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War in 140 Characters: The Fighting Words of Homo Digitalis

David Patrikarakos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First CenturyBasic Books, 2017,$17.99/e-book

By LTJG Robert Solonick

What are the origins of social media? It is hard to say; all media is inherently social in that it shares and conveys information to others beyond what we as individuals can do face-to-face. By this definition, anything presented to a public audience, whether through print, images, TV, radio, electronically, or other means, meets this criterion. In that case, does it begin with Martin Luther’s literal post of the “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Germany in 1517? Or does social media begin in a more contemporary setting in the nascent years of the 21st century, where the medium is the internet in which we “post” information to share our lives with others?

In David Patrikarakos’ book, War in 140 Characters, the definition of social media falls within the content of the latter. My first interaction with social media came in the form of the website Myspace in 8th or 9th grade. I created a Myspace account for a singular reason – everyone else was doing it – and I got my first social media friend, Tom.

What Myspace may have sparked, Facebook perfected. Users can message friends, family, and strangers. They can post images and videos, and other people could tell you how great you were by “liking” your posts. Groups of community interests could form and interact in this virtual forum. In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg had done something unprecedented in that Facebook recreated the affirmation and rejection that face-to-face social interactions would otherwise provide, but in the cyber realm. Nothing provided greater ego inflation than dozens of likes on your post, and nothing hurt more than being “unfriended” by someone.

Since my time in high school, social media has grown, morphed, and evolved into dozens of different styles, platforms, and languages. Twitter, Instagram, QQ, WeChat, WhatsApp, Youtube; the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, as with all things in life, those with a determined motive can pull all sorts of means and materials to their cause. As a military officer, I am hyper-aware and keenly curious as to how this plays out in conflict.

What do you do when you cannot buy missiles? You fly planes into buildings. What do you do when you cannot get C4 explosives? You build bombs out of pressure cookers or fertilizer. What do you do when you cannot acquire firearms? You rent trucks and drive them down pedestrian walkways. The principle is simple: those who wish to engage in conflict or commit acts of violence will always find a way. Social media is no exception to this immutable law of human nature, and David Patrikarakos’ book shows how actors across the world are leveraging and weaponizing social media to their cause.

War in 140 Characters introduces a series of case studies exemplifying the various means by which social media influences the ideas and opinions of a public audience, rallies them to support or confront a cause, while also obfuscating the truth, undermining the credibility of existing institutions, and tipping the balance in a physical battlespace. Patrikarakos’ investigation takes readers into the heart of the fear and sadness of Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl residing in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 Israel-Palestine war. Farah’s tweets, retweeted thousands of times globally, brought to the attention of the global community the effects of the war on her and her family and radically altered public perceptions of who was the aggressor and the victim in the conflict. Farah, a young girl with no weapon nor political position, but rather a single social media persona coined as Homo digitalis, redirected the discourse surrounding the entire conflict and effectively cast Israel as the aggressor in the eyes of the global community. Israeli forces, seeing their loss of global legitimacy, were put on the defensive and had to master the art of the counter-narrative.

Patrikarakos introduces readers to Anna Sandalova, the “Facebook warrior” of Ukraine resisting Russian aggression. “It’s all about networks,” Anna states in an interview with the author. “Facebook is the main tool I use because there is an entire community on there who can find solutions.” Unlike Farah, Anna as Homo digitalis uses the social network to directly influence battlefield conditions. When government institutions become inept, hyper-connected private citizens assume the functions of the state, including waging war. Anna stands in the frigid air of the eastern European winter passing out uniforms sourced from supporters in the West after a plea for aid she posted on Facebook. “They really like the German uniforms. They’re really high quality,” Anna comments as soldiers line up for sizing. Anna posts images of soldiers with new supplies to her Facebook page, bringing faces to otherwise faceless fighters. Moreover, Anna’s posts ensure the benefactors see the results of their donations, ensuring the donations will continue.

War in 140 Characters shines a spotlight on several other Homo digitali whose influence in conflict is something any information warrior must understand. Another is Vitaly Bespalov, an internet troll in Russia’s state-sponsored troll farms whose sole responsibility is to delegitimize the narratives of media outlets and institutions that do not support the official Russian line. Vitaly doctors images, fabricates hoaxes, falsifies facts, and misrepresents truths to create “a post-truth world.” Eliot Higgins, a British uber-gamer turned online investigator, pieced together images posted to social media websites to trace the path of the Russian Buk surface-to-air missile system from the 53rd Brigade of the Moscow Military District based in Kursk, across the Ukrainian border, to the field just outside of the village of Chervonyi Zhovten, where it shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014. From the comfort of his home in the U.K., Eliot unequivocally proved Russian culpability.

