How Combined Navies and Coast Guards Coalesce: A Maritime Forces Learning Model

By Daniel T. Murphy

Walk into a bar in any country and ask a bunch of naval officers, coast guard officers and merchant mariners (Yes, I have done this), “Why is it that maritime forces are able to come together so quickly and effectively when the maritime domain is under duress?” You will hear answers such as . . . “We just know how to work together.” A Spanish admiral told me, “We speak the same language,” and an Indian naval officer told me, “We’re cut from the same cloth.” Examining some historical examples of how maritime security organizations have successfully come together in times of crisis will shed light on this fascinating phenomenon.

Historical Perspectives

Between June 1940 and December 1941, German submarines were sinking, on average, between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of allied shipping per month. Losses increased to 500,000 tons per month through mid-1943. Similar to their strategy in the First World War, Germany had a specific tonnage target they estimated would starve the allies to a negotiated peace. Beginning in late 1943 and onward, navy and coast guard forces from the U.S., U.K. and Canada combined to organize convoys, increase air coverage over shipping lanes, and introduce new radar and sonar technologies that reduced the loss rate to a manageable 100,000 per month. While still a lot of lost shipping, convoy losses no longer posed a threat to the allies’ ability to supply the war effort.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when the majority of illicit drugs entered the United States through the Caribbean basin. In the early 1990s, combined maritime security forces and agencies from the United States, and Caribbean, Latin American and UK allies (15-plus countries) coalesced to significantly reduce the flow of illicit drugs through the Caribbean maritime routes, forcing traffickers to shift more of their operations to overland routes through Mexico. The successful maritime security effort was largely centered around the development of the new Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South that was established in 1994. While Caribbean traffic routes have again become popular with the cartels in recent years, few would argue that the aggressive, multinational effort of the 1990s did not produce results.

The Indian Ocean is an area with multiple fragile, failing, and failed states and large populations of desperate young male inhabitants who often have few life opportunities. Piracy has already been a cultural norm in this area for hundreds of years. The Somali Ministry of Fisheries and the Coastal Development Agency (CDA) established agricultural and fishery cooperatives, and permitted foreign fishing in Somalia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) through official licensing or joint venture agreements. When the Somali government fell in 1991, local fishermen began enforcing the fisheries zones themselves, eventually evolving into piracy. By 2009 and 2010, Somali pirates were working more than a thousand miles offshore, using large “mothership” dhows as base stations for swarms of skiff attacks. As the situation worsened, and as shipping companies started paying large ransoms, piracy began spreading to other littoral states in the Indian Ocean.

Similar to the U-boat challenges of the First and Second World Wars, and similar to the drug war in the Caribbean theatre, maritime forces from the United States, multiple European countries, and Asian countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore came together in relatively short order to address the problem of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. For example, twenty-five countries joined together in Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150), a multi-national naval organization dedicated to counter-piracy operations. The European Union established the EU Force (EUNAVFOR) to help organize European naval operations around the Horn of Africa. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) organization took on primary responsibility for coordinating merchant vessels protection and defense in the region. As a result, the number of merchant vessels attacked and captured gradually decreased through 2011 and 2012, and became nearly nonexistent by 2017.

Organizational Learning (OL) as an Enabler

So what makes navies, coast guards and maritime security organizations of all countries quickly coalesce to become effective regional maritime security partners? A rich body of research suggests that military and security organizations are highly adept at what Peter Senge and other scholars call organizational learning (OL). Senge (1990) argued that a learning organization continuously expands its capabilities to create its future through five disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Senge’s work has been extended across many industries, including the military services by scholars such as Nevis, DiBella and Gould (1995), Goh and Richards (1997), Marsick and Watkins (1999), Chiva, Alegre and Lapiedra (2007), and Marquardt (2011).

Other scholars have specifically studied OL in the military services. Here are just a few examples: Baird, Holland and Deacon (1999), and Darling and Parry (2001) studied how the U.S. Army uses a four-step After-Action Review (AAR) process at the end of a ground operation. Daddis (2013) studied how the U.S. Army behaved as a learning organization during the Vietnam conflict. Etzioni (2015) studied OL by U.S. forces in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF). Gode and Barbaroux (2012) studied OL in the French Air Force. Marcus (2014) studied OL in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

To specifically study how OL enables maritime security cooperation between partner countries, I conducted a qualitative study using Marsick’s and Watkins’ (1999) framework. I conducted interviews with 11 U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officers between the ranks of Lieutenant (O-2) through Captain (O-6). Collectively the participants were experienced across all U.S. geographic combatant commands. All interviewees had operational fleet experience working alongside officers from foreign navies and coast guards. Interviewees included surface warfare officers (SWOs), aviation officers, and intelligence officers. All participation was voluntary. Interviews averaged 40 minutes and were recorded, transcribed, and codified.

The interviews yielded 448 keyword and phrase artifacts. The artifacts were aggregated into 25 artifact groups, and then aggregated again into eight overall findings. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the findings.

Finding 1: OL Enables Maritime Security Cooperation Between Partner Countries

As an overall finding, interviewees described work examples which supported all seven of Marsick’s and Watkins’ (1999) imperatives. In other words, interviewees validated that OL does enable maritime security cooperation between partner countries.

As an overall finding, interviewees described work examples which supported all seven of Marsick’s and Watkins’ (1999) imperatives. The seven imperatives are:

1.  Create continuous learning opportunities (CL): Learning is embedded within work so people can learn on the job; opportunities are provided for ongoing education and growth. 

2.  Promote inquiry and dialogue (ID): People express their views, listen to, and inquire into the views of others; questioning, feedback, and experimentation are supported.

3.  Encourage collaboration and team learning (CT): Work is designed to encourage groups to access different modes of thinking, groups learn and work together, and collaboration is valued and rewarded.

4.  Establish systems to capture and share learning (LS): Both high- and low-technology systems to share learning are created and integrated with work, access is provided, and systems are maintained.

5.  Empower people toward a collective vision (EM): People are involved in setting, owning, and implementing joint visions; responsibility is distributed close to decision-making so people are motivated to learn what they are held accountable for.

6.  Connect the organization to its environment (EN): People are encouraged to see the impact of their work on the entire enterprise, to think systemically; people scan the environment and use information to adjust work practices; and the organization is linked to its community.

7.  Provide strategic leadership for learning (SL): Leaders model, champion, and support learning; leadership uses learning strategically for business results (Marsick and Watkins, 1999).

In other words, interviewees validated that OL does enable maritime security cooperation between partner countries.

Finding 2: OL is Enabled Through Collaborative Activities

Interviewees described a rich array of examples of how partner country maritime services coalesce through structured after-action reporting, briefings, exercises, and combined operations. For example, regarding briefings, one interviewee said, “It’s built into the way we work every day. At the end of a mission we do a hot wash. Figure out what we did well and what we didn’t. And if we are operating with a partner navy or air force, they take part in the conversation. I know they also do their own hot wash too.”

Finding 3: OL is Enabled Through Communicative Activities

Interviewees emphasized the importance of certain communicative variables, including: face-to-face communications, common language, information-sharing based on agreed “need-to-know,” common nomenclatures, and radio communications. For example, one interviewee emphasized the value of having the U.S. landing signals officers (LSOs) from his squadron travel to Brazil to work face-to-face with the Brazilian pilots who would eventually be landing on the U.S. aircraft carrier.

Finding 4: OL is Enabled Through Organizational Elements and Concepts

Interviewees emphasized the importance of both horizontal and vertical organizational structures, and structures of unified commands. For example, one interviewee explained how a naval special warfare training organization was “stood up” to help a developing country build its special warfare operations capability. The organization emulated the U.S. Army’s CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned) model to establish a continuous learning environment. Another interviewee pointed to the Dhow Project which was co-developed by the NATO Shipping Centre, the EU Maritime Security Centre (MSC-HOA), the U.S. Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO), and the merchant shipping community. The Dhow Project helped identify and track threats to merchant shipping in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden.  

Finding 5: OL is Enabled Through Human Relationships

Interviewees talked about having common interest with partner countries, and the importance of building personal relationships and trust. For example, when discussing combined operations with an Asian partner country navy, one interviewee said specifically, “I think more important is that personal level. It’s almost that friendship that you start to develop and you actually can see how you’re going to get there with that person or that group of guys, or gals, or what have you.” Nearly every interviewee made clear that, while conference calls and video conferences with partner country officers and staff were helpful, what mattered most was when personnel had opportunities to develop close personal trust-building relationships with one another.

Finding 6: OL is Enabled Through Technology

Interviewees recognized the importance of supporting technologies, including having a common operating picture, common networks, and common platforms. Specifically, in reference to the Global Command and Control System (GCCS) common operating picture and CENTRIXS networks, one interviewee said, “We use a variety of web-based platforms to share knowledge with all of our country partners. What we share depends on who they are. And there’s probably an incentive there for partner countries to get closer to us, because the closer they get, the more we share.” In other words, when information technology platforms and content are shared between countries, it underscores that those countries are in a relationship with one another. When countries are not granted access to those technologies and content, it underscores that the relationship with those countries is more distant.  

Finding 7: OL is Enabled Through Formal and Informal Training and Education

Interviewees emphasized the importance of combined military education (e.g., the U.S. Naval War College), formal training (e.g., SEAL training), and on-the-job training. One interviewee explained, “We have quite a good percentage of our, I guess, our partner countries that send their officers, both their senior officers and some of their junior officers to Newport. They learn to strategize the way we strategize, and they learn the content of our strategy as well. But I would say that we also have non-operational venues where we collaborate. For example, the International Maritime Symposium at the War College and in similar events we have out in the fleets on a regular basis.”

Finding 8: OL is Enabled Through Work Practices

Finally, interviewees emphasized the importance of everyday work practices, including directives, intelligence, and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). According to one interviewee, “I assume that in previous exercises, our partners in NATO started acquiring each other’s TTPs and we have them written down. We have TTPs for VBSS (visit, board search and seizure operations) and I assume that through years of sharing TTPs, our TTPs became similar at some point.” In other words, a large body of directives and TTPs “order” partner country navies and coast guards to work with one another toward specific operational ends.

Insight for the Fleet

These findings provide a rich list of elements that navy and coast guard officers have deemed “valuable” for building relationships with partner countries. In other words, according to the tactical operators in the fleet, this study describes the things that “work,” and that should be supported, and funded. Here are just four examples.

