Getting Back to Basics: How to Avoid a Naval Intelligence Jutland


Historical analogies are powerful tools. While no analogy is perfect, they can be extremely effective in policy debates, making concepts that are hard to imagine seem real. In discussions about cybersecurity, experts often warn about a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” The analogy has been marshalled to drive funding for programs, personnel, and commands and centers throughout the Defense Department.

For the Navy’s intelligence community, the most appropriate historical precedent isn’t Pearl Harbor — it’s the Battle of Jutland. A cyber Pearl Harbor suggests a surprise attack. The United States is already in the midst of a great power competition with China and Russia, and the pieces are already moving on the ocean’s chessboard. Jutland was a famous WWI naval clash where capable British forces were hamstrung by tradition and conservatism, and ultimately proved unable to strike a decisive victory over the German High Seas Fleet. Today’s naval intelligence faces a similar set of challenges.



The role of naval intelligence is unique, acting as the eyes and ears of the service. According to Naval Doctrine Publication 2, naval intelligence is to furnish insights in both peace and war, estimates of situations, and forecast likely adversary courses of action. In addition to developing estimates and forecasts for the naval chain of command, it “provides indications and warning, cuing for surveillance efforts, and discrimination between friendly, neutral and potentially hostile forces. It gives the commander, [their] staff, and subordinate commands the information they need to plan and execute combat action, and to evaluate the results.” The role of naval intelligence is set to grow, particularly given the rise of China.

Is the naval intelligence community prepared for cold or hot operations against a peer competitor, particularly in an anti-access/area denial (A2AD) operating environment? There are three reasons why we must ask this question. First, over-reliance on the latest technologies has inhibited basic knowledge and analytical methodology. Second, traditional communication briefs may be less effective than other means of conveying relevant, unique, and timely information. And third, inherent bureaucratic conservatism and a risk-averse culture may lend itself too little and too late in responding to emerging threats. The naval intelligence community needs to shift to developing more subject matter experts who can convey analytical products outside of conservative, stove-piped bureaucratic systems.

The Lessons of Jutland

The World War I naval Battle of Jutland was to be another Salamis, Actium, Lepanto, or Trafalgar — an overwhelming victory that would decide the outcome of a war. Instead, Jutland was a major action of lost opportunity. Despite investment in the latest technologies, both sides lost multiple capital warships and their crews. The British fleet would not have another chance at the German High Seas Fleet until it was scuttled as a result of the terms of surrender — surrender that was governed largely by land operations.

In his classic book The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, Andrew Gordon provides an in-depth study of the factors the Royal Navy, led by Admirals John Jellicoe and William Beatty, failed to capitalize on to defeat the German High Sea Fleet. Failures were not borne out of thin air. They were decades in the making, rooted in the Admiralty’s apparent institutional inability to seize the initiative, as well as a slavish devotion to old processes.

Rules of the Game is on the Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO) recommended reading list for good reason. It ought to be read by naval professionals, but there must be more to it than simply reading the CNO’s recommended list. Naval professionals must draw relevant lessons from history to apply to the current security environment. Specifically, former CNO John Richardson’s high velocity learning objective states, “Begin problem definition by studying history — do not relearn old lessons.”

This is especially true for the naval intelligence community. It cannot be afraid to take a hard, sometimes critical look at itself, just as Gordon did with a painfully frank assessment of the Royal Navy in the decades prior to Jutland. Unfortunately, sometimes the faster the ship, the less likely it is to correct its course or speed before a collision or grounding.

Technology: A Better Servant than a Master

Today’s naval intelligence environment runs the risk of technology overreach or the inability to properly attend to legacy systems. In his book The Last Navigator, Steve Thomas relates how he learned to navigate an outrigger canoe using only the elements — the ocean, the current, the birds — from island elders (all of whom are now gone). It was a skill that had been used to populate most Pacific islands long before Columbus reached the new world. Basic knowledge and skills are necessary as a back-up when technology fails. If an electromagnetic pulse affected systems, could operators find non-technical methods to achieve their mission?

Technology has enabled faster communications, the ability to distribute information over a global network, and the collection of data at a historically unprecedented level. However, what happens when that system goes down — as the intelligence community has experienced with classified and unclassified networks — or a new command takes weeks or months simply to get a new member an account to start their work? More importantly, does more technology make for better analysts?

While the opportunities technology presents have never been greater, neither have the risks. In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk at the embassy in Ottawa, was able to defect carrying more than 100 documents on his person. By contrast, Edward Snowden may have taken more than 50 terabytes (TBs) of highly classified data from government computers. Combined with the private data breaches at companies like Equifax and government breaches at organizations like the Department of Defense and the Office of Personnel Management, the ability to collect and store data clearly creates disadvantages, such as the possibility of loss and exploitation by state and non-state actors. In these cases, the damage is done for the next few decades.