War in 140 Characters was thoroughly enjoyable. Written for a general audience, David Patrikarakos’ writing style is clear, articulate, and replete with vivid detail.  His choice in case studies provides breadth and depth to social media’s use in conflict and will capture the reader’s attention through every page. For an information warrior, the work will provide clear ideas for the murky battlefield of social media.

For a non-warrior, it will shock you. When you finish reading, you will want to delete your Facebook, turn off your cable news, unfollow everyone on Twitter, and insist your friends and family do the same. You will realize how pervasive social media is in your life. But on the other hand, perhaps you will be inspired, and endeavor to bring your cause to social media to turn the tides in favor of your struggle. Either way, no one will ever escape social media’s influences, and for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, public figures or private citizens, social media is going to be one of the most powerful weapons in any arsenal, and also any adversary’s.

In modern conflict, victory will not go to whose military causes more casualties on the battlefield, but whose story garners more support. Who comes out on top will be heavily influenced on how effectively one aims the social media barrel. And that is on you.

LTJG Robert Solonick is a naval intelligence officer stationed at the Office of Naval Intelligence, Washington, D.C., where he serves as a collections strategist and operations officer. LTJG Solonick has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University with a concentration in U.S. national security policy and an advanced graduate certificate in post-conflict reconstruction. He and his wife, Mariah Lopez, a ballet instructor, reside in Virginia with their German Sheppard, Cairo. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: “Social Media Marketing Strategy” via Wikimedia Commons. 

A Navy Astray: Remembering How the Fleet Forgot to Fight

The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the annual CIMSEC Forum for Authors and Readers, covering the “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” article series.

By Dmitry Filipoff

The article series covered many topics so I’ll try to narrow it down and focus on what I feel are some of the more important points.

When those two major reviews came out to try to explain why those fatal collisions happened out in the Pacific, one term that got used to describe how the Navy went wrong was the “normalization of deviation.” And this term is the main theme behind this article series, that the Navy is suffering from very serious self-inflicted problems and is deviating in many of its most important efforts in how it prepares for war. 

What specifically inspired these articles was writing published in Proceedings. Specifically, writing on the new Fleet Problem exercises by Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift, and also writing by the Pacific Fleet intelligence director, Captain Dale Rielage, especially an article of his called “An Open letter to the U.S. Navy from Red.” These articles helped spark the series because of how they describe the character of the Navy’s exercises. And given the incredible importance that military exercises have, this issue really sheds light on systemic problems throughout the Navy.

When looking into the Navy’s major exercises, the keywords and themes that kept coming up were traits such as high kill ratios, training one skillset at a time, poor debriefing, and weak opposition.

The structure of training certification in the Navy usually took the form of focusing on individual skillsets and warfare areas – anti-surface warfare and anti-air warfare, and so on. But these things were not often combined in a true, multi-domain fashion. Instead, exercise and training certification regimes often took the form of a linear progression of individual events.

Opposition forces were made to behave in such a way as to facilitate these events. However, a more realistic and thinking adversary would probably employ the multi-domain tactics and operations that are the bread and butter of war at sea. But instead the opposition often acted more as facilitators for simplistic target practice it seems, which is why very high kill ratios were the norm. But more importantly, a steady theme that kept reappearing was that the opposition pretty much never won.

There are so many of these events, so many training certifications that had to be earned in order to be considered deployable that Sailors feel extremely rushed to get through them. And these severe time pressures help encourage this kind of training.

If you are losing and taking heavy losses then you should be taking that extra time to do after action reviews and extensive debriefing to figure out what went wrong, how to do better, and understand why in real war your mistakes would’ve gotten your people killed. The way this kind of conversation plays out is fundamental to the professional development of the warfighter, and it is an important expression of the culture of the organization.

When it comes to debriefing culture within the Navy’s communities you can see a difference in the strike-fighter community, where candid debriefing is a more inherent part of the way they do business, but the opposite was very much true of the surface Navy’s system. And what is being described here also applies more broadly to how things were done for larger groups of ships such as at the strike group level.

