Tag Archives: C2

An Information Dominance Carrier for Distributed War at Sea

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Dmitry Filipoff


“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’s Presence and Information Advantage

“U.S. Navy Warship 62, this is Chinese Navy Warship 575. Copy that, I will be staying along with you for the following days. Over.” Chinese frigate to USS Chancellorsville in the South China Sea.2

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.5 In 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

Japanese Coast Guard data on the numbers of Chinese vessels that entered the contiguous zone or intruded into territorial seas surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Note the spike in activity in August 2016 and the virtually nonexistent level of presence prior to 2009 (Click to expand).7 (Japanese Coast Guard)

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.

CSBA graphic from 2010 on China’s principal PLA air-defense units and anti-ship ballistic missile sites. (CSBA)10

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.20 Such a decoy missile could enable an advanced fleet-wide deception capability by being fitted into launch cells, box launchers, and wing pylons.

Two Miniature Air Launch Decoys sit side-by-side in the munitions storage area on Barksdale Air Force Base, La., March 21, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Micaiah Anthony)

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.

V-280 concept. (Bell Helicopter Image)

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

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.”23 As 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.


1. A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 1.0, U.S. Department of the Navy, January 2016. http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf

2. Helene Cooper, “Patrolling Disputes Waters, U.S. and China Jockey for Dominance”, The New York Times, March 30, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/world/asia/south-china-sea-us-navy.html

3. Andrew Galbraith, “U.S. Commander says ships on course for more days in South China Sea”, Reuters, June 15, 2017. http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-china-usa-defense-idUKKBN1961GT

4. Anders Corr, “Chinese Warships Shadowing U.S. Navy: ‘New Normal’ In South China Sea”, Forbes, July 3, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/anderscorr/2017/07/03/chinese-warships-shadowing-u-s-navy-new-normal-in-south-china-sea/#709a12186029 

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

6. Lyle J. Morris, “The New ‘Normal’ in the East China Sea”, RAND, February 27, 2017. https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/02/the-new-normal-in-the-east-china-sea.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.

9. Jim Loerch, “Empowering Electronic Warfare to Save Carrier Strike Groups”, Signal, September 2016. https://www.afcea.org/content/?q=Article-empowering-electronic-warfare-save-carrier-strike-groups

10. Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich,  and Jim Thomas, “AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept”, pg. 65, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010. http://csbaonline.org/research/publications/airsea-battle-concept/publication 

11. Michael Glynn, “Information Management and the Future of Naval Aviation” Center for International Maritime Security, September 19, 2015. http://cimsec.org/information-management-and-the-future-of-naval-aviation/18870

12. Mina Pollmann and Matt Merighi, “Sea Control 130 – Stephen Biddle on Future Warfare in the Western Pacific”, Center for International Maritime Security, March 22, 2017. http://cimsec.org/sea-control-130-stephen-biddle-future-warfare-western-pacific/31485 

13. Naval Warfare Development Command Public Affairs, Advanced Warfighting Summit Focus On Enabling Distributed Maneuver, Naval Warfare Development Command, May 19, 2017. https://www.nwdc.navy.mil/PressRelease/10.aspx 

14. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, pg. 173, Naval Institute Press, 1986.

15.  Hughes, pg. 196. 

16. Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, “Naval Weapon of Choice”, Naval History Magazine, U.S. Naval Institute, February 2016, Volume 30, number 1. https://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2016-02/naval-weapon-choice

17. Sam LaGrone, “WEST: U.S. Navy Anti-Ship Tomahawk Set for Surface Ships, Subs Starting in 2021, U.S. Naval Institute News, February 18, 2016. https://news.usni.org/2016/02/18/west-u-s-navy-anti-ship-tomahawk-set-for-surface-ships-subs-starting-in-2021 

18. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, “Air and Missile Defense: More than Two Decades of Sensor Integration Efforts at APL.” http://www.jhuapl.edu/ourwork/airdefense/CECvideo.asp 

19. Sam LaGrone, “The Next Act for Aegis”, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 7, 2014. https://news.usni.org/2014/05/07/next-act-aegis

20. Raytheon, “MALD Decoy.” http://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/mald/

21. John Gordon et al. Leveraging America’s Aircraft Carrier Capabilities, pg. 15,  RAND National Research Defense Institute, 2006. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2006/RAND_MG448.pdf

22. The Future Navy, U.S. Department of the Navy, May 17, 2017. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/TheFutureNavy.pdf

23. Hughes, pg. 191. 

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)

Analyzing and Improving Airborne Command and Control

In the command and control realm, size does not matter.

