Category Archives: Tactical Concepts

070426-N-0000X-001PACIFIC OCEAN (April 26, 2007) - A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the Aegis-class guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70), during a joint Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy ballistic missile flight test. Approximately three minutes later, the SM-3 intercepted a unitary (non-separating) ballistic missile threat target, launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Within moments of this launch, the USS Lake Erie also launched a Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) against a hostile air target in order to defend herself. The test was the eighth intercept, in 10 program flight tests. The test was designed to show the capability of the ship and its crew to conduct ballistic missile defense and at the same time defend herself. This test also marks the 27th successful hit-to-kill intercept in tests since 2001. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense

“Events of October 1962 indicated, as they had all through history, that control of the sea means security. Control of the seas can mean peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the seas if it is to protect your security….”

- President John F. Kennedy, 6 June 1963, on board USS Kitty Hawk.

Introduction- Our Changing World

As America begins its drawdown in Afghanistan and embarks upon the Asia- Pacific rebalance, the U.S. Navy urgently needs to assess its approach to Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) and integrate emerging IAMD capabilities that will enable the fleet to successfully contend with our new reality.  This discussion addresses the high and unforgiving end of the operational spectrum and calls for renewed emphasis on innovation and proficiency in IAMD.  Substantial enhancements in the operational concepts and offensive warfighting capabilities of near peer competitors significantly shift the operational environment. In light of emerging capabilities and in order to maintain combat advantage, especially in the areas of tactical thought and doctrine development, we will accrue great benefits with a re-immersion into the art and science of IAMD.

What Has Changed?  Back to the Future

The operational environment and technology that drove the need for innovation and proficiency in air warfare during the Cold War belong to a fleeting past  only a few active duty Sailors can recall.  Yet, the emerging challenges we face today mirror those faced not only a generation ago, when advances in warfighting technology demanded both technical and tactical innovation. Once again, we must master sophisticated threats and tactics in the aerospace domain.

The blue-water operational environment of the Cold War, relatively uncluttered by land mass reflections, dense commercial air traffic, and threats from non-state actors, envisioned a battle thick with hostile aircraft, surface combatants, and submarines launching saturation cruise missile attacks.  Especially in the 1980s, AW tactics evolved rapidly to keep pace with advances in both air threats and fleet air defense capabilities.  A well-organized spectrum of training, from classrooms ashore to advanced fleet exercises with allies, maintained tactical proficiency and often included proficiency firings of all AAW capable weapon systems.  While generally confined to the carrier battle group, some excursions ventured into multi-battle group combined operations.  Manual tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) perfected by frequent drill and regular live fire exercises achieved high degrees of proficiency and integration.

 A syndicate of naval officers renowned for their expertise in air defense came of age with the proliferation of ‘G’ (guided missile) ships and reached the pinnacle of their influence in the early days of the AEGIS program.  Commanding a cruiser designated as the Battle Group ‘Alpha Whiskey’ marked the brass ring of a Surface Warfare career.

The demise of the Soviet Union began a period without a credible naval competitor and the following thirteen years of fleet operations primarily focused on support for strike, counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism.  The Fleet’s warfighting emphasis migrated from the primary sea-control missions of the Cold War to contemporary operations in the littorals and resulted in a drift away from a fleet-wide emphasis on air defense.   Anti-piracy, maritime interdiction, strike, and other operations in support of land operations prevailed.  Absent pressing credible threats, few ships distinguished themselves in this particular warfare area.

With our focus elsewhere, technology enabled the development of increasingly sophisticated threats and countermeasures.  Today’s cruise missile threats are stealthy, extremely fast, and can be employed at great ranges, using multiple independent seekers and dramatic terminal maneuvers.  The full range of ballistic missiles display similar capabilities, in addition to being longer range, widely dispersed, and capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.  Mobile launchers that quickly relocate and change launch axis, and theater ballistic missiles that dispense decoys and obscurants allow more capable adversaries to present daunting threats. In essence, ballistic missiles have become an asymmetric air force.

Finally, small, slow and numerous reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles, intrusive cyber capabilities, and space based surveillance now threaten presumed net-centric advantages. We seldom contemplate the major or total loss of supporting information networks.  In most A2AD scenarios, these threats will impede the freedom of access and action of commercial shipping, naval forces, and defended assets ashore and hold them at risk of damage.

In response, we have fielded an impressive array of material solutions.  The AEGIS Weapon System remains the world’s preeminent air defense system and is evolving to include advanced IAMD capabilities.  Today our navy has thirty cruisers and destroyers capable of conducting Ballistic Missile Defense with additional ships undergoing installation and certification.  Additionally, if properly employed with the right tactics, Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA), the next variant of the Standard Missile family (SM-6), the E-2D with Cooperative Engagement Capability and 5th generation F-35 fighter aircraft will be IAMD game changers.

The emergence of these quantum leap capabilities compels us to re-evaluate how we train, maintain, command, control, and employ these forces.  Efficient and effective command and control (C2) of IAMD forces ensures that we employ these new capabilities to their maximum effectiveness, which requires moving beyond the C2 approach under which we currently operate.

Fighting multiple engagements in today’s fight is likely.  We will achieve success by developing innovative C2 based on rigorous experimentation by the Aviation and Surface Warfare communities using both high fidelity simulation and fleet wargames.  The initial NIFC-CA CONOPS is currently under stakeholder review and will require testing and refinement as we deliver the tactics, techniques and procedures needed to exploit our new IAMD capabilities.  In this process, we need to apply the focus, rigor, and innovation, which enabled us to master AAW in the 1980s.

Starting at the Beginning: Warfighting Expertise

The complexity of this mission boggles the mind, spanning the warfighting spectrum from strategic defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles to defeating small, slow, drones with nothing more than a camera and a radio transmitter as their main battery.

We already possess formidable IAMD capabilities and even more potent ones are on the way.  In order to exploit these systems, there must be a relevant operational vision, a concept of operations, and updated tactics, techniques and procedures and a cadre of experts who understand the employment of joint and combined IAMD capabilities against current and emerging threats.   All of these begin with the operational idea of gaining and maintaining air superiority in the vicinity of defended assets at sea and ashore.

The inherent mobility, persistence and responsiveness of naval forces to conduct IAMD have never been more relevant.  More than ever, naval officers must think in terms of surface forces as the nucleus of IAMD forces in both developing and mature Theaters.  They must also view naval IAMD in the context of joint and combined operations.

