At 0830 Monday morning “BREAKING NEWS” banners start flooding cable news broadcasts, home pages, and Twitter feeds, but the headlines are not all telling the same story. One network reports a British-flagged crude oil tanker suffered a catastrophic explosion in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, the critical chokepoint just south of Yemen through which nearly all maritime commerce flows between the Middle East and the Western World. Initial reports point to a naval mine strike. Separately, various websites are reporting heavily armed military vehicles and masked troops with no flags storming an Eastern Turkish town. Meanwhile, Twitter is erupting with the hashtag #WarWithChina after Chinese military officials claimed responsibility for the downing of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea, saying the aircraft had violated its territorial airspace.
As the U.S. military’s top brass gathers around a conference table in the Pentagon a question is being muttered around the room before the Secretary of Defense steps in. It’s the same question many are probably asking themselves at home in their living rooms and kitchens: “Can this really be happening?”
Thankfully this is a purely hypothetical “Bad Day,” but who can say that some nightmare scenario like the one described above will not occur someday? Similar events have independently taken place in the past and conditions exist today for history to repeat itself. In fact, the multitude of regional conflicts affecting the U.S. and its allies today makes it more likely that multiple trigger events will occur near simultaneously. Not through some coordinated, multi-pronged attack from an Axis of Evil, but rather because America has so many potential adversaries and they don’t tend to de-conflict their calendars. As threats to U.S. national security and interests continue to proliferate, the Bad Day Scenario described above becomes increasingly likely.
As one might expect, this is not the first attempt to consider the implications of a worst case scenario for the Navy. In his article “The Hunt for a Small Surface Combatant,” Dr. Norman Friedman described a Navy briefing entitled “A Bad Day in 2003” which examined multiple independent crises in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in today’s scenario, one obvious answer was the Navy needed more ships. Back in 2003, the focus was on the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) with its high speed, modular, and (supposedly) low-cost design. But the focus today should be on fleet design, not ship design. No matter how you cut it, the Bad Day Scenario would be difficult to address for even the most advanced navy in history. A solution will not be found simply in fielding a new type of ship or by building more ships.
This series will consider the Bad Day Scenario, how the Navy could respond to such a challenge today, and what steps it could take to be better postured to respond in the future. Examining emerging technologies and operational concepts to respond to such a scenario reveals opportunities to make the U.S. Navy even more capable and lethal in the future. These insights could be applied every day, not just in times of crisis, making more common scenarios all the more manageable.
If the Navy had to Fight Tonight
If we woke up to the Bad Day Scenario one day the first challenge would be to verify the accuracy of the news reports. Even if the U.S. Government had its own intelligence to corroborate, would the events merit a military response? Against whom? If the decision were made to utilize military power, employing the Navy would be an ideal response . The wheels could be set in motion quickly, but leaders would still retain decision space if a non-military solution could be achieved. Still, setting the wheels in motion would not be easy. Under the Navy’s traditional force structure and operational patterns, responding to the Bad Day Scenario would involve complex, improvised planning and re-coordination, incurring great cost and risk to current and planned operations.
As multiple independent crises break out could the Navy deploy or reposition these assets to several separate regions at the drop of a hat? Possibly, but it would involve more than a little luck. The trigger events suggested above occurred in three different military theaters – the oil tanker struck by a mine in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR), the attack on the Turkish town in the European Command (EUCOM) AOR, and the downed aircraft in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) AOR. One should look at how the Navy might respond to the Bad Day Scenario if it had to use the assets it has today or, as many military commanders like to say, “fight tonight.” The Navy would likely default to applying its premier force packages – Carrier Strike Groups (CSG), Amphibious Readiness Groups (ARG), Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs) and fast attack and guided missile submarines (SSN / SSGN) – to the maximum extent possible. A deployed CSG or ARG would often have to be in the right place at the right time. Forces in port would need to be in the right phase of the training and maintenance cycles in order to be primed for a surge.
The Pacific Fleet would clearly respond to Chinese aggression with its assigned CSG, but even if PACFLT could spare a CSG for CENTCOM or EUCOM it could take days to weeks to respond simply due to distance. After 9/11, the Navy began continuously deploying at least one CSG to CENTCOM, and occasionally two during times of heavy tension. But times have now changed. In 2015, for the first time in eight years the Navy suffered a gap in its CSG presence in the CENTCOM AOR, citing a strain on resources. With the advent of Dynamic Force Employment, an innovative but nascent approach to more agile deployments, it will soon be more noteworthy for a CSG to be stationed in the Middle East than not. Even with Dynamic Force Employment it stands to reason the Navy would still fall back on a more traditional deployment model.
Even if we assume CENTCOM has a CSG at its disposal, could it respond to the incident in Turkey, a NATO ally whom the U.S. is sworn to aid through a mutual defense agreement? Intelligence reports and common sense could point to Russia as the faceless aggressor, and there are almost always Russian naval forces operating in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Yet, if the U.S. decides to shift the CSG to the EUCOM AOR to deal with the higher-end threat, the carrier and her escorts still have to get through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. The latest reports indicate the tanker that exploded in the strait was struck by a floating mine, and Houthi rebels in Yemen have already proclaimed their ability to close the strait. The risk to a CSG could be unacceptable. While the Navy is deciding how to hold a Russian naval force at risk until a second CSG can surge deploy from the East Coast (days? weeks? months later?), the international community is clamoring for the U.S. and its allies to clear the strait so vital commerce can continue unmolested. As national leadership tries to balance these concerns, the limits that stem from force structure and potential combat operations would shape options for employing the Navy.
A New Navy Ready for Surprise
No doubt the Navy would eventually respond to the Bad Day Scenario with today’s force structure, but it could incur significant cost in terms of money, time, relationships, and strategic objectives. The Bad Day Scenario would be difficult for today’s Navy to address, but emerging trends in technology, management, and operational concepts can present a new option for the Navy: a disaggregated, lethal, and resilient fighting force that can turn a bad day into an unparalleled triumph.
Jimmy Drennan is the Vice President of CIMSEC. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.
Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (March 15, 2018) – An MV-22 Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 262 prepares to land on the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Granito) 180315-N-LK571-0025
The nature of a system’s technical performance is an important foundation for developing tactics and gauging readiness. Naval warfare is especially technically intensive given that a modern warship is an advanced machine made up of many complex systems.
Combat systems are rapidly evolving in the Information Age and are frequently upgraded through new software updates. This adds to the challenging of maintaining current skills and can require a force to regularly retrain its people. However, warfighting culture characterized by scripted training can mask a decline in technical competence. Such a decline can be seen in how standards fell for some of the most important tools that help the Navy guard against tactical surprise.
When American warships came under missile fire in the Red Sea two years ago they could have been far better prepared. Key environmental data that would affect the parameters of any anti-air engagement was left unaccounted for, thereby contributing an important degree of tactical surprise. Many years earlier the Navy had finalized key tools and procedures that would promise a significant evolution in environmental awareness and would have greatly mitigated this sort of tactical surprise. Somehow these tools never made it into the fleet in time.
