Category Archives: Tactical Concepts

What are the evolving ideals of tactics in maritime and naval affairs.

Is A2/AD Still Useful As Doctrinal Language? A CIMSEC Debate

CNO Admiral John Richardson recently struck the term A2/AD from Navy lexicon. The debate that follows aims to ascertain the value of the term and understand the context of the CNO’s decision. Bob Poling takes the affirmative position that A2/AD is still a relevant term while Jon Askonas takes the negative. 

Affirmative: Dear CNO, A2/AD Still Matters…   

By Bob Poling

CNO Richardson speaks at CSIS (CSIS)

On October 3, 2016, while participating in a Maritime Security Dialogue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson announced that the Navy would strike A2/AD from its vocabulary. Admiral Richardson stated, “To some, A2/AD is a code-word, suggesting an impenetrable ‘keep-out zone’ that forces can enter only at extreme peril to themselves. To others, A2/AD refers to a family of technologies. To still others, a strategy. In sum, A2/AD is a term bandied about freely, with no precise definition, that sends a variety of vague or conflicting signals, depending on the context in which it is either transmitted or received.” Richardson went on to say, “To ensure clarity in our thinking and precision in our communications, the Navy will avoid using the term A2/AD as a stand-alone acronym that can mean many things to different people or almost anything to anyone.”

But A2/AD is not just Navy terminology. The acronym is used in any number of joint publications and is recognized as a part of joint doctrine. After all, there is perhaps no topic more “joint” than the study of countering A2/AD, and as such, the Navy should continue to use the same terminology being used by the rest of the services instead of abandoning doctrine.

In Line with Naval Tradition

With his prohibition on A2/AD, CNO has upheld the Navy’s reputation for ignoring doctrine. It is no secret that naval officers rail against doctrine and adhere to it grudgingly. Corbett warned naval strategists to not become enamored with maxims when studying war as it stifles good judgment. Roger W. Barnett in his book on the Navy’s strategic culture provides an accurate description of this anathema noting, “Navy strategists look upon written doctrine as maxims and are wholly uncomfortable with it. To the naval strategist, the combination of definitions and doctrine becomes rather toxic.” Admiral Richardson exemplifies Barnett’s views and if one watches the video of his remarks at CSIS, his disdain for A2/AD is clear. But A2/AD is not just jargon. It is a viable term that if used in the proper context can convey the fidelity CNO is looking for. Moreover, it is a term that the joint force is familiar with and continues to use. Admiral Richardson’s ban on A2/AD has in essence forced the Navy to turn its back on prescribed joint doctrine and terminology

Granted, blind adherence to doctrine is not necessarily a good thing. However, in this case adherence to the terminology laid forth in doctrine is useful, especially since all of the services are so vested in counter A2/AD. In Chapter One of Joint Publication One (JP-1), former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George H. Decker’s stated, “Doctrine provides a military organization with a common philosophy, a common language, a common purpose and a utility of effort.” The Department of Defense’s position on doctrine is clearly articulated in subsequent paragraphs declaring, “the use of joint doctrine standardizes terminology, training, relationships, responsibilities and processes among all of the U.S. forces to free the joint force commanders (JFCs) and their staffs to focus on solving strategic, operational, and tactical problems.” Finally, Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare defines doctrine thus, “Doctrine is not an impediment to a commander’s exercise of imagination; rather, it is a framework of fundamental principles, practices, techniques, procedures, and terms that guides a commander, commanding officer, or officer-in-charge in employing force(s) to accomplish the mission. Doctrine provides the basis for mutual understanding within and among the Services and national policy makers. It ensures familiarity and efficiency in the execution of procedures and tactics.” Based on these definitions alone, including the Navy’s cut on doctrine, Admiral Richardson’s comments clearly contradict the expectations articulated for the joint force. Instead of fostering unity of effort and a common approach to A2/AD, CNO’s edict has the potential to drive a wedge between the Navy and the other services. 

Need for Inter-Forces Cooperation

Another problem with CNO Richardson’s proclamation is it contradicts the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), 1.0 which guides the joint force on how to approach A2/AD. “The JOAC describes in broad terms how joint forces will operate in response to emerging anti-access and area-denial security challenges” and,  “… envisions a greater degree of integration across domains and at lower echelons than ever before.” Likewise, the JOAC defines anti-access (A2) and area-denial (AD) for the joint force as follows, “Anti-access refers to those actions and capabilities, usually long-range, designed to prevent an opposing force from entering an operational area. Anti-access actions tend to target forces approaching by air and sea predominantly, but also can target the cyber, space, and other forces that support them. Area-denial refers to those actions and capabilities, usually of shorter range, designed not to keep an opposing force out, but to limit its freedom of action within the operational area. Area-denial capabilities target forces in all domains, including land forces.”

Granted these definitions may not be as concise as CNO may like, but they are the accepted joint definitions, and they do cover the spectrum of potential threats. As these definitions are not suitable for CNO then why not approach the A2/AD conundrum in the same fashion as the Navy approaches warfare? For example, the Navy’s approach to Air Defense is just as convoluted as CNO suggests A2/AD is. The Air and Missile Defense Commander (AMDC) is responsible for defending the force against air threats. But air threats can be a variety of things like ballistic missiles, aircraft and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM); all of which must be dealt with in a different fashion based on each one’s ranges and capabilities. To manage the variety of threats the AMDC publishes an OPTASK Air Defense plan which provides specific guidance that has been tailored based on the area of operations and the threats that are present, thus leveling the playing field and ensuring all the players are on the same page. The point is, this methodology represents how the Navy has successfully operated for decades. The inherent flexibility of this approach to warfare allows the Navy to adapt to ever changing environments and threats, regardless of the region. It should be no different where A2/AD is concerned.


Admiral Richardson’s decision to strike A2/AD from the Navy’s lexicon only sends conflicting signals to the rest of the Joint Force, our allies, and partners. On the surface, it looks as if the Navy is no longer a team player where A2/AD is concerned. Still, others are no doubt wondering why CNO has done this when none of the other services have gone this route. Arguably, the elimination of A2/AD from the Navy’s vocabulary is more likely to undermine the clarity of thinking and precise communication CNO desires. If I could whisper in CNO’s ear, I would recommend he demand more rigorous thinking and adherence to the JOAC’s vision of A2/AD instead of throwing out the term.

Negative: A2/AD is an Unoriginal and Unhelpful Term In Understanding Threats

By Jonathan D. Askonas

A2/AD, for the uninitiated, stands for “Anti-Access/Area Denial,” shorthand for a variety of technological and tactical changes supposedly creating new and unique military challenges for the United States to confront. What makes doctrinal language useful? It provides a name and set of concepts that help us think about a phenomenon in order to improve military performance. My contention is that A2/AD conceals and obscures more than it clarifies and is thus not useful doctrinal language.

What is an “Anti-Access/Area Denial” military system? In normal use, A2/AD refers to technologies and tactics which, through precision guidance, communications, and firepower, make the deployment and use of American forces riskier and more expensive. Which is to say, they are military systems. One of the beauties of A2/AD is that anything short of tactical scenarios the U.S. military is itching to engage (like a rerun of the 1991 Iraqi Turkey Shoot) becomes “A2/AD.” Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs)? A2/AD. Small, swarm-tactic Iranian littoral boats? A2/AD. Integrated air defense systems (IADSs)? A2/AD. Diesel attack subs? A2/AD. Any modern military technology that enables a great power to project force past its own borders in ways which even marginally threaten the West’s ability to conduct combined arms operations can be subsumed in a sexy operational concept. But this overbroad idea has at least three fatal problems which doom it to the conceptual dustbin.

A2/AD Deceives Us Into Confusing the Tactical, Operational, and Strategic Levels of Warfare 

While their role in an A2/AD strategy is up for a debate, substantial Chinese investment in new technologies, like this Type 039 Song Class diesel-electric submarine, is undeniable. (PRC Stock Photo)

The biggest problem with A2/AD is that it carelessly elides the distinguishing levels of war, smuggling all kinds of assumptions and non sequiturs into our thinking. When most people talk about A2/AD, they refer to technological capabilities which are capable of attacking/hampering Western capabilities (tactical) in ways which increase the risk of the West acting in specific areas (operational), to the end of limiting Western influence (strategic). But reality almost never lines up with this picture, even in the canonical examples of A2/AD. Take the South China Sea, where Chinese investment in ASBMs, diesel attack subs, and other hardware are supposedly part of a strategy of A2/AD designed to minimize American ability to intervene in the region. And yet, this picture falls apart on closer inspection. At the technological level, complex kill-chains create all kinds of vulnerabilities in China’s new (and relatively untested) weapons systems which, when it comes to operational considerations, render them unreliable, particularly as American forces adapt to them (the traditional response to operating in “denied” territory). And at the strategic level, A2/AD as a strategy is absurd. War is politics by other means – how are extra missiles by themselves supposed to force American carrier battle groups not to enforce freedom of the seas? China has not attempted to sink them in the past not because it lacked the capability but because it lacked the will. The ultimate anti-missile defense system is threat of unstoppable violence should the American people be attacked. A2/AD’s conceptual confusion about how technologies, tactics, operations and strategy interrelate undermines any utility the idea might have.

A2/AD Lends Itself To An Overly Cautious, Defensive, and Unhistorical Mindset

As the CNO himself pointed out, A2/AD encourages a cautious, defensive, and unhistorical mindset. To the first point, A2/AD, with its language of “area denial” lends itself to being construed as defensive in nature. For example, “A2AD capability is not offensive or aggressive in nature,”French General Denis Mercier and NATO supreme allied commander for transformation said last October. “It’s principally a defensive measure. So we have to consider it, we have to be aware of it, we have to include it in our planning but it’s not the threat as such.” Because it elides the levels of warfare, A2/AD transforms the defensive capabilities of the weapon (tactical) into a defensive intent on behalf of the enemy (strategic). And yet, as even the most greenhorn strategist knows, because warfare is a competitive activity, changes in relative advantage determine outcomes and shape the overall operational picture, regardless of whether the weapons themselves are offensive or defensive in nature. Moreover, in many cases, the weapon systems in question are not obviously solely defensive in nature, nor only capable of targeting American forces.

