Moving Forward: Evolution of the Maritime Operations Center

The following article originally featured on MOC Warfighter and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By William Lawler, CAPT USN and Jonathan Will, CAPT USN (Ret.)

After WWII, the U.S. Navy’s ability to plan and execute at the operational level of war (OLW), which links tactical actions with strategic objectives, progressively diminished. Following 9/11, Navy senior leadership recognized this shortcoming and introduced a new concept, the Maritime Operations Center (MOC), to address it. In 2005, the CNO, VCNO and major fleet commanders committed to the reinvigoration of U.S. Navy operational-level execution by spreading the MOC concept throughout the fleet. This article traces the development of the MOC, recognizes that the Navy has markedly improved its ability to effectively plan and execute at the OLW, and makes recommendations for moving forward.

Why MOC?

The MOC concept was born out of difficulties experienced by the Navy in operational planning, command and control (C2), and Service interoperability when it took part in joint operations in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Operation Desert Storm (1991). While the Navy made significant contributions to these operations as a force provider, it was generally perceived that Navy personnel lacked the expertise and capacity required to plan and command campaigns and major operations. In short, the Navy had lost its ability to plan and execute at the OLW.

After 9/11, ADM Clark and subsequent Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNOs) recognized the need to enhance the planning and C2 capabilities of Navy OLW staffs. The result was a CNO vision to establish networked commands with MOCs that would employ common doctrine, standardized processes, educated and trained personnel, and common C4I systems. These strengths would enable them to operate with diverse partners (joint, interagency, coalition, or combined) across the range of military operations. The MOC concept was first used in 2002 by the U.S. Second Fleet during Fleet Battle Experiment Juliet (FBE-J) in ExerciseMillennium Challenge 02, using a draft tactical memorandum (TACMEMO) as the basis. The MOC concept and TACMEMO were further developed the following year in FBE-K. Over the next few years, six additional fleets stood up as MOCs: Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Fleets, U.S. Fleet Forces, and Pacific Fleet.

The CNO directed USFF to establish a flag-level governing board to provide oversight, focus and recommendations for improving Navy ability at the OLW. The challenge was that planning and C2 concepts were understood only by a small number of naval officers. In response to CNO guidance and fleet commander requests, the Naval War College (NWC) took several steps to assist with implementing the CNO’s MOC vision to include instituting flag officer courses: a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) Course in 2005 and a Combined Force Maritime Component Commander (CFMCC) Course in 2006. Also in 2006, in response to CNO guidance and a Secretary of Defense requirement that combatant commanders certify their joint headquarters and subordinate component commands, the NWC initiated the Assist and Assess Team (AAT) and the Maritime Staff Operators Course (MSOC). The AAT was to support fleet operational commanders and share lessons learned and effective practices, and MSOC was to educate officer and senior enlisted personnel en route MOC billets. In 2007, the President of the NWC formally established the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership (COSL), in part, to focus NWC efforts as an advocate for developing the Navy’s OLW expertise. Additionally during this time, NWC doubled the throughput of active duty planners at the Naval Operational Planners Course (later expanded to the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School) and lengthened the intermediate curriculum at the war college by four weeks to enable greater depth of study in Joint Military Operations.

During this time, the draft TACMEMOs that were used during earlier Fleet Battle Experiments as the foundation for the MOC construct and MOC processes developed further and became doctrinal publications: Joint Publication (JP) 3-32,Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations (2006); Navy Warfare Publication (NWP) 5-01, Navy Planning (2007); NWP 3-32, Maritime Operations at the Operational Level of War (2008); and Navy Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (NTTP) 3-32.1, Maritime Operations Center (2008).

In 2008, the CNO formalized a requirement for Maritime Headquarters Training and Accreditation in OPNAVINST 3500.40, and U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFF) established a team to support that effort. After an initial round of fleet “MOC accreditation” was completed by the end of 2009, the CNO eliminated the requirement for MOC accreditation, and in 2012 instituted an OLW education and training continuum in OPNAVINST 3500.40A. This instruction: (1) designated Commander, USFF as responsible for manning, training, and equipping all MOCs, (2) designated President, NWC as responsible for MOC education of flag officers, officers, and senior enlisted personnel, and (3) tasked USFF and NWC to collaborate to form a Navy MOC Training Team (MOC-TT) to support MOCs during operations and exercises and disseminate effective practices to facilitate mission accomplishment and advance commonality.

Since the introduction of the MOC concept, two additional fleets with MOCs were established: U.S. Fourth Fleet (C4F)/U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command in 2008, and U.S. Tenth Fleet (C10F)/U.S. Fleet Cyber Command in 2010. U.S. Second Fleet and its MOC were disestablished in 2011 as part of a Navy reorganization, being subsumed into U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

MOCs in Practice: Then and Now

Fleet staffs have evolved considerably under the MOC construct over the past six years. Out of necessity, they started with an internal focus on people, processes and organization, but now they have progressively matured their MOCs to include more habitual external linkages, while facing more complex challenges due to the changing environment.

MOCs from 2007-2009

Early efforts to implement the MOC concept focused on breaking down the “stove pipes” inherent in the existing Napoleonic “N-code” organizational structure of the fleets and replacing them with the more agile, efficient, and cross-functional MOC construct. Across the fleets there existed a wide range of roles and missions the MOCs had to support, from theater security cooperation, to crisis response, to defense support to civil authorizes, to supporting full-scale contingency operations. Fleet commanders thus aligned their MOC organizations and processes to support their respective combatant commander’s missions while taking into consideration the requirements unique to each geographic area of responsibility (AOR). Additionally, commanders shaped their MOCs to support event horizons and decision cycles specific to their fleet, and ensured that their MOCs would allow them to act as JFMCCs, Navy component commanders (NCCs) or joint task force (JTF) commanders.

