Merchant Warships and Creating a Modern 21st Century East Indiaman

Sea Control Topic Week

By Steve Wills

The East Indiaman was an iconic vessel from the age of “fighting sail” that combined the features of a robust, long-range cargo ship with the weapons of a frigate-sized combatant. One source defines these vessels as, “large, strongly built vessels specifically designed by the great trading companies of England, France and Spain for the long and dangerous passage to the Far East. They were, as a type, powerfully-armed and carried large and well-disciplined crews.”1 John Paul Jones’ famous flagship USS Bonhomme Richard was such a vessel, formerly of the French East Indies Company.

The great mercantilist trading companies of the age of sail are long gone, but the idea that a heavily armed merchant ship might again more fully participate in naval warfare has new credence. The advent of the large, survivable container ship, with the potential for containerized weapon systems changes the calculus of the last century where merchant ships were soft targets requiring significant protection. If properly armed and crewed, U.S. owned and U.S. government chartered container ships have the potential to become powerful naval auxiliaries capable of defending themselves and presenting a significant risk to those that might attack them. Such ships could free naval escorts for other combat duties and contribute toward short term sea control while otherwise engaged in logistics operations.

The Historical East Indiaman

The East Indiaman was a significant vessel type throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. While designed to carry high value cargo through dangerous waters, they were capable of being quickly up-armed to the point where some could mount as many guns as a major warship. For example, the British Royal Navy (RN) purchased the British East India Company (EIC) vessel Glatton in 1795 for warship conversion. Originally armed with 26, short-range, but powerful carronade weapons, she was up-gunned by the RN to a total of 56 guns and served in several engagements with French, Dutch, and Danish forces, notably the 1802 Battle of Copenhagen when she was commanded by William Bligh; formerly the master of the mutinous Bounty.

Their large size caused pirates and French naval vessels to often mistake them for more heavily armed ships of the line. When actually engaged in battle, the East Indiaman usually performed well if not excessively overmatched. The East Indiaman General Goddard operating with one RN ship of the line and several other company ships captured eight of her Dutch East Indiaman counterparts off Saint Helena in 1795. They were however vulnerable if overmatched. In July 1810, two company ships; the Ceylon and the Windham; both with respectable frigate armament of near 30 guns each were captured by a strong French frigate squadron. The East Indiamen still put up significant resistance to the French attack; allowing a third ship of their convoy; the Astel to escape.

20th Century Armed Merchantmen

The end of the British East India Company after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the advance of modern technology, and the 1856 Declaration of Paris where Europeans powers took a firm stand against privately owned warships helped eliminate the concept of a heavily armed cargo ship. Armed merchantmen returned however in both World Wars as nations sought to protect their trans-oceanic convoys from German U-boats and surface raiders. In the First World War nations armed merchants with old naval weapons as a defense against both surface warships and surfaced submarines. These ships generally gave good accounts in battle; sometimes against similar craft when the British armed passenger ship RMS Carmania sank the German armed liner SMS Cape Trafalgar in a rather bloody battle at close range in 1914. Also active were disguised raiders for surface action and Q-ships to lure submarines to destruction.

Carmania sinking Cap Trafalgar off Trinidad, September 14, 1914. (Charles Dixon via Wikimedia Commons)

World War II again saw all of these auxiliary naval units in action. In the first six months of the war the U.S. lost 350 merchant ships and 3000 merchant seaman. Raiders could sometimes defeat purpose-built warships if they retained the element of surprise and/or disguised themselves as peaceful vessels. The German Raider Kormoron was able to fatally wound the light cruiser HMAS Sydney under these conditions but was lost herself due to return fire from Sydney. The U.S. again assigned naval personnel as weapons crews on U.S. merchants, primarily against air and surface attack. The U.S. Merchant Marine Armed Guard was assigned to this mission during the Second World War and suffered over 1800 dead in the course of its operations.

The practice of arming merchantmen again fell into decline after the Second World War, although naval auxiliaries continued to be armed with defensive weapons through the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union and in the downsizing of the U.S. Navy that followed, nearly all commissioned supply and auxiliary ships were shifted over to the authority of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in an attempt to save money through re-crewing with a smaller number of civil service MSC mariners rather than with Navy sailors. A 1990 Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report suggested, “The Navy would save $265 million annually if the service turned over 42 support ships and tenders to MSC.” The study attributed the annual savings to much smaller crew sizes on MSC ships. It reported, for example, that civil service crews on a Navy oiler would be half the crew size the Navy used on those ships. The auxiliaries assigned to MSC were disarmed of weapons upon transfer from the Navy, and those built or added since have not been equipped with them. However some classes such as the Lewis and Clark TAK-E class are, “designed with appropriate space and weight reservations “to allow future installations of self-defense systems as required.