This single-minded, over-adherence to technology is like a science fiction Borg Queen governing a system of assimilating new technologies, demanding compliance but with an addiction to technology that renders the system unable to be reasoned with. It fails to understand the potential consequences, which could render the system vulnerable to lack of initiative and innovation.  Any initiative from non-compliant agents is dismissed at best or destroyed at worst. As Gordon points out, “the capacity of modern communications systems is outpacing the ability of the user to absorb it all.”  There must be balance.

The use of technology can be beneficial, but analysts must also be able to independently research and come to their own conclusions. Some Royal Navy officers before Jutland recognized that “signals are valuable servants but must not be allowed to become our masters.”

For decades, independent analysis has sometimes been dismissed by chains of command. Some commands may find analysis by googling, or may rely too heavily on statements from other offices and commands. Analysts or commands may be unwilling to risk fielding analyses that may be contrary to those provided elsewhere. The default becomes not to propose independent analysis but to defer to others. Naval intelligence commands, stations, or ships may simply copy and paste what other commands have already assessed through classified networks. The danger of doing so can be drawn from the late historian Barbara Tuchman, who said that drawing upon secondary sources means their own sources are tainted by pre-selection, forcing her to heavily focus upon primary sources.

Can officers and intelligence specialists be encouraged to gain knowledge about their subject areas? Present requirements include promotion and advancement training. General Military Training (GMT), whether online or face-to-face, likewise requires a time investment that would be better spent reading even open source coverage such as The Economist over the long term to understand the world. An educated briefer (or especially their senior officer) would never have to ask a basic question such as “Where is Yemen?” (as I encountered during a recent deployment). Taking required leadership classes may be fine opportunities and necessary for advancement in the ranks. But just as DoD-wide mandated sexual assault and harassment training may not have diminished assaults or harassment, there is little evidence to suggest that time in leadership courses correlates to better leaders or improved organizations.  Learning the processes of administration might make for knowledgeable administrators — and good administration is extremely valuable — but it does not necessarily produce good leaders who understand and can foster an environment of real research and analysis.

To Improve Communication, Start by Ditching the Brief

If any process or product contributed most to the failure of the Royal Navy to exploit their advantage at Jutland, it was adherence to the Signal Book — the means by which the ships visually communicated with one another. By Jutland, the Signal Book had been implemented for more than a century with very few revisions because of the conservative thought processes of the admiralty, a voice echoed in the 21st century with “but we’ve always done it this way.” One of the advocates for reform and innovation was Admiral George Tryon, but any hope of improvement sank with him and  HMS Victoria in a fateful 1895 collision with HMS Camperdown. Reformists hoped to be emancipated from the Signal Book’s constraints.

The modern era’s Signal Book in naval intelligence may be the brief. The standard, regularly expected brief is a staple at every command, ship or shore. Like the Signal Book, it is intended to provide information, but that information might be conveyed in a far more effective and less time-consuming manner. The Signal Book required numerous specialists in order for the Fleet to operate effectively. Yet by Jutland, with the expansion of the pre-war fleet, these specialists were in high demand, and many who filled the roles were simply not yet experts in the field, thus diminishing fleet efficiency. Nevertheless, as Gordon writes, the fleet simply goose-stepped to the Signal Book.

As briefs are currently conducted, countless labor-hours are spent preparing, reviewing, and attending as the senior officer sits absorbing the information. Often the briefs include the same language and assumptions for weeks or months with little context. Rarely is the issue’s true subject matter expert delivering the briefing, although he or she is perhaps available in the back of the room as one of potentially dozens of attendees. These experts’ attendance is required in case a question arises or a senior officer’s inquiry requires follow-up. Consider a conservative estimate to be 40 people attending a weekly brief for one hour (in some cases at shore commands these briefs might be daily).

Consider the opportunity cost of this evolution — 40 hours represents an entire work week for one individual (or about a half work-week at sea). That time might be better spent on other, higher priority tasks such as delving more into issues. During Jutland, there was “a ceaseless stream of signals from the flagship … in the smoke, confusion and uncertainty of battle the process was far too elaborate.” As Tryon had predicted, the process was simply too complicated and required radical simplification. Briefs also run the risk of being behind the information curve. Rules of the Game noted that one issue with Jutland was “the total lapse of time.”

The Navy should reduce, where possible, the number and length of briefs, replacing them with a simple and direct but informative and relevant point paper for the senior officer and those individuals who need to know. The point papers can be distributed through classified networks. Once they have read it, the commanding officer can then follow up directly with the analyst rather than a briefer who may not have the in-depth knowledge readily available. That briefer can then be shifted to analytical duties. These changes would enhance the CNO’s call for high-velocity learning, including “operational agility” and “maximizing combat effectiveness and efficiency” as well as being “accomplished without using additional resources.”