For decades, aircraft such as the Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye and the Air Force’s E-3 AWACS have performed duties as airborne command and control (C2) platforms. In Iraq and Afghanistan today, these units play a key role in the daily execution of the commander’s Air Tasking Order (ATO) and Airspace Control Order (ACO). Their duties include everything from the safe deconfliction of aircraft to the expeditious processing of air support requests from troops on the ground.

However, unlike other tactical aircraft, no measure currently exists to evaluate or compare the effectiveness of airborne C2 platforms.

Due to their size and persistence, most outside observers assume that the AWACS is the most capable airborne C2 platform. Conversely, with a crew of five and attached to the Carrier Air Wing (CVW), the E-2 Hawkeye is often dubbed a second-rate, “mini-AWACS.”

Rather than an impediment, the size of the Hawkeye crew is its greatest strength. While both platforms are equally capable in theater, a comparison of the data transfer rate of these two units validates the importance of Crew Resource Management (CRM) in the ability to perform C2 duties.

Crew Resource Management

Crew Resource Management (CRM) was first introduced in 1979 out of a need to address unsafe operating practices in the airline industry that had resulted in too-frequent, high profile crashes. Aviation professionals needed better procedures to incorporate each member of the flight crew to ensure safety of the aircraft.

In its early years, CRM emphasized improved communication, leadership, and decision making in the cockpit. By empowering each member of the crew to speak up to correct an unsafe situation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hoped that CRM might lead to earlier recognition of potentially unsafe scenarios and fewer aviation mishaps.

Naval aviation was quick to recognize the success of the civilian CRM process and began adopting it as standard practice in 1989. Over the years, CRM has evolved to impact not just safety of flight concerns, but also the tactical performance of aircrew serving on various platforms.

Today, CRM encompasses seven characteristics: decision making, assertiveness, mission analysis, communication, leadership, adaptability/flexibility, and situational awareness. Aviators are expected to incorporate these concepts into the conduct of their flights, whether they are F/A-18E Super Hornet pilots or multi-crewed P-8 Poseidon aircrew.

Command and Control

In combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, E-2 and E-3 aircrew operate as airborne C2 units in accordance with theater Special Instructions (SPINS). They are assigned as Battle Management Area (BMA) controllers for large geographic areas, controlling all aircraft and communicating with all theater agencies in the Area of Operations (AOR).

At its most basic level, command and control is essentially information management. Aircrew must manage the flow of information through both verbal and non-verbal communications between other crewmembers in the aircraft and with external agencies or individuals. Typical information includes management of the theater aerial refueling plan, changes to tasking and dynamic targeting, emergency coordination, and airspace management that ensures the safe routing and deconfliction of all aircraft.

To be successful, C2 units must strive to pass information as efficiently and accurately as possible. Rather than strike or fighter aircraft, whose practiced execution of air-to-air and air-to-ground procedures defines success in combat, the management and routing of large amounts of information via radio and chat communication is essential for effective C2.

For this reason, CRM plays a crucial role in command and control. Communication, adaptability, and flexibility — central tenets of CRM — are closely related to time. While radio communications take a measurable amount of time (i.e. length of transmission), the act of receiving and processing a given piece of data often takes longer and is difficult to quantify. Specifically, the greater the number of individuals that must process and communicate a set piece of data, the longer the entire transmission process will take.

Data Transfer Rate

In telecommunications, the data transfer rate is defined as the amount of data that can be transferred from one place to the next per unit time. We typically consider data transfer rates when we compare the speeds of various Internet connections, measured in bytes or kilobytes per second.

Mathematically, if y equals the total amount of data to be processed and communicated and t equals the time required to process and transmit, we can solve for the standard data transfer rate (x):


By adapting this equation, we can judge a unit’s ability to process and communicate information and, hence, their effectiveness as a C2 platform. To do so, we must consider how many individuals are required to receive, process, and transmit the given amount of data (y). If we allow z to equal the number of crewmembers involved, we can amend the equation:


We can use this equation to roughly compare the efficiency of Tactical C2 platforms and use that data to reflect on some realities concerning C2 and CRM.