To the second point, that A2/AD is anachronistic, it seems peculiar that a concept as old as warfare has been highlighted as the next big new defense threat. The ability to make certain areas of the battlespace difficult or impossible for the enemy to access, thus shaping his choices, is one of the foundational mechanics of warfare. Conceptually, minefields, coastal defense guns, and U-Boats had (or sometimes had) identical functions to contemporary “A2/AD” weaponry. Because it highlights new technologies of area denial, A2/AD hampers rather than helps our ability to use military history and analogical thinking to come up with creative solutions to contemporary military challenges.

A2/AD traps Us Into a Rigid Conception of the Enemy and the Enemy’s Strategy

By fogging up the distinguishing levels of war and highlighting the ways great power rivals are working to defend against U.S. intervention, A2/AD lulls us into projecting our operational challenges onto the intentions of our enemies. In other words, A2/AD tricks us into thinking that, because it is the case that widespread ASBM deployment in the East China Sea or IADSs over Syria increase the relative risk of an American intervention, those actions were taken for that purpose. By tying an operational fact (ASBMs are a threat to American ships) to a strategic assumption (therefore, ASBMs are primarily intended to deny access to American ships), A2/AD hurts our ability to imagine what else the enemy might be up to. The same missiles which can sink an American carrier can also hold Taiwanese naval forces at risk; the same IADS that limits American intervention in Crimea can also target actively target Lithuanian or Estonian fastmovers. I don’t mean to suggest that these are likely possibilities, but they are possibilities, and ones which A2/AD belays. The problem is that the enemy gets a say, too. Just because we have an operational concept which says that Chinese investment in a blue water navy or Russian research into advanced air-to-air missiles are primarily aimed at limiting U.S. influence does not make it so. And, even if this is true today, there is nothing to suggest that the enemy might change his mind. By incorporating assumptions about enemy intent into its model, A2/AD lulls us into thinking we understand the enemy.


At the end of the day, A2/AD furthers a strategic culture that obsesses over the “next big thing” and neglects the fundamentals. To the extent that A2/AD is correct about the need to incorporate standoff weaponry into our tactical calculations, it is trivial; that is a well-understood part of operational art. And to the extent that A2/AD makes non-trivial claims about the enemy’s strategy or intent (or the nature of warfare), it is dangerously blithe, imprecise, and blinkered. Like the Revolution in Military Affairs, Full Spectrum Warfare, and NetWar before it, A2/AD will soon join the graveyard of Pentagon intellectual fads that preceded it. And well it should.

Bob Poling is a retired Surface Warfare Officer who spent 24 years on active duty including tours in cruisers, destroyers and as commanding officer of Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron TWO and Mission Commander of Southern Partnership Station 2013. From May 2011 to May 2015 Bob served on the faculty of the Air War College teaching in the Departments of Strategy and Warfighting. He was the Naval History and Heritage Command 2014-2015 Samuel Eliot Morison scholar and is pursuing his Ph.D. with the Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London where he is researching Air-Sea Battle concepts used to combat A2/AD challenges encountered during the Solomon Islands Campaign.

Jon Askonas is a 2nd year DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he is a Beinecke Scholar and a Healy Scholar. He is interested in the relationship between knowledge production/transmission and decision-making in large organizations. He has a BS in International Politics (summa cum laude) from Georgetown University and a MPhil(Merit) from Oxford. He has worked at the Council on Foreign Relations and the US Embassy in Moscow.

The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private opinions of the authors and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Department of Defense, the United States Government, or the United States Navy, or any organization – they are the authors’ personal opinions.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Princeton. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jake Berenguer (Released)

Autonomous Warfare: An Operational Concept to Optimize Distributed Lethality

By LT Coleman Ward


To better meet today’s force demands, [we must] explore alternate fleet designs, including kinetic and non-kinetic payloads and both manned and unmanned systems. This effort will include exploring new naval platforms and formations – again in a highly “informationalized” environment – to meet combatant commander needs.

– Admiral John Richardson in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority

Today’s military operating environment is more complex than ever. While the principles of warfare have remained relatively unchanged throughout history, the development of advanced military capabilities and employment of unconventional styles of warfare increasingly challenge the way commanders are thinking about future conflict. Potential adversaries are further complicating the operating environment through various anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) mechanisms. While many countries are developing such capabilities, this article will focus primarily on the threat of the People’s Republic of China (PRC’s) maritime development. The PRC is rapidly improving its air, surface, and subsurface platform production as it continues its quest for exclusive control of untapped natural resources within the “nine-dash line” region.1 Additionally, the PRC is equipping these platforms with improved weapons that can reach further and cause more damage.2 As a result, the U.S. Navy will assume greater risk when operating in complex A2/AD environments such as the Western Pacific. To mitigate this risk, the U.S. Navy is developing innovative warfighting concepts that leverage technologies and assets available today. The incorporation of unmanned systems into maritime domain operations provides one example where the U.S. Navy is making significant progress. Another example is the inception of a new surface warfighting concept called Distributed Lethality.

In January 2015, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden (Commander U.S. Naval Surface Forces) and other members of the surface warfare community’s higher leadership formally introduced the opening argument for how the Surface Navy plans to mitigate the A2/AD challenge in an article titled “Distributed Lethality.”3 In this inaugural piece, the authors argue, “Sea control is the necessary precondition for virtually everything else the Navy does, and its provision can no longer be assumed.”4 The “everything else” corresponds to promoting our national interests abroad, deterring aggression, and winning our nation’s wars.5 At its core, Distributed Lethality (DL) is about making a paradigm shift from a defensive mindset towards a more offensive one. To enable DL, the U.S. Navy will increase the destructive capability of its surface forces and employ them in a more distributed fashion across a given theater of operation. 

DL shows promise in executing the initiatives provided in the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority in the years to come.6 However, as the U.S. Navy continues to invest in promoting DL, there is a danger that improper fusion of this new operating construct with the foundational principles of war could lead to a suboptimal DL outcome.7 To optimize the combat potential inherent to DLin an A2/AD environment, the Navy must develop and apply the concept of “Autonomous Warfare.” Autonomous Warfare addresses both enabling decentralized, autonomous action at the tactical level through careful command and control (C2) selection at the operational level and further incorporating unmanned systems into the Navy’s maritime operating construct. A flexible C2 structure enabling autonomous action supported by squadrons of unmanned systems optimizes DL and ensures its forces will deliver the effects envisioned by this exciting new concept in the most challenging A2/AD environments. DL advocates put it best in saying that “we will have to become more comfortable with autonomous operations across vast distances.”8 This paper will first examine why DL is an appropriate strategy for countering A2/AD threats before developing the main argument for Autonomous Warfare. This paper concludes by examining how the combined effect of autonomous C2 and aggressive implementation of unmanned systems will achieve the desired results for Autonomous Warfare as it applies to DL, followed by a series of recommendations that will assist with implementing this new idea.

Why Distributed Lethality?

“Naval forces operate forward to shape the security environment, signal U.S. resolve, protect U.S. interests, and promote global prosperity by defending freedom of navigation in the maritime commons.”9 During war, one of the Navy’s principal functions is to gain and maintain sea control to facilitate air and ground operations ashore. An adversary’s ability to execute sea denial makes the endeavor of exercising sea control increasingly challenging.   A key driver behind DL is countering advances in A2/AD capability, a specific sea denial mechanism, which inhibits the Navy’s capacity to operate in a specific maritime area.10

A2/AD is a two-part apparatus. Anti-access attempts to preclude the entrance of naval forces into a particular theater of operation. For example, the threat and/or use of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles can hold surface vessels at risk from extended ranges.11 The PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is one of the many navies that deploy various anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), out of a global arsenal of over 100 varieties that can reach nearly 185 miles.12 Of its anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), the PRC’s renowned “carrier killer” (DF-21D), with a range of 1000 plus miles, is generating cause for concern from an anti-access perspective.13 Additionally, submarines operating undetected throughout a given area of operation (AO) can deter surface forces from entering that area without significant anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. On the other hand, area denial seeks to prevent an adversary’s ability to maneuver unimpeded once a vessel has gained access to an area.14 While employment of the aforementioned missiles poses a threat in a combined A2/AD capacity, the PRC’s shipbuilding trend is triggering additional alarms from an area denial perspective. A recent workshop facilitated by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) highlighted that the PRC has surged its shipbuilding efforts more than ten times over from 2002 to 2012 and will likely become the “second largest Navy in the world by 2020” if production continues at this pace.15 Indeed, the PRC has generated and continues to produce significant capacity to practice A2/AD and maintains a formidable shipbuilding capability. These observations are just a few amongst a host of many that spark interest in shifting American surface forces toward a DL-focused mindset.

One might ask, “How does DL help mitigate these A2/AD concerns?” Ever since carrier operations proved their might in the Pacific theater during World War II, U.S. naval surface combatants have principally acted in defense of the aircraft carrier. Essentially, the surface force relies predominantly on the firepower wrought by the carrier air wing, while other surface ships remain relatively concentrated around the carrier and defend it against enemy threats from the air, surface, and sub-surface. A well-developed A2/AD operational concept married with a diverse and sophisticated array of systems is advantageous against this model for two reasons: that adversary could hold a limited number of high value units (the carriers) at risk with only a small number of ASBMs, while the imposing navy could only employ a fraction of its offensive capability due to a necessary focus on defensive measures. DL addresses both concerns by deploying progressively lethal “hunter-killer” surface action groups (SAGs – more recently referred to as Adaptive Force Packages) in a distributed fashion across an area of operation (AO). By doing so, the DL navy will provide a more challenging targeting problem while offering the commander additional offensive options.16 DL shifts the focus of the Navy’s offensive arsenal from its limited number of aircraft carriers to the surface navy as a whole.