The effort required to formulate the tactics to employ emerging capabilities is already underway in a series of wargames sponsored by Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.  Operationally experienced SWOs and aviators are collaborating to develop innovative tactics for these advanced weapons systems.  We require pioneering naval officers to master 21st century warfighting technology, discard outdated ideas, and generate, sometimes from scratch, the tactics, techniques and procedures essential for effective employment of new weapons systems.  

A philosophy of mission command lies at the heart of this innovation.  Mission command’s three elements of trust, understanding and commander’s intent are perfectly suited to high end IAMD.  The principle understanding demands not only the “I know my wingman so well, I know what he will do next” but also, “I know this system of systems so well, I know what it will not do next.”  Highly structured and static command and control fails to optimize the new systems’ agility and full design potential.

Air Warfare has for the past 20 years been a highly scripted undertaking, yet, the modern IAMD operational environment is ill-suited to scripted solutions, and the nature of the IAMD mission demands trust in and understanding of the capabilities of the other participants in the IAMD Fight.  This will come as the result of an increased emphasis on experimentation, wargaming and integration.

Because complex new IAMD systems rely on precise technical and operational integration and a high degree of proficiency and teamwork, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we must dedicate periods of integrated IAMD training as a crucial part of deployment work-ups.  Commanders, strike leaders, pilots, TAO’s and crews from ships and air wings outfitted with these new IAMD systems must fully integrate.

Many naval officers have strong opinions, often negative, about the relevance of operational doctrine.  Doctrine presents fundamental principles that guide the employment of forces in coordinated and integrated actions toward a common objective.  It promotes a common perspective from which to plan, train, and conduct military operations and represents what is taught, believed and advocated as what works best.  It provides distilled insights and wisdom gained from employing the military instruments of national power in operations to achieve national objectives. [1]

Over the last 15 years, the lack of a pressing air threat and the reduction of commands dedicated to doctrine hindered the normal doctrine update cycle.  During this same period, the advent of ballistic missile defense, the rapid deployments of U.S. and adversary capabilities, and the introduction of IAMD as an operational concept, rendered much of the existing doctrine obsolete.  While the Navy Air and Missile Defense Command (NAMDC) and the Surface Tactics Development Group have taken steps toward improving the situation, the Navy is at a disadvantage in trying to formally articulate its IAMD equities in joint and combined arenas.  This sophistication of IAMD in this new age and the revolutionary capabilities described in the next section demand updated doctrine.

We must do better.

In a significant and profound step, the Surface Warfare community launched a commitment to develop expertise in IAMD.  NAMDC established a 19-week course that will deliver subject matter experts to the Fleet.  The IAMD Weapons Tactics Instructor (WTI) course focuses on the advanced IAMD training for individuals with the goal of improving unit level and strike group proficiency in IAMD.  Candidates will be challenged, as they become experts in the latest capabilities, TTP’s, training strategies and threats.  As the IAMD WTIs begin to reach the Fleet, their influence will extend well beyond the lifelines and impact both Fleet and Joint Operations.

Our Center for Surface Combat Systems and Afloat Training Groups developed Advanced Warfare Training (AWT) for all AEGIS ships.  AWT consists of multi-week classroom and hands on system training with individual watchstander and team training in a scenario environment.  This is a critical step in AEGIS baseline training, ensuring shipboard competency and improved performance executing the IAMD mission.

Capability to Defeat the Threat

AEGIS Wholeness – Sustaining the World’s Best Weapon System

The AEGIS Weapons System (AWS) remains the finest and most advanced IAMD system ever put to sea.  In 2011, the Navy initiated AEGIS Wholeness, a no-holds-barred approach to improving AEGIS Readiness.  Many facets comprised this effort: Interoperability, Technical Support, Logistics, Type Commander sponsored SPY radar maintenance program, replacement of high failure SPY parts, and a revival of the SM-2 Fleet Firing Program. Impressive gains realized over the past two years include, increasing operational availability of deployed ships to over 96%.  There is simply no substitute for continuous attention to the details of AWS material readiness.  The effectiveness of the AWS strongly depends on how conscientious Captains and crews are about its material readiness.

Navy BMD – From Pioneering Capability to Primary Mission

Over the past decade, Navy Ballistic Missile Defense grew from a pioneering vision to a National Defense mission.   Given the proliferation of ballistic missile described above, BMD garners the highest priority maritime missions of Combatant Commanders and as a result, AEGIS BMD ships have the highest optempo in the fleet.  BMD is an inherently joint mission and AEGIS BMD ships (and soon, AEGIS Ashore) frequently integrate into the Ballistic Missile Defense System, a globally distributed and highly integrated combat system with elements from all the services and Functional and Geographic Combatant Commanders.  As complex as BMD technology already is, radar and missiles continue to grow in sophistication.  Mastery of the BMD mission requires sequential assignments at sea and ashore.  Additionally, BMD Specialty Career Path officers are a start, but we must increase our cadre of BMD experienced Sailors at sea.

Revolution at Sea: No Kidding, Truly Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD)

Our newest AEGIS Baseline 9 represents our first true IAMD AEGIS Combat System computer program.  Unlike previous BMD computer programs which had either AAW or BMD, both functionalities in Baseline 9 now reside in a single Combat Systems computer program.  This combat system program is being tested in USS JOHN PAUL JONES (DDG 53).  One of the key features of this baseline is the Multi-Mission Signal Processor (MMSP), which allows operators to dynamically allocate radar resources in response to specific threats.

The most notable feature of Baseline 9 is the ability to conduct “integrated fires.”  Integrated fires can occur between ships and between aircraft, but the most complex variant is NIFC-CA.  NIFC-CA employs ships and aircraft to consummate missile engagements beyond the radar horizon.  This execution is operational rocket science. Those who master it will be identified as the best and brightest.

What we must change – Culture and Focus

The U.S. Navy is developing and putting to sea revolutionary IAMD capabilities with the potential to be credible deterrents to war and if necessary, decisive factors in battle.  However, in order to exploit these incredible advantages, Surface Warriors must embrace the art and science of IAMD.  As sophisticated as they may be, these sophisticated weapons will require the sharpest operational minds using the best new tactics flowing from the crucibles of experimentation in stressing virtual warfare simulation and realistic fleet exercises.

Developing a career long vocation as an IAMD expert must not be viewed as professionally stifling.  Like other specialties, the IAMD mission is so incredibly broad, deep and complex, that it takes a significant amount of education, training, and experience for any officer to master.  This is a professional commitment to which young officers must commit and senior officers must foster.  The Weapons Tactics Instructor program initiated by NAMDC is a step in the right direction.