Bureaucracy Sometimes Hinders Innovation

Just as the anti-Federalists were wrong in opposing some form of central government during the Constitutional debates of 1787, it would be wrong to take a nihilistic approach to organizations as a whole. Organizations are necessary in manning, training, equipping, researching, writing and dissemination of intelligence. But organizations suffer when bureaucracy impedes action. The naval intelligence community should empower analysts to develop innovative ideas and adapt them quickly. Some entrenched managers may try to prevent innovation, progress, and action — especially unintentionally, as such roadblocks are rarely deliberate or executed with malice. Likewise, naval intelligence should “adapt processes to be inherently receptive to innovation and creativity.” That is perhaps one of the greatest lessons of Jutland. It is also one of the greatest impediments the community faces in fully realizing its potential to challenge peer competitors and non-state actors alike. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson understood the need to give clear, simple orders and then let his captains carry them out or adapt as necessary in battle.

Absent that empowerment, an organization becomes hidebound, unable to adapt and overcome. Arguably the greatest naval intelligence victory resulted in the Battle of Midway, the turning point in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. It took only a handful of analysts to break the codes and anticipate the Japanese fleet’s moves. Can anyone argue that Lt. Cmdr. Edwin Layton and Cmdr. Joe Rochefort would have succeeded hidden in the deep recesses of today’s robust bureaucracy? Has the size of the buildings or staff significantly improved research, analysis, and impact to the fleet compared to World War II or the Cold War?

Admiral Sir George Tryon recognized the danger of an intransigent bureaucracy decades before Jutland and argued “that decentralization was essential in the fleet.” His “way of idiot-proofing fleet tactics … was both safer and more radical.” Despite his best efforts and, of course, his early demise, by 1903 the Signal Book “was still cluttered with procedural and administrative matters.”

While naval intelligence has benefited from open-minded, knowledgeable, and visionary senior officers, mid-level management has the potential for stagnation and inaction. Imagine a senior analyst of a peer competitor twenty years ago dismissing the possibility of future challenges because the nation has old Soviet technology and assuming that if the United States ever got in a conflict, the Navy would just brush off the dust of its Cold War playbook. Imagine a civil servant shelving ideas from analysts because “we don’t know what the captain wants and we don’t want to take that chance so we’ll wait it out until the next captain comes in.” Imagine another senior analyst dismissing the idea fifteen years ago that a non-state actor had fundamentally changed its behavior and capabilities because “that could never happen.” Imagine a maritime security gap being recognized, a simple, reliable and tested response being identified with policies and instructions justifying it, and then such a solution becoming stonewalled by civilian and military personnel who say “let someone else do it, we have enough to do.”

The Navy’s recent collisions called into question — whether earned or not — the proficiency of its surface warfare community. The surface warfare community took actions to correct those issues. Given an incident based on the failures of the above imaginations (or, rather the realities of those experiences), would the naval intelligence community fare any better in the court of public opinion?

The U.S. naval intelligence community cannot expect to have effective outcomes in a bureaucracy that only slows down or defeats initiatives. The community is designed to be an effective administration — but administration hampered more successful results at Jutland. It is incumbent on naval intelligence leadership to dig past the mid-level bureaucracy that interferes and prevents the possibility of anything contrary to conventional thinking or processes. Not every idea will be right; not every process need be corrected. But to fail to remain open to these possibilities invites an intelligence Jutland.

It’s too easy to have productive, lengthy, and successful careers by following Admiral Arthur Leveson’s dictum: “We must follow the next ahead.” To do so is to play it safe in a highly bureaucratic culture, copying the analyses of other communities and commands, repeating briefs, and towing party lines. That is safe thinking. It is thinking that might prepare the Navy for kinetic and non-kinetic challenges. Or it could simply be a premonition from a past conflict: “They thought they were ready for war, but they were not.”


Any organization can improve its processes, better train its people, and provide working systems that support its mission. In that, the naval intelligence community is no different. It has an outstanding cadre of professionals who have the tools at their disposal. At Jutland, the Royal Navy had experienced officers as well. But new technologies or artificial intelligence (AI) won’t guarantee winning the intelligence component of the war, just as new battle cruisers weren’t decisive at Jutland, and German wonder weapons such as jet fighters and missiles did not guarantee Nazi victory during the Second World War.

It will be the human element — knowledge, analytical capability, and ingenuity in the naval intelligence community — that guides us to victory, defeat, or stalemate as it has since wars were first fought. That is why we must reassess how time is best spent for analysts, what extraneous collateral functions that have no inherent war-fighting purpose can be eliminated, and how to re-invest in education and training that is geared toward war-fighting.  We must recognize the rules of the naval intelligence game.



Claude Berube, PhD, is a Commander in the Navy Reserve and teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. His dissertation examiner was Andrew Gordon, author of The Rules of the Game. His sixth book will be published next year. The views expressed are his own. The author appreciates the feedback from senior and mid-grade officers on an early version of this piece. Twitter @cgberube

Image: Imperial War Museum