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Get Ready For The Spectrum Melee

By Douglas Wahl and Tim McGeehan

A New Era

In 1903, Guglielmo Marconi, the father of modern radio, was demonstrating an improved version of his device for wireless telegraphy at the Royal Institution in London. He had planned to transmit a message in Morse code from 300 miles away in Cornwall to the lecture hall in London, where it would be received and deciphered by an associate in front of the waiting audience. As the demonstration commenced the machine began receiving a signal. It repeatedly spelled the word “rats” before beginning a message that scandalously mocked Marconi: “there was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily…”1 The press soon reported that someone had made a “deliberate and cowardly attempt to wreck the experiment.”2

This event was sensational because this version of Marconi’s wireless had been advertised as being specially tuned and therefore secure from outside interception or interference. The ‘scientific hooligan’ behind the interference was Nevil Maskelyne, a local magician and wireless competitor, who sought to demonstrate that the radio signals were neither as private nor as secure as Marconi had claimed.3

Although technology has progressed significantly over the last 100-plus years, this episode still has serious ramifications today, as it could be considered the first episode of communications electronic attack (EA) or spoofing. Maskelyne, who had set up his own transmitter nearby, seized control of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and disrupted Marconi’s communications signal by overpowering it and injecting his own signal in its place, thereby delivering the new message to the intended receiver. Maskelyne’s 1903 stunt had also heralded a new era in warfare, where the EMS itself could and would be a contested battleground. Today, both non-state actors and adversary nations seek to use EA to deny the use of the EMS, which has become critical to both our daily lives and military operations. Fortunately, disruptive technologies are emerging to fill the urgent need to sense, characterize, and exploit the EMS, while at the same time deny it to our adversaries.

Our Reliance

As U.S. forces continue to become more technologically advanced, we continue to become more reliant on access to the EMS. Communications, sensor feeds, and command, control, and intelligence data all flow through the EMS and we have become increasingly addicted to the bandwidth available in permissive environments, with applications ranging from routine radio traffic to fire control radars. This demand will only increase.

Now, momentum is building in the drive to decouple sensors from shooters, further increasing reliance and demand on assured access to the EMS. The Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability distributes the AEGIS shipboard fire control data across diverse networks of remote sensors. This provides the AEGIS combat system the means to achieve independent engagement of over-the-horizon (OTH) targets with the Standard Missile (SM-6).4 In the future, engagement information will be passively provided to AEGIS from other platforms networked into NIFA-CA. Surface picket ships, aircraft like the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and future Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will all be threads in the Navy’s kill web. The first generation of NIFC-CA is already here; the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT Carrier Strike Group completed its deployment as the first NIFC-CA enabled strike group in 2015.5

Net-Enabled Weapons (NEW), like the Tactical Tomahawk that can be launched at a target and then directed inflight to a new, different target, are likewise EMS dependent.6 Future NEW weapons systems will no longer be confined to a set system of dedicated sensors, but will instead draw on the many sensors available in kill webs. These weapons will include swarms of unmanned platforms and loitering munitions that can circle overhead until being directed into a target. Similarly, our existing Tactical Data Links (Link 4A, Link 11, and Link 16) and NIFC-CA are spectrum dependent; they must be able to network, communicate, and exchange data. Our adversaries know this too and are investing in capabilities that which specifically target our access to the EMS itself as part of their Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies.

In general, the A2/AD model is based on the tenants of both Clausewitz and Mahan in that it is focused on controlling the battlespace and attrition of the adversary’s forces. To counter this the surface Navy continues to develop its “distributed lethality” concept. Distributed lethality explores how dispersing forces could enhance warfighting by “countering A2/AD’s attrition model through maneuver warfare’s intent to probe for weakness” and once found, exploit it, and disable or destroy the adversary’s forces.7 Dispersion creates more room to maneuver, and “strains the anti-access mission and forces the adversary into executing area denial simultaneously.”8 However, distributed lethality will exacerbate the burden on the EMS as the distributed forces must be able to communicate and coordinate in order to mass effects when and where required.

That said, distributed lethality has a role to play in denying the EMS to our adversaries. Sun Tzu placed high value on spies and defeating adversaries before the battle. Distributed forces can test and stimulate adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to determine their scope and breadth in preparation for follow-on operations. Mapping the spectral dependencies of adversary systems before conflict is key to configuring our kill web, disrupting our adversary’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, and breaking their kill chains before weapons are launched.

Spectrum control is not a “future” issue; it is an urgent issue that has been long neglected and must be addressed now – as observed in Russia’s operations in Ukraine. In 2015, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work recently summarized the situation stating “Ukrainian commanders reported to us that, within minutes of coming up on the radio net, they were targeted by concentrated artillery strikes…  They [Russian backed separatists] jam GPS signals, causing Ukrainian UAVs to drop out of the sky. And they jam proximity fuses on artillery shells, turning them into duds.”9  Likewise in the recent past, Iran claimed to have hacked into the mission-control system of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 SENTINEL UAV flying near their Afghan border, taken control of it, and successfully landed it in Iran.10 Tehran claimed that they jammed the UAV’s communications and when it switched to autopilot they spoofed its GPS system with false coordinates, fooling it into thinking it was close to home and landing in Iran.11 Regardless of the veracity of Iran’s version of this story, it illustrates the mindset of our adversaries. We need to ensure that the multiple entry points and data links required to fully realize concepts like “distributed lethality” don’t turn them instead into “distributed vulnerability.” Ukraine is a cautionary tale of real-world vulnerability and the A2/AD investments of potential adversaries signal intent for more of the same. As part of its mandate to ensure All Domain Access, the U.S. Navy must be able to sense, characterize, and exploit a contested EMS, while at the same time deny it to our adversaries – we need to own the spectrum.12

The Technology

Real-Time Spectrum Operations (RTSO) is a new and highly automated capability theorized to provide warfighters the ability to understand and drive their forces’ use of EMS resources. RTSO predictions are based on three mainstays: physics algorithms, sensor characteristics, and numerical weather predictions (NWP). All three must work together for RTSO to transition from theory to reality:

Sense. We need sensors distributed throughout the battlespace to constantly measure the environment and accordingly adjust our weapon systems, continuously tailoring their settings to optimize performance. The “environment” includes both the ambient EM signals and the physical environment through which they propagate. As a forward deployed service, the Navy often operates in data-sparse regions, thus every platform, manned and unmanned, must be a sensor. We need environmental and ES sensors on all of our ships and aircraft from autonomous surface vehicles to UAVs and from logistics ships to strike fighters. All this data has to be collected, processed, and most importantly sent back to our modeling and fusion centers to provide information for optimizing future operations.