But overall the Navy’s major exercises often took a scripted character, where the outcomes were generally known beforehand and the opposition was usually made to lose. Training only one thing at a time against opposition that never wins barely scratches the surface of war, but for the most part this was the best the Navy could do to train its strike groups for years.

So is this common? It looks like all the services have done heavily scripted exercises to some degree, but there is a major difference between what the Navy was doing, and what the Air Force and the Army have been doing for a long time.

Unlike the Navy, the Army and Air Force have true high-end training events that they rotate their people through. For the Air Force this is a major exercise called Red Flag, and for the Army this happens at the National Training Center. They compete against opposition forces that often inflict heavy losses and employ a variety of assets simultaneously. Those forces are composed of units that are dedicated toward acting as full-time opposition for these events, such as the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, where units across the Army rotate through the National Training Center to face off against them specifically. The job of these standing opposition forces is to learn and practice the doctrine of foreign adversaries, and then put that into practice at these events to make for a more realistic fight.

But by comparison it seems the Navy doesn’t have a major standing formation to act as full-time opposition for the high-end fight. And as far as the Marines go, it looks like they have a history of issues that more closely resembles that of the Navy’s.

Now when it comes to the Chinese Navy, those public reports that the Office of Naval Intelligence puts out on foreign militaries paint a very different picture from what the U.S. Navy was doing. The Chinese Navy often trains multiple skillsets at a time, they do not always know the composition and disposition of the opposing forces they are facing off against, and they do not always know exactly what will happen when the event is about to go down.

They’ve been training like this for some time now, and with a specific emphasis on high-end warfighting at the very same time the U.S. Navy was focusing on the low-end spectrum of operations. The Chinese Navy has been focused on learning the more lethal skillset. So in very important respects, the Chinese Navy has been training much harder than the U.S. Navy for years.

Recently there have been some major changes for the U.S. Navy. There are the Fleet Problem exercises Admiral Swift started which seem to be the first consistent and truly challenging high-end exercise events the Navy has had in decades. The COMPTUEX exercise ships do before deploying is becoming more difficult, but through more virtual augmentation. The Surface Navy is going through these SWATT exercises which are now some of the most advanced events surface ships experience before integrating with strike groups.

But what all of these changes have in common is that they only began around two or three years ago. The extent to which the Navy will make the most of them is uncertain. What is clear however is that the corporate memory of the modern U.S. Navy is still heavily shaped by decades of quite unrealistic training.

But exercises go far beyond training. At the tactical level, they are the one activity that comes closest to real war. So exercises are supposed to play a vital function as proving grounds for all sorts of concepts, ideas, and capabilities. This goes to the very heart of one of the most important missions of a peacetime military, which is to develop the force for future conflict. The Navy’s exercise shortfall is far more than an issue of operator skill, it is a sweeping developmental problem.

Consider how you could go about exploring a new tactic, a wargame, or an operating concept. You come up with an idea, and refine it as much as possible through simulations or other methods. And then you finally try it out in the real world through an exercise. You make sure to use serious opposition to see where things may go wrong or backfire. You then rinse and repeat until you have a sturdy, resilient concept. And once you have that, you convert lessons learned in that experimentation into new training, you update the training events, and then rotate your people through those events so they have a chance to learn and apply the new thing.

But this isn’t how force development worked in the U.S. Navy.

When it comes to at-sea experimentation, relatively few warfighting ideas were ever tried in the real world to begin with. But if an idea managed to get tested in some sort of combat exercise it often went up against heavily scripted opposition. As a result, it had few (if any) rounds of trial and error.

But if they moved on in spite of that, the idea was perhaps turned into some publication that was then tucked away in a doctrine library somewhere. And there it’ll sit among many other publications that hardly anyone is really familiar with. 

But if they do happen to be familiar with it, they will not often have the chance to actually practice it and learn it in a live training event. But if they do have the chance to actually practice it, it most likely turned into just another check-in-the-box scripted certification event, lost among the dozens if not hundreds of other certification events that are all competing with each other for the time of the extremely busy Sailor. And the Sailors have no real choice but to rush through them and cut corners just to make due and get out on time for deployment.

What’s important to understand is that training is what makes force development stick. Training is what establishes that final connection between the skill of the deckplate Sailor, and all these warfighting concepts that are allegedly trying to evolve the force.

But so much of what the Navy did for force development didn’t go far because this habit of unrealistic exercising and this overflowing training certification system combined to doom so many warfighting concepts to being untested, unrefined, and untaught.  