While individual training provided ashore and within the lifelines Advanced Warfare Training are first important steps, we must redesign and revitalize our IAMD training for the Air and Missile Defense Commander (AMDC) and supporting elements within the Strike Group.  This includes building block courses prior to the Warfare Commander’s Conference for the IAMD team.  Putting NIFC-CA, SM-6, AEGIS Baseline 9, CEC, E-2D and F-35 to sea demands that we assemble Strike Group Staffs, ship crews and Air Wing personnel for significant, dedicated planning and integration periods to develop the mutual trust and the deep understanding of system capabilities and commander’s intent essential to successful operations.

These efforts, though significant, are not enough.  We must start to live and breathe Integrated Air and Missile Defense.  IAMD must become the first, the last and the many in between thoughts of the Surface Warrior’s professional day.

 

CAPT Jim Kilby is the Deputy for Ballistic Missile Defense, AEGIS Combat Systems and Destroyers in the Surface Warfare Directorate (N96).  He commanded USS RUSSELL (DDG 59) and USS MONTEREY (CG 61).  In MONTEREY, he deployed as the first ship to support the European Phased Adaptive Approach for Ballistic Missile Defense.



[1] Joint Electronic Library – http//www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jpintpub.htm

 

droneaspi

A New Kind of Drone War: UCAV vs UCLASS

This article was originally posted by with our partners at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI’s) The Strategist.

The Australian government recently approved the acquisition of a fleet of US Navy Triton surveillance drones to patrol our oceans. Australia has mostly used Israeli drones to date, such as the Herons in Afghanistan. So as we dip our toes into the American UAV market, it’s worth taking note of a recent development that might be threatening US primacy in this area.

While the Predator and Reaper laid the groundwork for the use of armed drones in warfare, a question remains about the survivability of the technology against modern air defences. Developing a stealthy long-range drone with a decent weapons payload that could go beyond missions in Yemen and Pakistan appeared to be the next order of business for the US, especially in the future Asia-Pacific theatre. Projects like the demonstrator X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) have shown promise in achieving those missions. But for now the US Navy has decided to go for an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system that won’t have the stealth or payload to penetrate air defences.

The UCLASS system will be designed to provide Navy carriers with long-range surveillance and strike capabilities to target terrorists in much the same way as the Air Force’s drones are currently doing from bases around the world. The capacity to carry out those missions without relying on foreign bases is driving this decision, along with lower costs. But the UCLASS system will only operate over states that have limited air defences (because of UCLASS vulnerability) or have provided the US permission to conduct strikes. Al-Qaeda affiliates are on the rise in Syria, where the Assad regime is both hostile toward the US and has the capability to deny drones. This raises the question of how many states will fit this category.

Consequently, at a program cost of US$3.7 billion, the UCLASS won’t provide the degree of innovation the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (PDF) advocated. This would be money better spent on more research and development (R&D) into a UCAV, which could potentially have greater impact in the future strategic environment. Moreover, the UCLASS would be mostly redundant in Asia, the most strategically important future region for the US. UCAVs, on the other hand, could have an impact in, for example, a future conflict with China. According to Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a UCAV with a range of 2,000kms, broadband stealth, a payload to rival the manned F-35C combat aircraft, and a capacity for aerial refuelling, is achievable. Developing a UCAV that’s survivable is no mean feat, but the US has a good start in terms of support systems and personnel established over the past few decades.

UCAVs would be capable of rapid deployment from carriers, which could stay out of the range of anti-access threats. A persistent surveillance capability that could also strike vital command and control and air defence sites if required could open the way for follow-on operations by manned aircraft. A UCAV would form a valuable part of the US deep strike suite, a key feature of AirSea Battle (PDF). And while losing platforms is never good, drastically reducing risk to personnel is a major incentive, especially early on in a conflict.

China’s an active player in drone development, and the PLA’s R&D investments are another good reason for the US to think carefully about holding off on UCAV development. China’s Sharp Sword UCAV, which was flight-tested in 2013, shows the PLA’s commitment to creating a mix of manned and unmanned combat aircraft. The growing Chinese defence budget (with a reported increase of a 12% this year) could lead to rapid advances in this area.

Funding the UCAV is the big question considering the cuts to the US defence budget; its price-tag would be heftier than the UCLASS. Proponents of the UCAV such as CSBA and the Center for New American Security (CNAS) (PDF), argue that the money could come from decommissioning two (or possibly more) carrier groups. Budget pressures have already seen cuts and deferrals to the carrier force and it would be a big step to cut two more. What’s important in these perspectives, however, is that the UCAV’s stand-off capacity and flexibility could make each carrier more effective. As Michael O’Hanlon pointed out on The Strategist last month, capability should be the metric of adequacy, not dollars or hull numbers.

The UCLASS could be redundant by the time it enters service in 2020, even in the targeted killing missions it’s designed to carry-out. A UCAV, on the other hand, would stretch the envelope in relation to advanced technologies, which would contribute to sustaining US strategic advantage. It would enhance a carrier group’s capability to respond to anti-access threats and it could also be versatile enough to respond to terror threats globally. Unmanned systems show no signs of fading into the background, and even in a tight fiscal environment represent a potentially high payoff for R&D funds.

Rosalyn Turner is an intern at ASPI.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a… plane named for a bird.

Landing Gear is for Pansies

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

Despite (or possibly, because of) Washington Naval Treaty cutbacks in the 20s and the Depression-induced budget troubles in the 30s, the U.S. Navy experienced quite a period of experimentation during the interwar decades. Without a doubt, the most glamorous example was the airship program, which featured yet another ship called Shenandoah, and culminated in the rigid airships USS Akron and USS Macon (ZRS-4 and ZRS-5).

Imagine riding this up to Fleet Week.

Imagine riding this up to Fleet Week.

But we are not here to talk about those, strictly speaking – we’re here to discuss their parasites. Parasite aircraft, that is. Akron and Macon were flying aircraft carriers, each carrying three or four scout aircraft to serve as the long-range eyes of the fleet below.

The Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk originated in a 1930 Navy requirement for a small carrier-based fighter. It ended up not performing too well in that role, but was retained in service as the only aircraft small enough to fit through the hanger doors of Akron, then under construction.

