Rapid technological advancements and the re-emergence of near peer competition require that we continue to invest in high end tools – platforms, weaponry, and sensors. Equally important are the tactics to employ them and the associated training investment we must make in today’s warfighters and future leaders in the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) cadre. The centerpiece of an amped-up warfighting culture in surface warfare is the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) program, available to all division officers, department heads eligible for shore duty, and a small number of limited duty and chief warrant officers.
The ideal onramp into the WTI community is during the first shore tour following completion of at-sea division officer assignments. This timing allows the WTI program to fit neatly in a career pipeline. Three attributes set the WTI program apart: the opportunity to develop expertise in areas the Navy needs, exposure to exclusive professional development opportunities during the readiness production tour and throughout a career, and the empowerment to make significant contributions at a very junior level.
The ability to develop confidence through professional expertise early in a career has a profound accelerating effect on an officer’s development, and directly contributes to a sense of purpose and fulfillment. WTIs are afforded the time, resources, and experience-building opportunities they need to learn while making substantive contributions to tactics and warfighting proficiency.
The WTI program offers a gateway for young officers to develop deep tactical expertise in the fields of Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), Anti-Submarine/Surface Warfare (ASW/SUW), and Amphibious Warfare (AMW). Each field begins with a two week Instructor and Tactics Course (ITC) followed by a tailored, 14-16 week course of instruction. During this instruction period, prospective WTIs are mentored and coached to develop their skills at leveraging the Plan, Brief, Execute, and Debrief (PBED) methodology for rapid learning. Following this training, WTIs complete a 24-month “readiness production tour” at SMWDC headquarters or one of four SMWDC Divisions – focused on Sea Combat, IAMD, AMW, or Mine Warfare – or selected training commands (CSG-4/15, TTGP/L, ATG, CSCS, or SWOS, to name a few). During this tour, WTI skills are matured both in the classroom – and at sea – during Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) and other fleet training events.
Learning by Teaching
The emphasis on teaching as a basis for learning is based on an idea espoused by the Roman philosopher Seneca, who declared, “docendo discimus” or, “by teaching, we learn.” This model of learning is also used to develop WTI candidates, which is why instructor skills are a main focus of ITC. Quality of lesson delivery is established through a rigorous standardization process that must be completed for each lecture delivered by a WTI. It’s not uncommon for a WTI to invest weeks or months of research, as well as conduct numerous “murder boards” with fellow WTIs, technical experts, and senior officers, before presenting at the podium. The process is meant to maintain a high standard of instruction where WTIs have established mastery of content and exhibit confidence in delivery.
Focused Specialty Areas
During initial WTI training, students are assigned relevant tactical projects that match critical fleet needs and account for student interests. Projects often involve new technology or capability that must be thoughtfully and effectively integrated into maritime warfare doctrine. Other projects center on updating existing doctrine or repurposing existing systems in new and innovative ways. Specialty areas and projects are assigned based on WTI preference and crosscut broadly, from high-end tactics to training systems and learning science.
Focus area research often extends past initial WTI training, into subsequent readiness production tours, and beyond. SMWDC provides mentorship, applies resources, and opens doors to connect WTIs to thought leaders, technical community experts, industry partners, and community leaders to develop their specialty area work.
Coaching and Training Skills
WTIs are the core workforce of SMWDC’s advanced tactical training at sea. They rely on replay tools that include systems data, voice, and other information to rapidly build ground truth and facilitate debrief sessions. Equipped with irrefutable data on what really happened, the “I thought” and “I felt” ambiguities are driven out of the debrief process, enabling shipboard watch teams to learn and grow together more rapidly.
The combination of WTI knowledge, replay-assisted PBED, and specialized training focused on team dynamics and coaching skills offers a powerful method for improving learning across the fleet. The aim is to create an environment of transparency and mutual trust among watch team members, where Sailors enter debrief sessions eager to identify their own shortfalls in order to improve team and unit performance.
At-sea training allows WTIs to observe multiple ships and teams across a variety of training and operational circumstances. The WTIs gain practical insight into how doctrine plays out on the deckplates, as well as hone their ability to identify team performance issues during at-sea training. While the immediate objective is to improve tactical proficiency and unit performance, the skills WTIs gain are extraordinarily useful in future roles as department heads.
The final link in WTI expertise development leverages the strong partnership between SMWDC and the technical community. Our ability to measure and analyze performance among units is a challenge due to complex weapons systems, ship configuration variance, and the number of watchstanders distributed in different controlling stations. To build a clear picture of how tactics, training, and systems converge into warfighting capability, a detailed event reconstruction must take place that considers system actions, operator actions, and tactics.
Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Corona, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Keyport, and SMWDC have developed a Data Analysis Working Group (DAWG) to conduct performance analysis of SMWDC training events. The intent is to extract empirical, data-driven insights from the careful analysis of systems, operators, and tactical performance.
The process is laborious, but straightforward. Following at-sea training, event data is extracted from unit combat systems and sensors and then brought to NSWC for detailed analysis. Following initial analysis from the technical community, WTIs and SMWDC leaders stand up a 1-2 week DAWG event.
By examining system performance, operator performance, and tactics as a consolidated effort, the process can lead to discoveries not captured by direct observation – system anomalies, operator actions, and flaws in tactics. Findings and lessons learned can be very useful because they are underpinned by empirical data and technical analysis. To date, more than 40 weapons system performance anomaly reports have been generated from DAWG events. Systems issues have been identified and funneled to the appropriate technical community to resolve, tactics have been updated, and numerous operator performance issues have been provided to the training community as opportunities to grow or strengthen curriculum. This allows SMWDC to advocate for tactical updates among partner warfighting development centers and provide feedback to the TYCOM and Surface Warfare training enterprise.
For the WTI, immersion in performance analysis activity with civilian technical experts offers a unique lens into how weapons systems, operator performance, and tactics are all linked to create combat potential.
Because the program is highly sought after by driven, focused professionals, the majority of WTIs are on track to return to sea as department heads. Notably, WTI cadre retention is double historical averages in the Surface Warfare community at roughly 70 percent. WTIs heading back to sea have a notable advantage given the training they receive and the experiences they gain at a formative stage of their career that others simply do not.
Similar to officers with other subspecialty skills – Nuclear Program, Financial Management, Operations Analysis, and Space Systems – WTIs have unique skillsets based on their focus areas. For example, IAMD WTIs in readiness production tour billets at the Naval Air Warfare Development Center in Fallon, Nev., have completed the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School, becoming dual-patched WTIs. These officers are among very few in the Navy with expertise in Integrated Fire Control (IFC) from both the Aviation and Surface perspectives.
To maximize the return on investment for these unique WTI skills, SMWDC is closely aligned with PERS-41 in the distribution process, ensuring future assignments leverage these strengths (e.g., assigning a WTI with IFC expertise to IFC-capable units). While assignments will always consider many variables, this close relationship ensures WTI experience and skills are considered during the assignments process.
WTI training and readiness production tours leave less time to complete graduate education between division officer and department head assignments. To mitigate this challenge, WTIs are awarded priority for graduate degree programs at service colleges as well as the Naval Postgraduate School distance learning programs.