For another important example on why training has to be linked with other parts of force development, you can look to the Navy’s wargaming enterprise. These wargames are really important to how the Navy thinks about the future, and among many things these wargames can inform war planning. But if you read more into it, these wargames aren’t nearly as scripted or as easy as the training events, and the fleet often takes very serious losses in these wargames. Especially against China. 

So what could be the implications of having a large disparity between the realism of training and the realism in wargaming? For one, it means the war plans the United States has drawn up for great power conflict are filled with tactics and operations for which the U.S. Navy has made barely any effort to actually teach to its people. To paraphrase a certain Defense Secretary, you go to war with the fleet you trained, not the one you wargamed.

Another major implication of the exercise shortfall was in how the Navy applied strategy to operations, or what the fleet was doing on deployment all these years. The Navy not only has the opportunity to work on force development within the work-up cycle, but also once ships are out on deployment. However, once ships deployed, their operations were mostly focused on missions that contributed little in the way of developing the fleet. 

It should be remembered that many of the low-end power projection missions that dominated Navy deployments during these past few decades, things like security cooperation, presence, and maritime security, were at first not seen as overriding demand signals for the Navy’s time. The strategy and policy documents the Navy was putting out just after the Cold War ended characterized the opportunity to do these missions as a luxury, one that was afforded to the Navy only through the demise of a great power competitor.

When it comes to the major campaigns the U.S. was involved in these past few decades, mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, what needs to be understood is that blue water naval power struggles to find relevance in these kinds of wars. A destroyer or a submarine can hardly do much to fight insurgencies or nation-build. So for the vast majority of the fleet’s ships they usually had to find other things for them to do with their time, including numerous missions that were certainly helpful but often optional

But because blue water naval power just cannot do much for counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns, in the past twenty or so years of insurgent wars, if any of the services could have made the time to work on itself, it is the Navy.

In spite of their own crushing operational tempos the other services made sure to guarantee a large amount of time and forces for large-scale exercise events. Every year, hundreds of aircraft rotate through the Air Force’s Red Flag exercise, and a full third of the Army’s active duty brigades rotate through the National Training Center.

Compared to this the Navy is very different. It looks like for the past few decades the Navy has been spending almost all of its ready naval power on what the combatant commanders want.

So as the Navy looks to strike a new balance between spending its time on force development versus forward operations, this should be seen as an opportunity for the Navy to finally reclaim some of the fleet for itself, to devote ready naval power toward working on the Navy’s agenda and not just what combatant commanders want.

For example, the Navy will soon be standing up a surface development squadron that is exclusively focused on experimenting for force development. That is an example of guaranteeing time and ready naval power to be spent on solving Navy problems.

But overall, the Navy as an institution hardly recognizes force development as a major driver of fleet operations. Things like trying out wargames and concepts of operation in the real world must be recognized as some of the strongest possible demand signals for the Navy’s time and forces. So as the Navy reconfigures itself for great power competition it has to think about how it will strike a new balance between spending time on forward operations, versus spending time on working on itself.

The fleet can start with the strategic guidance the Navy has to align itself with. There is a new national defense and national security strategy that officially make great power competition the main priority. There is a mandate from the Chief of Naval Operations, for high-velocity learning, to learn better and faster. So what does the Navy need to learn about in an era of great power competition? A large part of that is high-end warfighting. So the Navy needs to identify what specific things have the most learning value when it comes to getting better at that specific problem set.

Look at the learning value of a Fleet Problem or a SWATT exercise, and compare it to maritime security missions or doing security cooperation with a third world nation. It should become plainly clear that these exercise events can teach the Navy far more about high-end warfighting than almost any forward operation. 

Some might say the Navy actually did work on itself in forward operations through exercising with numerous partners and allies. But the U.S. Navy often does not like sharing even moderately classified information with those partner fleets. This greatly limits the willingness of the Navy to flex its capability in front of partners abroad. There is also a lot of wariness over being watched by others when exercising in forward areas. 

And this is one of the major arguments that gets frequently raised about why the Navy shouldn’t do these exercises as much, that great power competitors are watching.

However, this is the modern state of competition. Great power competitors have their own satellite constellations, and they are hacking into your systems every single day, and they already know all kinds of things about you that you’d rather they not know. But this kind of heightened transparency between great power militaries is the new status quo. And for what it’s worth, when it comes to their exercises the Chinese realize they are being watched all the time but that doesn’t seem to be stopping them as much.

If the fact they are watching is enough to stop you from doing these events, then you will have allowed them to deter you from carrying out a vital learning experience. And if your forces are pushing hard in these exercises and defeating some serious opposition while competitors watch, then that could end up deterring them and working in your favor. But if they do happen to learn something from spying on your training then at least recognize that one thing they can never hack or steal is the skill of the warfighter. 

What the Navy has to do is break away from this tunnel vision-like focus it has had on forward operations for these past few decades, and do more to feed the colossal demand signal that is coming from the needs of force development. There are two elements that can drive this demand signal. One is the force development of competitors, and the other is the ever-evolving nature of disruptive capability surprise.

Looking at China, it is critical to understand that the Chinese military is an organization that is completely focused on its force development. They have no significant overseas operations that draw their attention elsewhere. And you can see the aggressiveness of their force development in the scale of their reforms. A few years ago they overhauled their theater command structure, created a new branch in the form of the Strategic Support Force, and cut several hundred thousand troops to shrink the size of the force for more even modernization. So it is important to recognize that the Chinese Military has made sure to retain enough decision space to make significant changes to its force development.

Looking at the Chinese Navy today, because their force has very few overseas commitments, the operating posture of their fleet has far more in common with the interwar period U.S. Navy than the modern U.S. Navy does. This can make them quite dangerous, because like the interwar period U.S. Navy (the Navy that would of course go on to win WWII) their operating posture allows them to spend most of their time on working on themselves.

Going to a second major demand signal of force development, that is disruptive capability surprise. Look at WWI, the machine gun, the trench, and big-gun artillery. When they finally put all these new capabilities together, it created a type of warfare that nobody had really seen before. Because of new technology the nature of tactical success had changed so much, but their peacetime force development failed to detect that. The surprise that came from those new weapons and the deadly tactics they produced was so disruptive that it ripped apart the operational and strategic plans of nations caught in great power war. 

So how to get a sense of that burden, of how much real-world experimentation needs to go into modern force development? Look to how networked combat between great power militaries has never happened before, or how fleet combat between great powers hasn’t happened since WWII. Look at everything that’s evolved since then. Electronic warfare, cyber, missiles, satellites, so much has changed, and our ability to truly know how all of that will actually come together to produce specific tactical dynamics and winning combinations is very difficult to know for sure.

Exploring the cross-domain nature of modern warfighting will be fundamental to understanding this problem. Consider the battleship, how if something is set up to where it’s gun line versus gun line, battleships will rule those engagements. But once other platforms are included, platforms that can act through other domains such as carriers, submarines, and land-based air, you can start to see how the tactics of one can rule out the tactics of another. So how could modern cross-domain interactions play out and reveal what’s decisive? This will drive up the resource burden for force development since it will demand experimenting with many different kinds of opposition at the same time, such as joint forces.

A lot of these questions are already being looked at by organizations within the Navy, but the furthest the analysis is able to go is often limited by virtual simulations. Some months ago we published an excellent piece on CIMSEC where people from the Naval Postgraduate School, mainly wargamers and operations research folks, discussed doing tens of thousands of simulations and models to discover tactics and operating concepts for a new unmanned surface ship. Those kinds of people certainly learn a lot about new tactics. But they will also tell you that they are absolutely craving more real-world experimentation.

Even so, it is still not enough to do realistic warfighting experiments and simulations. What is necessary is the candor and the will to act on their results, and the understanding that if a weapon is failing in the context of its application, then recourse must come through innovating its tactics. And if no tactical innovation can preserve a weapon’s utility, then it must be discarded. However, all the services and not just the Navy have some history of scripting their wargames and exercises in order to satisfy preexisting prejudices. But the politics of programmatics, the industrial base, and service identity should never be allowed to trump responsible force development. What is programatically comfortable today can easily cost lives and wars tomorrow. 

Whether it be the Navy’s paltry offensive firepower, its seriously degraded surge capacity, or poor standards for its vaunted Aegis combat system, the fleet is in dire need of course corrections. Now the U.S. Navy finds itself locked in great power competition against a rising maritime superpower, but only major change can ensure the American fleet will still command the seas. 

