The Carrier Strike Group (CSG), with its air wing, surface escorts, and auxiliary support vessels, provides capabilities with great flexibility and presents an overt symbol of modern naval power. From sea control to strike to humanitarian assistance, it can respond anywhere in the 71 percent of the world which is covered by oceans, and with staying power.
The Mediterranean has been one of the most strategically significant bodies of water throughout all of history. The Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and all of the European nations that amassed great fortunes using it as a trade route from the Middle Ages through the modern era have understood this. Even in very recent history, states have projected naval power from the Mediterranean into Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
The Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and all of the European nations that amassed great fortunes using it as a trade route from the Middle Ages through the modern era have understood this. Even in very recent history, states have projected naval power from the Mediterranean into Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
The Russian Move
Russia has remained well aware of the strategic significance of the Mediterranean through its history. As it has been attempting to do for over 300 years, the modern Russian Federation established a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean. Vladimir Putin’s ally, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has allowed Russia to maintain a navy base in Tartus, which includes replenishment and repair facilities.
This is in some ways a return to Cold War positioning. The Soviet Union was able to project influence in the Mediterranean through ports in Syria, Egypt, and Libya. But following the end of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Fleet returned to its home bases within Russia and virtually ceded the Mediterranean as NATO territory for the next 20 years.
Russia’s primary means of projecting naval power into the Mediterranean is the Black Sea Fleet. For this fleet to reach the Mediterranean, it must pass through the strategic straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, which are under the control of Turkey, a NATO member.
After the Mediterranean was safely in western hands, NATO was able to withdraw forces from it. With the Black Sea Fleet essentially trapped behind the Turkish Straits, a great NATO naval force was not necessary to counter Russian influence within the Mediterranean. The U.S. Sixth Fleet became a shell of what it once was and the U.S. abandoned the Mediterranean as a strategic naval hub altogether. With the establishment of a permanent naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, Russia has made a strategic move and this warrants a counter-move by NATO.
Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov takes part in operations against insurgents in Syria. (RT via Russian Ministry of Defense)
NATO naval presence within the Mediterranean is made up of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), formerly known as Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED). This is an integrated force made up of vessels from allied nations which is available for tasking from Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM). Its tasking mostly consists of exercises, strategic port calls, and occasional disaster response. The size and makeup of SNMG2 varies depending on what is provided by contributing nations, but it is normally comprised of 4-8 destroyers, frigates, corvettes, or even small fast-attack craft, and one support vessel. This force is a far cry from the sea control, power projection, and disaster response capabilities inherently present in a CSG.
The NATO Counter-Move
NATO should maintain a continuous Carrier Strike Group (CSG) presence in the Mediterranean. A CSG patrolling the Mediterranean, especially in the eastern Mediterranean near Tartus, would be an overt display to Russia that NATO has not forgotten about the Mediterranean.
In the October 2015 policy study “Sharpening the Spear” from the Hudson Institute, the authors conclude that for the United States to maintain a naval hub in the Mediterranean, in addition to the current hubs in the
Middle East and Western Pacific, they would need 16 aircraft carriers. That would require six additional carriers to complement the current ten. Where could these additional carriers come from? The United States’ allies in Europe with navies that boast aircraft carriers and have similar reservations about Russian proclivities in the region offer a viable and cost-effective option. This is starting to sound like NATO.
For simplicity, we will assume that based on the Hudson Institute policy study referenced above, given that NATO has 16 aircraft carriers between them, a constant CSG presence can be maintained in the Mediterranean while the United States maintains the other two naval hubs.
Assembling a NATO Strike Group
The United States currently has 10 aircraft carriers in service, Italy has two, and France and Spain both have one. That puts the total count for NATO at 14, two short of the required 16. However, the U.S. carrier Ford is scheduled to be commissioned in April 2017 and likely to enter service in 2020, while the UK carrier Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to be commissioned in May 2017 and is likely to also enter service in 2020. So, nominally, in about three years, NATO could have continuous CSG coverage within the Mediterranean.
NATO can coordinate a requirement for certain ships to be in a surge-ready status. Over the next three years, this surging of CSGs could be periodically performed to demonstrate the ability of NATO to surge naval power in a crisis. This would be useful as a stopgap measure while additional aircraft carriers are being built, but this would not constitute a continuous presence. Virtual presence is actual absence.