Additionally, WTIs are afforded unique and exclusive professional development opportunities that extend throughout their careers. Annual “Re-Blue” events held at SMWDC Divisions are a venue for WTIs, both in-and-out of readiness production tours to attend week-long immersive workshops where information is exchanged and re-distributed into the fleet. Funded travel to Re-Blue events keeps WTIs connected to the sharp edge of the operational Fleet during their readiness production tours and beyond. Re-Blue events are an example of SMWDC’s commitment to maintaining excellence within the WTI cadre.
SMWDC is unlocking the potential of our junior officers and post-department heads, empowering them to swarm and solve difficult problems. While experience will always have a place at the table, this new generation of naval officers holds several key advantages. Unencumbered by “the way things have always been,” these officers are better suited to envision a future that leverages trends in technology, communication, and learning. This is an area where fresh perspective is an asymmetric advantage. WTIs bring their creativity, ingenuity, and initiative to developing the next generation of cutting-edge tactics, techniques, and procedures.
WTI’s are creating a positive impact in the Fleet. From immersion in their focused specialty areas to tactical projects, and deckplate innovations, WTIs have built an impressive list of contributions since SMWDC’s formal establishment in June 2015. Consider the below examples of projects inspired, developed, and built by WTIs, while being supported by SMWDC leadership.
Lt. Cmdr. Katie Whitman was the lead action officer developing the SWATT in port and underway curriculum from the ground-up, using best-of-breed practices culled from aviation and other communities. She developed replay-assisted PBED for rapid learning and crafted the SWATT performance analysis strategy, which are now distinctive features of the exercise.
Lt. Ben Graybosch partnered with NUWC Keyport to revise the VISTA replay tool to include A/V-15 sonar system data, enabling the detailed “ground truth” ASW replay for unit sonar teams within 4 hours of completing ASW events. Graybosch’s effort moved the needle on ASW ground truth replay availability from days or weeks down to hours after an event. With replay tools that offer ground truth much earlier, we can increase the velocity of learning within surface ASW teams dramatically. VISTA is now employed in every ASW event supported by SMWDC and other fleet training events.
Lt. Brandon Naddel was the lead author for the Naval Surface Gunnery Publication released in 2017. Naddel and his team revised a 15-year-old document laden with technical jargon and dated systems into an information-packed and easily understood tactical publication relevant to all surface ships.
Lt. Tyson Eberhardt authored tactical guidance for the emerging Continuous Active Sonar (CAS) capability. Eberhardt leveraged at-sea training and experimentation events to rapidly refine tactical guidance in 2017. Based on his work, the CAS capability was used to great success in the operational fleet later that year.
Lt. Matt Clark designed and built a Target Motion Analysis (TMA) training tool accessible on any classified terminal with built-in performance analytics. Clark’s tool has potential to provide insight on the rate of individual skills decay in TMA. This type of information could then be used to inform currency thresholds for future training requirements.
Lt. Aaron Jochimsen was the lead author for the SM-6 TACMEMO. He conducted extensive research on SM-6 that included production site visits, participation in wargaming and experimentation, as well as involvement in fleet missile firings.
Chief Warrant Officer Troy Woods completed a readiness production tour with the Center for Surface Combat Systems, where he was involved in training individuals and teams on IAMD skills. Woods was subsequently assigned to USS BUNKER HILL (CG 52), where his skills are being put to use as lead IAMD planner within the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. Woods attended the IAMD WTI Re-Blue event in Dahlgren, Va., to share the operational perspective with his fellow IAMD WTIs and receive the latest tactical information from SMWDC IAMD Division leadership.
The WTI Program is a career opportunity that values our officers and empowers them to solve complex and challenging problems. SMWDC WTIs naturally have an eye toward innovation, are re-building the surface warfare library of tactical guidance, are shepherding new capability from delivery to operational success, and challenging the status quo in surface warfare training. Lt. Jochimsen, the lead author of the SM-6 TACMEMO, said it best:
“The opportunity to develop deep knowledge – Subject Matter Expertise – is a game-changing confidence builder as a junior officer. I feel much more prepared for the challenges of an at-sea department head assignment after completing a WTI readiness production tour.”
The WTI cadre of warriors, thinkers, and teachers are uniquely equipped with the experience and knowledge to make significant contributions during their readiness production tours and throughout their careers. It is no coincidence that the same skills involved in developing tactical mastery are extraordinarily useful in subsequent assignments at sea – department head, XO, CO, and major command.
While statistically significant trend data does not yet exist for WTI selection for career milestone billets, members of the WTI cadre performed very well during recent administrative boards.
For those looking to increase their confidence and competitiveness for future at-sea assignments, the WTI program offers a unique opportunity to strengthen their professional attributes and shape the Navy for years to come.
Rear Admiral John Wade is Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.
Commander Jeff Heames serves as the assistant chief of staff for operations, training, and readiness for Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.
Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 9, 2017) – Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI), Lt. Lisa Malone of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Canter (SMWDC), provides tactical training to officers aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a Group Sail training unit exercise (GRUSL) with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier strike Group (TRCSG). (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bill M. Sanders/Released)
During a recent CIMSEC topic week, the idea of the “Future Capital Ship” was discussed. This hypothetical asset was depicted several different ways that week. Transplanting the idea of the twentieth century battleship or aircraft carrier to the near future, this conceptual combatant could be bristling with railguns and directed energy weapons, in lieu of an “all big gun” dreadnaught’s armament. It could also be the mothership to many cross-domain unmanned systems, an update to the aircraft carrier archetype. Some viewed “capital ships” of the future as swarms of unmanned systems operating autonomously, a complete disruption in naval warfare akin to the first dreadnaught – eliminating the need for a manned vessel entirely.
Taking a different route, the organizational investment that was put into the capital ships of the past could be applied in a way that transcends the idea of physical warfighting platforms. The CNO Strategic Studies Group 35 used that thought experiment to point out that the Navy of the future should treat the “Network of Humans and Machines” as the future capital ship. The argument was also well-made that investments in information warfare and cyber capabilities should be at the forefront, even to the extent that the U.S. Navy will eventually evolve into a cyber force with a maritime component.
These concepts are all deserving of consideration, and the future Navy will most likely be a combination of many of them, but the major foundation of naval power is usually an afterthought. The dominant Navy of the future will be the one with the most robust and adaptable logistics support structure needed to succeed in the future high-end fight as well as maintain command of the seas in peacetime through sustained global presence.
Death of a Salesman
Aggressive recapitalization of the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) is needed because the Navy’s current logistics force structure is unprepared to support a distributed fleet in a fight against a peer competitor. There are fewer than 40 hulls in the CLF, a mix of oiler (AO and AOE) and dry cargo (AKE) supply ships of differing types. It is impossible employ them all at once, so the effective number of usable hulls is in fact lower for they require upkeep like every other vessel. They are incapable of defending themselves from anything other than limited numbers of lightly-armed small boats. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that a limited number will be available to replenish shooters in the fight – if they can survive an area denial battlespace. In a high-end fight, they will become prime targets, and providing escorts to CLF assets only takes shooters away from the fight. But given the logistically-intensive nature of naval power projection, CLF ships will take on capital-ship value in a tightly contested conflict.
