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The Strategic Need for Tactical Excellence: Raising the Surface Navy’s Combat Capability

By Rear Adm. Dave Welch

The recent online republication of a 1993 Proceedings article from Capt. Christopher H. Johnson, “The Surface Navy: Still in Search of Tactics,” by the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) in July 2018 can be interpreted two ways. The reprint either suggests that Capt. Johnson’s cautionary tale of 25 years ago went unheeded and the Surface Forces are substantially unchanged in our approach to the development of tactical proficiency, or it serves as an invitation to examine what has changed.1,2 As the Surface Warfare community prepares to gather for the annual national symposium of the Surface Navy Association, I choose the latter interpretation and offer that there have been significant changes, particularly in the last five years.

In 1993 Capt. Johnson argued that training cycles focused on administrative tasks – a check-in-the-block approach – to build readiness, and that workups lacked a meaningful, deliberate focus on the development of tactical proficiency and expertise in a ship and crew. This critique was not without merit. By 1993 the Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and the United States Navy enjoyed uncontested access to the open oceans. Focus was shifting to the littorals. Over the next two decades Surface Forces concentrated on power projection and support for the Joint fight ashore, with little impetus to hone our tactical skills in sea control mission sets. That period has ended, however, and the United States Navy is again in the midst of great power competition. Potential adversaries are developing capabilities that challenge our ability to operate in the deep blue, and with that comes an imperative to develop and master tactics that will translate into effective combat power at sea – tactics that take into account the current threats, and developing capabilities of potential adversaries. Fortunately, in contrast to the Surface Navy described by Capt. Johnson, we now have the ways and the means to advance lethality and tactical proficiency in the Surface Navy.  

The establishment of Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) in 2015 was a decisive development in our community, perhaps the most important development in a generation.

Lessons Truly Learned

In 1993, Capt. Johnson cast a vision of a Surface Warfare community that provided the latest in advanced tactical training and doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to the Fleet to keep it ready, capable, and lethal. Such a vision was not new– it had been developed before in naval aviation. During the Vietnam War, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas Moorer ordered a commission to examine the precipitous drop in naval fighter squadron combat kill ratios since World War II and the Korean War. The Ault Commission made sweeping recommendations, including the establishment of the Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) – a seminal step that took place in March 1969.3 This led to a systemic shift in tactical development and training. Over the following decades this approach expanded to all facets of carrier-based aviation, which now sits as a core mission for the most mature of SMWDC’s counterparts, Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Command (NAWDC).

Critical mass for the expansion of the Fighter Weapons School model into the Navy’s other warfare communities – including Surface Warfare – came in 2014 when Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert provided Warfighting Development Centers (WDC) Implementation Guidance to the Fleet.4 This was quickly followed by joint Pacific Fleet and Fleet Forces Commanders’ guidance from Admirals Harris and Gortney that began the internal reorganization of authority and responsibility in the Fleet to achieve the WDC mission.5


SMWDC efforts, including the introduction and growth of a Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) program, means that the surface community now moves with purpose to develop tactical expertise. We no longer rely upon personal initiative to cultivate tactical excellence.

SMWDC has grown rapidly since Rear Adm. Jim Kilby took charge as its first commander at the command establishment ceremony in 2015.6 In an early 2016 Proceedings article, he outlined the command’s initial four lines of operations: the development of WTIs, plans for a Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC), the introduction of Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercises into the readiness generation cycle, and the standardization and growth of doctrine and TTP led for the community by the command.7 He also laid out plans for three WTI programs in the areas of anti-submarine/surface warfare (ASW/SUW), integrated air and missile defense (IAMD), and amphibious warfare (AMW).

A 2017 Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) article by then-SMWDC Commander Rear Adm. John Wade and his training and operations officer, Capt. Jeff Heames, highlighted the continued growth of the command and also outlined SMWDC’s updated lines of operation: advanced tactical training; doctrine and TTP development; operational support; and capability assessments, experimentation, and future requirements.8 The removal of the WTI program and SWCTC from the updated lines of operation may have surprised the casual observer, but within command lifelines, we clearly understand that WTIs remain the critical enabler to deliver results in these lines of operation.

Today, SMWDC develops WTIs in the three disciplines envisioned. There are currently more than 275 “patch-wearing” Warfare Tactics Instructors, either in production tours to deliver on the four lines of operation, or in post-production tours where they have returned to the Fleet, carrying with them knowledge, expertise, and connections to “WTI Nation.”

VIRGINIA CAPES (Nov. 9, 2018) Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Downing, right, an Anti-Submarine Warfare/Surface Warfare (ASW/SUW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), mentors Lt. Cmdr. Kris Yost, the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf’s (CG 55) chief engineer (CHENG), during a Fast Attack Craft / Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FAC/FIAC) training event from the ship’s combat information center as part of a Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jesse Marquez Magallanes/Released)

We have evolved in our shipboard training “reps and sets.” During exercises on both coasts, watch teams are challenged to grow through the use of replay tools that highlight where errors in planning and execution have occurred. While feedback may seem uncomfortable at first, watch teams and warfare commander staffs quickly understand that some of the best lessons come through mistakes, followed by detailed debrief, with opportunities to immediately apply those lessons to rework a plan, rebrief it, then conduct another round of exercises at increased levels of pace and complexity. Watch teams that initially needed the watchful eyes of senior mentors and WTIs to help guide them are operating at such a high level at the end of the exercise that they need little oversight, and begin to hold themselves accountable and teach younger crew members.

Live Fire With a Purpose (LFWAP) is another critical aspect to the Surface community’s advanced tactical training. LFWAP is an enhanced missile exercise program which provides warships the opportunity to develop watch team performance using updated tactics against live, increasingly realistic targets.9   

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 18, 2018) A Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) is launched from a forward vertical launching system aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) during a Live Fire with a Purpose (LFWAP) exercise. (U.S. Navy video by Seaman Nikita M. Custer/released)

Classroom and at-sea training are essential, but the doctrine and TTP required to operate effectively are equally as fundamental to the execution of sea control. SMWDC’s doctrine and TTP teams have reviewed and updated more than 80 tactical publications since 2015. The guiding principles for all SMWDC-reviewed, renewed, and developed doctrine and TTP is that it must be readable, understandable, teachable, and executable. Doctrine and TTP provide warships with the opportunity to read, think, plan, and execute in a more cohesive way.

Ships and afloat staffs can access the latest TTP updates on SMWDC’s collaboration-at-sea account (CAS) webpage, and they can also make inputs to the command’s Tactical Observations Lessons Learned (TOLL) portal. This tool allows the waterfront to provide inputs to SMWDC’s doctrine and TTP branch for consideration and possible implementation into Fleet-wide publications.

Surface Force Life Blood

The cultural shifts represented by SMWDC are rooted in talent accession, training, and development as Warriors, Thinkers, and Teachers, embodied within the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) cadre. SMWDC’s development as a driving force behind a culture of excellence within the Surface Fleet will ensure that the deliberate development of tactical expertise flourishes in the Navy.

The value of the WTI is not solely within the individual. It is in the character traits that are emphasized to WTI candidates: humility, credibility, and approachability. These are carried through SMWDC’s day-to-day lines of operation, the training that WTIs provide in production tours, and the continued influence they have when they return to the Fleet.

Admiral Christopher Grady, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces, highlighted the significant impact that SMWDC and WTIs have already made in their early years of existence:

“SMWDC continues to drive a rapid and sustainable increase in the warfighting proficiency and capability of the Surface Fleet and our Navy as a whole. There is an insatiable appetite in the Fleet for the training, TTP and doctrine updates, and direct operational support this team provides reliably in all fleet concentration areas. In just a few short years, SMWDC has become the place to be in the Surface Navy when it comes to the profession of arms in the maritime domain.(emphasis added)10

The two most recent Commander Command Screening Board results are reflective of his remarks. On the FY19 board, ten WTIs were eligible on their first-look and six were selected (60 percent). Nine officers were eligible for their second-look on that board, and all screened for a milestone tour – three XO/CO, four XO Afloat, and two XO special mission. On the recently released FY20 board, 19 of 23 WTIs were selected (82.6 percent) for milestone tours and 8 of 11 WTI-selects screened for a milestone. For any program – especially a young one – these are outstanding numbers.


SMWDC’s vision is to mature into an elite (not elitist) organization that continues to learn while accomplishing our mission with enthusiasm and innovation. We strive to maintain humble attitudes as we approach each event, exercise, or engagement within our mission set. SMWDC’s maturation continues as this critical return on investment is realized throughout the Fleet.

