WASHINGTON — Neither ship nor torpedo alone will strike the deciding blow in future wars, rather the use of “non-kinetic effects” that may not be seen but still wreak havoc on enemy systems will increasingly determine outcomes, the U.S. Navy said in its inaugural cyber strategy.

Potential effects include jammed electronics, compromised networks and manipulated information consumed by troops and civilians alike, according to the 14-page document published this month. The military issues such frameworks to lay out its vision of the battle environment, both for internal accountability and external persuasion.

The new strategy is derived from years of lessons learned during cyber operations across the globe, according to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

“Alongside the physical domains, the Navy and Marine Corps must compete in cyberspace, defending American interests, enabling maritime dominance, and supporting integrated deterrence,” Del Toro wrote in the strategy. Doing so will require improved training, digitally hardened infrastructure and closer collaboration with private industry, among other investments.

“The challenges inherent to the cyber domain are considerable, but failing to mitigate cyber risks is not an option,” he continued. “I am confident this strategy provides the [Department of the Navy] with an effective road map to excel in cyberspace and compete with our adversaries on all fronts.”

The pledge to prioritize the virtual in order to greatly influence the physical comes as the Department of Defense positions itself to counter Russia and China after pouring decades of attention and manpower into the Greater Middle East. Both Moscow and Beijing wield significant online arsenals. The U.S. is monitoring the former’s capabilities as it continues to attack neighboring Ukraine and the latter’s as it menaces Taiwan.

Del Toro and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday foreshadowed the hierarchy in previous months. Del Toro in April told Congress he would improve the readiness of the cyber forces while also expanding “the integration of non-kinetic effects afloat.” Gilday has similarly said he wants waters dotted with uncrewed vessels that can spoof, spy and assist with the flow of fighting.

The Navy Cyber Strategy is in concert with — and references — the earlier and shorter Cyberspace Superiority Vision. In it, the service endorsed the ability to “fight hurt” alongside the tenets “secure, survive, strike.”

The blueprint puts a premium on resiliency, or the ability to shield sensitive systems with one arm while jabbing with the other. The Navy’s fiscal 2024 budget request featured billions of dollars for cyber, network and information warfare development.

“At the end of the day, the Department of Defense is here to engage our adversaries. The Columbia-class submarine does not deliver humanitarian aid,” Chris Cleary, then the Navy’s principal cyber adviser, said in 2022. “As we look at our ability to deliver effects in and through cyberspace, I want our adversaries to be every bit as nervous looking down the barrel of our non-kinetic capabilities as they are every one of our kinetic capabilities.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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