John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL) has been at the forefront of the Navy’s technology development for decades, including leading work on networking and surface-to-air missile capabilities. In 1982 the Navy’s Aegis Program Office began supporting JHU APL work on radar propagation models. This effort intended to more precisely understand the performance of the Aegis combat system and better account for environmental variables.1 JHU APL expounded on the important tactical implications of knowing those environmental variables:
“Environmental impacts on missile detection can be complex. The environment may limit radar detection ranges and cause degradations in track continuity through the effects of land, sea, and precipitation clutter. Communications systems may experience outages or periods of increased interference. Weapon systems may encounter midcourse guidance errors and variations in illuminator power-on-target and bistatic clutter into the missile, which affect the missile engagement envelope. In addition, the environment affects radar configuration, ship stationing, situational awareness, and missile doctrine selection.”2
Variables such as the temperature of the ocean and air, humidity, sea state, and wind speed have a strong effect on how radar energy propagates throughout the atmosphere. The chart below shows the range at which a target transitioned into track by an AN/SPY-1 radar across 20 Navy live fire exercises in differing environmental conditions. It shows how environmental factors can affect detection range by as much of a factor as three to four.3 It points out how firm track ranges could be reconstructed from post-exercise analysis that factored in environmental data gathered by key measuring tools such as rocketsondes and helicopters equipped with environmental sensors.
Radar energy can behave very differently when acted on by environmental factors. Radar pulses can be absorbed by the atmosphere, sapping the amount of energy that can be reflected back toward the receiver. Ducting can create radar holes and skip zones where targets cannot be detected. Refraction can even make targets appear to change direction. Atmospheric effects can also worsen radar clutter on the ocean surface hundreds of miles away from the radar.4
These factors combine to affect the key performance metric of probability of detection and can even create false contacts. Because radar energy acted on by environmental phenomena will often have more unpredictable and complex behavior compared to simpler line-of-sight detection these effects can challenge radar clutter rejection algorithms that are built into combat systems.
One of the most significant tactical implications of the environment is that certain conditions can allow a ship to break through the fog of war and see through the radar horizon limitation. Refracted radar energy can travel far along the surface and allow a ship to detect a sea-skimming target for many tens of miles below and beyond the radar horizon. Environmental awareness is therefore critical to improving threat perception and adding to a ship’s depth of fire in a most crucial zone of tactical action.
These effects combine to make mastering environmental awareness a major tactical priority. A tactical memorandum (TACMEMO) issued by the Surface Warfare Development Group in 1995 reinforced this point:
“To adequately define expected detection ranges for a given threat, an accurate assessment of the environment and its impact on sensor systems and employment is required. Depending on the environmental conditions being experienced, system performance could be enhanced or degraded. The primary environmental factors which impact detection ranges are temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, and local weather. The operating environment (e.g. near land/overland, littoral, or open ocean) also (affects) ranges.”5
These environmental effects are known, but the operational challenge is in accurately measuring them in real time and then making the necessary tactical adjustments.6 Potential solutions take the form of environmental sensors as well as modeling software that is wedded to combat systems. However, while shipboard sensors and measurements can collect environmental data, certain tools are required to gather additional data beyond what can only be gathered from the deck of a ship in order to produce higher-fidelity models.
High-quality environmental assessments were proven to require crucial range-dependent data that must be collected by periodically launched tools such as helicopters equipped with environmental sensors. JHU APL’s prototype SEAWASP system would model environmental conditions and would monitor the need to launch an expendable tool called a rocketsonde that was considered “the most effective of the expendable sensor packages for providing real-time environmental information” and where the rocketsonde was described as “essential for supporting radar performance assessments under many conditions.”7 JHU APL scientists also described the environmental helicopter as “the platform of choice” and suggested “the future may see environmental sensors on operational helicopters.”
By 2001 these systems were tested by operational units in several deployments and received enthusiastic reviews for inclusion in future Aegis baselines. The Navy Program Executive Office for Theater Surface Combatants (PEO TSC) asked JHU APL to plan to backfit their prototype SEAWASP environmental assessment capability onto existing ships and for incorporation into future system baselines.8 Guidance for using the SPY radar to help determine the presence of atmospheric effects was included in the form of appendices to the Aegis TACMEMO.9 Helicopter-based environmental assessment was mandated for Aegis Combat Systems Ship Qualification Trials (CSSQTs).
Yet somehow these efforts fell flat. Despite adequate testing and strong recommendations that the Navy widely field measuring tools like rocketsondes and helicopter-based sensors it appears these simple yet critical systems are almost nowhere to be found in the Navy’s operational forces today.
The Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) described the main lessons learned from the 2016 Red Sea attacks:
“The first and perhaps most significant lesson emerged from observing the impact of the Red Sea littoral environment on combat-system performance during an actual engagement. Until the events in October, the best understanding of environmental impact on system performance had come from computer simulations and live-fire exercises in the less-challenging conditions in the Virginia Capes or Southern California operational areas…We have updated our AWS, SSDS, and SPY radar doctrines to account for environmental impacts to system performance previously unobserved during a live Standard missile engagement.”10
Previously unobserved environmental conditions may have turned into tactical surprise in part because the Navy’s best understanding of these variables may have come from only a couple areas close to home that feature test ranges. Fixed test ranges can constrain environmental awareness through consistent conditions. Atmospheric refractivity also happen to be far more intensive in littoral regions. However, it seems the Navy lacked key environmental awareness in one of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints that lies within the Middle East littoral that was prioritized for a generation.11
If the Navy wasn’t environmentally aware in the Red Sea because things were mostly tested near Virginia or California then what does the Navy not know about the environment in the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, or everywhere else in the world the Navy deploys? Does the Navy have specifically-tailored doctrine statements and combat system configurations for all of these environmental conditions?
Once the environment is revealed to be crucial tactical context the force must develop an expeditionary environmental learning program as a most urgent necessity. The Navy already operates such programs to understand the environment on a global scale, such as how environmental factors have long been known to affect undersea operations and anti-submarine warfare. This understanding is operationalized through a global exercise program the surface fleet has maintained for decades, the Ship Antisubmarine Warfare Readiness and Effectiveness Measuring (SHAREM) program. Exercises under SHAREM are conducted across many geographic areas to account for different environmental factors thereby producing tailored tactics and revealing shortfalls.12 If not for environmentally-focused programs like SHAREM the tactical effectiveness of the surface fleet’s anti-submarine warfare capability would be far from ideal.
But does the Navy have a similar program that specifically seeks to account for the tactical effects of atmospheric refractivity? These environmental effects not only impact radar energy, but radiofrequency energy more generally. According to JHU APL the performance of major capabilities such as close-in-weapons systems and critical networks like the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) were also “shown during field tests to strongly depend on atmospheric refractivity.”13
The tactical implications are clear and profound, especially for networked warfighting. Environmental awareness is foundational to electromagnetic awareness.
SMWDC is setting an example by charging hard and implementing fast-paced corrective action after the Red Sea attacks:
“…Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training and live-fire exercises have been updated to keep pace…SMWDC teams have visited every deployed and soon-to-deploy ship to ensure each has the latest TTP, training, and combat-system configuration recommendations. Ashore, the Radar Systems Controller Enhanced Course has been restored as a critical tool to ensure our SPY radar operators are prepared for what they will face in theater. In addition, SMWDC has built a case study from these events that is being included in the curricula of tactical training schoolhouses across the fleet.”
Now the question remains as to how updated understanding of the environment will translate into other parts of the Navy’s force development. SMWDC said the attacks should result in updated performance models and pointed to the problem of the Navy having only a handful of baseline datasets drawn from the Virginia Capes and Southern California areas. The widespread lack of environmental assessment tools that were described as “essential” such as rocketsondes and helicopters with special sensors may also indicate very incomplete datasets.
