Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

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)

For Sea Control, First Control the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Sea Control Topic Week

By LCDR Damien Dodge

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

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

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

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

Emerging Options and Tools in the Electromagnetic Domain 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[5] “The Future Navy,” 17 May 2017,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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