The WTI program will expand in 2019 to include a Mine Warfare (MIW) WTI program.11 Similar in design to the other three WTI programs, MIW WTIs will attend the WTI baseline course at SMWDC headquarters, but will continue training at Ecole de Guerre des Mines (EGUERMIN), otherwise known as the NATO Naval Mine Warfare Centre of Excellence in Belgium. The first MIW WTIs will then play a leading role in the development of a group of naval professionals who are steeped in mine warfare tactics.

As growth continues, it means that difficult decisions must be made to ensure that we effectively manage our talented SMWDC enablers and WTIs. The command works closely with the team at PERS-41 to develop strategies to recruit top talent, and to seek professional development opportunities for WTIs, including some of the Fleet’s most prestigious programs. Many WTIs are completing coursework through the Naval Postgraduate School, and recently an ASW/SUW WTI was selected for the Fleet Scholars Education Program and will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Charting a New Course

In closing, I would like to return to Capt. Johnson’s article, and offer an alternative vignette that demonstrates where we are today – a construct that offers great value to current readiness generation processes, with great potential for continued improvement.  


Two weeks into the warship’s post-deployment stand down the captain of the guided missile cruiser – having just complete a full deployment as “Whiskey” – quietly took a moment to reflect on his team’s progress over the last two years as a ship and warfare commander team. He was already thinking about how his team would approach their next training cycle, and what improvements needed to occur.  

The deployment had been challenging, but also richly satisfying from Day One. The captain remembered what he felt like pulling away from the pier, knowing that his ship and Strike Group team had completed a training process that left him and his crew knowledgeable of the threats they faced, and confident in their procedures and tactics. It was a good feeling to know that he and the ship were prepared – in fact, more tactically astute than any ship he previously served aboard in in his career.

After completing all basic phase certification requirements, the strike group warships and warfare commanders completed Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) – a period of in-port academics to review current tactics, techniques, and procedures in detail, directly followed by an at-sea period in which he and his teams stepped through those TTP – all under the watchful eye of WTIs. They did their reps and sets, followed by a debrief… always a debrief… in which the WTIs highlighted good performance and objectively pointed out missed steps, mistakes, or just items that needed more attention. They launched weapons in an enhanced missile exercise program called LFWAP, against realistic and challenging targets. They weren’t simply complying with regulations – they learned to drive excellence within their teams and across the ship by breaking down traditional barriers often raised by ego and pride.

He learned that the advanced training he and his team experienced in 2017-18 enabled a higher level of combat readiness.12 But he also knew that his ship operated in an era in which improvement must continue.

The United States Navy was once again in a competition – a competition for sea control.

At that moment Chief Warrant Officer Troy Woods and Lt. Cesar Mize, IAMD and ASW/SUW WTIs respectively, walked into his cabin to discuss their training plan and combat system modernization. Capt. Joe Cahill’s apprehension faded as he listened to these two young officers with expertise steeled by experience lay out a plan for raising the combat capability of the warship and the warfare commander assets under their charge.

The captain smiled at his shipmates, and listened carefully to their observations and recommendations.


We still have much work to do to develop the talent, write the tactics, train our crews, and field the tools that will enable the Surface Force to continue to control the sea and project power. But I am confident we are on the right path. What remains is to execute the plan, hold the line, and own the fight. Let’s get to work.

Rear Admiral Dave Welch is the third commander of Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC).


1. Johnson, C. H. (1993, November 9). The Surface Navy: Still in Search of Tactics. Retrieved from https://www.usni.org/document/professional-notes-1993-119-9-1087pdf?magazine_article=69636.

2. Johnson, C. H. (2018, July 11). The Surface Navy: Still in Search of Tactics. Retrieved from http://cimsec.org/the-surface-navy-still-in-search-of-tactics/37080.

3. Ault, F. W. (1968). Report of the Air to Air Missile System Capability Review (pp. 1-58, Issue brief). Naval Air Systems Command. Retrieved from https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/research/histories/naval-aviation/aultreport/sections1-4.pdf.

4. United States of America, Department of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations. (2014). Warfighting Development Centers Implementation Guidance (N00/100078, pp. 1-5).

5. United States of America, Department of the Navy, United States Fleet Forces Command / United States Pacific Fleet. (2014). Warfighting Development Centers (COMUSFLTFORCOM/COMPACFLTINST 3501.4, pp. 1-26).

6. Ingle, D. M. (2014, June). Official U.S. Navy website – Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Retrieved from https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/nsmwdc/Pages/Naval-Surface-and-Mine-Warfighting-Development-Center-Activates-at-Naval-Base-San-Diego.aspx.

7. Kilby, J. (2016, January). USNI. Retrieved from https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-01/tactical-excellence-design.

8. Wade, J., & Heames, J. (2018, February 04). Warfare Tactics Instructor: A Unique Opportunity for Junior Officers. Retrieved from http://cimsec.org/warfare-tactics-instructor-unique-opportunity-junior-officers/35421.

9. Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. (2018, August 08). Navy.mil Home Page. Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=106665.

10. Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. (2018, June 27). Navy.mil Home Page. Retrieved from http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=106143.

11. Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. (2018, September 14). Navy.mil Home Page. Retrieved from https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=107063.

12. Eckstein, M. (2018, March 29). Deployed Surface Forces Benefitting from SMWDC Training, Technologies. Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2018/03/29/deployed-surface-forces-benefitting-smwdc-training-technologies.

Featured Image: 170310-N-FV739-154 WATERS SOUTH OF JAPAN (March 10, 2017) Ships participating in MultiSail17 sail in formation during a photo exercise (PHOTOEX). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher A. Veloicaza/Released)

Then What? Wargaming the Interface Between Strategy and Operations, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

By Robert C. Rubel

Gaming and the Levels of War

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that war is a continuation of politics by other means, an aphorism that is universally taught at the nation’s war and staff colleges. It implies that there is an intimate relationship between what happens on the battlefield and what happens in the capitals of the warring states, as well as those of neutrals and allies. In later chapters he expands on the idea, laying out various situations of relative strength and motivation among combatants and the way that the policy/strategy interface is affected.1 Given the prominence of this idea in his book, Clausewitz admits the difficulty of grasping the logic of how policy and warfare interact with one another, stating that in strategy “…what is more difficult to grasp are the intellectual factors involved. Even so, it is only in the highest levels of strategy [presumably where military strategy meets policy] that intellectual complications and extreme diversity of factors and relationships occur.”2 Having made that admission he goes on to simplify the matter by making an assumption about the coherency of the political level: “Once it has been determined what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course.”3 If only things were that straightforward.

Clausewitz thought that a good way for military operations to be harmonized with national strategy and political imperatives was for the strategist to lead the forces in the field, ala Frederick the Great.4 Abraham Lincoln actually dabbled with the idea when he took a trip down to the James River to check up on McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign.5 However, since that brief excursion, American practice has been for the president to stay close to the political front, even though being Commander-in-Chief, and choosing to delegate field command to a senior military officer. Depending on the president’s approach, factors such as policy, politics, and military strategy could be coordinated in Washington or perhaps, as in World War II, at allied conferences such as Arcadia, Casablanca, and Tehran. In theory, as Clausewitz presumes, the purpose and objectives of the war are outcomes of the political process and military strategy that are concocted, ideally, in consultation with senior military leadership. The resulting strategy would be converted into orders which the fighting forces would carry out.

However, history teaches us that coherency in the relationship between policy and the military instrument (which is somewhat simplistically termed here as the strategy/operations interface) is both an aspiration and an assumption on the part of most governments. The intellectual complications and diversity of factors Clausewitz mentions often put such coherency beyond reach. This represents a serious challenge to historians seeking to document causes and effects, but even more so it is an obstacle to game designers seeking to incorporate the interplay of both levels of war.

In order to prepare the way for a discussion of potential game methods to explore the interface, we will work our way through the levels of war in a temporal manner, proceeding from the beginning of war, through its execution, and then to the endgame. The relationships of the levels (the people and organizations responsible at each) and the challenges to gaming them change a bit at each stage.

Combining Strategy and Operations in Wargames

It is often the case that scenarios for operational-level wargames include a “road-to-war” section that offers a plausible narrative of how the crisis or an attack that starts the game came about. As routinely as such narratives are produced, their influence on the game tends to wane as the game proceeds. Players and umpires become immersed in operational moves and counter-moves. Moreover, the road-to-war narrative may lack sufficient discussion of factors that would be needed to power analyses or move assessments farther downstream in the game. The bottom line is that unless a game is designed such that it includes specific measures to examine the matter, the strategy/operations interface gets short shrift in current gaming practice.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, so inevitably, once a war starts, a strategy/operations feedback loop of some sort must be established. Such loops automatically raise the issue of the degree to which operations are subject to detailed management from Washington. In some cases, such as Vietnam, operations such as air strikes into North Vietnam were micromanaged from the White House. In others, such as Desert Storm, General Schwarzkopf went into cease fire negotiations with little in the way of guidance from the president. In between those extremes are any number of cases, such as Lincoln and Grant, in which we find a good balance of delegation and oversight.