During early MOC implementation, fleet staffs focused mainly on revamping their organizational structures and processes. While some fleets implemented change more rapidly than others, by 2009 established fleets had implemented joint-based boards, bureaus, centers, cells and working groups (B2C2WGs) either alongside or in lieu of traditional N-codes, and had established the initial functionality of the core activities of current operations (COPS), future operations (FOPS), and future plans center (FPC). Implementation of an assessment function varied widely across the fleets. Each fleet also established a battle rhythm designed to synchronize the activities of the staff and assist the commander’s decision cycle. However, some fleets were not synchronizing their B2C2WGs with those of higher headquarters (HHQ) unless operational necessity forced the linkage.

Early MOC information management/knowledge management (IM/KM) efforts primarily focused on establishing common collaborative tools for use in each AOR. For example, some fleets used Defense Connect On-Line (DCO) because their HHQ did, while others used video teleconferences and/or transitioned to voice over secure internet protocol (VOSIP) to conduct meetings with HHQ, components and subordinates. Additionally, early in the MOC development process fleet staffs appeared to place more emphasis on their internal KM efforts, sometimes at the expense of improving their ability to collaborate with their subordinates via tools like Collaboration at Sea (CAS) portals. Emphasis on establishing initial battle rhythms and B2C2WG applications was generally internal, limiting rapid integration with HHQ and peer components during crisis transition.

As MOCs were developing their organizational structures, internal processes, and IM/KM tools, there was also a strong effort to enhance planning capacity. The infusion of pre-assignment education for fleet staffs bolstered planning capability and enabled fleets to establish common procedures and introduce the concept of planning time horizons (far, mid, and near). However, fleets struggled with the ability to manage and synchronize multiple planning teams, often failing to fully include subordinate task forces in planning, and had difficulty proactively providing supporting plans that had been coordinated with peer components to HHQ.

While interaction between the MOCs was mostly limited to specific initiatives including maritime domain awareness (MDA), MOCs demonstrated the ability to collaborate during some routine operations (e.g., C5F counter-piracy operations), exercises, and the response to the Haiti earthquake (C4F with support from C2F and USFF). However, there was still significant room for improvement with respect to improving the ability of MOCs to synchronize and integrate their activities.

By 2009 there was widespread concurrence at the fleet commander level that the MOC construct yielded several benefits when compared to the traditional Napoleonic staff construct as depicted in Figure 1.


While the MOC concept was deemed to have several advantages over the traditional N-code organizational structure, observers noted that common problems existed across the fleets that needed to be addressed including forming and transitioning the staff, assessment, and IM/KM.

MOCs from 2010-2012

MOCs continued to evolve during this period with the addition of one new fleet staff, the functionally oriented C10F (cyberspace, space, cryptologic and information operations), while USFF and its MOC subsumed C2F. Years of experience implementing the MOC construct resulted in MOCs that were able to conduct crisis response planning and cross-AOR drills, support joint exercises, and plan and command real-world operations such as Operations Odyssey Dawn(C6F with support from C5F and C2F) and Tomadachi (CPF and C7F with support from C3F). As one fleet flag officer observed, “The global stressors for MOCs included simultaneous events that spanned multiple AORs and stressed OLW commanders in planning and responding to changing events and missions.” The diverse nature of fleet responses to these events evidenced the fact that MOCs had truly become tailorable, flexible, and scalable organizations while still maintaining a degree of commonality.

An important area of growth during this period was the enhancement of relationships among MOC principals, lead planners, and key action officers and their counterparts at HHQ, other components and fleets, and subordinate task forces. Historically, flag and general officers have made it a priority to establish working relationships with their counterparts. As the MOCs evolved, there was an increased recognition that efficiency and effectiveness could be enhanced if other key staff members established routine working relationships external to the MOC. As a result, fleet staffs became better postured to rapidly and accurately feed information into the commander’s decision making cycle and help their commanders manage the operations process (plan, prepare, execute, and assess).

The capacity and ability of fleet MOCs to utilize the Navy Planning Process also increased during this timeframe. Although many of the Marines assigned to Fleet MOCs still provide critical planning expertise, no longer is the fleet commander required to rely heavily on the Fleet Marine Officer to lead all critical planning. The Navy continues to produce capable planners resulting in more detailed plans and an improved alignment with HHQ and subordinate staffs. However, while staff planning capability has improved, certain negative trends warrant scrutiny. Many observers agree that MOCs need to generate more thorough maritime supporting plans to combatant commander plans, connect fleet planning more closely with subordinate task forces, and better leverage the use of supported-supporting relationships. This has been recognized by the fleets and is driving a requirement for more planning capacity. Additionally, fleets recognize the necessity to synchronize simultaneous planning efforts across the three event horizons to help better align and conserve manpower. Staffs better understand the need to build maritime products such as maritime supporting plans, OPGENs, OPTASKs, and DIMs that better support and complement joint products such as OPLANs, OPORDs, and FRAGORDs.

Although still not standardized, IM/KM tools and processes have become more common across the fleets. Much recent effort has focused on better nesting MOC battle rhythms with HHQ and subordinates. The result has been a greater ability to rapidly connect and synchronize with key external commands at the outset of a crisis.

Fleets are now building greater detail into their manpower documents, transitioning from a basic manning document with a pool of augmentees, to more specific fleet/joint manning documents that focus on distinct roles of the commander, missions, and forward command element considerations. Manning documents now identify the required rank and skill set for each billet, thus enhancing the staff’s ability to more rapidly and effectively gain additional capacity through reach-back and/or augmentation.

Addressing Common MOC Challenges

Although the Navy has made great strides in its ability to plan and execute at the OLW, observers routinely see four areas of improvement needed across the MOCs as seen in Figure 2.