A New Breed of Cargo Carrier

Maritime technology has in effect come full circle with the advent of extremely large container ships that effectively carry half the cargo weight of an entire World War II convoy with a single hull and larger than all of the world’s combatant warships, some even larger than U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Pioneered by the American President’s Line under the leadership of Ralph Davies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, container ship growth in size and numbers has been astronomical with nearly 90 percent of all world commerce moved by these ships and their “twenty/forty foot equivalent length TEU” containers now commonplace throughout the globe. So-called “Panamax” container ships stows 5,000 TEUs and the “Super-Panamax” size supports 13,000 TEUs. The very largest of these vessels support over 20,000 such containers.

The Maersk Line operates better than 600 large container ships (about 15 percent of the global fleet,). 86 ships are ultra-large, Super-Panamax vessels and Maersk builds about 20 ships per year. This creates the opportunity to incorporate underwater signature control and survivability measures including foundations for modular combat systems in huge mass production hulls for MSC habitually chartered ships. The hull speed ratio (~0.6), the ship fineness ratio, and the huge slow speed props gives a sustained sea speed of 24 knots and an acoustically silent speed that with non-cavitating props that may well exceed 24 knots.

21st Century East Indiaman

TEU containers can support more than just cargo. In recent years some nations have developed a variety of “containerized” weapon systems to include guns, mortars, small missiles and even larger cruise missiles. The combination of the very large container ship, vast numbers of containers per ship, and containerized warfighting tools offers the possibility of a 21st century East Indiaman. Such a ship might field several dozen “militarized” containers with offensive and defensive weapons, sensors, and the communications equipment needed to link the ship to larger, regional battle networks. If not already possessed of helicopter facilities, additional containers could support rotary wing aviation. The vessel might carry large numbers of unmanned air vehicles for both offensive and defensive missions. They won’t have large crews for damage control and their container-based combat systems may likely be fragile and not capable of sustained combat as a warship could.  A 7,000-ton frigate’s combat systems could weigh about 1050 tons, about the equivalent of 35 TEU loads and might occupy 70 TEUs of space. If a container load for the modular combat system must supply power as well – figure 100 TEUs – a small fraction on a 5000 TEU PANAMAX ship’s cargo space.  Erecting the modular combat system at sea might constitute a larger challenge unless the ship was designed for the purpose and had self-enablement cranes. That said, such capabilities might be enough to repel an attack on a convoy by light or medium enemy forces. Like their 18th century forebears, 21st century armed cargo ships could in effect escort themselves with significant self-defense capabilities and magazine spaces equivalent to those of medium-sized warships. The Israelis and the Russians are already experimenting with these concepts.

Israeli LORA launch test.

While not built to warship survivability standards, the sheer size of modern container ships contributes to their survivability rating. Large merchant ships that have been the victims of attack since the 1980s have shown remarkable resiliency in resisting damage. In 1987 the large oil tanker Bridgeton, a reflagged Kuwaiti vessel being escorted by U.S. Navy ships as part of Operation Earnest Will mounted in response to the 1980s “tanker war,” shrugged off a mine hit and continued operations. A similar weapon disabled the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, a purpose-built convoy escort ship. The 21st Century East Indiaman could free up escorting warships for more offensive actions. The price tag for such a vessel might be relatively low, with most costs being associated with the additional containerized weapons and sensors, as well as the small Navy crew needed to operate the vessel.

The U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) as a Source

While the current MSC fleet has few container ships ready for armament, the Civil Mariners are thinking again about how to operate in a more contested environment than that of the last 30 years. Of the combat logistics force, the T-AO-205 and T-AKE-1 classes already have excellent signature control. They can be given a guided missile frigate (FFG) equivalent combat system as part of their new construction design or for T-AKE at mid-life overhaul. There has also been informed discussion on the legal implications of arming civilian vessels. An armed MSC ship acting as a combatant risks blurring the legal lines between military and civilian personnel. Civil Service Mariners may need to be designated as U.S. Navy reservists under special cases such as active wartime operations in order to avoid having civilians operating weapon systems. Such discussions would likely become academic at best in the midst of a high end war where logistics ships would be a prime target.

Containerized Club-K missile (Wikimedia Commons)

MSC usually charters container ships and tankers from large operators such as Maersk. These operators are continuously building ships in production numbers. Container ships and tankers are much larger than combat logistics ships. The operators can design features into the ships MSC habitually charters such as underwater signature control, side protection systems, and AI controlled robotic damage control and appropriate adaption for modular combat system installations at little additional cost. Many of the features may be suitable for general commercial use in that the ships can approach conflict areas more closely and may enjoy lower insurance rates.

Moving Ahead with Armed Merchantmen

While there remain considerable legal and policy issues regarding the concept of merchant ships armed with shipping container-based weapons, the technology appears ready for use. Such vessels could add to fleet size and free destroyers and littoral combatant ships for other missions other than convoy escort. The question is whether or not the U.S. Navy would embrace the idea of an armed container ship as a combat unit in its own right. Given the current size of the fleet and the potential need for high endurance escorts for the Navy’s replenishment force, a force of 21st cargo ships outfitted with frigate-level armament to escort themselves makes good financial and operational sense.