For example, if the total instantaneous amount of theater data, or situational awareness, to be communicated is notionally equivalent to 100 kilobytes (KB), then y=100 KB. We will assume that it takes each crewmember 2 seconds to process and transmit the data, as required, so t=2 sec. For our purposes, we will maintain that crewmembers are processing the data sequentially rather than simultaneously.[i]

We can then compare the theoretical data transfer rate of an E-2 Hawkeye, with a crew of 5 (z=5), with that of an E-3 AWACS, with a nominal crew size of 20 (z=20):

E-2C Hawkeye

X=100 KB / 5*2 sec
X=10 KB/sec


X=100 KB / 20*2 sec
X=2.5 KB/sec

On its face, the crew of the Hawkeye appears able to process and transmit data, or situational awareness, four times faster than its AWACS counterpart.[ii] Since fewer individuals are required to share knowledge in the Hawkeye, information can be processed and transmitted more quickly. Hawkeye crews also regularly brief and practice CRM techniques that help enhance their overall efficiency.

This is not to say that E-2 crews are superior to their E-3 counterparts; in theater, both units work closely together with other joint agencies to provide unparalleled C2 coverage. Additionally, the radar and passive detection systems on the AWACS provide better value.[iii]

However, on average, larger AWACS crews must work harder than their Hawkeye counterparts to process, manage, and communicate information. Rather than a hindrance, the comparative size of the Hawkeye crew can provide an important advantage in a dynamic theater environment.

Improving C2

This revelation teaches the importance of including solid CRM procedures as part of mission preparation. While crews cannot change the amount of data in theater (y), they can take steps to control the number of people (z) and amount of time (t) required to process data.

Five key considerations can maximize a crew’s data transfer rate and improve the quality of C2:

1. Compartmentalization. Minimizing the amount of individuals required to consider each piece of C2 data can increase efficiency. This demands crews become comfortable with decentralized control, as the necessity to constantly feed all information to one centralized individual can degrade the effectiveness of C2. In mission planning, crews should assign duties to each individual — i.e. communications with fighter and tanker aircraft, tasking and tanking changes, communications with other agencies, etc — and consider the supervision required for each task. During mission execution, crews should adhere to these contracts to the maximum extent possible.

2. Verbal communications. During mission planning, crews must determine not only radio frequencies, but also radio contracts for each crewmember. Controllers must determine whom in the crew they are required to talk to before transmitting information or orders. Units should strive to produce autonomous controllers, as these individuals require less supervision and, therefore, fewer crewmembers required to help process their information.

With the introduction of Internet-based chat capability in airborne platforms, crews must additionally consider how the chat operator interfaces with the crew. Does this person listen to his or her own set of radios, or are they waiting for others in the crew to tell them specific pieces of information to transmit? As the Air Force moves their primary C2 medium to Internet-based chat, airborne C2 units must continue to improve their processes in this regard.

3. Non-verbal communications. Crews that are able to visually communicate can significantly augment their verbal communications. Simple measures such as a thumbs up, head nod, or physical touch can “close the loop” of understanding without having to clutter intra-ship communications. To be effective, these non-verbal measures must be briefed before flight and adhered to during execution. Some considerations, such as the physical layout of the space, are beyond an airborne platform’s ability to control. However, ground-based C2 units and designers of future airborne C2 platforms must consider the influence of these characteristics and their impact on CRM.

4. Contingency management. German general Helmuth Graf von Moltke once asserted, “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Similarly, no C2 plan survives long after the brief. Adaptability and flexibility, central tenets of CRM, can help a crew persevere. Crews must brief how to handle deviations, whether they are dictated from higher headquarters or must be proposed and executed by the C2 unit.

Since systems such as radar and radios often break, crews must also consider how to continue executing the mission with degraded capabilities or during an aircraft emergency. Oftentimes, the mettle of a C2 unit is not shown during normal operations; it must be proven in times of crisis.

5. Controller proficiency. A confident, proficient controller can significantly improve the efficiency of radio communications and overall C2. Controllers should strive to be concise, communicating all situational awareness in as few radio calls as possible. Additionally, controllers must “close the loop” on information by ensuring that changes are disseminated to and acknowledged by all parties involved. While adhering to a pre-determined script is too rigid and can be a detractor, practicing communications and “chair flying” the mission beforehand can improve performance.

Airborne command and control is one of the most unique capabilities in the United States military arsenal. However, C2 units cannot exist in a vacuum; they must always strive for progress. Practicing good CRM and focusing on improvement during each flight can help crews better their data transfer rate and enhance overall theater command and control.

