How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.
By Kenneth Flannery and Jared Wilhelm
The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military.1 The most important take away was the difference between the buzzword, “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change within the force called, “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy maritime patrol squadron full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focused on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers and challenges.
It often seems that the tasks most worth doing are the most difficult to achieve. Since beginning our innovation experiment, the squadron has been met with a variety of challenges to the implementation of our vision. Some of these obstacles are specific to the unique nature of the military, while others are more specific to the nature of large bureaucracies. Many challenges come from external sources that are largely outside of our control, while other challenges are self-inflicted.
One of our biggest hurdles has been thawing the “frozen middle.” This concept refers to the middle management contingent within the squadron that may be less eager to adopt new ways of doing things. Perhaps the most frustrating part about the “frozen middle” is that the very people who would benefit from embracing these changes are often the ones standing in the way. It is understandable and expected when organizations are resistant to an innovation developed outside of their ranks. All organizations have budgets to balance and bosses to answer to such that outside entities may be only a blip on their radar. For example, attempting to highlight the importance of one squadron in one community in one service of the Department of Defense can be understandably futile. More vexing are the people inside of one’s organization who seem to actively resist change at every opportunity. Frustrating as it may be, recruiting the members of the “frozen middle” is paramount for success. Buy-in from all organizational levels is required for original ideas to reach critical mass and become self-sustaining. Without support from the most resistant group, a new process will inevitably wither and die, even if it enjoys support from the top and bottom of an organization.
When VP-5 implemented the Innovation Department, the “frozen middle” quickly became apparent. The chief’s mess and the O-4 department heads, always looking out for undue risk to the Commanding Officer, were particularly averse to change. These groups bring a wealth of experience to the squadron and are absolutely crucial to the success or failure of our unit. However, that same hard-fought experience can sometimes saddle people with preconceived notions about “the way things are done” and other such attitudes which can stifle a creative environment.
Stopping new innovations from being implemented is often the path of least resistance for the frozen middle. VP-5 discovered that those who are averse to change will attempt to use their position of power as a roadblock. Often, it seems the frozen middle’s apprehension is rooted in a reluctance to put forth the effort necessary to change. Many of our innovations are designed to reduce the time and energy required to complete a task. However, at the onset, hard work is required to overcome the existing institutional inertia. Many times someone will cite comfortable catch-all words, such as “OPSEC,” or some unnamed instruction in an attempt to avoid putting up the innovation capital required for real change. However, it was the defense entrepreneur’s job to push past that initial roadblock. If a genuine concern exists, we may have to alter tack and reevaluate, but concerns raised about innovation must be the result of concrete analysis as opposed to institutional inertia.
Hitting the Wall
We were not always successful in overcoming these barriers. On more than one occasion the squadron had projects come to a full stop due to an inability to get through to the frozen middle. One project in particular was a fairly lofty goal of adding the maintenance program OOMA (Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity) on to our PEMA (Portable Electronic Maintenance Aid) laptops.
Under the current system, writing a MAF (Maintenance Action Form) requires access to the OOMA program which is hosted on the Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System (NALCOMIS). In turn, maintainers and aircrew alike are limited to writing MAFs at computers or laptops with hardwired connections to NMCI. This means writing MAFs during preflight or post-flight requires a trip to the hangar, eating up valuable time. This is a burdensome and antiquated system, which results in poorly written MAFs and decreased MAF participation at large.
Requiring NMCI access for writing MAFs also presents a problem when departing on or returning from deployment. There is often a period of several days before NMCI connectivity is established which means MAFs must be handwritten. Once NMCI connection is established these MAFs are retroactively input into OOMA, requiring a significant number of man hours.
Implementing OOMA on our PEMA laptops would be a simple way to streamline the maintenance action documentation process. PEMA laptops would be present on the aircraft, decreasing travel time and putting the feedback solution at the source of the problem. Optimizing this process would increase discrepancy documentation and create more detailed MAFs, facilitating faster resolutions to problems. Ultimately, OOMA on our PEMA laptops could eliminate some of the administrative and physical challenges that lead to wasted man hours and late takeoffs.
This project was led by a 2nd and 3rd Class Petty Officer with assistance from the Innovation Department. These intrepid innovators worked diligently in conjunction with the offices of Program Management Acquisition-290, SPAWAR, and the PEMA Fleet Support Team, but were ultimately told this project was not currently feasible. Part of the reason given had to do with the speed at which NAVAIR moves, which was colorfully described as a “turtle in a sea of peanut butter.” This is a common refrain we have heard time and again, and one that begs the question, “are these extended timelines actually necessary, or have we become so accustomed to them that they are now an accepted norm?”
Another instance where we ran into trouble was with a much smaller project. This time we were seeking permission to insert a Bluetooth USB device into an NMCI computer in order to display a rotating informational PowerPoint on a TV in the maintenance spaces. One of these TVs already existed in the squadron’s duty office, and we wanted to place one downstairs to address a maintenance concern about sometimes being left out of the loop.
We already knew Bluetooth devices were prohibited in NMCI computers so we reached out to the Information Assurance office for guidance about how to request a waiver, or if a waiver process even existed. In return, we received a curt e-mail informing us that USB devices were not allowed in NMCI computers, which was stated in the NMCI USB policy and also on the IA form everyone signs to gain access to NMCI computers. We responded to clarify, that indeed we already knew about the prohibition, but were asking if it possible to change the instruction. Ten months later we have yet to hear a response.