The force structure of CLF ships we have today is based off of their employment in the older model of hub-and-ferry routing, centered on specific ports in overseas Areas of Responsibilities (AORs). As the Navy moves toward fighting as a distributed fleet, it creates a complex variant of the travelling salesman problem (TSP). Familiar to anyone who has taken an operations analysis business course, TSP looks for the optimization of a route that passes through a set of points once each. Cities or houses in a neighborhood are often the problem set. In a disaggregated environment, a replenishment asset must do the same (if its customers have to stay in the fight), but the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the delivery locations will be moving targets and the distances between them will stretch around threatened areas and land masses. The academic TSP problem seldom includes the possibility of the salesman getting killed and never reaching the destination. In addition, naval assets are going to be limited to external lines of communication in some future conflicts. Ships will travel farther distances than their peers in the opposing force, leading to longer transit times between shore support and afloat customers.
CONOPs and Force Structure for Distributed Naval Logistics
Distributed naval warfare needs more “salesmen,” working together as an interconnected web of logistics assets. An enlarged fleet of combat support vessels is the base of this new support schema. Practically, this is easier done than asking for more warships. As we build a larger number of warships for the future, our military shipyards are going to reach capacity, especially if they continue to build platforms using conventional methods. New replenishment ships can be acquired in a number of ways, apart from dedicating some military shipyards to building replenishment vessels (which will take away from warship building capacity), or building them in foreign countries (which is politically unfeasible). There is a surplus of offshore support vessels (OSVs) that could be purchased and put into Military Sealift Command (MSC) service, along with other commercial vessels that could be modified for CLF purposes. Modified in smaller civilian shipyards instead of military ones, they could create work that would please the constituents of a number of decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Under new CONOPs, vessels such as OSVs could be employed in shorter range replenishments to independent deployers on missions such as antipiracy and ballistic missile defense.
These additional CLF vessels will still be vulnerable, especially if kept in the current MSC construct as unarmed USNS assets. Risk of enemy attack will have to be built into the calculus of how these ships are employed. But giving them sufficient self-defense weapons and damage control resilience to survive being set upon by enemy platforms would be prohibitively expensive. A larger number of our vessels would create a targeting problem – they can service more combatants, operate from more ports, and inject uncertainty into the situational awareness of an adversary. In the current model, there are only a couple of CLF vessels operating in an AOR, and watching select ports will give plenty of indications of U.S. Navy presence.
These ships can be augmented with automation to the level that is currently employed on commercial vessels, allowing MSC to man more ships with the same number of personnel. An AKE in current MSC service has approximately 130 personnel onboard, while there are thousands of commercial vessels afloat with crews numbering less than 30. At-sea replenishment creates demands for more personnel during alongside evolutions, but this could be mitigated with updating the CONREP (connected replenishment) stations with new equipment. The receiving ship could guide the delivery ship’s systems remotely with short-range remote operation systems, supervised by a few merchantmen on the delivery ship. A fly-away crew could attend to this equipment only when needed, and not ride for long transits, or into harm’s way.
To reduce the threat profile of the manned CLF hulls, a system of smaller unmanned systems would create a web of logistical support. Cargo unmanned aerial systems (CUAS) will travel hundreds of miles point-to-point to deliver critical parts, instead of sailing entire vessels closer to get within VERTREP (vertical replenishment) range. They could carry parts for multiple customers and use aviation-capable ships as lily pads to get to others. Heavier lift CUAS could carry out VERTEP from unmanned CLF vessels to delivery ships, obviating the need for sailing alongside to transfer parts in a connected replenishment with a robotic vessel. These systems would be augmented by small unmanned surface vessels, possibly based off of the Sea Hunter Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), that could blend into surface traffic and make deliveries in battlespaces that are not conducive to aerial vehicles.
There are a number of solutions to support problems that will also be needed in the Navy of the future. Digital investments will be needed to improve our logistics IT structure to create a more resilient and adaptable family of systems. Taken to the farthest extent, this would lead to Vertical Expert Systems (specialized AI), predicting demand through data analytics and optimizing the use of delivery assets. Additive Manufacturing will allow parts sourcing from many more locations than are currently available. Underway ships could eventually have the ability to make complex parts for their use or for other vessels that lack the technology. Fuel production from bacteria and “grow-tainer” produce farms could bring commodity sourcing much closer to the fight. Adoption of these technologies is important, but they do not eliminate the need for support to be physically delivered to our combatants anytime in the near future.
The counterargument to a larger fleet of CLF hulls deserves to be heard. The Navy is looking toward a 355-ship force, and most of that plus-up number would be in warships. We want a lean Navy- with as little tooth-to-tail as possible, and the idea of buying more replenishment assets seems to be anathema to that. But the Navy must recognize it is unable to fight a long-term shooting war, especially in a disaggregated manner, with the current CLF force structure. A larger fleet of combatants only complicates this problem, especially since a majority of these shooters will be powered by liquid petroleum products that have to be brought to them.
To placate these concerns, these new vessels do not have to be single mission vessels, dedicated only to logistics. They could act as routers for line-of-sight transmissions, or even couriers of data packages between other platforms when they carry out their supply missions in a communications-restricted environment. They could seed sensors or deploy and recover unmanned systems in their transits. These missions could reduce the burden on warships and dedicated survey ships in peacetime and in war.
A Worthy Investment
A successful future U.S. Navy will be comprised of innovatively designed combatants, with arsenals of new weaponry, employing cyberwarfare and unmanned systems to an extent that we can barely conceptualize now. They will still need a capital-ship level of investment in an interconnected web of logistics assets to fight against a peer adversary. The toilet paper, Diet Pepsi, and turbolaser parts have to come from somewhere.
Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps officer in the United States Navy and a member of the CIMSEC Board of Directors. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.
Featured Image: (Feb.12, 2015) USNS Guadalupe (T-AO-200) delivers supplies to the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8), not pictured, during a nighttime vertical replenishment. (US Navy photo by MC1 Ronald Gutridge)
“These three forces – the forces at play in the maritime system, the force of the information system, and the force of technology entering the environment – and the interplay between them have profound implications for the United States Navy.”- A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.1
A capital ship’s capabilities has always revealed what is most decisive in naval warfare. In the next high-end fight, what will be most decisive is the ability to secure decision superiority in a contested information environment fraught with uncertainty and change. The understanding of how information will be contested and employed in future war remains in flux. The value of information in guiding fleet tactics and force structure is already being realized by China in unconventional ways. But what will emerge from an understanding of the future threat environment is that capital ships, especially aircraft carriers, can take the lead in contesting the electromagnetic domain itself.
China is winning the battle of presence in Asiatic waters. According to the Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, the level of presence the U.S. Navy will reach this year in the South China Sea is on track for 900 ship days,3 and that figure is higher than usual due to an uptick in strike groups operating in the region. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now shadows every U.S. warship that transits the South China Sea,4 FONOPs or otherwise, meaning the PLAN has likely surpassed the U.S. Navy in how much forward presence it maintains in key waters in Asia.