However, demonstrated surges of naval force can still have influence. Demonstrating the ability to surge a CSG, especially a multinational CSG, can send a powerful message to an adversary. Luckily, surging an aircraft carrier from Toulon, Taranto, or even Portsmouth, UK to the Mediterranean is much more reasonable than surging one from Norfolk, Virginia.
The majority of the above discussion has revolved around the aircraft carrier, and though it is a centerpiece, it is not the only component to a CSG. Not only should NATO members coordinate the deployment of their CSGs to provide continuous coverage of the Mediterranean, but should also shoulder the integration of surface combatants into combined NATO CSGs. This can enable even more flexibility and burden sharing.
In 2016, FS Forbin was attached to the USS Harry S. Truman CSG, and then USS Ross was attached to the Charles de Gaulle CSG. Both CSGs were conducting operations into Syria from the eastern Mediterranean. These are perfect examples of burden sharing and are a testament to the present day relevance of the NATO alliance.
NATO is predominately a defensive alliance, but this level of naval cooperation constitutes defense through conventional deterrence by showing that for any move the Russian Federation may make in the Mediterranean, NATO has a counter-move ready.
LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma. 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.
Featured Image: The USS Lincoln and Charles De Gaulle steam alongside one and other in the Arabian Gulf. U.S. Navy Photo. Source.
“One must be ready to change his line sharply and suddenly, with no concern for the prejudices and memories of what was yesterday. To rest upon formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death.”-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.1
Distributed lethality is a concept that was officially launched a year ago by Navy leadership to explore how dispersing forces would enhance warfighting. Traditionally, dispersion has been a cardinal sin in the highly decisive nature of naval warfare, but new threats and capabilities may have changed this principle that has long guided the employment of warships. This analysis aims to show how distributed lethality can offer versatile means for achieving political and military objectives in an era of lean budgets and evolving threats.
Navy leaders assert that distributed lethality will “add battlespace complexity”3 and “complicate the calculus” of an adversary. How will dispersed surface action groups (SAG) accomplish this compared to traditional carrier strike groups (CSG), and how will dispersion affect operations in the electromagnetic (EM) domain?
Distributed lethality attacks left on the kill chain, meaning it intends to influence the earlier phases of the process by which targets are located, identified, targeted, engaged, and effects are assessed. Aside from increasing search volume, dispersion challenges intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) through modularity. In a CSG centric navy,the detection of a large surface combatant increases the probability of learning the disposition of other warships, including valuable capital ships, and of knowing the operational unit they are arrayed in. The modularity offered by dispersed SAGs exacerbates the ISR challenge by reducing the certainty of what kinds of forces may be acting in concert with a potential contact, and what their capabilities and missions are. This will complicate prioritization of ISR and firepower, and increase the probability of expending precision guided munitions (PGM) due to forced error.4
However, distributed lethality will induce friction on the dispersed force. It is presumed that naval forces will employ emissions control (EMCON) techniques to frustrate the adversary in the EM domain. But EMCON exacerbates the challenges inherent to coordinating a dispersed force. Prior Navy experimentation discovered these challenges. Operations Haystack and Uptiderevealed thatdispersed operations under EMCON dramatically increase carrier survivability against submarines and land based bombers but at the expense of lengthened decision cycles.5 Under electromagnetic opposition, the degradation of confidence in the networking of a distributed force is easier because of additional variables to be accounted for and that can be influenced by enemy action. Aggregated forces can also more easily employ alternative means of communication compared to distributed forces.
Lengthened decision cycles for dispersed forces causes handicaps and presents dilemmas. Operations whose success is contingent upon careful coordination are less likely to succeed. The ability to mass capability on short notice amidst determined opposition is impaired. Planners must consider the extent that a SAG may be tied down by enemy action and its own tasking, and the resulting impact on total force flexibility. Operations must have built in flexibility and consider myriad contingencies. Scenarios where SAGs may be called upon to support one another will pose a challenge given how the Navy’s offensive firepower may soon outstick its defensive firepower. These realities will place a premium on inclusive planning and the Navy’s command by negation tradition.
Dispersion will complicate the enemy’s ISR at the expense of reducing one’s own C2 agility. It is important to note that C2 is not just further left in the kill chain than ISR and targeting, but threads the entire process together. These realities may make distributed lethality inflexible under certain circumstances, and result in a higher echelon commander’s intent being articulated in broader terms and with more modest aims. Vice Adm. Ted N. Branch, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, pointedly reminded that “the assured C2 pillar touches almost everything we do.”6 The nature of modern conventional warfare has made the EM domain the battleground for superior decision making, and distributed lethality affects the kill chain of all parties.