These experiences taught us that we needed a new way of approaching things that relied less on external forces and instead emphasized our own ability to create. One way VP-5 chose to thaw the “frozen middle” has been to outpace their skepticism. That is to say, rather than waiting for approval to pursue a particular initiative, we would simply go ahead and continue to work on a project until directed otherwise. The squadron would always inform the appropriate authorities and members of the chain of command, but we didn’t seek their explicit approval. When asking permission to do something, the answer was often “no,” even though there was rarely any substantiating reason for that “no.” Instead of asking, we started informing the Chain of Command of our projects and ideas. By doing this it seemed that we flipped the easy answer from “no” to “yes.” Employing this “Full Speed Ahead” tactic yielded many successes, including the creation of a new qualification program and incentivizing sailors to become innovators.
One hard won success for VP-5 was the development of the “P-8A Enlisted Engine Turns Program.” This program, long established in the P-3 community, allows a select number of enlisted maintenance personnel the opportunity to earn their “Enlisted Turn Operator” qualification. This qualification allows each operator to perform a variety of low-power engine operations for maintenance evolutions. Prior to the development of this program, these low-power turns required at least one pilot. This placed an unnecessary burden on the pilot cadre, which became particularly apparent when operating on detachment where extra pilots are few and far between.
To establish this program, VP-5 adopted a draft version of an Enlisted Turn Operator instruction from VP-30, the P-8A Fleet Replacement Squadron, and made it an official squadron instruction. The program now boasts an official curriculum consisting of written personnel qualification standards, simulator events, and aircraft events. To date, VP-5 has created four Enlisted Turn Operators, two of which had the distinction of being the first two P-8A Enlisted Turn Operators in the fleet. Throughout the process of establishing this program, the defense entrepreneurs clearly communicated their intentions up through the chain of command, and illustrated how they were mitigating the risk in this endeavor. The innovators gave the VP-5 chain of command the opportunity, but never a reason, to say “no.”
Another success for the VP-5 Innovation Department was incentivizing innovation. The Innovation Department first began to coalesce when the squadron was forward deployed to the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility. Throughout the six-month deployment the innovation movement seemed to be gaining steady momentum, and it was during this very early time that some of our most successful endeavors were developed. At the close of deployment in the spring of 2017, VP-5 shifted back stateside and continued to build this foundation. The Innovation Department was formally enshrined in a new instruction, detailing organizational roles and responsibilities, and we had regular innovation meetings with respectable showings. Unfortunately, interest and participation in the Innovation Department from the junior enlisted and junior officer ranks began to wane. At one meeting, attendance was limited to the box of doughnuts that had been brought for the no-show participants. This was a low point for the defense entrepreneurs. The lull in participation could have been due to a variety of factors, such as the return of family responsibilities, outside hobbies, and perhaps even an element of boredom. As time went on the new innovation initiative began to lose its luster.
Some of this can be expected in any organization trying to introduce a new culture, but some may be due to the career timing structure of the military. Sailors in VP-5 spend between two and five years in the squadron. Officers find themselves on the left side of that spectrum, while enlisted personnel are normally toward the right. To a newly minted lieutenant junior-grade or petty officer, a three to five year tour may seem daunting, but it can be a relatively short stay when all of the various qualifications and certifications that sailors must achieve during their time in the squadron are considered. Therefore, there may be little incentive for a sailor to invest their time and energy on an innovation that may not come to fruition before their tour is over. The temptation to accept the status quo to appease an immediate superior is too attractive for many. Although there will be those who naturally appear to think outside the box and resist the status quo, it is the responsibility of leadership to properly incentivize innovation.
VP-5 incentivized innovation by rewarding sailors who have contributed to innovation projects with awards and 96-hour liberty passes. While these may seem like superficial benefits, giving a sailor free time and recognition are the most immediate impact that a commanding officer can have on their subordinate’s life. It is necessary that more significant items, like promotions and advancements, are influenced at least in part by what a sailor has done to push the U.S. Navy into the 21st century.
Continuing the Fight
The concept of innovation is obviously not unique to the military. It is preached in boardrooms throughout the country as a way to cut costs, increase productivity, and generally rise above the competition. The companies that fail to adapt to changing environments often find themselves out of business. This same principle applies to the profession of arms. However, if we ever find ourselves “out of business” the opportunity to start over may not exist. Rarely are we afforded second chances to get it right. The time to find better ways to adapt and overcome is now.
Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot, and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Featured Image: OAK HARBOR, Wash. (Oct. 21, 2016) Lt. Cmdr. Matt Olson, Patrol Squadron 30, right, talks Michael Watkins, a reporter with Whidbey News-Times and retired Navy Chief, through flight procedures in a P-8 simulator during a media availability on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Hetherington/Released)
How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.
By Kenneth Flannery with Jared Wilhelm
The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military.The most important takeaway was the large difference between the simple buzzword “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change – oft-cited as “innovation”– within the force: “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy Maritime Patrol Squadron that is full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focuses on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers, challenges, and a how-to that other units could use to adapt the model to their own units.