Steven Wills is a Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.


[1] Jack Coggins, Ships and Seman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, 31.

Featured Image: Chinamax ship Berge Stahl (via Maritime Connector)

The Nature of Sea Control and Sea Denial

Sea Control Topic Week

By Dr. Ching Chang

The Awareness of Maritime Dominance

The desire of sea control comes from awareness of the maritime dominance. Various human societies have created maritime civilizations through their access to maritime activities. Without maritime activities, no human society could have had the opportunity to produce maritime interests. If maritime interests that stem from these maritime activities may fully satisfy all the parties involved then there is naturally no ground for the occurrence of maritime struggle.

Nonetheless, the reality of maritime interest follows the same economic rule that limited production fails to satisfy unlimited demand. The competition for maritime dominance was accompanied by maritime struggles in various forms. Armed campaigns, commercial competitions, and diplomacy are accommodated into the integrated efforts of maritime struggles. The command of the sea is the final concept born from maritime struggles as the general goal for safeguarding maritime interests generated by maritime activities and all the associated dependence.

As for sea control, it is only a part of the concept included by the command of the sea concept since sea control is alternatively parallel with sea denial, another important approach within the command of the sea concept. We may define sea control as acquiring and securing the privilege to utilize the maritime space in the period of time as expected. Nonetheless, whether the adversaries and neutral parties may use the same maritime space at the same time is not necessarily the concern of sea control approach. On the other hand, we may also define sea denial as excluding adversaries from utilizing the maritime space in an expected period of time and place of choosing. Integrating these two aspects of sea control and sea denial together and their effects on the nature of choice can serve as a foundation for maritime operational design for earning command of the sea.

The Nature of Sea Control

What is the objective of sea control? Can the sea itself be controllable? What is the exact essence of sea control? The maritime space is a medium for transportation and communication. Nonetheless, the realization of sea lanes of communication might not be necessarily confined to the maritime space itself but the platforms for transportation in the maritime space.

The sea itself cannot not be explicitly controlled; neither can it be occupied like land. To exercise sea denial is essentially targeting the attempts or aspirations by other parties to exploit sea space. Basically, there are two different schemes, deterrence and compellence, to achieve sea denial. Deterrence is literally to force other parties not to take certain actions they would rather to do originally. On the other hand, compellence is actually to force other parties to take certain actions that they are not willing to do in the beginning.

The goal of sea denial is similar to exercising other forms of power that it may also manipulate others’ decisions and actions. It may adopt a deterrence scheme to discourage others to challenge the privilege of utilizing the maritime space. Otherwise, should the deterrence scheme fail, it may also actively adopt compellence schemes to defend the privilege of using the maritime space within a period of time. The essential element is targeting the decisions and actions of those who attempt to challenge the privilege of utilizing the maritime space, not the specific maritime space itself.

We also need to identify the causal relationship between freedom of navigation and sea control. To safeguard a sea lane of communication is to secure the maritime communication lines at the operational level in order to further support other strategic and operational maneuvers. It is not always necessary to occupy specific maritime space to undermine or destroy maritime communication lines. This is different in nature compared to breaking communication lines or transportation networks on land which are often attained by destroying vital transportation nodes such as tunnels or bridges, or occupying physical space.

However, paralyzing maritime transportation is executed by destroying the maritime platforms directly since it is relatively hard to “occupy” a maritime space unless one has truly uncontested maritime supremacy. The matter is to exercise sea control in order to terminate adversaries’ freedom of navigation, or vice versa, to eliminate adversaries’ freedom of navigation in order to achieve the status of sea control. Sea control and freedom of navigation, or alternatively known as safeguarding the sea lanes of communication, are both the ends and means of the command of the sea concept.

One should always recall that the value of maritime space is justified by its connectivity. To secure a maritime space by excluding the presence of other parties through sea denial but in the process also precluding substantial maritime activities (such as civilian commerce) can quickly become counterproductive. However, to dominate a maritime space of poor connectivity is like to occupy a desert none have interest in. To exercise sea control in a maritime space that an adversary rarely ever attempts to challenge can sometimes suggest the maritime space in question is perhaps not so important to a greater ambition of command of the seas.

There are many misperceptions about sea control. First, the sea control is only a means to secure the privilege of utilizing the maritime space. And subsequently, the major utilization of the maritime space is maritime transportation. We therefore may conclude that the freedom of navigation or the maritime communication lines should be the true purpose of sea control efforts. Second, the maritime space could not be occupied or controlled like land territories, though blockade operations can still be practical in a maritime campaign. Blockade operations are actually exercising a form of sea denial as a function of sea control.

Last but not the least, three major factors, force, space and timing, at the operational level are still interrelated in exercising sea control. The forces necessary for conducting a sea control scheme are decided by the scale of the maritime space and the length of duration expected by utilizing the maritime activities there. Also, the size of the adversaries’ forces to challenge this privilege may also be the variable in the overall sea control formula. The process of sea control is always interactive.

