Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

The Currency of Mission Command

By Capt. Bill Shafley

Information is the currency of mission command. Mission command’s six tenets include trust, shared awareness, disciplined initiative, mission orders, commander’s intent, accepting prudent risk. All trade in information to ensure an adequate combat outcome. Clausewitz urges strategic thinkers to consider the value of the object while developing ways and means commensurate with the end. Commanders and their staffs must make their information requirements explicit with Clausewitz’s reminder at the forefront of their analysis.

Subordinate units and staffs are awash in raw data. Their collective ability to add value to that data and make it actionable information is limited by capacity. Senior staffs can easily outpace their subordinates’ ability in value creation and force an investment of effort that saps capacity dry. It is a common question from senior staffs to subordinate commands to state “let us know how we can help.” There are a few ways to alleviate some of this burden.

Reshaping Commander’s Intent and Information Requirements

Subordinate commanders need clear intent. Information exchange between senior and subordinate can neither be effective nor efficient if intent is unclear or unavailable. Drafting intent is one of the most challenging of tasks for a senior commander. It involves the translation of higher headquarters’ value of the object into a theory of the fight that transforms limited resources into action. It is the commander’s opportunity to discuss risk appetite in a manner that guides effort.

Intent is foundational to decision making. It is the basis of shared awareness. If intent is left poorly defined or incomplete, neither the senior staff nor the subordinate can put to good use their disciplined initiative or begin to build shared awareness. Intent, in this sense, serves both the subordinate and the staff. The subordinate uses tactics, techniques, and procedures to convert intent into action. Staffs develop information exchange requirements based upon intent. Intent is the foundation that ties tactical action to necessary decisions. Well-conceived information exchange requirements based upon clear intent can yield success or dampen the impact of tactical action gone awry.

Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIR) are a misunderstood and misapplied tool, but can be valuable to building shared awareness. A CCIR ties an information requirement, as it relates to the enemy or the friendly force, to a decision. CCIRs are developed during mission analysis. They are refined during Course of Action (COA) development and finalized through wargaming. They are eventually promulgated as part of a decision support matrix tied to events as they unfold in the tactical space.

CCIRs require action. They define what data is collected. They require some entity to collect, analyze, and report that data. A commander, or their designated representative, makes decisions based upon that information that take the outcome of a tactical action and convert it into a broader operational aim.

CCIRs are often used in a manner that mirror a set of Commanding Officer’s Standing Orders. Most naval officers are familiar with the pages full of rules of thumb, guidance, and direction to “call me when.” This type of reporting matrix has merit. It takes the guess work out of when and how to notify the commander. Yet, the “why” can get lost in the gathering of information and the notification itself. Instead of thinking tactically about the fight unfolding, leaders head down toward collecting administrative minutiae to “feed the beast.”

Planners learn very early on the “1/3-2/3” rule as it applies to time available to plan. If a tasking order is received from a higher headquarters and the confirmation brief is required in a day, then the staff has eight hours to conduct mission analysis and COA development while subordinate units have 16 hours to conduct their own planning for execution. This rule prevents higher headquarters from delving too deeply into planning for execution and leaves time for subordinate units to think through the tactics, techniques, and procedures required to execute the mission.

This same type of rule can be applied to setting CCIRs and creating the associated decision matrix. Collecting information poses a tax that trickles down into the organization, sapping the attention and effort of subordinates. At times, the amount of effort expended to gather information in response to an “ask” from higher headquarters can at best far outpace the value of the information collected. At worst, that “ask” could distract and disorient subordinates to the point where they miss a fleeting opportunity to take advantage of a developing situation. It would be best in these instances to understand that the act of gathering information takes effort and attention. Keeping CCIRs lean and necessary preserves resources of all sorts, from surveillance assets, to decision support assets, and inevitably fires. In the end, leaders may have to accept ambiguity in the short term to preserve decision space and resources in the long term.

With commander’s intent in hand and a lean set of CCIRs promulgated and understood, there is an additional tool available to trade information in a manner that supports the commander’s decision cycle. The Commander’s Battle Rhythm and its boards, centers, cells and working groups is the engine that drives operations. A disciplined approach to inputs and outputs, agendas, and membership can ensure the information being pulled into the system is fit for purpose and useable. The same 1/3-2/3 rule should apply here as well. Every opportunity should be taken to “pull” information passively into the battle rhythm and decision support matrix through official products and communications channels.

