Information Warfare and the Second Fleet

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

The standup of the Second Fleet has occurred as the Russians have returned as a direct defense threat to Europe and have ramped up their nuclear capabilities against the United States.

But Russia is not the Soviet Union, so understanding Putin’s Russia and its military is a key part of shaping an effective warfighting and deterrent strategy.

Russia has a very different geography to operate from than did the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

The newly formed C2F and its partner Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk is shaping its understanding as well of what the Russian threats in this new geographical context and how best to deal with them, notably in terms of the mandate C2F has.

In his recent Proceedings article, Vice Admiral Lewis put the challenge as follows:

Great power competition will be driven by investments in gray matter as much as gray hulls. Adversary technology and weapons development are catching up to those of NATO. We must create an advantage through how we train and fight. As a fleet commander, I am tasked with the employment of naval forces, and as a joint force commander, with the employment of joint and multinational forces. As these commands continue to develop, we must focus on operational learning to assess our own strengths and weaknesses and to understand the competition and the battlespace in which we will operate.

 For example, in July, Navy Warfare Development Command facilitated the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic tabletop discussion, which presented U.S. and allied commanders from both sides of the Atlantic with vignettes to address command relationships, resources, mission priorities, and authorities. Insights derived from the exercise are creating a shared understanding of the maritime security environment in the Atlantic and Arctic among all participants and will help to define JFCNF’s role as the command matures.

Both JFCNF and C2F are shifting their mind-sets from predominantly operating from the sea to fighting at sea—which requires mastery of the domains below, on, and above the sea. We are executing high-end maritime operations from seabed to space. Our collective security and interconnected global economy depend on open shipping lanes, unhindered air travel, and uninterrupted flow of data. While C2F is a maritime operational command focused on Atlantic operations, JFCNF’s mission is joint and combined—requiring close coordination across all domains, with cooperation among various national and allied commands in the region. With a shared commander, mission, and geography, C2F and JFCNF are natural partners—each advocating for the other and working in unison.

While no “battle” is currently under way, Russia has increased its military posture during the past decade, to signal its ability to threaten allied capabilities, infrastructure, and territory. Russia has invested in capability versus capacity—it knows it will never have more ships, aircraft, or submarines than all of NATO—with an eye toward asymmetric capabilities. So, we carefully monitor Russian investments in force multipliers such as hypersonic weapons, submarine quieting, extended-range missile systems, and information warfare.

Russia’s activity in the gray zone notably includes its underwater reconnaissance program and information operations. In recent years, Russia intensified its submarine activity around the undersea cables, which are essential for global communications—including the internet. The ability of an American user to access a website in Europe or vice versa largely depends on a network of several hundred fiber-optic communication cables that run across the ocean floor—and Russia has deployed submarines to map out the cables, likely in preparation for nefarious activity.

A key element of the competition revolves around information warfare – in terms both of shaping the adversary’s perceptions and calculus as well as understanding how your adversary thinks, acts and operates. Russia is not the Soviet Union.

And the new Russia interacting with Europe and with the growing impact of China on Europe shapes perceptions of NATO allies and those perceptions are part of the information war calculus as well.

The importance of IW to the contemporary U.S. Navy is clearly underscored in many ways, one of these can be seen when visiting the new large deck aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The command deck of the carrier is significantly larger than the Nimitz class and the IW officer in the strike group is a key player in shaping how that command deck operates.

In an interview last October onboard the Ford, the CSG-12 Commander, Rear Admiral Clapperton along with Information Warfare Commander, Capt. Steve “Shep” Shepard, highlighted that “As a Strike Group, we are building IW into the ship from the ground up, and Shep and his team are working our mission planning and C2 systems with an eye to enhanced IW capabilities which can be delivered by the ship and interactive with the fleet and the joint force.”

During our visit, we had a chance to talk with Captain David Wolynski, the Information Warfare Commander in C2F. He argued that his job was to know the adversary with the ultimate goal to be able to know the adversary better than they do themselves.

Obviously, this is challenging and not a static effort, for in combat certainly we have a reactive enemy, a learning adversary.

And in operations,  the importance of learning what the adversary is doing, might do and with what combat of crisis management effect is a key part of the effort.

The way he put this was as follows: “How do we get better at getting within the adversary’s decision-making cycle so that we can do a better job anticipating what they might do and for what purpose?”

Working with allies through the co-location of Allied JCF and the inclusion of the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence (CJOS COE) provides an important input into working a more effective information warfare capability.