Here’s the dead end – the truly daring, truly paradigm-shifting dead end. How many planes have you ridden in that possessed some form of landing gear? I trust that it was every single one. So what do you do with a plane that takes off and “lands” via a hook above the fuselage? If you’re the Navy in the 1930s, you ditch the landing gear. No fixed gear, no retractable gear – simply no wheels at all. The Goodyear company would have been very fearful at the lost business, if they weren’t also the ones building the giant ships carrying the tire-less biplanes. All in all, probably a good deal for them.

Hooking into the trapeze aboard the Macon… the parallel parking of the skies.

Hooking into the trapeze aboard the Macon… the parallel parking of the skies.

But aircraft that never kissed ground were not long for this Earth. The Navy’s lighter-than-air fleet followed the general trend of rigid airships, in which they died violent deaths. Akron went down in a storm in the Atlantic (killing Rear Admiral William A. Moffett) in 1933, and Macon went down in the Pacific while operating out of Moffett Field just two years later. Sparrowhawks lost their niche and paradigms were brought back to normal.

Still, it is worth pondering the lesson of the Sparrowhawk. It took something that every single aircraft must have in some form or another, and just did away with it when the need disappeared. It didn’t end up working out – but it deserves to be admired.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who doesn’t usually discuss parasites as frankly as he does here. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.

Picture 3

‘Drones’ for Peace

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), commonly referred to as ‘drones’, have been the subject of much discussion surrounding potential operations in Syria, primarily in the context of enforcing a ‘no-fly’ zone or enforcement role similar to their role in Libya and modeled after operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  This paper examines the prospects of the use of RPAs in Syria, finding RPAs as currently operated today counterproductive to potential political aims in Syria in an enforcement capacity.  Smaller RPAs, operating in a number of other roles, could however play a critical role in overcoming the humanitarian conflict in Syria, from monitoring key sites designated by the International Community and allowed by the Syrian Government and opposition forces, to providing humanitarian aid, to overwatch of convoy movements to include the removal of chemical weapons.  The stigma of RPAs, given their use in other conflicts, must be overcome to allow them to be evaluated and used as a tool for monitoring and aid among other roles, not just as offensive weapons of war.

Following NATO operations in Libya, a number of analysts in the United States spoke of the prospect of applying the ‘Libya Model’ to Syria. In August of 2011, a Washington Post article on the Syria conflict began with the passage “[t]he success of Libya’s rebels in toppling their dictator is prompting calls within the Syrian opposition for armed rebellion and NATO intervention (Sly, 2011).”  That same day, the New York Times ran an article outlining the prospects of such a model being applied elsewhere, noting President Obama’s March 2011 speech outlining principles for humanitarian intervention. In February 2012, Anne Marie Slaughter outlined a strategy for intervention consisting of the creation of ‘no-kill zones’ near the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders, the arming of opposition forces to create the zone, and for Turkey and Arab allies to enforce the zones “through the use of remotely piloted helicopters, either for delivery of cargo and weapons — as America has used them in Afghanistan — or to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill zones (Slaughter, 2012).”

Today, as problems with enforcement of the chemical weapons agreement have bogged down and as the Obama Administration has signaled that the al Nusra Front appears increasingly to be a direct threat to the U.S. (Rohde, 2014), speculation is rising once more that a military option may be back on the table for Syria.  While any military option would be fraught with a number of obstacles to planning, execution, and justification, the semi-regular talk of RPAs as a key instrument in many of these options is especially problematic.  This stems in part from a limited popular understanding of the roles and capabilities of RPAs, and also a lack of imagination by policymakers for other ways in which RPAs could be a positive good, both for warzones like Syria and for other humanitarian crises globally.  A move away from the mythology of the ‘drone’ and toward an appreciation for the spectrum of potential roles unique to RPAs over manned aircraft is vital to understanding how the ‘drone’ will likely play a far greater role as an instrument in peacetime.

Understanding Classes of RPAs

Conflation of the capabilities of strategic RPAs and the proliferation of tactical RPAs clouds RPA discussion.  Just as strategic bombers such as the B-2 represent only one class of aircraft, Predator and Reaper represent only one limited application of RPAs.  Understanding the array of RPAs and differentiating capabilities and limitations of systems is necessary to overcome the stigma of the RPA as a tool of war or assassination, and appreciating its potential uses in humanitarian crises. I divide RPAs as platforms between tactical and strategic RPAs based on their connectivity to their operator, which differentiates those that are reliant on global communications and intelligence infrastructure and are capable of long range, extended duration operations, and those that are more simple locally controlled line-of-sight RPAs.[1]

The strategic requirements and organizational capacity of states and organizations dictate which types of RPAs they will pursue, while the rate and nature of diffusion can be predicted by applying Michael Horowitz’s Adoption-Capacity Theory (Horowitz, 2011).  This theory projects the rate of diffusion of a military innovation by evaluating its costs to implement versus its organizational capacity to adopt the change.  Costs are a factor of the dual-use civilian-military applications of the innovation and the per-unit cost of the asset.  Organizational capacity, meanwhile, is a function of the organization’s age, willingness to experiment, and critical task focus.  The division of RPAs into two categories as previously defined allows us to evaluate both the diffusion of RPA platforms, as well as the potential uses of those platforms given the array of potential users.

Tactical RPAs are likely to rapidly diffuse and see the most independent innovation in terms of their potential usage due to their low cost and the potential for numerous applications beyond the military sphere.  In the U.S., a strong community of RPA enthusiasts already exists that is experimenting with a variety of commercial, recreational, and government applications for smaller RPAs.  Amazon.com received attention earlier this year for their 30-minute RPA delivery plan,[2] but other initiatives are at work to allow citizens to use RPAs to monitor crops, take overhead images for commercial purposes, and to assist in search and rescue for as low as $740 for a single system (Kelly, 2014).  Such small RPAs already play a role in assisting in Search and Rescue missions providing both search and improved communications capability in isolated or hazardous environments (such as fires), and for delivery of small cargo such as heart defibrillators and medicine among other positive uses for such RPAs (Newman, 2013).

Figure 1: Reaper Manning[3]

Picture 1

Strategic RPAs require higher costs both to procure and to operate, which applies both to the unit and to the larger global intelligence and communications system involved in operating the asset.   This results in higher operational costs relative to those of similar piloted airframes if a manned alternative exists.  In examining relative costs, Table 1 shows the problem with conflating the costs of RPAs purchased online with the capabilities of strategic RPAs.  The Global Hawk and U-2 represent the closest to a direct comparison of capabilities,[4] while Table 1 shows the flight-hour cost are roughly comparable.  Given the reachback and precision engagement requirements, the military-only applications of these airframes, and the resulting high per-unit costs these RPAs will be very slow to diffuse and innovation within the class of RPAs will likely be slow and incremental.