The Innovation Imperative
Today, the U.S. Navy remains the most powerful seafaring force the world has ever known, but there is nothing destined about that position. To maintain this superior posture, we must find leverage that allows us to maintain an edge over our adversaries. One of our most powerful levers in the past has been our economy. We were once able to maintain supremacy simply by outspending our rivals on research, development and sheer production. While the United States still has the largest military budget of any nation, that budget is increasingly stretched to counter threats in a dizzying array of locales to include the South China Sea, Arabian Gulf, or even an increasingly vulnerable Arctic. Additionally, the rest of the world is catching up economically. Some assessments indicate that China will have the largest economy in the world by 2030 and they are already producing their own domestically-built aircraft carriers. It isn’t just China on our economic heels; by 2050 the United States could have slid to third place behind India as well. Finally, our adversaries’ continual embrace of technological theft and espionage involving some of our most expensive proprietary platforms has shrunk the technological gap that the U.S. enjoyed for multiple decades. These realities make it clear that the U.S. must find a new way to counter opponents besides technological advantage.
Much like the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” the Department of Defense is experiencing what some might call a “Pivot to Innovation.” Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s “Defense Innovation Initiative”and “Third Offset Strategy” both signal a reinvigorated focus on maintaining and advancing our military superiority over both unconventional actors and near-peer competitors alike.
In alignment with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s intent, VP-5 is investing time and manpower in the idea that that new counterweight will be the innovative ideas of our Sailors. Just as nuclear weapons and advancements like stealth and Global Positioning Systems kept the U.S. military on top during the conflicts of the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras, it will be our ability to rapidly assess challenges and implement solutions that will guarantee our security in the future. This will require a reimagining of how we currently operate and how we are organized. Our squadron believes the key to this revolution lies with its junior enlisted and junior officer ranks.
Tapping the Innovative Ideas of the Everyday “Doers”
VP-5 is taking a multi-pronged approach to molding an innovation-friendly climate to best tap the ideas of those accomplishing the mission on a daily basis. Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5) is currently experimenting with a dedicated Innovation Department in our command structure, but this isn’t the first time that the squadron has embraced change to maintain the technological and fighting advantage over adversaries. The unit is based at the U.S. Navy’s Master Anti-submarine Warfare facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, FL, where we became the second squadron Fleet-wide to transition from the P-3C Orion to the P-8A Poseidon aircraft. This successful transition was based on new training and simulation technologies, but also on a rich historythat spans from our founding in 1937 to involvement in World War II, Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the Cold War, the Balkan Conflict, and our recent involvement in the Middle East. Throughout this time, we have used no less than five different types of Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Just as the transition in 1948 from the PBY-5A to the PV-2 brought new tools to the squadron’s warfighting capabilities, today we are augmenting the new technologies of the P-8A with a change to our organizational structure and business practices. A traditional operational naval aviation command administers a standard set of departments including Operations, Training, Safety/NATOPS (Standardization), and Maintenance. By implementing a new Innovation Department led by a warfare-qualified pilot or Naval Flight Officer lieutenant (O-3), VP-5 seeks to elevate the innovation construct to a position alongside the traditional departments required for squadron mission accomplishment. In addition to the lieutenant department head, the Innovation group is staffed by an additional lieutenant and a Senior Chief. Its mission statement reads:
“Lead Naval Aviation in accomplishing our mission by sustaining a culture based on process improvement and disruptive thinking. The force that knows the desired outcome, measures progress in real time, and adapts processes to overcome barriers has a sustainable advantage over adversaries who tolerate their deficiencies. Similarly, the force that can innovate transforms the battlespace to their advantage.”
The establishment of the Innovation Department sends a strong signal to the department heads and the senior enlisted that innovation is a priority, but it may not necessarily trickle down to the average junior enlisted Sailor that VP-5 is a different type of squadron. To ensure the culture reaches everyone, we have implemented large “Innovation Whiteboards” throughout the squadron and encourage all members to post ideas and suggestions. Sailors can see what others have posted and leave reactions of their own. Similar to the “CO’s Sticky Note Board” on the USS Benfold (DDG 65), the ideas written on the whiteboards are then compiled for further action by the Innovation Department.
Whether an idea has been generated via a whiteboard or suggested by means of a more traditional route, the next step in the process is to create a “Swarm Cell.” Swarm Cells are small groups of people that aim to rapidly implement solutions to the problem being addressed. These groups follow a predetermined set of procedures that begin with specifying the desired output. Starting with a clear description of the end result discourages the Cell from veering off course or diluting their product with superfluous features that do little to help the original problem. The Swarm Cells then move to address the actual problem or process for which they were created, all the while making sure that their efforts lead them toward the desired output. Next, the Cells measure their progress to decide if the desired output has been achieved. From there, the members of the group can choose to share their knowledge or revisit their solutions if they have determined that they have not met their output goals.
These Swarm Cells are not on an innovation island. The squadron strives to provide support and guidance for those working to realize their ideas and provides each Swarm Cell with an Innovation Accelerator. This Accelerator may be an official member of the Innovation Department, but is not necessarily so. If the Swarm Cell is like the train conductor, deciding the destination and exactly how fast to get there, the Innovation Accelerator is the train track, allowing room for minor deviations, but keeping the train on course to its final goal. Accelerators need not be intimately involved with the minutiae of their Swarm Cells, and as such may be facilitating two or three different Cells concurrently. By asking simple questions the Accelerator can refocus the team:
1. Has the Cell outlined a clearly defined output? 2. Is the Cell working to achieve that vision, or have they allowed distractions to creep in? 3. Are they continually measuring their progress along the way?