The battle rhythm should be assessed frequently to ensure the inputs and outputs are providing decision-quality information. Some of the most dangerous words uttered by a higher headquarters staff are “the boss wants to know.” These well-meaning words can impose outsized demands on subordinate units. Too many of these innocent asks could point to poor analysis on the front end. Many staffs go through the Seven-Minute Drill at the beginning of their battle staff training program. The drill is important to ensure that timings and participation are synchronized and deconflicted. Yet, the inputs and the outcomes can becomes glossed over as the battle rhythm flows through its paces. Every event is an opportunity to assess whether it is returning the proper information necessary for situational awareness and decision. A long list of due-outs and actions back to the staff or a subordinate unit may be symptomatic of the wrong inputs, outputs, and agendas.


Mission command’s success as a method of command and control is the commander’s business. It takes a level of commitment to and trust in the staff processes and professionalism of its members. Information requirements are the currency of command. Communication is the process in which this currency is spent. Every exchange of information is a transaction that costs something in term of level of effort. Disciplined use of CCIRs and the Battle Rhythm are manners to control the inflows and outflows of these transactions. Just like frivolous spending can create a deficit, a lack of discipline and necessity can create situations where the gains of mission command in terms of initiative can be squandered as subordinate commanders scramble to answer just one more request for information from higher that was probably right there in front of them to begin with.

Mission command won’t likely fail because of a lack of disciplined initiative or trust. It will break down because commanders have not taken the time to truly think through and generate a concise commander’s intent that codifies the information requirements necessary to build decisions upon. It will break down due to the staff’s inability to create an information bill and weigh the staff tax necessary to generate successful mission orders. It will break down because the staff just kept on asking one more innocent question, after another, and after another. It is the commanders who set the tone.

Captain Bill Shafley is a career Surface Warfare Officer and currently serves as the Commodore, Destroyer Squadron 26 and Sea Combat Commander for Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. He has served on both coasts and overseas in Asia and Europe. He is a graduate of the Naval War College’s Advanced Strategy Program and a designated Naval Strategist. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 26, 2009) Lt. Jon Bielar, left, from San Diego, and tactical action officer Lt. Paul O’Brien, from Chesapeake, Va., call general quarters from inside the combat information center during the total ship’s survivability exercise aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Walter M. Wayman/Released)

The Number of Mines is Less Than Infinity

By Dr. Michael M. Rosenthal, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division

“I would be very surprised if professionals engaged full time in [Mine countermeasures] MCM who speak routinely with other professionals in the same field had no genuine prior knowledge.”–Fred Huffer, Professor of Statistics, Florida State University

Mine countermeasures are actions intended to reduce the risk that mines pose to transiting vessels. Risk is defined as the probability that a transiting vessel will incur mission abort damage from a mine detonation if it travels along a predetermined route through the potentially mined area. The purpose of an MCM operation is to lower the risk so it is safer to transit. The estimation of risk is critically important to determine if the level of risk to a transiting vessel is acceptable and if the applied effort is effectively lowering the risk.

Some of the traditional MCM tactics are founded on Bayesian risk metrics that utilize a non-informative prior distribution for the number of mines. Some statisticians prefer to use non-informative priors because they feel it is more objective. The non-informative prior reduces the amount of required inputs from the tactician so there is less error introduced from the human operator, but it also defeats the entire purpose of using a Bayesian paradigm because the prior distribution does not utilize any information. It assumes that any number of mines is equally likely. In most cases, it is far more likely that there are just a few mines and it is very unlikely there are millions of mines.

Bayesian methods are ideal for the development of MCM risk metrics because they facilitate learning as information is acquired. This is good for MCM because new information and new decisions are frequently acquired throughout the operation. New events often occur which provide critical information and appropriate responses are promptly needed. These events vary greatly in detail. Bayesian analysis centers on utilizing Baye’s theorem to formally combine prior information with newly gathered information. This provides more freedom to create information synergy. 

