State of War, State of Mind: Reconsidering Mobilization in the Information Age, Pt. 2

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber USN

This article is part two of a two-part piece drawn from a recently completed report by the author that was published by The Journal of Political Risk, and is available in its entirety here

What Must Be Done?

Part one of this article outlined some of the broad challenges facing American policy-makers and defense planners in the coming years. Part two explores the practical and policy implications of what must be done.

Considering these developments outlined in part one, U.S. mobilization efforts should take the following six steps:

  1. Shift the focus of strategic warning to identifying emerging disruptions and strategic latency.
  2. Develop a strategic intelligence capability to monitor and evaluate sources of U.S. power and identify areas of potential comparative advantage.
  3. Institutionalize a “whole of society” approach to peacetime preparedness.
  4. Reframe warfighting posture toward preparing to survive an initial blow, then transition to alternative capabilities that can achieve desired effects. 
  5. Integrate allied and U.S. preparedness efforts, to include research and development, technology sharing, coordinated production, and political resiliency.
  6. Understand and educate the American people on the realities of sustained competition and conflict.

Strategic Latency, Warning, and Disruption Futures

Since the Second World War, the idea of “warning” has largely been linked to surprise military attacks. Pearl Harbor, the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, and September 11, stand out as hallmark examples of the types of surprise attacks that most concern policymakers. During the Cold War, this included not only a nuclear first strike, but also a surprise Soviet attack into Western Europe or a resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Other warning concerns would be events which might have dramatic impact on the geopolitical landscape, such as coups and revolutions, the outbreak of civil war, the assassination of a world leader, or the outbreak of a war involving a U.S. ally. 

The nature of surprise assumes a level of unpreparedness – catching your adversary unprepared is why surprise is usually sought after. The American intelligence community, while it has many roles and functions, exists foremost to prevent surprise and provide strategic warning. 

Cynthia Grabo describes warning as “an intangible, an abstraction, a theory, a deduction, a perception, a belief. It is the product of reasoning or of logic, a hypothesis whose validity can neither be confirmed nor refuted until it is too late [emphasis added].”1 It should not be confused with current intelligence, nor does it necessarily flow from a mere “compilation of facts” or the result of “majority consensus.” Rather it depends on exhaustive research, and usually the kind of holistic approach that the American intelligence community was not originally designed for.2 There are currently 17 federal agencies and military service components devoted to different collection and analysis emphases, each working independently under a broad umbrella agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). ODNI was established after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, largely in response to the significant failures of the separate intelligence agencies to work together and share information and analytic expertise.

While anticipating a military surprise attack will remain an enduring requirement for the intelligence community, the emerging global trends and adversary campaigns reshaping the strategic environment will likely matter more in the coming decades. However, the current analytic techniques used by intelligence analysts are inadequate to identify these trends and are likely to result in a strategic warning crisis.3

Strategic latency refers to the potential for technologies to fundamentally shift the military and economic balance of power.4 China (and Russia to a lesser extent) leverage dual-use technologies to exploit commercial and supply chain vulnerabilities and hold critical information and economic “choke points.” Supply chain dominance provides control of the underlying infrastructure of the 21st century economy, from undersea cables to satellites. By controlling  the electromagnetic spectrum and supporting supply chains such as media, advertising, entertainment, legal regimes, political lobbying, and public opinion management, China is approaching the point where it can achieve global information superiority, if not dominance. Information control enables population control

The intelligence community’s inability to detect and anticipate latent disruptions results from the organizational structure of the community, the charges of its component organizations, and its analytic tradecraft. The 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that fall under ODNI’s purview are organized under either intelligence disciplines, such as communication intelligence or geospatial intelligence, service warfighting domains (air, land, sea, space), or domestic security and law enforcement functions. Its core responsibility is the fusion of these different disciplines into larger strategic intelligence support to the President and National Security Council.

Today’s intelligence community organization results from two major events: the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the intelligence community’s erroneous assessment in 2002-3 of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program. The first represents a failure to detect an impending attack. The second represents a failure to accurately assess the state of an adversary’s capabilities. In both cases, cognitive limitations inherent to dealing with incomplete or ambiguous information led to intelligence and warning failures. Analysts do not approach their trade with a “blank slate,” but start with certain assumptions about foreign capabilities and intentions that have been developed through education, training, and experience. These assumptions form a mindset that influences what the analyst judges to be reliable and relevant. While this is often a strength, it is not error-free.5

However, the intelligence community’s ability to forecast latent disruptions is questionable at best. This places American national security at a severe risk since it directly impacts peacetime strategic competition and mobilization execution in the event of conflict. Yet understanding anticipatory behavior is central to financial asset management firms, and seven of the top ten firms reside in the United States. Before these firms make multi-billion dollar decisions, they perform deep research and analysis, evaluating an immense, diverse array of data sets, from predicting sea level rises to mobile communication use in India. These firms specialize in evaluating risks to capital investment. 

Data sets are available almost instantaneously from a growing “Internet of Things” and ubiquitous sensors that constantly monitor human activity. Programmers use these data sets to build and refine predictive algorithms that drive risk management and investment.  This methodological approach suggests humans telegraph their behavior through technology and investment decisions. This “Techno-Financial” intelligence capability is a critical requirement for better anticipating emerging disruptions.6 It is a multidisciplinary approach integrating behavioral economics, neuroscience, demographics, regulatory, legal, and other sectors. Interconnected technologies and complex networks are treated as living organisms, while investment is the fueling force that can predict future organism behavior.7

Along with a techno-financial intelligence capability, the intelligence community lacks a comprehensive methodology to “understand the ways individuals perceive and respond to various types of information.” It requires a knowledge of how humans communicate with others in groups, and “orient and respond to economic, social and political environments.” To detect these changing patterns in human group behavior, the intelligence community will need massive sets of diverse and cross domain data sets, along with the ability to process this data to yield understanding and prediction.8 Many of these data sets will overlap with techno-financial intelligence, and the two disciplines complement one another.