However, the PLA Navy is just the tip of the iceberg. China’s robust standing naval presence is augmented by coast guard units and potentially hundreds of paramilitary fishermen (maritime militia) and commercial vessels. China frequently leverages these forces for escalation, such as how the number of Chinese ships around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands’ contiguous zone surged to about 230 ships less than a month after The Hague ruled against China’s South China Sea claims.5In recent years there has been a consistent presence of about 70-90 Chinese ships around disputed East China Sea waters, up from virtually nothing a decade earlier.6
These paramilitary forces will readily provide escalation and wartime advantages for China, especially in the area of information. These units will likely exploit the protection rights of non-combatants to secretly contribute intelligence to China’s military in a theater of active hostilities. This will pose difficult legal, diplomatic, and military dilemmas and test the limits of rules of engagement. Fears over paramilitary units will exacerbate suspicions of thousands of civilian vessels and add new layers of complexity to the operating environment. Widely dispersed paramilitary units could provide early warning and conduct battle damage assessment without incurring the risk of emitting the unique signatures of military-grade equipment. Regardless of the fact that the majority of USN and PLAN assets reside outside forward areas during peacetime, this robust paramilitary presence would provide China with some sense of informational continuity in the transition between war and peace. It is an information-focused distributed fleet on the cheap.
The rise of China’s maritime might is causing a significant shift in the operating environment the U.S. Navy considered itself the lone master of for three-quarters of a century. This displacement is jeopardizing the credibility of U.S. security guarantees in the region and allowing China to more confidently intimidate its neighbors. It is also a direct challenge to the U.S. Navy’s core missions of upholding the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation and offering avenues of access for American power. The level of U.S. Navy forward presence will only grow more inferior as China continues its large-scale and comprehensive maritime buildup. America’s grip on maritime superiority in Asia is weakening, and the U.S. Navy must undergo a major transformation to stay on top.
Establishing a Vision of Networked War at Sea
“DO NOT – REPEAT NOT – BELIEVE WE SHOULD SEEK NIGHT ENGAGEMENT. POSSIBLE ADVANTAGES OF RADAR MORE THAN OFFSET BY DIFFICULTIES OF COMMUNICATIONS AND LACK OF TRAINING IN FLEET TACTICS AT NIGHT.”-Admiral Willis Lee responds to Admiral Raymond Spruance’s query on whether to attempt a night engagement on June 17, 1944, two days before the Battle of the Philippine Sea.8
A transformation is already underway as navies around the world seek to conceptualize what warfighting at sea will entail in the information age. A common vision must be founded on a basic understanding of how various aspects of war have been evolved or outright revolutionized by modern technology. Technology has turned the electromagnetic spectrum into the centrally contested domain that critical warfighting functions depend on across the entire breadth of their execution.
Networks are not only tools but battlefields. Winning in the electromagnetic domain will determine whether critical intelligence is transferred, instructions are conveyed, and if the complex process of accurately targeting modern weapons is completed. Electronic warfare, cyber warfare, and ISR will largely be directed at understanding, confusing, and then deconstructing the system of systems that forms the adversary’s battle network. The fundamental trust that operators place in their equipment and each other will be a prime target. Degrading this trust could cripple a force out of proportion to actual losses.
A key element of the U.S. Navy’s effort to adapt to this new environment will be widely distributing its combat power to gain sea control rather than closely aggregating units together as has been common practice for generations. Up until recently, fleet combat required physically concentrating forces for concentrating their firepower. Distribution reflects how the technology behind network-centric warfare has made it feasible to disaggregate ships yet still aggregate their capabilities. Distribution better postures a fleet for electromagnetic maneuver by deconflicting the electronic warfare capabilities of friendly units and forcing an adversary to spend more time localizing contacts across a large expanse of ocean.9 But managing the networked functions of a distributed fleet is a hard enough challenge that will grow even more difficult when the electromagnetic domain is contested in wartime.
Command and control grows more strenuous with greater distribution. U.S. and allied assets will already be dispersed throughout the battlespace in some manner at the onset of sudden war, and will have to be quickly maneuvered into some viable operational structure. The task of organizing a dispersed naval force across a large theater as hostilities break out will be critical not just for success but for survival against a near-peer opponent.
This challenge reveals how gaining momentary surprise at the onset of full-scale networked war at sea can reap strategically disabling blows. Even brief victories against networks will quickly translate into the sudden and decisive destruction that has always characterized war at sea. This grim possibility will be all the more important to guard against when the Navy is asked to project power against adversaries that will enjoy the benefits of operating close to home, such as land-based anti-ship capabilities that enjoy inherently steep logistical and survivability advantages over naval forces.
Distribution enhances survivability by attacking left of the kill chain, the complex process of targeting modern weapons. By making the adversary’s information gathering and decision-making processes the focus, distributed warfighting emphasizes deception. Deception and distribution will exacerbate the severe challenge of processing the copious amounts of information gathered by powerful, modern sensors. For example, a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft can generate up to 900 gigabytes of data in a single mission.11 Overstimulating sensors can fray nerves and induce an adversary to make decisions to their own detriment, such as radiating active sensors which can compromise stealth, unknowingly maneuvering into firing envelopes, and even firing salvos of hard-to-replenish missiles at ghost contacts.
Gathering intelligence on the wide variety of unique signatures and capabilities that compose an adversary’s electronic order of battle will be pivotal in facilitating wartime adaptation. Threat libraries will be rapidly updated as adversaries reveal the true extent of their electronic capabilities. This intelligence will be fed into a fast-firing cycle of iterative adaptation where superior electronic capabilities will be fielded via something as quick as a software update.
Operators will strive to understand the implications of a variety of actions and inaction amidst a constant struggle for electromagnetic context. Ships will carefully regulate emissions to avoid detection, yet emissions are paradoxically important for delivering effects, managing command and control (C2), and updating situational awareness. Employing a powerful emitter such as a SPY radar can pose a liability, and ships that feel compelled to radiate and communicate for the sake of enabling their own defense can compromise friendly units and become more susceptible to follow-on attack.
An analogy for surviving modern naval combat can then be drawn from Dr. Stephen Biddle’s description of the revolution in land warfare that transpired in the early twentieth century:
“…the complexity of the earth’s surface offers enough cover and concealment to substantially shield land forces from the increasing potential lethality of modern weaponry. However, to operate a mass military of potentially millions of soldiers in a way that can exploit the natural complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment means accepting tremendous complexity in tactics and operational art. Relative to, for example, Napoleonic tactics where armies could be lined up in shoulder-to-shoulder linear formations and simply marched towards an objective, if you’re going to use the complexity of the earth’s surface to provide cover in ways those massed shoulder-to-shoulder formations couldn’t do, then you’re going to have to break down those massed formations into small handfuls of soldiers few enough in number that they can fit into the folds in the earth that create what militaries ironically call dead ground, where dead ground is of course where you can live…”12
The mass, attrition-based Napoleonic formations of today are the capital ship-centered strike groups, and the “small handfuls of soldiers” are a networked fleet’s dispersed surface action groups. The protective “folds in the earth” are the various nuances of the electromagnetic domain that is being contested and manipulated. Making sense of these nuances within the spectrum in order to recognize opportunities to deliver effects will define the competition.