Bayesian calculations utilize a prior distribution to incorporate information about parameters of interest before conducting a trial. In the context of MCM, the total number of mines is an unknown parameter of interest and a search or sweep of the mines is a trial. The choice in prior distribution is less critical when data is plentiful as long as the prior is not too restrictive. When there is an abundance of data, a reasonable prior will have a weaker impact on the final analysis because the posterior distribution will be primarily influenced by the data. However, data is usually limited in MCM operations, so the prior distribution will have a stronger impact on the analysis. In this case, it is critical to scrutinize the choice of prior in order for the risk metric to be meaningful.

Some of the traditional risk models actually use an improper prior for the total number of mines. An improper prior is sometimes used as an uninformative prior with the interpretation that any value is equally likely. However, many statisticians caution against using them since they are known to complicate interpretation and this usually does not provide an appropriate Bayesian update. The improper prior is formed by taking a limit of uniform distributions as the maximum number of possible mines goes to infinity. This does not converge to a probability distribution, so there is no meaningful interpretation of the prior belief for the number of mines.

Having an appropriate Bayesian update is important to MCM because if the result of a single pass of an MCM clearance does not reduce the posterior risk to an acceptable level, then the MCM staff will need to re-plan and execute a second clearance operation in the same area to further reduce the risk. This process will iterate until the risk is lowered to the threshold level.

As Fred Huffer stated, “It would be very surprising if professionals engaged full time in [Mine countermeasures] MCM who speak routinely with other professionals in the same field had no genuine prior knowledge.” If the user cannot reliably provide any information, then a large value for the expected number of mines and a corresponding large variance can be chosen because there is less certainty in that estimate. The user should be able to reliably provide some basic information that can be utilized in the prior belief by answering two simple questions:

  • How many mines could be in the region (few or many)?
    • (Few) i. e. the enemy has a small inventory or just a few can fit in the region
    • (Many) i. e. the enemy has a large inventory or they could lay thousands in the region
  • How certain are you in the amount above (low or high)?
    • (Low) a subjective guess based on limited intelligence information
      • i. e. if I were a minelayer, what would I do?
    • (High) a more objective belief based on concrete observations.
      • e. g. vessel with room for 10 mines was sighted laying mines.

The negative binomial distribution is one possible prior distribution that can be used for the mine risk Bayesian framework. Analytical expressions for the required clearance and the risk from remaining mines are easily derived. Not only is the mathematics cleaner and easier to interpret, but it also provides a sensible approach to incorporate prior intelligence information (information known before applying effort) into the analysis.

How does using the negative binomial distribution compare with the popular (uninformative) improper prior? There is no significant difference between calculations derived using the improper prior and using a negative binomial distribution with mean of 10^15 and a variance of 10^30+10^15 as the prior distribution. This default distribution implies that on average we expect there to be one quadrillion mines in the region with an unthinkably enormous variance (one nonillion + one quadrillion) to adequately accommodate our complete uncertainty in the possible number of mines prior to applying effort. To put these numbers into perspective, the surface of the ocean has an area of roughly 360 million square kilometers. That is 3.6×10^14 square meters. If you could place one quadrillion mines over a 360 million square kilometer area, the mines could be spaced on a rectangular grid roughly 0.6 meters meters apart. This setting of the prior goes as far as to say that we think it is reasonably possible that there could more than two quadrillion mines in the region.

If there is genuine concern that the end user cannot do better than this assumption, then after applying mine countermeasures a simple hypothesis test can be done to validate the user selected prior mean and variance against the default. In this way, if the end user significantly mis-specified the prior, then a flag can be automatically raised to warn the commander that the user is unable to translate the prior intelligence information into a reasonable prior belief for this operation. In this case, the command will have significant evidence to reject the assumption that a more reasonable prior belief can be derived by the end user, and return to the default condition. It is important to note that such a flag raise would not imply an outrageous deficiency in judgement by the end user. However, a flag-raise should initiate a discussion of caution toward objectively and consistently arriving at a reasonable prior distribution. Following this protocol should effectively insulate the MCM mission from this type of human error.

We generally prefer to make decisions based on an analysis that utilizes more information over a similar analysis which utilizes less information. An analysis that relies on a non-informative prior can most often be improved with an informative prior. With a non-informative prior, no prior information is being specified, so it is easy to come up with a distribution that utilizes some additional information. An informative prior often improves the interpretation and practicality of the analysis because more realistic assumptions can be made.