Whether it be training, test and evaluation, or wargaming, these insights born from the Red Sea attacks may require many other parts of the Navy to update baseline data and contemplate extensive retroactive action. Such action could take the form of replaying wargames with newly updated environmental parameters and conducting expeditionary test and evaluation in less familiar waters.
Ultimately such an important evolution in environmental awareness should have been enough to prompt rapid and wide-ranging adaptation similar to what SWMDC is doing and what was hinted at years ago. At first, the Navy did appear to be in the process of introducing expected change. The importance of atmospheric refractivity on tactical possibility was being acknowledged in the form of new programs of record, tactical memoranda, and requirements, many dating back over twenty years ago. Upgraded environmental assessments were made mandatory in at least one key part of the Navy’s business in the form of Aegis CSSQTs. Key measuring tools such as rocketsondes and helicopters with environmental sensors were tested, proven, approved of, and required relatively little effort to equip.
Somehow the system comprehensively failed, and frontline warfighters came under fire while lacking the important degree of tactical awareness those key tools contribute. Now to best anticipate tactical surprise the Navy must look to update environmental understanding on a global scale.
Sea surface currents and temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean (NASA)
The SPY radar is the most powerful radar on the Navy’s large surface combatants, and it is perhaps the most important set of eyes for the Aegis combat system. But this critical radar suffered a decline in standards. After describing several issues with SPY radar maintenance the 2010 Balisle report noted:
“The SPY radar has historically been the best supported system in the surface Navy. If the SPY radar is one of the most important systems in the Navy and central to our BMD mission for the foreseeable future, then it is assumed that less important systems could well be in worse material condition.”14
In his article, “Is Your SPY Radar Enhanced, Nominal, or Degraded?” Captain Jim Kilby recalled the Balisle report’s warning and described his own experience in witnessing a decline in radar maintenance. After reminiscing about past standards Kilby said that somewhere along the way the surface fleet had “lost some of this spirit”and that Sailors “do not have the cultural model to fall on when they report to the ship.” This loss of spirit and culture could be possibly interpreted as the degradation of standards. Kilby felt he ultimately had to “provide that leadership” himself.15
Kilby may have felt he personally had to set a higher standard because he realized the Navy, institutionally, did not properly maintain it. The Balisle report suggested that Sailors are “perhaps losing their sense of ownership of their equipment and are more apt to want others to fix it.” Kilby relates a story where a contractor working as a combat systems instructor for his crew said he and his technicians used to have a tracking book so they “all knew where we were, combat-system performance-wise.” Captain Kilby then wondered to himself, “Why shouldn’t I know that too?”
If something can be measured then it can usually be optimized. Kilby pointed out “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” so they “decided to measure and track key parameters to better manage the system.” He went on to discuss how he personally instituted a new process on the warship to track the performance of the SPY radar that would go “beyond a superficial indicator level.” Kilby realized he had to know the quantitative results of maintenance actions in order to know how radar performance was trending, such as with respect to key metrics like effective transmit power. He went on to personally invent and decide on a “quantitative SPY radar material goal” to provide to the crew.
But is it really the responsibility of one ship’s captain to decide what the radar material goal should be for the SPY radar, let alone invent such a standard on his own? A crew that does not have a meaningful system to track the transmit power of their radar is like an armor crewman not knowing he should boresight the main gun of a tank, or an infantryman not knowing how to sight his scope. This was Kilby’s fifth Aegis tour and he certainly wasn’t inexperienced. His career track put him inside the Navy’s surface warfare directorate, the Ballistic Missile Defense office, and he partook in the Aegis Fire Controlman Deep Dive that resulted in new training. He also happened to invent this new radar tracking system around the first ballistic missile defense patrol of a freshly upgraded cruiser, a special unit that could find itself on the frontlines of defending against nuclear attack.
Perhaps change has taken place since Kilby published about his reforms. But it suggests that for a time the Navy did not have a meaningful set of standards in place for unit leaders to effectively know the performance of one of the most critical sensors in the fleet. What was Kilby’s personal invention clearly should have already been a Navy-wide process and standard. In the end his new methods were not unique innovations, but rather rediscovered responsibilities:
“SPY radar self-sufficiency can and should be supported by outside entities, but ultimately it is a function of my behavior, interest, and leadership. It is my responsibility. Specific results of transmitter power and phase must be understood, considered, and acted upon by operators and by me. The devil is in not knowing the details. As the commanding officer, I have to be personally involved. I cannot delegate this effort.”
The Navy’s lack of appreciation for the anti-ship missile threat is not confined to its own limited arsenal of such weapons, but also extends to the inventory of target missiles that seek to replicate those threats for force development. The Navy allowed a significant shortfall to emerge in its inventory of target missiles where tools that realistically represent the supersonic anti-ship missile threat are now very few and far between.
A 2005 report by the Defense Science Board described the shortfall at the time as “dire” and that the supersonic target missile inventory was “substantially deficient.” It pointed out the discrepancy between the tools on hand and the common flight profiles of weapons in the hands of great power rivals:
“The area of greatest concern to the Task Force was our gap in supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles for testing. The Russians have deployed at least three such cruise missiles that involve either sea-skimming flight profiles or a high-altitude profile involving a power dive to the target. At this time, we have no test vehicles for either flight profile.”16
Once the anti-air Talos missile was retired in the late 70s the remaining inventory was converted into Vandal target missiles. The Vandal would be the Navy’s main tool for representing the supersonic sea-skimming missile threat for decades. For other threats the AQM-37C long served as the Navy’s target for high-flying supersonic flight. However, it is incapable of maintaining supersonic speeds while executing a powered dive or sea-skimming trajectory – the two common flight profiles of supersonic missile threats the Defense Science Board noted.
The supersonic AQM-37C and Vandal target missiles were launched dozens of times per year for decades.17 But the firing rates fell to much lower levels after they left service in the early 2000s. After a viable replacement came online in 2005 in the form of the Coyote target missile the Navy would go on to launch less than 50 targets capable of supersonic sea-skimming flight across the next ten years.18 Admiral Phil Davidson also claimed that Navy units based on the East Coast went almost 13 years without shooting down any supersonic target missiles until 2016.19
The Navy launches several hundred target missiles per year but almost all are slow, subsonic payloads that hardly represent the supersonic anti-ship missiles that are commonly found in the navies of great power competitors.20 It also appears that supersonic target missiles are almost always fired from land. This diminishes the realism of the events with respect to exploring varying environmental conditions, especially those that would be found in open-ocean warfare.21
In spite of this, the subsonic target missile that according to the Navy is its “workhorse” will be replaced by another subsonic payload.22 As more lethal supersonic and eventually hypersonic weapons proliferate the Navy’s target missile inventory will continue to be almost entirely made of subsonic payloads that fail to accurately represent these advanced threats. The disparity between the Navy’s target inventory and the true nature of the anti-ship missile threat is poised to widen further.
Supersonic target missiles certainly are very expensive tools and it is impractical to expect most units to have a chance to practice with them. However, these tools are invaluable for ensuring realism for key force development activities.
Consider all the lessons SMWDC is learning and translating into the surface fleet, especially through their restarted Live Fire With a Purpose (LFWAP) events that aim to “test and validate TACMEMOs and latest tactical recommendations.”23 For the sake of tactical development and high-end readiness what good may come from firing salvos of supersonic target missiles in the general direction of some of the Navy’s finest tacticians?
For a force that is primarily made of highly sophisticated machines technical standards are a key part of warfighting readiness. In the case of naval warfare the abovementioned technical standards have especially important tactical consequences.