Potential Shortcomings

DL addresses the challenges of operating in an A2/AD environment by dispersing offensively focused surface combatants across the theater. To be effective, however, the operational commander must assign an appropriate C2 structure for DL forces. The DL operating concept could rapidly dissolve through the development and implementation of complex command and control structures. Furthermore, inadequate use of unmanned systems presents an additional potential shortcoming to the effective application of DL. While the consequences of these shortcomings would not be cause for instantaneous failure, they could create adverse second and third order effects and result in deterioration of the DL concept.

Command and Control

Effective C2 is the cornerstone of the successful execution of any military operation. Service doctrine aids in establishing the proper balance between centralized and decentralized C2. The Naval Doctrine Publication 1 for Naval Warfare defines C2 as “the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission.”17 Further, the Joint Publication for C2 and Joint Maritime Operations highlights that a clear understanding of commander’s intent should enable decentralized execution under the auspices of centralized planning.18 Instituting the appropriate C2 structure based on the mission at hand and composition of employed forces helps achieve maximum combat utility while minimizing the need to communicate. This is particularly important when the operational commander has cognizance over a large number of forces and/or when the enemy has degraded or denied the ability to communicate. As the absence of a notional C2 architecture for Adaptive Force Packages (AFPs) at the operational level represents a significant gap in the DL concept, this paper will provide a traditional Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) approach to commanding and controlling AFPs, followed by a potential solution through the lens of Autonomous Warfare.19 The intent is to show that thinking about AFPs as autonomous units will uncover innovative ways to assign C2 functions and responsibilities amongst DL forces.

Unmanned Systems

The proper employment of unmanned systems will prove equally critical in developing the design for Autonomous Warfare as it relates to DL.20 Increasing the offensive capability of smaller groups of warships is one of DL’s main functions (if not the main function). A key enabler to this is the ability to provide ISR-T in a manner that reduces risk to the organic vessels. The concern is that targeting requires the ability to detect, track, and classify enemy vehicles – which oftentimes requires emission of electronic signals that will alert the enemy. Unmanned systems have the ability to provide ISR-T while reducing the risk for organic vessels to reveal their location. Autonomous Warfare will leverage the use of unmanned systems in all three maritime domains (air, surface, and sub-surface). Anything less would unnecessarily limit the potential for delivering maximum offensive firepower while minimizing risk to the organic platforms. Furthermore, critics should note that the U.S. Navy’s adversaries are making similar advances in unmanned systems.21 The bottom line is that underutilization of unmanned systems will be detrimental to DL. The effectiveness of DL as an operational concept depends on the effective employment of unmanned systems.

Providing A Frame of Reference

The following hypothetical situation offers a frame of reference for the remainder of the Autonomous Warfare argument.22 The goal is to show that Autonomous Warfare will optimize DL employment in a scenario where multiple BLUE AFPs must operate in the same AO against multiple RED force SAGs and other RED forces.23

Figure One: A notional scenario for DL24

The area depicted in Figure 1 represents the AO for the given scenario. Country GREY is an abandoned island and has an airfield that BLUE forces want to capture to facilitate follow-on operations against RED. The Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) receives the task of capturing the airfield. As such, he establishes two objectives for his forces: establish sea control on the eastern side of the island (indicated in yellow) to support an amphibious landing in preparation for seizing the airfield, and establish sea denial on the western side of the island (indicated in orange) to prevent RED from achieving the same.

BLUE’s Order of Battle (OOB) consists of one carrier strike group (CSG), one expeditionary strike group (ESG), and three AFPs. Each AFP is comprised of an ASW capable Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and a Zumwalt-class destroyer. Together, each AFP is capable of the full range of offensive and defensive measures needed to defeat enemy targets in each of the three maritime domains.25 RED’s OOB consists of one CSG, three SAGs, and two diesel-electric submarines. RED has a more difficult targeting problem than if BLUE elected to concentrate its forces, since BLUE distributed them across the AO utilizing multiple AFPs capable of delivering offensive firepower in all three traditional warfare domains. How then should BLUE best establish its C2 structure? Will that C2 structure continue to function while operating under emissions control (EMCON) and in the event RED is able to degrade or deny BLUE communications? What roles should unmanned systems play in optimizing ISR-T while minimizing risk to the organic platforms? By developing and applying the concepts of Autonomous Warfare, BLUE will operate with a C2 construct that enables more autonomous action at the lower levels. Additionally, BLUE will leverage the use of unmanned systems, relieving the stress of ambiguity in a communications denied environment.

A Traditional Approach for Applying the CWC Concept to DL

One could argue that AFPs operating under the DL construct should follow a traditional CWC C2 structure, which provides a counter-argument for the Autonomous Warfare approach. The CWC concept attempts to achieve decentralized execution and is defensively oriented. The composite warfare commanders direct the various units of a task force on a warfare-specific basis.26 By delegating oversight of each warfare area to lower levels, the command structure avoids creating a choke point at the task force commander level (the CWC). This configuration is “structurally sound – if not brilliant” for its inherent capacity to simplify the offensive and defensive aspects of maritime warfare down to each warfare area.27 AFPs employed in the scenario described above would then operate under the cognizance of the different warfare commanders on a warfare-area basis. These AFPs are simply groups of disaggregated forces forming a distributed network that would otherwise maneuver as a concentrated assembly around the carrier.

Figure 2: Traditional CWC Operational C2 Structure for a DL Task Force
Figure 2: Traditional CWC Operational C2 Structure for a DL Task Force

Putting the given scenario into action and using the C2 structure depicted in Figure 2, to what degree are the APFs enabled to achieve the given objectives? BLUE AFPs are stationed as shown in Figure 1 and will attack any RED forces attempting to contest BLUE’s sea control in the yellow box. BLUE also has a continuously operating defensive combat air (DCA) patrol stationed west of the sea denial box to prevent any RED advancements towards island GREY. Just as BLUE forces get into position, RED attempts to form a blockade of the island by sending two SAGs, each escorted by a submarine, around the north and south ends of the island. The first indication of a RED attack comes from a synchronized ASCM salvo from unidentified targets (they were fired from RED’s submarines) followed by radar contact on the RED SAGs from BLUE UAVs providing ISR-T. BLUE’s distributed AFPs, fully enabled by commander’s intent, are capable of self-defense and defeating the RED forces.

Close coordination with the warfare commanders is not required. Each AFP commander understands that in order to maintain sea control to the east, he must dominate in the air, sub-surface, and on the surface. The CWC remains informed as the situation develops and the warfare commanders provide additional guidance for regrouping following the destruction of enemy threats. Thus, a traditional CWC approach to commanding and controlling AFPs provides the opportunity for centralized planning with decentralized execution with respect to DL. Further efforts to decouple the C2 of the AFPs from the task force as a whole could jeopardize unity of effort amidst a complex maritime contingency. AFPs should not be totally self-governing since “uncontrolled decentralized decision-making is just as likely to result in chaos on the battlefield” as no command and control at all.28

An Autonomous Warfare Approach for DL Command and Control

The traditional CWC approach for DL C2 works in this case only because the given scenario is relatively simple. Uncertainty and adversity (often times referred to as fog and friction) are problems that commanders will enduringly have to overcome in wartime. “A commander can no more know the position, condition, strength, and intentions of all enemy units than the scientist can pinpoint the exact location, speed, and direction of movement of subatomic particles.”29 The best he can do is generate an estimate of the situation based on the information available. In the previous scenario, RED’s COA was generic; BLUE should anticipate this type of COA to a degree, relative to RED’s overall plan of attack. Replaying the scenario with two slight yet profound modifications will show that we should not think of the traditional CWC C2 concept as a universal solution. An Autonomous Warfare approach will simplify managing the fog and friction of war from an operational C2 perspective and maximize AFP combat potential.

Assume the forces available and assigned objectives on each side are unchanged. In this case, RED brings to bear more of its A2/AD capabilities, including jamming BLUE’s communications network. Additionally, RED has sufficient ISR capabilities to determine the location and composition of BLUE’s AFPs. As a result, RED concentrates its forces to the north in an attempt to annihilate BLUE’s AFPs in series. The AFP to the north is now overwhelmingly outmatched. Similar to the previous scenario, BLUE’s first indication of a RED attack is a salvo of ASCMs fired from RED’s submarines. As a result, the LCS is damaged to the extent that it provides no warfare utility. Because communications are jammed, the remaining AFP forces cannot communicate with the CWC and his warfare commanders on the carrier to receive guidance on how to proceed. How does the affected AFP protect itself with the loss of its primary ASW platform? Does the traditional C2 structure allow the affected AFP to coordinate directly with the adjacent AFP for re-aggregation? Collectively, the remaining AFPs still offer the commander adequate capability to thwart the RED attack. This is not to say that Autonomous Warfare completely nullifies the principles of the CWC concept. Autonomous Warfare simply optimizes the principles behind the CWC concept for DL.30

The following is an analysis of how an Autonomous Warfare approach to C2 for AFPs optimizes the combat potential that DL offers – especially in an A2/AD environment. A notional Autonomous Warfare DL C2 structure is provided in Figure 3. Each AFP would have an assigned AFP commander and designated alternate. Tactical decision-making would occur at the AFP level. Communications requirements would be drastically reduced. The delegated C2 structure obviates the need for dislocated command and control – AFPs under the auspices of the CSG. Thus, the “search-to-kill decision cycle” is completely self-contained.31 This degree of autonomy avoids the particular disadvantages of centralized command indicated in the previous example. Autonomous Warfare enables the AFP commander to make best use of his available forces based on the tactical situation and in pursuit of the assigned objectives. Furthermore, Autonomous Warfare prioritizes local decision-making founded on training, trust, mission command, and initiative rather than top-down network-centric command and control.32

Figure 3: Autonomous Warfare C2 Structure for a DL Task Force.
Figure 3: Autonomous Warfare C2 Structure for a DL Task Force

There is an additional significant advantage to having a more autonomous C2 structure. Although the operational commander could assign each AFP a geographic area of responsibility, they could combine forces and disagreggate as necessary in the event of a loss or an encounter with concentrated enemy forces. In the second scenario above, two AFPs could coordinate directly with each other to counter the larger enemy compliment. They could avert the challenges and ambiguity of reaching back to the centralized commanders altogether as long as they maintained accountability for their assigned areas of responsibility. In the case where the LCS was eliminated, the AFP commanders should have the autonomy to adapt at the scene to accomplish the objective without seeking approval for a seemingly obvious response to adversity.