The updated theory in this work gently bridges more traditional doctrine into a broader realm of possibilities so that some basic information that has not been utilized can now be incorporated to improve the decision quality for the Navy.

Dr. Michael Rosenthal received his doctorate degree in Mathematical Statistics from the Florida State University in 2014. He received his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics with a minor in Statistics from the University of Florida in 2009. For five years, Dr. Rosenthal has worked at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division, developing basic research topics with academic colleges and assessing warfighter needs for updating and transitioning actionable tactics in the field of mine warfare.

Featured Image: BALTIC SEA (June 18, 2019) HDMS MSF-1 assigned to Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One (SNMCMG1) conducts side scan sonar exercises while transiting the Baltic Sea during exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2019. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of NATO by CPO Brian Djurslev/Released)

Ignorance of China is Not Bliss

By Capt. Brent Ramsey (ret.)

China Rising

China is modernizing every element of its military. It has announced plans to field a world-class military by 2035 and a dominant military by mid-century.1 Consistent with its goal of regional hegemony, China is building Navy, Coast Guard, and merchant ships faster than any other nation. Its Navy now directly commands China’s Coast Guard, adding hundreds of ships to its fleet. China’s fleet of warships now outnumbers U.S. warships in the Indo-Pacific by about 10 to 1. With this new capability, China constantly intimidates its neighbors through its increasingly aggressive maritime behavior.2

China intends to control the international waters off its shores.3 It has invested heavily in long-range anti-access area denial (A2/AD) missiles. These missiles represent a serious threat to warships, since considerable uncertainty exists about the effectiveness of the defenses against them.4 A strategic benefit of robust A2/AD missiles is increasing the stand-off distance from China that warships must maintain to avoid attack. By pushing navies further away from shores, these weapons look to turn the China Seas into Chinese territorial waters. According to the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”5

In the past few years, China has illegally constructed, and subsequently militarized, multiple artificial islands using various features like reefs, shoals, and atolls in the South China Sea in international waters. Most of these sites have conflicting claims of ownership between China and other countries including Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Construction has occurred at seven sites in the Spratly Islands, 20 sites in the Paracel Islands, and at Scarborough Shoal, totaling more than 3200 acres of reclaimed ocean upon which China has built high-tech military facilities including airfields and missile batteries.6 The UN Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China in July 2016, expressly rejecting China’s claims in the area near the Philippines in the South China Sea.7 The tribunal ruled that China’s claims to sovereignty over 90 percent of the South China Sea, particularly with regard to the Spratly Islands, part of which the Philippines claim, was invalid. It specifically found that “China had violated the Philippines sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.”8 Virtually every other nation in the region rejects China’s claims.

China, ignoring the UN ruling,9 continues to militarize the area. Chinese aircraft and ships continue to harass many ships and aircraft of other countries venturing near.10 China has now largely gained the ability to manage and interfere with the commerce passing through the South China Sea if it so chooses. The U.S. and other countries continue to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) near these features and through the Taiwan Strait, but China vigorously protests these FONOPS and orders U.S. or allied ships out of its “sovereign waters.” After a recent FONOP near the Paracels, the Chinese government boldly issued the following statement, “We again stress that China has irrefutable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and their nearby waters.”11

In order to counter this emergent capability and China’s increasing aggression, deploying a much larger number of warships to the region is urgent.

The U.S. Navy and China’s Threat

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History12 was a seminal military planning and strategy framework that shaped maritime defense and international trade policy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mahan’s theories concerning the extraordinary importance of sea power to defend national sovereignty and economy still apply today.13 Given how 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean, having a powerful Navy is essential for protecting vital commerce, defending coastlines, and defeating almost any enemy. Throughout American history, time and time again, the use of the U. S. Navy at critical junctures has been the key to its defense and the implementation of national policy. Whether it was fighting the Barbary Pirates, sending the Great White Fleet around the world, the Battle of the Atlantic during WWII, the invasion of Normandy with thousands of ships, or turning the Japanese back at Midway, the U.S. Navy has always played a vital role in war and peace. It must do so again in the Indo-Pacific by resisting China’s goals.