Again, in VP-5 innovation belongs to everyone. Sailors of all ranks and pedigrees are encouraged and expected to turn a critical eye to established procedures in an effort to push our squadron into the twenty-first century. However, change for the sake of change is not one of our objectives. To guard against this, the product or design is subjected to an internal Shark Tank once each Swarm Cell is sufficiently satisfied with their work. These Shark Tank events are open to all hands and are designed to prod for weak spots in the proposal and introduce the idea to the whole team. The Swarm Cell’s program or improvement is critiqued from every angle to determine its overall benefit and structural integrity. These sessions are designed to be thorough in order to weed out underdeveloped initiatives or those that may not provide a quantifiable benefit. If a program passes muster, it continues in whatever form is appropriate, whether that is a new or revised squadron instruction or perhaps a meeting further up the chain of command.
Our modest foray into innovation has already begun to bear fruit. One of the most promising results of the innovation process has been the development of a dedicated command smartphone application called Quarterdeck. What started as a search for a better way to communicate has blossomed into a robust “app” which boasts capability far beyond that which was initially envisioned. Currently available on the Droid and Apple App stores, the application meets or exceeds DoD information assurance requirements and includes features like flight schedule postings and peer-to-peer instant messaging, among many others. Thanks to motivated junior officers who attended the 2016 Aviation Mission Support Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) at Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) in Silicon Valley, the Adobe Company is now conducting market research, has shown interest in acquiring the hosting rights for the app, and is currently developing a professional version based on the VP-5 prototype.
Another of our most promising innovation programs appeared to be headed toward realization before being dismissed due to concerns about running afoul of the Program Management Aviation (PMA) office. The plan was to implement an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) to replace the existing system of paper flight publications. This innovation would use tablet computers and digital flight publication subscriptions to save each squadron approximately $17,000 annually. PMA is currently developing a parallel program, but the estimated fleet delivery date was still at least a year away at the time our project was initiated. Our program would be able to deliver tablets within months. Every detail of the program had been meticulously researched, and drew heavily upon long established, similar programs used by the airlines.
The EFB program was widely supported among VP-5 junior officers, Fleet Replacement Squadron instructors, our own CO and XO, reserve unit squadrons manned by commercial airline pilots, and even had the interest of Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group (CPRG). Unfortunately, information security concerns rooted in a risk averse culture combined with the lack of official approval from higher authorities halted the project prior to purchase. Even though our organic EFB proposal was not accepted, our efforts to address the issue sparked broader interest and pressured PMA to move up its timeline. It is a testament to the power of this innovation process that it could conceive and develop a product that rivaled a parallel effort of the standard acquisition pipeline and a regular program office. Tablets are now forecast to be delivered to the fleet by the end of this year.
Other achievements include a redesign of the Petty Officer Indoctrination course, a Command Volunteer Service Day suggested, planned, and led by an E-3, and an “Aircrew Olympics” which pitted two combat aircrews against each other in a variety of mission-related tasks. These ideas were all generated and executed from within the junior enlisted ranks.
We do not intend to suggest that a smartphone application or volunteer service holds the key to dismantling Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program or China’s grip on the South China Sea. What we are trying to do is develop a framework in which creative solutions can be cultivated. Not every idea is going to be a grand slam, but before you can hit a grand slam you have to get people on base. The most important point we’ve learned is that the ideas are out there, we can cultivate them, and we’ve so far proven that we have “defense entrepreneurs” that can see these innovative ideas through from the white boards to implementation.
Formalizing an innovation process within a squadron is a new way of doing things and this new approach has been met with a variety of challenges. From stubborn, bureaucratic restrictions to “innovation stagnation,” the innovation construct at VP-5 has faced hurdles along the way and been forced to adapt. In the next installment of this series, we will explore some of these obstacles and describe the ways in which the Innovation Department has evolved as a result.
Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. Hey may be contacted at email@example.com.
Featured Image: A P-8 assigned to VP-5 (U.S. Navy photo)
“These three forces – the forces at play in the maritime system, the force of the information system, and the force of technology entering the environment – and the interplay between them have profound implications for the United States Navy.”- A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.1
A capital ship’s capabilities has always revealed what is most decisive in naval warfare. In the next high-end fight, what will be most decisive is the ability to secure decision superiority in a contested information environment fraught with uncertainty and change. The understanding of how information will be contested and employed in future war remains in flux. The value of information in guiding fleet tactics and force structure is already being realized by China in unconventional ways. But what will emerge from an understanding of the future threat environment is that capital ships, especially aircraft carriers, can take the lead in contesting the electromagnetic domain itself.
China is winning the battle of presence in Asiatic waters. According to the Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, the level of presence the U.S. Navy will reach this year in the South China Sea is on track for 900 ship days,3 and that figure is higher than usual due to an uptick in strike groups operating in the region. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now shadows every U.S. warship that transits the South China Sea,4 FONOPs or otherwise, meaning the PLAN has likely surpassed the U.S. Navy in how much forward presence it maintains in key waters in Asia.