[i] Depending on the mission process model, some crewmembers may process information simultaneously. This approximation was considered in establishing the value for t in this scenario.

[ii] The comparison of an E-2 crew of 5 and an E-3 crew of 20 is for consistency, i.e. comparing whole crews. The total number of crewmembers required to process specific pieces of data varies by squadron and theater.

[iii] Improvements in the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye make its radar and passive detection systems on par with the AWACS.

LT Roger Misso is an E-2C Naval Flight Officer, MAWTS-1 graduate, and former director of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). The ideas expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense establishment.

OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014: Together. Forward. Slowly.


(April 2, 2014) - U.S. Sailors, U.S. Coast Guardsmen and Ghanaian maritime specialists, all embarked aboard joint, high-speed vessel USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1), ride in a rigid-hull inflatable boat (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeff Atherton/ Released)
(April 2, 2014) – U.S. Sailors, U.S. Coast Guardsmen and Ghanaian maritime specialists, all embarked aboard joint, high-speed vessel USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1), ride in a rigid-hull inflatable boat (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeff Atherton/ Released)

The Gulf of Guinea has a problem: Nigerian-driven maritime crime. Nigeria’s problem in turn is a thoroughly criminalised political and commercial elite and a largely disenfranchised electorate. The fallout of that state of affairs has an impact on the region’s security and stability. There is no short-term fix and it has become fashionable to recommend “improved governance” and anti-corruption measures to remedy the situation in the long run. This sort of advice is cheap. Beyond the obvious truth contained in them, there is little in such recommendations as to how to operationalise them or how to address the situation in practical terms as it is and will likely remain for the next years if not for decades.

The efforts of the African Partnership Station (APS) and the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) are two military-political initiatives that seek to overcome the lack of practical value of general policy recommendations and to utilise the will and the resources that exist in the region to make the best of it in the maritime environment. Within this setting OBANGAME EXPRESS is an annual test since 2011 of what has been and what still needs to be achieved in West Africa’s maritime domain. APS and AMLEP, together with the French “Operation Corymbe” are the only sustained efforts to build and maintain regional maritime security capabilities in a region characteristic for its sea blindness and mutual distrust.

With the emergence of the Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct in 2013 and subsequent agreements between various signatories, such as the Zone E Agreement between Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Niger, West Africa makes an attempt to replicate some of the hot pursuit agreement already in existence between Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon in the borderlands of the Nigerian North and North-East and transfer that model to a maritime environment. The chief difference is that the Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct provides a multi-lateral approach with obvious political advantages, but equally obvious operational challenges given the widely divergent maritime security agendas (where they exist) of the signatories. This problem has been circumvented for the time being by breaking down the entire region encompassing the states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) into manageable “zones” in order to be able to implement practical measures on the basis of the Code of Conduct more rapidly instead of having them negotiated by the entire forum. The zonal approach also allows individual states to shape the Code of Conduct according to their specific maritime security needs.

It is important to point out that maritime piracy (of whichever definition) is only one of many issues and for many regional states it is not even the most important or pressing one and thus not the driving force behind the Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct. While piracy is costing the shipping industry and the region millions every year, the annual lost revenue from illegal fishing probably ranges in the several hundreds of millions while Nigeria alone loses approximately US$ 8bn per year from illegal bunkering and illegal crude oil exports. Much of the stolen oil leaves Nigeria by sea. The nexus of those criminal activities is transnational crime, often under the patronage of Nigerian elites. This makes it even more sensible to address the entire complex of maritime security as one and not just focus on a single symptom, however much this may exercise the pundits in the shipping journals and maritime security blogs.



Cameroon Navy patrol boat LE LOGONE (foreground) and the Nigerian flagship NNS THUNDER during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 (Photo: Dirk Steffen)
Cameroon Navy patrol boat LE LOGONE (foreground) and the Nigerian flagship NNS THUNDER during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 (Photo: Dirk Steffen)

This year’s exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS was meant to be a litmus test of the applied Zone E Agreement, both on a command & control (C2) level as well as on a tactical level – chiefly by rehearsing vessel board seize & search (VBSS) procedures, rules of engagement (ROE) and maritime interdiction operations (MIO) with boarding teams. The purpose of OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 was thus “to exercise and evaluate the regional interoperability, multinational command and control relationships, and proficiency of the regional maritime partners in the Gulf of Guinea.”