The wartime implications of the latest technologies are often not fully understood before they are fielded, but having a common vision of future war at sea serves as a necessary foundation for training, equipping, and operating a navy. The extent to which such a vision is being jointly established and acted upon in a coordinated manner by the various communities within the U.S. Navy is unclear.
The surface Navy is in the early stages of operationalizing its distributed lethality concept that envisions numerous surface action groups operating offensively to achieve a cumulative sea control effect. This stands in stark contrast to the strike group constructs that have been the focus of surface ships for generations, where combatants specialized in escorting capital ships in mainly defensive roles. A new distributed operating concept for surface combatants should be facilitating a Navy-wide appraisal of what this means for all other communities and how the Navy interfaces with the joint force more broadly.
To the Navy’s credit, Naval Warfare Development Command recently convened stakeholders from across the naval enterprise to contribute to the development of a forthcoming Distributed Maritime Operations concept (DMO) that could serve as a focal point for force development.13 Where there is room for improvement is in articulating what role capital ships, especially aircraft carriers, will play in a distributed fleet.
Aviation-Centric Information Dominance CONOPS for the Distributed Fleet
“At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapon range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (ret.)14
The idea of a distributed fleet aggregating its capabilities through networking is not itself new.15 What is novel is the confidence in the ability of the scouting and communication enterprise to provide the information needed to effectively use high-tech weapons at ranges that were once considered extreme. But confidence is not capability, as evidenced by the decision to pull the anti-ship Tomahawk missile from the Navy’s inventory due to a lack of such confidence in the 1990s.16 Now within a decade an anti-ship Tomahawk will be back in the fleet, featuring a 1,000 nm range and offering a widely distributed sea control capability alongside other forthcoming networked missiles.17 The question is whether the Navy will be able to scout and communicate well enough to employ these weapons at range, especially when distributing the fleet compounds the information-related challenges of operating within a contested electromagnetic domain.
As warships spread out to confound an adversary’s situational awareness and offer options to deliver fires, capital ships will make scouting, secure information transfer, and deception their primary missions. The natural advantages aviation enjoys in electromagnetic and physical maneuver will make the aircraft carrier central in conducting these critical missions. By taking the lead in contesting the spectrum, the capital ship will animate the networked fleet by securing decision superiority.
Aviation’s Key Advantage
Electronic action is still bound by physical limitations. Aviation can act as the connective tissue of an ocean-going battle network because altitude has a corresponding effect on detection and communication capability via a superior ability to peer over the horizon compared to a ship. This extra dimension of maneuver introduces more flexibility for managing the risks of sensing and communicating, making aircraft the scouting and information transfer asset of choice.
A high-flying aircraft with a powerful radar can sense surface contacts further out than surface contacts could sense one another over the horizon. An aircraft can emit or transmit, drop to lower altitude, and then relocate faster than a ship to mitigate risk and get information to where it needs to be.Aircraft can use their speed to maximize the use of line-of-sight communications whose considerable bandwidth and jam-resistant advantages will prove indispensable in a contested information environment.
These physical properties will allow aircraft to facilitate fleet connectivity by forming sensing and communication pathways through maneuver. Commanders will have a flexible means to augment the scope and focus of information that is being collected and shared throughout the force. Airborne sensor fusion will help commanders prioritize information flows to meet rapidly emerging needs. These characteristics hold significant tactical and operational implications for the distributed fleet.
Engage-on-Remote, In-Flight Retargeting, and Command and Control
The technology that makes distributed operations possible will be for naught if an evolution in tactical thought does not accompany it. A primary challenge of distributed warfighting will be delivering the information needed to employ the engage-on-remote and retargeting capabilities that are the hallmark of a distributed fleet’s combat potential.
Retargeting and engage-on-remote make weapons more reliable and fleets more flexible. The engagement process is transformed from a linear kill chain into an expansive kill web. Networked units can leverage capabilities from across the force to meet individual needs. Platforms will be able to fire without emitting, improving survivability. Salvos can build density as missiles from across the distributed fleet are aggregated.
But engage-on-remote and the long range of potential exchanges means that sailors will have to get used to firing weapons with incomplete information. The passage of time and the dynamic nature of the contested spectrum means that the information that precipitated an engagement will often not suffice to complete it. Retargeting will prove decisive by allowing new information to be fed into a live engagement. It will help keep firepower discriminate, resilient, and long-range while mitigating the risks of operating with less information.
Retargeting and engage-on-remote will dictate a fleet formation because a distributed force is not formless, but rather than an extended strike group of sorts. The ability to leverage engage-on-remote and retargeting capabilities from across the force will be a function of fleet connectivity and weapons range. The distance between platforms and payloads will affect the timeliness of information transfer, and weapons range will dictate the maximum extent to which forces can disperse from one another yet still combine their fires effectively.
An animation of a hypothetical scenario demonstrating the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). (JHU APL)18
The wide-ranging tactical flexibility that can be gleaned from retargeting and engage-on-remote is directly correlated with the ability to transfer information. Ideally any sensor or communicator will support any shooter or payload, but passing information between them all will be difficult when that information is contested and loses relevance with time. The ability to fire and contribute information without radiating organic sensors opens up numerous tactical options, but using this capability will mean the man on the scene will have to rely on a man not on the scene. Therefore these capabilities combine to fundamentally change the perception of time, timing, and opportunity for a fleet.
This will aggravate the challenge of precisely conveying commander’s intent and delegating the appropriate level of initiative to networked forces. Much of the public writing on distributed lethality has argued for delegating authority to the man on the scene, but that man will be just one more node in a network. They may not fully realize the tactical possibilities at hand compared to someone with better situational awareness and a broader view of how the fleet’s combat power is distributed. The organic sensors of ships cannot be trusted to independently target payloads that need to travel hundreds of miles through a contested information environment, especially when ships operate under EMCON. Launching a salvo will be a momentous decision as a large amount of a ship’s or surface action group’s magazine could be depleted in a single exchange, requiring confidence in information and the larger operational situation.
Aviators will become the tactical controllers of warship-based capabilities in a distributed fleet because their maneuver advantage translates into a superior ability to facilitate broad situational awareness, sensor fusion, and fleet connectivity. They will have more context and ability to make decisions, execute quick workarounds, and gather additional information versus warships that are tightly controlling their emissions while proximate to the adversary. Aviation-based network nodes can shift schemes of maneuver to help commanders balance the need for information up the chain of command with the need for initiative down the chain of command.
The fact that only aircraft can realistically trail and intercept missiles in real time means they can provide more inputs to facilitate retargeting, and could close with inbound enemy salvos to target their datalinks. Aviators (with automated decision aids) will manage information flows between sensors and communications to make numerous inputs into the engagement process as it is transpiring.Because corrupt information will be commonplace in the next high-end fight, and because autonomous machines cannot be entrusted with life-or-death decisions, humans must own this process. In-flight retargeting is a weapon’s insurance policy, and aviation can be its guarantor.