First, the data shows conclusively that navy and coast guard officers that participate in formal exercises do believe that exercises help partner country maritime forces coalesce and collaborate. What is important is that navy and coast guard leaders from all countries can look their respective congresspersons and parliamentarians in the eye and state emphatically, “Our officers do believe that these exercises matter. The more we exercise together, the more collaborative we become.” This study provides dozens of anecdotes to that effect. U.S. policymakers and military leaders should continue to support and fund naval exercises with partner countries. Policymakers and military leadership should similarly continue to support and fund inter-country training and education programs, and find ways for partner-country navy and coast guard officers to have more numerous face-to-face learning opportunities.

Second, the data shows that structured communications vehicles such as briefings are key enablers of security cooperation. Briefings specifically are the primary vehicle by which tactical and operational information is communicated between partner country navies and coast guards. Military leaders should step back and reflect on whether the briefing process can be made even more valuable through structuralization or even ritualization. Senge (1999) and other OL scholars would suggest that military briefings could become even more valuable if they evolved from being predominantly single-looped (e.g., What did we learn in the exercise?) to become ritually double-looped (e.g., How did we learn in the exercise?).

Third, multiple interviewees discussed how access to the GCCS and CENTRIXS systems, and access to U.S. national intelligence, should be used as incentives for closer relationships. In other words, Pentagon and fleet-level leadership should actively promote access to systems and intelligence as an incentive for closer collaboration with the U.S. and western allies. After a partner country “subscribes” to intelligence-sharing with the U.S. and allies, and after they prove their ability to protect sensitive and classified information, they can earn access to more sensitive and higher classifications of content thereby reinforcing the relationship in a positive feedback loop.

Fourth, OL between partner countries and security success seems to increase exponentially when combined OL-dedicated organizational structures are stood up, either temporarily or permanently. The creation of CTF-150 and other dedicated organizational structures had a significant impact on accelerating learning between partner navies and coast guards, which resulted in a significant reduction in piracy in the Indian Ocean. The creation of JITF South had a similar positive effect on the drug war in the Caribbean. In other words, joint and combined task forces work. Policymakers and maritime security leadership across all countries should work to make such structures easier and faster to stand up and establish a battle rhythm. To be specific, the U.S. and other leading nations in maritime security should continue, and perhaps increase, emphasis and funding on prepositioning programs and rapid deployment of adaptable expeditionary force packages. Such packages could provide an even faster response and return to normalcy when piracy inevitably springs up again in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere, or when new waves of refugees seek to escape from North Africa (highly likely), South America (also likely), or elsewhere in the world.

Introducing a Maritime Forces Learning Model

Most importantly, the study resulted in the development of a Maritime Forces Learning Model – a mental model for practitioners to learn and reflect on how OL-related activities, when practiced and improved in the fleet, can have a positive upward ripple effect. For example, improving the frequency and quality of operational briefings in the fleet can help improve OL between partner country navies and coast guards. Improving OL can help improve regional maritime security and regional security overall. If the regions of the world can be made safer, the world itself can be made safer.

A maritime forces learning model. (Daniel Murphy image – Click to Expand)

Final Thoughts

For good reason, there is a vast body of literature exploring military and security failures and partial failures in history – Waterloo, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, the 9/11 attacks, Iraq, and others. In the spirit of Santayana, as military and national security professionals, we absolutely must understand our historical failures so that we can reduce the likelihood of such failures in the future. I believe that it is good news for humanity, that we (in Western society, at least) rigorously reflect on things done wrong. However, military historians and other social scientists should spend more time studying things “done right.” That was the intention of this study.

Navies, coast guards, and maritime security agencies around the world have an uncanny ability to come together in relatively short order, to protect and defend the maritime domain when threats arise. I believe it is important to understand the how of that phenomenon. To understand the how, one must dig deep – to what the anthropologist Geertz (1973) would call a “thick description” of culture. When we understand the details of the how – in this case how partner navies and coast guards coalesce – we can support, emulate, and appropriately resource the how. While this study was not intended to uncover any great “aha” on what makes maritime security cooperation tick, it was intended to provide some thicker description on how fleets coalesce, and ultimately underscore some of the practices that leaders should continue to emphasize and support.

Daniel T. Murphy is a full-time faculty member in Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security department. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Homeland Security and Strategic Intelligence department at Northeastern University, and a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, currently assigned to the US European Command (EUCOM) Staff. Dr. Murphy received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts, Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University, Master of Science degree from the National Intelligence University, and Doctorate degree from Northeastern University. He is also a graduate of the American Academy in Rome and the Naval War College. 


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Featured Image: PHUKET, THAILAND (Jan. 25, 2019) – U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Mutty, commanding officer of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), right, speaks with officers of the Royal Thai navy aboard Essex in Phuket, Thailand. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Molly DiServio) 190125-N-NI420-1062

Operation Eminent Shield: The Advent of Unmanned Distributed Maritime Operations

Read Part One on the Battle of Locust Point. Read Part Two on the Nanxun Jiao Crisis.

By David Strachan


The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare.

Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret.)

December 3, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN

Good morning.

We are joined again today by Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, widely considered the father of autonomous undersea conflict, or what has come to be known as micronaval warfare. Admiral Lacy spearheaded the Atom-class microsubmarine program, eventually going on to establish Strikepod Group 1 (COMPODGRU 1), and serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT), as well as Commander, Strikepod Command (SPODCOM). He is currently the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is the third installment of a planned eight-part classified oral history focusing on Admiral Lacy’s distinguished naval career, and his profound impact on modern naval warfare. In Part II, we learned of the aftermath of the Battle of Locust Point, and how continued Russian micronaval advances, most notably the nuclear-armed Poseidon UUV, led to the development of AUDEN, the Atlantic Undersea Defense Network. We also learned of CYAN, a “walk-in” CIA agent who revealed Chinese penetration of the AUDEN program, and the resulting emplacement of numerous AUDEN-like Shāyú microsubmarine turrets throughout the South China Sea. One of these turrets, at Gaven Reefs, known to the Chinese as Nanxun Jiao, was directly involved in engaging the USS Decatur, and was subsequently the target of an undersea strike which resulted in the deaths of four Chinese nationals, including CYAN himself.

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis was a wakeup call for the United States. With Chinese militarization of the South China Sea expanding to the seabed, a new sense of urgency now permeated the U.S. national security establishment. Pressure was mounting to counter China’s increasing belligerence and expansionist agenda, but doing so risked igniting a regional conflict, or a confrontation between nuclear-armed adversaries.

We joined Admiral Lacy again at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.


Let’s begin with the immediate aftermath of Operation Roundhouse. How impacted was Strikepod Command by the events of that day?

It was devastating. Unimaginable, really. That we’d had a hand, however unwittingly, in the murder of four people, and watched it unfold in real time right before our eyes – you can’t prepare for something like that. They brought in counselors from Langley [Air Force Base] – chaplains, experienced drone pilots who’d been through this kind of thing. But for a lot of talented people it just wasn’t enough, and they had to call it a day.

For those who remained the trauma eventually gave way to anger, and then determination. But the feeling of betrayal, of vulnerability, was difficult to overcome. All we could do was move on as best we could.

The CYAN investigation would eventually yield a single spy – Charles Alan Ordway , a FathomWorks contractor motivated apparently by personal financial gain. But you weren’t convinced that was the end of it.

Ordway worked on AUDEN, but he didn’t have code word clearance, so while it was true that he had passed sensitive information to the Chinese, there was really no way for him to have known of Roundhouse or CYAN. From a counterintelligence perspective, he was low hanging fruit, and I believed – and continue to believe to this day – that there was someone else.

The intelligence provided by CYAN led to the discovery of several operational Shāyú installations in addition to Nanxun Jiao. What was the reaction in policy circles?

Alarm bells were going off throughout Washington, and we were under extraordinary pressure not only to process the raw intelligence, but to understand the broader implications of China’s growing micronaval capability, particularly as it applied to gray zone operations. It was quite clear now that strategic ambiguity was no longer appropriate, and if policymakers were waiting for a reason to act, it seemed Nanxun Jiao was it.

And yet, apparently it still wasn’t.

No. The president felt that while the Shāyú emplacements represented a concerning development in the South China Sea, there was little difference between seabed microsubmarine turrets and onshore ASCM batteries. Keep in mind, it was also an election year, a time when politicians generally avoid starting wars. And there was additional concern that any escalation in the South China Sea would have an adverse impact on the restarted negotiations with North Korea.

So we were in a holding pattern, a period of strategic paralysis, really. No additional strikes were authorized, or even under consideration. We’d sent a message with Roundhouse, and the Chinese answer was continued harassment and militarization. They were dug in and practically daring us to escalate. And with neither side willing or able to consider a diplomatic solution, the tension was left to fester.

Let’s come back to that, if we could, and talk a bit about developments at FathomWorks. The Atom-class was proving to be a phenomenally successful platform, and you were now being called upon to replicate that success in another domain.

Once the dust had settled I got a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONR Atom-class liaison] who wanted to chat about Falken [the Atom-class artificial intelligence], and specifically whether I thought it could be adapted to an unmanned surface vehicle. We got to talking, and he says you know what, Jay, there’s someone you should meet. Next day, I’m off to Olney [Maryland] with Max [Keller, Director of AI for the Atom-class] to meet with Talia Nassi.

Was that name familiar to you?

She was three years behind me at the Academy, and our paths had crossed a couple times over the years at conferences and training sessions. She was pretty outspoken and wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers, especially when it came to unmanned systems and what was then being called DMO, or distributed maritime operations. Like everyone else, though, I knew her as the maverick commander who’d taken early retirement to start Nassi Marine.

But you had no idea she was behind the Esquire-class?

I had no idea that such a program even existed. It was highly compartmentalized, as these things tend to be. Very need to know. But there’d been rumors that something was under development, that [DARPA/ONR] Sea Hunter was really a prototype for a deep black program, something highly advanced and combat-oriented.

And so you arrive at Nassi Marine…

And Talia greets us in the lobby. Then it’s off to the conference room for small talk, sandwiches, and coffee. Then onto Falken and its potential for USVs. And then after about fifteen minutes Talia politely asks Max if he wouldn’t mind waiting outside. He leaves, and she reaches down, plucks a folder from her briefcase and slides it across the table. I open it up, and I’m looking down at a something straight out of Star Trek.