At this point it should be mentioned that each level of war contains its own logic and its own set of imperatives. The fundamental purpose of each higher command echelon is to coordinate and support the staffs and units that report to it. However, there is also the inherent requirement for higher echelons to override or sub-optimize the logic of lower echelon operations. If tactical victory was all that mattered, operational-level staffs would not have to worry about harmonizing strategy and tactics and could only focus on coordinating the tactical units below them. Similarly, if operational logic governed things once war broke out – a view that was widely held in earlier times – then political oversight would be unnecessary and likely counter-productive. The point is that there frequently arises occasions in which higher commands must impose guidance on lower level forces that exposes them to higher risk or reins them in somehow in order to protect or achieve higher level objectives.

In current operational-level gaming practice across the Department of Defense (DoD), Blue (U.S.) players generally have a free hand once they are given the starting scenario and perhaps a campaign plan. Any guidance from either the game control cell or a “council of elders,” while frequently advertised as guidance from higher authority, is almost always based on regulating the progress of the game rather than an attempt to explore the strategy/operations interface. The net effect of this “strategic vacuum” is the tendency for players to focus at the tactical level, which is what most Blue players, regardless of service, are most comfortable with. Control tries to keep them oriented on the operational level by various means, including by providing broad move feedback vice detailed battle reports.

On the other hand, for any number of reasons it is common for Red (the enemy, whoever that might be for the particular game), especially free-play Red, to pitch their moves at the strategic level. One reason is that Red is frequently weaker in conventional military power than Blue and so seeks asymmetric avenues of advantage. Red also tends to be represented by fewer players who are organized into a single cell, thus facilitating multi-level thinking. This creates a problem for game umpires who must reconcile asymmetric move inputs: operational from Blue, and strategic/tactical from Red. The frequent response is to factor out Red’s stratagems, perhaps informing Blue of them, and concocting operational-level assessments based on presumed Red moves at that level. If Blue’s political-level responses and resulting guidance to operational-level players is not provided in the feedback, an opportunity to incorporate the strategy/operations interface is lost.

Regardless of how the strategy/operations gap takes form in operational-level games, perhaps the biggest vacuum is in addressing the endgame – how the war ends, a major gap in the planning for OIF. True also for strategy games, the arena of what might be termed “Phase IV”6 is surrounded by a moat of technical and intellectual difficulties that all but isolates it from routine incorporation into gaming. Regardless of how and why a war starts, actions by both sides might serve to transform the nature of the conflict, thereby confounding any pre-war calculations of how it might end. Among the difficulties is how long the war lasts. Desert Storm terminated in roughly the time a week-long wargame would run. Seventeen years after its onset, Afghanistan still simmers. Wars are propelled by disputes, the nature of which heavily influences how long hostilities drag on. Successful military operations, in and of themselves, are not always a sufficient cause for war termination. This therefore presents procedural difficulties for gaming. Even if a game is played out until one side achieves some kind of military checkmate, the matter is not necessarily settled.

Recreational wargames, especially the game board style, can be played out to a decision. In fact, that is the whole idea behind them. However, the decision is usually a function of victory points accrued via operational success, thus the operations/strategy interface is hardwired into the experience.7 In free-assessed games, typical of most large military professional games, it is rare for a game to arrive at a strategic decision. One of the reasons is mechanical, in that the game is arbitrarily limited in moves by the amount of time players have, usually several days to a week. Moreover, game objectives normally focus on specific operational-level issues, obviating any motivation to press for strategic closure. Then too, the technique of free assessment, the use of human umpires to assess moves based on their judgment, makes “who won” either moot, or at least a subjective matter.

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] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 1976), Book Eight, Chapters 5-8, pp. 601-616.

[2] Ibid, Book Three, Chapter 1, p 178

[3] Ibid, p. 178.

[4] Ibid, p. 177.

[5] Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 145-153.

[6] Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operations Planning, 11 August 2011, p. III-41.

[7] There are some games that do address the operations/policy interface, an example being Persian Incursion, a board game designed by Larry Bond, et.al. that employs cards depicting various political conditions attendant to Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. See https://clashofarms.com/files/PI_Sample%20Rules.pdf for a description of game mechanics.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (June 28, 2018) Military officers from various countries participate in the first international wargaming course held at U.S. Naval War College (NWC). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)

How The Fleet Forgot to Fight Pt. 8: A Force Development Strategy

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards. Read Part 5 on Material Condition and Availability. Read Part 6 on Strategy and Operations. Part 7 on Strategy and Force Development.

By Dmitry Filipoff


“You sort of take on the role of one of the leaders in those battles and you get to rethink it through and you lead the team through that talk and you’re there on station. It’s a very educational experience, and I’ve always envied the opportunity to do that…I always envied these land battles, and the Army or the Marine Corps that fought them because in our business we have nothing like [staff rides]…We can study our battles but we have nothing like that. At the end of our conflict, at the end of our battles, the winners sail away victorious and the losers sink to the bottom, and the sea washes over them and soon after, there’s almost no trace of what happened. Maybe, if you want to reach, you can think about walking the Constitution, and you get a chance to see what war at sea in the age of sail might have been like. Maybe you can walk the USS Missouri and you get a chance to see what fighting that battleship in World War II might have been like…Pearl Harbor, a naval battle of sorts…you can see where the terrain might have played a role. But in general, we don’t get a chance to do anything close to a staff ride, and it’s a stark testament to the unforgiving nature of our environment, and it imposes a level of accountability far greater than any administrative measures that any Navy could ever take.” –Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson1 

Major conditions are coming to fruition that will allow the Navy to transform itself for the high-end fight. A new national security strategy has officially refocused the Department of Defense on great power competition after decades of focusing on lower-end threats. A new deploying construct based on unpredictability will help the Navy reset its operating patterns and find more time to work on itself. New weapons and networks that will give the Navy greater firepower than ever before are about to hit the fleet. The time is ripe for revolution. What force development strategy will guide the Navy into the future?

Setting Priorities

“NIFC-CA employs ships and aircraft to consummate missile engagements beyond the radar horizon. This execution is operational rocket science. Those who master it will be identified as the best and brightest.” –Captain Jim Kilby, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense,” 20162

Force development is a process of evolution, where the education and equipment of the force is being continually updated to align with visions of how future conflict may transpire. A force development strategy must guide this evolution by aligning the components of military evolution, mainly capabilities, tactics, doctrine, and training. These components can be aligned toward producing specific warfighting concepts, and also toward generating individual tactics that are a key element of succeeding in future combat regardless of the higher-order concepts they serve.

But the major warfighting experiments and training events that make force development flourish are undoubtedly large expenditures of time and effort. Their scarcity can act as a constraint that forces prioritization. Numerous stakeholders will be competing for time in order to fully experiment with tactics, capabilities, concepts of operation, and other ideas. The products of force development will then compete for the time of the Sailor, and force the Navy to prioritize what it wants Sailors to be proficient at. As it considers a wide variety of demand signals, the Navy must deliberate on what specific force development questions are important enough to warrant sustained series of experiments and new training curriculum. If Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is an operational warfighting concept in need of a force development strategy, then the interconnected nature of force development can be revealed in a specific line of effort that develops a hallmark tactic of DMO.

Distributed naval forces will be able to use networking to aggregate anti-ship firepower from across the force and collect missiles into overwhelming salvos on demand. But it is still practically impossible for the U.S. Navy to execute missile aggregation tactics because almost all of its anti-ship missiles have a meager range of less than 80 miles. That hard limit means U.S. ships can barely spread out and distribute themselves if they want to keep their anti-ship firepower concentrated. A lack of long-range anti-ship firepower will stand in the way of the Navy’s ability to full realize its next major warfighting concept until new capabilities are introduced.

Capability introduction must be matched by tactical development. This will require a heavy experimentation component to identify the best means. What is the ideal method to collect firepower from across a distributed force? What are the best methods to program missiles in such a way as to overwhelm and confuse an adversary? Aggregating missile fires can be a hallmark tactic of distributed naval forces, but will depend on the ability of units to execute other tactics as a prerequisite. Units must be able to use engage-on-remote tactics to cue networked fires from widely dispersed forces, and to use retargeting tactics to keep the kill chains of those missiles fresh. DMO requires new interlocking sets of networking tactics if it is to be fleshed out as a concept. 