However, the PLA Navy is just the tip of the iceberg. China’s robust standing naval presence is augmented by coast guard units and potentially hundreds of paramilitary fishermen (maritime militia) and commercial vessels. China frequently leverages these forces for escalation, such as how the number of Chinese ships around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands’ contiguous zone surged to about 230 ships less than a month after The Hague ruled against China’s South China Sea claims.5In recent years there has been a consistent presence of about 70-90 Chinese ships around disputed East China Sea waters, up from virtually nothing a decade earlier.6
These paramilitary forces will readily provide escalation and wartime advantages for China, especially in the area of information. These units will likely exploit the protection rights of non-combatants to secretly contribute intelligence to China’s military in a theater of active hostilities. This will pose difficult legal, diplomatic, and military dilemmas and test the limits of rules of engagement. Fears over paramilitary units will exacerbate suspicions of thousands of civilian vessels and add new layers of complexity to the operating environment. Widely dispersed paramilitary units could provide early warning and conduct battle damage assessment without incurring the risk of emitting the unique signatures of military-grade equipment. Regardless of the fact that the majority of USN and PLAN assets reside outside forward areas during peacetime, this robust paramilitary presence would provide China with some sense of informational continuity in the transition between war and peace. It is an information-focused distributed fleet on the cheap.
The rise of China’s maritime might is causing a significant shift in the operating environment the U.S. Navy considered itself the lone master of for three-quarters of a century. This displacement is jeopardizing the credibility of U.S. security guarantees in the region and allowing China to more confidently intimidate its neighbors. It is also a direct challenge to the U.S. Navy’s core missions of upholding the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation and offering avenues of access for American power. The level of U.S. Navy forward presence will only grow more inferior as China continues its large-scale and comprehensive maritime buildup. America’s grip on maritime superiority in Asia is weakening, and the U.S. Navy must undergo a major transformation to stay on top.
Establishing a Vision of Networked War at Sea
“DO NOT – REPEAT NOT – BELIEVE WE SHOULD SEEK NIGHT ENGAGEMENT. POSSIBLE ADVANTAGES OF RADAR MORE THAN OFFSET BY DIFFICULTIES OF COMMUNICATIONS AND LACK OF TRAINING IN FLEET TACTICS AT NIGHT.”-Admiral Willis Lee responds to Admiral Raymond Spruance’s query on whether to attempt a night engagement on June 17, 1944, two days before the Battle of the Philippine Sea.8
A transformation is already underway as navies around the world seek to conceptualize what warfighting at sea will entail in the information age. A common vision must be founded on a basic understanding of how various aspects of war have been evolved or outright revolutionized by modern technology. Technology has turned the electromagnetic spectrum into the centrally contested domain that critical warfighting functions depend on across the entire breadth of their execution.
Networks are not only tools but battlefields. Winning in the electromagnetic domain will determine whether critical intelligence is transferred, instructions are conveyed, and if the complex process of accurately targeting modern weapons is completed. Electronic warfare, cyber warfare, and ISR will largely be directed at understanding, confusing, and then deconstructing the system of systems that forms the adversary’s battle network. The fundamental trust that operators place in their equipment and each other will be a prime target. Degrading this trust could cripple a force out of proportion to actual losses.
A key element of the U.S. Navy’s effort to adapt to this new environment will be widely distributing its combat power to gain sea control rather than closely aggregating units together as has been common practice for generations. Up until recently, fleet combat required physically concentrating forces for concentrating their firepower. Distribution reflects how the technology behind network-centric warfare has made it feasible to disaggregate ships yet still aggregate their capabilities. Distribution better postures a fleet for electromagnetic maneuver by deconflicting the electronic warfare capabilities of friendly units and forcing an adversary to spend more time localizing contacts across a large expanse of ocean.9 But managing the networked functions of a distributed fleet is a hard enough challenge that will grow even more difficult when the electromagnetic domain is contested in wartime.
Command and control grows more strenuous with greater distribution. U.S. and allied assets will already be dispersed throughout the battlespace in some manner at the onset of sudden war, and will have to be quickly maneuvered into some viable operational structure. The task of organizing a dispersed naval force across a large theater as hostilities break out will be critical not just for success but for survival against a near-peer opponent.
This challenge reveals how gaining momentary surprise at the onset of full-scale networked war at sea can reap strategically disabling blows. Even brief victories against networks will quickly translate into the sudden and decisive destruction that has always characterized war at sea. This grim possibility will be all the more important to guard against when the Navy is asked to project power against adversaries that will enjoy the benefits of operating close to home, such as land-based anti-ship capabilities that enjoy inherently steep logistical and survivability advantages over naval forces.
Distribution enhances survivability by attacking left of the kill chain, the complex process of targeting modern weapons. By making the adversary’s information gathering and decision-making processes the focus, distributed warfighting emphasizes deception. Deception and distribution will exacerbate the severe challenge of processing the copious amounts of information gathered by powerful, modern sensors. For example, a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft can generate up to 900 gigabytes of data in a single mission.11 Overstimulating sensors can fray nerves and induce an adversary to make decisions to their own detriment, such as radiating active sensors which can compromise stealth, unknowingly maneuvering into firing envelopes, and even firing salvos of hard-to-replenish missiles at ghost contacts.
Gathering intelligence on the wide variety of unique signatures and capabilities that compose an adversary’s electronic order of battle will be pivotal in facilitating wartime adaptation. Threat libraries will be rapidly updated as adversaries reveal the true extent of their electronic capabilities. This intelligence will be fed into a fast-firing cycle of iterative adaptation where superior electronic capabilities will be fielded via something as quick as a software update.