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

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 4, 2018) – An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer/Released)

On The Decline of European Naval Power: A Conversation with Jeremy Stöhs, Pt. 1

By Roger Hilton

The intensifying competition between the United States, Russia, and China for control of strategic spaces has brought with it a slew of challenges and a lowered threshold for potential confrontation. Consequently this new security dynamic has forced national policymakers to reconsider the importance of the maritime domain when it comes to global statecraft. Consequently, this new security dynamic has forced national policy makers to reconsider the importance of the maritime domain when it comes to global statecraft. On quick observation the situation does not inspire much confidence. Years of neglected force structure investment by European nations coupled with shifting American presence to Asia suggest a distressing situation. Consequently, based on these factors it is only natural to ponder if Europe’s naval forces are doomed to impotency for the foreseeable future, or if reform if possible.

Here to help us navigate these questions is Jeremy Stöhs, an Austrian-American defense analyst at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University and its adjunct Center for Strategy and Security. In addition, he is also a fellow at the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda, and Security Studies. His current research and teaching focuses on transatlantic relations, maritime security, and European naval power. He has written various articles and chapters on the matter and is the author of the recent book, The Decline of European Naval Forces, Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty.

The decline of European naval power can provide insight into the evolution of Europe’s naval forces since the end of the Cold War. To illuminate the drastic changes many European navies have undergone in the past 25 years, we turn to Jeremy who has analyzed the defense policies and naval strategies of 11 European states, as well as the evolution in deployments and capabilities of their respective forces.

JS: Thank you for having me Roger, it’s always a pleasure talking to you.

RH: Before we dive in, it might be helpful if we structure the conversation. We will cover three distinct periods as they relate to the decline of European naval forces. The first period reaches from 1990-2001, and encompasses the post-Cold War peace dividend. The second period, from 2001-2014, covers land wars in the age of global terrorism after 9/11. Period three, 2014 to the present, begins with the annexation of Crimea. 

In your book you describe both the concept of sea power and naval power, can you explain each concept and explain what distinguishes them?

JS: Thank you very much for the question. There is, as you infer, significant semantic awkwardness regarding these terms and their numerous definitions for seapower, for maritime power, for naval power. I like to paraphrase retired British Admiral Chris Parry who argues that sea power is the combined investments of various resources of the state or enterprises in the pursuit of favorable outcomes at sea. I happen to focus on states despite non-state actors gaining power in the world.

But it’s not only about investments or what Geoffrey Till calls the inputs. Sea power is also about the outputs, or in other words, what capacity states have to influence human behavior by what they do at sea. The state is one basic unit for the measurement of power distribution so sea power broadly speaking would include all investment of the state, such as cultural, commercial, military in the maritime domain. Naval power is but one part of sea power, it’s the military investment.

RH: Can you provide some contemporary examples of each?

JS: The concepts are linked, so I would not say there is one example for one or the other. In order to have sea power in my opinion, you need to have a degree of naval power. Some states may have some significant maritime commercial interests but relatively little means for similarly large investments in naval power. But I refer again to Geoffrey Till who refers to that as the virtuous circle, so one investment in one area is mutually beneficial, and a decline in one area can affect decline in another. I believe this is something we have seen in the past, it is important to remember that most every state –  or rather every state – has some interest in the sea, and they enjoy different forms of agency at sea. Even landlocked countries like my home Austria has a part to play within the global trade regime and therefore also has stakes at sea.

Sea power and naval power are linked, and it’s a different concept than how it was understood maybe 200 years ago, but today they are inextricably linked. 

RH: We have the post-Cold War peace dividend, from 1990-2001. You describe in detail how this period started the initial erosion of naval capabilities and strategies. With the end of the Cold War, yourself like many experts declared that the existential threat of the USSR disappeared and by extension led to the abandonment of traditional naval doctrine. As this was a period of transition from sea control, sea denial, and territorial defense operations to power projection and operations in the littorals. How would you describe this transition, and was this shifting of capabilities for nations smooth or for others was it a regrettable experience?

JS: Well now we have the benefit of hindsight and hindsight is always 20/20. But generally speaking you are correct, although I would say that this process was much more nuanced depending on the respective state and more nuanced than it might seem today.

Two broad trends that are discernable during this period of time are states either adhering to traditional strategies of territorial defense, or seeking greater power projection in all its forms, not only military but also in terms of economics and so on. Those are the two opposing trends. But as always I think it’s important to keep in mind it was not black and white but a continuum of change. States might have had a government that emphasized one area over others, and because sea power is an enduring element many of the developments were gradual. So I try to refrain from revolutionary language, I think it was very incremental. Ships cannot be built overnight, naval and maritime proficiencies cannot be gained overnight, and the capabilities in existence in the 1990s were very much the same as the 1980s. It was the same or similar platforms, systems, and people, largely working in unfamiliar waters maybe, and often in unfamiliar ways.

