Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 2: Firepower

Read Pt. 1 on Combat Training.

By Dmitry Filipoff

The Navy’s tactical ignorance is built into its arsenal. Currently some of the Navy’s most important weapons development programs are not just evolutionary, but revolutionary in the possibilities they open up. This is not due to innovation, but instead many of these noteworthy and foundational capabilities are finally arriving decades after the technologies were first proven, many close to half a century ago. Many of these most crucial weapons are already in the hands of great power competitors such as Russia and China who have had decades of opportunity to train and refine tactics with them.

Offensive Firepower

“…no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” –Horatio Nelson

One of U.S. Navy’s gravest errors in handicapping its own development was neglecting the development of long-range offensive firepower in the age of missile warfare. What made the anti-ship missile a revolution in naval warfare was its ability to deliver a powerful pulse of firepower comparable to that of an attacking wave of carrier aircraft through a combination of high speed, large warhead size, and salvo fires.

In spite of this by 1971 the Soviet Union managed to field 11 different types of anti-ship missiles before the U.S. had yet to field one.1 Today numerous surface ships, submarines, and heavy bombers in the Russian and Chinese navies carry long-range anti-ship missiles, many with supersonic speed and ranges as great as over 200 miles. It was not until 1977 that the U.S. Navy would field its first anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, which remains its primary anti-surface weapon to this day. Weapons with triple the range and speed of the Harpoon missile already existed in numbers 50 years ago.2 

Select Soviet anti-ship missiles and their date of introduction, all preceding Harpoon. (Source: Declassified CIA Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, 1971)

The Harpoon is a slow, subsonic missile and extremely short-ranged at around 70 nautical miles.3 The Harpoon also isn’t equipped by most of the U.S. Navy’s destroyers. It is only found on less than half of the Navy’s destroyers despite there being little difference in the design of the ships that carry them and those that do not.4* 

The submarine force took Harpoon out of its inventory entirely in 1997 which shaved tens of miles off its surface strike range and limited itself to only close-range torpedo engagements. Now the submarine force is thinking about bringing Harpoon back some 20 years later.

Harpoon failed to take advantage of arguably the most important attributes large naval platforms bring to the fight – capacity and staying power. The surface fleet ships that do carry Harpoon only carry eight, a small sum. This is in spite of the fact that all U.S. Navy large surface warships have around 100 vertical launch cells for missiles and where Harpoon is much smaller than launch cell-compatible missiles like Tomahawk.

Because Harpoon is incompatible with its launch cells the Navy bolts the missiles on top of the deck in a most uneconomic fashion. This limits the maximum anti-ship salvo U.S. Navy surface warships can deliver to only an eight-missile salvo with extremely short range and subsonic speed. The Navy certainly expects its own ships to be able to easily swat down such a salvo. Harpoon must be fired via torpedo tubes for submarines, but shooting missiles through torpedo tubes can also only produce small salvos compared to a submarine’s launch cells.6

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 18, 2008) Note the four Harpoon missile launchers in the background and the 64 vertical launch cells in the foreground. Original caption: Seaman Robert Paterson, of Norgo, Cal., stands watch next to the aft vertical launch missile platform on the Fantail while underway on the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Hight) 

The Navy did come close to effectively fielding a long-range anti-ship weapon. However, the Navy never truly integrated it by only procuring a small quantity and eventually taking it out of the inventory entirely.

At first the Tomahawk missile program pursued a weapon with two different capabilities. An anti-ship Tomahawk missile was first tested six months after the land attack version in 1976.7 The anti-ship Tomahawk incorporated the same active radar seeker and guidance technology from the Harpoon missile, but offered far better range and a larger payload.However, by 1995 it appears only about 600 anti-ship Tomahawks were produced, roughly a tenth of the size of the Harpoon inventory.9 The only surface ships that could have carried more than a handful of deck-mounted anti-ship Tomahawks during the Cold War were cruisers that were exclusively focused on protecting capital ships via the defensive anti-air mission. Once the Cold War ended the U.S. Navy got rid of its only long-range anti-surface weapon by remaking the anti-ship Tomahawk missile inventory into the land-attack version.10

Ill-conceived arguments were put forward to justify taking these weapons out, such as how the Navy could not likely target the missile to the maximum extent of its range and the Navy’s current anti-ship missile seekers would be ill-suited to congested waters featuring a mixture of hostiles and non-combatants.11 However far the Navy could target Tomahawk was going to be far better than what it was getting with Harpoon. The Navy certainly accepted a 200-mile anti-ship missile threat from Soviet forces. And if NATO had gone to war against the Soviet Navy it still could have fought in congested waters such as the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

A comparison of U.S. and Chinese Navy (PLAN) warships and the range of their respective anti-ship firepower. (Via China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities, China Maritime Studies Institute, Naval War College)

Still, the Tomahawk makes for a relatively poor anti-ship missile. It is subsonic and lacks aerodynamic features that allow for dynamic terminal maneuvering and where both drawbacks will lower its survivability. More missiles would have to be fired per salvo to achieve a similar effect offered by the more modern missiles coming to the fleet like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and Standard Missile (SM)-6.

Tomahawk’s best feature is its long range of hundreds of miles which would allow a dispersed force to aggregate their fires into concentrated salvos via networking.12 However, both slow speed and long range increase the dependence of the missile on in-flight retargeting updates and creates a more burdensome kill chain. It is also questionable to use such a large warhead when modern missile seekers using passive sensors can attempt to pinpoint their strikes on ships. If a missile can confidently choose to hit a ship in the magazine or in other spaces that guarantee a mission kill then missile design can more readily trade warhead size for extra range and speed.

The Navy is once again pursuing this capability. An anti-ship Tomahawk missile will be coming back to the fleet in 2022, 40 years after a Tomahawk first sunk a ship in testing.13 

Defensive Firepower 

“Anything can be saturated. Aegis can be saturated.”–Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer (ret.)

One of the most fundamental trends of military capability is that of reinforcing the kill chain, or the process by which targets are found by sensors and then fired upon with weapons. This process requires certain levels of information from simple detection to targeting-quality data. A key challenge is in keeping the kill chain resilient and freshly updated once the weapon is fired and travels a distance to its target. In response to being detected or coming under fire a target can change its behavior and launch decoys which can require new targeting inputs. Arguably one of the most information intensive fights among the warfare areas is the anti-air mission where sustained radar energy must steadily illuminate speedy aerial targets over great distances in order to guide a missile toward a hit.