Distributed Lethality versus Anti-Access/Area Denial
The Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment is the threat environment dominating the thinking of senior Navy leaders. What advantages does distributed lethality offer in meeting the A2/AD challenge?
Combating an A2/AD adversary could involve operations spanning multiple areas including blue water sea control, power projection into the littoral and across land. While the CSG is a formidable asset against the warships of a near peer adversary, a salvo competition between a CSG and A2/AD forces, especially land based forces, would be suicidal. The A2/AD model is attrition based. Its predominant advantage over expeditionary forces is the logistical sustainment of PGM, ensuring victory in a salvo competition if accurate targeting is sustained. By denying commons, A2/AD reduces freedom of maneuver and raises the probability of attrition based operations, forcing expeditionary forces into the A2/AD’s strength.
Distributed lethality counters A2/AD’s attrition model through maneuver warfare’s intent to probe for weakness and influence psychology. Dispersion facilitates multiple points of entry into theater, allowing for more sea control and maneuver. This in turn strains the anti-access mission and forces the adversary into executing area denial simultaneously. Distributed forces can probe more areas of the A2/AD envelope to gain intelligence on the opponent’s ISR capabilities and discover the true extent of their maritime domain awareness (MDA), setting the stage for follow on operations. Complicating ISR and targeting offsets logistical superiority by injecting uncertainty.
Distributed lethality will benefit from the numerous capabilities the Navy is developing to maintain its edge. The concept seeks to employ platforms in different ways, and promote versatility to make the most of limited resources. How could the Navy employ its warships differently and which capabilities should be prioritized?
In a 2014 CIMSEC article Admiral Tom Rowden, then director of Surface Warfare Directorate OPNAV N96, articulated a concept of dispersed lethality andasserted a distributed force will not be dependent on the air wing.9 While distributed lethality deemphasizes carrier strike missions, the air wing will be a critical enabler for the distributed force. A distributed air wing can provide rapid response anti-submarine warfare capability and function as communications relays for maintaining a responsive decision cycle while the dispersed force operates under EMCON. The air wing’s screening and early warning functionswill be indispensable for enabling commanders on the scene to exercise initiative and engage on their own terms. The air wing will refocus from the right side to the left on the kill chain.
Much has been made of a recent memo issued by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on the Navy’s programs. The most significant directives include cutting procurement of the littoral combat ship (LCS) from 52 hulls to 40, and procuring 31 additional F-35C aircraft.10 It is important to note that distributed lethality was born from a wargame at the Naval War College where a LCS equipped with a long range surface to surface missile “added stress and complexity to the red force commander, who had to spend precious ISR resources trying to find these upgunned ships.”11 If aircraft and fast frigates/LCS are mutually exclusive investments in the near term, the Navy should explore whether it needs more shooters in the form of additional warships or air wing enablers performing the aforementioned missions.
A payload that has been wisely distributed across the Navy’s warships is the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare (EW) system. The Block III increment of the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) will provide common electronic attack capability to surface combatants.12 Not only does the CSG focus large surface combatants on the defensive application of anti-air warfare (AAW), it does the same for EW. A distributed force equipped with an offensive EW capability could cause great disruption to an adversary’s ISR picture, reinforcing distributed lethality’s intent to attack left on the kill chain. As a part of a proposed acquisition fastlane, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has singled out EW capabilities as “candidates for this kind of rapid acquisition, rapid prototyping”13 which will benefit distributed lethality enormously.
Distributed lethality aims to add more firepower to the fleet, potentially even equipping logistics vessels with missiles as a part of the maxim “if it floats, it fights” issued by OPNAV N96 chief Rear Adm. Peter Fanta.14 However, the Navy should reexamine prioritizing anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability and consider focusing on land attack. While putting modern anti-ship missiles on more surface combatants would reinvigorate the Navy’s ASuW capability, enhanced power projection across land holds greater deterrence value. The Navy’s land attack proficiency is well honed and proven through recent experience. Thankfully the versatility of the tomahawk missile can enhance both mission sets, but presents the technical challenge of installing vertical launch cells on ships that may have little space and weight to spare.