It’s important to note that some navies in some states welcomed these new missions whereas others were reluctant to join in the post-Cold War euphoria. And this is of course related to geostrategic freedom of action. You look at a state like Norway with its proximity to a historical antagonistic, Russia, and other states with very limited financial means it’s difficult to change its naval policy. Therefore I don’t think there is a clear answer to your question.

RH: Against the backdrop of this maritime landscape that deemphasizes traditional doctrine, how are navies in this time justifying their existence and budgets?

JS: A difficult question to generalize and, again, it depends a lot on each Navy, and there should be much more research of each Navy in terms of how the defense policies have changed. But broadly speaking already during the 1980s in the period of easing tensions between East and West, the German reunification, the maintenance of previous spending levels on defense was not possible. You see this already in British defense studies such as the Options for Change white paper of 1990 that clearly describes how previous defense spending was no longer feasible. So how do they actually justify their existence?

It depends. You have the Scandinavian states, with the exception of Denmark, justifying their existence through a continued threat to their territory, with Russia still being the most powerful military power on the continent. The need to protect their Exclusive Economic Zones was also a core argument, and it’s important to remember that provisions of UNCLOS came into force in 1994, elevating the importance of the EEZs even more so.

In the south you have Greece and Turkey which lived through a period of increased tension during the 1990s. This necessitated hikes in defense spending. And for the rest of Europe, many countries placed great emphasis on projecting power, interventions, peace support operations and such. These took navies outside of the NATO’s traditional areas of operation, ‘out-of-area,’ and naval forces were uniquely suited in this role because of their three basic functions, including: the military, the diplomatic, and the constabulary function.

In this period of fiscal austerity, defense planners used every opportunity they had, but it differed from country to country.

RH: You make the observation that green and brown-water navies evolved into blue water navies. Was this a matter of survival, or was this repurposing utility?

JS: There are only a couple of examples where that actually occurred and that has something to do with this aforementioned trend toward power projection. During the Cold War, European navies were assigned specific duties within their areas of responsibility, such as anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, escort duties, amphibious assault, and so they were quite limited by the bipolar world order.

Once these restrictions ended then states that enjoyed strategic freedom of action sought to use naval forces to project power. And an interesting point, those examples that stick out are the Germany Navy or the Danish Navy, to the less extent the Belgian and Spanish navies, they really saw power projection in different forms. But these navies, mainly the German and the Danish navies, were mainly green water navies, operating close to shore occasionally conducting escort duties, but now they would become blue water navies operating far from home. Now they would go into other littorals at great distances, so they would still act as littoral navies, but at a great distance from home. So that’s an interesting aspect of this whole blue water, green/brown debate.

And of course the repurposing had some utility for those navies. They were able to contribute to increasing number of peacekeeping operations that were emerging in the 1990s, including crisis management which was one of NATO’s main roles, military interventions of course in the Balkans for example, but also further afield. We have numerous operations, including Desert Storm, Yugoslavia, Operation Desert Fox in the late 90s, the intervention in Sierra Leone, also low-key humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts after natural catastrophes and so on.

RH: Despite it being a time of economic prosperity and peace, you reference large-scale investments and procurement projects that took place during this period. Can you situate some of the naval hardware being bought and used at the time?

JS: I provide a lot of examples in my book on naval procurement and force structure, and to a certain extent the platforms and their advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to note that European defense industry was of course a powerful actor. It had influence on how naval forces were built and what they looked like, and critical technologies and jobs of course were still main concerns.

It’s important to remember as I mentioned before, navies can’t be built overnight. So, during the 1990s, they were designed for the Cold War, for high intensity warfighting. If you look at the Italian Navy, the German Navy, they were designed for warfighting, a lot of anti-submarine warfare, escort duties, and mine warfare. Now, all of the sudden, you have this need for expeditionary operations and what you need for that, well you need multi-purpose surface combatants, landing platform docks, amphibious assault ships, helicopter carriers and such. So, on one hand, you see this trend that you need larger platforms for low-intensity operations, and at the same time you have all those procurement projects that were developed and designed in the 1980s. There was a divergence between strategic necessities and the security environment for what you need for that and the procurement plans that are already in the pipeline. In the 1990s you see European countries developing air defense capabilities and air defense destroyers and frigates, and those were capable ships that were commissioned at a time where threats of anti-ship missiles in the littorals are not all too great, and where European countries are operating ships with relative impunity.