Intelligence and Investment for the Home Front

Underlying disruptions in the global economy, changing consumer behaviors, and advanced non-kinetic mass disruption attacks have left the American home front vulnerable. In many respects, war in the 21st century will be characterized not only by a lack of “front lines” but also the absence of any sanctuary. Traditional offensive and defensive operations may not apply, and the “battlefield” may be located in far off corners of the globe while simultaneously being fought in corporate boardrooms, small town hall meetings, and even family gatherings.

Mobilization and peacetime preparedness are best informed through a comprehensive program that identifies the sources of American power creation, evaluates changes and coming discontinuities, and conducts predictive analysis. The Department of Defense has been conducting this type of work through agencies such as the Office of Net Assessment and the Defense Science Board, yet for obvious reasons their efforts are mostly confined to understanding the military balance. Other agencies do track data and trends and make reports within their purview, such as the Department of Labor or Health and Human Services. However, no agency or interagency network or research institute is tasked with crafting a framework to evaluate sources of American power, anticipate opportunities to develop comparative advantages or to mitigate vulnerabilities, or to be used as the basis for policy formation and strategic decision-making. There is no framework that provides the understanding of complex network relationships and evaluates it as an organic whole.9

This is not to say that no one has suggested doing so. One such approach, Strategic Advantage by Bruce Berkowitz, argued that in order for the U.S. to remain the global leader in the 21st Century, it must achieve organizational agility, optimally manage risk, better navigate the crosscurrents of economic development and democratic institutions, and use its comparative advantages effectively. This requires a constant evaluation process of macro-trends in demographics, economics, commercial use, technology, health, and other factors, and how those factors shape national power and create opportunities and vulnerabilities. Importantly, there is a pacing element to power creation and sustainment based around economic constraints and the realities of American political support. In a complex threat environment with competing – and sometimes conflicting – interests, the challenge will be developing, selecting, and combining various capabilities (military, economic, diplomatic, etc.), and then recombining them as conditions change, while avoiding becoming so overcommitted in addressing one threat that we are unable to address others.10

Six principles guide this framework. This first is to understand the potential scenarios for world events, and the important variables (demographic, economic, technology, etc.) that underlie each scenario and identify the mileposts that might signal how these scenarios would play out. The second principle is to recognize the United States’ unique strengths that provide it outsized advantages and to identify how these strengths might be cultivated and exploited. Next, planning must anticipate that changes in the environment occur rapidly, and assumptions will likely not remain valid for more than three to five years, at best. Planning must also account for constraints on both resources and public opinion. Success will require an organizational approach that accommodates more risk and is agile enough to respond to changes in the environment. Finally, maintaining a strategic advantage will depend on the availability of resources, which emphasizes the centrality of economic growth toward national security, preparedness, and mobilization.11

From Whole-of-Government to Whole-of-Society

For a whole-of-society approach to be truly meaningful, it must reach beyond the federal, state, and local governments, as well as beyond traditional social institutions such as chambers of commerce and trade unions. A few lessons from the mobilization during the Second World War still apply, but none more so than organizing industrial mobilization around industry, rather than government, which was central to the explosive growth in American capacity to provide the bulk of war materiel for all allies. This was only possible because industry and labor led the approach. While the government stepped in to regulate consumption through the rationing of certain goods and services, production always remained voluntary and driven by incentive. As early as 1938, industrial mobilization planning was built around getting ahead of the problem to determine what was needed and when, rather than what American industry had the capacity to produce. This drove a requirements-based process while helping build production momentum.12

A major war in the 21st Century will certainly look much different in the production and employment of war materiel, but what might matter more is how the United States organizes its preparedness and mobilization planning to leverage its comparative advantages.

While it is important for the federal government to organize and sustain the effort, state and local governments must have a role in decision-making on national-level priorities. Key economic sectors in finance, logistics, transportation, health care, manufacturing, retail, telecommunications, and others represent a large source of national power. No less so are public education and institutes of higher learning, training and certification bodies, and community organizations such as the American Red Cross and United Way. Important in the 21st Century is the growing role of social media “influencers” and YouTube stars, as well as bottom-up capital generation like Kickstarter and community activism tools such as Non-traditional platforms and organizations can bring innovative ways of thinking and alternative approaches to mobilization and preparedness planning.

Some states are approaching preparedness in novel ways. The Ohio National Guard has created the Ohio Cyber Reserve, teams of trained civilians available to assist municipalities with cybersecurity vulnerabilities and provide recommendations to reduce threats. They also provide workforce development training and education services in local schools. This approach can be expanded with government support to create citizen volunteer organizations modeled on the Civil Air Patrol to better utilize the large population of Americans who may not be interested in government or military service but have unique skill sets such as  on-net operations, resiliency testing, critical infrastructure protection roles, and youth mentorship in science, technology, engineering and the liberal arts.13

“Survive, Then Transition”

The stages of mobilization are traditionally crisis mobilization, tactical mobilization, and strategic mobilization. However, the character of warfare in the information age suggests that adversaries will likely engage in non-kinetic disruption attacks, potentially on a mass scale, to achieve strategic effects well before initiating open hostilities. Disruptive attacks on preparation activities and material production will likely thwart or slow the U.S.’s ability to mobilize, marshal forces, and project power. These attacks may go on for months or years, in pursuit of long-term weakening by delegitimizing democratic institutions, sowing social discord, or even increasing the use of addictive opioids among the population, thereby rendering them unfit not only for military service, but unemployable in most industries. It might be wise to assume that the U.S. is under attack right now for the express purpose of rendering its mobilization and preparedness capability impossible.

As discussed above, policymakers should create a strategic warning regime tailored to detect these types of mass disruptive attacks, while building intelligence collection capabilities and analytic techniques to support strategic warning. Still, the ability of an adversary to initiate a surprise attack on a global scale, along with the complexity and high tempo of modern combat suggests that against a peer adversary like China, the United States and its allies could quickly find themselves overwhelmed in one or more theaters. Maintaining credible, forward deployed combat power is challenging now, and growing more so each day. 

This suggests that the United States would have to develop deep enough stocks and magazines to sustain combat forces in the early stages of a conflict (the “staying power” that the Reagan Administration attempted to address). However, the current mix of highly exquisite and expensive weapons systems has left the resources available for war reserve stocks nearly non-existent. Therefore, once military forces and the homeland have survived an initial onslaught, the U.S. will face two choices: try to reconstitute and replace forces or begin a transition to new capabilities that can be fielded rapidly and inexpensively while achieving required operational and strategic results. The fact that the force design and its supporting defense industrial base cannot be meaningfully expanded to keep up with anticipated attrition levels suggests that new means of rapid capability employment will be required.

The Defense Department has expanded its efforts to go outside of the traditional defense industry base and encourage companies to do business with the Pentagon, giving the military access to unique products and services as well as alternative approaches to design, production and sustainment. Through initiatives like the Defense Innovation Unit and legislative action to expand the use of Other Transaction Authorities, the Defense Department has adapted many commercially available products to military use, from personal communication devices to unmanned systems. 

Large companies are investing significantly in autonomy, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality to create new products, improve business logistics and administration, and meet changing consumer demands. Defense leaders should identify and improve upon lessons from employing non-traditional defense companies in order to transition to innovative and sustainable ways to deliver kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. For example, there is a growing hobby in using a 3-D printer to create drones, leading to innovation in drone design, applications, time to develop, and reduced costs. In a strategic competition, actors can apply new and novel uses of information technology to dynamically impact global economies, public diplomacy, and influence campaigns to achieve strategic effects.

Integrating Allies into U.S. Preparedness

American security ultimately depends upon collective security, a fact that is often overlooked in preparedness planning. While the U.S. military and State Department have a long history of working with allies, friends, and partners to advance security interests, these efforts may not have the efficacy they once did, as China has aggressively sought to bond itself economically to American allies. Commercial and industrial interests are a strategic vulnerability to the democracies, unlike the Cold War where they were an asset. This has caused friction between the U.S. and its allies, especially concerning the use of Chinese companies to build critical infrastructure or operate maritime ports and transportation networks.

At present, only limited efforts exist to evaluate allied and partner nation industrial capacity, defense capabilities, research and development programs, dual-use technology development and applications, sustainment, and political resiliency. There is growing concern that as the gap between U.S. and allied military technology expands, interoperability between allied and coalition forces will become far more difficult. The inability to share resource, sustainment, and logistical burdens would place both U.S. and allied security at risk. The U.S.’s past successes in allied and coalition warfighting have largely been because of early agreement and understanding not only of the strategic objectives but also of partner burden sharing and mutual support. The U.S., given the size of its military, will likely have the largest share of the burden, and allies and partners must be able to receive and use American support.

Coordination of cross-domain operations, including space, cyber, and the electromagnetic domains, will be central to coalition warfighting and strategic competition campaigns that fall below the warfighting threshold. The U.S. will have allies of varying levels of sophistication, capabilities, and resources. Even allied and partner nations that operate comparable technology, such as Japan, South Korea, Israel, and the U.K., may have structural challenges that make coordination with the U.S. or with each other difficult. 

U.S. policy continues to emphasize self-sufficiency and autarky for its defense industrial base. This policy needs to be re-evaluated considering the increasing use of commercial and dual-use technology, much of which is developed in allied and partner countries. 

Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies have a long history of alliance management, cooperation on mutual interests, and integrated command structures. This is especially true for NATO, “Five-Eyes” partners, Japan, and South Korea. NATO established the Partnership Interoperability Initiative in 2014, which was also broadened to include Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden. NATO’s experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan highlighted many of the challenges forces had in standards, doctrine, logistics, and sustainment. The U.S. also maintained combined forces commands in Japan and South Korea, to include coalition war planning, exercises, basing, and sustainment. 

Expanding integration and interoperability is one area of mobilization preparedness that holds a great deal of promise. These efforts should be deepened to include joint development of research, development, and dual-use technology goals; combined command, control systems; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and domain awareness capabilities. This may necessitate expanding and improving the ability of U.S. and allies to share a common operating picture that enables tactical tracking to find, fix, and finish targets across coalition platforms. 

Coordinated industrial base expansion, sustainment, tooling, and logistics support will be critical to maximizing comparative advantages that the alliance system provides. The U.S. and its allies should undertake further weapons system and platform development capabilities, to include non-traditional and dual use civilian-military capabilities. This may mean accepting the tradeoff between high-end, exquisite systems and moderately less capable, but still effective combat and non-kinetic systems that all parties can operate. In a strategic competition or conflict with China, and the immense industrial capacity it can harness, this could be the best option. It frees up a portion of the U.S. information technology and industrial base to develop and produce future high-end systems while spreading out the production of moderately capable systems that can be brought into the competition or conflict more rapidly. 

Such an expansion will require a dedicated, regular, systematic evaluation of allied and partner capabilities, more frequent combined and coalition exercises, and deeper coordination of planning and planning assumptions. Early and often allied wargaming, to include frank discussions on potential strategic and political goals, will greatly improve planning assumptions and further guide research, development, production, and operational concepts that are tailored to better meet alliance goals.

Understand and Educate the American People 

To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. will compete with the population it has, not the one it wants. That is, policy makers must realistically assess the willingness and desire of the American population to support and sustain another indefinite competition and conflict with a major power. The fiscal burden of creating and sustaining American power is likely to grow. This will come at a time when it will be incumbent on decision-makers to address the entire scope of national taxation and spending. Hard trade-offs will be required.

