Battle of Midway: Information dominance’s legacy

This week, the Navy is commemorating the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The battle, which took place June 4 to 7, 1942, changed the course of the war in the Pacific and highlighted naval aviation’s vast capabilities. In this blog, the co-leads for the Navy’s Information Dominance Corps explain how superior intelligence helped the Navy seize the victory at Midway and shift the naval power dynamic.

Photo illustration of Battle of Midway with Department of Navy seal

By Vice Adm. Kendall L. Card, U.S. Navy deputy chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance/director of Naval Intelligence; and Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers, commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. Tenth Fleet

Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV 5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs, June 4, 1942.Dense smoke is from fires in her uptakes, which was caused by a bomb that punctured them and knocked out her boilers. (U.S. Navy photo)

Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV 5), shortly after she was hit by three Japanese bombs, June 4, 1942.Dense smoke is from fires in her uptakes, which was caused by a bomb that punctured them and knocked out her boilers. (U.S. Navy photo)

This week, the Navy is pausing commemorate the 71st anniversary of one of the greatest naval engagements in history; the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II.  For the Navy’s Information Dominance Corps, it is not only an opportunity to celebrate the momentous victory and honor those who gave their lives, but also to mark a decisive moment in the history of information superiority.  The seminal efforts of the U.S. Navy’s codebreakers – predecessors of today’s Information Dominance Corps – were key to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s decision as U.S. Pacific Fleet commander to engage the Japanese at Midway.

Looking back to this time in 1942, America needed a victory. The Japanese, having six months earlier perpetrated the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, were poised to press their advantage, destroy what was left of the Pacific Fleet, and threaten the west coast of the United States.

Only the U.S. outpost at Midway stood between the Imperial Japanese Navy and Hawaii.

At the time, Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned to destroy Midway’s defenses, invade the atoll’s two small islands, and then establish a Japanese air base there to provide an easy striking distance to Hawaii and positional advantage to expand domination of the Pacific.

Admiral Yamamoto expected the U.S. carriers to bring the fight, but also arrive too late to save Midway from his battle-proven carrier air power. Thanks to American codebreakers, judicious aircraft carrier tactics, and providential timing, the U.S. Navy decisively defeated the Japanese Navy forces at Midway.

Admiral Nimitz’s success at Midway was thus in great part due to his foreknowledge of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s intentions. But, how did he get that information?

Having penetrated Japanese naval codes as far back as the 1930s, U.S. Navy radio intelligence specialists and Japanese linguists in Melbourne, Australia and Pearl Harbor combined radio traffic analysis techniques and a deep understanding of Imperial Japanese Navy tactics to provide predictive awareness at Midway.

Working in the shadows to decipher, understand and predict the next steps of Admiral Yamamoto, these previously unknown and unheralded information experts pioneered information dominance as we know it today.

Aerial photograph, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll,  Nov. 24, 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway's airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

Aerial photograph, looking just south of west across the southern side of the atoll, Nov. 24, 1941. Eastern Island, then the site of Midway’s airfield, is in the foreground. Sand Island, location of most other base facilities, is across the entrance channel.

Specifically, in early 1942, cryptologists under then Cmdr. Joe Rochefort at Pearl Harbor’s Station Hypo detected Japanese references to a pending operation against an objective designated “AF.” Fleet intelligence officer Capt. Edwin Layton and Rochefort believed “AF” meant Midway. To confirm, they arranged for Midway’s installation commander to send an unencrypted message falsely indicating problems with its fresh water condenser. When Station Hypo subsequently intercepted a Japanese intelligence report citing “AF is short of water,” Midway was confirmed as the target. Admiral Nimitz suddenly enjoyed decision superiority. As a consequence, he was able to position his forces to surprise and defeat the Japanese fleet.

This communications intelligence allowed Admiral Nimitz to establish an ambush; U.S. Navy carriers were ready and waiting for the Japanese fleet.

According to General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff at the time, “…as a result of cryptanalysis we were able to concentrate our limited forces to meet their naval advance on Midway when we otherwise would have been 3,000 miles out of place.”

The Battle of Midway demonstrated the importance of a commander’s basic insight into what was actually occurring on, below and above the sea. Today, we call that “battlespace awareness,” one of the key tenets of information dominance, along with “assured command and control” and “integrated fires.”

Looking for a moment at more recent history, in 2009, the Navy acknowledged the centrality of information to maritime warfighting and established the Information Dominance Corps. In an unprecedented organizational change – but reminiscent of the successful efforts at Midway – professionals from the intelligence, information professional, information warfare, meteorology and oceanography communities, and members of the space cadre were combined under the leadership of the deputy chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (N2/N6). This transformation resulted in an aggregated, unified corps that produces precise, timely warfighting decisions.

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The Navy’s term “information dominance” is defined as  “the operational advantage gained from fully integrating the Navy’s information functions, capabilities and resources to optimize decision making and maximize warfighting effects.”

We see the origin of this 21st century definition in the efforts that led to the victory at Midway.

As Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert recently said in his May 29 message to the fleet,

“Though a lifetime has passed since the Battle of Midway, and the world and our Navy have changed in many ways, the lessons of June 1942 still resonate today. The Navy-Marine Corps team, acting decisively in defense of our nation’s interests, can project more power, across greater distances, more effectively, than any naval force the world has ever seen.

“That was demonstrated at Midway and throughout the Pacific in World War II, and maintaining that capability is our charge today.

On June 8, Information Dominance Corps members will gather in Annapolis, Md., Norfolk, Va., and Hawaii to celebrate their forbearers and the victory at Midway, to honor those who have given their lives, and to look toward the future.

What did you know about naval intelligence’s role in the Battle of Midway before reading this blog?