Symmetric Warfare – The Return to Symmetry

The torpedo: enabler of an asymmetric attack….

Asymmetry is a very popular word these days and, in my estimation, one applied too frequently to too many things.  Prof. Robert Farley makes the point that asymmetric expectations lie at the foundations of decisions about all battles.  “Combatants engage because they have different expectations about likely outcomes,” he says.  But not every search for gaining advantage in battle is asymmetric.  Using all available means and conditions to throw an opponent out of balance is a core of Liddell Hart’s indirect strategy.  So perhaps returning to symmetry and conceptually focusing on symmetric warfare would help ease understanding of complex problems related to ship roles and design.

Asymmetry is a strategy of weak against strong.  One side has no chance to match its opponent in a blow-for-blow fashion, and instead uses a type of attack for which the stronger opponent has developed ineffective defenses.  This is more of a conceptual framework than anything tied to a particular weapon, and in fact the same weapon can be both asymmetric or symmetric attacks depending on its use.  Torpedoes launched by a destroyer against a battleship constitute asymmetric warfare, but launched against another destroyer screening that battleship becomes symmetric.  PLA Navy anti-access doctrine and capabilities are asymmetric versus the U.S. Navy, but the same capabilities linked to a more Mahanian concept would be symmetric versus JMSD Forces, or overwhelming versus the Vietnamese Navy.  In the last case we would witness a reversal of roles.

Asymmetry is also a transient phenomena.  Use of torpedo boats was seen by Jeune Ecole as an asymmetric strategy aimed at Britain’s Royal Navy and its commerce, but very soon the British were able to control this threat and reinstate the symmetry by creating the destroyer.  The same torpedo, supported by excellent training, was part of an Imperial Japanese Navy asymmetric strategy in night actions against the (locally) numerically superior American counterpart.  Radar soon nullified this concept, although as Capt. Wayne Hughes noted in his Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, it took some time for the U.S. Navy to grasp the concept of using the radar, in spite of the fact that it was already technically in service during the battle at Savo Island.

…and frozen yogurt surprises!

The advantage of conceptually coming back to symmetry as a guiding principle is seen in the way warships were built and designed in the past.  A battleship was supposed to carry offensive weapons able to destroy the battle fleet of an enemy.  At the same time, armor was to give it protection against similar (symmetric) opponents.  In the case of cruisers the story was different, mostly because of Washington Treaty limitations, but the last cruiser designs without such limits returned to the need to fight opponents of the same class.  For modern ships it would be much easier to think in terms of their primary mission, while taking as a rule ability to fight a similar class opponent.

Looking at a contemporary example, the LCS surface warfare mission package’s primary mission is to counter asymmetric threats, like swarm attack, but it lacks capabilities to counter a symmetric opponent like a missile corvette.  My analysis could be viewed as an oversimplification, but could nonetheless help frame part of what should be a rational discourse among people who have no chance get to grips with real-world CONOPS.  I like the way Master Chief Petty Officer Brett F. Ayer explains Offshore Patrol Cutter requirements.


Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland.  His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country


Despite Lavish Funding, Russian Navy Dead In The Water

This Old House: The Russian navy HQ moves back to St. Petersburg.

As of 31 October, the Russian Navy moved its headquarters back to the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg where it had been based until 1925. This is further, if superficial, evidence of President Vladimir Putin’s desire to revitalize and modernize the Russian fleet, and “maintain Russia’s place as a leading sea power.” Also on 31 October, the head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, stated that he expects to add “up to five warships and auxiliary ships every year” through 2020. That is not a particularly impressive figure, but it is nothing to scoff at either. The number of ships added to the Russian Navy’s lists is only half the story. If President Putin hopes to strengthen Russian sea power relative to other maritime powers, then the Russian shipbuilding plan must be competitive with what others are doing. After accounting for the rate of decommissioning of Russian ships and the amount actually budgeted for Russia’s shipbuilding plan to 2020, as compared to U.S. plans, for example, it quickly becomes apparent those five ships a year are insufficient to achieve Putin’s desired revitalization of the fleet.

According to the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian government set aside $156 billion for shipbuilding to 2020, or roughly $19.5 billion annually. This funding is expected to result in eight nuclear missile submarines, 14 frigates, 35 corvettes, six small artillery ships, and six landing ships – a total of 69 vessels. The average cost per unit under this plan is $2.26 billion, with only a handful of the hulls major combat assets. On the surface, the only major concern is the rather high cost for ships with limited capabilities. However, since Putin is concerned with improving the Russian Navy in both absolute terms and relative to its rivals – he wants Russia to be a great power again- it is a useful exercise to compare this shipbuilding plan with those of other leading sea powers.

A recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the U.S. Navy’s 2013 30-year shipbuilding plan notes some interesting differences. The U.S. Navy plans to add 268 ships by 2042, at a CBO projected cost of $599 billion.1 This is just shy of $20 billion per year, with a mean 8.9 ships commissioned annually.2 The cost per ship, however, comes in at $2.23 billion on average, cheaper than their Russian counterparts.3 On top of this, the planned U.S. ships are much more capable vessels. The plan includes 70 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 12 new ballistic missile submarines, 46 new attack submarines, 18 amphibious warfare ships, 46 logistics and support ships, and several aircraft carriers.4 Furthermore, these figures exclude the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), roughly equivalent to a Russian corvette. When the two plans are held up against each other – admittedly an inexact comparison given the different time frames – the Russian Navy will continue to decline vis-à-vis its U.S. counterpart.

If the Russian Navy is to match President Putin’s ambitions, the rate of construction will not only have to be competitive with other naval powers, but will also have to be sufficient to compensate for the number of vessels decommissioned annually. In 2011, for example, two SSBNs and five landing ships left the fleet while one frigate and six landing craft entered service.5 A net neutral quantitative change, but arguably a net negative qualitative change. In 2010, one SSBN, a cruiser, two destroyers, two frigates, nine patrol craft, 13 mine countermeasures vessels, and seven landing craft entered or re-entered Russian service. This is compared with the loss of one SSBN, 28 patrol craft, an amphibious ship, a landing ship, and 11 landing craft.6 That is a net loss of seven vessels, but an arguable gain in capabilities. In 2009, the Russian Federation Navy added four attack submarines, one destroyer, and a landing ship but lost one SSBN, a destroyer, six frigates, and a landing craft.7 This is a net loss of three vessels, and a definite decline in capabilities. Now, admittedly this is not a perfect record of the comings and goings in the Russian Federation Navy as The Military Balance could be inaccurate. The Russian military is not known for its transparency, after all. The trend over the last three years appears, however, to be a decline in the size of the Russian Navy with, perhaps, some countervailing improvement in capabilities in certain areas. In 2011, seven ships were decommissioned, in 2010, 42 left service, and in 2009, nine were removed from the lists. Given the age of the majority of Russian vessels, it is unavoidable that a significant portion of the current Russian fleet will have to be decommissioned over the next five to ten years. Some of the oldest ships in the Russian fleet happen to be some of the most capable, meaning the loss will not be simply quantitative. The addition of five ships a year until the end of the decade certainly will help rejuvenate the aging Russian fleet, but it will not counteract its decline to the extent desired.

The Russian Navy appears dead in the water at this point. President Putin may wish for Russia to “maintain its status [as] one of the leading naval powers,” but the fact is that the Russian fleet is in decline and present plans are insufficient to absolutely or relatively increase its size and capabilities.8 Russia may or may not be America’s – or any other state’s9 – main geopolitical foe, but in the naval arena it is not much of a contest. Without even more money, the Russian Navy looks set to continue its decades’ long decline.

Ian Sundstrom is a graduate of the War Studies Masters Program at King’s College London.  He is currently engaged on a research project for Imperial War Museum – Duxford in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

[1] Page 3.

[2] Page 7.

[3] Page 3.

[4] Pages 8-9.

[5] International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2012 and The Military Balance 2011

[6] International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2011 and The Military Balance 2010

[7] International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2010 and The Military Balance 2009

[8] The recent firing of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov may signal a change in Putin’s designs for the military, but it is too soon to tell.

[9] Space considerations have prevented me from discussing other navies’ shipbuilding plans. The reader may wish to consider the trajectory of the British, Japanese, and Chinese navies and how they compare to the Russian fleet. My very brief, preliminary look suggests Russia is set to make some quantitative headway against Britain and Japan, but Russia’s position sandwiched between four major seas renders the gains less than impressive. Compared to the Chinese Navy Russia is in clear decline.