Crisis transition, shifting within the MOC from routine to crisis operation mode, has always been challenging, but becomes even more difficult if staffs do not train in a realistic operational environment. Most MOC staffs have built basic transition plans based on applicable manpower documents, MOC processes, procedures and organization. However, the challenges of shifting MOC staff from routine operations and facilities is increasingly complex; fleet commanders are faced with supporting a wide range of joint and Service roles while the environment drives an increasing demand for reach-back support from other MOCs and supporting agencies. Continuing refinement of SOPs and doctrine, and practicing crisis transition in more robust environments that stress staff sustainment should pay big dividends. Unfortunately, exercises often do not allow OLW commanders to validate staff sustainment and production capability during crisis transition due to their short duration, lack of depth, or single-phase focus of the exercise.

Planning Capacity and Management

While planning capability has improved across the fleets, there is still not enough planning capacity because of ever-increasing requirements (e.g., maritime supporting plans) for planning expertise. Additionally, staffs continue to struggle with the requirement to manage multiple plans that span different time horizons (near, mid, and far). Staffs must continue to become more proactive and disciplined in assigning planning efforts to limited staff planning resources based on event horizons and continue to improve their internal transition processes from future plans to future operations to current operations. Too frequently staffs have reacted to events and not kept their planning horizons sufficiently stretched into the future.

Fires and Targeting Processes and Capabilities

At the outset of planning, fires must be designed to support the commander’s objectives, intent, and guidance, and should provide options designed to achieve lethal and non-lethal effects. During planning, fleet staffs must develop a fires concept from the JFMCC perspective and lobby for its integration into the overall joint concept. Crafting a well-defined concept of fires is especially vital during operations where the JFMCC is the supported commander and must take lead for the prioritization of joint fires.

A common mistake is to lump fires and targeting together as if they were the same thing. Fires is the use of weapons systems to create specific lethal or nonlethal effects on a target and is essentially an art. Targeting is a science – the process of selecting and prioritizing targets and matching the appropriate response to them, considering operational requirements and capabilities. The ultimate purpose is to achieve an effect – a change to the physical or behavioral state of system that results from an action, set of actions, or another effect – that contributes to the commander’s objectives and end state.

Fires and targeting training at the OLW is often individually focused, and fires elements/cells frequently do not train together on the systems they will use during actual mission execution. This man-train-equip disconnect is exacerbated when MOCs transition from routine to crisis operations. At this time, fires activities normally shift from a maritime targeting focus to influencing the deliberate joint fires processes for maritime objectives which support the broader joint objectives. This requires the activation and augmentation of the naval and amphibious liaison element (NALE) at the air and space operations center (AOC). The NALE usually trains separately from the MOC and lacks established working relationships with MOC personnel, further limiting effective interaction between the NALE and the fires element/cell. Current exercises do not fill the gap between training and execution because they rarely stress the transition from target planning to fires execution to relevant combat assessment.

At the OLW, fires and targeting are often executed as if they were stand-alone operational functions or processes. As a result, staffs struggle with synchronizing all of the other operational functions (C2, movement and maneuver, protection, intelligence, and sustainment) of the command while at the same time delivering integrated fires in real-world operations.

Finally, across the fleets the established targeting processes remain largely reactive to the joint force air component commander (JFACC) air tasking order (ATO) cycle. There is usable doctrine for the joint targeting process, but no doctrine that truly integrates planning for kinetic and non-kinetic effects, including information operations and cyberspace operations. Moving forward, maritime components need to rely less on being a “force provider” to the JFACC ATO cycle, and should strive to work toward more common JFMCC targeting and fires processes that align with the JTF staff, while including wider integration of kinetic and non-kinetic effects.

Information Operations/Cyberspace Operations Integration

All MOCs would benefit from enhancing their ability to integrate information-related capabilities (IRCs), to include cyberspace operations, into planning, preparation and execution. Staffs would be well served to implement processes whereby IO working groups engage in every aspect of the Navy Planning Process, thinking through if, when, and how IRCs can be employed to accomplish the commander’s objectives as well as how the use of IRCs can be integrated into the concept of fires. Such integration will likely involve discussions concerning authorities, ROE, and C2, and require working with C10F supporting elements. Opportunities and challenges associated with information and cyberspace operations integration will have a significant impact on MOC development in the foreseeable future.


MOCs across the fleet have made substantial progress over the past six years, both in their internal processes and organization as well as their ability to support external requirements. However, the increasingly dynamic operational environment will continue to drive naval component and fleet commanders to aggressively pursue all opportunities to best support joint force commanders.

In the near term, maritime OLW commanders must consider new C2 constructs designed to enhance their ability to communicate vertically and horizontally and to accomplish the assigned mission. Moving forward, given anticipated fiscal constraints, MOCs will need to work together to address the common challenges outlined above and in so doing contribute to the next evolutionary phase in the Navy’s ability to plan, prepare, execute, and assess at the OLW.

Captain Lawler is the Deputy Director of Operational-Level Programs, and Professor. Will is the Deputy Director of the Assist and Assess Team, both of which are part of the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership at the Naval War College, Newport, RI.

Featured Image: YOKOSUKA, Japan (Oct. 3, 2016) Capt. Carroll Bannister, the U.S. 7th Fleet Maritime Operations Center, director, right, give a tour of the MOC to Adm. Tomohisa Takei, Chief of Maritime Staff, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Kofonow/Released)

Countering Chinese Expansion Through Mass Enlightenment

By James E. Fanell and Ryan D. Martinson

From Newport to New Delhi, a tremendous effort is currently underway to document and analyze China’s pursuit of maritime power. Led by experts in think tanks and academia, this enterprise has produced a rich body of scholarship in a very short period of time. However, even at its very best, this research is incomplete—for it rests on a gross ignorance of Chinese activities at sea.  