Naval warfare in the missile age is notable for having transcended the boundary of human limitations. The speed and intensity of engaging a salvo of anti-ship missiles that could be seconds away from impact is a tactical challenge that is mostly beyond the ability of a human to carefully manage with real-time inputs. Therefore the combat systems of warships, perhaps best exemplified by the Aegis combat system and the Ship Self-Defense System (SSDS), must be automated to an extraordinary degree to stand a chance of defeating missiles under trying circumstances.
The role of the operator then is to program pre-set conditions and instructions into the combat system. These are known as doctrine statements, up to and including fully automated responses for highly lethal situations. These doctrine statements can be built around the characteristics and flight profiles of potential threats, and can dictate how the combat system will automatically combine the various capabilities of the ship to defeat those threats.24 These automated doctrine statements can be the Navy’s last line of defense against tactical surprise because even if Sailors are caught off guard by a sea-skimming salvo breaking over the horizon the automated combat system can carry the day.
Effectively countering the anti-ship missile threat is very much a matter of crafting doctrine statements well in advance of a combat situation. Sailors should not be put in a position where they are forced to rapidly reconfigure doctrine statements in the middle of the fight in order to survive. More ideally, Sailors will be familiar with a variety of well-tailored doctrine statements they can choose from to meet a range of situations.
It is essential to know the state of a radar’s energy output and to understand the environmental factors that dictate how that radar energy propagates. Both are fundamental baseline context for ascertaining the ability to detect targets, knowing how to configure combat systems, and managing emissions control.25 Certain environmental conditions can also raise the probability of false alarms, and there may be situations with little opportunity to intervene in an automated response to make timely corrections.
How well does the Navy understand the nature of guiding a semi-active homing weapon such as the Standard Missile through environmental conditions below the radar horizon? How well has the Navy configured doctrine statements to guard against skip zones and other environmental effects that complicate how a ship can see and engage targets through its radar?
Consider the Red Sea combat events and how new doctrine statements and combat system configurations were key outputs from the learning experience, and how these updates were based on a specific environmental context. The Navy should look to this experience and see how it can learn similar lessons minus the risks of real combat. As an engine of tactical development can the Navy conduct expeditionary Live Fire With a Purpose events similar in design to the SHAREM program? Could the Navy produce refined doctrine statements by firing advanced target missiles in varying environmental conditions that resemble forward areas? Such a program could do well to sharpen the tool of Aegis.
Poor environmental awareness, low-fidelity target missiles, and lack of key radar performance metrics forms a recipe for less than ideal doctrine statements. Failing to maintain high technical standards across these areas suggests very suboptimal programming may be built into the automated combat functions of warships across the world.
Part Five will focus on Material Condition and Availability.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
6. Committee on Environmental Information for Naval Use, Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies, “Environmental Information for Naval Warfare,” 2003. https://www.nap.edu/read/10626/chapter/11#148
4. Objective. The objective of the SHAREM Program is to assess surface ship ASW readiness and effectiveness and recommend solutions for ASW warfighting gaps. This objective is met via the collection and analysis of sensor and environmental data in tactically relevant geographic operating areas.
a. SHAREM exercises will evaluate surface force ASW systems and tactics, techniques, and procedures in tactically-relevant environments. Evaluation of current and emerging threats and environments of national interest, as recommended by the fleet and force commanders and as directed by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Surface Warfare Division (OPNAV N96), will lead to development of tactically-focused exercise events and collection of tactically significant environmental data.
b. Environmental data will be collected in coordination with systems commands, naval laboratories, and Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
c. SHAREM-sponsored exercises, Submarine Command Course (SCC) mini-wars, and limited objective experiments provide the opportunity to collect and analyze data to assess the full scope of surface ship ASW operations through the detect-to-engage sequence. Exercises should be conducted on underwater tracking ranges or in environments that reflect areas of operational interest.
“SHAREM has operated for 48 years and has transitioned from SWDG to SURFDEVRON, SURFDEVRON to STDG, and finally STDG to SMWDC, where it now resides. SHAREM is highly effective at informing future ship builds, releasing tactical memos (TACMEMOs) for future integration into tactics, techniques and procedures, and maintaining a database of all data collected.”
Excerpt: “The Aegis community had concluded that accurate combat system performance assessments were valuable to the Aegis warfighter in terms of ship stationing, adapting radar configuration appropriately to the environment, and maintaining awareness of self defense capabilities and limitations.”
Featured Image: SPY radar array on Aegis-equipped DDG-175 escort ship “Miyoko” of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces via Marie’s Garden Blog.
“Fleet level processes and procedures designed for safe and effective operations were increasingly relaxed due to time and fiscal constraints, and the ‘normalization-of-deviation’ began to take root in the culture of the fleet. Leaders and organizations began to lose sight of what ‘right’ looked like, and to accept these altered conditions and reduced readiness standards as the new normal.” –2017 Strategic Readiness Review commissioned in the aftermath of the collisions involving USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56)
The U.S. Navy is suffering from self-inflicted strategic dysfunction across the breadth of its enterprise. This series seeks to explore the theme of the normalization of deviation in some of the most critical operations, activities, and attributes that prepare the U.S. Navy for war. Because the U.S. Navy is the senior partner in its alliance activities many of these problems probably hold true for allied navies as well.
Part One below looks at U.S. Navy combat training and draws a comparison with Chinese Navy training.
Part Two will examine firepower relating to offense, defense, and across force structure.
Part Three will look at tactics and doctrine with an emphasis on network- and carrier-centric fleet combat.
Part Five will look at the relationship between the Navy’s availability and material condition.
Part Six will examine the application of strategy to operations.
Part Seven will look at strategy and force development, including force structure assessment.
Part Eight will conclude with recommendations for a force development strategy to refocus the U.S. Navy on the high-end fight and sea control.
“This ship is built to fight; you’d better know how.” –Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke (ret.) at the commissioning ceremony of the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)
The training strategy of a military service is one of its most fundamental responsibilities. Training is central to piercing the fog of war as much as possible before combat exacts its price. Training is what forges people into warfighters.
Soon after the Cold War ended the Navy announceda “change in focus and, therefore, in priorities for the Naval Service away from operations on the sea toward power projection.”1 A new operating focus on low-end missions such as partner development missions, striking land targets, and deterring rogue regimes came to dominate its focus. Different training followed. This training and operating paradigm replaced the high-end threat focus the Navy was originally made for in an era of great power competition against the Soviet Union. But the shift was wholesale, and did not attempt to preserve a responsible minimum of important skills that still held relevance. Perhaps worst of all, somehow this shift allowed U.S. Navy training to fall to incredible lows and remain there for most of a generation.
So much valuable corporate memory has evaporated. Extremely unrealistic training exercises starved Sailors of opportunities to learn important skills and prove themselves. And while the U.S. Navy slipped for years its latest rival, the Chinese Navy, made strong gains in the very same skills the U.S. Navy was losing.
Realism and the Nature of U.S. Navy Exercising
“The mission of the fleet in time of peace is preparation for war, and in this preparation tactical training heads the list of requirements…No matter how perfect we are in every other respect, if we cannot make good here we might as well not exist.” –Captain William S. Sims, “Naval War College Methods and Principles Applied Afloat,” 1915.