Training must prioritize proficiency for executing those specific tactics, and should seek to cultivate an overall tactical sense. Units will need good tactical sense to assess the risks of emissions control while facilitating networking. Units must also be trained in executing tactics for managing datalinks, including through jamming and deception. If Sailors are not well-trained in managing datalinks under contested conditions, then a training shortfall can also be enough to inhibit the Navy from making the most of DMO.

DMO can also take a note from how the interwar period Navy prioritized its own force development. Some of the interwar period Navy’s most important subjects of tactical and doctrinal investigation were fleet formations. The advent of airpower and the diverse types of units that could engage one another in naval combat added a significant degree of complexity in designing fleet formations. These formations attempted to promote maneuverability, facilitate the concentration of firepower, and give room for a variety of command and control options from the fleet commander down to the initiative of the unit leader.

Interwar period fleet formation for cruising. (Source: Trent Hone, “Building a Doctrine: U. S. Naval Tactics and Battle Plans in the Interwar Period“)

The advent of distributed operations and the enormous range of modern weapon systems presents the Navy with a similar challenge, but of greater magnitude. The Navy must focus a significant amount of effort into crafting a variety of distributed fleet formations – fighting stances for how a distributed fleet could steam into a contested zone or meet a hostile force of a certain kind.

Because the speed of a ship is miniscule compared to the speed of missiles, a formation of ships could hardly change during fleet combat. A modern fleet action could be over within minutes, causing fleets to rely heavily on speedy aviation for flexibility and responsiveness. Therefore a distributed fleet formation should also pay great care to a distributed airpower formation, and the nature of that fleet-wide ship-to-aircraft interface can help determine tactics for emissions control, retargeting, and engage-on-remote. Understanding how various distributed airpower schemes can overlay distributed fleet formations is a prime area of interest, as well as how critical networking capabilities like NIFC-CA and CEC can be flexed with different formations.

An animation of a hypothetical scenario demonstrating the Cooperative Engagement Capability and an associated fleet formation. (JHU APL)

Distributed fleet formations are a higher-order force development question for the Distributed Maritime Operations concept. A major fleet action is a complex mosaic of many warfighting dynamics, but the Navy needs to prioritizes specialized series of events that flesh out individual areas to gradually fill in this mosaic and refine the larger exercises and simulations.  

However, experimenting with force development usually suffers from handicaps posed by the numerous artificialities and practical restrictions that come with warfighting simulations. Safety regulations can sometimes be so restrictive that they harm the realism of exercises to an unreasonable degree. The use of special “war modes” for certain sensors and electronic capabilities can also be restricted. Firings are often simulated since it can be highly impractical and dangerous to use real weapons. But these restrictions and artificialities run the risk of hiding valuable insight and hindering force development. Force development must find ways to selectively push these limits for the sake of realism and to ensure that tactical investigations are thorough. A force development strategy should define targeted tactical investigations that are being held back by restrictions or obscured by artificialities, and execute specialized series of events in controlled environments. This will help ensure that the details of certain tactics or capabilities are not overlooked, and that surprise is not incurred.

A strong candidate for frequent live-fire testing and experimentation is the incoming generation of anti-ship missiles that are about to hit the fleet. A significant amount of tactical decision-making could still transpire after an anti-ship missile salvo is fired, and much of that decision-making could be in the hands of autonomous actors. Missiles can use a variety of sensors and networking to close in on their targets, refine their attack profiles, and evade defenses. Other platforms can use networking and retargeting to keep the salvo’s kill chain fresh, and ensure missiles are not deceived by decoys or jamming. Actors could in turn seek to interfere with the datalinks that connect the missiles within a salvo and with the broader force. Evolving the tactics, behavior, and decision-making of autonomous missile salvos and those defending against them is a paramount area of interest for focused tactical investigation. 

Arguably one of the most interesting recent developments in naval arms is the advent of the anti-torpedo torpedo, a novel system the U.S. Navy is currently installing on its capital ships. What makes this system noteworthy is that it introduces a hardkill dynamic into modern torpedo defense for what appears to be the first time. Prior to the advent of this system, it appears torpedo defense was confined to only softkill countermeasures – decoys and other distractions that could lure a torpedo away but not outright destroy it. Introducing a hardkill dynamic into torpedo defense could drastically change the tactics of undersea warfare, and create new offensive/defensive dynamics. If the anti-torpedo torpedo proves to be effective enough and widely proliferates, then it could negate much of the American military’s offensive advantage in the undersea domain until its submarines finally get anti-ship missiles. The tactical effects of this seemingly innocuous system could have serious strategic consequences.

Experimental Countermeasure Anti-Torpedo (CAT) launches from the fantail of USS George HW Bush (CVN-77) in May, 2013. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Power projection operations presume a degree of sea control in order to be executed, and in a similar sense, naval power presumes a degree of cyber control in order to function at all. Warships are highly complex machines made up of advanced electronics, and fleets form sophisticated networks from among their many elements. The cyber terrain of an individual warship is enormous (let alone that of a fleet), and offers numerous points of failure.

It is not too far-fetched to suggest that a cyberattack on a ship could spark grievous mechanical failures, hijack equipment from operators, or scramble the code of combat systems like Aegis. In a time of war, ships could be stuck pierside or dead in the water if they are being wracked by cyberattacks. No Navy can afford to lose in cyberspace, making cyberwarfare one of the most important areas for force development. In spite of this, those who led the cyberforensics investigation into the USS John S. McCain collision suggested that the Navy is extremely far behind on establishing even a basic cyber defense capability:

“To generate network situational awareness sophisticated enough to do cyber forensics, the team will need to search for electronic anomalies across a wide range of interconnected systems. A key component of anomaly detection is the availability of normal baseline operating data, or trusted images, that can be used for comparison. These critical datasets of trusted images do not currently exist.”3

Cyberwarfare is a prime area for the Navy to loosen the restraints and create a specialized series of tactical investigations and training events. However, it will be challenging to effectively resource and constrain this sort of exploration because of the expansiveness of the cyber domain. In order to resource realistic cyber warfighting practice and experimentation, the Navy should consider taking ships from each class and turning them into full-time cyber battlegrounds. Crews will be able to practice damage control on realistic terrain, and operators will be able to understand how gracefully (or ungracefully) their capabilities degrade. For certain experiments, cyber Red teams must be empowered to break things and attack systems with the relentlessness of a great power adversary. Over time this will help build a base of knowledge on cyber hygiene, and eventually aim to give the Navy the confidence that adversaries have not been able to pre-position cyber weapons into ships and systems during peacetime.

Designing the Field of Application

“Two interdependent activities, exercises and experimentation, help to bring joint concepts to life. Throughout history, military exercises have served to reduce uncertainty, increase readiness, and refine and test new concepts. Recognizing the complexity of today’s strategic landscape, we are reenergizing and reorienting the joint exercise program…” –Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford4

Military tools are more advanced and interconnected than ever, driving warfighting concepts toward more complex tactics and doctrine. Yet it is infeasible to realistically test the complex tangle of a great power battle when it can involve things as expensive as warships, as numerous as missile salvos, or as expansive as cyber warfare. These trends are pushing military experimentation and training further and further into the virtual realm, and making force development more vulnerable to the caveats of simulation. The difference between what can be reasonably tested and the nature of actual combat has grown to unprecedented heights, and surprises may lie within that gulf of the unknown. Because of this, force development must include a robust system of real-world experimentation and training that pushes these limits frequently and with rigor.

Exercises can serve as the bedrock of force development because only they can serve as the real-world field of application short of war itself. How these events and their participants evolve over time can reflect the pace of learning. The concepts and scenarios that are deemed worthy of sustained real-world testing and training will reflect the highest priorities. The standards that undergird the field of application can reflect the seriousness of force development, and the level of understanding on warfighting. The learning architecture that is built around exercises helps determine how stakeholders can make the most of the field of application. Ultimately, how the military makes use of exercises as the field of application can reveal much about the state of a force development strategy as a whole.

Exercise events can be widely dissimilar, depending if they are focused on training, experimentation, or partnership engagement. The Navy must define standards and create formats for its major warfighting experiments and training events. It can also learn from earlier difficulties in designing major experimentation exercises. The Fleet Battle Experiments intended to be exercises that could test out important ideas for the Navy’s development. However, they became overcomplicated. They often combined elements of virtual forces, live forces, readiness evolutions, and wargaming. On top of this hodgepodge they stacked numerous test goals driven by many stakeholders. All of this complexity made it difficult for the Navy to extract value from the events.