The difficulty of steadily illuminating a dynamic aerial target can be somewhat mitigated by putting a radar seeker into the missile itself, a capability known as active radar seeking. This adds resilience to the kill chain and gives the missile some degree of independence from external illumination sources such as the radar of a ship or aircraft. Usually active radar seeking is engaged in the terminal phase of the engagement given the relatively small size of the onboard seeker.

Missiles that are totally dependent on outside sources for illumination operate under semi-active homing. The Navy realized the potential of combining both semi-active and active radar homing when it fielded the Phoenix missile through the F-14 Tomcat that was the mainstay of the fleet’s air-to-air capability during its service life. The Phoenix missile could travel 100 miles and engage active radar seeking in the final moments to see the engagement through. The fundamental principle of building resilience into the kill chain by adding an active seeker into the payload itself is also reflected in the many torpedoes that have an active homing capability and in the Aster anti-air missile that is widely used by European navies today.

A Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211) F-14B Tomcat aircraft banks into a turn during a flight out of Naval Air Station, Miramar, Calif. The aircraft is carrying six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. (Wikimedia Commons)

Aircraft, through adjusting altitude and maneuver, are clearly not as inhibited as warships in illuminating their targets for anti-air engagements. If it made sense to put active radar seekers in anti-air missiles used by aircraft then it should make even more sense for a ship which must contend with the horizon and cannot maneuver in three dimensions like aviation. If an aerial target dives in reaction to being sensed and engaged then an attacking missile could use its active radar seeker to chase the target below the horizon limitation of its illuminating ship in a bid to independently finish the engagement. Such a capability adds extra depth to a ship’s ability to defend itself below the radar horizon and at altitude.

The Navy fielded active radar seekers over 40 years ago in the Phoenix air-to-air missile it procured by the thousands.14 The story is different for the surface fleet. In spite of this simple but important enhancement almost all of the Navy’s surface-to-air missiles do not have active radar seeking technology.

The missiles that are the mainstay of the fleet’s defensive arsenal such as Standard Missile (SM) and the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) are only equipped with semi-active radar homing, and where this form of homing has tactical handicaps. Semi-active homing works by having an external source illuminate a target with its radar. The radar reflections are picked up by the missile, which then finds its way to the target with the assistance of mid-course guidance from the external radar. Because a ship is limited by the horizon, if a target dives deep enough, the ship will no longer be able to illuminate it with its radar to see the engagement through. 

Semi-active vs. active radar seeking homing. (Source: Guest Editor’s Introduction: Homing Missile Guidance and Control by Neil Palumbo, JHU APL Technical Digest)

Land-based surface-to-air missiles are not as inhibited by semi-active homing in spite of the same horizon limitation because they work in tandem with other anti-air systems. An aircraft diving low to avoid illumination over land places itself at risk of being engaged by shorter range anti-air weapons that do not reveal themselves through radar emissions. This tactic worked to great effect over Vietnam as radar-guided surface-to-air missile batteries forced American warplanes to drop altitude and fly within range of gun-based anti-air systems which ended up shooting down more aircraft than missiles.15 There is no similar effect at sea because capability is concentrated on warships.

To an extent Sailors already know the Standard Missile is handicapped by its guidance capability. The Standard Missile has an anti-surface mode, but of dubious effectiveness. Its range is less than 20 miles in this mode because that is only as far as the ship’s radar can target it close to the surface and to the limit of the horizon.16

An annual Defense Department report from 1975 highlighted this issue when it sought to develop an anti-ship version of the Standard Missile:

“The STANDARD SSM program was initiated in 1971 to provide an interim anti-ship missile capability until the HARPOON could be developed and deployed. The STANDARD SSM is operational in two versions, with a third now in development…The third version, Active STANDARD with a radar seeker…will have a range capability beyond the ship radar horizon. The range of the STANDARD semi-active missile is limited to the range of the ship’s radar, since the missile’s target must be illuminated by a ship radar. The STANDARD ARM and Active STANDARD, equipped with an anti-radiation homing capability and an active terminal seeker, respectively, eliminate the need for illumination of the target by a ship radar and thus permit engagement of targets beyond the ship radar horizon.”17

In the end the original Active Standard SSM never made it into the fleet though the same basic idea and capability would be replicated decades later. Despite many variants produced across nearly 50 years of service active radar seeking did not come to the Standard Missile family of weapons until SM-6 arrived in 2013. Even so, SM-6 does not have a unique seeker but takes its active radar seeker from the widely equipped AMRAAM air-to-air missile that entered service in 1991.18 SM-6 introduced an anti-ship capability in 2016, similar in concept to what was already deemed desirable many years ago in the form of the Active Standard SSM.19 SM-6 now bears the odd distinction of being both the Navy’s first long-range active radar seeking surface-to-air missile, and its first supersonic anti-ship missile.

In explaining the benefit of SM-6 the Navy once again described the value of similar technology 40 years later:

“The introduction (emphasis added) of active-seeker technology to air defense in the Surface Force reduces the Aegis Weapon System’s reliance on illuminators. It also provides improved performance against stream raids and targets employing advanced characteristics such as enhanced maneuverability, low-radar cross-section, improved kinematics, and advanced electronic countermeasures.”20 

However, SM-6 will be fielded in relatively small numbers because it is extremely expensive and is not meant to replace the more widely equipped SM-2.21 Active radar homing will also not come to the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile, the Navy’s main short-ranged defensive anti-air missile, until the Block 2 upgrade hits the fleet in 2020.22 The Navy is already pursuing a more common Standard Missile variant equipped with an active radar seeker, the SM-2 Block IIIC.23 The missile is being pushed through the Navy’s Maritime Accelerated Capability Office in a bid to shorten the acquisition timeline and hopefully get it into the fleet within three years.24 

However, according to the Navy’s 2017 program guide the Standard Missile variants that do not have active radar seekers “will be the heart of the SM-2 inventory for the next 20 years.”25 

The Heavy Bomber

“We think we can destroy it; it is our business to attack it, and it is up to you to judge whether we can do it or not. Give the air a chance to develop and demonstrate what it can do!”Billy Mitchell in 1921 urging Congress to support bombing warships with planes in testing.