Table 1: U-2/RQ-4 Cost Comparison

  Procurement Cost Flight-Hour Cost
U-2 Classified/no longer in production $31,000[5]
Global Hawk (2010) $46.4-80 million $40,600[6]
Global Hawk (2013) $46.4-80 million $18,900

Due to their high costs and the significant infrastructure requirements required to build and operate strategic RPAs, innovation occurs with these RPAs slowly and deliberately, with new innovations regularly referred to as ‘using only proven technology.’[7] This trend can be seen within the U.S. RPA force.  Figure 2 shows the growth of U.S. RPAs, to include target drones, tactical, and strategic reconnaissance RPAs since the 1930s.  Tactical RPAs have adopted across a wider variety of missions and from multiple platforms, as their lower cost and limited operational capacity requirements has enabled both private sector and tactical operations innovations to allow a number of platforms to supplement existing operations.  Strategic RPAs, on the other hand, have slowly evolved from wither the Predator or Reaper families, with the RQ-170 representing likely the baseline of future RPAs merged with the advancing Predator family under the Avenger.

Figure 2: U.S. Military RPA Development

Picture 2

Given this classification of RPAs we are better positioned to evaluate the prospects for RPAs in both peacetime environments and in humanitarian crisis situations.  Traditionally, RPAs in general are categorized as being ideally suited for missions that are ‘dull, dirty, or dangerous.’[8]  However, given the high cost of strategic RPAs, low cost of tactical RPAs, and the capabilities and vulnerability associated with each class of RPA, strategic RPAs are best suited for those missions which can be categorized as ‘dull,’ with tactical RPAs better suited for those which are ‘dirty’ or ‘dangerous.’  ‘Dull’ missions require the lack of a threat and are enhanced by the persistent nature associated with the dwell time of strategic RPAs.  The high cost of strategic RPAs precludes them in many cases from being used in dangerous environments unless deemed absolutely necessary given the risk of loss.  Tactical RPAs, however, are relatively expendable given their low per-unit cost, while in many cases the shorter dwell times associated with these aircraft as well as the shorter range limited by line-of-sight control makes them less optimal for ‘dull’ missions.  They can, however, be fielded by a wide range of actors who are free to innovate a wider variety of uses for the airframes.

Strategic RPAs as Peace Enforcers versus Tactical RPAs as Peace Keepers

Most discussion of RPAs in Syria see RPAs employed in a ‘Peace Enforcement’ mission.  Peace Enforcement is defined by U.S. military doctrine as “[a]pplication of military force, or the threat of its use, normally pursuant to international authorization, to compel compliance with resolutions or sanctions designed to maintain or restore peace and order (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012, p. I8).“  This is different from ‘Peacekeeping,’ which U.S. doctrine defines as operations “undertaken with the consent of all major parties to a dispute, designed to monitor and facilitate implementation of an agreement (cease fire, truce, or other such agreement) and support diplomatic efforts to reach a long-term political settlement (Ibid).”

The RPA appears advantageous as it is seen by some as less of a violation of sovereignty than manned aircraft or a ground force.  This is likely due to perceptions of U.S. operations where the U.S. has been accused of violating sovereignty with no recourse or justification.[9]  The realities of RPAs are more complicated however, and the likelihood of tacit Pakistani approval of operations as outlined by David Ignatius in 2008 (Ignatius, 2008) and more recently by the International Crisis Group (Drones: Myths And Reality In Pakistan, 2013) undercuts the likelihood of sovereignty actually being violated and which should in turn serve as a warning to future operations.  If Turkey were concerned that manned flights would constitute a violation of Syrian territory, there should be no reason to believe that Syria would be less justified based on a similar violation by an RPA.

The low speeds, lack of defenses, and mission requirements of extended loiter over a fixed area as Predator and Reaper are generally employed would make them easy targets for a state with an active air defense system and the will to employ it.  Syria maintains a significant, though likely ill-maintained Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) capable of engaging a variety of targets.  The June 2012 shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4 which violated Syrian airspace briefly illustrates Syria’s general willingness to shoot down aircraft in defense of its territory (Times of Israel Staff, 2012). Slaughter attempted to reframe this by saying all forms of intervention must be purely defensive, “only to stop attacks by the Syrian military or to clear out government forces that dare to attack the no-kill zones (Slaughter, 2012).”  However, it is hard to see how any military operation designed to limit the Syrian government’s sovereignty anywhere within Syrian territory would be viewed by Syria, Russia, China, or Iran as anything but an offensive move.  RPAs, seeking to enforce a no-kill zone from inside Syrian airspace against the will of the Syrian government would find themselves highly vulnerable to Syria’s air defense network, necessitating a large-scale air campaign to destroy most of the Syrian Air Force before RPA operations could commence.  Due to the likely lack of UN approval for an operation, the threat posed by the Syrian IADS system and the necessity to secure airspace in advance of operations, and the implications of the loss of even a few strategic RPAs in Syria, RPAs as a tool for enforcement of either a no-fly or no-kill zone in Syria should be viewed as a non-starter.

An incremental approach aimed at limited purely humanitarian aims should be the objective for planners interested in stopping the humanitarian crisis as modest interim agreements to limit fighting, protect civilians, and achieve other objectives such as eliminating chemical weapons appear to be feasible near-term objectives.  In early 2014 a 72-hr truce was reached to evacuate civilians from the city of Homs, a limited ceasefire that was extended as peace talks faltered (Agence France-Presse, 2014).  Similar evacuations have been thwarted by violence in the surrounding areas, while the removal of chemical weapons from storage depots in Syria were similarly delayed by such threats in addition to accusations of stalling on the part of the regime.  In each of these cases, tactical RPAs similar to those used for search and rescue in the U.S. could have been used to supplement the operations in order to increase transparency of operations and assist in the delivery of vital humanitarian supplies of food, medicine, and other aid items to besieged communities and hard to access locations.