The Esquire-class?

It was honestly more spaceship than warship, at least on paper. Trimaran hull, nacelle-like outriggers, angular, stealth features. And for the next half hour or so, Talia briefs me on this revolutionary unmanned surface combatant, and I’m thinking, wow, this is some really impressive design work, not really imagining that it’s moved beyond the drawing board.

Did you wonder why you were being brought into the fold?

As far as I knew, I was there to talk about Falken, so it did strike me as odd that I’d be briefed on a deep black surface platform. But it wasn’t long before I understood why. One of the main features of the Esquire was its integrated microsubmarine bay. Talia had originally envisioned something that could accommodate a range of micro UUVs, but ultimately decided to focus on the Atom given its established AI and the seamless integration it offered.

Nassi Marine headquarters is sometimes referred to as “Lake Talia” for its enormous wave pool and micronaval testing facility. Did it live up to its name?


When Talia finishes her briefing, I follow her down the hall and through a set of doors, and suddenly I’m staring at the largest indoor pool I’ve ever seen. It’s basically her own private Carderock, but nearly four times the size and twice as deep. When she founded Nassi Marine, Talia wanted somewhere she could put classified systems through their paces in a controlled, secure environment that was free from prying eyes. Dahlgren [Maryland] and Bayview [Idaho] were far too visible for her, so she acquired some surplus government land in rural Maryland and nestled a cutting edge R&D facility between a country club and an alpaca farm.

Was there a working prototype of the Esquire?

Talia walks me over to the dry dock, and there it is.

What was your impression?

I was struck by how small it was. At only fifty feet long, it was less than half the length of Sea Hunter. But it looked fierce, and according to Talia, packed a mean punch. Fifty caliber deck gun, VLS for shooting nanomissiles and Foxhawks, a newly developed swarming drone. It also featured a hangar and landing pad for quadrotor drones, as well as two directed energy turrets and countermeasure launchers. And of course, the integrated well deck-like feature for the launch and recovery of microsubmarines. And these were just the kinetics. It also packed a range of advanced sensors and non-kinetic effectors as well.

So, between the engineering and AI integration, you had your work cut out.

Indeed we did. Talia put me on the spot for an ETA, and after giving it some thought, I estimated six to nine months for the full deal. That’s when she hits me with the punch line: “You’ve got three.”

Three months?

Three! I was like look, we might be magicians at FathomWorks, but we’re not miracle workers. And anyway what’s the hurry? Talia looks me right in the eye and says, “Because in about 18 months it’s headed to the South China Sea.”

Did that come as a shock?

The timetable was certainly a shock, but it was also the first I’d heard that any plans for escalation had moved beyond the gaming table. The handwriting had been on the wall for years, of course, so I wasn’t surprised, and honestly it came as a relief knowing that a tangible response was finally in the offing.

So you embark on the Atom integration, and at the same time you’re overseeing Eminent Shadow . . .

Which has now been greatly expanded in the wake of Nanxun Jiao. At its peak I think there were no less than forty Strikepods – about two hundred fifty Atoms – dotting the Spratlys and Paracels, providing FONOP escort and monitoring PLAN and militia activities both on and below the surface.

And the Shāyú was proving itself to be an ideal tool for the gray zone.

Indeed. After Nanxun Jiao, the Chinese were utterly emboldened and were becoming ever more ballsy. Nearly every FONOP was met with Shāyú harassment, and even though we’d stepped up Atom production and significantly increased our operational footprint, it was challenging to keep up. And PLAN engineers were becoming ever more creative.

How so?

They’d been working on a micro towed array for the Shāyú, similar to what we’d been developing for the Block II Atom. From what we could tell, they weren’t having much success, but they did find that it could be effective for gray zone effects. Shāyús would make runs at our DDGs with arrays extended, and once in a while penetrate the Strikepod perimeter and foul the screws pretty good. Even if publically the Chinese didn’t take credit, there was significant propaganda value in disabled U.S. warships.

Were you also monitoring for new indications of seabed construction?

Our main concern was the northeastern Spratlys and southern Paracels near the shipping lanes. With a foothold in either of those locations, the Chinese would have near complete maritime domain awareness over the South China Sea. So our mission was to closely monitor those areas, and report back anything anomalous. It wasn’t long before we found something.

The emplacements at Bombay Reef and Scarborough Shoal?

We’d been monitoring inbound surface traffic when satellites spotted some unusual cargo being loaded onto a couple fishing trawlers up in Sanya. We vectored Strikepods as they departed, and trailed them to Bombay and Scarborough where we snapped some surface imagery of divers and equipment being lowered over the side. We monitored for about five days, keeping our distance, and picking up all manner of construction noise. We’re itching to take a look, but wait patiently for crew changes and quickly order the imagery. The Strikepods are in and out in under five minutes, and two Relay burst transmissions later we’re looking at the beginnings of Shāyú turrets at both locations.

What was your analysis?

It indicated that the Chinese were planning for future confrontations in the region – gray zone or conventional, most likely due to their planned militarization of Bombay and Scarborough.

The implications were grave. Vietnam had a history of taking on great powers and winning, and had pushed back hard on China in the past. And while Duterte had been cozying up to Beijing and drifting away from the U.S., Scarborough Shoal would be a red line. A provocation like this could be just the excuse Hanoi and Manila needed to act.

Did the United States share the intelligence?

Not initially, no. First and foremost we needed to safeguard sources and methods, and sharing anything would reveal our micronaval capabilities which were still highly classified and largely unknown. The Shāyú was also still a mystery, and divulging what we knew to Hanoi or Manila would risk exposure to Beijing. And we couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t act unilaterally, igniting a conflict that could draw us into a war with China.

You were obviously busy at SPODCOM overseeing Eminent Shadow, but FathomWorks was also working intensively now with Nassi Marine.

Once we discovered Bombay and Scarborough, the sense of urgency was high, and we were working around the clock to get the Esquire combat ready. We ran through countless simulated missions in the Lake, and eventually at sea off North Carolina. Talia handed it off for production on time and under budget, and we joined the operational planning underway at Seventh Fleet.

Eminent Shadow was about to become Eminent Shield?

Yes. Of course planning for a South China Sea incursion had been underway for several years, and it was only after Locust Point that I’d been asked to join, to integrate micronaval elements into the wargaming framework.

But during those games, there was no mention of the Esquire?

Not initially, no. All we were told was that, in addition to being deployed from Virginias and surface ships, Strikepods could also be launched and recovered from a hypothetical USV with fairly abstract capabilities. But once the Esquire moved beyond the design phase, and there was a working prototype, it was folded into the games going forward.

And those games formed the basis for Eminent Shield?

Eventually they did, yes, but initially we were running scenario after scenario of high-end warfighting. There were some smaller skirmishes and limited conflicts where we intervened on behalf of regional states, but in general the primary objective was always either stopping or rolling back Chinese expansion, with the Esquires called upon as a force multiplier to augment ISR and EW, act as decoys, deploy Strikepods for ASW and counter-microsubmarine ops, and take out small aerial threats. Plausible to be sure, but at some point it occurred to me that the Esquire might enable us to project power in a less conventional, but no less effective manner. To essentially meet the Chinese where they were.

So we gamed some scenarios where the U.S. assumed a greater presence in the South China Sea using unmanned systems. Something beyond FONOPS and undersea reconnaissance. Something visible and formidable enough to send a strong signal to Beijing without provoking a shooting war. A kind of gray zone gunboat diplomacy, if you will, pushing things to the edge while gambling that the Chinese wouldn’t resort to a kinetic response.

Turnabout is fair play.

That it is.

How was it received?

Well, people appreciated that it was bold and imaginative, I suppose, but ultimately felt it was fraught with uncertainty, that it would only serve to antagonize the Chinese, and quickly escalate to high-end conflict anyway.

So it went to the back burner?

Yes, but I continued to refine it, along with input from Talia, who eventually came on board as strategic advisor, as well as some folks at the Pentagon and Intelligence. Once the discoveries at Bombay and Scarborough happened, though, the administration was looking for options . . .

And you got the call-up.

Yes, ma’am.

What was the plan?

The overarching objective of Eminent Shield was to signal that the United States would no longer sit idly by as the South China Sea was transformed into a Chinese lake. And we would do this by establishing a permanent distributed maritime presence in the region using a network of unmanned surface combatants.

The plan itself involved four sorties of LSDs out of Sasebo to essentially seed the region with Esquires. At fifty feet long, with a beam of seventeen, we determined that a dozen would fit into the well deck of a Whidbey Island. After some practice with the Carter Hall and Oak Hill down at [Joint Expeditionary Base] Little Creek, we airlifted forty-eight to Sasebo, where they were loaded onto the Ashland, Germantown, Rushmore and Comstock. Separated by about thirty-six hours, they sailed on a benign southwesterly heading between the Spratlys and the Paracels, escorted by an SSN and two or three Strikepods to monitor for PLAN submarines and Shāyús. At a predetermined waypoint, and under cover of darkness, the Esquires would deploy, then sail to their preprogrammed op zone – two squadrons to the Paracels, two to the Spratlys, and one to Scarborough Shoal – and await further orders.

Was there concern that the Chinese would view such a rapid deployment as some kind of invasion? A prelude to war?

 We considered a more incremental approach, something less sudden. But we needed to act quickly, to avoid any kind of coordinated PLAN response – a blockade or other high profile encounter that could escalate. A rapid deployment would also underscore that the United States Navy had acted at a time and place of our choosing, and that we could operate in the South China Sea with impunity. At the end of the day, the Esquires were really nothing more than lightly armed ISR nodes, and were far less ominous than a surge of CVNs or DDGs.

Did it proceed as planned?

For the most part, yes. There were some technical hiccups, with three Esquires ultimately refusing to cooperate, so the final package was forty-five – nine vessels per squadron. The pilots and squadron commanders were based out of SPODCOM in Norfolk, but the Esquires were fully integrated into the regional tactical grid, and, if necessary, could be readily controlled by manned assets operating in theater.

And you were able to avoid PLAN or PAFMM harassment?

By sortie number four we’d gotten their attention – probably alerted by a nearby submarine – and three CCG cutters were vectored onto the egressing LSDs. But the deployment went off without incident, and in a few days all four ships were safely back in Sasebo.

