U.S. Navy leaders, past and present, say the military branch is trailing behind China’s advances in cyberspace operations, and if action is not taken, the branch will have “a very bad day” at the start of a cyberwar in 2026, according to reports.

In a piece written for the February 2024 issue of Proceedings, a publication for the U.S. Naval Institute, Vice Admiral T.J. White, Rear Admiral Danelle Barrett, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Naval Commander Jake Bebber, wrote that the Navy was not ready for the information war as it had not “adequately planned” for a time when the cyber and maritime domains of war intersect.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel underscore that operational planners need to prepare for information attacks by state actors as well as non-state organizations and civilians,” the authors wrote, heeding a warning that the U.S. is not prepared for any cyberwar sparked, hypothetically, in 2026.

The reason, they explain, is that the Navy has not “fully embraced” the benefits of space operations supporting maritime operations, nor has it embraced that it has access advantages to support both cyber and space operations, adding that leaders will need to embrace these things to defeat cognitive warfare campaigns.

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“The Navy lacks an agreed to strategic, operational, and tactical view of what it believes war in the maritime domain will look like over the next five to ten years, when advanced capabilities brought on by accelerating technologies such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, quantum computing, and free space optics complicate an already challenging environment,” the authors wrote. “China, on the other hand, has been planning and conducting a global campaign in the information domain since the mid-1990s. 

“Today, China can employ its growing control over the cyberspace technology ecosystem — from submarine cable systems to satellite constellations — along with its control over software platforms and information supply chains and growing dominance in algorithm-driven consumer and media platforms to change the character of war decidedly in its favor.”

The writers based their information on the War of 2026 scenario published in December 2023, which suggested could go either badly or very badly for the U.S.

Under the “very bad” scenario, the Navy never committed fully to participating in an information “cold war” that had been going on for years, therefore, it was not prepared.

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Xi Jinping speaking

Preparation it lacked was investment in people, processes, systems, or did not employ them at scale because it lacked a vision on how information warfare should be integrated into its current operations and strategies.

“In the scenario, China was able to attack the sources of U.S. naval power with cognitive warfare capabilities it had been investing in, deploying globally, and employing against the American public for more than a decade,” the authors wrote. “Naval leaders were cognitively outflanked — unprepared because fundamental assumptions were flawed.”

They also wrote that sailors were avid users of social media under China’s influence and were manipulated to the point they, “refused to fight for a cause they questioned and a country in which they no longer believed.”

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Under the second scenario, or “bad” day, the Navy’s investment was not adequate to adapt and reorient itself after an attack resulting in tremendous casualties.

Even though the Navy may have avoided defeat at the beginning of the conflict, the authors said the branch was uncertain if it could adapt quickly enough during a multi-year global war and bring it to a successful conclusion.

The authors of the piece said even though the Chief Naval Officer proposed creating cyber teams in 2019, they were not in place as of 2023. They also said the Navy “lacks a coherent vision of information warfare at sea and the operational concepts, tactics, and capabilities required to conduct it.”

At the end, the writers spoke about former CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who in 2012 wrote, “[The] EM-cyber environment is now so fundamental to military operations and so critical to our national interests that we must start treating it as a warfighting domain on par with — or perhaps even more important than — land, sea, air, and space.”

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They said other CNOs have since made similar statements, which have resulted in “some” changes and restructuring, though the U.S. is still not keeping up with China in terms of cyber.

“In the information warfare domain, China is not a pacing threat, it is the threat being chased,” the authors wrote. “Too much time has been lost and too little investment made for the Navy not to have a bad day at the start of the war in 2026. The question is whether the Navy will take the steps required to at least not have a very bad day.”

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