In this particular sensor-to-shooter construct, aircraft become the primary sensors and communicators because they can facilitate fleet connectivity through maneuver, and ships become the primary shooters. Since firing without emitting makes units less susceptible to detection, warships will become more survivable. This is preferable because aircraft are more numerous and replaceable than ships. But employing a dynamic ship-to-aircraft information interface will involve a steep learning curve. Speaking on the challenges of making the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability a reality, then-Captain Jim Kilby remarked that it involves “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”19
Aviation will also facilitate C2 by helping commanders with early-warning, battle damage assessment, and keeping tabs on one’s own forces. Having more time to react to threats will be key in crafting a tailored response from various tools that each have their own electromagnetic implications, rather than making commanders feel compelled to go all out to defend against the possibility of imminent destruction. Learning the status of dueling enemy and friendly ships can be risky, but when a ship under EMCON explodes in the ocean, does it make a sound?
Lastly, an aviation-centric C2 scheme will build upon the natural advantages of undersea forces. Submarines will be able to penetrate further into the battlespace than surface ships, improving their chances of discovering high-quality information about the adversary. Securely getting that information back to the fleet via aviation-based network nodes will make the risk worth it, and engage-on-remote and retargeting can impose a daunting tactical problem by forcing adversaries to localize a submarine that is firing missiles or deploying decoys at range.
Deception and Softkill Countermeasures
One of distributed lethality’s maxims is “If it floats it fights” but if it floats it should also deceive. Deception will enhance survivability, gather intelligence on the enemy’s electronic order of battle, and facilitate strikes. Superior deception earns decision superiority.
Deception-enabling capabilities can be distributed throughout the fleet by fielding a greater variety and quantity of decoys. These can include long-range decoy missiles that mimic the profiles of aerial platforms and conduct offensive electronic warfare, as well as shorter-range launched decoys and floatable payloads that can take on ships’ signatures. These systems often weigh less and take up less space than hardkill systems, making them easier to distribute en masse. For example, the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) missile is about half the length and a tenth of the weight of a Tomahawk cruise missile, and has a 500-mile range.20Such a decoy missile could enable an advanced fleet-wide deception capability by being fitted into launch cells, box launchers, and wing pylons.
Aviation can enhance fleet deception by flexibly deploying, retargeting, and transporting a large variety of decoys on demand. The extent to which the platforms themselves are actively at the forefront of deception should be minimized. Operators should strive to delegate as much deception as possible to decoys and unmanned platforms that can take on the risks of raising a higher electromagnetic profile. Deception plans involving decoy saturation would allow for momentary opportunities to break EMCON and gather information as an adversary reacts to the deception. Decoy missiles could act as penetration aids to improve the lethality of salvos and help aircraft scout risky areas. Aircraft can manage decoy missile datalinks in-flight to maximize their usefulness.
Lastly, softkill countermeasures can have far more favorable cost-exchange ratios against missiles compared to hardkill measures, allowing a distributed fleet to conserve munitions and improve survivability. Aviation assets could maneuver on short notice to deploy softkill payloads along the axis of an inbound salvo to dilute it at a distance from the intended target. These comparatively small and lightweight payloads would allow a capital ship, via an interoperable aviation platform, to flexibly deploy defensive countermeasures over a large area and replenish other ships’ decoy and softkill inventories on demand. This capability will be critical because a distributed fleet will often struggle to mass defensive firepower in a timely manner.
Wartime Adaptation and Augmentation
Capital ships themselves still possess unique advantages in information age warfare. Capital ships will play a key role in facilitating frontline wartime adaptation because they will field the largest afloat concentration of intelligence, cryptologic, and cyber expertise in the battlespace.21 As information is continuously gathered and transferred by aviation across the distributed fleet, capital ship-based expertise will lead the effort to process that information to discover vulnerabilities and devise fixes and exploits. Capital ships will in turn use their superior reach back capabilities to act as a conduit between the forward-most warfighter and national-level assets that can aid adaptation, such as Navy and DoD threat libraries.
Aviation can take those exploits and fixes back to the distributed fleet and the enemy from the capital ship. This will be especially poignant for sustaining a deception advantage, where both sides will place priority on unmasking the other’s means of deceiving. Fresh updates based on the latest intelligence could be patched into modular decoy payloads at the capital ship, and then aviation can transport these enhanced decoys back out to the fleet via a platform that is interoperable with capital ships and surface combatants.
Such a ubiquitous and modular aerial platform will allow the capital ship to compliment warship needs in a variety of ways. Aside from aiding various warfare- and information-related missions, having an aerial platform that can land on almost anything will open up options for augmenting logistics and personnel on the fly. It will also enhance capital ship survivability by allowing the surface force to take on some of the burden of sustaining aviation assets.
Unmanned systems can play a role by conducting a variety of the missions described, whether information transfer, sensing, or deploying decoys and softkill countermeasures. Because of their relatively small size and weight, the sensors and payloads required to conduct these missions can be fielded by unmanned systems in the nearer-term compared to heavier offensive weaponry. Additionally, automation alone will improve communications security because more automation means fewer operator inputs are needed. Because robotics has shrunken platform size, future capital ships will be able to easily host small undersea, amphibious, and surface unmanned systems to extend their reach into more domains than before.
“The competition is on, and pace dominates. In an exponential competition, the winner takes all. We must shake off any vestiges of comfort or complacency that our previous advantages may have afforded us, and move out to build a larger, more distributed, and more capable battle fleet that can execute our mission.” The Future Navy.22
Wayne Hughes offers an important caveat to all of this, that “tactical complexity is a peacetime disease” and that “the temptation to equate complex tools with complex tactics will be almost irresistible.”23As with what happened in WWII and elsewhere, the Navy and the U.S. military writ large will run the risk of employing tactics and technologies that are not yet fully inculcated into the force if war breaks out. Given the current pace of change, that risk may never go away.
What should be clear, at least for now, is that there is still a place for capital ships in high-end warfighting. The distributed fleet of tomorrow can become real if capital ships dedicate themselves toward prosecuting the most important and elusive target of all: information.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
5. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Protest Against the Intrusion of Chinese Coast Guard into Japanese territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands”, August 6, 2016. http://www.mofa.go.jp/press/release/press4e_001227.html
7. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Trends in Chinese Government and Other Vessels in the Waters Surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and Japan’s Response – Records of Intrusions of Chinese Government and Other Vessels into Japan’s Territorial Sea”, August 3, 2017. http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/page23e_000021.html
8. James D. Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide, pg. 171, Bantam Books, New York, 2016.
Featured Image: SOUTH PACIFIC (June 29, 2017) Ships assigned to Carrier Strike Group 5 sail in formation during a coordinated live-fire gunnery exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke/Released)
From the galleasses at the Battle of Lepanto to the aircraft carriers of today, the capital ship has been that ship type that is capable of defeating all other types. That is the general and simplistic definition of the term, but to speculate on the future capital ship, we must understand the underlying characteristics of a capital ship and its role in fleet architecture and design. We will start with the ship itself and then move outward to its context and implications for maritime strategy.