And then we waited.

How long was it before the PLAN became aware?

It was about thirty-six hours before we began to see some activity near Subi Reef. The Esquire is small, and has a very low cross section, so it was unlikely they’d been tagged by radar. More likely they’d been spotted by an alert fishing boat, or passing aircraft, or possibly the heat signatures of the LENRs lit up a satellite.

At around 0300 I wake up to an “urgent” from the watch that about a dozen fishing boats were converging on Subi. So here we go. By the time I get to the office they’ve got the live feed up, and I watch the maritime militia descending in real-time. We order the Equire to deploy a six-ship Strikepod to enhance our visual, and pretty soon we’ve got a wide angle on the whole scene – lots of little blue men with binoculars, clearly perplexed, but no indications of imminent hostilities. This goes on for nearly three hours, until we notice some activity on one of trawlers. They’re prepping a dinghy with some tow rope and a four-man boarding party.

They’re going to grab it?

Certainly looks that way. They lower the dinghy and make their way over, inching to within ten meters or so, and that’s when we hit them with the LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device], blasting a warning in Chinese – do not approach, this is the sovereign property of the United States operating in international waters. Things along those lines.

They turn tail and beat it back to the ship, but they’re not giving up. Next thing we see guys tossing headphones down to the dinghy. Needless to say, we weren’t about to give them a second chance, so we quickly order the Strikepod recovered and hit the gas.

Did they pursue?

They tried. But the Esquire can do about forty knots, and by the time they knew what was happening, we already had about 500 yards on them, so they gave up fairly quickly.

I imagine it wasn’t much longer before the other Esquires were discovered?

Word spread quickly of that encounter, and no, it wasn’t long before Esquires were being engaged by militia at multiple locations. In some cases they would try to board, in others they would attempt to blockade or ram. But the Esquires were too maneuverable, and between Falken and the pilots, we managed to stay a step or two ahead.

Had you anticipated this?

We’d anticipated the initial confusion and fits of arbitrary aggression. We also anticipated the political backlash, of course.

Which did manifest itself.

Yes, but not entirely how we’d envisioned. We knew that Beijing would be furious that the United States had mounted such an aggressive op in their own backyard. But at the same time, would they really want to draw that much attention to it? Wouldn’t that be underscoring the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate anywhere, anytime?

And the PLAN’s inability to prevent it.

Sure enough, state television reports that a U.S. Navy unmanned surface vehicle – singular – had violated Chinese sovereignty and was engaged by PLAN forces. Video footage flashed from a PLAN destroyer to a rigid hull speeding toward an Esquire, to a couple of hovering [Harbin] Z-9s. The implication was that the Esquire had been captured or otherwise neutralized, yet all forty-five were fully functional and responding. It was a clever propaganda stroke, but by going public, the Chinese had opened a Pandora’s box.

Because now the Western media was all over it?

And with the Esquire out in the open, we’d have a lot of explaining to do. There would be questions about capabilities, deployment numbers …

To which the answer was?

That we don’t comment on ongoing operations, of course. But, through calculated leaks and relentless investigative reporting, the Chinese would quickly realize what they were dealing with, and what it signaled in terms of U.S. intentions and resolve.

And meanwhile Eminent Shield continued. With unmanned FONOPS?

To start with, yes. The Esquires initially had taken up position outside twelve miles, but we soon began moving them intermittently inside territorial limits to deploy and recover a drone. By this point militia boats were always shadowing, and would move quickly to harass the Esquires as best they could.

But then we upped the ante a bit. We’d use onboard EW effectors to spoof their GPS and AIS. We’d lure their destroyers to one location while a DDG ran a FONOP just over the horizon, unmolested. We’d form ASW dragnets using smaller squadrons of three or four Esquires with their towed arrays and Strikepods deployed, sonar banging away.

And, yeah, we also installed dead wire in the towed arrays of some of the Atoms, so we were able to return the favor and foul some screws of our own.

What about the Shāyús?

The Shāyús were the greatest source of trouble for the Esquire, and we’d anticipated this. We couldn’t be certain whether or how the Chinese might engage the Esquires on the surface or in the air, but we were absolutely certain that there would be attacks from below.

But with the Esquire’s waterjets there were no screws to foul. And a six-ship Strikepod was deployed as an escort at all times, and there were also Firesquids [anti-torpedo torpedoes] for additional defense. But even so, the Esquires were quite vulnerable, and the Shāyús quickly moved to exploit this.

In what way?

The Esquires were defending well, but the Shāyú’s tactics were evolving. Initially they would engage the Atoms ship-to-ship and attempt to defeat them before moving on to the objective. But soon they learned to avoid the Atoms altogether and engage in hit and run attacks from below, targeting the Esquire’s stern in an attempt to ram and disable the microsubmarine bay and propulsion. Living up to their namesake, I suppose. [Shāyú is Mandarin for shark.]

Did Falken adapt accordingly?

Falken quickly recognized the need to deploy its full complement of Atoms to defend against the volume of attacking Shāyús, and actually began to form smaller squadrons of two or three Esquires to offset the numerical disadvantage. Falken also ordered escorting Strikepods to assume a tighter, closer formation, one that emphasized protecting the Esquire’s belly and backside, and began using Firesquids as decoys to great effect, something we hadn’t even considered.

Atom attrition was high then?

For a time, yes, and resupply was challenging. The payload modules on nearby Virginias were filled to capacity, but that was only around forty or fifty units. At the rate we were losing them, we’d be critical in a matter of weeks.

So the Shāyús adapt, Falken counters, but the attacks continue until one day the Shāyús succeed in disabling an Esquire within twelve miles of Mischief Reef.

And now it’s a race to recover.

The [USS] Mustin [DDG 89] was about forty kilometers away, and was immediately ordered to the area. The PLAN had also been alerted, and vectored the destroyer Haikou, which was only five kilometers away. So Mustin puts a Seahawk up, but even at full throttle Haikou is still going to win that race.

Haikou arrives, and they immediately put a boarding party in the water. ETA on the Seahawk is two minutes, and the Mustin is still thirty minutes away at flank. We blast the LRAD, but they’re wearing headphones now, so we fire a warning from the 50 cal, and light off a small swarm of Foxhawks. This gets their attention, and manages to buy us the few minutes we need.

The Seahawk arrives, loaded with Hellfires, and five minutes later, Mustin appears on the horizon. Now we’ve got ourselves a standoff. The Chinese are making threats, and we’re making counter-threats. And then the militia shows up – fishing boats, CCG, wrapping cabbage to cut off Mustin and the Esquire. And so we’re eyeball to eyeball, now, fingers on the trigger.

An hour goes by. Two. Eight. “Stand by” is the order. Twelve hours. Darkness falls, and we keep vigil through the night. By now, the media has it, and talk of war is everywhere. A new day dawns on the South China Sea, and around 1930 Eastern, I’m summoned to the vault for a telepresence with the Sit Room.

To brief?

Not exactly.

First they asked me to confirm the conclusions of my earlier analysis, that the Shāyú emplacements were likely a gray zone prelude to a Chinese land grab at Bombay Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

Then they asked whether I believed the Chinese would willingly dismantle Bombay and Scarborough in return for withdrawal of the Esquires.

And did you?

The Chinese would want the Esquires gone ASAP for political reasons, but they also were well aware of their capabilities, and how they would dramatically augment U.S. firepower in the event of regional hostilities. It seemed to me that Beijing would be willing to forfeit those locations if it meant a reduced U.S. military presence, and also the ability to save face by appearing to expel the U.S. Navy from the South China Sea.

And then I offered a pretty candid, if unsolicited, opinion on the deal.

Which was?

That the Chinese would be getting much more than they were giving up. That dismantling the emplacements, while a short-term loss for the Chinese and a gain for us, would do little to deter future militarization. The U.S. would also be giving up significant strategic leverage, and potentially damaging our credibility in the process.

So you were against it?

You’re damn right I was. Call me a hawk, but we’d gone round after round with Beijing for over a decade, and then took one on the chin at Nanxun Jiao. We’d finally taken decisive action, and now we’re just going to let it slip away?

But ultimately it did.

Unfortunately, yes.

Around 2200 the Chinese suddenly back off, and Mustin is allowed to move in and recover the Esquire. The next day news breaks of emergency multilateral talks in Tallinn, Estonia involving the U.S., China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

There was great optimism leading up to Tallinn, that this could be the diplomatic breakthrough that would empower regional states to push back on Beijing knowing that the U.S. had their back. But ultimately it was not to be. The Chinese dismantled the Shāyú emplacements at Bombay and Scarborough, and in return the United States withdrew every last Esquire. Beijing also pledged to work toward “greater understanding” with its neighbors and other ambiguous words to that effect. The Tallinn Communiqué was hailed as a success by all, but for entirely different reasons. The U.S. and our allies believed this was a significant step toward regional stability by checking Chinese expansionism. The Chinese, meanwhile, declared victory in having expelled the United States from its backyard while strengthening its role as regional hegemon.

Were you disappointed with the outcome? 

Disappointed? Perhaps. The Navy exists to ensure peace and protect U.S. interests through strength, and so when policy seems at odds with that mandate, yes, I guess it makes me bristle. But I wasn’t surprised. Tallinn wasn’t the first toothless resolution in the history of international diplomacy, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

And all I could think, sitting there in SPODCOM, watching the last of the Esquires being recovered under the watchful eye of PLAN warships, was that it wouldn’t be long before we’d be back there again.

Only next time, things might not end so cleanly.

[End Part III]

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at

Featured Image: “The Middle of Nowhere” by hunterkiller via DeviantArt

Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy

By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN

The president recently reiterated his call, echoed by many in the Department of Defense, for a larger Navy to meet the world’s threats. That call, however, is meeting the harsh reality of spiraling ship costs over the last 20 years. Indeed, over a decade ago then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark told Congress, “[w]hen adjusted for inflation, for example, the real cost increase in every class of ship and aircraft that we have bought since I was an Ensign…has been truly incredible.”1

While much of the news surrounding ships and their growing price tags focuses on aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, there is another class of ship that likewise threatens to break the Navy’s bank – amphibious ships. Despite a historical track record of damage-free employment and a reputation for straightforward “truck-like” delivery of Marines and their gear, the Navy continues to saddle these ships with greater defensive requirements and a level of sophistication out of touch with the mission they are meant to support. Using history and a clear assessment of expeditionary warfare as guides, the Navy needs to reexamine just how much it wants to put into these platforms and consider a return to a more stripped-down, cost-effective platform that can be built in greater numbers for the same price.