With an adequately sized fleet, the Navy’s ability to control the sea using nuclear-powered carriers with embarked air wings, sophisticated attack and guided missile submarines, Aegis cruisers and destroyers, coupled with unparalleled forward logistics support, would be unmatched. Virtually no one contemplates a land war with China, making the Army’s role in containing China in the Indo-Pacific somewhat limited. The Air Force can project power in Asia but its capability is much more limited than the Navy’s given its dependence on a finite number of fixed launch points and an extremely long logistics tail. With the vastness of the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility, much of it covered by oceans, only the Navy can be effective at countering China’s influences in place and prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon.

But despite the importance of having a robust Navy of sufficient size and capability to defend U.S. national interests, it is acknowledged by most defense experts that the Navy is no longer large enough to ensure freedom of navigation and to limit China’s aggressive behavior in international waters. The Navy’s technical superiority will make a difference only if there are enough ships in the right places. If the U.S. does not retain supremacy in the Indo-Pacific, China will inevitably step in to fill the vacuum.

The current administration and Congress have recognized the need for 355 ships,14 but the Navy currently has only 295 warships in commission,15 and a recent Congressional Research Service report on shipbuilding estimates that with current budget profiles the only way the Navy will reach the goal of 355 is by extending the life of existing ships to 40 and 45 years for various ship types and with increasing maintenance costs.16 With the increasing threat from China and others, the requirement is most likely much higher. The Heritage Foundation documented a need for 400 warships.17 With the inadequately sized force and with approximately one third of the current fleet already deployed at any one time, it is hardly surprising that the Navy cannot effectively keep up with China’s actions in the vital Indo-Pacific. The Navy is already so over-tasked in Asia that many ships have been forced to neglect basic navigation training and overwork it sailors with 100+ hour workweeks, resulting in multiple tragic accidents costing many lives.18

In any conflict, the best strategy would be to project power away from the U.S. and toward the adversary. But China is a long ways away as it takes weeks to traverse the 6000-plus miles from the West Coast to China. The Navy must already have a significant proportion of the fleet in place when needed. Only the Navy can loiter indefinitely near China, supported by the most capable logistics systems. Only the Navy’s power projection assets can freely exercise the American sovereign will for the U.S. and its allies, even to blockade China if necessary. The need is urgent not only for more warships, but also for more advanced warships like the Ford-class CVN and the next generation of attack and ballistic missile submarines and surface combatants that can challenge China’s A2/AD weaponry.

However, modern warships are tremendously complicated and take a lengthy time to build. The newest U.S. carrier, the USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78), took 12 years to build. It was commissioned in July 2017, but is still not certified for combat.19 Other ship classes take less time to build, but none less than 6 years. Because it takes so long to construct warships, the next war will almost certainly be fought with the ships already on hand today, unlike in WWII where the industrial base was a decisive factor. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. shipbuilding industry has experienced a tremendous decline. Today there are only seven shipyards in the U.S. capable of building Navy warships.20 The complex nature of Navy combatants requires the retention of a robust, state-of-the-art shipbuilding industry that is capable of building the world’s most advanced warships. According to the Congressional Research Service, the industry has unparalleled capability but limited capacity as it can only build a handful of ships at a time and would have to add considerable numbers to the workforce and make major plant investments before being able to build more ships faster.21 But it is urgent to build more ships now while there is still time.  


While the average U.S. citizen is not aware of the dire threat that China represents, that is not the case for Navy stakeholders and supporters. The U. S. Naval Institute, the Navy League of the United States, the Association of the United States Navy, the Center for International Maritime Security, key Congressional leaders, shipbuilders, and defense think tanks are all too aware of China’s rise and the extreme risks that will dawn in the coming years. These stakeholders wield considerable influence in how the nation plots its maritime course through troubled waters. What seems to be lacking among them is effective coordination that would lead to a shared vision and unified plan for a response to the China threat, with an emphasis on increasing naval power. These organizations must strive to work together to establish common goals in support of the Navy, and inform citizens about the risks and potential consequences at hand.

Will history give a postmortem of a vanquished America that squandered preeminence because it neglected its own defense? The real question is whether the U.S. can afford not to spend adequately on defense and its Navy. We must urgently build far more warships to defend the nation against China, or else entertain the possibility of a more dangerously uncertain future.

