Back to the Future: Office of Naval Intelligence at 135

By Rear Adm. Robert D. Sharp
Commander, Office of Naval Intelligence

You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust the sails to reach your destination.

The Office of Naval Intelligence, the nation’s oldest intelligence organization, has successfully navigated the tides of time and the winds of change for 135 years. Our security depends on our ability to change. Throughout history, ONI has constantly transformed and evolved in order to be what the Navy and the nation needed us to be.

ONI celebrates 135 years of providing intelligence support to the Navy and national decision-makers.
ONI celebrates 135 years of providing intelligence support to the Navy and national decision-makers.

 

The generations of people who have served ONI share qualities of intellect and character that sustain its success. These include: resourcefulness, a willingness to challenge the status quo, determination to dive deep into a problem to understand it thoroughly, and an ability to recognize when a course correction is required. We embrace and embody the four core attributes vital to success as spelled out in the Navy’s “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” integrity, accountability, initiative and toughness. It’s why we’ve been successful in the past, and why we’ll be successful in the future!

The tiny organization established in 1882 with a handful of officers, borrowed clerks, and no dedicated budget nonetheless played an important role as an agent of change by obtaining the information and material the Navy needed to modernize and compete in the world arena. The technical expertise of ONI’s experienced line officers gave them a deep understanding of their own Navy and its shortcomings as compared to potential adversaries. They applied that knowledge and experience to lead change and chart new paths.

As World War I approached, Congress authorized funding for ONI to execute new domestic security missions to protect the homeland. The newly established Naval Reserve Force would become a critical source of manpower whenever surge capacity was required and remains so to this day.

ONIONI stood up the Navy’s first HUMINT organization during World War II, providing intelligence on German U-boat technology, operations, and personnel. ONI’s technical experts produced thousands of recognition guides for the armed forces, while newly established intelligence schools produced personnel trained in operational intelligence and photographic interpretation to meet the needs of Fleet and theater commanders. An influx of new people brought with it the energy and ideas to accomplish new missions.

In the post-war era, ONI’s civilian workforce expanded significantly to include scientists, engineers, and other technical experts. Specialized field organizations stood up in the 1950s and ’60s while information technology transformed the collection, production, and dissemination of intelligence. By the 1970s and ’80s, a unique combination of talent, technology, and innovative organizational constructs empowered U.S. naval intelligence to achieve a deep understanding of its principal adversary, the Soviet Navy, and fundamentally recast the U.S. Navy’s strategy to contain and deter it. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s prompted another round of reassessment and reorganization for ONI.

Field activities were physically consolidated as ONI directorates at the new headquarters complex in Suitland in 1993. Conflict in the Middle East and adjacent waters in the late 1980s increased demand for civil maritime intelligence for the Navy and national leaders.

The need for intelligence support to enforce international sanctions, prevent weapons proliferation, combat narcotics trafficking and counteract maritime piracy led ONI to further expand its mission set.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 accelerated changes already in progress across the Intelligence Community. Established capabilities at ONI were realigned, revitalized and refocused as new ones evolved.

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 6, 2016) Ensign Andrew Lafave, front, and Lt. j.g. Denise Baumeister track contacts in the combat information center aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan R. McDonald/Released)
MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 6, 2016) Ensign Andrew Lafave, front, and Lt. j.g. Denise Baumeister track contacts in the combat information center aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan R. McDonald/Released)

 

Information stovepipes were shattered and bureaucratic parochialism challenged to confront the crisis. As ONI adjusted to the post-9/11 era, it reorganized again to improve flexibility and responsiveness. A small division called Trident that stood up in 2004 to support Navy Expeditionary and Special Warfare forces is now the Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center. The Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center’s expertise on a wide range of current intelligence problems ensures security in the maritime domain. The Navy’s acquisition community relies upon expert analyses of foreign weapons systems and capabilities by scientists, engineers and technical specialists in the Farragut Technical Analysis Center to counter emerging threats.

None of these organizations could succeed without the resources and services provided by ONI’s Collections Department and the Hopper Information Services Center. The latest addition to the ONI Enterprise, the Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement enhances the ever-expanding arsenal of talent and capabilities aimed to bring innovative solutions to cutting-edge problems. All of these organizations depend on ONI’s legion of dedicated administrative and support personnel who keep the enterprise running smoothly on a daily basis.

As we face renewed competition in the maritime domain, we will continue to adapt and evolve to ensure we continue to be precisely what the Navy and Nation requires us to be. You are all part of ONI’s proud tradition and essential to our continued success.

There is no better crew to have as we sail toward new horizons. Happy 135th!

Editor’s note: On March 23, 1882, Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt created the Office of Naval Intelligence with General Order No. 292.