This ignorance cannot be faulted. The movements of Chinese naval, coast guard, and militia forces are generally kept secret, and the vast emptiness of the ocean means that much of what takes place there goes unseen. Observers can only be expected to seek answers from the data that is available.

The U.S. Navy exists to know the answers to these secrets, to track human behavior on, above, and below the sea. While military and civilian leaders will always remain its first patron, there is much that USN intelligence can and should do to provide the raw materials needed for open source researchers to more fully grasp the nature of China’s nautical ambitions. Doing so would not only improve the quality of scholarship and elevate the public debate, it would also go a long way to help frustrate China’s current—and, to date, unanswered—strategy of quiet expansion. Most importantly, sharing information about the movements and activities of Chinese forces could be done without compromising the secrecy of the sources and methods used to collect it.

The Constellations are Visible…

The basic story of China’s maritime aggrandizement is printed in black and white, no need to read tea leaves. There exists a public life in China, even if highly circumscribed. Chinese journalists are paid to write articles that satisfy the urges of an inquisitive and patriotic public. Chinese scholars spend careers trying to understand the intentions and capabilities of their own country—like academics elsewhere, they banter back and forth in defense of “truth,” and bruised egos. Government agencies release reports that catalog their achievements, outline key objectives, and mobilize their personnel for the new tasks at hand. The Chinese military, communicating through service publications, seeks to inculcate a collective consciousness of what it does and why it does it. All of these sources are open to the foreign observer.

The available information provides important clues about the nature and extent of Chinese activities at sea. This is true for all three of the sea services: the coast guard, the maritime militia, and the PLA Navy.  

The movements of the Chinese coast guard are particularly amenable to open source analysis. China does not operate a single maritime law enforcement agency analogous to the United States Coast Guard. It instead funds several different civilian agencies, each with a different mission. Prior to the creation of the China Coast Guard in 2013, the agencies most active along China’s maritime frontier were China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). Both agencies released surprising amounts of information through official newspapers, annual reports and yearbooks, and other channels.

In this Sept. 23, 2015, photo, provided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac, a Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. A landmark ruling on an arbitration case filed by the Philippines that seeks to strike down China's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea will be a test for international law and world powers. China, which demands one-on-one talks to resolve the disputes, has boycotted the case and vowed to ignore the verdict, which will be handed down Tuesday, July 12, 2016, by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. (Renato Etac via AP)
Sept. 23, 2015. A Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. (Renato Etac via AP)

These sources include significant quantitative data. For instance, it is possible to track the expansion of CMS presence in disputed waters that started in 2006. In that year, CMS began to regularize its sovereignty—or “rights protection”—patrols, first in the East China Sea, then in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea. Each year, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) published data on these operations. In 2008, CMS conducted a total of 113 sovereignty patrols. These missions, which covered more than 212,000 nm, established CMS presence in all of the waters over which China claims jurisdiction. Four years later, in 2012, the service conducted 172 sovereignty patrols (>170,000 nm) just in the South China Sea alone.

Qualitative data also abounds. Before 2014, both CMS and FLE regularly invited Chinese journalists aboard ships operating in disputed areas. These civilian scribes chronicled China’s campaign to reclaim “lost” land and sea. While primarily designed to inspire and titillate Chinese audiences, their work provides excellent source materials for the foreign observer. For instance the eight-part Chinese television documentary that aired in late 2013 showed extensive footage of CMS and FLE ships operating in the South China Sea, including during hostile encounters with Indonesian and Vietnamese mariners.

Chinese sources also provide raw materials for understanding the activities of the second major instrument of Chinese sea power—the maritime militia. This force is comprised of civilians trained to serve military and other state functions. In peacetime, a segment of the militia, mostly fishermen, constitutes an important tool in Chinese maritime strategy. It sails to disputed waters to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty and justify the presence of the Chinese coast guard and navy. The militia also harasses foreign vessels, and helps protect China’s own.

18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)
18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)

China’s maritime militia is particularly active in the South China Sea. The Chinese press eagerly covers their activities in disputed waters, often revealing ship pennant numbers and the names of key militiamen. Websites owned by provincial, municipal, and county governments also highlight their local contributions to the “people’s war” at sea. Using such sources, Conor Kennedy and Andrew Erickson have tracked the militia’s activities at places such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and deciphered its role in pivotal events such as the 2009 assault on the USNS Impeccable.

The PLA Navy also releases information about where, when, and how it is operating. Air, surface, and undersea deployments are called “combat readiness patrols” (zhanbei xunluo). Service publications regularly report on these patrols—including, perhaps surprisingly, those conducted by China’s “silent service.” For instance, one October 2014 article in People’s Navy recounts a story of Song Shouju, a submarine skipper from the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet (SSF), whose diesel electric boat was prosecuted by a foreign maritime patrol aircraft and a surveillance vessel during one combat readiness patrol. According to Song, his boat was subjected to 80 hours of active sonar, placing him on the horns of a dilemma. If he surfaced, it would mean a mission failure and “put Chinese diplomacy in an awkward position” (suggesting the submarine was not operating where it should have been). But if he remained below, the boat would risk the consequences of depleting its battery. In the end, the captain decided to stay submerged until the threat had passed, which it ultimately did.1

The PLA Navy is particularly forthcoming about patrols taking place beyond the “first island chain.” These are regularly reported in the Chinese press, both in English and Chinese. In May 2016, for example, six vessels from the SSF—including three destroyers, two frigates, and an auxiliary—completed a 23-day training mission that took them through the South China, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific by means of the Sunda Strait, Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and the Bashi Channel. At least one Chinese journalist was onboard to cover the 8,000 nm voyage. Again, the available data is not limited to the movements of surface combatants. For instance, a January 2014 People’s Navy article revealed that since 2009, 10 submarines and 17 aircraft from the ESF had traversed the first island chain to conduct “far seas” operations.2 Sources like these have enabled foreign researchers such as Christopher Sharman to trace the connection between Chinese actions and its declared naval strategy.

Chinese missile destroyer Haikou (171) is seen while docking in Hong Kong on April 30, 2012. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese missile destroyer Haikou (171) is seen while docking in Hong Kong on April 30, 2012. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

To follow Chinese activities at sea, one need not rely on Chinese sources alone. Foreign governments also sometimes release data. Often this information is associated with a particular incident. For instance, in mid-2014, the Vietnamese press published numerous articles in English covering China’s provocative deployment of an advanced new drilling rig (HYSY-981) in disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands. More recently, Indonesia released useful information about its response to illegal Chinese fishing and coast guard activities taking place near Natuna Island.

For its part, Japan systematically issues data on Chinese presence in the waters adjacent to the Senkaku Islands. Graphical depictions of these data vividly show Chinese expansion over time, from the inaugural intrusion of two CMS vessels in December 2008 to the regular patrols that started in September 2012 and continue today. Indeed, the quality and consistency of this data has enabled foreign analysts to use quantitative methods to test theories about shifts in Chinese diplomacy.

…But Darkness Still Prevails

The information described above, while useful, nevertheless presents many problems. This is true even in the case of data on Chinese coast guard operations, which are easily the richest available to the open source researcher. A “rights protection” patrol can mean anything from a two-day sweep of the Gulf of Tonkin to a several-month mission to the southern reaches of the Spratly Archipelago. Thus, while the available data unmistakably capture the broad trends of Chinese expansion, they lack the fidelity needed for closer examination of deployment patterns. With the creation of the China Coast Guard, all this is now moot. The Chinese government no longer publishes such data, and Chinese journalists are now seldom allowed aboard ships sailing to disputed waters.

The problem is much worse in the case of the maritime militia. No Chinese agency or department systematically tracks and releases information on militia activities. Because only a portion of fishermen are members of the militia, fishing industry data is a poor proxy. Thus, there is no way to scientifically track the activities of irregular forces operating along China’s maritime frontier. We generally only learn about particular incidents, remaining largely ignorant of the context in which they take place.

Consistent data on PLA Navy activities in disputed and sensitive waters is simply not available. We do know that in recent years the service “normalized” (changtaihua) its presence in the Spratly Archipelago, but Chinese sources provide no definition of what that term means. Thus, while it is clear that the PLA Navy has augmented its surface ship patrols to these waters, we have no means to gauge the scale of that augmentation.3 In the East China Sea, Chinese sources do speak candidly about hostile encounters with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. However, the open source researcher has few options for gauging the extent of PLA Navy presence east of the equidistant line.

There is a more fundamental problem that must be reckoned with: in most cases, the foreign observer often lacks the means to validate deployment data found in Chinese sources. Ultimately, one must take the word of the Chinese government, which naturally considers political factors—both internal and external—when issuing such content. Information released by other governments can be valuable, but foreign statesmen have their own motives. Sometimes they seek to downplay differences. For example, it is likely that for many years China and at least some Southeast Asian states had a tacit agreement not to publicize incidents at sea.

In sum, the available open source data can account for only a tiny fraction of what Chinese maritime forces are doing at sea. Moreover, the validity of information that is available must be seen as suspect. This is where naval intelligence can help.

Sharing the Spotlight

Naturally, U.S. naval intelligence professionals, particularly those in the Pacific, pay close attention to the comings and goings of Chinese maritime forces. To this end, they employ a wide variety of sources, from highly sensitive national technical means to visual sightings made by U.S. and allied forces at sea. They also optimize other resources of the U.S. intelligence community to support their mission requirements.4 Suffice it to say, the naval intelligence community is well aware of the disposition of China’s naval, coast guard, and militia forces.

The foundation of this effort is the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation (PFIF), established in September 2013 by then United States Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Cecil Haney. The PFIF “provides direction for the organization and collaboration of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence and cryptologic resources to support the maritime Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL) mission” of “tracking adversary ships, submarines and aircraft at sea.” It represents a level of focus and systematization not seen since the Cold War.

The PFIF is a true collaborative enterprise, involving “coordination from Sailors across multiple organizations at various echelons, afloat and ashore, working in unison 24 hours a day, seven days a week providing the most precise maritime OPINTEL to our afloat forces.”5 Efforts are “federated” across nodes in Japan, Hawaii, San Diego, and Washington D.C.6 Relevant data collected by regional allies are also included. The result is the adversary Common Operational Picture (RED COP). Through RED COP, the PFIF provides Fleet Commanders and deployed forces precise geo-coordinate level intelligence regarding the location of maritime platforms across the Pacific Fleet area of responsibility. It also contains a detailed pedigree of the sources used to identify the location of an adversary unit.

How might the USN translate RED COP into information that is valuable to the public  yet does not risk sources and methods? The answer lies in the format of the transmitted product. While American forces require the detailed information contained in the RED COP, the U.S. public does not. Therefore, the USN could issue a standardized series of PowerPoint graphics that contain generic depictions of PRC maritime force disposition across the Indo-Pacific region, if not the rest of the world. Since the technology used today by PFIF watch-standers can automatically produce this type of graphic, this would involve no new burden for naval intelligence professionals.

Some may argue that placing an adversary unit in a location where there is no “plausible deniability” could expose a source or method of intelligence collection. Four factors eliminate this risk. First, the generic placement of an adversary platform on a PowerPoint graphic would, by definition, not contain the level of fidelity required to determine the source of the contact. Second, as mentioned above, nearly all locations of maritime forces at sea are derived from multiple sources. This fact further complicates the task of determining any one particular source. Third, generic graphics would be published monthly, or biweekly at the most. This would dramatically reduce the potential risk to sources and methods. Fourth, and most importantly, there may be times when the Fleet Director of Intelligence (or higher authority) may deem the location of a particular ship, submarine or aircraft to be too sensitive. In such instances, they can simply remove the platform(s) from the briefing graphics. This would provide a final, fail-safe check against revealing any sensitive intelligence collection sources or methods. Together, these four factors would eliminate the possibility of compromising sources and methods, even with sophisticated algorithms of “pattern analysis.”

Such an initiative would not be entirely without precedent. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) already produces the “World Wide Threat to Shipping” and “Piracy Analysis Warning Weekly” reports, which provide graphic and textual laydowns of the global maritime domain as derived from unclassified sources. The recommendations outlined in this essay would represent an expansion of current efforts under the auspices of ONI, using the PFIF’s all-source data as the primary source.

Office of Naval Intelligence (U) HORN OF AFRICA/GULF OF GUINEA/ SOUTHEAST ASIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report for 6 - 12 October 2016
10 Day Piracy small boat operations weather forecast from Office of Naval Intelligence (U) HORN OF AFRICA/GULF OF GUINEA/SOUTHEAST ASIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report for 6 – 12 October 2016.

The Rewards of Mass Enlightenment

Releasing such data would immediately benefit efforts to understand Chinese maritime strategy. It would open up whole new swaths of scholarship. Chinese actions could be directly correlated to Chinese words. Incidents could be placed in their correct context. Theories about China’s pursuit and use of sea power could be proposed and tested with new levels of rigor.

Better open source analysis would also benefit the intelligence community itself. The strengths of academic scholarship—such as understanding strategic and organizational culture—could be applied to the same questions that preoccupy USN analysts, perhaps yielding fresh insights. Efforts to contextualize the activities of China’s maritime militia, for example, would be especially welcome, given its peculiar social, cultural, and political roots.

While scholarship is valuable in and of itself, the ultimate purpose of such an initiative would be to improve the ability of our democracy to respond to the China challenge. Elected officials, who ultimately decide policy, take cues from public discourse. Thus, if wise policies are to be crafted, the broader American public must be fully aware of the threat that China’s pursuit of maritime power poses to American interests. This is especially important given that any proper response would require the whole nation to bear costs and accept risks. Unlike Russia, China’s actions are carefully calibrated not to arouse a somnolent American public. This places a very high premium on information about the actions that China is taking.  

To be sure, information is not an antibiotic. Ingesting it in the right quantities at the right frequencies may not cure the disease. Indeed, there is already enough data in the public domain for Americans to see the key trends. Yet there remain some very smart people who cannot, or will not, recognize the perils we face. Even so, the correct antidote to intellectual biases is ever more information; as data accumulates, the naysayers must either alter their theories or risk self-marginalization.

Sharing facts about Chinese activities at sea is not just good for democracy, it is also smart diplomacy. At this point, merely shining the spotlight on Chinese maritime expansion is unlikely to persuade China to radically alter its strategy. The China of Xi Jinping is less moved by international criticism than the China of Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. However, releasing detailed data on Chinese activities at sea would likely have an impact on foreign publics, who will use it to draw more realistic conclusions about the implications of China’s rise. Moreover, making such information widely available would help counter spurious Chinese narratives of American actions as the root cause of instability in the Western Pacific. Both outcomes are in our national interest.

To adopt the approach advocated in this essay would require a political decision. On matters of national policy, naval intelligence professionals must yield to civilian leaders.7 In the end, then, this essay is for the politicians. And so is its last word: share with the scholars.

James E. Fanell is a retired U.S. Navy Captain whose last assignment was the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and is currently a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

1, 周卓群, 李克一 [Zhang Yuannong, Zhou Zhuoqun, and Li Keyi] 潜航深海磨利刃 [“Sailing Submerged in the Deep Ocean to Sharpen Our Blade”] 人民海 [People’s Navy], 8 October 2014, p. 3.

2.  [Gu Caohua]   中抓建,造深蓝铁 [“Seize on Construction While in Action, Mold a Blue Water Iron Fist”] 人民海 [People’s Navy] 8 January 2014, p. 3.

3. 李唐 [Li Tang] 海化巡覆盖万里海疆 [“Normalized Naval Patrols Cover the Maritime Frontier”] 人民海 [People’s Navy] 23 June 2014, p. 1

4. James E. Fanell, Remarks at USNI/AFCEA conference panel: “Chinese Navy: Operational Challenge or Potential Partner?”, San Diego, CA, 31 January 2013.

5. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.

6. Ibid. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.

7.The authority for conducting an effort such as this would require approval from the Director of National Intelligence and the various “Original Classification Authorities” as outlined in Executive Order 1352. “Executive Order 13526- Original Classification Authority”, The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 29 December 2009,

Featured Image: A sailor of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning. (REUTERS/XINHUA)

The Problem of Mission Command

This article originally published on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By L. Burton Brender   b

Mission command has some real problems. Of course, the concept sounds great, or at least General Patton seemed to think so: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” As you might expect, the US Army Command and General Staff College supports this belief, devoting hours to discussing the logic of empowering junior leaders. However, to paraphrase a US Air Force B-1 bomber pilot from the 2015-2016 class, the military rarely practices this. This article attempts to answer why. It submits that there are serious risks inherent within the philosophy of mission command that cause many people to reject it, if not in word then in deed. Three of these risks are the fear of subordinates making mistakes, the discomfort of superiors feeling out of control, and the angst of leaders chancing their careers on others’ mistakes. These are real dilemmas that inhibit the practice of mission command and ones that we in the military community often choose not to discuss—but like all dilemmas, they are easier to fix when confronted.

Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke
Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke

The philosophy of mission command is the empowerment of subordinate leaders to creatively solve problems within a higher commander’s intent. This philosophy surfaced prominently in military writing with the 1890 Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The benefits of an agile and autonomous force, according to German military theorist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, include the ability “to act on the basis of [one’s] own view of [a] situation, [especially] at times when no orders can be given.”

United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Brian Steed, a military history professor at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, once outlined the costs of embracing mission command as he saw them. One, audacity risks stupidity. Military leaders must accept that empowering juniors makes them equally capable of great heights of genius and of striking failures. Two, loosening control risks chaos (or at least the appearance of such). Allowing others to take control means that they may do things differently than their superiors would have. Lastly, leading empowered subordinates means superiors may pay the price for their mistakes. Perhaps the greatest threat to the implementation of mission command is the fear that leaders who practice it will be called to account for the leeway they granted. However, as threatening as all of this may look, Steed stressed that it is only by accepting and managing these liabilities prudently that we can have leaders capable of serving in the complex and rapidly changing environments in which we fight.


Subordinate empowerment can go terribly wrong. One prominent example is the battle of Little Bighorn. In 1876, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s 7th Cavalry was part of a large operation pursuing Chief Sitting Bull’s native coalition. During his 19 years in the Army, Custer had built a reputation as a daring commander. At age 23, he was one of the youngest generals in the American Civil War, establishing himself as an extremely aggressive leader in such engagements as Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field in the Battle of Gettysburg. Though a willingness to think for himself had won him success during the Civil War; later, though, it cost his and his men’s lives in battle with the Sioux.

In late June 1876, Custer’s force was part of a brigade-sized element attempting to destroy Sitting Bull. Colonel John Gibbon, Custer’s brigade commander and direct superior, ordered Custer to use his cavalry regiment to drive the enemy into the bulk of his waiting brigade. As Custer approached the enemy’s camp, though, he believed that hostile scouts had already compromised his element of surprise. He reasoned that if he did not act immediately, the enemy would escape as it had so many times before.

The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)
The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)

Operating well removed from direct supervision, Custer acted upon his judgment. He disregarded his commander’s plan and ordered his regiment to attack what he thought was a weak-willed enemy. Unfortunately for the 7th Cavalry, though, instead of a frightened band of renegades, Custer encountered a stalwart force of thousands of natives who killed nearly everyone in his command.

The same same audacity that had served Custer so well in the past ended in his unit’s ruin on that midsummer day. Both Gibbon’s and Custer’s Auftragstaktik resulted in failure, which brings us to an unpleasant reality: the chance that plans can fail horribly is a real and indelible risk associated of mission command. However, equally bound up with the risk of failure is the possibility of great success.

General Matthew B. Ridgway

The power of mission command is that it enables military units to adapt quicker and act more boldly than organizations in which subordinates are afraid to make decisions on their own. One example of this comes from the Korean War. When General Matthew Ridgway assumed command of the 8th United States Army, following the death of General Walton Walker, General Douglas MacArthur told Ridgway that “[You should] do what you think best…the Eighth Army is yours.” Ridgway later commented, “[T]hat is the sort of order that puts heart into a soldier.” Ridgway would go on to fight the North Koreans and Chinese ardently and ingeniously until the 1953 armistice at the 38th parallel. Mission command enables leaders, like Ridgway, to be audacious and successful just as much as it risks failures like Custer’s. It allows people the latitude to come upon opportunities and seize them.


For superiors, mission command is about accepting a certain loss of control. Indeed, by necessity the philosophy embraces a measure of seeming disorganization. Once, the author of this article observed a cavalry squadron’s training mission against a simulated chemical bunker in Korea. In preparation for the event, one troop commander carefully rehearsed his operation, including a 3-D digital walk through of the facility with his squadron commander present. The troop commander’s rehearsed plan was to enter the U-shaped bunker from the right—but upon arriving on the objective late on the night of the attack, the plan no longer made sense. On the fly, he decided to enter from the left. Obviously, going left instead of right was a small deviation from what he had briefed to his boss, but from the outside his actions might have looked like bedlam. That subordinate commander went about solving his problem differently than he had briefed and perhaps even differently than his commander would have. Extemporaneous decision making like that can insert a degree of unease into the execution of a plan, particularly for those superiors who do not feel comfortable with improvisation.

Supervisors may genuinely feel nervous about how their subordinates are going to perform when they are left to themselves, and not without good reason. Superiors practicing mission command allow their subordinates considerable leeway. For relationships where trust has not yet developed, or when supervisors require direct control to feel safe, there can be serious discomfort with mission command’s seemingly laissez-faire processes.

Yet, the lessening of control is an essential element of mission command and of the creative problem solving process itself. On another occasion, the author observed several staff officers preparing a presentation for their commanding general’s training brief to his higher command. In a brainstorming session, the general presented his message to the staff. His verbal message was masterfully articulated; however, he wanted a slide to support his point and was not sure what he wanted it to look like. So, three operations officers from his staff broke apart and created three entirely different slides. When the officers submitted their products to the general, he was pleased with the variety his staff afforded him and even more pleased that one of slides met his needs.

Neither the general nor the officers’ direct supervisor had any direct input on the creative process, yet their team still came up with a winning solution. The trust the leadership placed in their subordinates to enter into the “chaos” of unsupervised creativity allowed the general to deliver his message to his commander in the desired way.


It is important to admit that mission command can be a risky business. Why? Because superiors stand to lose a lot if their organizations fail at a task. Military officers are proud of saying that leaders are responsible for everything that happens and does not happen in their unit. Indeed, they should be proud of it: it is a key component of leader accountability. However, Brian Steed asserts this responsibility has a definite effect on the application of mission command that leaders ought to acknowledge.


To illustrate the career risks that failure carries, a recent conversation with an Armor branch manager revealed a sobering statistic. Officers that made Armor’s 2015 battalion command select list had an average of approximately four and a half of five evaluation reports rated as “most qualified” (the highest rating), and merely advancing to lieutenant colonel required a record nearly as good. He continued that to get anything less than a nearly perfect history of evaluations means risking one’s very military retirement (at least as an Armor officer). This has the effect, however unintentional, of making aspiring officers reluctant to give their subordinates enough power to get them into trouble.