Here, the aforementioned distinction between peace enforcing operations and peace keeping operations is critical, and in a sense the vulnerabilities of RPAs that were a vice for strategic RPAs can be a virtue for tactical RPAs.  Unarmed RPAs could only be used with the consent of parties to the conflict and thus would need to be approved as part of a concept of operations with the approval for the intervention, be it removal of chemical weapons or humanitarian relief, and with it a reduced threat environment.  The primary goal of a mission like convoy support would be to increase transparency both of the relief operation and the emergence of threats to the operation, which in part should serve as a deterrent to the emergence of threats.  However, given the relatively low cost of tactical RPAs, were deterrence to fail resulting in RPAs being lost the economic cost would be relatively small while the likelihood that sensors aboard the RPA could identify the origin of the threat would in turn lead to greater clarity in assignment of blame for the attack and with it the potential to shape future negotiations to the violators detriment.  The small size of tactical RPA payloads, limited range, and local control of operations would also allow for increased transparency to parties to the conflict for inspections of payloads to ensure no contraband is shipped in violation of agreements.

For many of these operations, lessons can be learned from military applications of RPAs in conflicts like Iraq, but narrowly tailored to a neutral role.  In 2006, the U.S. Army developed Task Force ODIN as a specialty team to detect and neutralize threats to convoys in Iraq.  In its early years, this consisted primarily of coordinating ISR operations with convoys to secure route clearance, but over time evolved to a broader mission to identify and track insurgent networks to defeat cells before they could even emplace bombs (Glass, 2009).  While the latter mission would involve direct intervention to proactively eliminate threats as part of a military campaign, lessons learned from early operations to clear routes and monitor activities in the areas of convoy movements could be tailored to meet the needs of international teams performing missions in Syria.  For humanitarian relief, the lessons learned from search and rescue missions in the U.S. could provide a first step for developing concepts of operations to employ RPAs in those environments.

Figure 4: Sample simplified CONOP for humanitarian RPA operations

Picture 3 Picture 4

In the case of a future humanitarian operation to provide support for a besieged city like Homs, tactical RPAs could be used in the initial phases of the operation to provide overwatch in order to reduce violence.  A ceasefire limited to an area such as a stadium would allow peacekeeping forces to set up a base of operations, to include an RPA ground station and launch/recovery zone, sufficient to enable several orbits of RPAs with both electro-optical and infrared sensors.  These RPAs would allow for intelligence preparation of the operating environment to increase visibility of levels of destruction, identification of areas where people have taken shelter, and in addition could deter violence through increased visibility of ongoing operations.  The RPAs themselves could be vulnerable to man portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADs), but given the relative cost of the RPAs versus the information that could be gleamed from a shoot-down of an RPA by a MANPAD may justify the cost by both aiding to identify those who would violate a ceasefire agreement and by increasing visibility of the types of arms being brought into Syria and the levels of violence associated with the conflict.  Figure 4 shows what a sample CONOP might look like, with multiple RPA orbits over selected areas of the city to be evacuated with additional orbits providing route pre-clearance for convoys of vehicles moving displaced persons to the port city of Tartus.

Conclusion

Discussion of RPAs and the Syria conflict is heavily clouded by the images of Predator and Reaper as weapons of war, both by those who would like to see greater U.S. involvement in the conflict that may see them as a virtue, or by those who fear involvement and worry about escalation.  The limited image of ‘drones’ has become a hindrance to their effective employment in humanitarian crises, a stigma which must be overcome to allow for their effective use in crisis situations.  Smaller RPAs, flown by neutral operators, with the consent of parties to the conflict or impacted by the crisis, can play a major role in humanitarian relief, from search and rescue to increasing transparency.

One major challenge to this point has been the stigma of ‘drones’ combined with the expertise residing largely in the military community or with military and government contractors.  Many countries are uncomfortable with the U.S. flying ‘drones’ over their territory due to this stigma, even in crisis situations.    Non-government organizations may similarly be unwilling to use RPAs for fear of being associated with military equipment which might negatively impact their mission.  Understanding the nature and characteristics of the tool is vital to understanding their potential for both good and ill in humanitarian crises.  Overall, given the stakes involved in the humanitarian crisis and the demands of the international community to ‘do something,’ the potential of unarmed tactical RPAs to be a force for peace in Syria in cooperation with limited  international peacekeeping efforts appears to be a risk worth taking.

Michael P. Kreuzer is a PhD Candidate in International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a Graduate Student Associate at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University.  His forthcoming dissertation examines the military utility and likely patterns of diffusions for remotely piloted aircraft, and their impact on future international relations.  He is an Air Force veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and holds a BS in History from the United States Air Force Academy, an MPA from the University of Alaska Anchorage, and an MSI from American Military University. 

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[1] This terminology is problematic for some airpower scholars as the airpower notion of ‘Effects Based Operations” defines all platforms as fundamentally tactical which in turn can have strategic effects based on the exploitation of the mission, but for my basic purposes it suffices as stressing that some RPAs will be limited to a narrow radius for operations in an environment where their operators are vulnerable (tactical RPAs) vice those that are the focus of air campaigns through a global operating system (strategic RPAs).  The terminology here defines the character of the airframe vice the nature of the mission it performs.

[2] This claim is likely unrealistic and meant to garner headlines.  Although Amazon is reportedly also working to patent a system that can predict customer orders in advance, for a small RPA which flies at under 100 mph Amazon would have pre-position warehouses with most of their inventory on hand roughly every 30 miles or at least within 30 miles of every major market in order to make such a system a reality even before processing and loading.  At that point Amazon may as well allow in-person pickup which begins to look more like a catalog store.

[3] Figure derived from an unclassified Air Force slide provided to author by Lt Gen David Deptula (USAF, Ret).

[4] Even this comparison is imperfect as the U-2 has defense mechanisms, can fly faster, and carry a greater payload.

[5] Information from DailyTech report (Hatamoto, 2011).

[6] See Shalal-Esa (2013) for Global Hawk flight-hour costs.

[7] Discussing the development of the U.S. Air Force’s next generation bomber and the prospects for an unmanned variant, Lt. Gen. Charles Davis emphasized the need for developing the manned capable aircraft first.  “Very rarely should we be out maturing new technologies in new platforms…Once we are certain that a technology is at a usable level, then our acquisition programs can do the hard work of integrating. We have a hard enough time integrating engines, air frames, sensors; we should not be inventing things that have not been developed (Osborn, 2013).”

[8] Likely noted first in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005–2030 (Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005–2030, 2005), accessible online at http://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/uav_roadmap2005.pdf.   Singer and others readily use this phrase when describing the utilization of RPAs.

[9] Prominent examples include the report Living Under Drones (Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan) and UN Investigator Ben Emmerson’s report from March 2013 (Abbot, 2013).