Adding virtual forces to live exercises can be driven by the need to create appropriately large scenarios. However, because they are simulations, virtual forces introduce simulation caveats which can complicate analysis. Compared to live opposing forces, virtual units can certainly be more accurate representations of adversaries in a technical sense, but their behavior may be more simplistic. Virtual forces can hold great value for training events, but they must be more carefully used when mixed with experimentation. 

Wargaming is a virtual field of application, and there is already a significant learning architecture built around certain wargaming programs. Wargames focused on tactics and doctrine should work together with the real-world field of application in a process of cooperative refinement, where wargames can refine concepts for eventual field application. But some balance must be struck between the two, lest wargames get too ahead of themselves or too much is spent on real-world trials.

Adding too many goals to the Fleet Battle Experiments made it difficult to organize follow-on events that could build on insights. Because warfighting is highly complex, multiple rounds of trial and error must characterize force development trials. However, if the Navy is to facilitate this sort of trial and error on the field of application, then events must be tightly constrained to focus on narrowly defined objectives. Otherwise, it is extraordinarily difficult to design the appropriate follow-through for a large-scale event that attempts to answer too many questions for too many stakeholders.

Multiple rounds of trial and error must also require that events take the form of a series, and where a single series can be focused on exhaustively probing only a handful of questions, warfare areas, or scenarios. One can look to the Air Force, with Red Flag as the premier combat training event, Green Flag as the main close air support exercise, and Space Flag which focuses on space-based effects. Those who program the schedule of events for the field of application should often think in terms of series, and not just one-off events.


In a responsible system of force development, warfighting concepts and programs should live or die by their ability to prove their tactical worth. Arguments on the lasting usefulness of a system are not settled by simply identifying the capability it brings or the mission areas it contributes to. Capabilities have to be tested with an eye toward the specific tactics they produce, and in fleshed out environments. Regardless if the systems are functioning in a technical sense, capabilities can be proven useless or even counterproductive in the context of their application. Poor tactical performance in simulations or exercises should be enough to force changes or cancellations as force development weeds out brittle ideas. If a service or a warfighting community is concerned about the viability of a particular concept or a system, then they should be made to compete through superior tactical innovation. But having realistic proving grounds, a robust learning architecture, and a healthy learning culture is not enough to have the utmost confidence in the military’s ability to change. Despite all the good they can do for military evolution, exercises and wargames have often been deliberately shaped to defend preconceived notions.

Objective tactical investigation and competition requires that trials be realistic, unbiased, and transparent to crucial stakeholders. However, defense programs and warfighting concepts do not exist in an objective vacuum, and involve bureaucratic and political equity. Various communities within each of the services compete with one another for resources for their respective programs, and each has their sacred cows. Multiple tools can exist for the same mission, such as for anti-submarine warfare, but reside among the different tribes and communities. Institutional divisions can emerge along varying interpretations on what will dominate in future war. The services can also compete with each other, such as in the infamous Revolt of the Admirals that was driven by arguments that pitted the Air Force’s strategic bombers against the Navy’s carrier aviation. Questions of tactical effectiveness are but one element of these debates, and sometimes parochial interests can become overriding. These dynamics can also go far beyond the Pentagon and also reach into the halls of Congress. Members of Congress can strongly depend on certain defense programs for jobs and political capital, and can hold other attachments to certain systems of interest. In the past, Congress has forced the military to retain platforms that the services deemed to have outlived their tactical usefulness, including battleships and the A-10.

In How Much Is Enough, Alain Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith pointed to how military culture and bureaucracy can be susceptible to unobjective influences, and how independent analysts in the once-controversial Systems Analysis office were able to compensate:

“Military officers as a group (and some civilians as well) are in a position to have very limited intellectual and career independence. While many individuals succeed in standing up to the system, there are numerous institutional factors working to limit the officer’s intellectual independence…The military man lives in an atmosphere in which many assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs – generally unspoken – are shared…Officers who do not share these beliefs are liable to reprisal on their annual fitness reports…This lack of career independence further helps to ensure conformity to the Service point of view…[independent civilian] analysts could more easily ask the hard questions and pose genuine alternatives, arriving at a recommendation via a more rational and objective process. They were not constrained to defer to rank, age, experience, or chain of command. They had the time to think about important long-range policy problems and [had] the room for imagination, initiative, and fresh thinking. They were comparatively free to gore sacred cows. Such liberties are institutionally very difficult to exercise in a military organization, joint or single Service. There have been loud complaints about civilians ‘muzzling the military’; but anyone who is familiar with the system knows that most of the muzzling is done by the military themselves.”5 

For these reasons and others, the Department of Defense and the Congress should establish an independent body that seeks to provide an unbiased set of eyes on major exercising and wargaming programs. Important independent bodies already exist in the Department of Defense, such as the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE, which is descended from the Systems Analysis office) and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOTE). These organizations aid in assessing major programmatic decisions and provide oversight and evaluation of weapons testing, respectively. These organizations play important roles in providing independent assessments, maintaining standards, and help act as a check on the military’s parochial interests. An organization that seeks to provide similar functions for major exercises and wargames could focus on accounting for:

  • Nature and extent of exercise/wargame artificialities and assumptions
  • Fidelity and behavior of opposing forces
  • Fairness of adjudication
  • Effective inclusion and communication of results in follow-on reporting

Exercises and wargames can have enormous programmatic implications like the programs CAPE and DOTE assess. However, they are venues that can still be corrupted by institutional bias. One such example includes the Congressionally mandated “flyoff” between the F-35 and A-10, which was supposed to be an exercise designed to assess the tactical merits of the platforms in the close air support mission. However, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent watchdog, released a scathing report on the flyoff that argued the exercise design was deliberately distorted to favor the F-35. While pointing to a variety of flaws, POGO claimed:

“Air Force leaders…are staging an unpublicized, quickie test on existing training ranges, creating unrealistic scenarios that presuppose an ignorant and inert enemy force, writing ground rules for the tests that make the F-35 look good—and they got the new testing director, the retired Air Force general Robert Behler, to approve all of it. According to sources closely involved with the A-10 versus F-35 fly-off, who wished to remain anonymous out of concerns about retaliation, this testing program was designed without ever consulting the Air Force’s resident experts on close air support, A-10 pilots and joint terminal attack ground controllers…”6

The frequency with which it appears the military distorts the field of application to protect assumptions, to include scripting behaviors and other measures, points to an uncomfortable truth of force development. The military cannot be expected to always accept or disclose the most disruptive implications that can come from investigating the future of war. Despite their hefty mandate, the armed forces, like any other organization, can still stifle progress through bias, bureaucratic inertia, and an unreceptive culture. An independent body that assesses major exercises and wargames can add needed discipline to force development, safeguard the field of application, and promote military evolution that is appropriately receptive to change.

Resourcing and Reorganization

“Sailors are the most modular, lethal, and adaptable asset the Navy has. No weapon system, no matter how technologically advanced, is more instrumental to warfighting effectiveness than the person directing it. But competency and confidence are not naturally ingrained in a sailor. Warfighting effectiveness only can develop in a sailor who is properly educated, rigorously trained, and meaningfully assessed—and all these factors require resourcing.” –Lt. Brendan Cordial, “People Over Payloads,” 20187

If strategy is to inform budget in an age of great power competition, then the Navy must decide how it can invest more into learning tactics and doctrine. Resourcing priorities can focus on providing more operational units in order to increase the frequency of major training events and warfighting experiments, as well as investing in the unique personnel assignments that are specifically tailored toward force development. However, the current political environment and other constraints are not going to allow for a sudden major increase in force development funding. When it comes to resourcing, how the Navy makes the most of its force development will greatly depend on how it reinvests its time.

The Navy’s force development agenda and the overseas operational agenda will compete for the fleet’s time and units. The Navy’s current ability to resource its own force development with enough field trials and opposing forces will be heavily tied to its ability to wind down its overseas operations. With respect to becoming a learning organization that intends to learn more about high-end warfighting specifically, the Navy must weigh the learning value of major force development events versus overseas operations. In this vein, it should be plainly clear that advanced training and experimentation events help the Navy learn more about high-end warfighting than virtually any presence patrol or maritime security mission.

If the Navy wants to maximize the “reps and sets” of its force development, then it can invert what it has long been its operating paradigm. Advanced events like SWATT and the Fleet Problems shouldn’t just be the prelude to a long deployment, they can become the point of a deployment. Allowing units to do these events several times in the course of a single stretch will accelerate the Navy’s learning to incredible heights, and give the training audience multiple attempts to better themselves in large-scale venues. More importantly, this will add greater speed to the Navy’s ongoing transition away from the low-end focus and gradually reduce the strategic liability it incurred. How frequently the fleet chooses to conduct high-end training events at the onset of this transition will determine how quickly the Navy can close the door on any adversary that seeks to capitalize on the Navy’s lingering neglect of full-spectrum skills.

