Navy Information Warfare Then and Now: From the Civil War to Midway to 21st Century Great Power Competition

U.S. Fleet Cyber Command / U.S. 10th Fleet Public Affairs

With the United States and its adversaries returning to an era of Great Power Competition, in which new domains of cyber and space are rife with attacks below the level of open conflict, information warfare has never been so important to the security of the United States and its allies.  The upcoming release of the new film “Midway” reminds us all how Navy cryptologists, linguists, and intelligence personnel, the forerunners of modern information warriors, literally helped save the world 77 years ago.  Maintaining an edge over our adversaries in information warfare is just as critical and potentially game-changing today as it was on the eve of the battle that marked the turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II. 

170130-N-PP996-057 PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 30, 2017) Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 2nd Class Jonathan Morel, assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112), uses a radar tracking system to track surface contacts. Michael Murphy is on a western Pacific deployment with the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group as part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet-led initiative to extend the command and control functions of U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Danny Kelley/Released)

Naval information warfare traces its history to the Civil War, when specially trained personnel intercepted and deciphered enemy signals and formulated ways to protect their own communications. The first radio transmission from a U.S. Navy ship in 1899 led to the assignment of radio intelligence and communications security duties to Sailors and Marines.

During World War I, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in cooperation with MI-8, the cryptanalytic office in the Army’s Military Intelligence Division, solved a Japanese diplomatic code before the end of the war. Due to a lack of traffic and a lack of linguists, the office was quickly downsized at the end of the war.

Throughout the 1920s, Capt. Laurance F. Safford, regarded by many as the “father” of Navy cryptology, advocated more effort for Communications Intelligence (COMINT). Safford recruited promising cryptanalysts by putting puzzles in the Navy’s monthly Communications Bulletin, beginning in mid-1924. Over the years, he recruited many who sent in successful solutions.

The first pupil to come to Safford for training, in 1924, was Ensign Joseph N. Wenger. A more formal class in all aspects of COMINT and communications security began the following year. Among the students in that group was LT Joseph J. Rochefort. Both Wenger and Rochefort went on to make significant contributions to American cryptology.

In October 1928, the Navy and Marine Corps’ first training class of radio intercept operators convened. The school’s original location was in a blockhouse on the roof of the old Navy Department building.  Graduates were nicknamed the “On-the-Roof Gang.”

From 1928 to 1941, the school graduated 176 Sailors and Marines who were the first enlisted radio operators and formed the vanguard of naval cryptology.

In a letter, dated May 13, 1929, recognizing the need for radio intelligence, the Chief of Naval Operations indicated his intention to establish a radio intelligence office with the Asiatic Fleet and to organize cryptanalytic units afloat. Cryptologic units in Washington and Hawaii as well as the establishment of a special cryptographic system strictly for COMINT were then included in Navy war plans.

The increased emphasis on COMINT operations paid off early. Larger numbers of intercept operators enabled the U.S. fleet to copy a considerable volume of radio traffic from the Japanese fleet’s 1930 Grand Maneuvers. These messages revealed Japan’s battle plan against the United States, Japanese fleet mobilization procedures, and Japanese plans for defense of the western Pacific. To the surprise of the Americans, the Japanese had an excellent grasp of American war plans for the Pacific.

The evolution of naval cryptology, from 1924 to 1935, gave rise to the Communications Security Group, which was established on March 11, 1935. This date is considered the birthday of Navy cryptology.

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War, December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese armed forces conducted military operations throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The first phase of these operations, which was the seizure of various island groups in the central and western Pacific, was virtually complete by March 1942.

Progress against the Japanese Navy’s operational code, JN-25, was a challenge. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, only 10 to 15 percent of the code was being read.

By late spring of 1942, Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort, officer in charge of COMINT processing at Station Hypo, the Navy’s codebreaking organization located at Pearl Harbor, and Lt. Cmdr. Edwin T. Layton, the Pacific Fleet staff intelligence officer, were able to make educated guesses regarding the Japanese Navy’s movement.

On May 19, Rochefort and his team identified Midway and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians as specific Japanese objectives. On May 22, following a radio deception operation, Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne, a U.S. fleet radio-intercept unit located in Melbourne, Australia, confirmed Midway as a target. Station Hypo then discovered the date cipher used in Japanese message traffic. Analysts could then determine exactly when the attack would take place. After examining previously intercepted messages, Hypo predicted an attack on Midway on June 4. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Fleet, used this estimate to plan American countermeasures that included reinforcement of the forces already on Midway.

During the height of WWII, the Navy’s communication program comprised more than 22,000 officers and 225,000 Sailors.  Throughout the Korean, Vietnam and Cold War, information warfare was vital to protecting the U.S.  During that time, information warriors have played a direct role in every U.S. conflict and have evolved to meet the dynamic challenges of modern cyber warfare.

Part of that evolution included the establishment, on Feb. 6, 2004, of the Navy Cryptologic Technician (Networks) rating. It was designed to further develop a skilled work force to meet fleet requirements in computer network defense and other computer network operations.  The next year, the Navy renamed cryptologic officers “information warfare officers” to reflect the expanded competencies of information operations and cyber warfare.

The White House Cyberspace Policy Review of May 2009 stated that “America’s failure to protect cyberspace is one of the most urgent national security problems facing the new administration.”

Two months later, Secretary of Defense Gates unveiled his plan for military cyberspace operations. In a memo to the Secretaries of the Armed Forces, he wrote, “Our increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national security.

To address this risk effectively and to secure freedom of action in cyberspace, the Department of Defense requires a command that possesses the required technical capability and remains focused on the integration of cyberspace operations. Further, this command must be capable of synchronizing war-fighting effects across the global security environment as well as providing support to civil authorities and international partners.”

In response, the Information Dominance Corps was established, Oct. 1, 2009. The corps consists of four separate communities: Information Warfare/Cryptologic Technicians; Intelligence/Intelligence Specialists; Information Professionals and Technicians; and Oceanographers/Aerographers.

On Jan. 29, 2010, U.S. 10th Fleet was recommissioned and Fleet Cyber Command was established. The dual-hatted command assumed the Navy’s cryptologic, information operations, network operations, cyber, electronic warfare and space missions.

Vice Adm. Timothy “TJ” White, the Navy’s community leader for Cryptology and Cyber Warfare, released on Feb. 8, 2019 a new vision titled, “Navy Cryptologic & Cyber Warfare Community Vision” which serves as an aligning narrative for the community. According to the vision, the Navy’s Cryptologic and Cyber Warfare Community is responsible for delivering competitive outcomes in all domains of warfare through the application of Cyberspace Operations, Signals Intelligence, and Electronic Warfare.

The Navy views the electromagnetic spectrum-cyber environment as a primary warfighting domain. Information warfare officers and cryptologic technicians are the principal warfighters. Information warfare specialists are directly involved in every aspect of naval operations, deploying globally to support Navy and joint military requirements. Mirroring the impact that the forerunners of modern information specialists made during conflicts such as the Battle of Midway, they deliver vital information to decision makers by attacking, defending and exploiting networks to capitalize on vulnerabilities in the information environment and continue to defend the nation.  

NOTE: This blog is one of a four-part series to honor the Navy victory at the Battle of Midway and to highlight current Navy capabilities against modern and future U.S. adversaries.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar