Naval Intelligence Proved to Be U.S. Admirals’ Cold War Advantage
Winkler, David F
Two years ago, the Naval War College hosted a conference entitled “Cold War at Sea.” An underlining thesis of this gathering was that U.S. Navy operations contributed to America’s victory in the Cold War.
Of note, among the stronger proponents of this thesis were some of the Russian attendees who observed that the former USSR could not keep up with the technological advances that the Americans were incorporating into their forces.
Exploiting those technological advantages required America’s naval leaders to have an understanding of Soviet capabilities and operational intent. To obtain this understanding, the U.S. Navy’s fleet commanders often turned to their intelligence officers.
Throughout the Cold War, naval intelligence provided the admirals with an advantage over their Soviet counterparts. Intelligence officers and enlisted analysts, often with just a few years of service under their belts, influenced the conduct of fleet operations on the world’s oceans and seas.
The critical role that American naval intelligence played was not just a Cold War phenomenon. John Prados, in “Combined Fleet Decoded: The secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II” (Random House, 1995), documented the many successes and occasional failures of American naval intelligence and the eventual establishment in 1943 of Joint Intelligence Center Pacific Ocean Areas, a Hawaiianbased intelligence gathering, analyses and dissemination facility. By being provided information that had been fused together from multiple sources, Fleet Adm. Chester W Nimitz’s commanders gained an added advantage over an increasingly outnumbered and outgunned foe.
The legacy of their World War II predecessors would serve the Cold War naval intelligence specialists well. Line officers had two case studies – Pearl Harbor and Midway – that spoke volumes on the need for good intelligence. Although the Navy’s operational commanders may have been predisposed to accept their advice, the naval intelligence community strove to prove their metde every day.
In their recently published history of U.S. Navy operational intelligence from World War II through the Cold War, “The Admirals’ Advantage,” Naval Reserve intelligence officers Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Ford and Capt. David Rosenberg argue that to maintain the confidence of fleet commanders, an evolving naval intelligence organization strove to improve the quality of operational intelligence during the Cold War. Intelligence analysts benefited from sources unimaginable during World War II, such as a Sound Surveillance System that spread a network of hydrophones across the floors of the oceans and overhead satellites that provided photograph and signal collection capabilities.
However, much credit for the successful integration of the intelligence among the operational line community lay in the requirement that intelligence officers and enlisted personnel be slated for sea duty early in their careers. By spending months at sea, intelligence analysts gained a firm grasp of the types of information that were useful for the decision makers.
This integration of analysts with the operators was unique within the U.S. military establishment. In contrast, Army and Air Force placed their intelligence personnel into units that operated somewhat independently from the field commanders.
The other unique aspect that differentiated naval operations from the other services was that America’s naval forces often operated in the presence of the enemy, sometimes making it a point to do so. For intelligence personnel embarked at sea, these close-quarter maneuvers with the potential foe gave a “frontline” mentality that served the Navy well.
In the words of a former director of Naval Intelligence, to serve at sea in constant contact with the Soviet Navy “gave us a wonderful opportunity to work cheek-andjowl [with operators], to live with them, to get them to depend on us intelligence officers to provide them with the information they needed to do their job – so we have evolved as a result, and established remarkable working relationships with the operational community.”
In the end, the “admirals’ advantage” proved to be America’s advantage in gaining victory in the long struggle against the Soviet Union.
Sources: Christopher A. Ford and David A. Rosenberg, The Admirals’ Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2005); Special issue – The Cold War at Sea: An International Appraisal, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (April 2005).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation.
Copyright Navy League of the United States May 2006
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