A baseline resourcing requirement can include defining a dedicated opposing force, because major real-world trials will often need meaningful opposition as a basic realism requirement, and dedicated opposing forces require adequate time to train to foreign doctrine. By designating a combination of units to act as a dedicated opposing force, the fleet will also have a major unit that can be mostly focused on solving Navy problems and not just combatant commander problems. Such a force can maximize its size and availability by including virtual units and operating on a workup cycle similar to that of forward deployed naval forces. 

Another resourcing requirement will come from how the field of application is organized, and the various series of events that are defined. Some events could focus exclusively on training while others focus only on experimentation, since the two can be distinct types of events. Many tactical investigations will require a series of experiments, and many units will need to pass through training crucibles each year. How the Navy organizes the field of application and then allocates units and spends readiness across the various events can drive resourcing requirements. 

The Navy has a tremendous advantage over its great power rivals when it comes to resourcing force development. The numerous allies the U.S. has around the world can also put their navies to use in answering critical force development questions. Allies can be asked to investigate specific tactical problems, and can offer more units to serve as opposition forces. Every allied navy adds size to the field of application, and can allow for a more expansive force development agenda that is shared among partners.

Aside from investing more energy toward live exercises and away from forward operations, the Navy must learn to better resource learning at the individual level. The Navy must give Sailors the time to focus on what makes them better warfighters, and also improve access to the career opportunities that hold the greatest value for their development as warfighters.

Debriefs and replays can and should be reviewed by many more than those who actually participated. No Sailor needs to wait to participate in order to learn from a Fleet Problem, a SWATT evolution, or a wargame. The Navy can widen the reach of its learning architecture by creating deliverable lesson plans and replays for each of these events. Easily digestible and widely disseminated deliverables will multiply the size of the training audience, and make the most of expensive exercises. However, this sort of learning experience should not be left to the initiative of Sailors, since the Navy’s lessons learned systems are infamously difficult and underutilized. Instead, Sailors should be mandated to review these sorts of replays and debriefs as a part of their training curriculum, which will ensure the Navy multiplies the value of these events. Also, for certain trials, opposition forces need to be capable and unpredictable enough so this sort of reviewing doesn’t amount to finding an answer key.

Sailors still need to be given enough time if they are to have better learning experiences. The Navy already makes plenty of time for Sailors to learn things, but among numerous workshops, inspections, and trainings, not enough are truly focused on making Sailors better warfighters. Leaders have long sought to cut these burdens and have made some progress, but Sailors are still overburdened and their focus spread thin. The Navy must recognize that many of these burdens are the accumulated baggage of a risk-averse culture and a low-end operating focus that was not well-constrained. Similar to how a SWATT exercise teaches more than virtually any presence patrol, spending a few hours watching a Fleet Problem replay teaches more about warfighting than virtually any admin paperwork. The Navy should redefine individual training requirements for the high-end fight, and then force most other burdens to conform to those requirements and not the other way around.

By the time the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbor, 99 percent of the U.S. Navy’s admirals were graduates of the Naval War College.8 All the admirals who graduated from the interwar period Naval War College learned from a curriculum that included a heavy wargaming component. Through multiple wargames that could last weeks at a time, naval officers acted out major fleet actions against great power rivals and became engrossed in warfighting specifics. This shared wargaming experience was invaluable in giving the Navy’s admirals a common baseline of expertise on tactics, doctrine, and operational thinking.

The first move of Tactical Maneuver IV for the Naval War College class of 1923. This chart shows the Red fleet at the upper right and the Blue fleet in the lower left. (“Battle of Emerald Bank, Tactical Problem IV, TAC 94, 1923. Naval Historical Collection) [Click to Expand]
While many of the modern Navy’s flag officers are also graduates of the College, the current curriculum is more diverse and does not come close to producing the base of warfighting expertise the interwar Navy earned through the same institution. Wargaming programs at the College such as the Gravely and Halsey programs have become very exclusive, yet do not often feature in the experience of flag officers. Wargaming experience should become more mainstream throughout the Navy’s officer ranks because it is a valuable training and research experience, and it is far more affordable training than live exercising.

Distinction in wargaming should also be rewarded with better career prospects. This should hold especially true for earning flag rank because wargaming can help compensate for the natural disadvantages of how command experience evolves. Naval officers usually do not have the opportunity to lead multi-ship operations until they have served for decades and are already fairly senior. A more mainstream wargaming curriculum will help the Navy identify leaders with a knack for commanding large-scale combat operations far earlier in their careers, and ensure that the senior ranks are populated with leaders that have experience thinking through high-end conflict scenarios.


Whether artillery begins to rain on the Korean peninsula, or Iranian mines litter the Strait of Hormuz, or a major terrorist attack unfolds, the Navy must never again allow itself to totally do away with preparing for the high-end fight. The story of the modern American Navy is unfortunately that of an organization that was divorced from the main purpose that had long animated its spirit,  and dysfunction radiated throughout its institutions as a result. A difficult transition looms ahead, its urgency underscored by the sudden naval ascendance of a great power rival. 

The U.S. Navy still retains its global preeminence, and has the greatest potential of any other navy today. Its history is replete with historic victories, its resources are unmatched, and the world still regards it as a powerful expression of American global leadership. The mettle of the fleet will be forged anew as an emerging era of great power competition infuses it with urgent spirit.

Now the U.S. Navy is embarking on a bold transformation, and soon it will rediscover the power of its essence–to command the seas. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.


1. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, USN, Keynote Speech before the Surface Navy Association, January 9, 2018. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Speech/180109_CNORichardson_Keynote_SurfaceNavyAssociation.pdf 

2. Captain Jim Kilby, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Integrated Naval/Air Missile Defense,” CIMSEC, April 4, 2014. http://cimsec.org/surface-warfare-lynchpin-naval-integrated-airmissile-defense/10748 

3. Zachary Staples and Maura Sullivan, “Cyberphysical Forensics: Lessons from the USS John S. McCain Collision,” CIMSEC, January 22, 2018. http://cimsec.org/cyberphysical-forensics-lessons-from-the-uss-john-s-mccain-collision/35254 

4. General Joseph Dunford, USMC, “From the Chairman: Maintaining a Boxer’s Stance,” Joint Force Quarterly, June 19, 2017. https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/1218381/from-the-chairman-maintaining-a-boxers-stance/ 

5. Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much is Enough?, RAND , 1971. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/commercial_books/2010/RAND_CB403.pdf 

6. Dan Grazier, “Close Air Support Fly-Off Farce,” POGO, July 10, 2018. https://www.pogo.org/investigation/2018/07/close-air-support-fly-off-farce/ 

7. Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, “People Over Payloads,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceeings, May 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-05/people-over-payloads 

8. John Lillard, Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II, Potomac Books, 2016. 

Featured Image: NORWEGIAN SEA (Oct. 26, 2018) Aviation Machinist’s Mate Airman Jadah Martinez inspects an after burner for fuel leaks during an active test on the fantail aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Victoria Granado/Released) 

The Kriegsmarine and Compound War at Sea in WWII

By Matthew Connors

The campaign against Nazi Germany is often characterized as a land battle, but Hitler also lost the war by losing the sea. The former army corporal never truly grasped the importance of sea power and did not appropriately invest in Germany’s navy. Despite this, the Kriegsmarine nearly broke Britain through its use of aggressive surface action groups (SAGs) and irregular commerce raiders. The Kriegsmarine entered a war it was ill-suited for, well before it was prepared to fight, but by employing a form of maritime compound warfare it nearly disrupted Allied sea control which would have starved Britain and the Soviet Union of seaborne supply. Germany’s near victory demonstrates the potential of compound war at sea.

Qualifying Germany’s Naval Campaign as Compound War

In compound war a commander makes use of irregular units operating out of secure bases and augments them with the threat of conventional forces that can also take on irregular operational patterns.1 These irregular operations can force an opponent to disperse forces across a broad space to protect vital points and supply lines from irregular raiders and guerillas. This works in tandem with the presence of a regular conventional force which requires an adversary to also maintain a sizeable concentration of units to potentially counter a large-scale offensive, similar to a fleet-in-being.

This dilemma is precisely what makes it difficult to counter a compound campaign. On land, successful compound campaigns have been waged by Washington, Wellington, and Ho Chi Minh. At sea, compound war is less common, where fleets usually contest control of the sea through fleet combat actions dominated by regular units, or raid with irregulars and dispersed units. Yet, by employing a mix of both regular combatants and irregular raiders, the Kriegsmarine essentially waged compound war from 1939 to 1942.