For years the Navy’s training exercises took on a scripted character where the outcomes were generally known beforehand and where opposing forces were usually made to lose. Scripted training is not inherently wrong if it is used as a stepping stone to more open-ended and complex exercises. However, such events were very few and far between. As a result most U.S. Navy high-end combat training remained stuck at an extremely basic level that barely scratched the surface of war. As a report from the Naval Studies Board described Navy training, “There is little free play, and exercises are typically scripted with little deviation allowed.”2
One of the most important methods of making exercises realistic is facing off against opponents that can win. Going up against a thinking and capable adversary creates a level of challenge that simple target practice cannot approach. Red teams and opposing forces can be highly specialized units that incorporate key intelligence insights to make their behavior more like that of a foreign competitor. Opposing forces can also be more simple when using scratch teams where training units can be divided into opposing sides and told to challenge each other. Scratch opposition forces are not as realistic as using teams informed by intelligence on competitors, but scratch teams can pose a real challenge because it is still troops competing against troops.
It appears Navy exercising was devoid of opposition forces that stood a chance. In “An Open Letter to the U.S. Navy from Red,” Captain Dale Rielage, the intelligence director of U.S. Pacific Fleet, writes from the perspective of an opposing force commander to the U.S. Navy and offers insight into how the Navy minimized challenge in its training by handicapping its Red teams:
“Your opposing forces often are very good, but you have trained them to know their place…our experience is that they have learned to self-regulate their aggressiveness, knowing what senior Blue and White cell members will accept. As one opposing force member recently told us during a ‘high-end’ training event, their implied tasking included not annoying the senior flag officer participating in the event. They knew from experience that aggressive Red action and candid debriefs were historically a source of annoyance. They played accordingly.”3
Rielage invoked the infamous Millennium Challenge exercise. This exercise was a massive warfighting experiment that became a controversy after the opposing force commander Lt. Gen Paul van Riper quit in protest. Riper at first inflicted devastating losses on the Blue team through unconventional means, but subsequent rounds cemented parameters that forced Red to lose.4 According to Rielage, “The entire event generally is remembered as an example of what not to do…The reality is that we repeat this experience on a smaller scale multiple times each year.”
Rielage then goes on to suggest the problem is extremely pervasive and longstanding:
“You talk about accepting failure as a way to learn, but refuse to fail. It is instructive to ask a room of senior officers the last time they played in—or even heard of—a game or exercise where Red won.”
If the Red teams of Navy exercising are so constrained they rarely ever win then what are they being used for? Admiral Scott Swift, recent commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, gives a clue in “A Fleet Must be Able to Fight.” Swift points out that “Our warfighting culture focuses on kill ratio—the number of enemy losses we can inflict for every loss we take.”5 However, Navy exercising usually results in extremely favorable tradeoffs. Swift argued that the Navy’s “reliance on high kill ratios” causes it to focus on “exquisite engagements,” or “firing from a position of minimum uncertainty and maximum probability of success (emphasis added).” Swift concludes that in high-end operations “it is not possible to generate the number of exquisite engagements necessary to achieve victory.”
Warfighting culture is a product of training. If the Navy’s warfighting culture was focused on easy (“exquisite”) engagements that always earn high kill ratios then perhaps the reason opposing forces almost never won is because they were relegated to the role of cannon fodder.
One example of Red teams being used for simplistic target practice is seen in how submarines were often pitted against warships. Only three years ago did the surface fleet finally open a fully integrated tactical center of excellence for itself, the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC, or the TOPGUN of the surface fleet as they often say), whose responsibilities include improving training and tactics.6 One SMWDC commander spoke of how the Navy was using the surface fleet as an opposing force to train submarines in certain exercises, where according to Admiral John Wade, “Up until two years ago, surface ships were kind of just targets…They told you to go drive from Point A and Point B…The submarines were just crushing us.”7
How else can one reduce an opponent to easy prey? The Navy accomplished this in part through a linear style of training. Navy training took the form of a series of events that focused on individual warfare areas. These include mission areas such as anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare. Exercise and certification events mainly focused on working only just one skillset at a time. Admiral Swift suggested Navy training amounted to “ticking off a discrete schedule of individual training objectives” and argued that this is why the Navy could not execute critical warfighting tasks with confidence. While the Navy did manage to train individual skills, “…we as a force never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks…”8
This limits the freedom to play an accurate opposition force. Capt. Rielage remarked that Red teams are most often constrained and used to only “perform a specific function to facilitate an event” (such as an individual training certification event) rather than behave like a thinking adversary.
Many naval platforms are multi-domain in nature, with the ability to attack targets in the air, on the ocean, and beneath the surface. Cross-domain fires are the norm in war at sea, such as how a submarine can fire missiles at a ship from underwater. Sinking a modern warship is at least a matter of knowing how to fight targets on the surface and in the air at the same time, simply because ships can fire missiles at each other. Naval warfare involves sensors and weapons that can reach out to hundreds of miles from a single ship. The scale of this multi-domain battlespace can be enormous while containing numerous types of threats. Through this complexity war at sea can be filled with an incredible scope of possibilities and combinations. Even in an era absent great power competition rogue regimes like Iran still field multi-domain capabilities such as submarines and anti-ship missiles. Practicing only one skillset at a time using cannon fodder opposition forces that almost never win barely scratches the surface of war, yet this is exactly how the U.S. Navy has been training its strike groups for years.
In recent decades it appears the Navy did not have a true high-end threat exercise until Admiral Swift instituted the Fleet Problem exercises two years ago.9 It must be recognized that because the Fleet Problems are so new they still may not accurately represent real war. Instead, they simply set and combine the basic conditions to present a meaningful challenge to train for the high-end fight.
The Fleet Problems are large-scale, long-duration, and open-ended events. Large-scale, in that the unit being tested can be a strike group or larger; long duration, in that the exercise is at least several days long instead of less than 24 hours; open-ended, in that they give wide latitude to the troops involved rather than narrowly constraining them to execute proscribed methods.10 Perhaps most critically, the Fleet Problems include an opposition force that is capable of inflicting painful losses. They also force the Navy to exercise multiple warfighting areas in combination rather than one at a time, which was the standard design for the Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX) that was considered the peak of high-end sea control training in every deploying strike group’s workup cycle.11 The novelty of the Fleet Problems suggests the Navy’s overseas exercises on deployment were not much better. While these individual training conditions are not totally unprecedented in the Navy the Fleet Problems appear to be the first events in many years to effectively combine them on a large scale.
Before the Fleet Problems the Navy’s training system stood in stark contrast to the exercise programs of other branches. Both the Army and the Air Force are keenly aware of the need to use dedicated and capable opposition forces to hammer warfighting competence into their units through high-end threat training.12 Hundreds of aircraft participate annually in the Air Force’s Red Flag exercise where opposing aggressor squadrons often impose high cost. Nearly a third of the Army’s brigades rotate every year through the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin where Army units are regularly challenged by dedicated opposition forces. The table below shows how Army Brigade Combat Teams do not always score high kill ratios at the NTC.13
The National Training Center and Red Flag exercises have existed for decades and are among the highest priorities for their respective military branches. Evolving real-world threats frequently combine with new technology to introduce fresh challenges into these capstone training events. Yet in spite of everything that was changing about the Navy’s technology and advances being made by foreign competitors the Navy’s premier pre-deployment exercise stagnated. Admiral Phil Davidson suggested, “we’ve made more changes during the last 18 months to COMPTUEX than in the last 18 years.”14
The problem of military training becoming so scripted that victory is assured is not unprecedented. The Marines also have some history with this issue. In 1990, Marine William Bradley blasted the Corps for unrealistic training, questioning exercises that “smack of ‘zero defect’ artificiality,” and charging “who among us can say he has participated in major exercises where ‘success’ was not artificially preordained?”15 More recent writing suggests that opposing forces in the Marine Corps have been often made to simply “die in place.”16
Scripted training might come from some organizational pathology born from a zero-defect culture, a failure to evolve target practice into something that resembles dynamic battle, or some other combination of complacence and lack of imagination. What is certain is that it bears little resemblance to the sort of wars the military of a superpower can be asked to fight.