Operators will strive to understand the implications of a variety of actions and inaction amidst a constant struggle for electromagnetic context. Ships will carefully regulate emissions to avoid detection, yet emissions are paradoxically important for delivering effects, managing command and control (C2), and updating situational awareness. Employing a powerful emitter such as a SPY radar can pose a liability, and ships that feel compelled to radiate and communicate for the sake of enabling their own defense can compromise friendly units and become more susceptible to follow-on attack.
An analogy for surviving modern naval combat can then be drawn from Dr. Stephen Biddle’s description of the revolution in land warfare that transpired in the early twentieth century:
“…the complexity of the earth’s surface offers enough cover and concealment to substantially shield land forces from the increasing potential lethality of modern weaponry. However, to operate a mass military of potentially millions of soldiers in a way that can exploit the natural complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment means accepting tremendous complexity in tactics and operational art. Relative to, for example, Napoleonic tactics where armies could be lined up in shoulder-to-shoulder linear formations and simply marched towards an objective, if you’re going to use the complexity of the earth’s surface to provide cover in ways those massed shoulder-to-shoulder formations couldn’t do, then you’re going to have to break down those massed formations into small handfuls of soldiers few enough in number that they can fit into the folds in the earth that create what militaries ironically call dead ground, where dead ground is of course where you can live…”12
The mass, attrition-based Napoleonic formations of today are the capital ship-centered strike groups, and the “small handfuls of soldiers” are a networked fleet’s dispersed surface action groups. The protective “folds in the earth” are the various nuances of the electromagnetic domain that is being contested and manipulated. Making sense of these nuances within the spectrum in order to recognize opportunities to deliver effects will define the competition.
The wartime implications of the latest technologies are often not fully understood before they are fielded, but having a common vision of future war at sea serves as a necessary foundation for training, equipping, and operating a navy. The extent to which such a vision is being jointly established and acted upon in a coordinated manner by the various communities within the U.S. Navy is unclear.
The surface Navy is in the early stages of operationalizing its distributed lethality concept that envisions numerous surface action groups operating offensively to achieve a cumulative sea control effect. This stands in stark contrast to the strike group constructs that have been the focus of surface ships for generations, where combatants specialized in escorting capital ships in mainly defensive roles. A new distributed operating concept for surface combatants should be facilitating a Navy-wide appraisal of what this means for all other communities and how the Navy interfaces with the joint force more broadly.
To the Navy’s credit, Naval Warfare Development Command recently convened stakeholders from across the naval enterprise to contribute to the development of a forthcoming Distributed Maritime Operations concept (DMO) that could serve as a focal point for force development.13 Where there is room for improvement is in articulating what role capital ships, especially aircraft carriers, will play in a distributed fleet.
Aviation-Centric Information Dominance CONOPS for the Distributed Fleet
“At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapon range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (ret.)14
The idea of a distributed fleet aggregating its capabilities through networking is not itself new.15 What is novel is the confidence in the ability of the scouting and communication enterprise to provide the information needed to effectively use high-tech weapons at ranges that were once considered extreme. But confidence is not capability, as evidenced by the decision to pull the anti-ship Tomahawk missile from the Navy’s inventory due to a lack of such confidence in the 1990s.16 Now within a decade an anti-ship Tomahawk will be back in the fleet, featuring a 1,000 nm range and offering a widely distributed sea control capability alongside other forthcoming networked missiles.17 The question is whether the Navy will be able to scout and communicate well enough to employ these weapons at range, especially when distributing the fleet compounds the information-related challenges of operating within a contested electromagnetic domain.
As warships spread out to confound an adversary’s situational awareness and offer options to deliver fires, capital ships will make scouting, secure information transfer, and deception their primary missions. The natural advantages aviation enjoys in electromagnetic and physical maneuver will make the aircraft carrier central in conducting these critical missions. By taking the lead in contesting the spectrum, the capital ship will animate the networked fleet by securing decision superiority.
Aviation’s Key Advantage
Electronic action is still bound by physical limitations. Aviation can act as the connective tissue of an ocean-going battle network because altitude has a corresponding effect on detection and communication capability via a superior ability to peer over the horizon compared to a ship. This extra dimension of maneuver introduces more flexibility for managing the risks of sensing and communicating, making aircraft the scouting and information transfer asset of choice.
A high-flying aircraft with a powerful radar can sense surface contacts further out than surface contacts could sense one another over the horizon. An aircraft can emit or transmit, drop to lower altitude, and then relocate faster than a ship to mitigate risk and get information to where it needs to be.Aircraft can use their speed to maximize the use of line-of-sight communications whose considerable bandwidth and jam-resistant advantages will prove indispensable in a contested information environment.
These physical properties will allow aircraft to facilitate fleet connectivity by forming sensing and communication pathways through maneuver. Commanders will have a flexible means to augment the scope and focus of information that is being collected and shared throughout the force. Airborne sensor fusion will help commanders prioritize information flows to meet rapidly emerging needs. These characteristics hold significant tactical and operational implications for the distributed fleet.
Engage-on-Remote, In-Flight Retargeting, and Command and Control
The technology that makes distributed operations possible will be for naught if an evolution in tactical thought does not accompany it. A primary challenge of distributed warfighting will be delivering the information needed to employ the engage-on-remote and retargeting capabilities that are the hallmark of a distributed fleet’s combat potential.