When combat is joined between missile-armed fleets the maneuver of individual warships will matter little in the near term because of the large disparity between ship speed and missile speed. Upon engaging in fleet combat a commander’s most flexible means to respond to risk and opportunity in timely fashion will be through speedy aviation. Despite its single-minded focus on using aviation to sink ships at range the Navy never effectively incorporated the use of heavy bombers.

Heavy bombers can feature very long endurance and range, far superior to that of carrier aircraft. Bombers also have large carrying capacity that allows them to mount a level of offensive firepower comparable to that of a warship. Because long-range anti-ship firepower usually outranges anti-air firepower by a steep margin heavy bombers can have a powerful ability to fire effectively first against warships.

Both Russia and China field heavy bombers with long-range anti-ship firepower, and where heavy bombers were at the leading edge of Soviet anti-ship capabilities throughout most of the Cold War. Soviet-era Backfire bombers can travel over 1500 miles, are capable of supersonic speed, and can fire multiple Mach 3 missiles that have hundreds of miles of range. Large Backfire bomber raids have been expected to be a principle tactic for countering American carrier groups far from Russia for decades.26

Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber. (Wikimedia Commons)

Similar platforms exist within the U.S. military, but heavy bombers belong to the Air Force. It appears the Air Force bought very few Harpoon missiles with less than 100 in its inventory by the mid-90s.27  The full adoption of an anti-ship role for heavy bombers may have also been hindered by a combination of inter-service rivalry between the Navy and the Air Force as well as differing priorities in their contingency planning.

Soon one of the most powerful anti-ship platforms in the American arsenal will not even belong to the U.S. Navy. The platform that will first receive the first truly modern and widespread anti-ship missile of the U.S., LRASM, will not be a Navy asset but the Air Force’s B-1 bomber. These bombers will be able to carry 24 of these powerful weapons, packing over 15 times the anti-ship firepower of a Harpoon-equipped U.S. surface warship.28 These planes will make for an extremely powerful asset when combined with their thousands of miles of range.29 This year the U.S. will finally have a heavy bomber with credible long-range anti-ship firepower, but after the Soviets pioneered the same capability half a century ago.30 

An Air Force B-1B Lancer drops a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) during a 2013 flight test from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas to Point Mugu Sea Test Range off the coast of southern California. (DARPA photo)


Of the Navy’s errors in arming the fleet none can compare to failing to effectively bring its offensive firepower into the age of missile warfare. Only now is it on the verge of doing so with launch cell-compatible missiles like LRASM and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk that are just a couple years away from hitting the fleet. Finally the Navy will have widespread anti-ship firepower that can hit at over 100 miles. This wholesome introduction of long-range anti-ship missiles comes over half a century after the Soviets proved it was possible.31

But this recent introduction of long-range anti-ship firepower will not be the Navy’s first attempt. Up until now much of the Navy’s story of fielding anti-ship missiles consists of developing weapons long after they were first possible, then not fielding them in effective numbers, subsequently removing them from the inventory, only to then try and reintroduce them decades later. The Navy lagged long enough to where today there are 400-ton Chinese missile boats that carry more long-range anti-ship firepower than 9,500-ton, billion-dollar American cruisers and destroyers that have around 100 launch cells.32 

Chinese Navy Type 022 (Houbei Class) Fast Attack Missile Craft (China Military Review)

Why was the Navy stuck with only the short-ranged Harpoon for so long, and why were competitors able to design so many more anti-ship missiles with greater lethality in the meantime?

The answer may lie with doctrine. The aircraft carrier has remained the centerpiece of U.S. Navy anti-ship doctrine since WWII. Harpoon probably became the Navy’s first anti-ship missile and remained its primary anti-ship tool for over 40 years because it appears Harpoon was one of the first anti-ship missiles small enough to fit onto multirole aircraft, such as those flown from aircraft carriers.33 By comparison, airborne anti-ship firepower for the Soviets mostly took the form of enormous missiles that could only be carried by large bombers. The very short range of Harpoon was made up for by the long reach of aviation that could travel hundreds of miles and strike targets well before they could get within range to unleash their own anti-ship firepower.

The small size necessary to equip carrier aircraft with Harpoon was a major limiting factor for missile capability with respect to range, speed, and size. Ship-launched missiles can take on far greater proportions such as Tomahawk or the early-Cold War era Talos anti-air missile that weighed over four times as much as Harpoon.34 But by not bothering to effectively field an anti-ship missile that was compatible with the thousands of launch cells across the fleet the Navy was unable to capitalize on core advantages warships bring to the fight – staying power and deep capacity.

It is questionable to subscribe to a doctrine that deprives the surface fleet, the submarine force, and the heavy bomber arm of long-range anti-ship firepower. Russia and China have not made this mistake. With respect to anti-ship firepower in the age of missile warfare not only did the Navy bet the aircraft carrier would reign supreme, but that it could stand alone. While the reach and size of the carrier air wing could compensate for Harpoon’s shortcomings the rest of the fleet was stuck with a small, slow, short-ranged missile kept aboard in very low quantities. The U.S. Navy, so completely blinded by absolute faith in the supremacy of a single platform, failed to effectively field the premier offensive weapon of a new age of warfare.

Part 3 will focus on Tactics and Doctrine.

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

*Correction: Harpoon is equipped by a majority of the U.S. Navy large surface combatants unlike as was originally worded. Harpoon is found on a minority of U.S. Navy destroyers.


1. Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, CIA, December 1971

2. Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, CIA, December 1971

3. United States Navy Fact File: Harpoon

4. Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

5. Megan Eckstein, “VIDEO: Navy May Bring Back Harpoon Missiles on Attack Subs After Successful SINKEX; RIMPAC Also Highlights Ground-to-Ship Strike Capability,” U.S. Naval Institute News, July 30, 2018.

Excerpt: “That shot marked the first time a Harpoon had been fired from a U.S. submarine in more than 20 years, and Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force Rear Adm. Daryl Caudle said he expects that the cruise missile will be added back into the SSN’s regular armament.”