Conclusion: Can There Only Be One?

Human societies may divide land into different spheres of influence and draw borders, but will this become the case in the maritime space in an era of great power competition? The value of maritime activity is derived from its connectivity. Occupying or dominating a maritime space but disconnecting it from other parts of the global oceans is a misuse of power born from the historical experience of landpower applied to the maritime theater.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a very productive commentator on the Chinese military affairs, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings.

Featured Image: ParticipanxvParticipants from the RIMPAC 2000 exercise establish a flotilla off the coast of Kauai. (Photo via U.S. Military Sealift Command)

For Sea Control, First Control the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Sea Control Topic Week

By LCDR Damien Dodge

Rapidly maturing electromagnetic technology will revitalize U.S. Navy combat potential and enhance opportunities to establish sea control. As the new National Security Strategy aptly illustrates the United States is faced with resurgent great power competition. Simultaneously, the Joint Operating Environment of 2035 portends a future influenced by the proliferation of disruptive and asymmetric capabilities engendered through global advances in “science, technology, and engineering” expanding the innovation horizons of “robotics, Information Technology, nanotechnology and energy.”1 The Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment reinforces this view and highlights aggressive competition due to adversary advances in high-impact dual-use technologies. The creation of Google’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) center in Beijing and China’s recent testing of its “quantum satellite” followed by its rumored fielding of an at-sea railgun offer practical demonstrations of this outlook.2 Furthermore, retired Marine General John Allen and Amir Husain envision “hyperwar,” in which the future battlespace will churn with cross-domain action and counteraction at speeds nearly eclipsing human capacity for comprehension and reaction.3

Within the context of this near-future operating environment, current maritime Information Warfare (IW) capabilities, such as those contributing to Signals Intelligent (SIGINT), Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare (EMW), Electronic Warfare (EW), and communications, do not afford sufficient operational agility or adaptability to gain advantage over or exploit the weaknesses of adversaries. Adversaries that are bent on projecting overlapping and reinforcing domains of combat power near their national shores could overwhelm and exploit seams in current Navy electromagnetic-dependent  capabilities.

Given this challenging, hypercompetitive environment the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority confronts this problem head-on. The CNO seeks to “strengthen naval power at and from the sea” and also to “advance and ingrain information warfare” capabilities across the Navy. This is to enable maritime commanders to achieve objectives through multi-domain maneuver and control “in a highly ‘informationalized’ and contested environment.”4  Additionally, the “Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control” echoes the CNO’s direction by promoting “Distributed Lethality,” which advocates for “increasing the offensive and defensive capability of individual warships, employing them in dispersed formations across a wide expanse of geography, and generating distributed fires.” This is complemented by Defense Department officials advocating for human-machine teaming and an explosion in fielding unmanned systems. Finally, this accelerating competition compels the CNO to advocate not only for a larger fleet, but also one which “must improve faster” where “future ships… [are] made for rapid improvement with modular weapons canisters and swappable electronic sensors and systems.”5

Fortunately, rapid advances in technology, beyond solely enabling adversaries, can also support the CNO’s vision for the Navy – especially one primed to rapidly integrate and learn. With the advent of new designs for antennas and Radio Frequency (RF) components, the evolution of Software Defined Radios (SDR), and more practical instantiations of Artificial Intelligence (AI), these technologies can now be innovatively combined to operationalize envisioned, but not yet fully realized, IW and EMW warfighting capabilities. The capability nexus formed by these swiftly maturing technologies affords the Navy an unparalleled opportunity to maintain cross-domain battlespace decision superiority while outpacing and seeding uncertainty within an adversary’s decision cycle. To achieve this, the Navy must leverage longstanding research investments and aggressively transition these technologies from Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) programs, Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) initiatives, Office of Naval Research (ONR) workbenches, and warfighting center laboratories into fully integrated naval systems. These transitions will provide warfighters the needed tools and decision aids to dynamically control their electromagnetic signatures, provide optimal and low probability of detection communications, deliver more effective Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities, revitalize signals intelligence collection, and engender greater freedom of action across the electromagnetic spectrum. This enabling electromagnetic superiority will present expanded opportunities for maritime commanders to seize sea control at times and places of their choosing.