Another reason why a more flexible, autonomous C2 structure is imperative for DL forces is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” AFP.33 The operational commander may assign different combinations of platforms based on the assets available and the given objectives. The harsh reality of war is that ships sink. The doctrine in place must allow for rapid adaptation with minimal need to communicate to higher authority. The Current Tactical Orders and Doctrine for U.S. Pacific Fleet (PAC-10) during World War II captures this notion best: “The ultimate aim [of PAC-10 was] to obtain essential uniformity without unacceptable sacrifice of flexibility. It must be possible for forces composed of diverse types, and indoctrinated under different task force commanders, to join at sea on short notice for concerted action against the enemy without interchanging a mass of special instructions.”34

Optimizing DL with Unmanned Systems

The aggressive employment of unmanned systems is the second feature of Autonomous Warfare through which the U.S. Navy should optimize DL. “It is crucial that we have a strategic framework in which unmanned vehicles are not merely pieces of hardware or sensors sent off-board, but actual providers of information feeding a network that enhances situational awareness and facilitates precise force application.”35 While there are many applications for unmanned systems, Autonomous Warfare exploits the information gathering and dissemination aspects to increase the lethality of organic platforms. By enhancing the capacity to provide localized and stealthier ISR-T using unmanned systems, AFPs will assume less risk in doing the same and can focus more on delivering firepower.36 The examples provided below solidify this assertion.

Submarines provide a healthy balance of ISR and offensive capabilities to the operational commander. A submarine’s ability to remain undetected is its foundational characteristic that gives friendly forces the advantage while “complicating the calculus” for the enemy.37 There is a significant tradeoff between stealth and mission accomplishment that occurs when a submarine operates in close proximity to its adversaries or communicates information to off-hull entities. By making use of UUVs, AFPs can still rely on stealthy underwater ISR-T while allowing the organic submarine to focus on delivering ordinance. In the given scenario, a small fleet of UUVs could be stationed west of the island and provide advanced warning of the approaching enemy forces. If traditional manned submarines took on this responsibility, they would likely have to engage on their own as the risk of counter-detection might outweigh the benefits of communicating. AFPs themselves could remain stealthy and focus on efforts to defeat the enemy.

While UUVs provide additional support in the undersea domain, UAVs are potential force multipliers in the DL application for two additional reasons. A cadre of unmanned aircraft could provide valuable ISR-T and line-of-sight (LOS) communications to further enable AFP lethality.38 From an ISR-T perspective, AFPs could deploy UAVs to forward positions along an enemy threat axis to provide indications and warning (I&W) of an advancing enemy target or SAG. Their smaller payloads means they can stay on station longer than manned aircraft, and they eliminate the risk of loss to human life. Additionally, the benefits of providing LOS communications are numerous. LOS communication is particularly advantageous because it eliminates the need to transmit over-the-horizon, which becomes exceedingly risky from a counter-detection perspective as range increases.39 A UAV keeping station at some altitude above the surface could provide LOS communications capability among various vessels within the AFP that are not necessarily within LOS of each other. Further, a UAV at a high enough altitude may afford the opportunity for one AFP to communicate LOS with an adjacent one. The level of autonomy these AFPs can achieve, and therefore lethality, only improves as battlespace awareness becomes more prolific and communication techniques remain stealthy.

Featured Image: The prototype of DARPA’s ACTUV, shown here on the day of its christening. (Photo: DARPA)

Just as UUVs and UAVs offer significant advantages to Autonomous Warfare, there is great value in the application for USVs in the surface domain. Take for instance the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). This stunning new technology has the capability of tracking the quietest diesel-electric submarines for extended periods.40 If this type of vessel was available to provide forward deployed ASW capabilities in the second scenario described above, the likelihood of RED submarines attacking BLUE would have diminished. While this particular USV would operate primarily for ASW purposes, it is completely feasible that the designers could equip the ACTUV with radar capabilities to provide additional ISR against air and surface threats. USVs simply provide an additional opportunity for operational commanders to provide ISR-T to weapons-bearing platforms.

The Combined Effect

The true value intrinsic to Autonomous Warfare stems from the combined effect of an appropriate C2 structure for DL that enables autonomous action and the force multiplier effect the operational commander realizes from unmanned systems. Distributed Lethality has serious potential for raising the status of our surface force as a formidable contender to one of deterrence. In an age where leaders measure warfighting capacity in technological advantage, it is refreshing to see an emerging concept that applies innovative thinking to warfighting techniques with the Navy we have today. A more autonomous C2 structure at the operational level will afford DL forces the flexibility to rapidly deliver offensive measures as contingencies develop. “By integrating unmanned systems in all domains, the U.S. Navy will increase its capability and capacity,” especially with respect to DL.41


It will take both time and effort to achieve an optimized Distributed Lethality construct through Autonomous Warfare. The following recommendations will assist in making this vision a reality:

1. There is risk that by disconnecting the AFPs from the CSG from a C2 perspective, the CSG becomes more vulnerable and unnecessarily sacrifices situational awareness. The Surface Warfare Directorate) N96 and the Distributed Lethality Task Force should further evaluate the tradeoffs associated with implementing a more autonomous C2 structure to DL at the operational level. Additionally, this paper proposes an operational C2 structure for DL. The conclusions derived from this paper should support further development of tactical level C2 for DL.

2. While many of the unmanned systems mentioned above are currently operational or under development, there is limited analysis of how to employ them in a Distributed Lethality environment. OPNAV N99 (Unmanned Warfare Systems), working in conjunction N96 and the DL Task Force, should consider incorporating unmanned systems within the DL concept as outlined above.

3. The U.S. Navy should conduct wargames and real world exercises to both validate the strengths of Autonomous Warfare and identify areas for improvement. Wargames will help refine Autonomous Warfare from a developmental approach. Naval exercises have two benefits: realistic testing provides proof of concept with the same force that will go to war. They also provide the opportunity to practice and inculcate new concepts.

4. Doctrine should begin to foster a culture of Autonomous Warfare throughout the U.S. Navy. The battlefield is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The more we enable our highly trained and experienced officers to think and act autonomously, the greater combat potential the Navy will realize. Submarines, by nature, operate this way on a continuous basis. Other warfare communities will benefit from having the ability to operate in a more autonomous manner. As Autonomous Warfare represents a paradigm shift from a “connected force” towards a more autonomous one, the U.S. Navy must understand and embrace Autonomous Warfare before implementing it.


Distributed Lethality’s impending contribution to the joint force depends on its ability to maintain flexibility. An autonomous C2 structure allows for localized assessment and force employment, rapid adaptation in the face of adversity, and the ability to combine forces and re-aggregate as the situation dictates. Aggressive employment of autonomous vehicles only enhances these principles. Unmanned systems operating across the maritime domains will provide valuable ISR-T and facilitate localized decision-making, while minimizing risk to the organic platforms. By providing a means of stealthy communication among ships within an AFP or even between adjacent ones, Autonomous Warfare fosters an environment of secure information sharing. Less need to reach back to a command node means that DL forces can spend more time taking the fight to the enemy and less time managing a complicated communications network.

Maritime warfare is a complex process. Characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity, no weapon, platform, or operating concept will eliminate the fog and friction of war. Commanders must mitigate these challenges by setting the conditions necessary for their subordinate leaders to prosper. Commanders at the tactical level earn the trust of their superiors before taking command. We should not compromise that trust by establishing rigid command and control structures that ultimately inhibit the subordinate’s ability to perform as trained. Applying the autonomous approach to C2 for distributed lethality will enable AFPs to operate in accordance with commander’s intent and is in keeping with the initiative to promote Mission Command throughout the U.S. Navy.

LT Coleman Ward is a Submarine Officer who is currently a student at the Naval War College. The preceding is his original work, and should not be construed for the opinions of views of the Department of Defense, the United States Navy, or the Naval War College.

Featured Image: The prototype of DARPA’s ACTUV, shown here on the day of its christening. Image Courtesy DARPA.

1. Timothy Walton and Bryan McGrath, “China’s Surface Fleet Trajectory: Implications for the U.S. Navy,” in China Maritime Study No. 11: China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities, ed. Peter Dutton, Andrew Erickson, and Ryan Martinson, (U.S. Naval War College: China Maritime Studies Institute, February 2014), 119-121, accessed May 5, 2016,—Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/Web-CMS11-(1)-(1).aspx.; Peng Guangqian, Major General, People’s Liberation Army (Ret.), “China’s Maritime Rights and Interests,” in China Maritime Study No. 7: Military Activities in the EEZ, ed. Peter Dutton, (U.S. Naval War College: China Maritime Studies Institute, December 2010), 15-17, accessed May 12, 2106,—Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/China-Maritime-Study-7_Military-Activities-in-the-.pdf.

2. Walton and McGrath, “China’s Surface Fleet Trajectory: Implications for the U.S. Navy,” 119-121.

3. Thomas Rowden, Peter Gumataotao, and Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine 141, no. 1 (January 2015): 343, accessed March 11, 2016,

4. Rowden et. al. “Distributed Lethality.”

5. James Bradford, America, Sea Power, and the World (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2016), 339.

6. John Richardson, Admiral, Chief of Naval Operations, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, January 2016), 6.