Massive amounts of environmental data can also be gathered “through the sensor,” in addition to the actual desired signal.13 This is analogous to the “by-catch” of commercial fishing, where additional marine species are caught in addition to the type of fish targeted by the fisherman. The bycatch is often discarded at sea, resulting in a wasted resource. The same happens during the processing of sensor data, where the extraneous signals are removed. However, this resource can be not only salvaged but used to provide a new capability. For example, Doppler radar weather data can be extracted from SPS-48 air search radars of our big-deck aviation platforms as well as from the SPY-1 radar of the AEGIS weapon system. With the multitude of sensors available there are many untapped sources of environmental data.

We also need to take advantage of commercial off the shelf (COTS) data collection systems, such as the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) program that has been adopted by over 40 commercial airlines.14 AMDAR uses existing aircraft sensors, processing systems, and communication networks to collect, process, format, and transmit meteorological data to ground stations where it is relayed to National Meteorological and Hydrological Services to be processed, quality controlled, and transmitted on the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Telecommunications System. The Navy could incorporate a similar system into its platforms to collect and transmit data on both the EMS and physical environment.

Characterize. Once we have the environmental data in hand, we can use it to characterize the environment. In the EMS this includes mapping the frequencies in use by all actors and inferring their operations and intent. For the physical environment it includes incorporating collected data into our NWPs to forecast the future physical environment itself, which can then be fed into the EMS analysis to predict how sensors and receivers will respond to new conditions. To do this effectively we must invest in supercomputing and shared processing. In the future, an advanced version of Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) and the Navy’s Tactical Cloud may provide the ability to have a supercomputer on each of our large deck surface platforms, enabling this capability even when reach back data-links are degraded or denied.15

SAN DIEGO (Nov. 19, 2013) Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Anthony Pisciotto, right, familiarizes Information Systems Technician Seaman Cameron Treanor with the Consolidated Afloat Ships Network Enterprise Services (CANES) system in the Local Area Network (LAN) Equipment Room aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69).  (U.S. Navy photo by Rick Naystatt)

Exploit. Once we understand the environment, we must exploit it by adapting our tactics. We need to “seize spectral high ground” and apply maneuver warfare principles to the spectrum to assure our bandwidth. Understanding the environment better than our adversaries will allow us to evaluate trade-offs and turn Battlespace Awareness into Information Warfare. Only this will allow our forces to have the operational advantage and overmatch our adversaries by fully integrating the Navy’s information functions, capabilities, and resources to optimize decision-making and maximize warfighting effects.

Deny. Finally, we need to deny the spectrum to our adversaries by further developing systems such as the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) and delivering the Next Generation Jammer. We must expand the HAVE QUICK radio system with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC)16 to provide anti-jam, frequency hopping secure communications that use ultra-high frequency (UHF) and require smaller antennas.

We must also deny our spectral emissions to our adversaries. A good rule of thumb is that if your radar can range 100 nautical miles, the adversary can detect it at least to 200 nautical miles. With an eye toward preventing unwanted detection, we need to revisit how we communicate. With the widespread use of direction finding in World War II, radio silence was a normal operating procedure and information was passed between ships using semaphore. Today, Laser Communication Relay Systems exist that are both extremely secure and have high data rates. As a bonus, these systems use less energy and when paired with satellites, these line-of-sight systems have unlimited potential.

Risks, Barriers, and Integration

There are multiple risks and barriers to integrating these technologies. From the operational aspect, these technologies have to interface with currently fielded systems. Spectrum management and deconfliction are already ostensibly done through Operational Tasking Communications (OPTASK COMMS) and the Afloat Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Program (AESOP), but we still routinely have electromagnetic interference (EMI) between our systems. The commander of the Air Force’s Space Command said that in the first 11 months of 2015 there were over 261 cases of satellite downlink jamming. When asked how many of these incidents were caused by actual adversaries, he responded “I really don’t know. My guess is zero,” and that the real cause was “almost always self-jamming.”17 In a way, this suggests that the problem might be as much cultural as it is technical. A military workforce that has grown up in the age of unlimited and uncontested bandwidth is less aware of their EMS operations, filling (and over-filling) all available bandwidth with little discipline. This nonchalance will be difficult to overcome, but the fielding of new high-end capabilities must be accompanied by a change in mindset in order to realize maximum benefit.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Aug. 19, 2015) The U.S. Navy’s fourth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite, encapsulated in a 5-meter payload fairing, is mated to an Atlas V booster inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-41. (Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance/Released)

EMI is not confined to just our own systems. Used indiscriminately, military radar systems may be strong enough to interfere with wireless systems, air traffic control radars, and cellphone systems. In the late 1980s, a Dutch naval radar caused the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system of a natural gas pipeline near the naval port of Den Helder to open and close a valve, ultimately leading to an explosion.18 Despite a crowded spectrum at home, the U.S. government continues to sell off bandwidth and civil users continue to encroach upon what remains. The net effect is an increasing limitation on the military’s ability to effectively train stateside.

Another barrier to progress in the acquisition and integration of new systems is the U.S. military’s acquisition system itself. It is too slow and vulnerable to espionage and theft. In military acquisitions the mantra is that “we don’t fight the enemy, we fight the budget,” which is often shaped more by political considerations than by the needs of the services. In 2016, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean Stackley testified that Navy needs more authority to spend on experimentation and prototyping (not necessarily programs of record), because “the pace of technology is outpacing” the services’ ability to work their way through the “long and lengthy process” of fielding weapons systems.19

In terms of security, plans to assure access to the EMS should begin before these systems are even fielded. Espionage and theft are rampant from cleared defense contractors, evidenced by the striking similarity of ‘new’ adversary platforms to our own. However, the threat even extends to university and research labs. Today’s high-tech research becomes tomorrow’s classified projects and programs; we need to ensure these capabilities are protected throughout their entire development as an early compromise of one of these technologies gives our adversaries years to either improve upon it or develop a counter.


As we wage the battle of Washington, we need to prioritize investment in the capabilities described above. Roadmaps and plans are aspirational without resources and in this constrained fiscal environment there are many promising programs that will fall “below the cut line” and not be funded. However, capabilities that will enable us to own the spectrum when and where required are just as important, if not more important, than any particular ship or handful of strike fighters. At the cost of $100-plus million dollars per unit, would one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter be missed if the Navy was to reallocate this funding towards a RTSO program? If we lose the battle for the spectrum, many platforms like these will be seriously impaired and vulnerable, if not completely blind, deaf, and dumb and thus defenseless.

Luckily, there have been recent admissions from senior Department of Defense leadership that these types of capabilities are critical as we move forward. This support may help identify funding for rapid transition or similar acquisition “fast track” opportunities to get these technologies to the Fleet quickly. However, the true level of commitment will be clear in the budget.