The Core of the Fleet
The adjective “capital” is used because the ships to which it has applied have been the biggest and most expensive of the naval vessels of their day. This was the case due to the armament they carried; the most and biggest guns available and later the most and most capable aircraft. Whether smooth bore cannon versus rams, number of guns available for a broadside or the caliber of rifled guns, the name of the game has been weight of fire and hitting at distance. The protection of capital ships required significant amounts of investment, first in armor, then in escorts. The expense and the difficulty of building capital ships meant that they were the least numerous ship type. However, their number was important in determining overall naval power. Generally, the capital ship inventory of the most powerful navies was in the dozens.
The physical characteristics just discussed had a powerful influence on fleet design and by extension on maritime strategy. The capital ship was the tool by which a nation could contend for command of the sea, either globally or regionally. Thus a nation’s fleet was designed around the capital ship in various ways.
First, they had to be supported by a variety of lesser ship types that performed functions such as scouting and protection. In this sense the capital ship was the pivot of fleet design. Given the existence of other, potentially hostile capital ship fleets, distribution of capital ships was a key issue. If there was a sea invasion threat to the nation, a “home fleet” of capital ships was necessary. On the other hand, depending on the threats to a nation’s maritime commerce, there was frequently a need to deploy capital ships, individually or in small squadrons, to counter or eliminate these threats, but that raised the danger that they would be caught by a larger force and destroyed. The British concept of the battle cruiser, a heavily armed but lightly armored and fast ship, was intended to address this dilemma. As additional threats such as the torpedo boat, submarine, and aircraft emerged, additional protective measures had to be taken such as escorts and design changes including torpedo bulges and dense anti-aircraft secondary batteries.
The capital ship has been the ultimate arbiter of command of the sea, both in war and peace. Command of the sea can be most usefully thought of as the balance of strength among contending navies. The navy with command of the sea is free to disperse its forces to exercise control in various localities and more broadly, has various strategic options open to it that are closed to the navy and nation that has lost command. The expense of capital ships and their consequent relative scarcity, the time required to replace losses and their intimate connection with command of the sea, coupled with the strategic importance of such command, led national leaders and admirals to be cautious about committing their capital ship fleets to the test of battle. Even a small perceived imbalance of power has caused admirals to try and avoid pitched battle; like going “all in” in Poker, one must be very confident of one’s hand.1 Thus decisive naval battles have been rare and most of those that have occurred involved the weaker force being surprised, cornered or forced into battle by their national leader.
Since the age of sail, the capital ship has been the unit of measure for naval power. When a nation seeks great power status, it starts building a powerful navy, this being true even of historically continental powers such as Germany, the Soviet Union, and now China. This has produced naval arms races and wars. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was an attempt to suppress naval arms races by limiting the total tonnage of warships and imposing a hiatus on building capital ships among the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
After World War II, the U.S. Navy found itself with near absolute global command of the sea but retained a significant number of its capital ships for the purpose of exercising command of the sea in peacetime. Such exercise consisted of deploying carrier battle groups around the periphery of Eurasia in order to enforce the international order the U.S. desired. In this case the necessary number of capital ships became a function of the combination of deployment demands, maintenance requirements, training, and personnel tempo.
The large deck aircraft carrier has been the capital ship since the start of World War II. Its hold on this status is based on the effectiveness and utility of its embarked tactical aircraft. The question is whether it will retain that status or be replaced by something else. We will take on this question based on the characteristics and factors that have been discussed.
Let’s start with weapons. The advent of micro circuitry, new forms of sensing and artificial intelligence have transformed missiles, in all their forms, into perhaps the dominant and decisive type of weapon at sea, both for offense and defense. Most ship types carry them and countries such as China have developed land-based ballistic missiles of very long range that can seek ships. Advanced surface-to-air missile systems now constitute a lethal threat to any aircraft except perhaps those possessing the most advanced stealth technology. Modern anti-ship missiles are increasingly sophisticated and hard to defend against.
All of this has difficult if not dire implications for the continued status of the aircraft carrier as capital ship. Certainly, additional measures can be taken to enhance the defense of both tactical aircraft and the carrier, but these will add to the expense of the total system to the point that it could outweigh the value of the offensive capability it possesses. At that point, according to George Friedman, it becomes “senile.”2 If indeed the missile becomes the key weapon, many different ship types can carry them, for both war at sea and shore bombardment. The question then becomes whether missiles are best concentrated in a large “arsenal ship” or distributed out among a lot of different ships. If concentrated in a few large hulls, it is possible that these “missile battleships” (BBM?) would be the new capital ship. Such concentration would certainly make it easier to coordinate missile salvos.
However, looking beyond the ship itself reveals some factors that militate against concentration. The first is the inherent risk in concentrating offensive firepower in a single ship. Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski articulated the concept of tactical stability which states that as we pack more offensive capability into a ship, there is a point at which its defensive capability ceases to increase proportionately. At that point, escorts are needed.3 Moreover, if a task force has a key capability installed on one or a few ships, their loss would neutralize the whole force, and thus it is tactically vulnerable and subject to catastrophic failure rather than graceful degradation. For this reason, the Navy is developing the concept of distributed lethality: mounting offensive missiles on as many ships as possible in order to complicate enemy targeting and reducing the risk of catastrophic degradation to the force as a whole.
Another issue is the distribution dilemma. For today’s Navy, it takes two forms: global and regional. Globally, having only ten available aircraft carriers limits the presence the U.S. can generate in multiple regions simultaneously. Moreover, strategic adjustments to deployment patterns must be made on the basis of carrier groups, which is a rather coarse methodology, sort of like trying to draw a precise, detailed picture with a large-tipped magic marker. Regionally, deploying carrier groups must “starburst” into individually operating ships to accommodate all the Geographic Combatant Commander’s engagement commitments. This prevents routine training to maintain combat readiness skills and of course opens individual ships, especially the carrier, to surprise attack. There is also the risk involved in operating carriers in the threatened littoral. This risk is manifest not only at the tactical level in which attacks are more likely to be successful, but in the strategic risk of losing a precious capital ship. Again, the emerging concept of distributed lethality promises a way to avoid or at least moderate the dilemmas and risks.4
The emergence of the missile as the “weapon of decision” both at sea and ashore has a couple major implications. First, since missiles can be mounted on almost anything, the relationship between ship size and characteristics and weapon power is broken. It would seem to make little difference if a salvo of missiles is launched from a single ship or many. Second, the distribution of offensive power among a lot of different ships promises to reduce both operational and strategic risk in various ways and eases the distribution dilemmas.5 This would seem to spell doom to the capital ship concept, and in this writer’s opinion, it does, at least in the conventional sense of a single ship type.
There is, however, another way to look at the matter. The key capability of a capital ship has been to deliver a superior weight of fire at a longer range than anything else. Certainly, our “BBM” would have plenty of missiles to fire, but that is not enough. Those missiles must be fed targeting information to be of any use. International law doesn’t permit firing missiles down a line of bearing and letting them open up their sensors at a certain point and hit the juiciest-looking contact. That makes them “indiscriminate” and therefore illegal. So, without targeting, the BBM or any missile ship intending to fire over the horizon, is useless.