6. Sam LaGrone, “U.S. Navy Considering Adding Anti-Ship Missiles Back to Submarine Force,” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 21, 2015.

Excerpt: “The U.S. submarine fleet did use the UGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship missile but that Harpoon variant was retired in 1997.”

Los Angeles-class and Virginia-class submarines have four torpedo tubes, Seawolf-class (only three boats in class) have eight torpedo subes. See: United States Navy Fact File: Attack Submarines – SSN

7. Captain Philip Signor, USNR, “Cruise Missiles for the U.S. Navy: An Exemplar of Innovation in a Military Organization,” Naval War College, June 1994.

8. Joseph C. Schissler and John P. Gibson, “The Origin and History of the Global Engagement Department,” Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Volume 29, Number 2 (2010)

9. General Accounting Office, “Precision Guided Munitions in Inventory, Production, and Development,” June 1995.

10. For anti-ship Tomahawk remove of service: Joseph C. Schissler and John P. Gibson, “The Origin and History of the Global Engagement Department,” Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Volume 29, Number 2 (2010)

For remanufacture plans: Department of the Navy FY 2005 Budget Estimates

Note: Vertical launch cells that could fire Tomahawk missiles were fairly rare in the U.S. Navy until only after the Cold War, and where Tomahawk was also kept in deck-mounted launchers for many ships. Vertical launch cells became more common when Spruance-class destroyers were modified to accomodate launch cells in the 90s, and the concurrent introduction of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

11. Argument on beyond ability to target Tomahawk: Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen, “Naval Weapon of Choice, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2016.

Argument on congested waters: General Accounting Office, “Cruise Missiles: Proven Capability Should Affect Aircraft and Force Structure Requirements,” April 1995.

12. Rear Admiral Walter M. Locke, USN (ret.),“Tomahawk Tactics, The Midway Connection,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1992.

13. For 1982 test date: E. H. Corirow, G. K. Smith, A. A. Barboux, “The Joint Cruise Missiles Project: An Acquisition History, Appendixes,” RAND, August 1982.

For 2022 Initial Operating Capability: Justin Katz, “DOT&E: Navy lacks anti-ship Tomahawk missile plans beyond IOC,” Inside Defense, February 7, 2018.

14. Forecast International, “AIM-54A/C/C+ Phoenix,”

15. General William W. Momyer, USAF, Air Power in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, 1978.

16. Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

17. Annual Defense Department Report FY 1975.

18. U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017

19. Remarks by Secretary Carter to Sailors Pierside in Naval Base San Diego, California. February 3, 2016.

20. U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017

21. On planned SM-6 inventory: Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Budget Estimates February 2018, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1 Weapons Procurement, Navy.

On Not replacing: Sydney Freedberg, “Non-Standard: Navy SM-6 Kills Cruise Missiles Deep Inland,” Breaking Defense, August 19, 2014.

22. For seeking capabilities between ESSM blocks: FY17 Navy Programs, Ship Self-Defense for LHA-6.

First active radar seeker test: PEO IWS Public Affairs, “NATO Seasparrow conducts successful flight test of ESSM Block 2,” July 5, 2018.

For 2020 IOC date: Statement Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces of the House Armed Services Committee, May 24, 2017.

23. Richard Scott, “NAVSEA advances SM-2 Block IIIC active upgrade plan,” IHS Janes, December 8, 2017.

24. Justin Katz, “Raytheon developing upgraded SM-2 exclusively for United States,” Inside Defense, January 12, 2018.

Statement Of The Honorable James F. Geurts Assistant Secretary Of The Navy Research, Development And Acquisition Before The T Senate Armed Services Committee On Department Of Defense Acquisition Enterprise And Associated Reforms, December 7, 2017.

25. U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017

26. For Backfire bomber performance characteristics:

Federation of American Scientists, “Tu-22M BACKFIRE (TUPOLEV),”

Dr. Carlo Kopp, “Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire C Bomber – Missile Carrier,” Air Power Australia, July 2007.  

For expected wartime use of Backfire bomber see: National Intelligence Estimate, WARSAW PACT Forces Opposite NATO, January 1979.

27. General Accounting Office, “Precision Guided Munitions in Inventory, Production, and Development,” June 1995.  

28. The figure of 15 times greater is derived using strike-mile metric, see: Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

29. Oriana Pawlyk, “B-1 Crews Prep for Anti-Surface Warfare in Latest LRASM Tests,”, January 3, 2018.

U.S. Air Force B1 Fact Sheet,

30. National Intelligence Estimate, WARSAW PACT Forces Opposite NATO, January 1979.

31. For Maritime Strike Tomahawk: Sam LaGrone, “Navy, Raytheon Close to Finalizing Maritime Strike Tomahawk Missile Deal,” U.S. Naval Institute News, August 16, 2017.

For LRASM: Sydney Freedberg, “Navy Warships Get New Heavy Missile: 2,500-Lb LRASM,” Breaking Defense, July 26, 2017.

For early Soviet Anti-ship missile history: Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, CIA, December 1971

32. Firepower comparison using strike-mile metric: Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

33. Navy has an multi-role fighter-mounted weapon known as SLAM-ER that has superior range to Harpoon and is capable of engaging ships. However, it is much more rare than Harpoon. See inventory: Forecast International, AGM-84E SLAM, March 2011.

34. For Talos missile dimensions see: Frank A. Dean, “The Unified Talos,” JHU APL Technical Digest Volume 3, Number 2, 1982.

Despite their enormous size the Navy had cruisers that could carry over 100 Talos missiles through highly advanced missile launch systems and magazines. These shields also carried dozens of shorter-ranged anti-air missiles. See: Elmer D. Robinson, “The Talos Ship System,” JHU APL Technical Digest, Volume 3, Number 2, 1982.

References for Part 1 on Combat Training

1. Forward…From the Sea, U.S. Department of the Navy, 1994. 

2. Naval Studies Board, “Responding to Capability Surprise: A Strategy for U.S. Forces,” 2013. 

3. Captain Dale C. Rielage, USN, “An Open Letter to the U.S. Navy from Red,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2017. 

4. For more on the Millenium Challenge exercise see: Micah Zenko, “Millenium Challenge: The Real Story of a Corrupted Military Exercise and Its Legacy,” War on the Rocks, November 5, 2015.