7. Matthew Hipple, “Distributed Lethality: Old Opportunities for New Operations,” Center for International Maritime Security, last modified February 23, 2016, accessed May 12, 2016,

8. Thomas Rowden et. al., “Distributed Lethality.”

9. U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, March 2015), 9.

10. Thomas Rowden et. al, Distributed Lethality.

11. United States Navy, Naval Operations Concept 2010 (NOC): Implementing the Maritime Strategy (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010), 54-55.

12. United States General Accounting Office, Comprehensive Strategy Needed to Improve Ship Cruise Missile Defense, GAO/NSIAD-00-149 (Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, July 2000), p. 5, accessed April 14, 2016,

13. Andrew Erickson and David Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea?,” Naval War College Review 62, no. 4, (Autumn 2009), 54.

14. United States Navy, Naval Operations Concept 2010: Implementing the Maritime Strategy, 54-56.

15. Andrew S. Erickson, Personal summary of discussion at “China’s Naval Shipbuilding: Progress and Challenges,” conference held by China Maritime Studies Institute at U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI, 19-20 May 2015, accessed April 25, 2016,

16. Thomas Rowden et. al., “Distributed Lethality.”

17. United States Navy. Naval Doctrine Publication (NDP) 1: Naval Warfare (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. March 2010), 35.

18. This is also referred to as “Mission Command” or “Command by Negation;” U.S. Office of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication (JP) 3-32, Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations (Washington D.C.: CJCS, August 7, 2013), I-2.

19. The Naval War College’s Gravely Group recently conducted a series of three DL Workshops with representation from offices across the Navy and interagency. One of the key findings was that “AFP SAG C2 architecture requires further development in view of information degraded or denied environments.” This paper proposes a notional operational level C2 structure – tactical level C2 is addressed in the recommendations section; William Bundy and Walter Bonilla. Distributed Lethality Concept Development Workshops I – III Executive Report. (U.S. Naval War College: The Gravely Group, December 29, 2015), 9.

20. This paper considers three types of maritime unmanned systems currently employed or under development: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), and Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs).

21. See the below article featuring a newly developed Chinese drone similar to the U.S.’s Predator drone currently employed for operations in the Middle East; Kyle Mizokami, “For the First Time, Chinese UAVs are Flying and Fighting in the Middle East,” Popular Mechanics, last modified December 22, 2015, accessed May 10, 2016,

22. This scenario does not represent a universal application for DL.

23. The Rowden “Distributed Lethality”article provides its own “Hunter-Killer Hypothetical” situation while supporting its main argument. However, the scenario is basic and does not afford the opportunity to explore how AFP C2 and unmanned systems would function in a complex maritime contingency.

24. Google Maps, “South Atlantic Ocean” map (and various others), Google (2016), accessed April 14, 2016,,-53.6341245,2775046m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en.

25. This is the same AFP force composition suggested in the Rowden Distributed Lethality article “Hunter-Killer Hypothetical” situation; Thomas Rowden et. al., “Distributed Lethality.”

26. For a full explanation of the CWC concept and roles and responsibilities of CWC warfare commanders, see: United States Navy, Navy Warfare Publication (NWP) 3-56: Composite Warfare Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, September 2010).

27. Larry LeGree, “Will Judgement be a Casualty of NCW?,” U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine 130, no. 10 (October 2004): 220, accessed April 14, 2016,

28. CNO’s Strategic Studies Group (XXII), Coherent Adaptive Force: Ensuring Sea Supremacy for SEA POWER 21, January 2004.

29. Michael Palmer, Command at Sea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 319.

30. Jimmy Drennan, “Distributed Lethality’s C2 Sea Change,” Center for International Maritime Security, last modified July 10, 2015, accessed April 14, 2016,

31. Jeffrey Kline, “A Tactical Doctrine for Distributed Lethality,” Center for International Maritime Security, last modified February 22, 2016, accessed March 17, 2016,

32. Palmer, Command at Sea, 322.

33. Jeffrey Kline, “A Tactical Doctrine for Distributed Lethality.”

34. Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Current Tactical Orders and Doctrine, U.S. Pacific Fleet (PAC10), U.S. Navy, Pacific Fleet, June 1943, pg. v, section 111.

35. Paul Siegrist, “An Undersea ‘Killer App’,” U.S. Naval Institute: Proceedings Magazine 138, no. 7, (July 2012): 313, accessed April 30, 2016,

36. Thomas Rowden et. al., “Distributed Lethality.”

37. Ibid.

38. Robert Rubel, “Pigeon Holes or Paradigm Shift: How the Navy Can Get the Most of its Unmanned Vehicles,” U.S. Naval Institute News, last modified February 5, 2013,

39. Jonathan Soloman, “Maritime Deception and Concealment: Concepts for Defeating Wide-Area Oceanic Surveillance-Reconnaissance-Strike Networks,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2013): 89.

40. Scott Littlefield, “Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV),” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, accessed April 30, 2016,

41. Robert Girrier, Rear Admiral, Director, Unmanned Warfare Systems (OPNAV N99), “Unmanned Warfare Systems,” Lecture at U.S. Naval War College, May 11, 2016.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Oct. 4, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) patrols the waters while in the Philippine Sea. McCampbell is on patrol with Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) in the Philippine Sea supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christian Senyk/Released)

The Mobile Riverine Force as an Example for Riverine Ops in the 21st Century

This post first appeared on the Small Wars Journal and is republished with  permission. Read it in its original form here

By Rick Chersicla

An American Infantryman, laden with equipment and weaponry, steps off the ramp of a specially modified landing craft. He is not storming the beaches of Normandy or moving ashore on Guadalcanal – in fact, he is not even landing from the open ocean or a sea. Instead, this is the scene of a member of the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF), a joint Army-Navy venture formed during the Vietnam War. In an often-overlooked part of the war, soldiers and sailors worked together in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam to dominate the fluvial local terrain in the region—rivers, streams, and swampy rice paddies. Using World War II era equipment and creating tactics and techniques while under fire, the men of the MRF wrote the modern chapter on riverine warfare for the U.S. Army.

While preparing for riverine warfare is not a common task, it is not a new challenge for the U.S. Army. Since its inception, the Army has dealt with the tactical challenges caused by rivers – from New Orleans to Vicksburg, and from the Philippine Insurrection to the Rhine. Despite the fact that the Army’s experience with riverine warfare peaked with the MRF of the Vietnam War, the concept is not outdated.

"While Iraq is nearly entirely land-locked, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that cross that country are navigable, and ISIS has been using watercraft for a variety of purposes, including transporting fighters and conducting improvised explosive attacks." (CNN)
“While Iraq is nearly entirely land-locked, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that cross that country are navigable, and ISIS has been using watercraft for a variety of purposes, including transporting fighters and conducting improvised explosive attacks.” (CNN)

This topic is relevant for modern strategists for the simple reason that while new technologies and global politics rapidly change and influence the way we fight war, terrain is an enduring aspect of war. Simply put, geography will continue to contribute to how the Army fights its wars. Furthermore, with the increasing focus on operations in littoral regions, riverine operations are a natural outgrowth from littoral concerns if the military is serious about projecting power. In this paper, I seek to explore what could be considered a capability gap in the field of riverine warfare. Using a case study of the MRF as an example, I hope to discern lessons learned in order to guide the possible formation and training of a future joint force similar to the MRF.

Origins of the Mobile Riverine Force

While the MRF was a joint Army-Navy venture, it was established on the bedrock of experience that the Navy had accumulated in South Vietnam. In 1959, naval advisors were approved to accompany the South Vietnamese Navy on operational missions, provided that they did not engage in actual combat.  The primary focus of the naval advisors had been to build the interdiction capabilities of the South Vietnamese Navy along the coast. By 1961, as the number of advisors increased, the mission itself was expanded to include the task “patrol the inland waterways.” The early Naval advisors faced significant equipment challenges due to the lack of coastal or riverine crafts in the Navy’s inventory.

In addition to the dearth of equipment, there was a surprising lack of doctrine given the history of “brown water” warfare, as river fighting has occasionally been referred to. The Navy looked to the earlier experience of the French for inspiration. The French involvement in Southeast Asia provided a more immediate blueprint for the basis of American riverine operations in Vietnam.  Between 1945 and 1954, the French developed river flotillas, the navales d’assault (naval assault divisions), better know as the Dinnassauts. Organized by the French Army for transportation and patrolling, the flotillas could support roughly a battalion-sized element. The Dinnassauts were comprised of a variety of types of landing craft, generally manned by the French Navy. The composition of the American MRF would mirror some aspects of the French organization, but more importantly, would seek to avoid some of the weaknesses of the French Dinnassauts.

French riverines (dinnassauts) conduct operations in Vietnam during the late 1940s. (Histoire du Monde)
French riverines (dissannauts) conduct operations in Vietnam during the late 1940s. (Histoire du Monde)

The French Dinnassauts did not have a large landing force organically assigned to it, a point that was rectified by Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MACV) planners for the United States. One of the strengths of the MRF was its joint relationship between the Army and the Navy – the Army units of the MRF did not rotate out to other commands or locations, as had happened during the French experience.

Similarly, the lack of organic infantry posed a challenge for the French with regards to the base defense for the Dinnassauts. The MRF would solve issue a decade later by rotating organic forces through security duty while conducting operations. When reflecting on their riverine experience in Vietnam, the French concluded that two of the key improvements that would have increased efficiency were increased armament, and the permanent joining of Army and Navy forces for riverine operations. These lessons learned would influence the formation of the riverine forces during the American experience in Vietnam, and directly contributed to the MRF’s joint nature and extensive firepower.