The spectrum is a battleground whose control is absolutely fundamental to warfare in the information age. The U.S. military must seize upon emerging technologies that will enable it to maintain superiority in this congested and contested environment. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, “Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the electromagnetic terrain, know the weather; your victory will then be total.”  The spectrum is no longer an “enabler” to military operations; it is the battlefield.

Douglas T. Wahl is the METOC Pillar Lead and a Systems Engineer at Science Applications International Corporation.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington.  

The ideas presented are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. Lulz, Dot-dash-diss: The gentleman hacker’s 1903, New Scientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228440-700-dot-dash-diss-the-gentleman-hackers-1903-lulz/

2. Staff Writer, Further Developments in Wireless Telegraphy, The Evening Telegram, June 29, 1903,  https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=35&dat=19030629&id=j6kHAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kjoDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6469,6605289&hl=en

3. Staff Writer, Interesting Marconigrams, Evening Post, August 15, 1903, http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP19030815.2.53

4. Jeffrey H. McConnell, (14 NOV 2013) Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air Capability‐Based System of Systems Engineering, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division,  http://www.acq.osd.mil/se/webinars/2013_11_14-SOSECIE-McConnell-brief.pdf

5. Sam LaGrone, (5 March 2015), “Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group to Depart for Middle East on Monday in First NIFC-CA Deployment”, http://news.usni.org/2015/03/05/roosevelt-carrier-strike-group-to-depart-for-middle-east-on-monday-in-first-nifc-ca-deployment ; Final Ship of Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group Returns Home, 14 December 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=92414

6. Managing the Net-Enabled Weapons Kill Chain Testing in a Live-Virtual-Constructive Environment, Joint Command and Control for Net-Enabled Weapons (JC2NEW), Joint Test, Alexandria, VA, 22311.

7. Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016 http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

8. Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016 http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

9. Bob Work,  Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech at CNAS Defense Forum, December 14, 2015 http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/634214/cnas-defense-forum

10. David Axe, Nah, Iran Probably Didn’t Hack the CIA;s Stealth Drone, Wired, http://www.wired.com/2012/04/iran-drone-hack/

11. Adam Rawnsley, Iran’s Alleged Drone Hack: Tough but Possible, Wired,  http://www.wired.com/2011/12/iran-drone-hack-gps/

12. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower:  Forward, Engaged, Ready, March 2015.

13. Tim Gallaudet, Charting the ‘Invisible Terrain’ Proceedings, July 2015.

14. https://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/www/GOS/ABO/AMDAR/AMDAR_System.html

15. The Navy Wants a Tactical Cloud, http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2014/09/navy-wants-tactical-cloud/95129/

16. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “This new DARPA chip could give U.S. a leg up in electronic warfare”, 12 January 2016, The Washington Post.

17. Syndey Freedberg, U.S. Jammed Own Satellites 261 Times; What if Enemy Did?, Breaking Defense, December 02, 2015, http://breakingdefense.com/2015/12/us-jammed-own-satellites-261-times-in-2015-what-if-an-enemy-tried/

18. IBID Zetter

19. John Grady, Sean Stackley Asks Congress for More Department of Navy Flexibility in Acquisition, 7 January 2016, USNI News, http://news.usni.org/2016/01/07/sean-stackley-asks-congress-for-more-department-of-navy-flexibility-in-acquisition#more-16380

Featured Image: ARABIAN SEA (June 11, 2011) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Stephen Sittner, from Denver, identifies and tracks air contacts in the Combat Direction Center of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd/Released)

Leveraging Identity Activities in the Maritime Domain

By Pete Spahn and Matt McLaughlin

The CNO’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” rightly highlights a return to great power competition on the seas and the need for blue water combat power. While this assessment is accurate, it is also a fact that Phase Zero operations continue unabated, as the United States Navy and its partners shape the environment for whatever comes next. The international community continues to create and enforce economic sanctions on rogue states; U.S. and coalition partners continue to patrol for pirates and smugglers in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden; NATO continues to deter and repatriate Mediterranean migrants.

It is in this context that Identity Activities are an important advantage in the maritime domain. The CNO’s design notes the influence of pervasive connectivity to information – this allows our asymmetric adversaries to coordinate despite loose, diffuse networks. But we can turn such connectivity to our own asymmetric advantage as well, thanks largely to biometrics, data analysis, and global networks. The result: If we find you, we will know who you are.

Understanding identity is a decision-support tool. Since decisions must be made across the Range of Military Operations, from Phase 0 to Phase 3 and beyond, identity is applicable anywhere. In security cooperation missions, for example, identity tools may help the host nation maintain rule of law by identifying criminals. Those same tools may help with identifying insurgents or unmarked troops during hostilities. And during reconstruction and stability operations, Identity Activities can help to establish proper governance and a safe and secure environment with minimal fraud or crime.


According to Joint Doctrine Note 2-16, Identity Activities are “a collection of functions and actions that appropriately recognize and differentiate one entity from another to support decision making.” They may accurately deconflict, link, or consolidate identities; detect shared characteristics of a group; characterize identities to assess levels of threat or trust; or develop or manage identity information.

Identity is derived from a variety of sources: biometric, biographic, documentation, and others. Much of the work is done unseen by the Intelligence Community. At the tactical level, what Sailors and Marines see most directly is an individual’s physical characteristics and, often, documents. Biometrics can help to determine if documents are genuine or fraudulent. When converted to digital files via electronic enrollment, biometrics can also be compared with U.S. watchlists and databases. This will show if the individual has been previously encountered by the armed forces or law enforcement of the U.S. or certain partners. The context of those past encounters will help determine the next course of action.


In the maritime environment, three main areas of employment present themselves – migrant interdiction, maritime security, and possibly countering state-sponsored “hybrid war” at sea.

Migrant interdiction is unfortunately a growth industry, with instability on the Mediterranean’s southern coast, both sides of the Gulf of Aden, and parts of the Caribbean, just to name a few. Tracking the identities of such migrants serves two main purposes: following the flow of displaced persons, and screening displaced populations for known and suspected terrorists and criminals. With some regularity, the U.S. Coast Guard, operating in the Caribbean, biometrically identifies individuals at sea with outstanding warrants in the United States. The Coast Guard can refer them to the proper authorities before these suspects reach U.S. shores on their own. The potential for European navies and coast guards to do the same in the Med – but with potentially far more threatening subjects in the post-ISIS diaspora – is clear.

Maritime security is a longstanding mission that will continue as long as the sea is a pathway for illicit activity. Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East and the U.S. Coast Guard in the Western Hemisphere both frequently seize large quantities of drugs and – especially near Yemen in recent years – weapons. Ascertaining the identities of the individuals aboard helps crack open the shadowy networks operating and funding their operations. At the same time, it also helps differentiate between guilty ringleaders and plausibly innocent crewmembers that have no knowledge of their cargo. But if the same supposedly ignorant mariner keeps appearing on unsavory vessels again and again, knowledge of his past activities would permit a reevaluation of that benign assessment.

