISR, counter ISR, targeting — all of that would be decisive in the next maritime engagement.

In information warfare, while the rest of the warfare areas are involved in the high-end conflict [eventually], we consider the high-end conflict now. Constant contact with the enemy in terms of cybersecurity, being able to operate within the [electromagnetic spectrum], all of those. We consider ourselves in contact with the adversary now.

It’s a … different kind of approach in terms of how we operate.

C4ISRNET: Does that involve a preparation of the battlefield beforehand from an information perspective — gaining intel or laying the ground work either through cyber or from an EMS perspective?

KOHLER: [Your question] highlights the power of why we come together as an information warfare capability.

In any warfare area — air, surface, subsurface — as well as information war fighting — it could be cyber warfare — the type of information support, it remains the same.

Who are adversaries? Where are they? What are their capabilities? What are their intentions?

It’s validating that approach across all our warfare areas.

It is a unique journey the Navy has been on compared to the other services, though we’re starting to see them recognize the value of that.

The Air Force, for example, has officially formed their A2/A6 organization and they’re looking at how they can align themselves [with an] information-based function.

A key part, one that’s in all the strategies — the National Defense Strategy, the Navy strategy — is the value of our partners. We’re here because of our industrial and academic partners and our key international allies. A lot of the discussion is asking about how we have organized. “Why did we take this path in information warfare. What are the key things they can do?” We’re seeing several of our key allies make large steps in that area.

C4ISRNET: What are those steps for the Navy to be successful in information warfare as a component of the joint force?

KOHLER: It’s absolutely essential. The key aspects that are being demanded in the Navy strategy and the designs that we have [are] to be a more agile force. It’s the bigger, better and more ready force.

Information warfare will be decisive in that. It’s decisive in the day-to-day operations and absolutely decisive in the high-end kinetic fight. Our senior Navy leadership continues to place high demands on what we deliver.

C4ISRNET: What does that mean? More training? Different capabilities? New concepts of operation?

KOHLER: All of it. We have to deliver new capabilities faster. If you’re talking about our networks, we have to be able to deliver new tools and skills to sailors faster. We have to deliver new cybersecurity type of capabilities faster.

We’re on a delivery path on how to do that — our strategy to move to the cloud, our strategy to separate hardware and software from our delivery of capabilities to where we can replace software faster and provide hardware as a service. It requires all of that.

I think we have the right organizational structures in place to ensure that our professionals have the training. The NIWDC is an example.

C4ISRNET: It’s not all about capabilities, but how capabilities will be used.

KOHLER: A key part of NIWDC is really getting after advanced tactics, techniques and procedures. Those are capabilities that they have succeeded in the last two years of delivering. That allows you to take the capabilities you have now and use them better; putting them in the hands of soldiers and letting them innovate.