As Wolynski put it: “Many of our allies and partners have significant knowledge about Russian behavior and thinking. By working with these allies, we can do a better job of understanding the Russian decision-making cycle and ways to influence it as well.”  And notably if “we are in a localized conflict, local knowledge by allies can be a decisive information factor.”

Vice Admiral Lewis has highlighted that it is not just about the gray hulls, but it is about the grey matter. As Captain Wolynski put it: “You are always looking for the tactical, operational or strategic limitations of the adversary to exploit for your advantage.”

That is clearly a key part of working information warfare effectively.

But it is also very difficult to do, as the blue side may significantly mis-read the red side.

This is certainly something that we experienced in the years we worked on the Soviet threat and how to understand it, and to think through how to deter the adversary.

In the Laird-Delaporte book on the return of direct defense in Europe, the book started with such a case, namely, the Gordievsky affair. Gordievsky was a KGB operative who became a British agent and because of his inside knowledge of the thinking of the Soviet leadership was able to advise the Brits that they were significantly mis-reading NATO intentions.

MI6 set up a working relationship between what they were learning and presenting that in packages presented directly to the British Prime Minister. The most important package of information involved the launching of Operation RYAN by the Soviets. By the end of the 1970s the West had begun to pull ahead in the nuclear arms race, and tense détente was giving way to a different sort of psychological confrontation, in which the Kremlin feared it could be destroyed and defeated by a preemptive nuclear attack. Early in 1981, the KGB carried out an analysis of the geopolitical situation, using a newly developed computer program, and concluded that “the correlation of world forces” was moving in favor of the West.

General Secretary Andropov believed the United States was preparing to do just that and launched an operation to prove his conviction. “By implication, if proof of an impending attack could be found, then the Soviet Union could itself launch a preemptive strike. Andropov’s experience in suppressing liberty in Soviet satellite states had convinced him that the best method of defense was attack. Fear of a first strike threatened to provoke a first strike.

Operation RYAN was born in Andropov’s fevered imagination. It grew steadily, metastasizing into an intelligence obsession within the KGB and GRU (military intelligence), consuming thousands of man-hours and helping to ratchet up tension between the superpowers to terrifying levels.”5  This particular affair underscores the key significance of senior leadership looking for information simply confirming what they already believe to be true rather than allowing for an honest intelligence effort to sort out what is really happening with regard to one’s adversary. One might wish this was an historical comment, but it is much more an ongoing challenge in the intelligence and policy worlds. Self-licking ice cream cones for the intelligence to policy worlds can be fatal to both worlds.

“In launching Operation RYAN, Andropov broke the first rule of intelligence: never ask for confirmation of something you already believe. Hitler had been certain that the D-day invasion force would land at Calais, so that is what his spies (with help from allied double agents) told him, ensuring the success of the Normandy landings.” The author added this priceless comment with regard to the self-licking ice-cream cone dynamic. “In a craven and hierarchical organization, the only thing more dangerous than revealing your own ignorance is to draw attention to the stupidity of the boss.”

In his interview with another officer involved in VADM Lewis’s two hatted command, that officer confirmed the challenge of how to read accurately what the adversary is really up to.

On March 5, 2021, Ed Timperlake interviewed RADM Stefan Pauly, JFCNF Chief of Staff. During that interview, the German RADM highlighted what he learned after the fall of the wall from examining how the East German navy was working during its Warsaw Pact days.

According to RADM Paul: “As a junior intelligence officer, I was one of the first officers who went to East Germany after the wall came down. I was able to read through their intelligence reports and got a sense of what they were really about as opposed to our projections of what we thought they were about.

“Let me give you two examples. When reading through East German assessments, I learned that when West German sailors had the weekend off and went home to visit their families, their movements were interpreted as moving those sailors toward West German ports and getting ready for action.

“A second example revolves around the East German practice of having their fast patrol boats always deployed facing the ocean. We interpreted this as being ready for deployment and moving out rapidly. We learned that a core reason for doing so was because they did not trust their guided missiles, because of concern that the fuel for the missiles could be ignited accidently. Because of such concern, they pointed the missiles away their ports.”

In short, the core capability which Captain Wolynski underscored is a crucial one but requires a process that can deliver accurate perceptions guiding or informing combat operations. 

In an interview Laird did last February in Norfolk with three Admirals, they all underscored the central of the Information function which needs to guide training as well.

What emerged from that discussion very much reinforced what we learned in Norfolk during our March visit.

“One key challenge facing training is the nature of the 21st century authoritarian powers.

“How will they fight?

“How will their evolving technologies fit into their evolving concepts of operations?

“What will most effectively deter or provide for escalation control against them?”

“There is no simple way to know this.”

Featured Photo: President of Russia web site (CC)/