Emerging Options and Tools in the Electromagnetic Domain 

Antennas and RF components accomplish many functions on a navy ship. These functions are traditionally performed by dedicated single-role RF apertures and components which operate radars, transmit or receive communications, establish tactical datalinks, collect adversary communication signals, and detect or electronically frustrate threat sensors. This stovepipe approach to accessing and influencing the electromagnetic spectrum has created warships bristling with single-purpose antennas awash in scarcely manageable electromagnetic interference (EMI) and subject to individualized, byzantine maintenance and logistic support tails. This situation is a contributing factor to the complexity of the Navy’s C5I architecture afloat, which VADM Kohler admitted requires a 50-person team at the cost of one million dollars to make a Carrier Strike Group fully effective prior to deployment.6 Also, when new capabilities are fielded, such as the F-35, existing systems are often not sufficiently adaptable to absorb their advanced capabilities. Marine Commandant General Robert Neller highlights this issue when lamenting the Marine Corps’ inability to benefit fully from the F-35’s sensors due to Navy amphibious ships being unable to optimally communicate with the aircraft.7 Additionally, shipboard antenna thickets create a significantly larger radar cross section (RCS), thus illuminating these ships to adversary active sensors. Finally, this collection of standalone systems complicates the ship’s ability to manage its electromagnetic emissions in order to hide from passive threat sensors and often the only option may be a tactically dissatisfying binary approach: gain battlespace awareness and communicate, or hide from the adversary.           

In contrast to this patchwork approach, more open architecture (OA) and dynamic phased array antennas combined with advanced element-level RF components are improving beamforming parameters. These include very low sidelobes and extended frequency range dynamics of RF system apertures as revealed by even superficial scans of Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) websites.8 Georgia Tech Research Institute’s agile aperture antenna technology exemplifies these burgeoning capabilities.These capabilities could enable various, low-RCS antenna arrays to perform and synchronize a multitude of electromagnetic functions – evidenced by the Zumwalt class destroyer’s smooth exterior. Separate antenna array elements could form directional, purposeful transmitting or receiving beams pointing to traditional satellites, CubeSats, Aquila-like aircraft, UAVs, or other warships while other array elements establish links or sense the environment.10 These various arrays and elements would be kept from interfering with each other by orchestrating their assigned tasks across temporal (transmission timing), spectral (frequency allocation or waveform selection), and spatial (which element and/or beam) dimensions, or some combination thereof.

For example, an antenna array on the forward part of the ship could switch duties with those on the aft, thus eliminating cut-out zones and distracting ship maneuvers such as steering a “chat-corpen,” which is slang for a ship heading that will maintain satellite communications (SATCOM). Adjustable transmission power and frequency settings combined with narrower beamforming options may offer additional satellite pointing opportunities or improved low-on-the-horizon aircraft communications, while reducing probability of detection or interception by an adversary. Low power, narrow horizontal beams designed for intra-strike group communications could also multi-statically search for surface contacts – referred to in academic journals as “radar-communication convergence.”11 A majority of shipboard spectrum access and sensing could be performed through a more standardized and harmonious set of advanced interconnected antenna arrays, despite the remaining need for distinct electromagnetic array systems such as Aegis or Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP), which are beyond near-term integration into this concept due to their highly specialized functions. Nevertheless, more capable and dynamic antenna arrays and RF components are a source of increased efficiency, greater operational agility, and a potential aperture to confuse adversaries while maximizing friendly communications and sensing.

A necessary complement to advanced antennas and RF components is the flexibility of SDRs and their associated digital signal processing (DSP) capabilities. SDRs can accomplish a wide variety of functions previously relegated to system-specific hardware by using devices such as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) and more generalized, or even virtualized, computing platforms.12 Together these systems can generate, process, store, and share digital data about signals, either for transmission or upon reception. SDRs can generate waveforms electronically-molded for multiple purposes, allowing for backend DSP to differentiate the signal transmissions and, if combined with radar, reflected returns, maximizing the information recovery from each emitted electromagnetic field.

Evolving SDR performance is establishing the foundation for advanced capabilities such as cognitive radio or radar. “Cognitive” in this usage simply implies a capability designed to sense the electromagnetic environment and determine times and frequencies that are being underused, offering an opportunity for use by the system, which is also known as dynamic spectrum access.13 The concept was conceived as a way to achieve more efficient use of the commercial frequency spectrum, given its increasing congestion, but it also has obvious military applications. For example, if a frequency-hopping system was detected in an area, then a cognitive radio could hop to a different sequencing algorithm, or if a radar was sweeping the spectrum at a certain periodicity, a cognitive radar could sweep at a synchronized offset and use both returns for a more refined depiction of contacts in the area. There are even proposals where radar can work collaboratively with cellular signals to detect contacts with a low probability of interception.14 This could be a useful capability during stealthy naval littoral operations. Additionally, within the bounding parameters of the antenna arrays and RF hardware components, new waveform generation only requires a software update enabling an SDR to facilitate communications with new capabilities such as the F-35, a newly launched CubeSat, a friendly unmanned system, a newly arrived coalition partner, or a recently invented low probability of detection waveform designed to defeat the adversary’s latest sensing algorithm.