Excerpt from official Millenium Challenge Report: “As the exercise progressed, the OPFOR free-play was eventually constrained to the point where the end state was scripted. This scripting ensured a Blue operational victory and established conditions in the exercise for transition operations.” 

5. Admiral Scott Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. 

6. For novelty of SMWDC reference: Vice Admiral Thomas H. Copeman III, “Tactical Paradigm Shift,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2014.


“It may be hard to believe, but the U.S. Navy, widely recognized as the greatest Fleet the world has ever known, lacks an organization tasked with development, training, and assessment of the full scope of tactics for the warfare community on which it was founded 238 years ago—surface warfare. This is going to change.”

Rear Admiral John Wade, “Red Sea Combat Generates High Velocity Learning,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 2017.


“In the years preceding the establishment of the Warfighting Development Centers, the surface warfare community did not have a single organization that could cull lessons from combat and then coordinate the effort to achieve high-velocity learning not only in the fleet and school houses, but also across the engineering and acquisition communities. In June 2015, the establishment of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) closed this gap.”

For TOPGUN analogy see: “SMWDC Surface Warfare Officers’ Top Gun (Top SWO)” from Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet 

7. Sdyney Freedberg, “Top Gun for Warships: SWATT,” Breaking Defense, January 16, 2018.

8. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

9. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

Excerpt on timing: “After two years and more than six iterations, the reestablished Fleet Problem has never before been discussed in public. In that context, it is fair to ask why we decided to discuss the concept at this point.”

10. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

11. Megan Eckstein, “Fight to Hawaii: How the U.S. Navy is Training Carrier Strike Groups for Future War,” U.S. Naval Institute News, March 22, 2018.

12. A caveat to this is that NTC training shifted to counterinsurgency operations and remained there for several years before shifting more toward high-end/hybrid warfare around 2012-2014.

For National Training Center reference:

Colonel John D. Rosenberger, “Reaching Our Army’s Full Combat Potential in the 21st Century: Insights from the National Training Center’s Opposing Force,” Institute of Land Warfare, February 1999,

Major John F. Antal, “OPFOR: Prerequisite to Victory,” Institute of Land Warfare, May 1993.

Sydney Freedberg, “All Active Combat Brigades Trained vs. New Russian Tactics: FORSCOM,” Breaking Defense, October 17, 2017. 

Interesting caveat from above: ““Before, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was very rote,” Abrams said. “You would get there on this day and on Friday, you would do a road march out, and you’d get an order for an attack, and you would go attack. And then, four hours after the attack was done, you’d do an After Action Review, you’d get another order, and you’d get ready do something else. It was all very lockstep.”

Dennis Steele, “Training for Decisive Action, “Old-School without Rotations Going Back in Time,'” Army Magazine, February 2013. 

For Red Flag Reference:

Brian Daniel Laslie, “Red Flag: How the Rise of “Realistic Training” After Vietnam Changed the Air Force’s Way of War, 1975-1999,”;sequence=1

414th Combat Squadron Training “Red Flag,” July 2012.

13. Lt. Col. Bradford T. Duplessis, “Our Readiness Problem: Brigade Combat Team Lethality,” Armor, Fall 2017.

14. Megan Eckstein, “Warfighting Development Centers, Better Virtual Tools Give Fleet Training a Boost,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 23, 2017,

15. William S. Bradley, “The Training Mandate,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 1990.

16. For “Die in Place” references see:

Staff, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, “Opposing Force TTP,” Marine Corps Gazette, August 2016.

Sgt. Luke G. Cardelli, “MAGTF Integrated Exercise (MIX-16),” Marine Corps Gazette, November 2017.

17. Megan Eckstein, “Warfighting Development Centers, Better Virtual Tools Give Fleet Training a Boost,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 23, 2017,

18. Megan Eckstein, “New Advanced Surface Navy Training Seeks to Fill Critical Gaps,” U.S. Naval Institute News, March 7, 2017.

19. Megan Eckstein, “With Navy Struggling to Balance Training, Maintenance, Deployment Needs, Service Looking at Data Analysis to Warn of Readiness Problems,” U.S. Naval Institute News, November 13, 2017.

20. Government Accountability Office, “Military Readiness: Progress and Challenges in Implementing the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” May 2, 2016.

21. To get an idea of certification requirements see:

Roland J. Yardley, et. Al, “Use of Simulation in Training for U.S. Surface Force,” RAND, 2003. (See pg. 41)

COMNAVAIRFORINST 3500.20B, Aircraft Carrier Training and Readiness Manual, February 14, 2008,


22. Lieutenant Jeff Vandenegel, “A Zero-Sum Game,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Professional Notes, October 2015.

23. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Wants More Complex Sub-on-Sub Warfare Training,” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 27, 2016.

24. Lieutenant Erik A.H. Sand, “Performance Over Process,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2014.

25. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, 2015.

26. Office of Naval Intelligence, “China’s Navy,” 2007.

27. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

28. On timing see: Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

Excerpt: “A year prior, Pacific Fleet had formed a Red team, the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team (PNAT), to support wargaming.”

For more see: Captain Dale Rielage, “Wargaming Must Get Red Right,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2017.

29. Admiral Scott Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. 

30. Captain Dale Rielage, “Chinese Navy Trains and Takes Risks,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2016.

31. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

32. Andrew Erickson and Ken Allen, “China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 2) Remaining Uncertainties,” Jamestown Foundation, March 14, 2017.

33. For amount of ships devoted to interwar period Fleet Problems see: Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

Excerpt: “Virtually every one of the fleet problems involved a majority of the battleships, carriers, and destroyers in commission, and, as still considered “in commission.” Fleet Problem XI (1930) involved the fewest ships, only about 24 percent of the fleet, but came only a month after Fleet Problem X, which had involved nearly a third of the fleet; as some ships did not take part in both problems, the actual overall rate of participation was more than a third of vessels officially in commission. During the 1930s, Fleet Problems XIII (1932) through XX (1939) all involved about half or more of the fleet, peaking at 69 percent in Fleet Problem XVII (1936).”

34. Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, “Too Many SWOs Per Ship,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2017.