West African statesmen like to ascribe many if not all of the region’s maritime security woes to external factors and routinely call on the international community for support to resolve the problem. This year, their call was answered during OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 which lasted from 16 April to 23 April 2014 and included extra-regional support beyond APS from Belgium, Germany, Turkey and Spain. “During the at-sea phase of the exercise, 11 nations, including were represented on board 36 different vessels hosting 20 different boarding teams. The boarding teams completed 47 boarding drills during three days of operations” summarised Exercise Director, Captain Nancy Lacore. Several Maritime Operation commands (MOC) were involved, specifically the Regional Maritime Awareness Centre (RMAC) at the Nigerian Navy’ Western Naval Command in Lagos, the ECCAS Centre pour la Coordination Multinationale (CMC) in Douala (Cameroon) and the Battalion d’Intervention Rapide MOC in Idenau (Cameroon). This was augmented by an embarked staffs, including a regional staff led by a Ghanaian admiral on the German combat support ship Bonn.

Conduct at sea

(July 17, 2011) - Petty Officer 2nd Class James Haurand (LEFT) takes an identification photo of a crewmember aboard a Senegalese fishing vessel as part of an African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) boarding mission with Coast Guard and Senegalese boarding teams. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith/RELEASED)
(July 17, 2011) – Petty Officer 2nd Class James Haurand (LEFT) takes an identification photo of a crewmember aboard a Senegalese fishing vessel as part of an African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) boarding mission with Coast Guard and Senegalese boarding teams. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith/RELEASED)

The at-sea phase was preceded by a pre-sail training for the MIO-teams by US, German and Spanish instructors. The at-sea phase from 19-21 April 2014 covered a range of scenarios including illegal fishing, arms smuggling, human trafficking, illegal bunkering and piracy. With the exception of the Bonn, which served as the embarked staff’s flagship, all extra-regional warships and some Nigerian Navy vessels served as target ships for the MIO-teams.

The experience made on board the German frigate Hamburg was representative for the conduct of the exercise and challenges experienced by the MIO teams and their proficiency. Teams from Benin, Nigeria and Togo boarded the Hamburg which alternatingly assumed the role of an illegally fishing vessel and a gun runner. The scenarios had been scripted by the American-led exercise control staff.

Of the three MIO-teams the Nigerian Special Boat Service (SBS) team deployed from NNS Thunder displayed the highest degree of professionalism, tactical acumen and ability to graduate their approach. Although clearly trained and conditioned with the hostile opposition of illegal bunkerers, kidnappers and hijackers in mind they were able to exercise restraint and judgement appropriate to the situation. In spite of good tactical procedures their primary challenge was communication between team elements as well as with their mothership. The latter in turn suffered from poor responsiveness of the MOC, which resulted in the SBS team being “stranded” on the target vessel for 2 hours until a decision to detain the suspect vessel and provide back-up for the team could be obtained.

The Beninese boarding team from the patrol boat Oueme was representative of the average MIO teams deployed by minor West African coastal states. The recent expansion of Nigerian piracy into Beninese waters and the aggressive response that Benin launched together with Nigeria in the form of “Operation Prosperity” had shaped their approach to VBSS. The team carried out the boarding with a high degree of pre-emptive violence including death threats. Modestly equipped and with poor communications to their own ship, the team was clearly aware of its vulnerability and consequently tense throughout the scenario.

The Togolese team, finally, represented the low end of experience found amongst some of the very small and unseasoned West African navies. The absence of even the most basic equipment for VBSS operations was reflective of the Togolese Navy’s operational readiness for this type of maritime security activity. When the team boarded the Hamburg it was only their third boarding (in the course of the exercise) and the third boarding of this kind ever conducted by the Togolese Navy. At that point all equipment – weapons, helmets, life vests and RHIB (including coxswain) had to be borrowed from the German Navy. Consequently they were tactically unready, though clearly willing to learn. Nevertheless, at that point they were overwhelmed by the scenario originally envisaged for them and ended up conducting a boarding of a very compliant fishing vessel under supervision of their instructors.