The more ambitious and final ingredient necessary to achieve improved IW and EMW capabilities is a form of AI designed for electromagnetic applications and decision support. It is obvious from the contributing authors to the recent ITU Journal special issue, The impact of Artificial Intelligence on communication networks and services that Chinese research and innovation is also trending in this direction.15 While SDRs are powerful tools, they could be improved by orders of magnitude through use of AI algorithms such as those derived from Game Theory and Bayesian mathematics.16 SDRs can perform DPS and waveform generation, but AI or machine learning algorithms can assist in orchestrating enhanced scanning and sensing, thus providing the right signals or portions of the spectrum at the right time to the SDRs for DSP and information extraction. In other words, AI could perform higher-level operations such as altering the application of DSP procedures and determining when and how best to sense and exploit underused, or purposefully below the noise floor, portions of the spectrum. AI could also link the myriad permutations of waveform possibilities to operational objectives such as prioritizing air defense electromagnetic sensor processing and EW protection during an engagement, minimizing adversary emission detection opportunities during a raid, or contributing to adversary uncertainty through deliberately misleading emissions during deceptive maneuvers. Together, these capabilities crowned with practical AI implementations could contribute toward easing many tedious, human-speed and error-prone activities used to achieve IW and EMW capabilities. These human errors include hurried and disjointedly setting emissions control, establishing overly static yet fragile communications plans, divining optimal radar configurations, or communicating haphazardly with coalition partners. Empowered with AI-enabled automation and decision aids, a more integrated and homogenous approach using advanced antenna arrays and SDRs to access and sense the spectrum would vastly improve electromagnetic freedom of action and decision superiority. Thus, if the Navy desires to seize sea control when and where she chooses, first establishing electromagnetic spectrum control is a warfighting prerequisite.


All worthwhile visions of the future confront challenges and resistance, and this one is no different. Legacy antennas, components, radios, and architecture litter numerous program offices, each with differing objectives. Therefore, the Navy must diligently work to coordinate deliberate whole-of-Navy modernization schemes that leverage open architecture, emphasize interoperability, and prioritize these technologies in pursuit of this vision’s goals. Beneficially, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division’s Real Time Spectrum Operations (RTSO) and ONR’s Integrated Topside initiative are laboring toward these ends.17 Also, various DARPA activities such as Signal Processing at RF (SPAR),  Shared Spectrum Access for Radar and Communications (SSPARC), and Communications Under Extreme RF Spectrum Conditions (CommEx), Advanced Wireless Network System (AWNS), and the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2) together create a rich portfolio of experience and opportunity awaiting renewed Navy focus and attention.18 Furthermore, it will be critical for the Navy to establish an ecosystem, either contracted as a service or as a core, in-house function, in support of continuous SDR software Development and Operations (DevOps) and AI algorithm development.19 This will enable the Navy to continually pace electromagnetic congestion and adversary competition.

Agilely designed, open architecture antenna arrays and RF components connected to dynamic SDRs and empowered by AI algorithms can revitalize and ingrain IW and EMW warfighting capabilities across the Navy to allow the force to confidently seize sea control and win in the future maritime battlespace. Collectively, these capabilities could bring about currently fanciful opportunities, such as a strike group secretly transiting at night through fishing grounds using radio communications imperceptibly different from the fishing trawlers. Such a strike group could employ both intra-strike group communications and surface search radar while receiving and sending intelligence via recently launched CubeSats transmitting on waveforms indistinguishable with area freighters’ Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite communication links, thus remaining electromagnetically camouflaged while maintaining battlespace awareness and communications. Meanwhile, cognitively networked strike group assets could passively sense and target the adversary’s emissions, enabling distributed but converging fires from distant unmanned platforms across the area of operations. Electromagnetic control establishes the initial conditions for sea control.

Lofty tactics and operations will perform sub-optimally and be disrupted through electronic attack unless the Navy builds a solid foundation in electromagnetic freedom of action. Fortuitously, these technologies creatively combined will lay the keel of advanced naval warfighting upon which future naval success will be built, launching a powerful, tough, and confident Navy into the turbulent waters of great power competition to seize sea control when and where she chooses.

LCDR Damien Dodge is a U.S. Navy cryptologic warfare officer assigned to the staff of Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, NATO. He welcomes your comments at: These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. or Allied government or NATO department or agency.


[1] Joint Operating Environment 2035: The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World, Joint Staff, 14 July 2016, pp. 15-20.

[2] Daniel R. Coats, “Worldwide Threat Assessment  of the  US Intelligence Community,” 11 May 2017,  

and, Reuters, “Chinese quantum satellite sends ‘unbreakable’ code,”, 10 August 2017, and, Shelly Banjo and David Ramli, “Google to Open Beijing AI Center in Latest Expansion in China,”, 12 December 2017,

[3] GEN John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), and Amir Husain, “On Hyperwar,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 7 (July 2017), 30–37.