The Navy has made moves in the right direction only recently though much of Navy training probably remains a heavily scripted affair. Truly difficult exercising for the high-end fight at the strike group level has begun with the advent of the Fleet Problems. COMPTUEX is becoming more challenging, although through more virtual means.17 Two years ago SMWDC instituted a new training event called Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) that finally gives the surface fleet its own integrated training phase prior to joining capital ships for larger events in the workup cycle.18
Given how new they are however the extent to which the Navy will sustain and make the most of these activities remains unclear. What is certain is that they are taking place within a context and a culture shaped by a generation of neglect. As Admiral Swift succinctly put it, “There is no classroom instruction and little doctrine or guidance for fighting a fleet.”
The Structure of U.S. Navy Training
“Peacetime maneuvers are a feeble substitute for the real thing; but even they can give an army an advantage over others whose training is confined to routine, mechanical drill.” –Carl von Clausewitz, On War.
After deploying beyond its means for years the Navy was facing unsustainable growth in maintenance backlogs, yet rising demand for naval power meant the Navy would hardly budge on delaying deployments. As ships went through their usual phases within the workup cycle to prepare for deployment something had to give as pressure built from both sides. Navy leadership characterized the situation as a “rise in operational demand, maintenance availabilities going long, and training getting squeezed in the middle.”19According to Navy officials cutting weeks of training became the preferred remedy to get ships out on time.20
Cutting training time is not necessarily wrong however because training could go on forever. Even with cuts ships still have months of time devoted to training within the workup cycle and more opportunities when deployed. The Navy cannot blame operational demand or maintenance backlogs alone for compressed training. Instead, it is the fault of poor decision-making on how to structure the training process and assume risk.
Sailors feel constantly rushed while training, especially within the workup cycle, because they are being forced to do hundreds of training events in order to satisfy an impossible number of requirements that only seems to grow.21 As training and certification events grew more numerous they were forced to become more shallow because they were stuffed into fixed or even shrinking timeframes. As the Naval Studies Board lamented, “There are no empty blocks on the exercise and training schedules.”
Time pressures encouraged scripted events because training can be passed more quickly. Hard training involves repeat attempts after failure, a larger selection of open-ended scenarios, and a thorough after-action review process. All of these things cost time. Scripting can help make time for more events and cut corners when needed. Scripted training became an important means to help Sailors stay on schedule in a system that was overburdened with too many requirements.
These excessive requirements come from a desire to cover too many bases. A warship, being an advanced machine, can experience technical failure and take damage in numerous ways. Ships can also be employed in a wide range of missions. Training to manage the degradation of a ship and the complexity of naval warfighting is an incredibly difficult task. However, it is impossible to train to every kind of scenario or prevent every kind of failure. A training system represents calculated risk where strong proficiency in some areas must come at the expense of skill in many others.
An example of poor risk calculation with respect to tactical training can be seen in the submarine force where according to LT Jeff Vandenengel:
“…virtually every officer on board can explain complex engineering principles, draw diagrams of entire reactor systems, and have conducted countless complex engineering-casualty drills, but few to no simulated attacks on an enemy warship. So much time, energy, and effort is spent on engineering issues that the study, development, and practice with tactical systems and techniques are often treated like afterthoughts.”22
The Navy has allowed the technical complexity of its ships and the flexibility of naval power to overwhelm the ability of Sailors to effectively train for war. Miscellaneous administrative burdens have also ballooned. Risk aversion has been mistaken for due diligence where a risk averse culture prone to adding training and inspections sought to mitigate risk that should have been accepted. Now it has become impossible to expect Sailors to become skilled at core warfighting tasks when there are too many boxes to check.
The training certification system has become so backward it is inhibiting the very sort of skill it should be promoting. According to Vice Admiral Joseph Tofalo, recent commander of the U.S. submarine force, they were “…really working hard by taking a hard scrub of our assessment and certification process” just to make only 10-15 days’ worth of time to insert high-end threat training into the months-long workup cycles of submarines.23 The bloated certification system is suffocating the ability of senior leaders to implement meaningful training reform.
But even with a bloated system why is it such a struggle for the Navy to make so little time for one of the most important types of training there is?
Training and Evaluation
“You cannot allow any of your people to avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it’s going to be bad.”–James Mattis
Most of the Navy’s training is not actually training in the fullest sense of the term. Rather, most events appear to be readiness evaluations. The intent of a readiness evaluation is not necessarily to create an in-depth learning experience, but to pass an event and earn a certification that indicates a unit is competent at a certain task. The term “certification” is almost always used in relation to the intent and end result of Navy training. Sailors in the fleet are often worrying about maintaining their numerous certifications because they require periodic refreshing.
Good training is about pushing to failure, testing limits, and taking risk head on. This makes it necessary to have training events that do not culminate in a pass/fail evaluation that can reflect poorly on a participant. When under evaluation one will likely fall back on previously known methods instead of using the opportunity to try something new. By frequently conflating readiness evaluations with training the Navy has failed to create enough space where Sailors can safely experiment and learn from their mistakes.
A singular focus on certification can encourage scripting because the goal simply becomes passing the next event rather than genuine improvement over time. Scripting away risk makes the chances of passing certification events much better. Yet much of the point of military skill is in knowing how to manage violent risk.
The Navy’s scripted style of training calls the trustworthiness of the certification system into question. In reference to unit-level training LT Erik Sand described a training and reporting system that allowed for “easy gaming and cheating” and that “because ships design their own drills, they can hide their weaknesses.” Ships were able to write the training packages they would be evaluated on and rehearse them enough to minimize surprise in advance of their inspections. LT Sand felt compelled to argue for the obvious: “In combat, a ship cannot pick where she takes a hit. The crew should not be able to do so in an inspection…the ship’s crew should not have specific foreknowledge of drill scenarios.” The end result was not an inspection process that seriously tests warfighting skill, but instead “evaluates the crew’s ability to stage-manage a show.”24
The quality of any certification is based on the standard of training it was earned through. How credible is a warfighting certification earned through scripted training?
Comparing Chinese Navy Training
“He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Winning is not about being the best, but simply being better than the opposition. In this vein, how does the U.S. Navy stack up against its chief rival, the Chinese Navy?
The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) regularly releases unclassified reports on foreign navies. Its reports on the Chinese Navy (People’s Liberation Army Navy – PLAN) criticize training shortcomings that the U.S. Navy is itself committing. However, these reports also paint a picture of a force that is serious about training harder and working to overcome past disregard for realism.
In its 2015 report ONI stated the PLAN is “rectifying training methods by avoiding formalism and scripting in exercises.”25 As it looks to improve, less scripted training events that aim to “stress tactical flexibility, are occurring on a regular basis…” ONI’s 2007 report indicates the PLAN was making similar reforms earlier. The report said a limitation of the PLAN was its “reliance on scripted training events” and that new training guidance emphasized opposition force training and injecting surprise. In what the PLAN calls Naval Combat Readiness Exercises the exercise plan is “kept from the unit being exercised until just before orders are issued, or until the warning or signal is given.”26 The 2015 report said that a key goal of opposing force training exercises happening “on a regular basis” is “to evaluate a leader’s ability to develop and execute operational plans according to loosely defined objectives.”