A Coast Guard boarding officer captures a fingerprint with biometric technology. (Coast Guard photo)

Looking ahead, applying identity to maritime hybrid actors puts it in the service of the great power competition described by the CNO without actually coming to blows at sea. While terrorists and criminals try to remain anonymous as a means of self-protection, hybrid actors use anonymity to provide their state sponsor with deniability. While open source information on ship registration and vessel movements can often poke holes in states’ denials, knowing individual identity – of ship captains, for instance – adds another arrow to our intelligence quiver. The DoD’s 2017 report to Congress on Chinese military power specifically called out the role of the China’s Maritime Militia (CMM), which is vigorously expanding its operations in the South China Sea. Ostensibly fishing boats, these blue-hulled vessels  have habits of finding their way to contested locations. They are the linchpin of a Chinese hybrid strategy of asserting dominance in Southeast Asian waters. Identity Activities can help us know the provenance of these militia vessels, and perhaps offer a tool in the U.S. strategy to counter their influence.

Libya presents another opportunity for Identity Activities to prove useful in the maritime sphere. Libya has two governments, only one of which is internationally recognized – but both are attempting to assert control over Libyan waters (neither very professionally). Just like in the South China Sea, using all-source intelligence to track both vessels and the personnel operating them will help operators sort through which vessels belong to which rival, or are simply third-party pirates taking advantage of disorder.

The Future

The Navy and Intelligence Community are already very good at tracking suspicious vessels and monitoring traffic. Gathering information on individuals, biometrics in particular, is a less certain proposition. Warships’ commanding officers are reluctant to have their boarding parties spend time conducting interviews and biometric enrollments aboard overcrowded refugee boats which already have water up to the gunwales before their Sailors even step aboard. The vessel’s master, and perhaps a few others may be enrolled, but likely not an entire boatload of dozens of people. The strategic reward – an expanded database and analytical opportunities – is not typically perceived as worth the tactical risks.

The technology exists to change this. There is no single best solution, but it is easy to imagine an aircraft – as small as a hand-launched quadcopter or as large as a P-8 – passing over an open-topped boat with a high-resolution camera that takes images of its occupants’ faces. A nearby ship, acting as data node, could then interface with the global data architecture that already exists for U.S. biometrics and look for face matches. Before even putting its boat in the water, the ship’s boarding party would know if any persons of interest were sighted aboard the vessel. The boarding party would still be necessary to review identity documents or perform other biometric enrollments, such as fingerprint, but some of the initial trepidation before visiting a vessel of unknowns would be dispelled.


The future of maritime operations is not an “either/or” scenario – peer competition or constabulary maritime security – but a “both/and” situation requiring investment and training at both ends. Identity Activities offer a means of enhancing our effectiveness at the low end and perhaps reducing tensions as we approach the high end. Although the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and partners can fully implement it today, it will be made more effective through the fusion of multiple sensing and data transmission technologies. The end result will be greater confidence in the identities of those we encounter at sea, more assured decision making, and enhanced security on the global commons.

Pete Spahn is an Intelligence Analyst at the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency, an Army field operating agency, and a retired Chief Cryptologist with experience in collections and analysis around the globe.

Matt McLaughlin, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, provides strategic communications support to the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency and is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve.

Their opinions are their own and do not represent the Departments of the Army, Navy, or Defense.

Featured Image: Between Cuba and the Florida Keys (Sept. 19, 1994)– Coast Guardsman, BM2 John Greenwell, from LEDET 8I (Law Enforcement Detachment) transport cuban migrants to a navy ship during Operation Able Vigil. Operation Able Vigil got underway in mid-August when the number of Cuban rafters rescued in the Florida straits skyrocketed above the month of June record of 1,173 to 2,607 in a single week of August. (USCG photo by PA1 Don Wagner)

The PLA Navy in the Baltic Sea: A View from Kiel

By Sebastian Bruns and Sarah Kirchberger

On 19 July 2017, after a long transit through the Indian Ocean and around the European continent, a three-ship People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) task group entered the Baltic Sea to conduct exercises with the Russian Navy (RFN). The flotilla reached Kaliningrad, the exercise headquarters, on July 21st. While hardly the first time that China’s naval ensign could be spotted in this Northern European body of water (for instance, a Chinese frigate participated in Kiel Week 2016), “Joint Sea 2017” marks the first ever Russo-Chinese naval drill in the Baltic Sea. The exercise raised eyebrows in Europe, and NATO members scrambled to shadow the PLAN ships on their way to the Baltic and carefully monitor the drills.

The timing in July was not a coincidence, given that relations between the West and East – however broadly defined – increasingly have come under strain. Mirroring a decidedly more robust maritime behavior in the Asia-Pacific, this out-of-area exercise also signals an increasingly assertive and maritime-minded China. The PLAN has been commissioning advanced warships in higher numbers than any other navy during 2016 and 2017, and is busy building at least two indigenous aircraft carriers. Earlier this summer, the PLAN opened its first permanent overseas logistics base in Djibouti, East Africa. The maritime components of the Chinese leadership’s ambitious “Belt & Road Initiative”– which includes heavy investments in harbors and container terminals infrastructures along the main trading routes – furthermore demonstrate the Chinese intent to play a larger role in global affairs by using the maritime domain. Is the Chinese Navy’s increased presence in the Indian Ocean and in European waters therefore to become the “new normal”?  

In the following essay, we argue that context matters when looking at these bilateral naval drills, and we seek to shed some light on the particulars revolving around this news item. In our view, it is important to review the current exercise against the general trajectory of Chinese naval modernization and expansion in recent years on the one hand, and of steadily deepening Russo-Chinese cooperation in the political, military, military-technological, and economic spheres on the other. We seek to offer some talking points which give cause for both relaxation and concern, and conclude with policy recommendations for NATO and Germany.

The Current Drills and Their Background

The July 2017 naval exercise with Russia in the Baltic Sea is the PLAN’s first ever excursion into this maritime area for a formal deployment. For China, it’s an opportunity to showcase the PLAN’s latest achievements in naval technology and shipbuilding prowess, which is perhaps why the Chinese task force includes some of its most advanced and capable surface warships: the PLAN’s Hefei (DDG-174), a Type 052D guided-missile air warfare destroyer featuring the “Chinese AEGIS”; the Yuncheng (FFG-571), a Type 054A guided-missile frigate; and a Type 903-class replenishment oiler from China’s Southern Fleet, the Luomahu (AOR-964). Originally the destroyer Changsha (DDG-173) had been scheduled for this exercise, but had to be replaced by its sister ship the Hefei after it suffered an apparent engine malfunction in the Indian Ocean while on transit from Hainan.