[4] A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Chief of Naval Operations Staff, Version 1.0 January 2016. Available at,

[5] “The Future Navy,” 17 May 2017,

[6] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Navy Kludges Networks: $1M Per Carrier Strike Group, Per Deployment,” Breaking Defense, 12 February 2018,

[7] Mike Gruss, “Three tech problems the Navy and Marines are worried about,” C4ISRNET, 8 February 2018, available

[8] Examples include: James J. Komiak, Ryan S. Westafer, Nancy V. Saldanha, Randall Lapierre, and R. Todd Lee “Wideband Monolithic Tile for Reconfigurable Phased Arrays,” available and Benjamin Rohrdantz, Karsten Kuhlmann, Alexander Stark, Alexander Geise, Arne Jacob, “Digital beamforming antenna array with polarisation multiplexing for mobile high-speed satellite terminals at Ka-band,” The Journal of Engineering, 2016, 2016, (6), p. 180-188, DOI: 10.1049/joe.2015.0163 IET Digital Library,  and Darren J. Hartl, Jeffery W. Baur, Geoffrey J. Frank, Robyn Bradford, David Phillips, Thao Gibson, Daniel Rapking, Amrita Bal, and Gregory Huff, “Beamforming and Reconfiguration of A Structurally Embedded Vascular Antenna Array (Seva2) in Both Multi-Layer and Complex Curved Composites,” Air Force Research Laboratory, AFRL-RX-WP-JA-2017-0481, 20 October 2017, available

[9] GTRI Agile Aperture Antenna Technology Is Tested On An Autonomous Ocean Vehicle …

[10] Aquila is a Facebook project to develop a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) solar-powered UAV “that the company envisions one day will provide wireless network connectivity to parts of the world that lack traditional communication infrastructure.” Steven Moffitt and Evan Ladd, “Ensure COMMS: Tap Commercial Innovations for the Military,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 12 (December 2017), 54-58.

[11] Bryan Paul, Alex R. Chiriyath, and Daniel W. Bliss, “Survey of RF Communications and Sensing Convergence Research,” IEEE Access, date of publication December 13, 2016, date of current version February 25, 2017, Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/ACCESS.2016.2639038 available

[12] Mike Lee, Mike Lucas, Robert Young, Robert Howell, Pavel Borodulin, Nabil El-Hinnawy, “RF FPGA for 0.4 to 18 GHz DoD Multi-function Systems,” Mar 2013,

[13] Helen Tang and Susan Watson, “Cognitive radio networks for tactical wireless Communications,” Defence Research and Development Canada, Scientific Report, DRDC-RDDC-2014-R185, December 2014, available 

[14] Chenguang Shi, Sana Salous, Fei Wang, and Jianjiang Zhou, “Low probability of intercept-based adaptive radar waveform optimization in signal-dependent clutter for joint radar and cellular communication systems,” EURASIP Journal on Advances in Signal Processing, (2016) 2016:111, DOI 10.1186/s13634-016-0411-6, available 

[15] ITU Journal, ICT Discoveries, First special issue on “The impact of Artificial Intelligence on communication networks and services,” Volume 1, No. 1, March 2018, available,

[16] Jan Oksanen, “Machine learning methods for spectrum exploration and exploitation,” Aalto University publication series, Doctoral Dissertations 169/2016, 21 June 2016 Unigrafia Oy, Helsinki, Finland, 2016, available and Helen Tang, et al.

[17] Gregory Tavik, James Alter, James Evins, Dharmesh Patel, Norman Thomas, Ronnie Stapleton, John Faulkner, Steve Hedges, Peter Moosbrugger, Wayne Hunter, Robert Normoyle, Michael Butler, Tim Kirk, William Mulqueen, Jerald Nespor, Douglas Carlson, Joseph Krycia, William Kennedy, Craig McCordic, and Michael Sarcione, “Integrated Topside (InTop) Joint Navy–Industry Open Architecture Study” Naval Research Laboratory, Sponsored by Office of Naval Research, 10 September 2010,  NRL/FR/5008–10-10,198 available and, John Joyce, “Navy Expands Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare for ‘Victory at Sea,’” U.S. Navy, 11/2/2017, Story Number: NNS171102-14,

[18] See DARPA research at and, Helen Tang, et al. and John Haystead, “Big Challenges Ahead as DOD Tries to Address EMSO Implementation,” Journal of Electronic Defense, February 2018 pp 22-25; and DARPA’s SC2 site

[19] Possibly a sub-ecosystem within OPNAV’s Digital Warfare Office (DWO).

Featured Image: Operations Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Jones, from Victorville, Calif., stands watch in Combat Direction Center aboard the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73). (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jennifer A. Villalovos/Released)

Bringing Back Sea Power from the Deckplate on Up

Sea Control Topic Week

By ENS Olivia Morrell

Deckplate Sea Power

Sea Power is of the utmost importance in terms of global control of both economic and geographical regions. Walter Raleigh wrote in the 17th century, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” The U.S. has remained the leading force at sea, and in recent years has re-affirmed its dedication to command at sea. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power lists sea control as one of the five essential functions of the Navy. Sea control and sea power are terms written about in no short supply, and that are constantly highlighted by the leaders of our combatant forces. While sea power is by itself a complex issue, the means by which we achieve it are far more intricate.