Compare this to how Admiral Swift described the reaction of U.S. Sailors being presented with a Fleet Problem exercise: “Some teams clearly were uncomfortable, looking for the gouge on how the problem would go down. Many seemed astonished that the part of the order tasking them (‘Here is my intent. Your charge is to develop the required tasks to achieve it.’) often was less than a page long.” Swift said the fleet staff had to urge these leaders several times to “Stop asking for the plan; plan your solution.”27
The 2007 ONI report noted that “Typically, PLAN units previously conducted only one training subject per sortie in a building block approach” and that under new training standards units “now conduct more than one training subject per sortie.”
Compare this to how Admiral Swift described Navy training in his recent writing, in that “Much of the process of unit training certification consists of performing individual techniques, often in a set sequence and a reduced tempo. In a fight, these techniques need to be combined and executed with speed.”
In addition to being chief of intelligence for U.S. Pacific Fleet Captain Rielage also serves as the senior member of the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team (PNAT) that was created a few years ago.28 PNAT seeks to incorporate intelligence insights on adversaries to create accurate representations of their thinking and behavior. PNAT then puts these insights into practice by leading opposing forces in certain events such as the Fleet Problems where Admiral Swift says PNAT “frequently surprises” leaders all the way up to the four-star level “unlike current strike group training.”29 Capt. Rielage also has interesting insights into how Chinese Navy training is evolving.
In “Chinese Navy Trains and Takes Risks” Rielage writes that PLAN units often engage in force-on-force exercises that incorporate key elements of surprise such as where live opposing forces do not know the “exact composition or disposition of the adversary.”30 Units that exercise initiative to increase the difficulty of their training events are regularly praised in official PLAN media. According to Rielage, “The clear impression is that the PLAN is more willing to accept risk in its training evolutions than its U.S. counterparts.”
There is also a stark difference in the sort of missions the U.S. Navy and the Chinese Navy are focused on training for. Rielage claims the PLAN is “underpinned by an institutional emphasis on training for high-end naval warfare” and that “there is a strong argument that success in this mission is the PLAN’s primary and defining priority.” Compare this to how Admiral Swift characterized U.S. Navy training in the power projection era:
“A quick glance at a Composite Training Unit or Joint Task Force exercise schedule showed maritime interdiction operations, strait transits, and air wings focused on power projection from sanctuary. But despite the best efforts of our training teams, our deploying forces were not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.”31
For years the U.S. Navy has not tried to practice destroying modern fleets, but the Chinese Navy has.
The importance the PLAN places on training is also reflected in its leadership. While serving as Commandant of the Naval Command College and prior to becoming the current chief of the PLAN Admiral Shen Jinlong helped create a “Blue Force Center” that seeks to improve the realism of opposition force training. Earlier in his career he served as director of a naval vessels training center and was credited for establishing a training system for new-type ships.32 The current leader of the Chinese Navy is no stranger to training innovation.
The rate of tactical learning in the PLAN compared to most other navies is especially high, and not just because of its training values. With a hint of condescension the 2015 ONI report said that before the PLAN expanded its distant operations in 2009 it was “largely a training fleet, with very little operational experience.” But a force focused on hard and realistic training can certainly be effective when it will count most in war. The PLAN still has very few steady overseas commitments, and can afford to spend the bulk of its readiness on force development just like the interwar period U.S. Navy.33 On the other hand the modern U.S. Navy is stretched thin across the globe, and chooses to spend most of its readiness on overseas operations which are not the same as focused force development conducted close to home. The American and Chinese Navies have been spending their time on very different priorities.
Regardless of where they stand in relation to one another on the continuum of military excellence it appears the Chinese Sailor is learning and becoming a more lethal professional at a rate that far outstrips his American rival.
Training and Satisfaction in the Profession of Arms
“If we fight our fleets in mimic fights against each other, every officer and seaman, and fireman, and ward-room boy will understand enough to become interested. What we need more than anything else is to make our people interested…certainly no profession gives the opportunities for continued interest that ours does…yet is there anything more heartbreaking in its dullness than a man-of-war is often made to be!” –Commander Bradley A. Fiske, “American Naval Policy,” 1905.
A key distinction between institutions that provide security and most other organizations is that they rarely get to apply the full scope of their potential until an immediate threat demands a response. Most other organizations operate under a steady grind where they regularly apply foundational skills and often in direct competition against many others who are doing the same. Until an imminent threat appears an organization focused on security must remain in a self-imposed state of vigilance. This comes with unique challenges of promoting professional satisfaction and morale.
Being a sentry, as important as that may be, is hardly gratifying. The logic of promoting deterrence is often not tangible enough to be professionally fulfilling on its own to most who wear the uniform. After spending an ungodly amount of time filing paperwork, attending sessions, and conducting so many other preparations warfighters crave the opportunity to do their job and put their skills to the test. An organization focused on security should conduct hard training not only for the sake of preparedness but to give its people opportunities to push their limits and enjoy the fulfillment of becoming a better professional. In the absence of a pressing mission that demands the immediate use of specialized skills a focus on growing those skills is the next best thing.
While the Navy featured prominently at the opening of many campaigns and saved lives in humanitarian disaster the emphasis on low-end missions and training hardly helped Sailors experience the full potential of the powerful Navy they joined. The power projection era precluded Sailors from practicing many of the core high-end missions and skills a superpower Navy is usually built for, yet Sailors were still responsible for the extensive maintenance that high-end capability required. Scripted training under the bloated certification system has turned most tactical training into just another chore on a checklist rather than a stimulating exercise that focuses on quality learning and professional development.
The professional development opportunities that come with joining the most powerful Navy should be especially unique. In how many places can someone practice warfighting skills and operations using some of the most advanced warships ever made? How many jobs allow someone to become the best in the world at taking command of the seas through skill of arms? Surely there is some connection between the level of opportunity to grow as a better warfighter through hard trials and the unique job satisfaction that comes with being a military professional. Has the Navy harmed retention and morale by letting too many requirements, inspections, and low-end missions crowd out time for hard training? Clearly people joining the Navy would much rather be “forged by the sea” instead of forged by their inbox.
Training and Human Capital in the Profession of Arms
“…I would argue that nothing takes precedence over the peacetime commander’s job of finding combat leaders.” –Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (ret.), Fleet Tactics, Theory and Practice
The training certification system is unable to maintain a consistent standard across the force because luck plays an important role in how well the American Sailor gets trained. The fixed nature of the workup cycle and the variety of deployment experience create a roulette wheel of training opportunity. A Sailor can report to a ship only to spend the entirety of their assignment stuck in drydock with limited operating time. A Sailor that happens to report aboard closer to a deployment will have far more opportunity to conduct at sea operations, especially integrated training within a larger group of ships.34 One Sailor can deploy to mainly exercise with numerous third world navies while another’s deployment can feature exercises with more capable allies. The nature of the workup cycle and the variety of overseas experience sends a hodgepodge of training experience throughout the Navy’s ranks. This creates the need for major training events that are disconnected from the deployment cycle to better standardize proficiency. By the time a combat arms leader becomes a general officer in the Army or Air Force they have usually paid multiple visits to Red Flag and the National Training Center across their career.