Broadly defined, German naval forces can be split into regular and irregular combatants.2 Regular surface combatants could engage the enemy battle line or decimate lightly defended convoys. Germany’s surface striking forces mainly consisted of cruisers and battleships. These warships sowed chaos among the British Admiralty and forced the Royal Navy to cover multiple convoys and large areas while hunting small groups of German combatants.3 The presence of one pocket battleship or heavy cruiser in the Atlantic generated the need for convoys to have major surface ship escorts lest they fall prey to the big guns of a German warship. The high speeds and potent offensive capabilities of the German surface fleet could induce the Allies to scatter lightly protected convoys, which limited the damage done by heavy German combatants, but exposed them to the predations of German irregulars, submarines, and aircraft. The best example of this dual threat at work was the case of Convoy PQ17, an Arctic convoy traveling to the Soviet Union in 1942. The threat of a task force led by the German battleship Tirpitz forced the dispersion of the convoy’s ships and caused their subsequent destruction in detail by submarines and the Luftwaffe.4

German battleship Tirpitz firing during practice in 1941. (Colorized by Irootoko, Jr.)

Compound war at sea enhanced the psychological threats posed by German heavy surface ships and the German irregulars. By acting aggressively, the Kriegsmarine forced the British to deploy every available ship in their fleet to hunt for a handful of German surface ships.5 The Germans also conducted an extensive mining campaign that sought to deprive the British of their own shipping through destruction and neutral shipping through deterrence.The strain of constant operations and a shrinking merchant fleet was designed to cripple the Royal Navy and the commerce it protected, leaving the British Isles exposed and cut off.

The Regular Naval Threat: Surface Forces

In 1939 and 1940, aggressive commerce raiding in the Atlantic and Indian oceans by German heavy ships caused panic in Britain. The deployment of the Scheer, a pocket battleship, caused the Royal Navy to dispatch an aircraft carrier and six cruisers.7 A subsequent cruise by the battleships Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau sank 115,000 tons of shipping in two months, forced the deployment of the British home fleet, and managed to delay convoy sailings until battleship escorts could be found.8 In late 1941, plans were drafted for the operation of a surface action group out of Norway coupled with a commerce raiding deployment launched out of France. The surface action group would have drawn the British home fleet away while the raiders sowed chaos on Allied shipping.9 These operational plans and deployments typified the German approach and were designed to spread confusion and disruption through aggressive action.

German heavy ship operations featured regular units acting in irregular ways. While any individual platform could engage a rival, they did not have enough to risk themselves in regular combat. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine sought to fight on favorable terms against lightly guarded convoys. When the German forces found themselves outmatched by convoy escorts, they would still engage, but they would often avoid wholly committing themselves to fighting a well-guarded convoy.

Despite their irregular behavior, the German surface fleet’s potential as a regular naval threat remained potent, demonstrating the power of a fleet-in-being. The retention of a German fleet also provided the British with a strategic situation in line with the compound war concept. The continued existence of German heavy units required the Royal Navy to retain a home fleet sufficient to crush a concentrated German excursion while forcing it to also protect distant supply lines against commerce raiders, even after SAG deployments effectively ended in 1942. Even as the German surface fleet was either bottled up or sunk, it remained a real threat and a constant source of British dread. While auxiliary cruisers and submarines could be dealt with by destroyers and aircraft, German battleships and cruisers demanded strong attention from the Royal Navy.

At one point early in the war the Commander-in- Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Erich Raeder, asserted that the loss of a major German capital ship was not of major significance, especially if lost as a result of “bold action.”10 Audacity, aggression, and frequent operation on the part of the capital ships was part of cultivating their threat potential and stressing the Royal Navy’s resources and leadership. Their mere existence as a fleet in being posed a threat and required the British to divert resources from anti-submarine warfare operations and convoy escort duties. German SAG deployment arguably stalled Allied convoy departures and reduced British imports far more effectively than the grinding destruction of U-boat warfare.11 But after the battleship Bismarck was lost on a raiding mission in the Atlantic the utility of these heavy units shrank as Hitler became concerned about their potential loss and was unwilling to further risk them in combat.

The Irregular Subsurface Threat: Submarines

Admiral Karl Donitz, the head of the U-boat wing and eventual commander of the German Navy during WWII, conceived of a mathematical war against the British. The war of tonnage was designed to sink first British and French and later American merchant shipping quicker than it could be built. The resulting reduction in carrying capacity and goods would cripple Allied industry and force an armistice.12

The irregular component of the Kriegsmarine’s maritime compound warfare was executed by irregular surface and subsurface commerce raiders. These small, cheap platforms were designed to be stealthy enough to bypass the Allied naval blockade and cruise against allied shipping. Despite some false starts and early restrictions, unrestricted submarine warfare, once joined, proved theoretically possible. While British and American shipbuilding and convoy systems eventually overwhelmed the U-boat Arm’s destructive capacity, it wasn’t until 1943 that production outstripped destruction. 1943 also witnessed a sharp decrease in the U-boat’s efficacy as Allied convoy tactics, air-ASW, and the breaking of the Enigma codes proved increasingly effective at neutralizing U-boat attacks on convoys.13 The entry of the U.S. into the war and the increasing tactical effectiveness of ASW saved the Allies in the Atlantic.

However, had German force structure and strategy been built around commerce destruction by the time war broke out in 1939, it may have succeeded in breaking Britain.  German unrestricted submarine warfare proved ineffective, not because of tactical failings or strategic blunders by Admirals Raeder and Donitz, but because German industry, technology, and strategic cooperation proved inadequate. The incredibly small size of the U-boat Arm at the start of the war, only a sixth of the estimated force necessary to break the British, would grow as production gradually ramped up, but losses exceeded production until July of 1940. The force did not reach the necessary 300 boats until April of 1942, but only after the U.S. had entered the war and after tactical ASW was trending in favor of the allies.14

A rough estimate of the required tonnage destruction rate that could force British capitulation was 1,800,000 tons per quarter.15 Assuming a similar destruction rate, had the 82.5 deployed U-boats per quarter attained in 1944 been reflected in the average 1940 quarter, total tonnage destroyed could have amounted to 4,294,207 tons destroyed per quarter.16 Such a shock would have starved the British war machine and people. However, the German U-boat force of the first years of the war was, like the surface force, insufficient for the requirements of the German campaign.

U-boat strength vs. shipping strength during WWII. (Via HistoryNet)

The famed wolfpack was even temporarily abandoned after it became apparent that there were not enough U-boats to actively execute the tactic.17 As Allied ASW efforts improved, convoys became capable of inflicting heavy damage on their attackers and U-boats became increasingly subject to destruction en-route to the hunt. In 1943 the mid-Atlantic “air gap” was closed by escort carriers and Allied ASW units improved in both quantity and quality, reducing the U-boat’s destructive potential.18 The U-boat force peaked in early 1943, and production spiked to 79 new U-boats in 1944, but the window had passed.19

Organizationally, German U-boats were kept under relatively centralized control. Their limited ability to detect convoys and coordinate with other U-boats necessitated their direct operational command by Donitz and the U-boat branch in Wilhelmshaven.20 Wilhelmshaven would act as a central processing hub for data, either from submarines, aircraft, spies, or auxiliary cruisers and then concentrate a number of U-boats in the vicinity of a convoy. This concentration of boats would then attack at night on the surface where they had a speed advantage over allied merchantmen. However, the Naval Staff would also give orders directly to commanders, which complicated the command and control process.21 Tight control and cueing was necessary to ensure U-boats made contact with as many enemy ships as possible so as to maximize their statistical impact. This control, encrypted by the Enigma and Triton cyphers, was subject to Allied penetration. When this occurred, the Allies started avoiding submarines, reducing their efficacy.

One of the most crippling deficiencies of the German strategic approach resulted from the schizophrenic nature of Nazi high command. Historian Donald Steury assessed inter-service competition between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine as a major hinderance to joint operations against Allied shipping.22 Donitz himself points to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering’s staunch prohibition of an independent maritime airwing and bogarting of resources as having both limited the operational capabilities of the fleet in a broad sense and the size of the U-boat arm in particular.23 This resulted in minimal aerial scouting which frustrated Donitz’s early efforts to coordinate wolfpack operations and interdict Allied convoys.24

The Kriegsmarine had a sound strategic concept, but an inadequate force that lacked joint support. Despite their fearsome reputation, the U-boat was never properly employed to its full potential, and when coupled with Allied efforts this meant the effective defeat of Germany at sea.