PLAN warship Hefei (DDG-174), a type 052D destroyer (Wikimedia Commons)

Simultaneous Excursions into Northern and Southern European Waters

It is probably not a coincidence that China has sent another three-ship task group to the Black Sea during the exact same timeframe. There, the PLAN’s Changchun (DDG-150), a Type 052C destroyer capable of carrying 48 long-range HHQ-9 missiles, the Jingzhou (FFG-532), a newly-launched Type 054A frigate, and the logistics support vessel Chaohu (AOR-890) have docked at Istanbul over the weekend under heavy rain. This excursion comes on the heels of the 17th Sea Breeze maneuvers that saw Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and NATO warships exercise together between July 10-22. Similarly, the Russo-Chinese Baltic Sea war games were scheduled to be held just four weeks after BALTOPS, a large annual U.S.-led multi-national naval exercise which until 2013 had included Russian participation under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) arrangements.

Just two weeks earlier Germany, the Baltic Sea’s largest naval power, had hosted the G-20 talks in Hamburg. When Australia hosted the G-20 summit in 2014, the Russian Navy deployed its flagship Varyag to the South Pacific. It is therefore sensible to assume a deliberate timing of the Chinese-Russian Baltic exercises, which are intended as a signal to NATO members and to the Baltic Sea’s coastal states. Russia, after all, sent two of its mightiest warships to “Joint Sea 2017”: The Typhoon-class Dmitry Donskoy, the world’s largest submarine, and the Russian Navy’s largest surface combatant, the Kirov-class nuclear powered battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, both highly impractical for the confined and shallow Baltic Sea.

Regular Russo-Chinese naval exercises commenced in April 2012, when the first-ever joint naval drills were held in the Yellow Sea near Qingdao. Bilateral naval exercises have since been conducted every year.

As Table 1 shows (at bottom), the scope and complexity of these drills have steadily increased. Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that during the 2016 exercises, a joint command information system was used for the first time to improve interoperability and facilitate shared situational awareness. This is remarkable given that China and Russia are not formal military allies as of yet. What does this development indicate?

Ambitious Naval Modernization Plans in Russia and China

In terms of naval capability, China and Russia are aiming to recover or maintain (in the case of Russia) and reach (in the case of China) a true blue-water proficiency. After decades of degradation, the Russian Navy hopes to enlarge its surface fleet, retain a minimum carrier capability, and maintain a credible sea-based nuclear deterrence capability. So far, Russia talks the talk but fails to walk the walk. The PLAN is meanwhile hoping to transform itself into a fully “informationized” force capable of net-centric operations; it is planning to operate up to three carrier groups in the mid-term, and is developing a true sea-based nuclear deterrent for which submarine incursions into the West Pacific and Indian Ocean (and maybe even into the Arctic and Atlantic) will be essential, since China’s sub-launched missiles can’t threaten the U.S. mainland from a bastion in the South China Sea. 

Apart from developing, producing, and commissioning the necessary naval hardware, these ambitious goals require above all dedicated crew training in increasingly frequent and complex joint operations exercises in far-flung maritime areas. For Russia, the Joint Sea exercise series can function as a counterweight to the U.S.-led annual BALTOPS exercises (where they are no longer a part of) and a replacement for the FRUKUS exercises conducted during the 1990s and 2000s with France, the U.K., and the U.S. China has been slowly building experience with out-of-area deployments through its naval patrols off the Horn of Africa, which culminated in the establishment of China’s first overseas logistics hub in Djibouti earlier this year. So far China’s footprint in the world is nevertheless mainly economic, not military, as China still lacks military allies and does not have access to a global network of bases that could facilitate a truly global military presence. In the context of protecting Chinese overseas investments, installations, personnel deployments and trade interests, a more frequent naval presence in European waters can nevertheless be expected.

Potential Areas of Concern

From NATO’s and Europe’s vantage point, one thing to monitor is the prospect of a possible full-blown entente between Russia and China following a period of increasing convergence between Chinese and Russian economic, military, and strategic interests. Traditionally, relations between both countries have been marred by distrust and strategic competition. Russian leaders likely still fear China’s economic power, and are wary of a possible mass migration movement into Russia’s far east, while China is dependent on Russian cooperation in Central Asia for its ambitious Belt & Road Initiative. Russia is militarily strong, but economically weak, with resources and arms technologies as its main export products, while China is an economic heavyweight, but has lots of industrial over-capacities and is in need of importing the type of goods that Russia has to offer. Especially after the Western sanctions kicked in, Russia needs Chinese capital to continue its ambitious minerals extraction projects in the Arctic, while China continues to rely on some Russian military high-technology transfers, e.g. in aerospace and missile technologies. Cash-strapped Russia has ambitious naval procurement plans of its own that were hampered by its loss of access to Ukrainian and Western arms technologies, while China, having faced similar Western arms embargo policies since 1989, is now on a trajectory of significant fleet enlargement and, unlike Russia, has the financial resources to pay for it. Possible synergies in the naval area include diesel submarine design and construction, given China has reportedly expressed interest in acquiring Russian Lada- or Kalina-class subs.

Furthermore, both governments have strong incentives to cooperate against what they perceive as “Western hegemonialism.” Both reject the universal values associated with the Western liberal order and reserve the right to “solve” territorial conflicts within their periphery that are deemed threatening to their “core interests” by military means. Both governments are furthermore keen to preserve their power to rule by resisting urges from within their societies to transform, and they invariably suspect Western subversion attempts behind any such calls. Since both are subject to Western arms embargoes that have in the past caused disruption of large-scale arms programs, including in the naval domain, the already strong arms trade relationship between China and Russia has been reinforced through new deals. One side-effect of this long-standing arms trade relationship is a technological commonality between both militaries that furthers interoperability.

Enhancing bilateral mil-tech cooperation and cooperating more strongly in natural resources development therefore offers Russia and China multiple synergies to exploit, and the results can already be seen: After the Western shunning of Russia in the wake of the Crimea crisis in 2014, several large-scale arms and natural resources deals have been concluded between Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, and the cooperation projects between China and Russia in the Arctic (mostly related to raw materials extraction) have now officially been brought under the umbrella of the vast, but somewhat diffuse Chinese Belt & Road Initiative. The recently concluded Arctic Silk Road agreement between China and Russia seems to indicate that China has somehow managed to alleviate Russian fears of Chinese naval incursions in the Arctic waters.