With the departure of the French, American military personnel stepped in to advise the military of South Vietnam. U.S. Naval advisors were the first Americans to operate in any appreciable number in the Mekong Delta, where the MRF would eventually conduct combat operations. The Navy gained experience operating in the rivers and off the coast of the Mekong Delta with Task Force 115 (code named MARKET TIME) and Task Force 116 (code named GAME WARDEN). The sailors of MARKET TIME had the key task of interdicting any infiltration attempts along the coast, while the GAME WARDEN sailors focused on interdicting enemy lines of communications along the Delta’s river ways. While there were both tactical and operational successes in both MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN, the exclusively naval force did not have the ability to project combat power onto the riverbanks and shore line.

Modern small craft pins in the U.S. Navy draw on the heritage of Vietnam operations: a Patrol Boat Riverine is depicted centered under three stars representing operations GAME WARDEN, MARKET TIME, and SEALORDS. (USA Military Medals)
Modern small craft pins in the U.S. Navy draw on the heritage of Vietnam operations: a Patrol Boat Riverine is depicted centered under three stars representing operations GAME WARDEN, MARKET TIME, and SEALORDS. (USA Military Medals)

By 1966, General William Westmoreland began to see the importance of the Mekong Delta to the overall strategy of the Viet Cong. By this time, there was enough evidence that the Viet Cong sought to control the Delta’s Route 4 (the only real overland link between Saigon and the southernmost regions of the country) in addition to using the area to infiltrate supplies and manpower. The Mekong Delta was essentially the breadbasket of South Vietnam, providing the majority of the food and livestock for the rest of the country, and to lose control of the Delta would be a critical blow to the regime in Saigon.

While MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN were disrupting the enemy’s logistics, it would take a significant number of ground forces to truly project combat power and clear the Viet Cong from the Mekong Delta. With the United States Marine Corps (USMC) elements in country fully committed to the northern portion of South Vietnam, the assault infantry element of the force would have to be provided by the United States Army. General Westmoreland accepted the proposal to create specialized units that could maximize the watery terrain of the Delta to seek out and destroy the Viet Cong, and the concept for the Mobile Riverine Force was born.

Much of the organization for what became known as the MRF sprang from a MACV study entitled Mekong Delta Mobile Afloat Force Concept and Requirements, published on 7 March 1966. While there would be some adjustments made to the initial recommendations, the key element articulated in the plan and later implemented was the utilization of naval ships for the basing of the MRF. Had the Army seized a portion of what little dry land was available in the Delta, it would have provided the Viet Cong with a propaganda coup in the heavily agricultural region – that the imperialist Americans were seizing the land of the farmers.

As a result, the base at Dong Tam, which would serve as the home base for the MRF, was created entirely by dredging sand from the My Tho River. In this way, the Army Corps of Engineers and Navy’s Seabees established a foothold from which the MRF could conduct operations in the Delta by literally creating one. This was an important departure from the French, whose riverine units had operated off of fixed land bases.

Riverine craft moored at Naval Support Activity Dong Tam in 1968. (Norman Belanger via
Riverine craft moored at Naval Support Activity Dong Tam in 1968. (Norman Belanger via

The Old Reliables Arrive

Providing the combat power of the MRF was the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. The 9th Infantry Division had been activated at Fort Riley, Kansas, on 9 February 1966, the only Army division specifically stood up for service in Vietnam. Colonel William Fulton, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, participated in what became to be known as the “Coronado Conference” in Coronado, California.

It was at the Coronado Conference that the leaders of each component of the soon to be joint venture, Captain Wade Wells for the Navy and Colonel Fulton, met to discuss the organization and command structure of the MRF. Neither Captain Wells or Colonel Fulton were named as overall commander of the MRF, instead, each officer would follow his own service’s command structure, with General Westmoreland himself being the first common command element. This unusual command relationship would prove to be surprisingly harmonious, with cooperation superseding service rivalries, and each element focusing on working together to accomplish the mission.

The MRF consisted of approximately 5,000 total sailors and soldiers. The Army compliment included the brigade headquarters, three infantry battalions, a field artillery battalion, and support troops, to include engineers. Due to the accumulation of surface water in the area of operations, elements of the MRF lobbied to increase the number of rifle companies per battalion from three to four, in order to allow the units to rotate their troops out of the Delta’s rice paddies. This change allowed for a drying-out period for those infantrymen who had been operating in the paddies inundated with water, without losing the operational tempo that was seen as a key to success by the senior leadership. 

Naval ships served as the transportation and logistics element of the joint undertaking of the MRF. At its core, four World War II LSTs serve as barracks ships, equipped with helipads and modified for riverine operations. Additional means of support included a repair ship and an LST that could carry ammunition for 10 days of operations, and food for 30 days of operations.

These support elements as a whole were referred to as the Mobile Riverine Base (MRB), and were capable of moving up to 150 kilometers in a 24-hour period. Perhaps most importantly, elements could launch on day or night operations after only 30 minutes at anchor. The ability to move a force that was tailored to the environment such extreme distances and launch operations so quickly gave the joint force the reach needed to bring the fight to the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta.

Several types of small craft provided the mobility and firepower components of the Navy’s contribution to the MRF, referred to by the Navy as River Assault Flotilla No. 1. The Armored Troop Carrier (ATC) was a modified LCM-6, a World War II era landing craft. The ATC had significant upgrades to the simple troop carrying variant of the 1940s, carrying twin 20mm guns, two .50-caliber machine guns, seven .30-caliber machine guns, and two 40-mm grenade launchers providing a significant punch in addition to its physical payload of up to 40 troops.

For situations that require even more firepower, the Monitor served in a “support by fire” capacity. The Monitors were essentially “the battleships of the force,” loaded with a 105-mm turret forward and an 81-mm naval mortar amidships, with .50-caliber and 20-mm guns on the aft portion of the craft. The last small craft that served a vital role with the MRF was the Assault Support Patrol Boat (ASPB), a radar equipped, double-hulled minesweeper. During movement, the assault support patrol boats provided reconnaissance and security to the force.

Two Vietnam-era "Monitor" riverine craft. The vessel at right has been modified to support C2 functions by replacing the mortar pit with a communications center. (Doug Lindsey via
Two Vietnam-era “Monitor” riverine craft. The vessel at right has been modified to support C2 functions by replacing the mortar pit with a communications center. (Doug Lindsey via

A striking shortfall of the formation and deployment of the MRF was the lack of dedicated riverine training. While Colonel Fulton had been relatively certain that his brigade would be designated as the brigade afloat for the MRF, the short period of time allotted for training led to a focus on counterinsurgency training. The training that the 2nd Brigade and the rest of the 9th Division underwent focused on lessons learned thus far by Army units in Vietnam, as well as current standard operating procedures for units already in combat. Additionally, Colonel Fulton felt that his brigade had to master “basic operational essentials” before moving on to the little-studied field of riverine operations. For some of the infantrymen of the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division, their introduction to riverine training was their assignment to the USS Benewah upon arriving in the Delta.

While the bulk of the infantrymen in the 2nd Brigade did not receive riverine training, the brigade leadership and that of the subordinate battalions did participate in a ten-day course at the Naval Amphibious School in Coronado, California. While short in duration, the course (which had been set up at the request of Colonel Fulton) gave the Vietnam-bound command teams and their staffs the chance to focus exclusively on the challenge of riverine operations for the first time. This short course took place at the end of November 1966, and the bulk of the Coronado-trained officers arrived in Vietnam on 15 January 1967, serving as an advance party. Over the course of 31 January and 1 February 1967, the main body of the 2nd Brigade disembarked at Vting Tau in South Vietnam.

By late January 1967, efforts were underway for the men of the 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division to receive riverine training “in-country.” The lack of time available for training at Fort Riley had prevented the unit from conducting a brigade-level training event in riverine operations, so a dedicated effort was made to provide at least a ten-day period of training. The 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment however, was only able to complete three days or the requisite training before enemy actions resulted in the assignment of a mission in the Rung Sat special zone. The resulting mission was referred to as RIVER RAIDER 1, and was the first joint operation by U.S. Army and U.S. Navy units that would constitute the MRF.

As a result of the lack of dedicated riverine training and the dearth of accepted riverine doctrine (or at least joint doctrine), innovation played a key role in the operations of the MRF. To support medical evacuation and resupply efforts, another form of technology was needed to compliment the river-borne units. The soldiers and sailors of the MRF created what the brigade commander referred to as an “aircraft carrier (light)” when a helideck was added to an armored troop carrier.

An armored troop carrier modified with a landing platform prepares to receive a UH-1 MEDEVAC helicopter. (Mobile Riverine Force Association)
An armored troop carrier modified with a landing platform prepares to receive a UH-1 MEDEVAC helicopter. (Mobile Riverine Force Association)

This practice spread, and most of the armored troop carriers eventually sported a one-ship landing zone that could support a light observation helicopter. The men of the MRF also had to innovate when it came to employing indirect fire assets. The original plan called for separate barges to carry an artillery piece, and the prime mover (truck) required to tow it off the barge, up the riverbank, and into a firing position. When operations began, however, it became evident that not only were most of the banks of the rivers too steep and slippery for this practice to be put into effect, but that there was a lack of dry firing points other than the scant number of roads.

The 3rd Battalion, 34th Field Artillery Battalion experimented with the Navy and eventually called for six riverine artillery barges to be built in Cam Ranh Bay and sent to the MRF. The final product could carry two 105-mm howitzers and troop housing as well as up to 1,500 rounds for the howitzers, with the LCM-8 that towed the barge carrying additional ammunition. These artillery barges would travel at night and anchor offshore to supply close-in artillery support during operations.  Colonel Fulton, the senior Army officer in the MRF, believed that the “floating” field artillery riverine battalion was the single greatest contribution to riverine warfare by the MRF.