35. This is in reference to decision-making on employing the ship’s weapons and sensors, how to “fight the ship.” It is not in reference to things like damage control and medical assistance in which enlisted Sailors would play a prominent role.

36. On nature of exercising realism and artificialities see: Frederick Thompson, “Did We Learn Anything from that Exercise? Could We?” Naval War College Review, July-August 1982.

Featured Image: The battleship USS IOWA (BB-61) launches a Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile during Fleet Exercise 2-86 (National Archives Catalog)

Adjusting to New Conditions for Command of the Seas

Sea Control Topic Week

By Theodore Bazinis

In a historical turn, the 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States asserts that the world is returning to an era of great power competition. The 2018 NSS explicitly states that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition has returned.”  World history is a landscape of consecutive great power competition for hegemony and as the great navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan showed in his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, the one who commands the seas is the one who imposes the rules of the sea (most of the time at least). Even though the Mahanian term “Command of the Seas” is rather an ideal condition, in the real world we could substitute it with the term “sea control’’ which describes a temporary1 condition existing in a particular maritime area where one has freedom of action to fulfill goals and purposes.2 Sea control is a condition and a necessary operational function to achieve strategic goals.

Whatever character naval warfare takes on in the future sea control will always be the key to success. Being so essential one should understand its principles in order to gain sea control, but history abounds with cases where nations succeeded or failed. Some of those who initially failed were able to readjust their doctrines in time (and consequently their capabilities) to gain sea control and win.

The First World War revealed the insufficiency of the Mahanian doctrine (and thus the capabilities of the U.S. Navy), to fulfill U.S. strategic objectives. A doctrine designed to win a decisive battle in the Caribbean had resulted in building a fleet of heavy battlecruisers quite improper to gain sea control in the Atlantic Ocean dominated by German submarines. This resulted in an inability to protect sea lanes through which supplies were transported to European allies. The improvidence of Mahanian doctrine to anticipate the nature of the future war at sea (attrition instead of decisive battle) and mainly the inability to foresee the vital role that a new technological asset had (the submarine instead of big-gun warships), were the causes of the gap between ends and means. However, the U.S. realized this in time and procured lighter combatant crafts such as destroyers which were  more suitable units to assert protection of sea lanes, escort supply transport vessels, destroy enemy submarines, and finally to acquire sea control in a new context.

Just concluding that sea control is a dependent variable of proper capability is not new. But what does proper capability mean? Capability can be defined as the means that enable a Navy to fulfill strategic objectives, adjust to the particular demands of the operational environment, and encounter all possible expected threats.

The case of WWI highlights the dramatic influence that new technologies have in the ability to gain sea control. The introduction of submarines, aircraft carriers, and naval air forces expanded the physical dimensions of war at sea to include air and undersea domains. This in turn changed the number and the quality of threats a navy could encounter. A robust reform of existing doctrines was introduced and subsequently new capabilities for the fleet were required. The successful use of sea power has now come to be regarded as the best method of distributing capabilities and tactics across domains. A major consideration for gaining sea control during war was the quick adjustability of capabilities and tactics to operational conditions. However, changing tactics and tools in the midst of war will be difficult in the modern threat environment. That means that the planning of the fleet during peacetime is very critical.

Littorals (green/brown waters) rather than high seas (blue waters) are expected to be more essential in future maritime conflicts. They may feature anti-access strategies using mines,3 land-based precision guided munitions (of extended range or/and ballistic), diesel submarines,4 Special Forces, electronic warfare, space systems and cyber operations. As advanced capability proliferates, traditionally less powerful states in the littoral will be able to pursue sea control and sea denial in ways they have not been able to before.

In order to balance asymmetries in military power, states that feel weaker are also expected to use terrorist networks, criminal groups and/or state-incited paramilitary groups equipped with low cost but of high effectiveness light arms. They will also attempt hybrid tactics, exploiting high technological means (smart mines, cyber-attacks) and simple tactics (suicidal bomb attacks, old fashioned guided weapons) which base their success in the inability of the defender to deter attacks. The same effect is caused in complex geographic environments like littorals, island clusters, and archipelagic waters.

Non-Military Dimensions of Sea Control

Considering all abovementioned threats and characteristics of the international environment we need to procure fleets with proper capabilities to enable their successful response. Even though the ability to respond to advanced threats emerging in tactical level is essential however these capabilities should include the consideration that sea control operations are not just a summation of hard power but they should simultaneously shape a conducive strategic environment in which military acts will follow in a more favorable context. At the strategic level, executing information operations of an honest nature to further a narrative that legitimizes military acts to internal or international audiences, especially with respect to preserving international law.

Great powers could be questioning world order in the context of command of the seas. At sea this strategy is manifested by arbitrary interpretations of international law which (in many cases) attempt to negate freedom of navigation, by planning anti-access policies and/or provoking small scale crises to achieve political ends. International law is expected to exert vast influence (more than any other time in history) on rules of engagement and wartime conduct, especially in areas replete with commercial shipping and civilian crews. As a result this will limit freedom of action to operational commanders. Military actions should always take into consideration international law so as to assert the legitimacy of their actions.

In the operational level, executing legal warfare will be important to secure the legitimacy of military actions during war or crisis. Certain situations could limit or affect commanders’ decision-making procedure, for example when trying to clarify if existing assets are paramilitary groups such as maritime militia or genuine non-combatants. Legal confusion with respect to using force may result in civilian casualties which would then create undesirable legal and diplomatic consequences.


To conclude, sea control is the ultimate criterion that should be fulfilled in order to achieve strategic aims in and through the maritime environment. Although sea control is a military concern, it would be wrong to regard it as a bare result of military power and neglecting the realm of law or public opinion. New threats, new conditions, and new courses of action by opponents require fresh responses and capabilities. Rapid adjustability to the conditions, to the specific threats, and to the environment of operations should blossom as an organizing principle of naval planning.

Theodore Bazinis has an MA in International Relations. He is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Athens and a of member of the Maritime & Seapower Analysis Group. He also cooperates with Hellenic Institute of Strategic Studies and Center of International Strategic Analysis (KEDISA).


[1] For a predetermined time.

[2] The highest level of Sea Control is to deny (the opponent) access in a particular area.

[3] As a retardant factor to time intensive operations / tasks.