U-boat efficacy by year.25

The Irregular Surface Threat: Auxiliary Cruisers

Auxiliary cruisers were launched to raid allied commerce but carried out a variety of support operations. These ships were converted merchantmen, altered to carry heavy armament and equipped with reconfigurable superstructures. Designed as stealth commerce raiders, there were only a few of these ships but they had an outsized impact. HSK-5, the Pinguin, sank or captured 154,619 tons of allied shipping, a total tonnage on par with some of the U-boat wing’s top performers. By comparison the U-boats sank approximately 11,023 tons per U-boat commissioned.26 Comparatively, the auxiliary cruisers did quite well, between the nine ships deployed from 1940-1943: 844,321 tons of allied shipping were destroyed, or 94,035 tons per auxiliary cruiser.27 Their effectiveness demonstrates the potential of such a vessel and role.

These irregular platforms had a mix of advantages and disadvantages. They were always exposed and subject to possible destruction by a curious surface combatant, the conversion process from merchant to warship was lengthy, and escaping into the Atlantic or Arctic oceans exposed them to detection and destruction by British forces. However, their high average destruction rate is reflective of their inherent capabilities. As surface vessels, they could make high speeds, could remain underway and operational for extremely long periods of time (622 days in the case of the Atlantis), and even could operate light aircraft.28 The ability to operate aircraft afforded them a degree of independence not found in the U-boats, and where the U-boat was heavily dependent on outside cueing for finding targets rather than its organic search capability. Because auxiliary cruisers could operate aircraft they could expand their personal search horizons, far superior to that of the relatively low conning tower of a submarine or its sonar.

Auxiliary German cruiser Kormoran (Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, the expanded crew size and cargo capacity allowed these stealth platforms to execute covert auxiliary tasks. Auxiliary cruisers mined Allied harbors all over the world, supported U-boats, and captured or destroyed Allied shipping. As surface ships, their interactions with enemy merchantmen allowed them to extend operations by refueling and resupplying from the prizes.29 These ships remained operational in the Atlantic slightly longer than the regular German fleet. However, like regular surface raiders, these platforms became increasingly difficult to deploy and the last attempt at a breakout failed in February of 1943.30 The auxiliary cruiser was an innovative and potent tool undercut by a lack of investment and the later conservativism of the German fleet. Much like the submarine, the auxiliary cruiser was doomed by a profound lack of investment in the German fleet and Hitler’s naval hesitance.

German Naval Force Structure: Idealism at the Cost of Realism

Admiral Raeder, who led the Kriegsmarine from 1928 to 1943, was mostly responsible for the reconstruction of the German fleet in the interwar period.31 After Hitler seized power naval building accelerated. Light cruisers, heavy cruisers, battlecruisers, and two battleships were constructed.32 However, Raeder’s Plan Z shipbuilding program was designed to build a fleet optimized for a compound campaign against the British. The Plan Z fleet centered on a robust home fleet, several striking forces, and commerce raiders. The home fleet would be strong enough to challenge the British home fleet, thus demanding the retention of the bulk of the Royal Navy’s capital ships in home waters, while the striking forces and commerce raiders starved the British by crushing convoys and sinking lone merchants. However, Plan Z required a longer lead time than a competing fleet design plan which would have consisted of a large submarine branch and multiple pocket battleships.

Operating under the assumption that hostilities would not commence until the mid-1940s, the Germans selected Plan Z. However, the decision to launch WWII by invading Poland in early 1939 took the naval staff almost entirely by surprise. The invasion launched the Kriegsmarine into war prematurely and well before the Plan Z buildup could be completed.33

Losses and an increasing hesitancy on the part of Hitler to risk capital ships eventually reduced the potency of the German surface force and increased the Kriegsmarine’s reliance on submarines.34 However, the German Navy started the war with an insufficient submarine fleet of only 57 boats, when an estimated 300 were required for war with Britain.35 Hitler’s hesitance and ignorance of the sea kept the Kriegsmarine weak, when he lost his nerve in 1942, he constrained his surface navy which then became mostly irrelevant, leaving his inadequate submarine force to carry on what was becoming a losing naval campaign.


Early British deficiencies gave the Kriegsmarine a chance at victory. British ASDIC (active sonar) often performed poorly; the convoy system was initially resisted, and British shipbuilding was not able to catch up to the rate of destruction until 1943.36 The cancellation of the regular surface campaign in the Atlantic in late 1941 was followed by an uptick in overall British imports, despite the increase in U-boat sinkings in 1942.37 Raeder and Donitz had a winning strategic concept but an inadequate force. While compound threats are typically potent, the Kriegsmarine was unable to execute a consistent, effective campaign. As ‘Fortress Europe’ began to crumble, the effectiveness of the German maritime campaign plummeted further still. Ultimately, Hitler’s strategic failings and the small size of the German fleet at the beginning of the war caused the Kriegsmarine’s failure.

The Kriegsmarine’s shortcomings were matched with Allied successes. Cracking Enigma, the reimplementation of the convoy system, the implementation of air-based ASW, and general improvements in ASW operations saved the British merchant from the U-boat, while brave men in steel ships defeated the big guns of Hitler’s surface fleet. A future war at sea against a compound threat will require much of the same: superb code breakers, clever screen commanders, effective tactics, and brave Sailors willing to grapple with any threat.

Lieutenant Matthew Conners is a 2012 graduate of the Naval Academy and a Surface Warfare Officer. He has served in USS Hopper (DDG 70) as Repair Officer and  USS Chung Hoon (DDG 93) as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer. He is also the recipient of the Naval Postgraduate School’s 2018 Liskin Award for excellence in National Security Studies. He graduated from the Naval Postgraduate school in 2018 with a Master of Arts in Security Studies. He is stationed in San Diego at the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.


[1] Thomas Huber, Compound Warfare; That Fatal Knot, (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 2002) https://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/compound_warfare.pdf vii.

[2] There were no German naval aviation assets. Gronning quickly appropriated all related maritime aircraft to the Luftwaffe and the two German aircraft carriers under construction were never completed.

Eric Raeder, My Life, trans. Henry Drexel, (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1960), 154.

Robert Jackson, Kriegsmarine; The illustrated History of the German Navy in WWII, (London, Aber’s Books ltd 2001), 24.

[3] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 23.

[4] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 116.

[5] Terry Hughes and John Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, (New York, The Dial Press 1977), 20.

[6] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 49.

[7] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 123.

[8] Ibid, 125.

[9] Steury, “The German Naval Offensive,” 81-83.

[10] Cajus Bekker, Hitler’s Naval War, (Garden City, Doubleday and Company 1974), 141.

[11] Sturey, “The German Naval Offensive,” 81-83. 

[12] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 38-52.

[13] Assmann, Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed,” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 659-70. doi:10.2307/20030803 665, 667.

Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304, 305.

[14] Hughes and Costello, Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[15] A 1917 Imperial naval staff estimate. In Steury, The German Naval Offensive, 93.

[16] Based on a rate of 52,051 tons per quarter per U-boat deployed at a rate of 82.5 U-boats deployed in 1944. Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[17] Ibid, 49.

Hessler, Gunter, The U-boat War in the Atlantic, 1939-1945: German Naval History, (Great Britain, Ministry of Defense 1989), 12.

[18] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 48-55.

[19] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[20] Ibid, 2.

[21] Hessler, The U-Boat war in the Atlantic, 9.

[22] Ibid, 91.

[23] Karl Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten years and Twenty days, (Cleveland, World Publishing Company 1959) 132-133.

[24] Doenitz, 133-134.


[26] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

This includes U-boats launched after the bulk of Allied ASW efforts began to take effect.

[27] Bekker, Hitler’s Naval War, 381.

[28] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 69.

[29] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 69-77.

[30] Ibid, 77.

[31] Raeder, My Life, 138-139.

[32] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 21-23.

[33] Jurgen Rohwer, “Codes and Ciphers: Radio Communication and Intelligence,” in To Die Gallantly; The Battle of the Atlantic ed. Timothy J Rynyan and Jan M. Copes, (Boulder, Westview press 1994), 38-38.

[34] Donald Steury, “The Character of the German Naval Offensive: October 1940-June 1941,” in To Die Gallantly; The Battle of the Atlantic ed. Timothy J Rynyan and Jan M. Copes, (Boulder, Westview press 1994), 81.

[35] Assmann, Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed.” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 659-70. doi:10.2307/20030803 www.jstor.org/stable/20030803 665, 667.

[36] Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed,” 665-667.

[37] Steury, “The German Naval Offensive,” 84-87.

Featured Image: German battleship Bismarck in the Baltic Sea in May 1941. (Colorized by Irootoko, Jr.)