The Demand for Amphibs

Marines provide combatant commanders with a variety of options to fulfill the president’s National Security Strategy around the world, ranging from theater security cooperation to forcible entry. The Navy is obligated by public law to embark Marines for “service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”2 The current requirement for amphibious ships stands at 38, enough to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades for an amphibious assault. The Navy has not met this requirement since 2003.3 The current fleet inventory of 33 ships implicitly accepts the risk that the Marine Corps may not be able to simultaneously meet its presence and force generation requirements.The projected cost of the LX(R) replacement, set at $1.643 billion per ship, means that the Navy will likely continue accepting this risk, despite the CNO stating that the industrial base could produce at least five more ships in the next six years.5

Ground Component Commanders (GCCs) continue to signal a demand for amphibious forces, reaching high enough to justify 40 amphibious ships required to meet requested presence requirements.6 The CNO, Admiral John Richardson, articulated in The Future Navy that the Navy knows it needs the “inherent flexibility of a larger amphibious fleet.”7 Throughout Expeditionary Force 21, the Marine Corps acknowledges that the operational environment has changed significantly since the last amphibious ships were built. Amphibious landings, once conducted within sight of the beach, have been pushed further out because of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The Marine Corps now sets the benchmark distance at 65 nautical miles from shore. Survivability seems to be the primary concern, but is the fundamental assumption that an amphibious ship must be built to naval vessel construction standards actually valid?

Battle Damage and Amphibious Operations

In 1921, Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Pete” Ellis published Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange and the foundation of modern amphibious doctrine.8 The United States conducted dozens of amphibious assaults in World War II and several more during Korea and Vietnam. The vast majority of the amphibious ships were passenger ships retrofitted as troop transports, not organic warships. At no time did amphibious assault forces conduct a landing unescorted. Indeed, a survey of the available battle damage records for World War II and the Korean War indicates that large amphibious ships did not receive battle damage and none were lost. The escorts and landing craft bore the brunt of the enemy attempts to repulse the attack, despite the larger ships offloading within sight of the beach. In 1982, the British conducted the last major amphibious assault to recapture the Falkland Islands. Despite an acute ASCM threat from Argentinian air power, no amphibious ships were lost. The British lost the Atlantic Conveyor, a relatively small merchant ship taken up from trade, and a handful of escorts. History shows the United States will almost always provide an extensive escort to conduct forcible entry operations.  

The threat of ASCMs to ships in the littoral regions has grown significantly in the last half century. The proliferation of highly capable missiles, such as the Exocet and the C-802, places U.S. Navy deployed forces at risk daily. USS Mason (DDG-87) was forced to defend itself in October 2016 when Houthi rebels in Yemen launched two missiles at the destroyer, who was escorting USS Ponce (LPD-15) at the time. This attack came soon after the successful attack on the United Arab Emirates-operated HSV Swift by Houthi rebels with a C-802 the week prior.9 ASCMs have proven successful at causing significant damage or sinking warships in the past, as the attacks on HMS Sheffield (D80) in 1982 and USS Stark (FFG-31) in 1987 so aptly demonstrate. But these were small combatants, each around 4,500 tons, and Atlantic Conveyor was not much bigger at 14,900 tons.

These data points seem conclusive, but the 1980s provided an exceptional data set of ASCM attacks on much larger ships. During the Iran-Iraq War, the attacks from both sides expanded to merchant shipping and, eventually, U.S. forces began escorting them as part of Operation EARNEST WILL. The Iraqis began attacking shipping in 1984 and Iran responded in kind in 1986, resulting in the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers under U.S. flag and direct U.S. escort and convoy operations.10 Iran and Iraq cumulatively launched 487 attacks against merchant shipping, mostly with Exocets (62.5 percent). Only a handful missed, resulting in 19 sunk. Of these 19, seven were under 1200 deadweight tons (dwt), seven were between 1,200-30,000 dwt, three were between 60,000-90,000 dwt, one unknown, and one tipped the scales at 224,850 dwt.11 Overall, the percentage of merchant ships sunk in all air attacks, not just ASCM attacks, peaked at 10.34 percent in 1984, remained below 4 percent until 1987, and fell to 1 percent in 1988.12  Navias and Hooten report that only 115 of the ships attacked, or 27.9 percent, were considered constructive total losses, half of which were tankers. They conclude:

“The Tanker War certainly demonstrated that the robust construction of merchantman made them far less vulnerable to modern weapons systems than might have been expected. The most vulnerable vessels were the bulk carriers, with their vast holds, and the traditional freighter whose high freeboard and central superstructure attracted missile seekers like a moth to flame.”13

Retired Captain Wayne Hughes, a professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the landmark work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, looked at all ASCM attacks and concluded that it took more than one ASCM hit to place a ship out of action, and nearly two hits to sink it. The vast majority of the attacks were against smaller ships. Escort ships reduced the probability of hit by more than 60 percent.14 Thus, larger ships are far more survivable due to sheer size, especially when escorted. This all begs the question: why are we paying for warship standards and systems when the ships, especially larger ones, are likely to survive alone and would be escorted in higher-threat environments? Do other navies do the same?

Foreign Amphibious Ships

Spanish shipbuilder Navantia shocked the modern Navy when it announced that it was teaming up with Bath Iron Works to design the U.S. Navy’s next generation frigate.15 Many commentators balked at the hint of outsourcing an American warship design to a foreign company. However, as Navantia was quick to point out, the Navy has a history of doing that—Bath Iron Works and Navantia cooperated in designing the Oliver Hazard Perry (U.S.) and Santa Maria (SP) class of frigates in the 1980s.16 Other nations likely design their warships to similar standards as the U.S. Navy does, meaning the comparisons should be valid.

The comparison considers the amphibious assault ships (LHA/LHD classes), amphibious transport docks (LPDs), and dock landing ships (LSDs), which are all common across several of the world’s navies. The chart below provides relevant statistics about these ships for analysis.

Amphibious Assault Ships (LHA/LHD)17
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots Air Spots
Australia Canberra 27,100 358 1046-1400 $1.04B 4 LCVP 9-18
France Mistral 21,300 140 450-900 $644M 2 LCAC 16-35
South Korea Dokdo 18,800 330 720 $355M 2 LCAC 10
Spain Juan Carlos 26,000 261 913 $644M 4 LCVP 25
USA America 45,693 1060 1687 $3.54B 2 LCAC 31
USA Wasp 40,500 1208 1894 $2.3B 3 LCAC 20

At first glance, the comparison seems invalid since the U.S. ships are nearly twice the size of the next foreign ship, the Canberra class. However, the Canberra is a scant 100 feet shorter than the U.S. ships, meaning the density of the equipment onboard the US LHA/LHDs is far greater than the Australian class. RAND identified the root cause of this disparity as the U.S. propensity for more technologically complex ships. These ships will perform the exact same missions, but the Canberra-class is a third the cost. The Spanish Juan Carlos class has the same specifications as the Australian Canberra-class, but with fewer crew and embarked troops. The Mistral and Dokdo, a full 200 feet shorter than the equivalent U.S. classes, are still about half the tonnage of the U.S. ships. RAND identified light ship weight (LSW)18 and power density as most closely correlated with ship cost. In this case, LSW and power density for the U.S. ships is significantly higher in our analysis, and the RAND researchers calculate this at an 80-90 percent increase across the ship classes they evaluated.19 The U.S. ships simply have more stuff than their foreign counterparts. We continue the analysis with LPDs and LSDs.

Amphibious Transport Dock and Dock Landing Ships (LPD and LSD)
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots
China Yuzhao LPD 25,000 120 500-800 $630M (est) 4 LCAC
Singapore Endurance LSD 8,500 65 350-500 Unk. 2 LCVP
Britain Bay LSD 16,160 228 355-700 $205M 2 LCVP
Indonesia Makassar LSD 8,400 126 218-518 $58M 2 LCVP
Italy San Giorgio LSD 8,000 180 350 $303M 3 LCVP
USA San Antonio LPD 25,300 360 700 $1.72B 2 LCAC
USA Whidbey Island LSD 16,100 330 504 $653M 6 LCAC
USA Harpers Ferry LSD 15,939 410 500 $524M 2 LCAC

The conclusions are similar. The Chinese Yuzhao-class, a newer class of amphibious ship that looks similar to the San Antonio-class, is more than 60 percent cheaper and likely has comparable capabilities. Interestingly, several navies have built much smaller amphibious ships of nearly half the tonnage of their American counterparts, yet carry nearly the same number of troops. Those ships are about two-thirds the length and 10-20 feet narrower, meaning the LSW ratio is lower on those ships than the U.S. LSDs. Yet the U.S. Navy consistently pays significantly more for its amphibious ships than foreign navies. RAND found that labor rates and other economic factors did not significantly drive ship costs, meaning their conclusion of LSW, power density, and requirements is likely true. What to do?

Crew Size

The analysis thus far yields several interesting areas that the Navy can exploit for future cost savings without a major loss of capabilities. Crew size, arguably, would have the most outsized impact not only on sticker price but, more importantly, total ownership cost for new classes of ships. The charts above show that U.S. ships routinely have 2-3 times the number of sailors onboard. Indeed, of the 1000-plus sailors onboard a U.S. LHD, a scant 75-100 of them are on watch at any given time. Leaning the crews, already in the test phase with both the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the Zumwalt-class DDGs, provides substantial savings across the life of the ship, especially when taking advantage of automation and other features prevalent in the modern shipbuilding industry for damage control, cargo handling, and other tasks. Retired Captain George Galdorisi proved this point recently, citing the Government Accountability Office, which noted, “The cost of a ship’s crew is the single largest cost incurred over the ship’s lifecycle.” The report, he continues, “suggested the Navy has not moved out quickly enough to reduce manpower on all types of ships.”20

Alternative Options

Beyond looking to foreign navies for inspiration for more affordable ships, the Navy can also look internally to re-purpose some platforms already in the inventory and a civilian equivalent, which now fit within the Marine Corps’ Operating Concept of offloading the ground element further out to sea. The chart below provides the relevant information.