Captain Brent Ramsey (ret.) served 30 years in the Navy and 23 years in the Navy Civil Service. He commanded Cargo Handling Battalion TWELVE, was Operations Officer/Business Manager, CBC Gulfport, and was Navy Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer to Mississippi. He currently serves as Senior Advisor, Center for International Maritime Security, and Member/Secretary of the Meadows Military Advisory Group.


1. David Ignatius, “China has a plan to rule the world,” The Washington Post, 17 November 2017, and US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, (US-China Economic and Security Commission Report, November 2018, 25.

2. Lyle Morris, “China Welcomes its newest Armed Force:  The Coast Guard,” War on the Rocks, 4 April 2018,

3. Christopher Cowan, “A2/AD-Anti-access/area denial,” Real Clear Defense, 12 September 2016,

4. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization:  Implications for U. S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report, 1 August 2018, 8-10.

5. Steven Lee Myers, “With Ships and Missiles, China is Ready to Challenge US Navy in Pacific,” New York Times, 29 August 2018.

6. Asia Maritime Transparency Institute,

7. Katie Hunt, “South China Sea:  Court Rules in Favor of Philippines over China,” 12 July 2016.

8. Tom Mitchell and Geoff Dyer, “Tribunal rules against Beijing in South China Sea dispute”, Financial Times,12 July 2016,

9. Tom Phillips, Oliver Holmes, Owen Bowcott, “Beijing rejects tribunal’s ruling in South China Sea case,” The Guardian, 12 July  2016,

10. Ben Werner, “Destroyer USS Decatur Has Close Encounter with Chinese Warship,” USNI News, 1 October 2018,

11. Spratly Islands Confidential, South China Sea: US Navy Warship Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Near Paracel Islands, 15 September 2019.

12. Little Brown and Company, 1890.

13. Dr. John H. Mauer, “The Influence of Thinkers and ideas on History, the Case of Alfred Thayer Mahan,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 11 August 2016,

14. “2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment,” 16 December 2016,

15. “Status of the Navy,” 24 July 2019,

16. Ronald O’Roarke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report, 10 June 2019, 22.

17. “2019 Index of Military Strength” edited by Dakota Wood, The Heritage Foundation, October 2018, 8

18. Alex Norton and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Deadly Navy Accidents in the Pacific raise Questions over a Force Stretched too Thin,” The Washington Post, 20 August 2017,

19. Navy Fact File, USS Gerald R. Ford,; Allen Cone, “Ford-class combat system completes test, first carrier further delayed, UPI, 13 June 2019,

20. Huntington-Ingalls, Newport News, VA and Pascagoula, MS, General Dynamics, Bath, ME, Groton, CT, and San Diego, Austal USA, Mobile, AL, and Marinette Marine, Marinette, WI.

21. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report, 19 October 2018, 45.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 5, 2020) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) prepares to pull alongside the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in preparation for a replenishment-at-sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyle Merritt)

Winning the Invisible War: Gaining an Enduring Advantage in the EMS

The following article is adapted from a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Winning the Invisible War: Gaining an Enduring U.S. Advantage in the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

By Bryan Clark, Whitney M. McNamara, and Timothy A. Walton

The explosion of mobile communications and emerging Internet of Things are turning the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) into an increasingly crowded place. The advent of 5G, which needs wide swaths of spectrum in multiple frequency ranges to achieve high data rates, will only intensify this trend and create more conflicts between commercial and government users. The challenge of spectrum management and control will be acute for militaries, which depend almost entirely on the EMS for sensing and communications.

The American military is particularly affected by a congested EMS. U.S. forces deploy the most advanced networks of sensors and precision-guided munitions, relying on them for almost all operations. Adversaries like China and Russia have exploited this dependence during the last decade by developing and fielding a comprehensive array of electronic warfare (EW) systems to contest the spectrum.

The U.S. military, however, did not address the challenge posed by its competitors and numerous assessments now argue the U.S. military is unprepared for competition or conflict in the EMS. The problem was not a lack of funding, as defense spending for EMS operations grew steadily since 2015. DoD’s EMS shortfalls arose because the additional dollars were not spent implementing a coherent strategy and instead were used to upgrade legacy systems and fill various capability gaps. Regaining EMS superiority against Chinese and Russian forces at the current pace will take one or two decades – assuming America’s adversaries do not continue to improve.