Retargeting and engage-on-remote make weapons more reliable and fleets more flexible. The engagement process is transformed from a linear kill chain into an expansive kill web. Networked units can leverage capabilities from across the force to meet individual needs. Platforms will be able to fire without emitting, improving survivability. Salvos can build density as missiles from across the distributed fleet are aggregated.
But engage-on-remote and the long range of potential exchanges means that sailors will have to get used to firing weapons with incomplete information. The passage of time and the dynamic nature of the contested spectrum means that the information that precipitated an engagement will often not suffice to complete it. Retargeting will prove decisive by allowing new information to be fed into a live engagement. It will help keep firepower discriminate, resilient, and long-range while mitigating the risks of operating with less information.
Retargeting and engage-on-remote will dictate a fleet formation because a distributed force is not formless, but rather than an extended strike group of sorts. The ability to leverage engage-on-remote and retargeting capabilities from across the force will be a function of fleet connectivity and weapons range. The distance between platforms and payloads will affect the timeliness of information transfer, and weapons range will dictate the maximum extent to which forces can disperse from one another yet still combine their fires effectively.
An animation of a hypothetical scenario demonstrating the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). (JHU APL)18
The wide-ranging tactical flexibility that can be gleaned from retargeting and engage-on-remote is directly correlated with the ability to transfer information. Ideally any sensor or communicator will support any shooter or payload, but passing information between them all will be difficult when that information is contested and loses relevance with time. The ability to fire and contribute information without radiating organic sensors opens up numerous tactical options, but using this capability will mean the man on the scene will have to rely on a man not on the scene. Therefore these capabilities combine to fundamentally change the perception of time, timing, and opportunity for a fleet.
This will aggravate the challenge of precisely conveying commander’s intent and delegating the appropriate level of initiative to networked forces. Much of the public writing on distributed lethality has argued for delegating authority to the man on the scene, but that man will be just one more node in a network. They may not fully realize the tactical possibilities at hand compared to someone with better situational awareness and a broader view of how the fleet’s combat power is distributed. The organic sensors of ships cannot be trusted to independently target payloads that need to travel hundreds of miles through a contested information environment, especially when ships operate under EMCON. Launching a salvo will be a momentous decision as a large amount of a ship’s or surface action group’s magazine could be depleted in a single exchange, requiring confidence in information and the larger operational situation.
Aviators will become the tactical controllers of warship-based capabilities in a distributed fleet because their maneuver advantage translates into a superior ability to facilitate broad situational awareness, sensor fusion, and fleet connectivity. They will have more context and ability to make decisions, execute quick workarounds, and gather additional information versus warships that are tightly controlling their emissions while proximate to the adversary. Aviation-based network nodes can shift schemes of maneuver to help commanders balance the need for information up the chain of command with the need for initiative down the chain of command.
The fact that only aircraft can realistically trail and intercept missiles in real time means they can provide more inputs to facilitate retargeting, and could close with inbound enemy salvos to target their datalinks. Aviators (with automated decision aids) will manage information flows between sensors and communications to make numerous inputs into the engagement process as it is transpiring.Because corrupt information will be commonplace in the next high-end fight, and because autonomous machines cannot be entrusted with life-or-death decisions, humans must own this process. In-flight retargeting is a weapon’s insurance policy, and aviation can be its guarantor.
In this particular sensor-to-shooter construct, aircraft become the primary sensors and communicators because they can facilitate fleet connectivity through maneuver, and ships become the primary shooters. Since firing without emitting makes units less susceptible to detection, warships will become more survivable. This is preferable because aircraft are more numerous and replaceable than ships. But employing a dynamic ship-to-aircraft information interface will involve a steep learning curve. Speaking on the challenges of making the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability a reality, then-Captain Jim Kilby remarked that it involves “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”19
Aviation will also facilitate C2 by helping commanders with early-warning, battle damage assessment, and keeping tabs on one’s own forces. Having more time to react to threats will be key in crafting a tailored response from various tools that each have their own electromagnetic implications, rather than making commanders feel compelled to go all out to defend against the possibility of imminent destruction. Learning the status of dueling enemy and friendly ships can be risky, but when a ship under EMCON explodes in the ocean, does it make a sound?
Lastly, an aviation-centric C2 scheme will build upon the natural advantages of undersea forces. Submarines will be able to penetrate further into the battlespace than surface ships, improving their chances of discovering high-quality information about the adversary. Securely getting that information back to the fleet via aviation-based network nodes will make the risk worth it, and engage-on-remote and retargeting can impose a daunting tactical problem by forcing adversaries to localize a submarine that is firing missiles or deploying decoys at range.
Deception and Softkill Countermeasures
One of distributed lethality’s maxims is “If it floats it fights” but if it floats it should also deceive. Deception will enhance survivability, gather intelligence on the enemy’s electronic order of battle, and facilitate strikes. Superior deception earns decision superiority.
Deception-enabling capabilities can be distributed throughout the fleet by fielding a greater variety and quantity of decoys. These can include long-range decoy missiles that mimic the profiles of aerial platforms and conduct offensive electronic warfare, as well as shorter-range launched decoys and floatable payloads that can take on ships’ signatures. These systems often weigh less and take up less space than hardkill systems, making them easier to distribute en masse. For example, the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) missile is about half the length and a tenth of the weight of a Tomahawk cruise missile, and has a 500-mile range.20Such a decoy missile could enable an advanced fleet-wide deception capability by being fitted into launch cells, box launchers, and wing pylons.