The most important challenges faced by the U.S. Navy in achieving sea power are not technological, but human. The current strategy laid out by the U.S. on Sea Power is multi-faceted and dynamic, but does little to address the day-to-day challenges of our Sailors. An expectation of being the most elite Navy in the world is impossible to achieve through strategic placement of assets if we can’t properly man and train our assets. When the Navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for Sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?

The strategies of the U.S. Navy are still heavily influenced by the 19th Century writings of men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian S. Corbett. Both men have written extensively on the importance of Sea power, as well as on how to achieve it. While each have distinct opinions, both agree that command of the sea serves national politics, and that it is not enough to merely have control of commercial shipping. Battle, the ability to engage in and respond to threats, must always be the underlying design of a Navy. We must ensure that we not only have the resources and plans to execute such decisive action, but also the human capability and training to do so efficiently. Corbett wrote in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, “it is not enough that a leader should have the ability to decide rightly; his subordinates must seize at once the full meaning of his decision and be able to express it with certainty in well-adjusted action.” In other words, it is not enough that our combatant commanders know the central strategy and governing tactics that guide and shape our daily lives, they must also be able to communicate and empower their Sailors to execute.

The Navy is unique to most other branches of the military in that we train in the same environment that we fight in. Our day-to-day job consists of preservation and maintenance of the weapon, vehicle, and berthing in which we will deploy. While most forces train at home to prepare for the environment in which they will fight, we operate every day in the environment from which we will fight. Marines and Soldiers must learn to manage their expectations for engagement as many who joined with the desire to fight on the frontlines may never step foot in a hostile environment. Sailors on the other hand, rarely asked to engage in hand-to-hand combat, will be “in the field” from the moment they pull out of homeport and will remain in a hostile, dangerous environment until their homecoming. Whether operating off the coast of Florida or transiting through the Straits of Malacca, Navy ships are constantly engaged in mission-focused operations. Due to the environment in which we operate, we must remain vigilant and ready to execute combat missions at all times. This need for vigilance has been tragically embodied in the recent collisions at sea of the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. The requirement for constant readiness to fight is demonstrated by the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were successfully launched into Syria in 2017, as well as countless other operations Navy vessels are engaging in on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our ability to respond to the order to launch missiles was not met by our ability to safely navigate our vessels. Even more unfortunately, 17 Sailors paid dearly for that imbalance.

Sea power must start at the deckplates. Naval officers and chiefs are taught that deckplate leadership is vital to ensuring that Sailors are taken care of, maintenance is done properly, and ultimately that the mission is accomplished. Deckplate leaders are leaders that are constantly present in the lives of their Sailors, who know what the orders they give actually mean, and who are engaged from the moment an order is given until it is accomplished. This type of leadership must extend beyond the demands of routine maintenance and preservation. We need leaders on the deckplates who know and can adequately represent the strategic objectives of the Navy to the Sailors on whom that mission depends. When Marines are training for a deployment to the Afghanistan, they train in simulated combat environments that help prepare them for the desert heat, as well as the intense atmosphere they will encounter. We must learn to adapt simulation tactics to our needs in the Surface Navy. Sending the bridge watchstanders to a simulator a couple times a year will not suffice. Strategy is at the forefront of Marine Corps training, every Marine knows the impact he or she has on the mission, and the role they play. The strategy of the surface Navy is on such a large scale, that it often is not felt by individual Sailors in the way it can be felt by a Marine practicing tactical team maneuvering or executing room-clearing procedures. The tactics of the surface Navy involve ships as a whole where captains and key watchstanders are sometimes the only people on board who know the role of the ship in the operational theater. Many of those watchstanders do not even understand the role their ship plays in the Navy’s larger strategy for sea power. Clearly communicating that role to every Sailor on board is the only way that we can begin to operate at the elite level which our nation’s strategy requires.

What this means today, is that we need to do a better job at training the whole Sailor and the whole ship. We need to impart on every Sailor and officer the value and importance of their role and ensure every aspect of our mission is met. It is not enough to drive our ships well, nor is it enough to launch missiles with accuracy. Every Sailor on board every ship in our fleet is important, from the ships forward deployed to the ships in the yards, it must be clear what we are working toward. Small tactical mistakes, maintenance deficiencies, and lackluster training must be treated with as much regard as a combat error. The only way to ensure that care is given to the smallest of tasks on board our ships, is to train and emphasize sea power from the deckplates up.

Olivia J. Morrell is from Albuquerque, NM, and graduated with a degree in Oceanography from the Naval Academy in 2017. She is currently a Surface Warfare Officer onboard the USS Cole (DDG-67), in Norfolk, Virginia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (August 24, 2018) Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class William Decker (left), from Pinedale, Arizona, and Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Matthew Thomas, from Port St. Lucie, Florida, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, perform maintenance on the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared System aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyleigh Williams)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.