The presence of the MRF is credited with turning the tide of the war in the northern Mekong Delta in the favor of the United States and South Vietnam during 1967 and 1968.  Until 1967, enemy Main Force and Viet Cong units had moved virtually unhindered through the Dong Tam area. The enemy’s freedom of maneuver was greatly reduced, two Viet Cong battalions were pushed from the more populated areas, and the overall security in the city of My Tho was improved.

Most importantly, with Viet Cong effectiveness reduced, Highway 4 was reopened in 1967 and produce from the agricultural heart of Vietnam was able to flow to market along the Delta’s main ground route, for both domestic use and export. Overall, the MRF contributed to the overall counterinsurgency effort of the United States by pursuing the Viet Cong into what had long been uncontested sanctuaries, and supporting the local economy by the attrition of the Viet Cong who had closed down Highway 4. Colonel (later Major General) Fulton, credited the organization and mobility of the MRF for its success, writing that “the Mobile Riverine Force, because of its mobility, strength of numbers, and Army-Navy co-operation, was capable of sustained operations along a water line of communications that permitted a concentration of force against widely separate enemy base areas.

Post-Vietnam Operations

With the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War ended, interest from both the Army and Navy in riverine operations waned. The task of training in coastal riverine operations fell to Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadrons (CRS) until 1978, when they shifted focus to exclusively support special operations. The Marines retained a small number of craft for riverine operations, but neither the boats nor the units were intended or capable of executing large unit operations.  

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a limited resurgence in riverine operations as first Marine and then Naval units conducted security patrols around dams and other key infrastructure. The Navy embraced the “brown water” concept in 2006 by establishing Riverine Group One (RIVGRU 1), which grew to become three Riverine Squadrons (RIVRONs). However, even this change was fleeting, and by 2012 the Riverine Groups had been consolidated with the Marine Expeditionary Security Squadrons (MISRONs), and reflagged as the Coastal Riverine Groups (CRG). One CRG is located on each coast of the United States, but with only one riverine company per squadron, the focus is overwhelmingly on maritime security.

Coastal Riverine Squadron Four (CRS-4) conducted well deck operations with the Mark VI patrol boat for the first time aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) May 15, 2016. (Naval Today)
Coastal Riverine Squadron Four (CRS-4) conducted well deck operations with the Mark VI patrol boat for the first time aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) May 15, 2016. (Naval Today)

While the CRGs conduct a variety of important missions, ranging from port defense and harbor security to small unit insertion/extraction and tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, they lack the power projection that was available to the MRF of the Vietnam era. The Mark VI Patrol Boat, the most recently acquired craft for the CRF, contains a bevy of advanced systems and weaponry, and will surely provide security to littoral areas. However, with a capacity to support only an eight-man team, the Mark VI provides more of a sharp jab than a knockout punch when it comes to force. Most importantly, the emphasis for both the Mark VI and the CRF that owns it is on coastal, not riverine operations.

Riverine Operations in the 21st Century

There are several reasons why riverine operations deserve more consideration by the Army. Simply put, joint operations can be a complicated affair, one in which “on the job training” can be costly in both lives and resources. As Lester Grau points out, the coordination and “commingling of forces” in a situation such as riverine operations would happen at a fairly low tactical level, among organizations that tend to have the least amount of experience with joint operations. A more detailed study of riverine operations in the context of the current operating environment could mitigate friction and prevent growing pains in the future.

A 2014 research paper from the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOSCOE) identified capability gaps in NATO doctrine related to riverine operations. While the paper was commissioned at the request of the French, its authors believe that the trends identified within it could be useful to other countries as well. The most relevant finding to any future U.S. joint riverine force is the conclusion that these types of organizations work best when they are joint.

A joint force, unified under a single commander, would allow that commander to extend influence beyond the riverine environment itself. For example, while a purely naval force would be limited to the rivers themselves, a force that included a conventional infantry platoon or company could be disembarked to move overland or transported up minor waterways and strike at enemy locations. This finding is concurrent with the success the MRF enjoyed as a true joint organization.

Riverine operations in the 21st century may not always be as simple as an infantry squad in a small craft conducting security patrols near a dam. Rivers could provide the mobility for a unit to interdict enemy lines of communication, patrol unit boundaries and move supplies, in addition to move larger strike forces as was seen with the MRF in Vietnam. With the wide array of security challenges facing the United States, there are multiple locations that could feasibly host operations comparable to those of the MRF between 1967-1969, from the Niger River in West Africa, to the Yellow River in China.

Navigable river systems are key lines of communication on every continent except antarctica. (European Joint Research Centre)
Navigable river systems are key lines of communication on every continent except Antarctica. (European Joint Research Centre)

Riverine operations follows logically after the Navy’s newest planning consideration, that of littoral operations. Several of the largest maritime threats of the 21st century, including terrorism and piracy, occur in coastal areas as opposed to the open ocean.  Accordingly, the Navy dedicated significant time and money into developing the appropriate capabilities to handle threats in shallow, littoral areas. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has been lauded as the answer to these shallow water threats, possessing the ability to move quickly and with more agility than larger craft. The LCS in many ways has replaced the frigates that have historically operated along coastlines.    

The recent Sealift Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise (SEDRE) conduct in April 2016 by a brigade from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division gives further credence to the argument for this capability. The first SEDRE conducted since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began over fifteen years ago, it challenged the Army elements involved, as they have not been common practice. The Army brigade worked with the Navy’s Military Sealift Command to load and unload almost 900 pieces of equipment. This SEDRE demonstrates that the Army and the Navy have given at least some thought to larger scale joint operations, and as the lessons learned from this SEDRE are disseminated, more serious thought can be given to developing a MRB concept for the 21st century.

While the Navy has had the prescience to move away from strictly “blue water,” open ocean warfare and expand its field of view with regards to future threats, it is not enough. The focus on littorals, as evidenced by the development of the LCS, is only half of the equation. To be truly effective, the United States has to be able to project power everywhere, and the LCS is too big to navigate most rivers. A modern riverine force would be the logical extension of this littoral focus, and the answer to this problem should mirror many aspects of the Vietnam-era MRF. The LCS fleet being fielded by the Navy could probably serve in a role similar to the MRB of the Mekong Delta. The key is fielding an element that can move platoon and company sized formation, with the option of massing an even conducting battalion sized riverine operations. If this theoretical next step was taken, the biggest challenges would be finding the most appropriate modern craft to recreate the role of the ATCs and Monitors of the MRF.

Hardware Challenges

The focus on larger ships for littoral operations, and the trend of riverine operations being within the domain of Special Operations Forces (SOF), means that one of the largest gaps for potential riverine operations is in existing U.S. Naval hardware. There are several possible contenders for the type of craft that could comprise the fleet of a future MRF. The current workhorse the United States Marine Corps should be a logical option, but the venerable Marine AAV-7 is too small and provides too little by way of firepower to serve as a new ATC. The AAV-7 carries 21 combat loaded Marines, and is armed with a .50 caliber machine gun and 40-mm grenade launcher. While it is tracked, which means it can move from water to land seamlessly, it would not meet the necessary requirements. What a modern MRF would need is something closer to the ATC of the late 1960s, a craft that carry closer to 40 troops and boast a more formidable armament.

The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom has two variants of landing craft that could serve as a good example upon which to improve. The LCVP MK5 can carry thirty-five fully equipped commandos (or vehicles and equipment), and their Landing Craft Utility Mk10 can carry up to 120 fully laden commandos. While these two options are improvements over the AAV-7, they both still lack firepower.  Additionally, none of these craft boast the helipads the ATCs of the MRF came to employ.

An LCVP Mk VI and LCU Mk 10 from the Royal Navy conduct an underway demonstration in 2008. (
An LCVP Mk VI and LCU Mk 10 from the Royal Navy conduct an underway demonstration in 2008. (

The most likely course of action would have to be a dedicated effort to either build specific craft for platoon and company size riverine operations in the 21st century, or to significantly modify existing watercraft. The British LCVP MK5 is not very different than the existing American LCUs, but they both lack the protection and firepower to fulfill the role of an ATC. The modifications made to the LCUs of the 1960s that resulted in the ATCs were the results of lessons learned from the French and early American river operations. They key to successful riverine operations in the 21st century is the design and adoption of these boats now, so doctrine and tactics can be developed before the threats are ready.

In addition to protection and firepower concerns, a 21st century MRF would have several planning considerations that the Vietnam-era MRF did not. The modern military relies so heavily on tactical satellite (TACSAT) and other advanced communications that there would be a significant increase in the amount of electronics aboard the river craft. Additional steps would probably have to be taken to water proof and safeguard our current systems.

The increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the past two decades has changed, and continues to change, the face of war. To be relevant, any modern MRF would have to incorporate drone and possibly counter drone measures into operations.  Another key different between 2016 and 1967 is the weight and size of the aircraft being used for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) purposes. The UH-60, the current primary MEDEVAC helicopter, is significantly larger and heavier than the Vietnam-era UH-1s, a consideration that would impact the design and practicality of an onboard landing zone.

Training Recommendations and Conclusions

There are ways to explore this operational concept in a budget-constrained environment. While simultaneously codifying doctrine, acquiring equipment and developing tactics, techniques and procedures would have to be refined before any form of modern MRF could be deployed. While the capability gap exists, acquiring funding for a new initiative or type of unit can be a herculean effort. To train on this task while not creating a large specialized unit in a resource-constrained environment, one solution could be the creation of an equipment set similar in concept to the European Activity Set.

Soldiers from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division road test two M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles as they draw equipment from the European Activity Set at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany ahead of exercise Anakonda 16 (US Army)
Soldiers from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division road test two M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles as they draw equipment from the European Activity Set at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany ahead of exercise Anakonda 16 (US Army)

The European Activity Set includes 12,000 pieces of equipment, including approximately 250 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) and self-propelled howitzers.   There are currently elements of the European Activity Set in Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria. Using that concept, units could rotate to a location, familiarize and train on the riverine craft as needed. An additional benefit to this model is that riverine training could be conducted by U.S. Army Reserve or National Guard units conducting Annual Training (AT), as well as Active Duty (AD) troops since none of them would normally own the requisite equipment. The naval component of this possible force could maintain the watercraft and become the repository of knowledge for the joint riverine concept.