Conduct on shore

A Spanish instructor from ESPS INFANTA ELENA provides classroom training to Equatoguinean naval personnel in the pre-sail phase of OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014. (Photo: Alexander Drechsel/Adrian Kriesch)
A Spanish instructor from ESPS INFANTA ELENA provides classroom training to Equatoguinean naval personnel in the pre-sail phase of OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014. (Photo: Alexander Drechsel/Adrian Kriesch)

Command and Control – and the inadequacy of it as it was displayed during the exercise – was a recurring theme. This was not just a view of the exercise controllers but an almost universal complaint by commanding officers of most participating units, who felt they received neither the guidance nor the information they expected and needed to carry out their mission.

The exercise exposed significant deficiencies in the MOCs’ (especially RMAC’s) ability to build and maintain a situation picture and to share maritime domain awareness (MDA) information and to process requests for decision-making. Although technical shortcomings were cited during the debrief it was clear that the issue was really an organisational and training shortfall. This includes to some extent the ability to utilise technology at hand.

The RMAC used a commercially available AIS-tracking programme called Sea Vision in order to maintain a situation picture. Because many vessels in Nigerian coastal waters do not send AIS signals, it was to be augmented by an integration of radar pictures from coastal stations and assets afloat. This solution was only implemented belatedly (with the assistance of U.S. Navy personnel) and in the meantime the Nigerian Navy resorted to only monitoring AIS signals.

The effectiveness of the RMAC suffered further from a staff organisation that in addition to not having been prepared for the exercise also appeared to be less than capable of dealing with real world incidents and reports, some of which were forwarded directly to the RMAC by participating units or MOCs. Decision-making, even for pre-authorized scenarios, was routinely escalated to flag-officer level resulting in considerable delays or even in no decision being taken at all. Interagency information sharing and exchange of maritime domain awareness information, such as with NIMASA or NPA, or the Maritime Trade Information & Security Centre (MTISC) in Ghana, which was part of the exercise brief, was not evidenced – be it for exercise purposes or in real life.

Hot wash

(April 20, 2014) – Nigerian Navy Rear Adm. S. I. Alade, flag officer commanding Western Naval Command, arrives by helicopter to the German ship FGS Bonn (A-1413) during Obangame Express 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Herman/Released)
(April 20, 2014) – Nigerian Navy Rear Adm. S. I. Alade, flag officer commanding Western Naval Command, arrives by helicopter to the German ship FGS Bonn (A-1413) during Obangame Express 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Herman/Released)

The exercise ended, predictably, with much back-patting of (especially Nigerian) top brass for a job well done. Clearly, the conduct of the exercise in itself is valuable and necessary, and arguably holding the exercise in that form was no mean feat (though the credit belongs mostly to the organisers from the U.S. Navy) however, more work needs to be done to achieve even a basic maritime security capability in the region. Beyond the preening of the Nigerian flag officers at the closing ceremony this challenge is largely understood and accepted on a working level of most Gulf of Guinea navies (ships’ commanders and exercise observers), many of whom expressed a genuine desire to continue their working relationships with the extra-regional navies. It will take time for this insight to permeate into the West African navies and until then it will need to be constantly refreshed in the minds of the West African senior naval officers and politicians.

Frustration over perceived African nonchalance or foot-dragging will continue to be a key experience for many U.S. and European participants in OBANGAME EXPRESS exercises in the foreseeable future. “FUBAR” as an American exercise staff member put it was probably the strongest characterization of what went during the exercise on at times, but as a Nigerian participant pointed out: just putting Nigerians and Cameroonians into the same room would have been unthinkable a year ago. So, is there hope after all?


The Gulf of Guinea continues to present the vexing challenge that those countries that jealously guard their right to establish maritime security are singularly incapable of doing so. Nevertheless, continual efforts like APS, AMLEP and Corymbe will provide incremental improvements or provide support for regional initiatives aimed at improving regional maritime security. Better operational maritime security capabilities will not address the problems of corruption, lack of prosecution or even the underlying transnational criminal structures, but as one of several practical measures for improving security they can encourage the willing and contain the unwilling and contribute to an improved security environment. Experience from other theatres, not least the Indian Ocean, have shown that such measures, while not eradicating the symptoms, can at least ameliorate them. While the complexity of this year’s OBANGAME EXPRESS may have overwhelmed some of the regional participants, it is important to keep the momentum going. Equally, extra-regional participants should not be discouraged by what may be perceived as slow (or non-existent) progress. It will be a long haul, measured in decades rather than years.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000 and was assigned to the German Battlestaff of TG 501.01 on board FGS HAMBURG during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed here are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

A Relay Race: Communication Relay Drones

"Can you hear me now? No, it's because you grabbed the EO/IR sensor instead of the communications relay package again."
“Can you hear me now? No? It’s because you grabbed the EO/IR sensor instead of the communications relay package again.”