DoD should accelerate its efforts to regain an advantage in the spectrum, but likely budget constraints will preclude simply throwing more money at the problem. Instead of perpetuating the current move-countermove competition by attempting to fill every EMS capability gap, DoD can adopt a new approach to EMS operations focused on asymme­tries between U.S and opposing militaries. An EMS strategy designed to undermine enemy strengths and exploit adversary vulnerabilities may leave some capability gaps intact but could be the only way for the U.S. military to achieve EMS superiority in time to forestall opportunistic aggression by one of America’s military competitors.

Exploiting Asymmetries

The most important asymmetry between U.S. and opposing militaries is the adversary’s “home team” advantage and how it impacts EMS operations. For example, Chinese and Russian forces can exploit their proximity to likely conflicts by employing sensor techniques that rely on multiple stationary arrays such as passive radio frequency (RF) detection or geolocation and long-range high frequency radars. As an expeditionary force, the U.S. military is less able to employ these techniques and often relies on active, monostatic radars for situational awareness and defense, exposing U.S. units to enemy detection and geolocation.

Their home team advantage also allows China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Russian Armed Forces to place EW and sensor systems on their own territory, where they can rely on wired communications, or in nearby sea or airspace, where line-of-sight RF communications can be reliable and difficult to jam. The relatively uncluttered spectrum near their territory also permits Chinese and Russian militaries to pre-plan their spectrum use. As an expeditionary force, the U.S. military must manage spectrum dynamically.

The proximity of U.S. competitors to likely areas of conflict creates additional asymmetries in force design and command and control (C2) between U.S. and competing militaries. For example, because the PLA understands where conflict is likely to occur, the Chinese forces to be employed, and the likely variety of enemy dispositions and tactics, the PLA can employ pre-architected systems of systems and tactics. This approach, which Chinese military strategists call System Destruction Warfare, prioritizes attacks on perceived enemy vulnerabilities, such as U.S. forces’ dependence on the EMS. Although it also uses pre-architected systems and focuses contesting adversary information operations, the Russian military’s C2 approach delegates subordinates more authority to improvise tactics. Similar to PLA leaders, however, Russian commanders are expected to use modeling and cybernetics to scientifically lead forces and antici­pate combat outcomes.

The worldwide commitments of the U.S. military require a more expeditionary and self-contained force design than those needed by Chinese or Russia forces. Today, U.S. forces center on large multimission platforms and troop formations, which are efficient but constrain the force’s flexibility. U.S. forces also need a more adaptable C2 process than the Chinese or Russian militaries to accommodate more contested communications, changing force packages, and the variety of local conditions. The U.S. military employs “mission command” to rely on a junior leader’s judgment and ability to follow the commander’s intent if communications are lost. A lack of planning and management tools available to junior commanders currently hinders their ability to innovate, however, making their actions more predictable to an adversary.  

A Return to Maneuver Warfare

To regain EMS superiority, DoD should focus on exploiting asymme­tries in ways that could undermine adversary strengths or exploit enemy vulnerabilities. Most prominently, the home team advantage of U.S. adversaries could be turned into a weakness if DoD adopts new warfighting approaches that emphasize maneuver and complexity. For instance, the PLA’s reliance on pre-planned, static systems of systems and tactics could be a disadvantage against highly dynamic and unpredictable U.S. force postures and capabilities. Furthermore, complex U.S. operations in the EMS could be especially effective against Chinese and Russian operational concepts that center on defeating U.S. C2, communications, and sensors.

To fully exploit the potential of maneuver warfare, the U.S. military should replace some of its self-contained multimission units that result in highly predictable force packages and tactics with cheaper and less multifunctional units to create a disaggregated and recomposable force. This would enable greater adaptability in U.S. force packages while imposing considerable complexity on adversaries. A disaggregated force would better enable the U.S. military to conduct EMS operations that would be challenging for an enemy to detect and counter, including passive and multistatic sensing, distributed EW, and decoy operations.

A disaggregated force will be difficult to manage, however, in a contested communications environment. Instead of DoD’s current trend toward centralized staffs and resilient wide-area communications for distributed operations, the U.S. military should address this challenge by adopting context-centric C2 and communications (C3). In this approach, C2 relationships are based on communications availability, rather trying to build a communications architecture to support a pre-determined C2 hierarchy. An essential element of context-centric C3 is planning tools that enable junior leaders at to creatively plan, adapt, and recompose their forces and operations. These tools are already being developed and fielded by DoD labs and industry.