While not advocating any modern gunboat diplomacy, the hard truth is that by not having the capability- the equipment, doctrine, training- the Army is providing an exploitable weakness to any potential enemies. In acknowledging that rivers are not “simply obstacles to be crossed,” but terrain that can be controlled, the argument for another look at riverine operations for the U.S. Army becomes more urgent.  The U.S. faces a long list of global threats, from Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) to increasingly belligerent states seeking to become near-peer competitors such as China or a resurgent Russia. The U.S. must make hard choices in assessing threats and determining how to resource its national security objectives. 

While the MRB was a necessity given the fluvial environment of the Delta, it also provided the MRF with mobility, and a semblance of security. The potential benefits of the ability to influence land operations while not appearing overbearing on the local population cannot be overstated.  While that idea may run contrary to population-centric COIN, the lack of a physical footprint could be helpful for a mission set consisting of surgical strikes and raids, or for training missions in which the local population is very concerned with Western influence.

Members of the Nigerian Special Boat Service pose alongside British counterparts. (Beegeagle.Wordpress)
Members of the Nigerian Special Boat Service pose alongside British counterparts. (Beegeagle.Wordpress)

Using Nigeria as an example, an overt presence of larger American units could play into the narrative of the local Islamist group, Boko Haram. Operating from a new-generation MRB would be one way to circumvent the jihadist narrative, while still providing train and assist capabilities, or conducting more kinetic, joint operations. Regardless of any altruistic intentions, the U.S. assumes the moniker of “imperialist” in the eyes of those opposed to U.S. involvement the moment a boot touches foreign soil, and operating on rivers may provide an alternative narrative.

History has shown that riverine warfare is an enduring part of warfare, and an acquired skillset. Given both the history of its occurrence, and the possibility of littoral operations in the future, it would behoove the Army to look more closely at riverine operations and pursue in some capacity a joint riverine organization. The situation may arise that more than a rifle squad or SOF team is needed to effectively project power. If a strong, joint riverine element can be developed, the U.S. can bypass the traditional practice of building up a beachhead, and the “ship to shore” way of moving combat power can truly shift to one of power projection from the littoral, “upriver,” to population centers.

The views expressed in his articles are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Rick Chersicla is an active duty Infantry Officer in the United States Army. He is currently pursuing a M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University.

End Notes

[1] The CJOSCOE study cited later in this paper defines fluvial in accordance with Joint Test Publication 3-06, describing the fluvial environment as terrain where “navigable waterways exist and roads do not, or where forces are required to use waterways, an effective program to control the waterways and/or indirect hostile movement becomes paramount.”  This rarely used term is ideal when describing riverine operations.

[1] Lester W. Grau and Leroy W. Denniston, “When a River Runs Through It: Riverine Operations in Contemporary Conflict,” Infantry, July-September 2014, 31.

[1] Thomas J. Cutler, “Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam”,(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 19.

[1] Cutler, Brown Water, 21.

[1] Cutler, Brown Water, 24.

[1] Cutler, Brown Water, 44.

[1] Department of the Army, Major General William B. Fulton, Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969, (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1985), 10. MG Fulton, given his experience as the former Brigade Commander of the Army element in the MRF, has authored a comprehensive study of the formation and tactics of the MRF.

[1] Fulton, Vietnam Studies, 10.

[1] Ibid, 11

[1]  Ibid, 11.

[1] Ibid, 16.

[1] Ibid, 24.

[1] Ibid, 24.

[1] Ibid, 24

Featured Image: A Patrol Boat Riverine (PBR) MkII conducts operations during the Vietnam War, 1968. (U.S. Army Transportation Museum)

After Distributed Lethality – Unmanned Netted Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Javier Gonzalez

Distributed lethality was introduced to the fleet in January 2015 as a response to the development of very capable anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and sensors specifically designed to deny access to a contested area. The main goal is to complicate the environment for our adversaries by increasing surface-force lethality—particularly with our offensive weapons—and transform the concept of operations for surface action groups (SAGs), thus shifting the enemy’s focus from capital ships to every ship in the fleet. Rear Admiral Fanta said it best: “If it floats, it fights.” The real challenge is to accomplish this with no major funding increase, no increase in the number of ships, and no major technology introductions. The Navy has successfully implemented this concept by repurposing existing technology and actively pursuing long-range anti-ship weapons for every platform. An illustrative example of the results of these efforts is the current initiative to once again repurpose Tomahawk missiles, currently used for land strikes, as anti-ship missiles. The next step in the evolution of distributed lethality will be to deploy similar force packages and introduce new technology. The introduction of  Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) technology is the kind of technological advancement that enhances distributed lethality. NIFC-CA combines multiple kill chains into a single kill web agnostic of sensors or platforms. In the near future, hunter-killer SAGs will deploy with these very capable networks and bring powerful and credible capability into the A2/AD environment

The first hunter-killer SAG deployed earlier this year. It was comprised of three destroyers and a command element. This recent SAG mirrors the World War II “wolf pack” concept—not just a disaggregated group of destroyers in theater under a different fleet commander, but a group of ships sailing together with an embarked command element. The embarked command element is key because, coupled with the concept of “mission command,” it allows the hunter-killer SAG the autonomy required to fully realize effects in a command and control denied environment.

While there is no argument that distributed lethality is a sound short-term strategy, the enemy has a vote and will adjust. The real challenge for the Navy then is to continue finding ways to innovate and rapidly incorporate new technologies such as unmanned systems to ensure that distributed lethality does not yield to distributed attrition. The best way to prevent distributed attrition is to fully integrate unmanned technologies into the fleet to ultimately transform distributed lethality into a new concept, hereby referred to as Unmanned Netted Lethality. 

Evolving Distributed Lethality

In the near future, a hunter-killer SAG will bring a more powerful and lethal force package into the fight with the partial integration of unmanned systems. A near-future force package could include a NIFC-CA capable DDG with an MH-60R detachment, littoral combat ships with scan eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and an anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV)- DARPA’s latest unmanned vessel built with a sensor package optimized to track submarines. These new capabilities bring  unprecedented flexibility to  warfighters, and commanders in theater will have additional options to tailor adaptive force packages based on the perceived threat or mission.

The next step in the evolution of distributed lethality will be to add more advanced weapons to every ship—from energy weapons to the rail gun—and fully incorporate unmanned systems into  future force packages. The ultimate vision is hunter-killer SAGs comprised of unmanned underwater vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, and UAVs under the command of a single manned ship. These unmanned platforms will create a massive constellation of sensors and weapons that will transform every ship in the Navy into a lethal, flexible, and fully distributed force to reckon with—the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept.

It is evident that the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept relies on the aggressive development and integration of unmanned, and eventually fully autonomous, systems into the fleet..  Controlled autonomy is fundamental for the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept to be effective.  While autonomy brings many benefits, there are concerns as well—unintended loss of control, compromise by adversaries, accountability, liability, and trust, to name a few. The solution to mitigate these concerns is to manage the level of autonomy with a manned ship as an extension of the commanding officer’s combat system. Employing various levels of autonomy control, from completely manual to completely autonomous, gives the power to the decision makers to set the level of autonomy based on the prevailing circumstance and allows unmanned system utilization in any environment.   

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 19, 2015) – Sailors assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35, Detachment 2, prepare an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter for flight operations aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto) 

The mission will drive the level of autonomy. For instance, 20 years from now, during the first Unmanned Netted Lethality hunter-killer SAG deployment and while transiting in safe waters, the command ship will control the operations of an unmanned vessel until it is in restricted waters. Then, the commanding officer will change the level of autonomy into a cooperative mode in which the unmanned systems quickly create a constellation of passive and active sensors to increase overall maritime awareness. Once a crisis transitions into combat operations, the commanding officer will place the unmanned systems into a fully autonomous status with two primary missions: sense and destroy  enemy forces while protecting the manned ship by creating a lethal cluster around it. This layered approach to autonomy increases overall trust in unmanned systems in a responsible and palatable way for decision makers who are unquestionably accountable for the performance of these unmanned systems.

Cooperative independence is also an important feature, in which unmanned systems will perform complex tasks, both individually and in groups under the supervision of a commanding officer. Not one unmanned system should rely on another; if a system is destroyed or is taken off-line, each system should be able to continue with the mission independently but cooperatively with remaining systems.

Without a doubt and due in great part to the proliferation of unmanned systems, interoperability remains the hardest challenge to overcome. The bottom line is that these systems need to be developed with common and open software architecture to minimize interoperability challenges and maximize employment opportunities. The need to convey these requirements early in the acquisition process is fundamental so that new unmanned systems are designed with three primary characteristics: controlled autonomy, cooperative but independent functionality, and complete interoperability.

A Roadmap to Guide Change

Distributed lethality’s initial charter was to increase performance with no technology leaps, significant funding increase, or number of ship increases while having immediate to near-future effects. In the short term, this goal is achievable. However, in the near to long-term future, the Navy should continue to follow former General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch’s advice “Change before you have to.” The Unmanned Netted Lethality concept provides the Navy with a vision and a roadmap to guide the evolution of distributed lethality into the future. Incorporating unmanned systems into an Unmanned Netted Lethality concept will transform every manned ship in the Navy into a force package with a credible conflict changing capability.

Commander Javier Gonzalez is a Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a career Surface Warfare Officer. These are his personal views and do not reflect those of John Hopkins University or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Feb. 6, 2012) Scan Eagle, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), sits on the flight deck after a successful test aboard the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock-landing ship USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) during a certification exercise (CERTEX).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Lauren G. Randall/ Released)