China Threat Raises Stakes for Navy’s Cyber Offense Evolution

  • Defense contractors have a role in shaping Navy cyber warfare
  • ‘Cognitive warfare’ rising as threat, opportunity in global conflicts

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Offensive information warfare will be critical in a possible future conflict with China, defense officials said at an industry conference Tuesday, using the war in Ukraine as an example.

US adversaries are constantly studying and improving in the information warfare space, threatening infrastructure and co-opting social media messaging for political gain, Chris Cleary, the Navy’s principal cyber advisor, told reporters at a media roundtable Tuesday.

Flooding information channels with reasons the US shouldn’t get involved in defending Taiwan and convincing enough of the American public to agree, Cleary said as an example, “The Chinese might be like, ‘Well, we’ve won.’”

Improved offensive capabilities are part of the Navy’s “secure, survive, strike” Cyberspace Superiority Vision, said Cleary, whose roundtable was part of WEST 2023, a conference co-hosted by AFCEA International and the US Naval Institute.

Cleary noted that the offensive cyber space has traditionally been overly classified because it grew out of intelligence community activities. In order to better equip forces focused on cyber warfare, though, the Navy is making efforts to “professionalize” non-kinetic operations.

“That wouldn’t be a surprise then to infer that we’re going to work with industry,” Cleary said.

The Navy is also “beginning to tiptoe” into information operation campaigns and going after “gray matter,” he said. “It’s not just turning your computer off. It’s the information that comes through that computer that influences your own thought process.”

Taiwan and Lessons from Ukraine

“You can have all the tactical successes you want,” said Lt. Gen. George Smith Jr., commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, adding Ukraine as an example, “but if you’re not winning in the information space, you’re not winning.”

As the US pivots its defense posture to the Asia-Pacific region, the US and its military needs “clarity of the narrative,” said Margarita Konaev, deputy director of analysis for Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

“‘Defend Taiwan for semiconductors’ sounds a whole lot like ‘war for oil.’ Huge chunks of the population in the commercial sectors are going to get triggered by that and they’re not going to like it as much as ‘defend Ukraine because they’re fighting big bad Russia’,” Konaev said.

The US would need to embrace the same kind of unified messaging—a conversation of “right vs wrong”—that’s resulted in widespread support for Ukraine, she added.

Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, the Navy’s Second Fleet commander, said the speed of information during the war in Ukraine has been key and has brought “a tremendous amount of credibility” to the US government overall and the Defense Department by sharing battlefield information with allies and partners.

Dwyer also credited the “quickness that we turned that intel around” about Ukraine with spurring NATO’s overwhelming support for responding to Russia’s invasion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patty Nieberg from San Diego at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Amanda H. Allen at

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