Missiles are getting smarter, but there are a couple of reasons that it is tactically and operationally inadvisable to just light off a salvo with incomplete targeting and identification. First, if facing sophisticated defenses, the salvo must be timed precisely to saturate or at least confuse defenses so that at least some missiles get through. Second, missiles themselves will likely be at least somewhat scarce resources and so must be used efficiently. To achieve both objectives, an area-wide network of sensors, processing and decision making must exist beyond the hulls of the fleet. Granted, individual ships will have their own targeting capabilities, but these likely will not be sufficient for getting full kinetic range from their missiles.
Merging Capital Ship and Networked Force Concepts
Putting it all together, it seems useful to regard the fleet battle force network as the future equivalent of the capital ship. It and it alone allows the delivery of a useful weight of fire at long range in a naval fight. The application of the capital ship term may not be absolutely necessary, but it does confer some useful organizational effects.
First, if the network becomes the pivot of fleet design, certain new perspectives emerge. A key one is a fresh understanding of how existing and potential ship types relate to each other. There isn’t room in this essay to tease out all of these threads, but there are several insights that can be mentioned.
First, since the network consists of physical nodes and connectors (sensors, communication relays, etc.) it must receive physical as well as cyber protection. This is an important potential new role for aircraft carriers. Using a new air wing composition, the carriers can provide air superiority over distributed lethality forces and protect airborne assets like P-8s and Tritons, provide communications relay in the event that satellites are knocked out, and perhaps provide targeting services to missile ships. Thus, carriers would become escorts for the network. An advantage of this new function is that they would not have to operate as close in to the enemy shore as they would if their air wings constituted the key offensive strike capability and the risk to aircraft is reduced. This would allow carriers to remain viable and useful for the foreseeable future.
Second, since physical concentration would not be necessary for combat effectiveness, the risks associated with the regional distribution dilemma would be substantially avoided. Globally, since combat power would be distributed among a larger number of ships, a finer strategic distribution picture could be drawn, assuming that each forward fleet has its own battle force network established.
A network-enabled distributed lethality force would also mitigate the strategic risks associated with the traditional capital ship concept, especially in an era of renewed naval competition. A fight for command of the sea using such a force would not necessarily entail an “all in” decision, providing some strategic decision making flexibility for fleet commanders. Crises or perhaps limited conflicts that occur within the range arcs of major power denial systems could produce a risk dilemma for the U.S. if its offensive power remains concentrated in traditional capital ships. This is precisely what, for instance, the Chinese hope to create if conflict breaks out over any of their contested island claims or even war on the Korean Peninsula.
Missile technology appears to give a decisive edge to the tactical offensive at sea – the historically normal state of affairs. In the early years of the Pacific War, aircraft carriers dealt with this condition by attempting to strike effectively first, the paradigm being the Battle of Midway. However, if the enemy’s offensive power (missiles, say) is dispersed and hidden, then such a remedy is unavailable. Thus capital ships, in attempting to intervene in some littoral conflict would be excessively vulnerable; that is, their loss would be incommensurate with the strategic gains promised by the operation. Capital ships should only be risked when the potential strategic gain, usually command of the sea, is worth such risk. The point is that in the emerging world it may not be worthwhile to employ traditional capital ships even when regional command of the sea is at risk, as they could be lost without prospect of meaningful gain. Network-enabled flotillas would substantially obviate the dilemma.6
Without going into the murky world of cyber warfare, it is worthwhile to point out that the network has offensive and defensive potential beyond supporting missile warfare. Offensive cyber attacks can disrupt enemy command and control and targeting. It would make sense to have such capabilities inside the lifelines of a fleet battle force network in order to achieve effective coordination with missile and other forces. In terms of network design, we may yet be in the “pre-Dreadnought era” awaiting that breakthrough concept that makes all other approaches obsolete. Applying the capital ship framework to the battle force network may help us develop or at least recognize that breakthrough when it comes along.
There are other capital ship-related concepts such as staying power7 that could be useful when applied to the design and operation of battle force networks. Capital ships were built to take hits and still fight. Obviously no ship can endure multiple hits indefinitely, so the notion of staying power helped designers figure out how much protection was needed and make the necessary tradeoffs with armament, speed, sea keeping, magazine capacity, etc. How long the ship needed to hang in there was a valuable determination and so it might be with the network. Staying power might not be measured in minutes as it was with battleships, but some other criterion such as confidence or available bandwidth might be adopted.
This article does not advocate reducing the number of aircraft carriers or for constructing any new class of ship; the designation of the battle force network as the modern instantiation of the capital ship is a way of establishing a new logic that underpins fleet design. If fleet design is regarded as the prerequisite and precursor to fleet architecture, the logic of network-enabled missile warfare will clarify what kinds and numbers of ships the Navy should have.8 There are, of course, many other considerations and influences on fleet architecture, but achieving institutional focus via the network as capital ship concept would go a long way in helping the Navy rapidly enhance its offensive lethality and use its available resources efficiently.
Emerging technology and shifting geopolitical conditions are changing how naval warfare will be conducted in the future. The U.S. Navy must adapt or find itself strategically outmaneuvered. Effective adaptation will require more than updates to current ship types; it will require totally new approaches to fleet design. Instead of thinking outside the box, it might help the Navy to think outside the hull.9 Adopting the network-as-capital ship idea is one way to do that.
Professor Emeritus Rubel is retired but serves as an advisor to the CNO on fleet design and architecture. He spent thirty years on active duty as a light attack and strike fighter aviator. After leaving active duty he joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. In 2006 he designed and led the War College project to develop the concepts that resulted in the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. He has published over thirty articles and book chapters dealing with maritime strategy, operational art and naval aviation.
1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Lessons of the War With Spain and Other Articles, (Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1899), p. 31. Mahan discusses the effect of the loss of a single ship on the naval balance with Spain before the war.
2. George and Meredeth Friedman, The Future of War, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996), p. 26 and Chapter 8, “The Aircraft Carrier as Midwife,” pp 180-204.
3. Wayne P. Hughes Jr, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2000), pp. 286-291. Prof. Hughes influenced Admiral Cebrowski’s thinking, and the discussion of massing for defense on the cited pages provides a more in-depth look at the logic of instability.
4. Robert C. Rubel, “Deconstructing Nimitz’s Principle of Calculated Risk,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2015, (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), pp. 31-45. The article contains a detailed discussion of the various risks and distribution dilemmas inherent to aircraft carriers using the Battle of Midway as a case study.
5. Hughes. Chapter 11, “Modern Tactics and Operations,” pp. 266-309. Prof. Hughes offers a detailed and mathematical discussion of modern missile combat through the lens of operations research.
6. Rubel, “Cede No Water: Naval Strategy, the Littorals and Flotillas,” Proceedings, September 2013, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute), pp. 40-45.
7. Hughes, pp. 268-274.
8. Hughes, “The New Navy Fighting Machine: A Study of the Connections Between Contemporary Policy, Strategy, Sea Power, Naval Operations, and the Composition of the United States Fleet” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School).
9. Rubel, “Think Outside the Hull,” Proceedings, June 2017, (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute), pp. 42-45.
Featured Image: USS Yorktown (CV-10) Crew stands at attention as the National Ensign is raised, during commissioning ceremonies at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 15 April 1943. (Photographed by Lieutenant Charles Kerlee, USNR. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)