Aviation can enhance fleet deception by flexibly deploying, retargeting, and transporting a large variety of decoys on demand. The extent to which the platforms themselves are actively at the forefront of deception should be minimized. Operators should strive to delegate as much deception as possible to decoys and unmanned platforms that can take on the risks of raising a higher electromagnetic profile. Deception plans involving decoy saturation would allow for momentary opportunities to break EMCON and gather information as an adversary reacts to the deception. Decoy missiles could act as penetration aids to improve the lethality of salvos and help aircraft scout risky areas. Aircraft can manage decoy missile datalinks in-flight to maximize their usefulness.
Lastly, softkill countermeasures can have far more favorable cost-exchange ratios against missiles compared to hardkill measures, allowing a distributed fleet to conserve munitions and improve survivability. Aviation assets could maneuver on short notice to deploy softkill payloads along the axis of an inbound salvo to dilute it at a distance from the intended target. These comparatively small and lightweight payloads would allow a capital ship, via an interoperable aviation platform, to flexibly deploy defensive countermeasures over a large area and replenish other ships’ decoy and softkill inventories on demand. This capability will be critical because a distributed fleet will often struggle to mass defensive firepower in a timely manner.
Wartime Adaptation and Augmentation
Capital ships themselves still possess unique advantages in information age warfare. Capital ships will play a key role in facilitating frontline wartime adaptation because they will field the largest afloat concentration of intelligence, cryptologic, and cyber expertise in the battlespace.21 As information is continuously gathered and transferred by aviation across the distributed fleet, capital ship-based expertise will lead the effort to process that information to discover vulnerabilities and devise fixes and exploits. Capital ships will in turn use their superior reach back capabilities to act as a conduit between the forward-most warfighter and national-level assets that can aid adaptation, such as Navy and DoD threat libraries.
Aviation can take those exploits and fixes back to the distributed fleet and the enemy from the capital ship. This will be especially poignant for sustaining a deception advantage, where both sides will place priority on unmasking the other’s means of deceiving. Fresh updates based on the latest intelligence could be patched into modular decoy payloads at the capital ship, and then aviation can transport these enhanced decoys back out to the fleet via a platform that is interoperable with capital ships and surface combatants.
Such a ubiquitous and modular aerial platform will allow the capital ship to compliment warship needs in a variety of ways. Aside from aiding various warfare- and information-related missions, having an aerial platform that can land on almost anything will open up options for augmenting logistics and personnel on the fly. It will also enhance capital ship survivability by allowing the surface force to take on some of the burden of sustaining aviation assets.
Unmanned systems can play a role by conducting a variety of the missions described, whether information transfer, sensing, or deploying decoys and softkill countermeasures. Because of their relatively small size and weight, the sensors and payloads required to conduct these missions can be fielded by unmanned systems in the nearer-term compared to heavier offensive weaponry. Additionally, automation alone will improve communications security because more automation means fewer operator inputs are needed. Because robotics has shrunken platform size, future capital ships will be able to easily host small undersea, amphibious, and surface unmanned systems to extend their reach into more domains than before.
“The competition is on, and pace dominates. In an exponential competition, the winner takes all. We must shake off any vestiges of comfort or complacency that our previous advantages may have afforded us, and move out to build a larger, more distributed, and more capable battle fleet that can execute our mission.” The Future Navy.22
Wayne Hughes offers an important caveat to all of this, that “tactical complexity is a peacetime disease” and that “the temptation to equate complex tools with complex tactics will be almost irresistible.”23As with what happened in WWII and elsewhere, the Navy and the U.S. military writ large will run the risk of employing tactics and technologies that are not yet fully inculcated into the force if war breaks out. Given the current pace of change, that risk may never go away.
What should be clear, at least for now, is that there is still a place for capital ships in high-end warfighting. The distributed fleet of tomorrow can become real if capital ships dedicate themselves toward prosecuting the most important and elusive target of all: information.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
5. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Protest Against the Intrusion of Chinese Coast Guard into Japanese territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands”, August 6, 2016. http://www.mofa.go.jp/press/release/press4e_001227.html
7. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Trends in Chinese Government and Other Vessels in the Waters Surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and Japan’s Response – Records of Intrusions of Chinese Government and Other Vessels into Japan’s Territorial Sea”, August 3, 2017. http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/page23e_000021.html
8. James D. Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide, pg. 171, Bantam Books, New York, 2016.
Featured Image: SOUTH PACIFIC (June 29, 2017) Ships assigned to Carrier Strike Group 5 sail in formation during a coordinated live-fire gunnery exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke/Released)
In August of 2015 CIMSEC published a Call for Articles soliciting analysis on the future of naval aviation. The following month, contributors responded with submissions that assessed the impact unmanned aviation will have on threat environments, the evolution of the carrier air wing, and other topics related to naval aviation. This compendium consists of the articles that featured during the topic week.
Authors: Ben Ho Wan Beng Jon Paris Tim Walton Greg Smith Michael Glynn Peter Mairno Wick Hobson
Editors: Wick Hobson