The Canadian Forces Naval Reserve

HMCS Haida on patrol in Korean waters

By Enko Koceku

The Canadian Forces Naval Reserve (CFNR), with its headquarters in Quebec City, is the primary Reserve component of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The Naval Reserve employs around 4,000 citizen-Sailors, 35 percent of whom are women. The Reserves are divided into 24 naval division spread throughout the country, which act as hubs for Reservists.

The history of the CFNR actually begins with the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Service (RNCVS), established in 1914 during the WWI. The initial mandate of the RNCVS created three sub-commands, each responsible for a third of Canada. During WWI, around 8,000 men enlisted for service either at home or abroad through the RNCVS. By the end of WWI the RNCVS had risen to prominence, but was soon neglected once peace had been established. The Reserve was in a precarious situation because of a significant lack of funding. Reservists ultimately had to pay for their own uniforms and were not paid for their weekly muster and drills.

In the end the RNCVS fell apart due to financial strains, but was soon replaced in 1923 by the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR). The organization’s commander, Rear Admiral Walter Hose, thought that the establishment of a robust reserve force would be a strong method of building popular Canadian support for the fledgling Canadian Navy. Rear-Admiral Hose authorized the creation of Naval Reserve Divisions in every major Canadian city.

Like its predecessor, the RCNVR quickly rose to prominence during the outbreak of war. The organization was heavily used by the government of Canada to recruit and build the navy during World War Two (WWII). At its peak the Royal Canadian Navy exceeded 100,000 men, with over half belonging to the Reserves.

The Canadian Forces Naval Reserve was officially formed in 1968 as part of the Maritime Command during the amalgamation of the Armed Forces. Aside from providing manpower for the RCN, the CFNR also crews Canada’s 12 Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs). The Kingston-class ships were originally designed for minesweeping, but have been refitted for patrol and various multi-role duties. Aside from their capability to wage war, Reservists are heavily involved in their community.

Naval Reserve Divisions frequently hold community events and initiatives such as holiday celebrations or fundraising campaigns for charities. Naturally, they are also deployment ready during provincial emergencies such as the Red River floods in Manitoba or the forest fires in British Columbia. The Naval Reserve Divisions themselves provide valuable employment opportunities to locals.

The CFNR, however, is a constant target for funding cuts. While the Canada First Defence Strategy advocates for an increase in the number of total Reservists from 26,000 to 30,000 by 2028 in order to meet future challenges, there’s a certain level of uncertainty regarding the future. It remains to be seen if this policy in fact increases the number of Naval Reservists.

Kingston-class patrol vessel HMCS Edmonton (MM 703)

In July 2010, a Canadian Forces spokesperson stated that the fleet of MCDVs would be cut in half, and that there would also be a 50 percent cut in training. The order was soon rescinded however, by outgoing Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk stating that the Reserves “do a great job” and that “we’re actually growing the Reserves.”

The defence policy also has yet to specify any replacements for the aging Kingston-class ships the Naval Reservists use to patrol Canada’s coasts. However, a commitment to new frigates and destroyers based on a common hull design for the Navy, coupled with the numerical increase in Reservists suggest that the Naval Reserve’s MCDVs could potentially be replaced by a variation of the Navy’s upcoming frigate.

While it is clear that a certain level of difficulty lies in the future for the Naval Reserves, it is not for lack of ability. The CFNR has a tradition of service excellence, as exemplified by LT Robert Hampton Gray, a reservist from Nelson, British Columbia, who served with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. His citation for Canada’s last Victoria Cross of the war stated:

“The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS for valour to: – the late Temporary Lieutenant Robert Hampton GRAY, R.C.N.V.R., for great valour in leading an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Wan, on 9 August 1945. In the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from some five warships Lieutenant Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success, and, although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer. Lieutenant Gray has consistently shown a brilliant fighting spirit and most inspiring leadership.”

A memorial was erected at Onagawa Bay, Japan, in 2006, to honour Lieutenant Gray’s heroism. It stands in solitude, the only memorial dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.

Despite Canada’s history of frequently defunding the Reserves, the mission in Afghanistan demonstrated the value of a robust Reserve force. 

This article was posted with permission from the Atlantic Council of Canada

Supply: Now Lactose Free

This article was first posted to the USNI blog.