Dam in Khost

Developing an Assessment for the IO Environment in Afghanistan

You may be wondering what an article about Afghanistan is doing on a site about maritime security. Well, I found myself asking a very similar questions when, within six months of joining the U.S. Navy and graduating from Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Pensacola, FL, I found myself in a land-locked country serving on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) conducting counterinsurgency operations. The irony was not lost on me since I had joined very late in life (I was 35 when I went to OCS). The recruiter had said, “Join the Navy and see the world!” Little did I know we’d be starting in alphabetical order …

Meeting the requirements of an “individual augmentee” – (Fog a mirror? Check!) – and having just enough training to know how to spell “IO,” I arrived in Khost province in early 2008. I was fortunate to relieve a brilliant officer, Chris Weis, who had established a successful media and public diplomacy program and laid the groundwork for a number of future programs.

I decided that before setting out to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population, we needed to take stock of where we were and whether our efforts were achieving the effects we desired.

The goal of Information Operations (or “IO”) is to “influence, corrupt, disrupt, or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.”[i] But how does one know whether the decision process, either human or automated, has actually been influenced in some way? We can assume or surmise that, based on the actions of the target of the IO campaign, some desired effect was achieved or not achieved. But how much of that was based on our IO campaign and how much on other factors, perhaps unknown even to us? We can also attempt to ask the target after the fact whether campaign activities influenced their decision making. But such opportunities might rarely arise in the midst of on-going operations. 

Commanders conducting counterinsurgency operations should have two primary IO targets: the insurgents and the local population. Retired U.S. Army officer John Nagl notes that “persuading the masses of people that the government is capable of providing essential services—and defeating the insurgents—is just as important” as enticing the insurgents to surrender and provide information on their comrades.[ii] A PRT is not charged with directly targeting insurgents. Instead, its mission is to build the capacity of the host government to provide governance, development, and these “essential services” for the local population.[iii]

Information Operations traditionally suffer from a lack of available metrics by which planners can assess their environment and measure the effectiveness of their programs. It may be impossible to show direct causation, or even correlation, between Information Operations and actual effects (i.e., did my influence program actually have its desired effect?). This often places IO practitioners at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to gain the confidence of unit commanders, who are tasked with allocating scarce battlefield resources and who are often skeptical of Information Operations as a whole.

Given these constraints it was clear that the PRT in Khost province, Afghanistan, needed a tool by which the leadership could benchmark current conditions and evaluate the information environment under which the population lived. We hoped that such a tool could help provide clues as to whether our IO (and the overall PRT) efforts were having the intended effects. As a result, we developed the Information Operations Environmental Assessment tool, which can be used and replicated at the unit level (battalion or less) by planners in order to establish an initial benchmark (where am I?) and measure progress toward achieving the IO program goals and objectives (where do I want to go?). 

Since my crude attempt was first published in 2009, the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, there is such a thing) developed the metrics framework under the name “Measuring Progress in Conflict Environments” or “MPICE.” This project seeks to:

provide a comprehensive capability for measuring progress during stabilization and reconstruction operations for subsequent integrated interagency and intergovernmental use. MPICE enables policymakers to establish a baseline before intervention and track progress toward stability and, ultimately, self-sustaining peace. The intention is to contribute to establishing realistic goals, focusing government efforts strategically, integrating interagency activities, and enhancing the prospects for attaining an enduring peace. This metrics framework supports strategic and operational planning cycles.

No doubt the MPICE framework is far more useful today than my rudimentary attempt to capture measures of effect in 2008, but I hope in some small way others have found a useful starting point. As I learned firsthand, and as practitioners of naval and maritime professions know, what happens on land often draws in those focused on the sea. 

The author would like to thank Dr. Thomas H. Johnson and Barry Scott Zellen, both of the Naval Postgraduate School, for their professional mentorship and constructive advice, and for including my work in their book.

LT Robert “Jake” Bebber is an information warfare officer assigned to the staff of Commander, U.S. Cyber Command. He holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Central Florida and lives with his wife, Dana and son, Vincent in Millersville, Maryland. The views expressed here are not those of the Department of Defense, the Navy or those of U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com.

 


[i] Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations, p. ix

[ii] Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 93.

[iii] Ibid.

"Is America thinking about how it would fight us making war more likely?"

"No Majesty. But it is a great compliment to be so respected militarily."

Why Does Air-Sea Battle Need a Strategy?

Some of the criticism that the Air-Sea Battle Concept receives spawns from its developers not articulating what higher-level strategy it supports. Of course they cannot, because operational concepts are not operational plans! If Air-Sea Battle could be linked to a strategy, then either it is not actually a concept or the strategy it was being linked to was a terrible and inadequate strategy.

"Hey, you got air in my sea battle." "No, you got sea in my air battle."

“Hey, you got air in my sea battle.”
“No, you got sea in my air battle.”

Creating a good strategy is hard. Strategy must be tailored to a specific situation and as the situation continues to evolve, so must the strategy. Effective strategy is based in the current geo-political situation, looks at what you want the end result to be, and determines how to utilize all elements of national power (political and diplomatic, informational and social, economic, and military) to accomplish this.

Though a strategy can be simple and elegant, like the Anaconda Plan of the American Civil War, figuring out the correct strategy can be complex and messy. Before figuring out how to fight a war you have to figure out why you are fighting it and how you want it to end. Clausewitz may have said it best that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” No one should fight a war without knowing the strategic aims to be gained from it. Every complex aspect of strategy is compounded by the fact that the enemy always gets a vote in every strategic assumption made.

"To make this work multiple services are going to have to work together." "No one is going to like that concept."

“To make this work multiple services are going to have to work together.”
“No one is going to like that concept.”

Air-Sea Battle, like all operational concepts, has no business trying to be “linked to a strategy.” It is simply one tool we have to confront a potential threat and nothing more. The danger does not come from what Air-Sea Battle is; the potential danger comes if we ever try to make it more than it is. If we find ourselves in a conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary employing anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and the only tool in the toolkit that we have prepared fully to utilize is Air-Sea Battle, we are in trouble. Air-Sea Battle in its entirety or key aspects of it absolutely might be the right answer in a future war, but it also might unnecessarily escalate the conflict or we may find it too limited in scope. The challenge is that we will never know this answer until actually faced with conflict. There will never be one golden operational concept with all of the answers and is all encompassing for all needs. Our danger with Air-Sea Battle is not a lack of it being linked to a strategy. Our danger is with our whole strategy being “the war has started; time to throw Air-Sea Battle at it.”