Yet fiscal constraints are only one piece of the puzzle. Even if the resources were readily available, it is not entirely clear that the population of 2020 is particularly interested in competing. The Cold War was born out of the Second World War, and early system shocks caused a reappraisal of U.S. efforts to rebuild the world order while being confronted with a global communist movement that had other designs. 

Part of this is due to the nature of how the Cold War ended and the brief, unipolar moment the United States enjoyed. Little effort was given to recapitalizing the institutions necessary to meet a new, peer challenger. Even conservative, anti-communist stalwarts argued that it was time for America to become a “normal nation,” and shed the burden of global leadership. The lack of an existential threat made such calls even more appealing.

Recent polling suggests that a smaller portion of younger generations – Generation “Z” and Millennials – view the United States as “better” than all other countries, an idea commonly called “American exceptionalism.” At the same time, significant gaps exist between the younger and older generations on perceived threats to America, with Millennials pointing to “climate change” (62%) as a bigger threat than “the development of China as a world power” (35%), “North Korea’s nuclear program,” (55%) or the “rise of authoritarianism around the world” (42%).

To be sure, as one ages and experiences the world, the perception of threats will likely change, and generations do not hold monolithic views that remain etched in stone. Evidence suggests that the public is growing far more wary of China as a threat, and CCP leadership’s complicity in covering up the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic may further incur the American public’s anger. The vast majority of Americans still believe that a future with U.S. leadership is far better than a world led by Beijing.14

Yet it would be the most profound failure of policy for the United States to execute a grand strategy designed to compete with, and if necessary, fight Communist China if popular consensus is not there. Indeed, it would be disastrous. This is more important for younger generations as it is they who will face most of the sacrifice. The underlying assumption behind competing with China is that the American people are invested in the cause. If that assumption is misplaced, then a competition strategy cannot succeed, and the U.S. is likely to suffer a catastrophic loss.

Implementing a competition strategy will require not only public debate, but also public accountability, and the willingness to craft policy and strategy around the constraints of public opinion. While public opinion can be moved, the case must be made. This must be central to American grand strategy, strategic competition, mobilization, and preparedness planning. The current complacency regarding the public’s declining trust in institutions and America’s role in the world is dangerous. Foreign powers actively engage in strategies to undermine American political legitimacy and resiliency, but they need only accentuate the domestic trends that are already present. 

Preparedness and mobilization planning remain central to America’s ability to defend its interests and the cause of freedom. This is worth fighting for. But it cannot be defended without the support of the people. It is a political case that must be made at all levels of government and society. It will require a renewed effort toward public education, and frank, honest debate about the sacrifice required. To best make the case, policy makers have to meet the American public where they are, using terms that convey the gravity of the situation and the stakes involved.

 LCDR Bebber is a Cryptologic Warfare officer assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or the U.S. government. He welcomes your comments at


1 Cynthia M. Grabo, Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning (Lanham: University Press of America, 2004), 4.

2 Grabo.

3 Maureen Rhemann, “Intelligence Analysis in a Post-Heuer World: Why We Don’t Recognize New Forms of Warfare and 6 Intelligence Take-Aways From Neuroscience” (Reperi Analysis Center, 2020).

4 Celeste Chen, Jacob Andriola, and James Giordano, “Biotechnology, Commercial Veiling, and Implications for Strategic Latency: The Exemplar of Neuroscience and Neurotechnology Research and Development in China,” in Strategic Latency: Red, White, and Blue, ed. Zachary S. Davis and Michael Nacht (Livermore: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2018).

5 Richards J. Heuer, “Limits of Intelligence Analysis,” Orbis Winter (2005): 76–77.

6 Techno-Financial Intelligence was pioneered by the Reperi Analysis Center (RAC) in 1999 to detect future disruption blending leading data sets to detect asymmetric pre-cursors and perfected with advanced algorithms in 2020. It assumes behavior is telegraphed and users 7-S/ADP and other processes.

7 Maureen Rhemann, “What We’ve Learned from 20 Years of Techno-Financial Intelligence” (Reperi Analysis Center, 2020).

8 James Giordano and Rachel Wurzman, “Integrative Computational and Neurocognitive Science and Technology for Intelligence Operations: Horizons of Potential Viability, Value and Opportunity,” STEPS 4 (2016): 32–37.

9 For a brief overview of how China approaches this challenge, see the Appendix on Comprehensive National Power which is found in the longer study published at the Journal of Political Risk.

10 Bruce Berkowitz, Strategic Advantage: Challengers, Competitors, and Threats to America’s Future (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2008).

11 Berkowitz, 231–32.

12 Herman, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.

13  Robert Bebber, Interview: Dr. Peter W. Singer, January 16, 2020.

14 Devlin, Silver, and Huang, “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.”

Featured Image: Fighter aircraft under construction at the Bell Aircraft Corporation plant at Wheatfield, New York. (U.S. National Archives)

Don’t Be Afraid to Adapt: The Seawolves Mindset

By LCDR Andrew Poulin, USN

“Adaptability is the law which governs survival in war as in life.”–Sir Basil H. Liddell-Hart

“Scramble the Seawolves! Scramble the Seawolves!” The blaring call over the 1MC startles everyone onboard the small landing platform ship awake. Half-naked pilots and aircrewmen jump out of their racks, throw on their gear, and rush up the ladder-well to the flight deck. They strap into their helicopters, adrenaline pumping, sweat pouring down their foreheads. Power is applied, engines roar, rotors begin to turn. Within three minutes the first Huey lifts off the deck into the dark night, the second lifts about one minute later.1 The Seawolf crews have done this dozens of times this deployment, but each mission is different.

It’s only a seven-minute flight to the action – a small tributary in the middle of the Mekong Delta where a riverine patrol boat (PBR) has gotten into an unexpected firefight with Vietcong forces. There are no navaids to speak of, so the pilots navigate using visual checkpoints they memorized over several months of flying in the area. The two helicopters continue to pick their way through clouds as they arrive on station and see two Vietcong sampans firing intensely at the PBR. Both aircraft immediately begin to take anti-aircraft fire. The first aircraft unleashes a full salvo of 2.75-inch rockets at the sampans, sending them both to the bottom of the river. Dash Two follows shortly behind the lead aircraft and zeroes his focus on fire coming from the shoreline. His door gunners open fire and send hundreds of .50-caliber rounds downrange. The gunfire on the shore comes to an abrupt halt and, for now, the battle has ended. Once again, the Seawolves come to the rescue.

Bell UH-1E Hueys of Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3 Seawolves aboard USS Garrett County (AGP-786) [Photo via]
It is summer 1968 in Vietnam, and these aviators were part of a riverine patrol force that did not exist in the Navy just a few years earlier, flying aircraft that the Navy had never planned on procuring, and executing missions they had never trained to previously. So what exactly were the Seawolves doing in Vietnam in 1968, and what does that mean for the Navy today?

The defined “End State” of A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 is, “A dominant naval force that produces outstanding leaders and teams, armed with the best equipment, that learn and adapt faster than our rivals.”2 When we think of great power competition, the country and military that adapts fastest to changing conditions – strategic, tactical, technological, cultural, or otherwise – will gain the advantage. Building on the Design, CNO Gilday’s FRAGO 01/2019 Warfighting End State focuses on “A Navy that is ready to win across the full range of military operations in competition, crisis, and contingency by persistently operating forward with agility and flexibility in an all-domain battlespace.”3  The U.S. Navy demonstrated this same adaptability in the mid-1960s in response to developments in Vietnam when it created Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3 [HA(L)-3], “the Seawolves,” and this mindset is exactly what the Navy must foster today in order to be successful in any future conflict.

The 1960s, Vietnam, and the Seawolves

The 1960s in the United States was a time of great change, unrest, and upheaval. People were listening to The Beatles, watching the debut of Star Trek, and cheering during the first Super Bowl. There was progress and setbacks for civil rights, women’s equality, environmentalism, and national unity. The decade saw the first sit-in protests, landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the publication of Silent Spring and The Feminine Mystique, but also the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

Meanwhile, the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating and the United States decided to increase its involvement. By mid-1965, U.S. troops were granted permission to go on the offensive in Vietnam.4 In August, Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward, Chief of the Naval Advisory Group in Saigon, was given responsibility for Operation Market Time, a coastal surveillance operation designed to prevent the Vietcong from transporting any supplies from North Vietnam to the South.5 Ward immediately launched several studies to determine how to expand Market Time into the Mekong Delta and the treacherous Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ), called by some as the “forest of assassins.” His findings pointed to an enemy (the Vietcong) that was deeply embedded in the region and a partner (the Vietnamese Navy) that did not have the leadership, resources, or training to solve the problem. He therefore concluded that there was a clear need for the United States to get further involved in the Delta.6

The Mekong River stretches over 2,700 miles, winds through six countries, and drains over 313,000 square miles of land. It is the longest river in Southeast Asia and more than 60 million people depend on the Mekong region for their livelihoods.7 In the summer of 1965, U.S. Navy planners realized that although they had previously let naval riverine doctrine and tactics wither, conditions in Vietnam indicated it was exactly what they would have to reinvigorate to succeed. Their rudimentary doctrine at the time noted, “Where navigable waterways exist, and roads do not, or when roads are interdicted and hostile forces use navigable waterways to supplement or replace road movement, a doctrine and strategy of interdiction and control of waterways becomes decisive.”8

Mekong River delta, southern Vietnam. M. Gifford/De Wys Inc. (via

This led to Operation Game Warden and the official formation of the Navy’s River Patrol Force in December 1965, also known as Task Force 116.9 Rear Admiral Ward then set out to find helicopters that could fly close-air support for Game Warden. However, the Navy did not have anything that fit the bill. It did have SH-2 Seasprite and SH-3 Sea King helicopters – both of which were reliable platforms for ASW, SUW, and SAR missions, but were in no way optimized for close-air support or attack tasking. As a result, it was Army UH-1 Hueys that first filled this role for Game Warden. Nevertheless, senior defense officials including Rear Admiral Ward, recognized that ultimately it should be Navy helicopters supporting the Navy’s riverine operations.

Where other leaders gave up, Rear Admiral Ward, now Commander Naval Forces Vietnam, was persistent. He said that “I had been mulling over for a long time how to get navy helicopters to replace what we had. The navy had told me they didn’t have any available and couldn’t do anything to help me.” On his own initiative, Ward contacted Captain Chris Cagle, who was the Director of Aviation Programs for OP-05 (then the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations – Air Warfare). Ward asked Cagle if the Navy could supply pilots and aircrew from existing squadrons, if Ward provided the helicopters. Fortunately, Captain Cagle said yes.10Ward had his crews, but he still needed to ensure they had a ride to the fight.

Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward, USN (ret.) [Photo via]
In early 1966 in Saigon, Rear Admiral Ward was hosting some high-level dignitaries at his residence, including Commander U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, General William Westmoreland. Sensing an opportunity, Ward approached Westmoreland and told him the Navy was providing aircrew and asked if there was any way the Army could loan the Navy some of their helicopters to fulfill the critical close-air support mission. Westmoreland knew this was important to the cause. He was also aware that the Army would soon retire their UH-1B helicopters and replace them with new UH-1C aircraft, so he agreed on the spot to loan the well-used UH-1B gunships to the Navy.11

Initially, Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 1 (HC-1) was tasked with providing crews for four detachments to send to Vietnam, and it was these same detachments that were used to establish Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3 on April 1, 1967. However, this stretched HC-1’s personnel to the outer limit, so the Navy decided to recruit top talent from all navy squadrons.12 “For the first time in history, navy helicopter pilots and crews would be flying attack missions in a close-up, and very deadly, combat environment…only volunteers were solicited from both officer and enlisted ranks. To nobody’s surprise, the response was enthusiastic. The volunteer list was filled almost immediately and, to the chagrin of other would-be gunship pilots, was temporarily closed.”13 Retired Navy Captain Brian Buzzell noted that pilots fresh out of flight school were warned that if they joined the Seawolves, “you are going to get shot at and maybe killed.”14 The volunteers that came forward were the true embodiment of the warrior ethos, and they were ready to get to work.

U.S. Navy Huey helicopter (Photo via

Training Development and Results

Because these navy crews were going to fly different aircraft, in a deadly combat zone, for a mission they had never before conducted, they needed significant training. At first, aircrew pre-deployment training was rudimentary – SERE school, physical training, and a weapon’s familiarization course. They would not fly the UH-1 Huey until they arrived in Vietnam where they were given familiarization flights in Saigon with the U.S. Army, followed by additional specialized training with the Army’s 197th Armed Helicopter Company.15 The Navy pilots brought a strong foundation of superb instrument training. In turn, the Army taught them the inner workings of flight lead formation tactics, close air support, and aerial gunnery. Within a few months, the Navy organized more comprehensive UH-1 gunship training stateside, first at Fort Benning, Georgia followed by Fort Rucker, Alabama. 16 Of course, the crews got plenty of “on-the-job training” as well. Commander Dick Barr, a retired Seawolves pilot, noted that, “In an average week two aircraft would shoot about a thousand rockets and a million rounds of 7.62…The door gunners would try to keep their brass inside the aircraft so it would not go out and hit the tail rotors. You’d come back and there would be six or seven inches of expended brass in the back.”17 It was a high optempo with a steep learning curve, but the extra practice ensured much greater success when it counted most.

Over the next five years the Seawolves flew over 130,000 combat hours in Vietnam, handled 1,530 MEDEVACs, delivered 37,000 passengers and 1,000,000 pounds of cargo, and inflicted several thousand enemy casualties.18 They earned 17,339 awards and decorations, making HA(L)-3 the most highly decorated squadron in U.S. naval history.19 They also built a fearless reputation among the people they served with in the Mekong Delta. In his book, Combat Swimmer: Memoirs of a Navy SEAL, retired Captain Robert Gormley said of the Seawolves, “I don’t know a single SEAL who operated in Vietnam that wasn’t saved by those guys at least once. They were the best helo crews I had ever seen. The Seawolf crews were real heroes.”20 The squadron’s actions had tangible results for Operation Game Warden. A post-war study from the Center for Naval Analyses concluded that:

  • Game Warden interrupted enemy movement on traditional routes across the major Delta rivers.
  • Enemy efforts to close the sea lanes to Saigon – a major Vietcong objective – were denied by U.S. and Vietnamese Navy forces.
  • Game Warden secured many sections of the major Delta and Rung Sat Special Zone rivers for commercial use.
  • Helicopters were essential to riverine operations in fire support, observation, and medical evacuation.21

By all accounts, the Seawolves punched above their weight class.

Don’t Be Afraid to Adapt

The Seawolves were successful for two main reasons: their people and organizational adaptability. For people, the Navy cast a wide net that attracted the best warriors from coast to coast who were motivated to serve their country and test their mettle in combat. Their strong bonds to each other and their commitment to always answer the call enabled them to surpass overwhelming odds again and again. It is an important reminder that as much as technology changes, warfighting is still a human-centered business. With respect to organizational adaptability, fortunately in this instance, there were enough senior navy and military leaders in the right positions who recognized the lack of navy close-air support helicopters in Vietnam was going to be a serious tactical shortfall and then acted swiftly to alter course. But it is also important to recognize there were plenty of navy leaders that were against establishing HA(L)-3. Recall the words of Rear Admiral Ward as he was searching for helicopters: “The navy had told me they didn’t have any available and couldn’t do anything to help me.”22 Like Rear Admiral Ward with the Seawolves, we should never be afraid to adapt to changing circumstances and pursue what we know to be right, even if that means altering the programs, equipment, or processes we hold most dear as an institution. As Basil H. Liddell-Hart noted, “Adaptability is the law which governs survival in war as in life.”23

UH-1 Huey helicopter of Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3 (HA(L)-3) escorting river patrol boats in Vietnam – circa 1968 (Photo via

There are countless examples of militaries adapting in war, from Roman legions, to World War II radar and ASW advancements. Just like the U.S. Navy riverine patrol force of Vietnam, the Union had to make similar adaptations during the Civil War. Union military planners focused their naval strategy on three pillars: 1) blockade the Southern coast, 2) launch amphibious assaults to capture ports and strongholds, and 3) split the Confederacy along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.24 The problem however was that the Union Navy did not have any serviceable vessels that could fight on the burgeoning battlespace of America’s rivers. To win the war as fast as possible, the Union Navy would need to adapt and that is exactly what they did, just like the Navy did in Vietnam. The Union military created their own river patrol force by retrofitting old wooden sidewheel river boats and contracting new, low-draft “City Class” gunboats. The gunboats’ low draft came at the expense of a significant loss of armor, which increased their vulnerability, but a good enough solution now was much better than a perfect solution later. They hastily armed the gunboats with whatever guns they had available, including older 42-pounders offered by the Army, and 8-inch and 32-pounder Navy guns.25 It got the job done. The adaptation greatly aided the Union cause with victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and many other critical locations, turning the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favor.

We Must Adapt Faster than our Rivals

Today, the challenges are just as complex. Countries like China and Russia are increasingly blurring the line between military, economic, and political domains. General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, wrote:

The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures…26

In this vein, actions like the invasion of Crimea, land reclamation in the South China Sea, election meddling, and attempts to gain strategic access through economic blackmail and debt leveraging, all illustrate how countries can and will use every instrument at their disposal to gain an advantage.

A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority tells us that we must “learn and adapt faster than our rivals,” but our rivals are fast at work, too. For instance, China is predicted to have 360 battle force ships by the start of 2021 (compared to 297 for the U.S.), 400 by 2025, and 425 by 2030.27 Fueling this massive shipbuilding spree is a military budget that has increased by at least 1,000 percent since 1990.28 China now has the second-highest defense expenditure in the world with $266.4 billion, behind only the United States.29 The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also understands the value that an adaptable force can bring. China’s 2019 Military White Paper directed China’s armed forces to “actively adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition, the new demands of national security, and new developments in modern warfare, so as to effectively fulfill their tasks and missions in the new era.”30 The PLA’s focus is on closing the relative power gap with the United States as fast as possible and enabling a military establishment that is adaptable to changing conditions.

Sun Tzu wrote that, “As water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions. And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.”31 Any future conflict with an adversary will not unfold exactly how we think it will. Numerous variables may alter the battlespace to create something completely unrecognizable to what we previously planned. Plans may have to be altered, tweaked, or scrapped and replaced altogether. Prized programs may have to be changed, halted, or redirected. Our strategy may prove to rest on faulty assumptions that demand quick change. If we devise an out-of-the-box solution, we should seriously consider embracing it, just as the Navy did by creating the HA(L)-3 Seawolves in the 1960s.

We cannot prepare for everything, nor do we have the money and resources to do so. But we can prepare our people and our decision-makers to be flexible and agile enough to respond quickly to changing trends and landscapes. If we find ourselves in a war with a peer competitor, being smart enough to recognize when we need to change the game plan and brave enough to implement it will make all the difference. Just like Rear Admiral Ward and the Seawolves, we must never be afraid to adapt when the mission demands it.

Lieutenant Commander Andrew Poulin is a MH-60R pilot and a Navy political–military scholar. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard University. Previously, he served as the President of CIMSEC and is currently a member of the CIMSEC Board of Directors. The opinions expressed above are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


1. Richard Knott, Fire From the Sky: Seawolf Gunships in the Mekong Delta, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 31.

2. ADM John Richardson, USN, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0” (December 2018),

3. ADM Michael Gilday, USN, “FRAGO 01/2019: A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” (December 2019),

4. PBS, “The Sixties: Moments in Time,”

5. Judith C. Erdheim, “Market Time – CRC 280,” Center for Naval Analyses (September 1975),

6. CDR S. A. Swarztrauber, USN, “River Patrol Relearned,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Vol. 96, No. 5, (May 1970),

7. Lewis Owen, Gilbert White, and Jeffrey Jacobs, “Mekong River,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

8. CAPT Frederick Brazee, USN, “The Mobile Riverine Force, Mekong Delta, Republic of Vietnam, 16 February 1967-10 January 1968: Personal Experience of a Company Commander and Assistant Brigade S2,” U.S. Army Infantry School, Fort Benning, GA (23 September 1968),

9. Edward J. Marolda and R. Blake Dunnavent, “Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam,” Department of the Navy: Naval History and Heritage Command (2015).

10. Richard Knott, Fire From the Sky: Seawolf Gunships in the Mekong Delta, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 25.

11. Knott, Fire From the Sky, 24-25.

12. Navy Seawolves, “HC-1 Early History,”

13. Knott, Fire From the Sky, 26-27.

14. Hill Goodspeed, “I am a Sailor and a Seawolf,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Vol. 33, No. 3, (June 2019),

15. John Darrell Sherwood, War in the Shallows: U.S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968, (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command), 125.

16. Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 126.

17. Goodspeed, “I am a Sailor and a Seawolf.

18. Government Publishing Office, “Honoring Veterans of Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three,” Congressional Record, Vol 156, No. 99, (June 29, 2010),

19. Naval Helicopter Association Historical Society, “Naval Helicopter History Timeline: 400BC till 1940,”

20. Knott, Fire From the Sky, 192.

21. Victory Daniels and Judith C. Erdheim, “Game Warden – CRC 284,” Center for Naval Analyses, (January 1976),

22.Knott, Fire From the Sky, 25.

23. Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland, “Tactics 101 – Adaptation in War,”

24. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Riverine Warfare: The U.S. Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters,”

25. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Riverine Warfare.”

26. General Valery Gerasimov, Russian Federation Armed Forces, “The Value of Science is in the Foresight,” Military-Industrial Kurier (27 February 2013)

27. Congressional Research Service, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” (May 21, 2020),

28. Trading Economics, “China Military Expenditure,”

29. Center for Strategic and International Studies, “China Power: What Does China Really Spend on Its Military?”

30. People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” (July 2019),

31. Lt Col Brian D. Dickerson, USAF, “Adaptability – A New Principle of War,” U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, (July 2003),

Featured Image: UH-1 Huey (HAL-3) – Vietnam War – October 1969 (Photo via

Sea Control 223 – Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World with Andrea Pitzer

By Anna McNeil

Sea Control 223. Author Andrea Pitzer joins Sea Control’s Anna McNeil to talk about her recent trip to the Arctic and her new book, Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World. From current events to personal testimony, nothing beats firsthand experience and insight into one of the most remote regions of the world.

Download Sea Control 223 – Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World with Andrea Pitzer


1. Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer, Scribner, 2021.
2. One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer, Little, Brown and Company, 2017.
3. Longitude by Dava Sobel, Bloomsbury USA, 2010.
4. “Polar bears and Arctic isolation: A Russian opposition activist describes military service as ‘political exile,’” by Robyn Dixon, The Washington Post, January 2, 2021.
5. “Sailors found alive at sea after 13ft wave smashes into boat in -30C weather,” by Will Stuart and Milo Boyd, The Mirror, December 28, 2020.
6. Barents expedition art by Sergey Nekrasov at the Rijksmuseum.
7. Arctic Strategic Outlook, United States Coast Guard, April 2019.
8. In the Arctic, Look to the Coast Guard,” by Walker Mills, USNI Proceedings, August 2020.

Anna McNeil is a Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the podcast team at

On the High Seas: CIMSEC’s Top 10 of 2020

By Dmitry Filipoff

While 2020 was a turbulent year for a multitude of reasons, thankfully it was a year where CIMSEC achieved new heights. Last year was our highest-trafficked year to date, with increasingly growing and more sustained interest from new readers. 

Our success primarily comes from the excellent authors who wish to engage with CIMSEC to share their ideas and writing. To commemorate the beginning of the new year and to share our thanks with contributors, we have assembled CIMSEC’s top 10 most-read pieces of 2020.

Read on to see our biggest hits of last year, and may 2021 be another year of growing interest in international maritime security.


1.”Evolution of the Fleet: A Closer Look at the Chinese Fishing Vessels off the Galapagos,” by Dr. Tabitha Mallory and Dr. Ian Ralby

“A flurry of news stories in late July 2020 reported on the ‘discovery’ of a ‘massive’ fleet of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters off the Galapagos, which fluctuated to over 350 before the fleet finally left by mid-October to fish farther south. Yet the presence of the Chinese distant water fishing fleet in the area has been expanding for several years…Using data and insight from Windward, a predictive maritime intelligence platform, our analysis examines how this fishing phenomenon has evolved over time and who is behind this increasingly intensive fishing effort.”

2. “Lifting the Veil on the Lightly Manned Surface Combatant,” by Ben DiDonato

“As the U.S. Navy moves into the unmanned age and implements Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), there is a need for small, lightly manned warships to streamline that transition and fill roles which require a human crew. Congress has expressed concerns about unmanned vessels on a number of fronts and highlighted the need for a class of ships to bridge the gap. The Naval Postgraduate School’s Lightly Manned Autonomous Combat Capability program (LMACC) has designed a warship to meet this need.”

3. “Down to the Sea in USVs,” by Norman Polmar and Scott C. Truver

“A family of large, medium, and small USVs will take advantage of new technologies – some only dimly perceived in early 2020 – to provide increased capabilities to the Fleet with reduced construction, maintenance, and manpower. Getting there from today’s fiscal environment is critically important, and there is still much work to do to increase trust and develop CONOPs, but the potential for these unmanned vehicles to transform the future Navy is astounding.”

4. “Why Military Sealift Command Needs Merchant Mariners at the Helm,” by Dr. Salvatore R. Mercogliano

“…despite this vital role, they lack representation within the command structure of the U.S. Navy. They are taken for granted by the Department of Defense and the public in general. They are overlooked in most strategic studies of American military policy and posture. And yet it is not clear whether in a future war the nation will be able to count on the U.S. merchant marine as it has in past conflicts.”

5. “The Advent of Naval Dazzle Camouflage,” by Mark Wood

“It was not until 1917 that a Royal Navy officer wrote to the admiralty in London with what he considered might be a possible solution. Norman Wilkinson was a successful painter of maritime seascapes, and an artist for the Illustrated London News, who had set his career aside in 1915 to join the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. After submarine service in the Mediterranean, he was transferred to mine-sweeping duties in home waters and it was at this point that his idea for a radical form of effective camouflage began to take shape.”

6. “Put the Commander back in Commander’s Intent,” by Capt. Bill Shafley

“Commanders today are disadvantaged in many ways. We have large staffs and refined processes. Our communications methods create opportunities for over-communicating and are bereft of the right information at the right time for the right decision. Doubling down on putting the commanders back in intent, providing them with the skills necessary to create time and space for thinking and reflection, and deepening our investment in their development will help lay the foundation for successful mission command.”

7. “Marines and Mercenaries: Beware the Irregular Threat in the Littoral,” by Walker Mills

“The Marine Corps needs to be fully cognizant of not just the potential for high-end, major combat operations in the littorals, but also of the irregular threats it may be called to address at any time. The Marine Corps needs to make sure that as it shifts its focus to major combat operations against a peer or near-peer adversary it maintains the capability to counter irregular and asymmetric threats against U.S. interests and allied in the littorals.”

8. “How China has Overtaken Japan in Naval Power and Why It Matters,” by Toshi Yoshihara

“A major reversal of fortunes at sea has gone largely unnoticed. Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy sped past the Japanese maritime service across key measures of material prowess. The trendlines suggest that China will soon permanently displace Japan as the leading regional naval power in Asia. This historic power transition will have repercussions across the Indo-Pacific in the years to come. It behooves policymakers to pay attention to this overlooked but consequential shift in the naval balance between two great seafaring nations.”

9. “The Navy’s Perpetual Racism Problem and How to Fix It,” by LCDR Reuben Keith Green, USN (ret.)

“The Chief of Naval Operations has acknowledged that there is racism in the Navy. He needs to go one natural – but painful – step further and acknowledge that you can’t have racism without racists. You can’t have rape without rapists. You can’t have sexual harassment without harassers. You can’t have discrimination without actions, both individual and institutional, that discriminate. You can’t have failed leadership without failed leaders.”

10. “At the Commissioning of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Aircraft Carrier Baekdusan,” by JD Work

“The cheers of the crowd were deafening as the sharp prow of the Baekdusan fast carrier (CVL) slid into the dark waters of the protected basin at Sinpo. The adulation may have even carried some genuine enthusiasm by those caught up in the sight of North Korea’s first aircraft carrier officially launching, mixed in of course with mandatory nationalism under compulsion for fear of “encouragement” by watchful political commissars…The oddities of the unusual, algorithmically-derived dark blue pattern were perhaps a fitting metaphor for the long, strange journey that brought this hull to North Korean shores. Bringing a new light carrier into service would be an impressive feat for any naval enterprise, let alone the Korean People’s Navy.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: INDIAN OCEAN (Jan. 6, 2021)
The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) steams in the Indian Ocean, Jan. 6, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Drace Wilson)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.