Arguably no set of capabilities stand to enhance distributed lethality more so than Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). These capabilities allow one platform’s sensors to provide a targeting solution to another platform’s weapons. This will multiply the lethality of a distributed force across vast areas of influence by allowing for the massing of payloads but not platforms. Distributed forces will be able to mitigate risk by mixing and matching whatever combination of sensors and shooters best fits an engagement while ensuring survivability.
An operational concept’s warfighting advantages are linked to its deterrence value. How does distributed lethality contribute to deterrence, and what options does it provide policymakers confronting crisis?
Distributed lethality enhances deterrence by influencing psychology through more than just kinetic means. It aims to degrade an adversary’s confidence in their weapons rather than through the threat of overwhelming force, a threat that is not as credible against an A2/AD adversary. Dispersion better allows for demonstrations within the EM domain, which may prove a less escalatory form of conveying resolve than deploying a CSG to a hotspot. The enormous creativity allowed by electromagnetic maritime deception allows for a more nuanced and flexible escalatory dynamic. Demonstration options range from temporarily confusing sensors tosimulating strikes against strategic forces with impunity as the Navy did in NORPAC 82.16 Not only does threatening the destruction of networks constitute escalation, it attacks the channels by which deception conveys deterrence.17 During crisis, distributed lethality’s modularity allows for more options in terms of what and how many assets are committed to posturing, giving policymakers a more flexible means for adjusting the “temperature.” Distributed lethality not only has more to offer for maneuver in the military sense, but also politically.
As the threat environment evolves, reassessing the CSG’s deterrence value should occur in tandem with reevaluating its warfighting applications. Captain Robert C. Rubel (ret.) makes the excellent point that “If a lucrative target loaded with potent geopolitical symbolism is on scene, with more on the way, it could precipitate a dangerous “window-of-opportunity” mindset in the opposing government.”18 Sending a CSG to a hotspot could “catalyze as deter” and threaten nightmarish devastation or monumental loss of face as carriers are hurriedly withdrawn for the sake of preservation at the outbreak of war. During the initial phases of conflict, failing to deceive ISR through nonkinetic means could quickly escalate into attempting their physical destruction, up to and including strikes on mainland installations, which is more likely if a carrier’s survival is at stake.
Distributing forces will lower a first strike’s potential for success, which is especially important for deterring an adversary employing A2/AD. Jon Solomon points out an adversary’s maritime domain awareness “will never be as accurate and comprehensive at any later point in a conflict as it is during peacetime’s waning moments.”19 A patrolling, dispersed force would provide a more complex targeting picture, and would reveal more indicators and warning of an impending attack across a larger geographical area. These advantages would be realized by having forward deployed forces already operating in a dispersed manner at Phase 0, or otherwise face the uncomfortable process of transitioning into a dispersed force in the midst of crisis or at the onset of conflict.
“It will be orange and it may look kind of odd put together and won’t have the nice slick red/gray paint and it won’t be totally tested and it might fail, but we’ve got to get it out there and see what we can do with that.”-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.20
There are additional lines of inquiry that must be explored in order to flesh out distributed lethality. For example, what does it entail for amphibious forces? These forces are more likely to face the littoral arena, and their objectives are set upon fixed geography which limits their freedom of maneuver. The history of naval warfare has shown time and time again that key naval engagements precipitated in relation to developments and objectives on land. Scenarios commonly envisioned today such as a Taiwan contingency or a defense of the Strait of Hormuz demand that the Navy examine distributed lethality in a fixed geographical context. The concept will also challenge the ability to wage coalition warfare, as the careful planning and execution demanded by dispersed operations under EMCON will require ample cooperation and true interoperability.
Nonetheless, distributed lethality offers numerous benefits. It will make the most of what the Navy has today, while maximizing the value of investments that will achieve fruition both in the short and long term. It provides means for confronting the A2/AD challenge, and fulfills Air-Sea Battle’s intent to ensure U.S. forces can “assure access, maintain freedom of action, conduct a show of force, or conduct limited strikes.”21 Ultimately, it provides political and military leadership more flexibility to maneuver within crisis and conflict. The Navy must call upon its rich history of innovation and experimentation to turn distributed lethality into a credible warfighting construct that will deter foes, reassure allies, and make the greatest Navy the world has yet seen greater still.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. He can be contacted at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
 Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. US Naval Postgraduate School address (16 March 1954).