Much of the conversation surrounding the advent of naval drone warfare has focused on those platforms performing the more ‘kinetic’ types of warfare – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, air warfare – and those of the voyeuristic surveillance variety.  However, a quick look at the composition of the carrier air wings of the U.S. Navy or the dispersed air units of a land campaign reminds us that supporting elements such as electronic warfare and command and control (C2) remain an integral part of modern combined operations.  While it may not be as “sexy” as the ability to deliver a missile on target, the ability to maintain battlefield communications is arguably more important as it is an enabler of nearly all other actions. 

In January, The Aviationist described the U.S. Air Force’s reiteration of the importance and utility of airborne assets providing communications by developing a new line-of-sight system:

The U.S. Air Force is trying to turn the targeting pods carried by some of its legacy fighters and the B-1 Lancer bomber, into flying wireless routers that would allow ground troops to communicate each other.

The U.S. military and associated defense contractors have experimented in the use of UAVs as communication relays over the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outfitting extant UAVs with communication relay packages (CRPs) to extend the range of terrestrial communication – primarily radios.  At sea, UAVs outfitted to act as communications relays could fill a variety of roles. 

First, as their name suggests, aerial communication relay drones (CRDs) could act to expand the reach of vessels and shore facilities to either additional unmanned aerial, surface, or subsurface vehicles; or to outlying manned vessels such as RHIBs or other small craft.  Even if not the primary means of communication, or necessary for a second craft’s operation, CRDs could provide dedicated data paths with enhanced exchange rates to pass more information on more reliable connections.  This would be all the more important in an operational environment with disbursed tactical components – such as the mothership concept – with increasing competition for limited communication paths.

"Oh BAMS, you're just so hard to talk to these days."
                                           “Oh BAMS, you’re just so hard to talk to these days.”

Second, CRDs could act to re-establish communications with outlying stations, between vessels, or between vessels and shore facilities in the event primary comm paths are degraded, denied, or compromised.  Whether it’s the effects of jamming, environmental interference, data corruption, equipment malfunction, or the outright loss of that equipment (such as the perennial fear of anti-satellite actions) the ability to restore secure and reliable communications is critical capability.

Once again, the more a navy follows a distributed model of naval warfare, the more it will rely on comm paths to effectively wage war, and the more crucial it will be to be able to restore them.  Drone autonomy can help mitigate this reliance with built-in protocols in the event of loss of comm, but it does not prevent the loss of information flowing to the C2 nodes (i.e. decision makers lose sight of what’s going on) or between units, with a potential loss in tactical efficiency.  In truth, the more comfortable a navy becomes with autonomous drone operations, the more units a single C2 node will command, and the more expansive an operational area it will need to communicate across.  Adding to the problem, the more modern naval warfare relies on these comm paths and the more fragile they appear, the likelier they will be the target of adversary actions.

A third role for CRDs would be as a critical tool during humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) efforts.  Natural disasters have a nasty habit of taking down communication infrastructure such as cell towers, and even when they don’t, humans have a less nasty habit of trying to get in touch with their loved ones – thereby overwhelming what remains of the communications grid.  CRDs could help fill the gap.  Observation of recent international calamities has in fact led the U.S.’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore the use of UAVs to do just that, pressing ahead with ideas for the Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture.  Such an ability would also be useful in case of expeditionary operations into areas where such infrastructure never existed.

Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.
Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.

The capacity to restore comm paths, or establish alternates, could be achieved in a variety of manners.  CRDs could be purpose built or they could be so designated when a communications relay package/payload is fitted on to a multipurpose drone.  Depending on the mode of communication, CRDs could be designed to enhance extant communications past its normal quality, range, or security or they could provide simple bare-bones back-up.  CRDs could operate continuously in orbit or they could be held in reserve.  There are a lot of options to explore and a lot of tactical considerations to experiment with.  Perhaps the most important from a technical feasibility and cost/benefit analysis standpoint will be to parse through the various modes of communication that might be improved or restored – from radio to infrared to wireless to cellular.

While they haven’t received nearly as much attention as their sub-hunting, rocket-launching, or enemy-peeping kin, CRDs could fill a role just, if not more, important in the future of naval warfare.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

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