While machines reflect learning as they grow in capability corporate memory is mainly carried forward by people. In this respect the Navy’s wholesale shift toward power projection not only inhibited its ability to practice war well, but failed to preserve a responsible minimum of institutional memory for full-spectrum competence. As Cold War-era personnel retired and separated from the service the Navy hemorrhaged skills and experience born from a time of better warfighting standards.35 Those with Cold-War era experience who still serve today saw their tactical skills atrophy under a new strategic focus. The result is that on average American Sailors know far less about high-end combat and sea control than they did 30 years ago. An organization that often describes its training in terms of “reps and sets” should have also understood the concept of use it or lose it.
American Sailors can put their training into a different “reps and sets” context. How many times have they run the exact same scenarios? How many times have they seen a live opposing force defeat a strike group? Are scripted exercises the defining training experience of a generation of American Sailors? In a system where everyone gets a trophy it is hard to know who is any good.
But training should not always be about winning or passing a test. Training is supposed to be a learning experience where failure is welcomed as an opportunity to learn and further prove oneself. Scripted training inhibits arguably the most important part of the training process – the after-action review. In the after-action review troops are expected to confront their mistakes, reflect upon alternatives, and contemplate their thought process. Without failure or the fear of future failure there will be less to question and reflect on. A solid after-action review process is necessary to give people a space where they can distinguish themselves as learners.
The after-action review of a training exercise can be a most humbling experience for the military professional where leaders are forced to take responsibility for mistakes that would have gotten their people killed in war. How a leader accounts for such consequential errors can reveal something about their command philosophy and leadership style. There is also a large difference in taking responsibility for failure within view of hundreds if not thousands of participating Sailors after a live exercise versus a virtual wargame that is played in the company of only a handful of fellow officers. The highly concentrated nature of modern naval capability and authority has given the enlisted Sailor virtually no ability to shape his or her fate through tactics in high-end war at sea.36 It is on the ship’s officers to know how to fight well for the sake of everyone else aboard.
Scripted exercises inhibit the warfighter’s ability to develop the unique professional skills critical to success on the battlefield. These special skills can range from employing warfighting techniques and tactics, maintaining unit cohesion while taking heavy losses, and knowing how to gamble with equipment and lives. Skillfully managing the chaos of war favors certain personal qualities such as the utmost candor, open-minded thinking, and a willingness to push to failure. These traits hardly describe the character of heavily scripted training. Without hard combat trials one cannot prove skill and virtue in ways only a warfighter can.
What scripted exercising has done to the Navy is damage its ability to discover those within its ranks who best exemplify the profession of arms.
“After their examination, the recruits should then receive the military mark, and be taught the use of their arms by constant and daily exercise. But this essential custom has been abolished by the relaxation introduced by a long peace. We cannot now expect to find a man to teach what he never learned…” –Vegetius, De re militari
If the most important peacetime military mission is to realistically prepare for war then what happens if this primary mission does not act to unify effort across the enterprise? Compared to all other peacetime operations exercises are the activity that come closest to real war which makes them an indispensable foundation for force development.37 Realistic exercising is what best integrates and filters the vital functions that evolve training, tactics, and doctrine. Exercises are also some of the best means for investigating the changing character of future war as technology evolves. The lack of realistic exercising is much more than an issue of questionable operator skill. It is a broader developmental problem for how the Navy is deciding its future.
It should go without saying that trying things in the real world under challenging conditions is how to mold vision into reality. The choice to disregard realistic exercising for a generation overlapped with a time when evolutionary ideas and networking capabilities were hitting the fleet. As the Information Age excited the imagination the Navy hailed transformative warfighting concepts such as ForceNet and AirSea Battle, but to the average Sailor these concepts changed little. There never was any serious AirSea Battle training, network-centric warfighting doctrine, or exhaustive tactical development for new major capabilities like CEC.
The Navy certainly made an effort to transform, but progress and proficiency should never be measured by how many new capabilities come online, CONOPs or TACMEMOs that get published, or wargames that get played. If these things are to have life then they must be taught to and refined by those charged with their execution. Real progress and skill is best defined by what the Sailors and commanders on the deckplate know how to do well, and for that there is only training. Because warfighting concepts did not translate into new and realistic force-wide training many of the Navy’s most ambitious efforts to transform can safely be described as stillborn.
If the Navy’s standards of exercising have been so poor for so long then it is natural to be skeptical of other elements of force development that feed into one another such as wargaming and test and evaluation. The functional linkage between strategy, tactics, and technology demands that force development activities use a shared set of realistic standards that evolve together to pace threats. Excessively scripting the one activity that comes closest to real war means failure was not a meaningful force of change for much of the naval enterprise. Clearly many unhelpful things have made it into the fleet if realistic exercising was not there to set a standard, serve as a proving ground, and anchor the Navy’s focus on warfighting.
What makes the Fleet Problem exercises and SMWDC key drivers of change is not that they are some special evolution of ongoing activity. Instead, finally the Navy has a challenging high-end exercise, and finally the surface fleet has a command that integrates the surface warfare enterprise for the sake of tactical development. And when key things that should have existed are finally created and imposed upon a system they shed light on dysfunction that has long gone unnoticed. In the words of Admiral Wade, “We are just at the beginning here, but we have uncovered so many issues.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
(References for Part 1 appear at bottom of Part 2 due to page limitations. Links to sources and references have been embedded as reasonably as possible throughout.)
Featured Image: Featured Image: Pacific Ocean, NNS (April 18, 2018) Lieutenant Craig Stocker, a Warfare Tactics Instructor assigned to Surface Warfare Officer School Newport, R.I., is temporarily attached to Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) tracks and mentors crewmembers during an Anti-Submarine exercise onboard the USS Stockdale (DDG 106). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda A. Hayes/released)
This concludes our topic week where authors submitted their ideas on bringing back sea control in response to our Call for Articles. They covered a broad range of topics including capability trends, concepts of sea control, and how to evolve naval power. Below is a list of articles that featured during the topic week and we thank these authors for their contributions.
“Future operations against peer competitors will require a different mode of thinking to understand the nuances of employing a strike group’s combat power where near-constant tradeoffs are required between offense and defense. Staffs must refine their thinking and improve their methods in three ways to make planning for Sea Control operations more effective.”
“Sea control is about sinking these ships and aircraft, platforms that are growing in vulnerability and are harder to replace than their predecessors. A force that performs well in attrition will weaken, and in many dimensions of military power, perhaps even disarm an adversary. Destroying military assets that cannot be effectively replaced for years, and only after the political issues at hand have been resolved, grants sea control today a value well beyond its immediate military effects. The battlespace, concrete and conceptual, in which contenders will struggle for sea control thus needs to be carefully defined.”
“When the Navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for Sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?”
“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.”
“We may define sea control as acquiring and securing the privilege to utilize the maritime space in the period of time as expected. Nonetheless, whether the adversaries and neutral parties may use the same maritime space at the same time is not necessarily the concern of sea control approach. On the other hand, we may also define sea denial as excluding adversaries from utilizing the maritime space in an expected period of time and place of choosing. Integrating these two aspects of sea control and sea denial together and their effects on the nature of choice can serve as a foundation for maritime operational design for earning command of the sea.”
“The 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 11, 2018) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) transits the Mediterranean Sea. Carney, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is on its fifth patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of regional allies and partners as well as U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan U. Kledzik/Released)180811-N-UY653-386