The demands of the warfighter are like cheese processed through the lactose intolerant digestive tract that is military supply; though digestion is a vital process, it can be unspeakably painful and smell of rotten eggs. End-users already plagued by rapidly decreasing manning and time are now interrupted by long backorder lead times, artificial constraints on off-the-shelf solutions, and funding. Personnel are known to skip the supply system altogether, purchasing parts or equipment out of pocket when an inspection is on the line. This both hides the problem and takes from the pockets our sailors. The military has forgotten that supply exists for the utility the operator, not the ease of the audited. For the military supply system to regain the trust and capabilities necessary to serve the end-user, reforms to the way supplies are selected, commercial purchases are managed, and funding requested are necessary.


The first major problem is the Coordinated Shipboard Allowance List (COSAL). COSAL is a process by which the navy’s supply system determines what supplies it should stock on the shelves; items are ordered through the in-house supply system and the hits in the system raise the priority to stock. Unfortunately, COSAL is reactive rather than predictive and cannot meet the needs of either the new aches of an aging fleet or the growing pains of new ships. As ships grow long-in-the-tooth, parts and equipment once reliable require replacement or repair. New ships find casualties in systems meant to last several years. Equipment lists also change, leading to fleet-wide demands for devices only in limited, if any, supply. The non-COSAL items are suddenly in great demand but nowhere to be found. Critical casualties have month+ long wait-times for repairs as parts are back-ordered from little COSAL support. Commands attempt to fill their time-sensitive need by open purchasing these items from the external market, which are not COSAL tracked. This leads to either supply forcing the workcenter to order through supply and end-users waiting potentially months for critical backordered items, or the open purchase being accomplished and COSAL staying unchanged. Although difficult, the supply system should be more flexible to open-purchasing stock item equivalents due to time constraints while integrating open purchase equivalence tracking into the COSAL process. This bypasses the faults of COSAL’s reactionary nature while still updating the supply system with the changing demands.

Split Purchasing:

The limitations on open purchasing (buying commercial off-the-shelf) create artificial shortages of material easily available on the street. Namely, when items are not under General Services Administration (GSA) contract, single vendor purchases or purchases for a single purpose cannot exceed $3,000, no matter how the critical need or short the deadline. This further exacerbates the problems from an unsupportive COSAL; if requirements exceed purchase limitations, requests are sent through a lengthy contracting process which wastes more time than money saved. The contracting requirement ignores the fact that from the work-center supervisor to the supply officer, everyone now has the ability to search the internet for companies and can compare quotes. Purchasers need not be encouraged to spend less money, since they have the natural deisre to stretch their budget as far as possible. Contracting opportunities also become more scarce as the end of the fiscal year approaches, since money “dedicated” to a contracting purchase is lost if the clock turns over and no resolution is found. This means money lost to the command and vital equipment left unpurchased. For deployed/deployable units, this can be unacceptable. The supply system exists to fulfill the operational needs of the training/deployed demand-side, not to streamline the risk-averse audit demands of the supply side. If not raising the price-ceilings of non-GSA purchases for operational commands, the rule against split purchasing by spreading single-type purchases across multiple vendors should be removed. Breaking out a single purchase amongst several vendors alleviates the risk that large purchases are being made to single vendors due to kick-backs. This would call for more diligence on the part of Supply Officers, but that is why they exist.


Finally, the recent Presidential Debates have shown the military’s poor ability to communicate the message that funding is becoming an increasingly critical issue force-wide. To many, the defense budget is so large that cuts are academic, savings no doubt hiding throughout the labyrinthine bureaucracy. However, for those of us who had no money to buy everything from tools to toilet paper for a month, it’s a more practical problem. Long before sequestration, Secretary Gates started the DoD on the path of making pre-emptive cuts before outside entities made those choices for the DoD. However, the military has made a poor show of communicating that these cuts have become excessive and are now cutting into the muscle of the force. Obeying the directive to cut funding does not require quietly accepting these cuts; now the Commander and Chief believes the military not even in need of a cut freeze, let alone a funding increase. With Hydra of manning, material, and training issues constantly growing new heads, the strategic communicators must come out in force to correct this misconception. While administrative savings can be found, our capabilities are paying the price for the budgetary experiment. Military leadership should, in part, involve advocacy; obedience requires the resources to execute the mission.

The supply system is a painful process, but with rather humble reforms, that pain can be both lessened and taken off the shoulders of whom the system exists to serve. With a reformed COSAL tracking open purchases, a loosened open-purchase limit that puts the stress on the supplier rather than operator, and better strategic communications about funding, we can apply a bit of lactaid to an otherwise painful process.

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

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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