In sum, the longstanding Western arms embargo against China, combined with Western punitive sanctions against Russia since 2014, as well as unbroken fears in both countries of Western subversion through a strategy of “peaceful evolution“ (as employed during the Cold War against the Soviet Union), plus the perceived threat of U.S. military containment, creates a strong set of incentives on both sides to exploit synergies in the economic, diplomatic, and military realm. “Russia and China stick to points of view which are very close to each other or are almost the same in the international arena,” Putin said during a visit to China in 2016. The fact that Chinese internet censorship rules were recently amended to shield Putin from Chinese online criticisms, the first time a foreign leader was extended such official “protection,” further indicates a new level of intimacy in the traditionally strained relationship. It can therefore be assumed that both countries will continue their cooperation in the political and diplomatic arenas, e.g. within the U.N. Security Council. 

Russian battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy 099 (Peter the Great) joined the most recent exercise from the Northern Fleet (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, both countries face a structurally similar set of security challenges. Internally, they are mainly concerned with combating separatism and internal dissent, and externally they fear U.S. military containment and Western interference in their “internal affairs.” The latter is addressed by both countries in a similar way by focusing on asymmetric deterrence concepts (A2/AD bubbles) on the one hand and nuclear deterrence on the other. Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, the headquarters of the current “Joint Sea 2017” exercise, is the cornerstone of the major Russian A2/AD bubble in Northern Europe. Furthermore, Russia’s traditional Arctic bastion concept for its strategic submarines is now likely echoed in Chinese attempts to make parts of the South China Sea into a bastion for the Chinese SSBN force. It should also be noted that both countries have also recently resorted to somewhat similar hybrid strategies in their dealings with smaller neighboring countries within their “spheres of influence” – a curious commonality. Russia’s “little green men” find their maritime counterpart in China’s “little blue men,” government-controlled maritime militia-turned-fisherman who are staging incidents in the South China and East China Seas.

To sum up, the steadily deepening mil-tech cooperation on the basis of past arms transfers have by now resulted in a certain degree of technical commonality, and regular joint exercises have recently been conducted with the explicit aim of adding a training component in order to achieve better interoperability. Their similarities in threat perception mean that both countries can benefit from exchanging information and experiences in areas such as hybrid warfare, A2/AD (or “counter-intervention”) strategies, and AAW and ASW missions. Even in the absence of a formal military alliance, these developments merit closer watchfulness by NATO and the Western navies, especially when seen in context with the common political interests and matching world perception shared by these two authoritarian countries.

What Challenges does this Pose to NATO in Particular?

While the exercise is not as such problematic and takes place in international waters that are open to any navy, there are some implications for NATO to consider. If this emerging naval cooperation deepens further, and bilateral Russo-Chinese drills in NATO home waters should become more frequent, then this could mean that NATO’s limited naval resources will increasingly come under strain. Shadowing and monitoring Chinese and Russian vessels more often implies dispatching precious vessels that would be needed elsewhere. This could in fact be one of the main benefits from the point of view of Russia and China. Some NATO navies have in the past expressed a willingness to support the U.S. in the South China Sea, which China considers to be part of its own sphere of interest. Putting up the pressure in NATO’s own maritime backyard could therefore serve the purpose of relieving U.S. and Western pressure on China’s Navy in its own home waters. In that sense, to adapt an old Chinese proverb, the Baltic exercise could be seen as an attempt to “make a sound in the West and then attack in the East.” On the other hand, Russian-Chinese exercises give NATO navies a chance to observe Chinese and Russian naval capabilities more closely, which can over time contribute to alleviating some of the opacity surrounding China’s naval rise. It will also help propel fresh thinking about the future of NATO maritime strategy and the Baltic.

Policy Recommendations

First, the exercise should be interpreted mainly as a form of signaling. As James Goldrick pointed out,

“A Chinese entry into the Baltic demonstrates to the U.K. and France in particular that China can match in Europe their efforts at maritime presence in East Asia (…) and perhaps most significant, it suggests an emerging alignment between China and Russia on China’s behavior in the South China Sea and Russia’s approach to security in the Baltic. What littoral states must fear is some form of Baltic quid pro quo for Russian support of China’s artificial islands and domination of the South China Sea.”

Second, the possibility of Russia and China forming a military alliance of sorts should be more seriously analyzed and discussed, as such a development would affect the strategic calculations surrounding a possible military confrontation. China has long been concerned with the problem of countering the U.S.-led quasi-alliance of AEGIS-equipped navies on its doorstep (South Korea, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. 7th Fleet), and some noted Chinese intellectuals (such as Yan Xuetong) have publicly argued in favor of China forming military alliances and establishing military bases in countries it has an arms trade relationship with. It is not hard to see that such remarks could have been made first and foremost with Russia in mind, China’s most militarily capable arms trade partner. Remote as the possibility might seem to some, the potential of such a development alone should concern NATO and all European non-NATO states, especially given Europe’s strong economic involvement with China.

Third, while it is hard to see how the arms embargoes against Russia and China could be lifted in the near and medium term, given both countries’ unwillingness to accept the right of smaller countries in their respective “sphere of interest” for unimpeded sovereignty, Western countries should more seriously analyze the impact that these sanctions have so far had in creating incentives for an entente, and find ways to engage China and Russia constructively in other areas to provide an alternative to a Russo-Chinese marriage of convenience.

Fourth, the German Navy and other Baltic forces should use this and future Chinese excursions into the Northern European maritime area mainly as an opportunity to gather intelligence, and to engage the Chinese Navy in the field of naval diplomacy. For Germany, it is also high time to start planning in earnest the replacement of the Oste-class SIGINT vessels, to expedite the procurement of the five additional Braunschweig-class corvettes, and to properly engage with allies in strategic deliberations regarding the Baltic Sea in a global context.

The authors work for the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK), Germany. Dr. Sarah Kirchberger heads the Center for Asia-Pacific Strategy & Security (CAPSS) and is the author of Assessing China’s Naval Power: Technological Change, Economic Constraints, and Strategic Implications (Springer, Berlin & Heidelberg 2015). Dr. Sebastian Bruns directs the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security (CMSS) and is editor of the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy & Security (London 2016).

Table 1: Major PLAN-RFN bilateral exercises

Designation/ Timeframe

Region Major Units

Type of missions

“Sino-Russian Naval Co-operation 2012” (April 22-27) Yellow Sea / near Qingdao China: 5 destroyers, 5 frigates, 4 missile boats, one support vessel, one hospital ship, two submarines, 13 aircraft, five shipborne helicopters

Russia: Slava-class guided missile cruiser Varyag, 3 Udaloy-class destroyers.

‘Joint Sea 2013’

(July 7-10)

Sea of Japan / Peter the Great Bay near Vladivostok China: Type 052C (Luyang-II class) destroyer Lanzhou; Type 052B (Luyang I-class) destroyer Wuhan; Type-051C (Luzhou-class) destroyers Shenyang and Shijiazhuang (116); Type 054A (Jiangkai-II class) frigates Yancheng and Yantai; Type 905 (Fuqing-class) fleet replenishment ship Hongzehu.