General Eisenhower felt that “plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Similarly, a concept itself may not be that useful, but the new ideas created as a result of developing the concept can be very useful. We may never use the concept of Air-Sea Battle, but in developing and writing it we will learn much about potential A2/AD threats and possible ways to address them. That is the entire point of concepts. Operational concepts are not operational plans. They are high-level ideas on how you could operate. But the ideas within them can and should influence operational planning when it is applicable.

Some could argue that the most likely scenario would be that we never go to war with the People’s Republic of China or that if we did we would never project power inland like described in Air-Sea Battle. Though it is good to know which scenarios are the most likely, strategic thinkers and planners must never limit themselves to the most likely. The most famous colored war plan developed prior to WWII was Plan Orange because it was the one which was ultimately utilized. But what is lesser known is all of the other developed plans that were never tested in combat. For example, War Plan Red-Orange was a scenario where the United States fought against a United Kingdom-Japanese alliance. This scenario seems ridiculous in hindsight and not the most likely scenario when it was being developed, but strategists and planners do not have the luxury of just ignoring certain scenarios which seem unlikely. If it is not an impossible scenario, it should at least be thought about. We know war plan Red-Orange was never used, but its analysis revealed that the United States was not prepared to support simultaneous operations in two major theaters. And though the U.S. did not go to war with the United Kingdom, those lessons were applied to actual operations in World War II.

"Is America thinking about how it would fight us making war more likely?" "No Majesty. But it is a great compliment to be so respected militarily."

“Is America thinking about how it would fight us making war more likely?”
“No Majesty. But it is a great compliment to be so respected militarily.”

The fact that we are thinking about Air-Sea battle is good, and the fact that we are debating the merits of it is even better. Air-Sea battle cannot be a flawed plan because it is no plan. It cannot support a strategy because operational concepts do not support strategies. We are not in trouble because we are thinking about Air-Sea Battle, but we could find ourselves in trouble if it is all we think about.

LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer who has deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

clyde

Offshore Patrol Vessel Missions in Wartime

clydeThe Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) is a contemporary ship category not easily understood; it is mostly lost in the larger debate to distinguish similar vessel types such as frigates and corvettes. For our purposes, the OPV is a ship leaning towards enforcement or constabulary duties as opposed to being a dedicated combatant vessel, with a minimal weapons fit necessary to fulfill it’s function.

What then to make of it’s functions in wartime operations? What kind of value can nations gain from OPVs in a conventional, non-nuclear shooting war? OPVs can deliver good value in such a crisis, even though they are not dedicated surface combatants. Much like any other application of platforms, the vessel’s capabilities must be matched up to the assigned mission.

These applications are more suitable for larger navies, where OPVs exist as a distinct ship type usually assigned to coast guard function, either as combatants or as law-enforcement/search-and-rescue assets. For smaller navies, the OPV might be considered a major combatant type equivalent to a guided missile destroyer or other capital fleet unit, thus relegating these missions to even smaller and lighter vessels such as patrol craft.

In general, use of OPVs frees up a navy’s dedicated surface combatants to conduct the tactical operations necessary to fulfill whatever strategic goals needing to be met. In addition, OPVs can supplement some of those combatant roles if properly equipped to do so.

Constabulary Duties and Coastal Patrol – under wartime conditions, the requirement to provide security for stretches of coastlines or critical areas is more valid than ever. Hostile Special Forces, Non-State Actors and a host of other threats can benefit from an unsecured shoreline. And as history points out, life doesn’t stop because of war. There will still be commercial and private traffic (albeit at reduced levels) requiring monitoring and law-enforcement/safety-at-sea activities. OPVs will excel at this function with their long endurance, excellent fuel-economy (thanks to the ubiquitous use of diesels) and if confronted by significant enemy forces, can call upon air support and shore batteries thanks to coastline proximity.

Search-and-Rescue (SAR) – as part of a conventional war, there will inevitably be fleet casualties. While immediate SAR upon conclusion of an engagement is both efficient and humanitarian, surviving fleet units may need to egress immediately in response to a current threat, or to transit elsewhere for another mission. OPVs with their excellent seakeeping, and equipped with small boats and rescue helicopters are perfectly suited to follow-up SAR missions.

Supplementary Naval Forces – some maritime nations have experimented with up-arming their coastal guard forces with front-line equivalent equipment – notably the US Coast Guard’s baseline of the Hamilton-class cutters during the Cold War to have Harpoon missiles, close-in defenses and the ability to operate anti-sub helicopters. While modern OPVs have less deck and internal volume margin to become a true multi-role combatant; it’s not a far stretch to equip them with basic Anti-Surface Missiles, defensive Anti-Air mounts, and potentially towed array sonar. Their speed-of-advance would not make them suitable assets for front-line strikes, but OPVs could supplement fleet units by taking on secondary but vital missions that could free up a guided missile frigate or corvette – for example, providing close escort for a secondary supply line convoy or troop transports. Other creative ways would be to use OPVs as pickets – with a decent sonar suite, the ships could “trawl” across likely areas of enemy sub activity, passing back contact information to Command-and-Control for possible investigation. Conversely, many OPVs have a helicopter pad and some ability to carry “mission packages” such as relief equipment. Instead of humanitarian supplies, place an ELINT module aboard and load up on aerial drones to gather ISR and expand a fleet’s MDA.

It is important to keep in mind that such investments, including any necessary upgrades to bring OPVs to fleet-unit status, is extremely capital-intensive. However, in a wartime setting, it is assumed that cost is secondary to achieving whatever military and political goals required to end the conflict on favorable terms. Using OPVs in such roles will also require some proof-of-concept during peacetime, where there is opportunity to experiment and discover what does work in the field.

Fleet commanders should remain aware of the limitations of this concept. For starters, OPVs are not fast enough, nor are they capable of sufficient self-defense such that they can be committed to a heavily contested battlespace. Skills such as anti-sub warfare are extremely perishable. Specialist detachments will need to be embarked to supplement regular crews depending upon mission and equipment assigned. Integrating OPV forces into annual fleet training exercises is a good step to ensure operational readiness. Where possible, OPVs will do best in missions that are in close proximity to friendly forces. Despite all these limitations, the value proposition to utilize OPVs in conventional war is compelling, and should be considered seriously should force structure and budget allow.

Juramentado is the pseudonym for Armando J. Heredia, a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.