Other Viable Ships
Ship Type Tonnage Berths Cost (FY17) Cargo Capacity Vehicle Capacity
Large, Medium-Speed, Roll On/Off (LMSR) 62,069 0 $452M 380,000 sq ft 1000
Roll On/Off & Passenger Ship
(ex: M/V Ulysses)
50,938 228 $188M Unk 1500
Roll On/Off & Container Ship
(ex: M/V Kanaloa)
44,200 0 $256M 3,500 TEU 800

Expeditionary Transfer Docks provide the necessary deck space to offload an LMSR at sea, meaning that any other large cargo or passenger ship, such as the two merchant ships listed, would also, if designed to support, be able to offload Marines and their equipment, or the unmanned systems of the first wave, to connectors like LCACs. Their sheer size makes them significantly more survivable against ASCM threats than their smaller LPD and LSD cousins, especially when escorted. The costs would increase slightly as the necessary basic military requirements get added on, such as limited defensive capabilities, communications equipment, and redundant damage control systems, but the LSW ratio proves that the cost would remain significantly lower than the price points of our current amphibious ships.

The newer Expeditionary Staging Bases, designed to provide command and control capabilities, remove the need for large command suites on amphibious transports.21 Larger, cheaper amphibious transports provide the additional benefit of allowing the Marine Corps to reconsider the seaborne structure of the Marine Expeditionary Unit, which it wants to do, enabling it to leverage smaller platforms like the LCS or Joint High Speed Vessel to further disaggregate the force or employ smaller unmanned systems.22


The ships we procure today will likely see major advances in hypersonic missile technology, persistent and ubiquitous sensing, and artificial intelligence during their long service lives. The Marine Corps is already acknowledging the need to push well deck operations further off shore because of longer-range threats. The Navy to date has not recognized that the past and future employment constructs and incidents do not seem to justify the cost of the amphibious ships we are procuring. Larger, cheaper platforms provide inherent survivability through physical size and allow the Navy to procure more ships, simultaneously fulfilling the CNO’s and the Marine Corps’ desire for a larger amphibious force to help reach a 355-ship navy. It is past time for the Navy to seriously reconsider some of its most fundamental attributes and assumptions of warship acquisition. We cannot afford to continue otherwise.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington, DC. He writes frequently on topics across the maritime domain. His views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.


1. “Statement of Admiral Vernon Clark, U. S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, Posture Statement, 10 March 2005,” Defense Subcommittee on Defense of the House Appropriations Committee, p. 22.

2. 10 United States Code §5063,

3. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Amphibious Warfare Ships for Deploying Marines Overseas,” Congressional Budget Office, November 2011,

“US Ship Force Levels: 1886-Present,” Navy History and Heritage Command, November 17, 2017,

4. “Expeditionary Force 21,” United States Marine Corps, March 2014, p. 18.

5. “Future Navy,” United States Navy, p. 7.

6. Ibid.

7. “The Future Navy,” p. 7.

Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, November 30, 2017, p. 5.

8. B. A. Friedman, “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” 21st Century Ellis (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 86-139.

9. Sam LaGrone, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend from Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack,” USNI News, October 11, 2016,

10. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.

11. [1] M/V Song Bong, a North Korean tanker of 224,850 dwt, was sunk while loading at Kharg.

12. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.

13. Ibid, p. 187.

14. Wayne Hughes, “The Record of Missile Attacks on Ships” (Presentation, Naval Postgraduate School, May 1, 2007).

15. “GDBIW joins forces with Navantia for US Navy FFG(X) frigate bid,”, November 23, 2017,

16. Ibid.

17. All information in the charts is derived from open sources.

18. The weight of the ship without fuel, stores, or personnel onboard.

19. Arena et al, p. xv

20. George Galdorisi, “The Navy Cannot Afford Large Crews,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 145, Issue 1.

21. “Expeditionary Transfer Dock/Expeditionary Mobile Base,” United States Navy Fact File, 26 January 2018,

22. “Expeditionary Force 21,” p. 43.

Featured Image: English: SAN DIEGO (Jan. 20, 2009) The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Green Bay (LPD 20) moors at a pier in Long Beach Harbor. (U.S. Navy photo by Gregg Smith/Released)

Into the Unknown: A Reading List for the Knowledge Warrior

By Wolf Melbourne

The stereotype of the naval intelligence officer is one of bookishness. It is a picture of an officer surrounded by well-worn books that impart the knowledge needed to inform a commander’s decision. Reality is a bit further from the truth. Look around any work center today and you might see a stack of dusty books here and there, but they seem more like props in a film rather than anything functional. Between racing to the next meeting, answering the incessant call of the email inbox, or once more adjusting those briefing slides rarely does one catch anybody actually reading books. Even with the twelve-hour day now a near standard, we somehow find ourselves time poor. “I wish I had time to read more,” the naval intelligence officer laments. Faced with the reality of our cult of busyness one must ask, “Are we actually a profession of readers?”

For a profession reliant upon the minds of its officers and dedicated to understanding an inherently chaotic and disordered world, it is strange to find the answer to be, “No.” Naval intelligence has not paid serious enough institutional attention to how books can develop the minds of our officers and provide an improved sense of order. Certainly, there is a subculture of reading within the profession with informal pockets of encouragement, recommendations, discussion, and thoughtful incorporation of literary lessons scattered across the discipline. These informal pockets yield exceptional results in terms of the quality of officers, their performance, and in organizational results. They remain, however, too far and few between. It is well past time for our profession to better harness the power resident in reading in a more formal and comprehensive manner.

In his Letters to Friends, Family & Editors, Franz Kafka believed books to be the “axe for the frozen sea inside us.” While certainly not a panacea, a more formal emphasis on professional reading would unleash our profession’s collective frozen sea and help us to answer the existential questions revolving around how we fit into the larger Information Warfare Community (IWC). Ultimately, a more formal reading program will guide us toward answering the essential question we face as a profession today, “What does it mean to be a naval intelligence professional?”

At the risk of descending into madness like Nikolai Gogol’s character Aksenty Poprishchin in Diary of a Madman, I humbly offer this recommended reading list as “food to nourish and refresh the mind.” It is intended for the newly minted and the more experienced naval intelligence professional alike who may be unconsciously waiting for Kafka’s axe to strike. It is not your standard recommended book list that all-too-often comes across as something between paternalistic condescension and false triumphalism. Nor is it one of those exhaustive lists that in its attempt to be comprehensive and all-inclusive it becomes indigestible and useless. Instead, it is one that identifies books that cultivate certain key traits and characteristics I feel are necessary for all naval intelligence professionals. At a time when our profession is awash in ever increasing information and consumed with fitting into the IWC, these characteristics and their associated books will help us to understand our core competencies and what it means to be a naval intelligence professional. In all, it is a list of the books I wish I had known earlier in my career and one that might make the next intelligence officer–and the profession as a whole–that much better.

Applies Historical Lessons

It is probably too cliché to justify why naval intelligence needs to know its history using the old line that those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps more appropriate is to use George Bernard Shaw’s view from Man and Superman that “if history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” Naval intelligence cannot afford the luxury of not learning from experience. Since the experience that produces good judgment often originates with bad judgment, it is critical that naval intelligence professionals know both the good and the bad parts of our historical experience.

The Good:

And I Was There by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton

It is simply the book on the history of naval intelligence in the Pacific during World War Two. It explains why we focus so much on operational intelligence and why, even as we are increasingly assimilated into the larger IWC, we must remain true to our profession’s primary mission – bringing the best possible knowledge of the adversary to the point of decision of a commander. While most readers will focus their attention on the key battles and events such as Pearl Harbor and Midway, I think our profession could learn a lot by examining the early chapters of the book. Those chapters detail how Layton and other naval intelligence professionals were “grown” in the interwar period. They spent years learning the language, culture, and other aspects of the U.S. Navy’s pacing threat – the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was this critical period in peacetime where Layton and others were deliberately given ample time to gain deep insights and knowledge of the adversary. This knowledge would go on to provide crucial advantages when great power conflict arose. In our age today when great power competition is at the forefront of the U.S. Navy’s mind, naval intelligence professionals should be given the time and space to think and learn about our current pacing threats. We could do much worse than following Layton’s recipe on how to be ready should great power competition turn into great power conflict.

Nexus by Jonathan Reed Winkler

A must read for understanding the decisiveness of the information domain in warfare. The need to have access and control of information in warfare is not just a recent phenomenon. Winkler’s book is an excellent examination of how the British exploited and dominated worldwide strategic communications before and during the early years of World War One. The United States, realizing the value of that advantage and the danger it posed to it own national security, successfully worked to gain and maintain control over its communication networks through the war and its immediate aftermath. At a time when strategic communications are more global and diffused, it is essential we understand the history of how we righted the balance of control over our strategic communication networks once before and why we will need to do so again if called upon.

And the Bad:

Joe Rochefort’s War by Elliot Carlson

We tend to be told the stories of Pearl Harbor and Midway in oversimplified narratives: Pearl Harbor was a case where naval intelligence was ignored and failure resulted, or Midway was a case where naval intelligence was used properly and victory ensued. What those oversimplified narratives ignore is the messy, ugly, confusing, difficult, and embarrassing process behind the end result. It was stove-piped cryptanalysis, disjointed intelligence dissemination processes, and downright hubris on the part of people like Admiral Kelly Turner that permitted crucial indications and warning to fall through the cracks in the lead up to the attack in December 1941. As for the Battle of Midway, it was a far closer run thing than people are led to think. In addition to the mistakes made by the Japanese and the ever-present role of pure chance, Rochefort fought daily against ignorance and professional jealousies across the naval intelligence bureaucracy to convince operational commanders like Admiral Chester Nimitz that the Japanese were heading to Midway. It is a testament to Rochefort’s penetrating knowledge of the adversary that he was able to convince operational commanders he was right and others in Washington were wrong. Without that knowledge of the adversary, he may not have been as convincing and history at Midway could have played out far differently. Digging into the mixed history of the process by which knowledge did or did not get to the point of decision of a commander is essential and Carlson’s book does it better than anyone else.