Addressing this issue starts with the institutional Army. To again paraphrase that same branch manager, with whom Steed agrees, the current standard of what a promising field grade officer looks like on paper is not sustainable. There simply are not enough top blocks to go around. Armor, at least, will eventually have to recalibrate its definition of what good enough is…or not have enough officers selected for its commands.

And while that particular example is drawn from the author’s own Armor branch, one could find parallels in almost any hierarchical organization, military or otherwise. Increasingly difficult-to-meet standards within competitive organizations inadvertently encourage leaders to tolerate less risk. According to Steed, the threat of a stalled career is often strong enough to prompt leaders to forego mission command and ensure they never get a mediocre evaluation. At the very least, the institution must acknowledge this.

However, the responsibility to empower mission command is not just at the institutional level. While every leader is affected by the system in which he or she works, he or she should never minimize his or her own ability to effect change. While some subordinates do warrant management in depth (though such individuals should soon find themselves differently employed), most do not need such paternalism. It is incumbent upon leaders to adroitly assess their subordinates and extend the maximum degree of latitude prudent for the circumstances. Yes, frustrating retraining will be involved and yes, subordinates will make foolish mistakes. However, to play to those factors is to miss the brilliance and ingenuity that lies within our team members.


It is within our power, indeed, it is our responsibility as leaders, to make mission command a daily reality. The United States’ military missions are too complicated and its formations too geographically dispersed to expect success without it. But to practice mission command we must accept three things: audacity risks stupidity, less control involves the appearance of chaos, and leaders who empower others will always incur risk. But, as Lieutenant Colonel Steed might say: if we can know the difference between honest mistakes and incompetence, if we can find the courage to let subordinates operate independently, and if we can accept that we might be held personally responsible for mistakes we did not make, then we can also achieve the prudent audacity to win wars, the brilliance to solve complex problems, and the wisdom to better realize our most important resource: people.

Burton Brender is an officer at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. He holds a master of military arts and sciences from the Command and General Staff College and has held a variety of staff and command positions within the armor field. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Header Image: Lt. Gen. George Patton with the signal corps, 11 July 1943, Sicily. (General George Patton Museum)

Members’ Roundup: September 2016

By Sam Cohen

Welcome to the September 2016 members’ roundup. Throughout the month, CIMSEC members examined several international maritime security issues, including the successful testing of Raytheon’s SM-6 surface-to-air-missile by a Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, developments surrounding the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, the rise of non-state actors in international maritime security affairs, continued hostility between China and regional nations relating to the South China Sea maritime disputes, and the worsening of security tensions between American and Russian air and naval forces patrolling the Black Sea. 

Dave Majumdar, for The National Interest, discusses the Raytheon SM-6 Standard surface-to-air missile test that recently set a new record for the longest-range over-the-horizon intercept in naval history. The interceptor, which also has a long-range anti-ship variant, is a central component of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network. He highlights that the missile is effective against cruise missiles, aircraft, ballistic missiles, and enemy surface combatants while its range is estimated to be as great as 250 nautical miles. He also explains that the SM-6 interceptor is a major reason for why the U.S. Navy is confident in its ability to operate in highly contested environments, including regions where near-peer competitor powers have employed anti-access/area-denial weapons, such as the Baltics or the Western Pacific.

Bryan McGrath, for Scout Warrior, provides several recommendations for how the U.S. Navy should methodically approach future fleet architecture and force structure planning. He explains that developing the fleet to meet the challenges of great power competition should be central to this approach, largely because the capabilities this requires will allow for other critical security demands to be met as a byproduct, including control over trade routes, combating non-state actors, and enforcing maritime security. He also suggests that the relationship between the Navy and the Marine Corps should be funded as an asymmetric advantage unique to American seapower capabilities, while Congress should increase the overall resource allocation the Navy receives in order to meet the rigors of growing great power dynamics and the increasingly complex, multi-domain operational objectives associated with those adversaries.  

Steven Wills, for U.S. Naval Institute News, provides a review of the changes made to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and explains that although the ships’ new training procedures, modularity, and operational organization may seem revolutionary, these new features simply reinforce the ship’s core missions. He explains that the majority of the LCS force will be forward deployed in support of operational commander tasking while personnel swaps will be undertaken to keep the ships forward deployed for longer periods of time. He also adds that mission modules will be exchanged between different LCSs to meet strategic operational requirements. Although the LCS has received significant opposition from both military and political officials, he notes that the large numbers of LCSs planned for forward deployment will meet the fleet’s specific demand for 52 small combatant vessels, and more generally, the need for increased warfighting capacity across the force. 

Paul Pryce, for The NATO Association of Canada, discusses the rise of non-state actors across the international maritime environment, highlighting the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Chinese Coast Guard’s training and funding of fishing militias to support China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. He explains that the advent of these actors and their practices represent an overall increase in hybrid warfare on the oceans, a development which is likely to undermine regional security across the highly contested waters in the Asia-Pacific. With non-state actors offering plausible deniability for the states that support their activities, he suggests that states should seek greater cooperation in the enforcement of international maritime law by launching frequent and functional joint patrols as a means of building mutual trust between countries. He explains that this trust will increase constructive dialogue towards resolving ongoing disputes and will mitigate the tensions non-state actors and militias can induce between nations. 

Members at CIMSEC were active elsewhere during the month of September:

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on CIMSEC or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to

Sam Cohen is currently studying Honors Specialization Political Science at Western University in Canada. His interests are in the fields of strategic studies, international law and defense policy.

Featured Image: A P-8A Poseidon flying alongside a Lockheed P-3 Orion, close to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, 2010 (U.S. Navy photo by Liz Goettee)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.