Russia: 12 vessels from the Pacific Fleet.

air defence, maritime replenishment, ASW, joint escort, rescuing hijacked ships


‘Joint Sea 2014’

(May 20-24)

East China Sea / Northern part China: Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyer Ningbo; Type 052C (Lüyang II class) destroyer Zhengzhou

Russia: Missile cruiser Varyag plus 13 surface ships, 2 submarines, 9 fixed-wing aircraft, helis and special forces.


anchorage defense, maritime assaults, anti-submarine combats, air defense, identification, rescue and escort missions

‘Joint Sea 2015’ Part I’ (May 18-21) Eastern Mediterranean China: Type 054A frigates Linyi  and Weifang, supply ship Qiandaohu

Russia: six ships including Slava-class destroyer Moskva , Krivak-class frigate Ladny , plus 2 Ropucha-class landing ships

Navigation safety, ship protection, at-sea replenishment, air defense, ASW and ASuW, escort missions and live-fire exercises
‘Joint Sea 2015’ Part II (August 24-27) Sea of Japan / Peter the Great Gulf near Vladivostok China: Type 051C Luzhou-class destroyer Shenyang, Sovremenny-class destroyer Taizhou, Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates Linyi  and Hengyang, amphibious landing ships Type 071 Yuzhao-class (LPD) Changbaishan  and Type 072A Yuting II-class (LST) Yunwunshan, Type 903A Fuchi-class replenishment ship Taihu; PLAAF units: J-10 fighters and JH-7 fighter-bombers

Russia: Slava-class cruiser Varyag  and Udaloy-class destroyer Marshall Shaposhnikov, two frigates, four corvettes, two subs, two tank landing ships, two coastal minesweepers, and a replenishment ship.

ASW, AAW, amphibious assault, MCM
‘Joint Sea 2016’ (September 12-20) South China Sea / coastal waters to the east of Zhanjiang China: Luyang I-class (Type 052B) destroyer Guangzhou, Luyang II-class (Type 052C) ; destroyer Zhengzhou; Jiangkai II-class (Type 054A) frigates Huangshan, Sanya and Daqing, Type 904B logistics supply ship Junshanhu,  Type 071 LPD Kunlunshan, Type 072A landing ship Yunwushan, 2 submarines; 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters (including Z-8, Z-9 and Ka-31 airborne early warning aircraft) and 160 marines with amphibious armoured equipment.

Russia: Udaloy-class destroyers Admiral Tributs and Admiral Vinogradov; Ropucha-class landing ship Peresvet; Dubna-class auxiliary Pechanga and sea-going tug Alatau plus two helicopters, 96 marines, and amphibious fighting vehicles.

SAR, ASW, joint island-seizing missions, amphibious assault, live firings, boarding, air-defense


‘Joint Sea 2017’ (July 21-28) Baltic Sea / off Kaliningrad China: Type 052D destroyer Hefei, Type 054A frigate Yuncheng, Type 903A replenishment ship Luomahu

Russia: 2 Steregushchy class corvettes, one support tug, naval Ka-27 helicopters and land-based Su-24 fighter-bombers as air support.

SW, AAW, ASuW, anti-piracy, SAR

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, officers and soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy hold a welcome ceremony as a Russian naval ship arrives in port in Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong Province, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.

A2/AD and the Long Lance Torpedo

In this two-part series on contested access in the Solomon Islands campaign, Part One will explore one of the IJN’s most successful weapons of World War II, which made area denial a reality for the IJN, the Type 93 ‘Long Lance’ torpedo. Part Two will compare the similarities of the Long Lance development to that of the DF-21D and discuss how the U.S. ultimately dealt with the Long Lance. 

By Bob Poling

As I mentioned in my introductory post, the intent of this column is to explore the historical use of strategies, tactics, and technologies which fall under the broad definition of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD). One of the most common practices of a nation using A2/AD is the adoption of asymmetric tactics and associated weapons systems to mitigate an adversary’s advantages in numbers and technology.

However, it this column’s assertion that the U.S. Navy may lack an appreciation for these asymmetric threats.  This is not due to a wanton disregard for A2/AD strategies and tactics, nor an unhealthy reliance on its weapons systems and technology. Instead, this lack of appreciation can be attributed to two factors. First, the U.S. Navy has not been truly challenged at sea since the end of the World War II. As such the Navy has produced several generations of naval officers that have no high-end combat experience. The second factor is a byproduct of the first. Since there has been no combat at sea for over 70 years, the Navy lacks case studies for training its current batch of officers. Therefore, this column will tap into the Navy’s combat history and offer historical examples that are arguably useful for contemporary and future challenges. For instance, the Solomon Islands Campaign is littered with examples of what today can easily be categorized as A2/AD strategies and tactics.

Contesting Access in the Solomon Islands

During the Solomon Islands Campaign, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) employed a strategy based on anti-access, in which they aimed to keep out the U.S. and allied powers from the inner reaches of the Japanese Empire. To that end, Japan developed several platforms, weapons systems, and tactics which would facilitate this strategy. Moreover, in the years leading up to the start of WWII, the IJN faced a predicament like the one that drove the Chinese to develop the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, that is, the challenge of how to deny freedom of access and maneuver to and ultimately defeat the U.S. Navy.

Type 93
Type 93 torpedo, recovered from Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on display outside U.S. Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

One of the most sophisticated and deadly weapons of WWII was the Type 93 torpedo. This torpedo was the ship killer of that era. The asymmetric tactics developed for its use in combat were revolutionary. Much like the DF-21D, the Long Lance was in development for 20 years. Experimental work began in 1916, and by 1935, IJN weapons designers had produced a working 24-inch torpedo. “Long Lance was the most powerful weapon of its kind in the world as it was 29ft, 6.3 in long, weighed 5982 lbs, carried a warhead of 1080 lbs, and had a range of 21,900 yards at 48-50 knots, 35,000 yards at 40-42 knots or 43,700 yards at 36-38 knots.”1 Granted, launches beyond 20 miles were unlikely, but the Type 93 gave the IJN a standoff weapon that could be launched outside of visual detection range, especially at night.  Additionally, the Long Lance out-ranged the guns of all USN ships except battleships, making this a particularly effective long range anti-access weapon. Finally, the U.S. Navy had no effective countermeasures or defenses against this torpedo.

To optimize the capability and destructive power of the Long Lance, the IJN incorporated it into their night-fighting tactics. “The origin of the Japanese Navy’s tactic of stressing the night engagement was old; in both the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars this tactic was used.”2 It should have come as no surprise that the IJN continued to develop night-fighting tactics given their success in these two conflicts. However, the USN surface forces had an air of invincibility and arrogance about them and held the IJN in contempt. 