[4] Advanced diesel electric submarines present the most challenging proposition due to their numbers and propensity to operate near or in littorals.

Featured Image:  The Vanguard-class submarine HMS Vigilant, one of four Royal Navy submarines armed with Trident missiles, is seen at Naval Base Clyde, also known as Faslane, in Scotland in January. (AP)

Fighting For Sea Control in the Next War

Sea Control Topic Week

By Lars Wedin

The sea is growing ever more important. Conflicting interests make it a prime domain for future wars. Historically, securing command of the sea and exercising sea control has been an overall naval strategic objective and a prerequisite for the carrying out of other naval missions. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has been able to exercise Sea Control when so needed without having to fight for command of the sea.This comfortable situation is now going away – and it has already disappeared regarding a potential conflict with China.

The Notion of Sea Control

In general terms, sea control means being able to use the sea for one’s own interests while denying an adversary the same possibilities. The French Admiral Castex elegantly summed up what this means: “Depending on having control of the sea or not, one can or cannot

  • In an offensive mode, intercept maritime communications of the adversary and attack his territory from the sea,
  • In a defensive mode, assure his own communications and stop the enemy from attacking his country from the sea.”2

Castex also insists on the fact that “command of the sea is not absolute. It is simply relative, incomplete, and imperfect.”3

Already during World War II, a prerequisite for sea control was control of the air domain. Today it is more complicated. Land based aircraft and missiles – like the Chinese DF-21D, “carrier killer” missile – affect operations far from the coast. At the same time, naval missiles can strike far inland as showed by Russia when, on October 5-6, 2015, a land-attack cruise missile, Type 3M-14 Kalibr (NATO: Sizzler), was launched from corvettes in the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria.4 Hence, the coastal zone must also be under some control. Modern naval tactics are also heavily dependent on space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains.

To conclude, sea control still means being able to use the sea for one’s own interests but the concept as become much wider and immensely more complicated. The last major conflict at sea was World War II. Sea power has certainly been brought to bear many times since, but there has been no major war at sea since 1945. An analysis of some of the changes may be of importance in order to find out what is needed to secure command of the sea and exercising sea control today and tomorrow.

What Has Changed?

Globalization is one of the main strategic trends of today. People, ideas, money, and merchandise circulate relatively freely around the globe. Globalization, in turn, means a growing maritimization of global affairs as globalization to a large extent is driven by the sea linking continents and markets. Depending on the way of calculation (volume, weight, or value) some 80 and 90 percent of global commerce is transported on ships. With the delivery principle of just in time, enterprises and countries depend on the more or less daily delivery of merchandise.  Furthermore, 95 percent of electronic communications are also transited by sea in cables on the ocean floor. The flow of information in such cables could, however, be intercepted and probably manipulated by specialised submarines like the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23).5 With the ability to work on ever greater depths, minerals on the seabed become accessible. Seawater contains important substances for a range of industrial activities. The sea is a veritable pharmacy.6  Finally, for one billion people, fish is the main source of protein.

The sea in itself is also of vital strategic importance. Energy for our societies increasingly comes from thousands of oil and gas platforms, wind turbines, and wave energy converters. As more and more of a country’s energy comes from sea-based assets – platforms, wind turbines etc. – these become strategically important and potential targets requiring protection. Furthermore, this infrastructure constitutes a zone which is neither land, nor sea. Platforms may be used as staging points by small ships, craft, and small submarines – like the “Boghammers” during the war between Iran and Iraq 1980 – 88. They also constitute physical obstacles for navigation and may generally have an impact on tactics. Rotors of wind turbines, for instance, affect doppler radars with which most modern aircraft are equipped.

Corbett’s famous quote: “The object of naval warfare therefore is the control of communications …”7 is, consequently, not sufficient today. Modern sea control includes controlling the sea itself and its resources. But this fact will also cause conflicts regarding the “ownership” of these resources. The latent conflict between China and its neighbors including the U.S. regarding the Chinese “blue territory” (or “nine-dash line”) is a prime example.

It is quite possible to argue that the risk of a major war is quite low thanks to globalization and the interdependence that is one of its major results. However, the growing importance of the sea also means that conflicting interests at sea will increase in importance; in particular regarding the “freedom of the sea” and its antithesis “territorialization of the sea.” This also means that the risk of war by miscalculation cannot be disregarded.

Attacking and Defending Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs)

Being able to attack an adversary’s SLOCs while defending one’s own is traditionally one of the prime objectives for conquering the sea. The battle for control of SLOCs had a decisive impact during the two World Wars.

Today, the structure of the world’s merchant fleets has gone through important changes. The traditional close link between flag state, owner, and crew does not exist anymore. A ship may carry a Liberian flag, have a Croatian Captain while the crew is from the Philippines hired by a Cypriote management company, and chartered by a French company having its office in London. A large part of the international fleet sails under flags of convenience. This development is important as it is the flag state that is responsible for administrative, technical, and social matters of ships flying its flag.8 In a conflict, it is the flag state that should protect its ships – which obviously is not possible for a flag like, e.g., the one of the Marshall Islands. Would shipowners scramble to change registration into, for instance, the U.S. flag? Or vice versa? Insurance costs would certainly have a great impact on the flow of shipping in time of crisis and war. General shipping will certainly be reduced in zones threatened by war and produce economic shock. Ships flying flags of convenience will not go into harm’s way voluntarily or at least not for free.

A state can enlist the service of ships flying its flag in accordance with national laws. Such ships can then be sent to/through war zones in order to provide essential services. This will be particularly important for ships used for logistics and other transports of necessity for the war effort. In that case, they also need to be protected by the flag state and its allies. By definition, such defense is possible in areas where the flag state exercises sea control. On the other hand, such control is never complete. Convoys are hardly practical regarding today’s big ships – a 20,000 TEU container ship has a massive radar cross section. To defend such ships in contested waters would certainly be very difficult. Support ships of various sorts, on the other hand, need to have direct protection. Crews of such ships also could be given the training needed to cooperate with naval forces.

Naval Ships

Attrition is especially difficult to manage in war at sea. The U.S. lost 1,768 ships during World War II but on the other hand a Liberty cargo ship could be built in less than a week. That is not possible with today’s merchant ships, and especially warships. A lost ship will be difficult to replace during a modern war. This means that states need to have enough ships already in peacetime.