U.S. forces will also need to dramatically change how they operate in the EMS to impose complexity and uncertainty on an adversary. Most importantly, the U.S. military’s over-reliance on active monostatic radars can enable adversaries to understand U.S. dispositions and tactics because radars can be detected, classified, and geolocated relatively easily. To more fully support maneuver and adaptability, U.S. forces should use more passive or multistatic sensing, complemented by LPI/LPD communications and electronic countermeasures.

To support passive and multistatic sensing, every U.S. EMS system should also incorporate passive RF detection, or electronic support (ES), functionality. ES capabilities would also help achieve LPI/LPD characteristics by monitoring friendly emissions; improve the effectiveness of EW actions by sensing adversary EMS actions; and enable coordination of EMS operations with minimal communications by detecting EMS operations of collaborating units. Introducing multifunction EMS systems to U.S. forces that can communicate, sense, jam, and decoy, would increase the variety of locations from which sensing or effects be delivered and provide greater adaptability to U.S. forces.

Fully exploiting networked and multifunction capabilities to operate at machine speed will require operators to yield some deci­sion-making to the EMSO system. Today, adaptive algorithms that can react to adversary actions are reaching EW systems in operating forces. These programs should be accelerated, along with efforts to establish testing processes and data governance procedures for future cognitive EMS systems. The most significant impediments to networked EMSO and EMBM are creating interoperable data transmission standards and the varied security levels at which different EMSO systems operate.

EMS maneuver and superiority only have meaning if DoD treats the EMS as an operational domain. Today’s approach to EMS operations treats the EMS as a utility, in which actions such as electronic attack (EA), ES, electronic protection (EP), communications, and sensing are distinct operations. In a domain construct, these actions would be considered as interrelated operations that can be employed in concert to accomplish the commander’s intent and tasking through maneuver in the EMS.

Implementing a New EMS strategy

A more disaggregated and recomposable force has significant impli­cations for how DoD identifies and develops new capabilities. For example, requirements will be harder to determine if the configuration of force packages is not known in advance. Therefore, DoD could adopt an opportunity-based, rather than requirements-based, approach to capability development. New systems would be assessed based on their ability to improve mission outcomes in a range of scenarios and force packages, rather than engineering a point solution based on assumptions regarding future forces and operations. DoD’s new Middle Tier Acquisition Process reflects this approach.   

One tool for assessing the potential benefits of new technologies or systems is experimentation. DoD’s EMS training ranges are unable to provide realistic modern operational environments, but operational security concerns would prevent U.S. forces from recouping the significant investment needed to upgrading live open-air facilities. DoD should shift its emphasis for EMS operations training to virtual and constructive facilities, which would enable concept development, tactics innovation, and training against the most challenging threats at all security levels. Live EMS training to practice safe operations could focus on less-modern threats or employ closed-loop radar, communication, and EW systems.

An Imperative to Change 

DoD cannot continue attempting to gain EMS superiority by incrementally filling capability gaps. This approach is too unfocused, will take too long to reach fruition, is potentially unaffordable, and cedes the initiative to America’s great power competitors. Instead of reacting to adversary moves with its own countermoves, DoD should move in a new direction and focus EW and EMSO capability development on implementing concepts for maneuver warfare that create adaptability for U.S. forces and complexity for adversaries.

If the DoD does not mount a new more strategic and proactive approach to fighting in the EMS and developing the requisite capabilities, adversaries could be emboldened to continue their efforts to gain territory and influence at the expense of U.S. allies and partners. Demonstrating the ability to survive and fight in a contested EMS could help U.S. forces slow Chinese and Russian activities and deter or dissuade these adversaries from more aggressive approaches to their objectives.

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at CSBA.

Timothy Walton is a Research Fellow at CSBA.

Whitney M. McNamara is a Senior Analyst at CSBA.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 13, 2019) Lt. j. g. Louis Wohletz, from Minneapolis, center, is observed by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force officers as he stands watch as a surface warfare coordinator during a maritime strike operation exercise in the combat information center of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69) during Annual Exercise (ANNUALEX) 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)