This contempt was based on beliefs that the USN was technologically superior and more experienced, especially when compared to the IJN, which was only 70 years old.3 While USN battle tactics were still dominated by the pursuit of daytime gunnery engagements, and some U.S. Navy ships had radar, the IJN developed tactics to counter this practice mainly by the use of torpedoes coupled with guns fired in nighttime engagements. “Standard Japanese night-fighting doctrine was to launch torpedoes first, use gunfire only when necessary and searchlights as little as possible.” As the Long Lance was wakeless, it was nearly impossible to detect at night. The IJN counted on the USN to be taken unawares by this tactic and thus to be unlikely to maneuver. To facilitate this tactic and remain undetected, the Japanese’ primary method of detecting surface ships was the use of superb night optics. In fact, the IJN was constantly refining night optics during the interwar period and was regularly producing world-class optics in the 1930s. “Particularly noteworthy were binoculars of powerful magnification and light-gathering capacity, featuring lenses as large as 21 centimeters.”To use these binoculars, the IJN selected men to be trained as Masters in Lookout, and these petty officers trained day and night to hone their skills.6 No other navy of the era had lookouts as highly trained as these. When combined with the night optics, these men were in fact a part of the Long Lance weapons system. 

The U.S. Navy’s first encounter with the Long Lance was in the early morning of August 8, 1942 in Savo Sound off Guadalcanal. On the previous morning, the U.S. Navy had landed Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi as part of Operation Watchtower. Upon hearing the news of the invasion, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, Commander 8th Fleet, pulled together a force of seven cruisers and one destroyer and sailed for Guadalcanal that afternoon.

Arrayed against Mikawa were six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eight destroyers, which were divided into three groups. Of the eight U.S. destroyers, two were assigned radar picket duties patrolling both the western and eastern approaches to Savo Sound, but Mikawa’s striking force remained undetected. According to IJN accounts both radar pickets were detected visually at 10,000 meters by the IJN cruiser Chokai. However, neither Blue nor Ralph Talbot made radar contact even though Mikawa’s ships were only a little over five miles away.7 Once clear of the picket, Mikawa gave the order to attack.  The IJN achieved complete surprise, and its use of an A2 weapon coupled with asymmetric tactics had devastating results on the USN and RAN. As RADM Crutchley wrote,

“The result of the night actions fought during the night 8th-9th August proved costly. Four of our heavy cruisers – Vincennes, Quincy, Astoria and Canberra had been lost. Another heavy cruiser Chicago had been damaged and required dockyard repair. Two destroyers had been damaged, Ralph Talbot fairly heavily and Patterson not seriously.8

During the engagement, IJN cruisers Chokai, Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furrutaka fired 45 Type 93 torpedoes.9 Of the four USN cruisers participating in the battle, Quincy and Vincennes were sunk due to damage caused by Long Lance torpedo hits and Chicago had her bow blown off by a Long Lance, which immediately took her out of the fight.10 The other two cruisers lost in the battle, Astoria and Canberra, both were sunk due to damage inflicted by naval gunfire from the IJN cruisers.11

The Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai, which led the IJN attack at Savo Island. The recessed torpedo tubes are clearly visible under the whaleboat and second stack.

Two things stand out here as noteworthy anti-access tactics. First, part of an area defense strategy will likely include forward-based forces that can rapidly respond to an incursion and immediately conduct active defensive operations. In this case, it was Mikawa’s eight ships which caught the U.S. Navy completely unawares even though this operation was being conducted inside the IJN’s defensive sphere. The second A2 tactic was the night attack using a long-range, undetectable weapon. Much of today’s angst regarding A2 systems assumes the very same thing. Once the defenders realized they were under attack, it was entirely too late to respond and because of the nature of the Long Lance, it remained undetectable. The element of surprise was made all the more decisive by the effective use of a powerful anti-access weapon. 


A2 tactics are nothing new, and today’s Navy is aware of what those tactics may entail and which potential adversaries embrace these tactics today. Back in the Solomons, the USN’s troubles with the Long Lance would continue well into 1943. Ultimately, the Navy learned to adapt its tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to mitigate the threat posed by the Long Lance. However, what is important in this example is that no active counter measure was developed. Instead there was a realization that the threat was not going away, and a significant amount of risk was going to be present while conducting operations in the waters of the Solomon Islands. Acceptance of significant risk is an important part of defeating an adversary that aligns its strategy and tactics with A2/AD. Part Two will explore this aspect as well and how the Navy ultimate dealt with the Long Lance threat.

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


1. John Bullen, “The Japanese Long Lance Torpedo and Its Place in Naval History,” Imperial War Museum Review 3 (1988): 69–79.

2. ‘Development of the Japanese Navy’s Operational Concept against America’, Jisaburo Ozawa in Dillon and Goldstein, The Pacific War Papers, (Washington D.C., Potomac Books Inc., 2005), 74.

3. David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, Reprint edition (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 7.

4. Bullen, 69–79.

5. Evans and Peattie, 275.

6. Bruce Loxton and Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster, 1st edition (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 43.

7. Captain Toshikazu Ohmae, IJN Ret., “The Battle of Savo Island,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 83, no. 12 (December 1957): 1263–78.

8. RADM Victor Crutchley, “Solomons ‘Watchtower’ OPS. Guadalcanal – Tulagi. Admiral Crutchley Report T.G. 66.6 Screening Force,” August 13, 1942, National Archives of Australia: B6121, 105A.

9. Eric LaCroix, Linton Wells, and Linton Wells II, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War, 1St Edition,(Annapolis, Md: US Naval Institute Press, 1997), 306.

10. Bureau of Ships, “USS QUINCY (CA39), USS ASTORIS (CA34), USS VINCENNES (CA44) LOSS IN ACTION BATTLE OF SAVO ISLAND 9 AUGUST 1942,” War Damage Report (Navy Department, June 21, 1943), The Navy Department Library, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/w/war-damage-reports/uss-quincy-ca39-astoria-ca34-vincennes-ca44-war-damage-report-no29.html, 21; Office of Naval Intelligence, “Solomon Islands Campaign II The Battle of Savo Island 9 August 1942 The Battle of the Eastern Solomons 23-25 August 1942,” Combat Narratives (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Navy, October 1, 1943), The Navy Department Library, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/s/solomon-islands-campaign-ii-savoisland-III-easternsolomons.html., 10.

11. Bureau of Ships, “USS QUINCY (CA39), USS ASTORIA (CA34), USS VINCENNES (CA44) LOSS IN ACTION BATTLE OF SAVO ISLAND 9 AUGUST 1942”; RADM Victor Crutchley, “Report of Proceedings Operation – ‘Watchtower,’” August 18, 1942, National Archives of Australia: B6121, 105A.

Featured Image: IJN DD  Isokaze at Saeki Bay, October 20, 1941. Colorized by Lootoko Jr.