During World War II and immediately afterward, the U.S. built 24 Essex-class carriers. This is not possible today because arms are becoming ever more expensive. A certain saying says “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap years, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”9 Also warships become ever costlier with reduced production runs. Trained personnel are scarce in an era of growing technological sophistication. The result is a trend toward minimal manning because of cost and the problem to recruit and retain qualified seamen and officers. Already today some states – notably the U.K. and Germany – cannot man all their ships.

The mix of naval ships – the Hi-Lo mix – seems to be an important area to study. All ships also need to be resilient in the case of damage and downgrading. Are today’s enormously expensive naval ships the best for a real war if they cannot be built in great numbers? How to expand the cadre of trained personnel when there is a risk of war? In wartime, damage control and downgraded systems require a lot of people. Consequently, navies need to be able to mobilize reserve personnel for wartime duty.

The result is that a lost naval ship and naval personnel will probably not be replaced during a war. The relatively small numbers of qualified ships make each one strategically more important. The loss of a major warship would be a national catastrophe, at least in the West. The result may be an aversion against risk-taking leading to tight government control of operations and tactics; with certain awkward results.

Network Centric Warfare

A modern carrier strike group consists of not only a number of surface ships but also aircraft of various types, and submarines. All this will be networked into a system of systems using, primarily, the electromagnetic spectrum. This means that the position of the force is relatively easy to pinpoint with electronic support measures (ESM) and that the force is susceptible to attack in the electromagnetic domains as well as by kinetic weapons. Being “silent” is of course a possibility but would pose difficulties for Command and Control (C2). Not using the network would also mean a severe loss of combat capacity. In reality, the choice of tactics in this regard will depend on the situation and, hence, be a variable during battle. If the network is resilient enough, it will give a great advantage when fleets are in contact. However, the network may, on the other hand, be downgraded by kinetic, electromagnetic, and cyber-attacks. Such a tactic would require ship commanders that are able to make decisions on their own (mission command), a rare quality in some navies.

Consequently, navies need to invest more in tactical training and the creation of trust between command levels. This also means that officers are allowed to make mistakes. The Zero-Defect Mentality, where it exists – must be abandoned.

What To Do

Sea control in a major war poses theoretical as well as practical, tactical and operational problems.

On the theoretical side there is a need to think through the issue of escalation into the nuclear domain. Would such an escalation be inevitable, just possible, or convenient? What about the Russian idea of “escalate to de-escalate?” Would sea control be relevant in a nuclear war, and could the nuclear exchange be limited to the maritime domain? What would the ecological impact of a nuclear war at sea be?  

Ammunition is an important issue. Modern precision guided munitions are expensive and the result of air warfare in conflicts shows that great amounts of ammunition needed. NATO air operations against Serbia in 1999 required 38,000 missions during 78 days of operations instead of a couple of days as planned for – and that against a very weak opponent. A modern Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) destroyer carries over 90 missiles of various sorts. In a major war, this might be a rather low number considering the difficulty of reloading in a war zone. Consequently, the logistics of munition will be a very important issue. The mix between defensive and offensive weapons will constitute a problematic decision. The reasoning above seems to imply a high degree of defensive weapons, but to win there must be strong offensive capacity. Would it be better to have a greater number of less sophisticated munitions? Does the railgun provide an answer to this question? In any case, there must be a lot of ammunition for reloading and that under combat conditions. The requirement for a high number of ammunition will also put a premium on the logistics chain. Damaged warships and aircraft need to be salvaged and repaired, if possible. Wounded crewmembers need qualified medical care. Support fleets like the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) with experienced crews would be very much in demand. Consequently, more funding should be diverted to logistics.


The issue of sea control in a major war brings forward a number of unknowns as well as known unknowns. This is only natural as the world has not experienced major naval war in today’s strategic and technological setting. It is also natural because war is a human affair and it is always characterized by uncertainty and friction. The one who believes that a naval war would imply fighting with most systems intact will be in for a big surprise.

Captain Lars Wedin (ret.) was appointed an officer in the Swedish Navy in 1969. A surface officer, he served on destroyers and fast-patrol boats and commanded several times at sea. He is a graduate from the Swedish and French naval war colleges. Wedin later served as a military advisor in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and as Chief of Concepts Branch in the EU Military Staff. His last appointment in uniform was as director of military history. Since retiring in 2004, he has worked as an independent researcher specializing in general and maritime strategy. He has written several books, among them Maritime Strategies for the 21st Century:The Contribution by Admiral Castex (Paris: Nuvis, 2016). Wedin is a member of the Royal Swedish Society of Naval Sciences, an associate member of the French Académie de marine, and a silver member of the U.S. Naval Institute.


[1] Robert C. Rubel, « Command of the Sea, An Old Concept Resurfaces in a New Form », Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, vol 65, No 4. p. 30.

[2]Amiral [Raoul] Castex, Théories stratégiques, Paris, Institut de Stratégie Comparée et Économica, 1997. Vol V, P. 87.

[3] Castex, Théories stratégiques. vol I, p. 92.

[4] Accessed February 29, 2016.

[5] Joseph Le Gall, « Cyberguerre sur les mers », Marine & Océans no 241, octobre – novembre – décembre 2013. p. 63.

[6] Antoine Le Vavasseur, ”Océans, pharmacies du futur?”, Cargo Marine, 2015, No 6. p. 5.

[7] Sir Julian S.Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, Conway Maritime Press 1972 [1911]. P. xii.

[8] UNCLOS art 94.

[9] Accessed April 16, 2016.

Featured Image: The flagship of the Royal Navy, the HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves the port of Gibraltar after her maiden overseas stop. (Royal Navy Photo)

Merchant Warships and Creating a Modern 21st Century East Indiaman

Sea Control Topic Week

By Steve Wills

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

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

The Historical East Indiaman

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

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

20th Century Armed Merchantmen

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

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

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

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

A New Breed of Cargo Carrier

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

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

21st Century East Indiaman

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

Israeli LORA launch test.

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

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

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

Containerized Club-K missile (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Moving Ahead with Armed Merchantmen

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

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


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

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