Neptune’s Inferno by James D. Hornfischer

Simply one of the best writers of history period, Hornfischer lays bare the human costs of not knowing or underestimating your adversary. Willful or not, ignorance and absence of knowledge of the adversary cost the U.S. Navy greatly in the Guadalcanal campaign of World War Two. Just a few short months after the victory at Midway, the U.S. Navy still did not understand Japanese doctrinal preference and proficiency at nighttime naval warfare and in their superior torpedoes. This led to horrendous losses at the battles of Savo Island and Tassafaronga. These insights into the Japanese adversary were in pre-war intelligence reports but were never filtered into the average tactical commander’s decision making. Naval intelligence professionals should use this history to justify expanding its role and responsibilities in the critical areas of training and planning.

Enemies of Intelligence by Richard K. Betts

There are of course many enemies of intelligence. We tend to think of these enemies only in an external sense, e.g. foreign navies. Betts makes the case there are far more consequential threats to naval intelligence beyond the external. There are, as he describes, innocent and inherent enemies. The former set includes bureaucratic and individual negligence, bureaucratic turf wars, and deliberate constraints placed by well-intentioned leadership yet still causes damage to effectiveness. It is the latter set of enemies where Betts makes his most thoughtful contribution to understanding why intelligence fails. Inherent enemies consist of cognitive limitations, trade-offs between objectives, and defects in organizational design. These enemies are prevalent throughout the intelligence cycle and are extraordinarily resilient. As Betts argues, it will take one, awareness of these enemies (not always so easy to admit) and two, a dialectic rather than linear approach to obtain solutions.

Thinks About Thinking

Social critic Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian argued, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” In our foundational training and throughout the on-the-job training we get from command to command there is, quite rightly, a lot of emphasis on what we think about the adversary and what we think about the process for producing intelligence.

Unfortunately, there is too little weight placed on how naval intelligence professionals actually think. How does our brain process information? How does one compare and contrast bits of information to form an assessment or make a decision? What is it that causes us to make mental mistakes and miscalculations? How do biases affect judgment?

Over the past few decades a whole science of cognitive behavior has emerged that is exploring and coming up with the answers to these questions. The relevance to a profession that relies almost exclusively on the minds of its people is obvious. For the foreseeable future analysis will remain a very human endeavor and as such how our mind works will play a crucial role in our performance. Thinking is certainly something our profession ought to think a bit more about.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Too often we mistakenly assume rational thought when we predict the behavior of potential adversaries when in actuality human thinking and decision-making is often quite irrational. Kahneman did much to dispel the myth that humans rationally maximize gain and minimize loss. From Prospect Theory (the work that led to his Nobel Prize in Economics) to his examination of the many heuristics and biases that affect decision making, Kahneman’s work is the foundation and inspiration of later cognitive scientists. It should be mandatory reading at the Naval Intelligence Officer’s Basic Course (NIOBC).

Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

I could begin and end the summary of this book by simply stating that in a forecasting competition sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Tetlock took a team of amateurs using his theories on how best to predict the future and beat a team of intelligence professionals with access to classified information. While some will counter-argue there is a nuanced distinction between forecasting and the estimation intelligence is generally more involved with, it is a distinction without a difference. For a profession that is expected to be able to assess what adversaries will do next, Tetlock’s findings and recommendations on the skills and talents required of good forecasters are absolutely essential to understand in order to advance our profession into an age of big data and machine learning.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

A solid argument for how to organizationally apply Tetlock’s work and think about the future using more Bayesian strategies. If you are unsure what “Bayesian” means, you definitely need to read the book (in summation, think probabilistically and update often). At a time when we are awash in informational noise Silver offers a path for any naval intelligence officer or work center to find the knowledge-bearing signal.

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards D. Heuer, Jr.

Another book that ought to be handed to each naval intelligence officer upon entering NIOBC. The former CIA analyst takes a lot of what Kahneman and other behavioral and cognitive scientists have discovered and created a series of methodologies and structured analytic techniques useful to any naval intelligence officer and work center.

Possesses Deep Knowledge of the Adversary

While it is not as pithy as Chinese military strategist Sunzi’s popular quote from The Art of War, I think the importance of knowing your adversary is far better described by science fiction writer Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game:

“There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy tells you where he is strong. And the rules of the game are what you can do to him and what you can stop him from doing to you.”

As we learned from Layton’s story, acquiring deep insights of the adversary necessary for great power conflict does not happen quickly. It takes time, resources, and dedicated initiatives to grow naval intelligence officers into experts on the adversary. We can get an early start, however, just by taking the time to read what those who have spent their lifetime studying them have to say about our potential adversaries. Instead of overreliance upon on-the-job-training and occupational osmosis naval intelligence officers should be encouraged and expected to read about adversaries over the entire course of their career. They should read books by different authors with contrasting positions or outside views not all necessarily in line with current analytic consensus. Naval intelligence commands should also consider having discussion groups and inviting authors and academics to discuss their works. As someone who chose to seek knowledge on China, I offer up the following books to my China watching comrades but there are certainly similar works for those looking at other potential adversaries.

The Burning Forest by Simon Leys

To be honest I could have listed any book written by Simon Leys, the pseudonym for Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian China Watcher who passed away in 2014, and it would be at the top of the list. To defend the importance of Leys to naval intelligence please forgive me for referring back to Ender’s Game where Ender explains how he is able to defeat the enemy, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. And then, in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them.” Leys’ writings will take you from art to literature to politics to history to poetry with a passion that makes it clear Leys is truly someone in love with China. He will widen your awareness of how all these subjects intersect and influence each other. He will help to identify where China is weak and where it is strong. Where it can hurt us and where it can be hurt. Passionate, objective, immersed, and thoroughly erudite, Leys is the standard by which any China Watcher should measure themself.

A Treatise on Efficacy and The Propensity of Things by François Jullien

To understand an adversary one must be able to know the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings behind their thought process. French philosopher and Sinologist François Jullien provides a fantastic and usable historical examination of Chinese philosophy on efficacy and ultimately on strategy and decision making. Both of these works explore how the Chinese tend to think more about the potential in a given situation rather than in a linear plan of action and their preference to induce change rather than impose it. As we think about, gauge, and predict China’s intentions in the world we would be wise to understand the underlying philosophy behind their strategies.

Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett

Similar to Jullien, Nisbett provides another examination of Chinese thinking, this time through the lens of a psychologist rather than a philosopher. Using academic research Nisbett finds dramatic differences between how Westerners and Easterners think about self and group; certainty and probability; truth and harmony; and permanence and change. These differences in thought naturally lead to insights into the positions, opinions, and decision-making of China’s leaders.

To Change China by Jonathan Spence

Before today’s current reassessment on China’s ability to transform into a more liberal state there was James Mann’s The China Fantasy. Before Mann there was the optimism of three American presidents who believed that ascension into the World Trade Organization will change China for the better. Before the optimism of three presidents was the Tiananmen Square massacre. Before the Tiananmen Square massacre there was Jonathan Spence and his cautionary reminder that the West has a long history of thinking it can transform China and ending up with tragic disappointment.

Prisoner of the State by Premier Zhao Ziyang

Rarely are the deep insights of foreign government officials found in English. But the rarest of all are those insights given by individuals under confinement and forbidden from communication with the outside world. The secret journal of former Chinese Premier Zhao, who was an integral part of Reform and Opening Up and led the government during the turbulent period of Tiananmen Square in 1989, provides an unmatched look at the innermost machinations of the usually opaque Chinese Community Party (CCP).

The Communist Party of China and Marxism 1921-1985, by Laszlo Ladany

Speaking of the CCP, perhaps the first China Watcher of the post-1949 era was a Jesuit scholar based in Hong Kong from 1953-1982. Producing a weekly newsletter, “China News Analysis,” Ladany analyzed official Chinese news sources to report on political and social trends within the secretive and relatively closed off state. After retiring (and after China began to open up), Ladany went on to write one of the most definitive histories of the CCP. Using primary sources, party historical documents, and interviews with principle actors involved, Ladany’s history generated a most profound and necessary understanding of the machinations of the CCP. At a time when the CCP appears to be ascendant, the insights and lessons of Ladany’s book remain quite relevant for the newest China Watchers.

Understands the Bigger Picture

Naval intelligence is but one part of a larger whole. From naval intelligence there is the larger intelligence community and naval force. But even those parts contribute to a larger assemblage of strategy, the joint force, and geopolitics. Understanding this larger whole is crucial in being able to properly frame the answer to one of intelligence’s hardest questions, “So what?” Without it we risk devolving our course of enquiry into the unnecessary, distracting, and perhaps most insidious – the self-serving. The bigger picture is lightly touched upon in our early training but not again until we reach our mid-careers through the war colleges. Instead we should, as 3rd-century BC Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi teaches, “fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.” While our efforts and attention should weigh most heavily on naval intelligence’s core competencies, missions, and tradecraft, we should ensure we remain relevant by always keeping in mind the larger environment within which we operate.

On War by Carl Von Clausewitz

Certainly an obvious choice for understanding the bigger picture of war. What makes Clausewitz so important is not in the pithy quotes that are often casually bandied about but in his deep insights into the nature of war. While the character of warfare is changing especially for those of us operating in the information domain, Clausewitz uncovers eternal truths about its nature that will always apply. From the importance of balancing the “remarkable trinity” of emotion, chance, and reason to understanding the results of war are never final to war’s inherent nonlinearity, Clausewitz speaks across the generations.

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy by Julian Corbett

Often seen as secondary in importance to Alfred Thayer Mahan when it comes to maritime strategy, Corbett’s thinking is of far more practical use for those working at the operational level of war and below. While Mahan is certainly brilliant when it comes to thinking about a national maritime strategy, he has far less value when it comes to operational and tactical planning. It is at those levels that understanding Corbett’s conception of command of the sea is essential. Corbett’s command of the sea was a relative and fluid term whose achievement should be seen not as an end to itself, but as a condition to enable follow-on military operations. It is a simple idea yet often forgotten or neglected when maritime planning seeks to synchronize with other warfare domains. He is also an excellent balance against the tendency of some who argue that all a navy is good for is to destroy the other person’s navy.

“Naval Warfare Publication 5-01 Naval Planning”

I originally intended to use Professor Milan Vego’s Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice here to speak to the importance of planning but at 1500 pages and close to ten pounds I erred on the side of safety and went with the U.S. Navy’s shorter version. As President Dwight Eisenhower so famously remarked, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What makes planning so essential is going through the steps of the process itself forces the examination and competition of ideas, options, and contingences for the employment of military force. Through that process knowledge about objectives, the adversary, and ourselves is discovered and improved upon. It is improved to the point that, provided the process is thorough, the planning staff is able to react to any of the complex, nonlinear, and surprising events that always unfold in war.

Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan

While I think many of his other books are problematic, I do think Kaplan in this specific book is quite useful as he makes the classic realism of geopolitical theorists Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman very accessible to those who would not otherwise be inclined to read the far dryer primary sources. I think we often forget/ignore/incompletely understand the geopolitical factors involved in the world. As an example, back in 2010 China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, in response to questions over other nation’s maritime rights in the South China Sea, retorted with the now infamous line, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” As crass and brazen as that statement was, it was also an accurate description of geopolitical reality. China is a big country in terms of people, physical size, and economic potential. It also occupies a commanding and central position on the Eurasian landmass. If we really are realists (as most in the military would probably self-identify) and think the world largely turns on issues pertaining to state power, that geopolitical reality matters a lot. Rather than as an eternal struggle for power, we often look at world politics through the lens of a leader of the rules-based international order. As a result, we wrap our narratives in the idealistic trappings of international law and the liberal order. That view blinds us to the elemental drivers and rationales – like geography – for how and why state actors behave the way they do. Mackinder and Spyckman understood those realities and went to great lengths to warn us against ignoring them. Kaplan’s book does a solid job in bringing those ideas to a usable light.

The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon

At first glance it may seem odd to suggest a book focused on a naval battle conducted over one hundred years ago. From the centrality of command and control, to the importance of training under war-like conditions, to incorporating new technology, to the danger of hubristic thinking in peacetime, Gordon’s examination of the Battle of Jutland during World War One provides an extraordinary trove of invaluable insights relevant to the naval intelligence profession today. If we want to stave off the “creeping sickness” that a peacetime fleet tends to invite during the “canker of the long peace” we have found ourselves in since the end of World War Two, every naval intelligence officer needs to read this book.

Embraces the Contrary

General George Patton is quoted as once saying, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” It is fortunate to have someone of Patton’s war winning– ilk exposing the paradox of the two opposing characteristics necessary for military success– contrarianism and obedience. Neither characteristic should dominate the other, but each is essential. We would not want a military consisting of nothing but contrarian thinking anymore than we would want one full of complete obedience. The genius is in finding the right balance for the right time.

Within naval intelligence we too often favor a form of obedience through our infatuation with analytic narratives. Narratives attribute an overarching rationale for behavior and are used to drive our estimates of enemy courses of actions and color our everyday assessments of adversary activities. Recent academic research into attribution bias discovered behavioral attributions made through adherence to a preconceived narrative do not always reflect reality. While convenient for justifying or explaining assessments, an overuse of narratives risks systemic bias and analytic errors over time. These types of errors are threaded throughout the case studies on intelligence failures conducted by Robert Jervis and Thomas Mahnken in Why Intelligence Fails, and Uncovering Ways of War, respectively.

Based on her research into the effect of dissent within groups, psychology professor Charlan Nemath finds in In Defense of Troublemakers that dissent “breaks the blind following of the majority and stimulates thought that is more divergent and less biased.” Thus, the contrarian offers a remedy to the obedience of narrative bias with little downside. Through an insistence on looking at a problem differently, the contrarian provides two possible benefits: one, successfully defending a narrative against a contrarian will subsequently improve it; or two, if the narrative falls apart the opportunity to alter or abandon it arises. As writer Malcolm Gladwell emphatically suggests it is our “responsibility as a person to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” Similarly, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It is essential naval intelligence professionals update our analytic positions constantly and be able to pass Fitzgerald’s test.

The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

At the heart of Taleb’s thinking is the idea that most failures or surprises are born from “our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises.” We think we know something but in reality we do not. To overcome the biases that drive most of this misunderstanding, Taleb argues it is far more important to understand what you do not know because we underestimate its value and take what we do know “a little too seriously.”

But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

In a field where we can often find ourselves making predictions out of assumptions and minimal evidence, it would be good for naval intelligence to keep Klosterman’s Razor – “the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with” – always in mind.

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman F. Dixon

This is an outstanding inquiry into the social psychology of military organizations and the pathologies of individual military leaders. Using historical case studies and cognitive behavioral theories (of the time the book was written), Dixon masterfully identifies key traits and behaviors in organizations and the leaders they create that lead to military incompetence. Dixon’s analysis of how militaries tend to encourage and promote “authoritarian”-type commanders, fawning to superiors and often harsh or uncaring to inferiors, is especially useful for a profession still wrestling with talent management and how to grow senior leaders for the IWC.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

For a profession that is time poor and finding itself increasingly overloaded with information, Newport’s critique of the assumed benefits of ever-present technology and constant connectivity should be considered closely. Our profession is entirely reliant on the mind of its professionals and Newport points to the empirical studies showing the negative impact technology and social connection has on mental health and cognitive performance. He argues we need to better prioritize what is essential in our work and ensure that technology is not making us worse. He also possesses a confidence to offer ideas that are not immediately popular and often derided initially. In the face of that societal pressure, his commitment alone to his contrarian ideas is one naval intelligence officers would do well to emulate.

Thinks Outside the Conventional

Naval intelligence professionals should make time to read fiction as well. For those that see this recommendation as frivolous or something without connection or meaning to the real world I offer two reasons to do so. The first is a singular reliance on nonfiction and its objective descriptions of the happenstance of life is insufficient to acquire deeper knowledge and wisdom. As valuable as it is, nonfiction tends to trap itself in objective accuracy. Fiction on the other hand can move you beyond the objective and into something more real than accuracy–it can reveal what is true. Even though technically untrue fiction is able to, as novelist Ernest Hemingway describes, “be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he [the writer] has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be.” Fiction thus can uncover a deeper truth behind the objective realities that preoccupy our profession.

The second reason for reading fiction is it inherently draws from the imagination. It drives the mind to think well beyond what has happened and toward what is possible. Naval intelligence, as with many other occupations, is often trapped into a sense of complacency based on observations of past events. As polymath Nassim Taleb’s Thanksgiving turkey in The Black Swan discovers, just because it was well-fed and taken care of every day of its life does not guarantee that this day will be the same. Fiction offers an approach to break out of the conventional thinking that can lead us unwittingly to the butcher’s block. Novelist Umberto Eco wrote in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, “To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world.” That is certainly a game naval intelligence has always played and will need to continue to do so. We will be poorer at the game for ignoring Eco’s observation.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Hemingway once remarked that Tolstoy “made the writing of Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage) on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles.” An epic chronicle of czarist Russia’s wars with France and the effect on the Russian aristocracy from 1805 to 1820, War and Peace gives the reader a view into warfare that does not follow the grand cause-and-effect narrative found in most histories. Tolstoy demands room for chance and randomness. He demands acknowledgement of confusion and the unknown. He demands the small and seemingly inconsequential be seen as the drivers of history they actually are. Ultimately Tolstoy demands we admit, “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Speaking of Hemingway, his fictional tale of a Republican guerrilla unit in the Spanish Civil War is an emotionally moving story of war, love, and loss. It is an important reminder that ideas are powerful. They are powerful enough to compel people to fight and die for them even when they are lost causes. As the central character Robert Jordan reminds us, “If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” There are things worth dying for – and both sides of a conflict can think it.

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu; Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong; Water Margin by Shi Nai’an and Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong

To reinforce the importance of deep knowledge of the adversary discussed earlier, it is critical that we are also reading their fiction. You can certainly learn a lot about another culture from nonfiction, but you learn so much more when it is supplemented with knowledge of how they imagine and dream. While it is foolish to extrapolate too much from what one author writes, I do think each of these books offer examples of how fiction can provide additional insights into potential adversaries (in this case, China). Cixin Liu’s work exposes approaches to confrontation and conflict as well as how best to find solutions to societal problems. Jin Yong’s (pen name of Louis Cha) speaks to the importance of history and a not too subtle hint of the superiority complex of Chinese people. And lastly the importance of reading two of the classics of ancient Chinese literature is best summed up by the old saying, “The young should not read Water Margin [with its glorification of rebellion and lawlessness] and the old should not read Romance of the Three Kingdoms [with its deviousness and plotting].” Naval intelligence professionals should read them all.

The Boundary Between the Known and the Unknown

I hold two hopes for this article. The first is to see this nascent attempt at a naval intelligence professional reading list improved upon. I have no doubt there are more books to be listed. Reading naturally spawns more reading. Impactful books create a need to read others and so on and so on–with knowledge increasing along the way. That is one of the great joys of reading. It never stops. It is always incomplete and that is what makes it wonderful. As the 14th Century Japanese hermit-aesthete Yoshida Kenkō so perfectly put it in Essays in Idleness, “something left not quite finished is very appealing,” it is “a gesture towards the future.”

This endlessly fruitful process leads me to my second hope, that we use this list to begin a conversation that is less about how we fit ourselves into the mold of the IWC and more about what it means to be a naval intelligence professional. In his book The Island of Knowledge, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser describes how knowledge expands concurrently with increased awareness of what we do not know. Like an expanding island representing knowledge in a sea of the unknown, the lengthening coastline symbolizes the increasing realization of what we do not know. That is the realm in which naval intelligence officers need to operate –the unknown. We need to move ourselves off the comfortable island of the known. We need to seek out and advance into the waters of the unknown and increase that island of knowledge for the naval force. In an age where information is ubiquitous, we, the naval intelligence profession, must make creating knowledge out of the uncertain and unknown our core competency. Books, and the knowledge and questions they spawn, will play a key role in transforming us into warriors of something far more decisive than mere information–we will become knowledge warriors.

A reading list by itself will not be sufficient to create knowledge warriors. We will need to also create a culture of “professional sailor-scholars” as sailor-scholar himself, Commander Chris Nelson describes it. We need more teachers, more naval intelligence leaders, and more peers reading and encouraging reading to create a professional culture that produces knowledge warriors. To paraphrase science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, while this book list does not pretend to have all the answers, it does lead to asking better questions and “the questions are certainly worth thinking about.” This reading list is only a start. Our island of knowledge needs expanding. Knowledge warriors, what books do we need to add?

Commander Wolf Melbourne USN, is a naval intelligence officer currently on an exchange assignment in the United Kingdom. It is rare to find him without a book in hand pursuing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.”

These views are presented in a personal capacity. 

Featured Image: Pixabay

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.