But of course this had the advantage of supporting important industries and just goes to show that you have to be very prudent about your decision-making and strategic forecasting.

RH: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we should know or that we’ve overlooked?

JS: With respect to downscaling in this period of time, you have fiscal austerity, a peace dividend, so especially maintenance-intensive and manpower-intensive platforms are decommissioned. But it can be considered a period of relative plenty, especially with regard to the threat scenarios at the time. You still have highly capable platforms coming online, you have highly-proficient crews and personnel, so it’s important to note those capabilities that were being developed in Europe. The Horizon-class, the Daring-class, the German air defense frigates, they were state-of-the-art and comparable to the best air defense destroyers in the world. The UK got the Tomahawk land-attack missile for their subs, the French got their Charles De Gaulle carrier. There was also closer cooperation between the states because of the need to streamline and operate together at a tactical level.

The United States still had such great capabilities that they could compensate to some extent for the dwindling numbers among European naval powers. But the 1990s still proved how important naval power was.

RH: Let’s move on to the second period, involving land wars in the period between 2001-2014. This was a seminal moment not just for European navies but also world history. Not only did this period bring two major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the global financial crisis. How did these developments play a major role in the development of European naval forces?

JS: I would argue not to over-dramatize this period. It is true that the last decade it was very challenging for European naval power and the defense community in general in Europe. But it’s also important to put it into a historic context, for the naval forces of some European states, such as the Spanish armada in the 19th century or the 20th century German or Italian navies, they had endured far greater calamities and declines than what we’ve witnessed recently.

However, if you look at the past 30 years, this last decade had the most significant impact on naval forces. I wouldn’t say that it was mainly the land wars but, more importantly, the decreasing defense spending because that more or less is what shapes your naval forces.

RH: At the time we’re in Afghanistan and Iraq, how did the preoccupation with these land wars recalibrate naval power?

JS: There are a couple points to keep in mind here. First of all these operations, we talk about the war on terrorism, you have military operations on land but naval forces play an important role in contributing to these campaigns from air strikes to cruise missiles to providing close air support and medevac, inserting special forces, logistics, and so on. At the same time you had a broadening of the security agenda in general. That already occurs throughout the 1990s but then picks up speed during the 2000s. 9/11 caused Article V of NATO to be invoked for the first time. A large number of European states contributed to the war in Afghanistan, and then also two years later in Iraq. This changed the security environment in such that you have a broadening security environment, a broadening of the term security, and from the 1990s onward and especially after 9/11 you have the threat of terrorism as one of the challenges the naval forces have to deal with. So you see naval forces being deployed in counter-terrorism, combating illegal trafficking of arms, drugs, people, counter-proliferation against weapons of mass destruction. The concept of maritime security is prevalent at this time and naval forces are assigned with dealing with all kinds of maritime security challenges.

RH: It’s been argued that this period helped assert the dominance of the Army and Air Force, and that it led to the de-prioritization of naval power. Amidst this interservice rivalry, did it force navies to expand their repertoire of functions to become more versatile?

JS: I would have to say that really depends on each individual state. I find it difficult to make general claims here. But one thing that is clear is that air and land forces received the lion’s share of funding during this period of time and usually they got a greater portion of the defense budget. We have similar developments in the U.S. as you see in Europe, in those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where you prioritize the capabilities that you need in war. I remember the discussions quite vividly in investing in low-intensity capabilities such as mine resistant ambush protected vehicles. That was the problem, the high-low mix, therefore U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates slashed the F-22 program for instance. You have a similar problem in Europe.

What this period of time does, I believe, is it changes the perception of the functions of the navies and the understandings of navies in what their constabulary and diplomatic roles are. This is reflected in concepts such as the 1,000-ship Navy, the U.S. maritime strategy A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, and the European effort for capacity building on the low-end of the intensity spectrum together with partners, and it’s easier to build partnerships at the lower-level compared to the high-end.

So you see this growing cooperation and this cooperative approach toward maritime missions, and of course what happens is that this comes at the expense of warfighting capabilities. Especially anti-submarine warfare wasn’t really practiced, offensive mining was relinquished, anti-surface warfare is difficult to do when you lack surveillance assets like maritime patrol aircraft. So the focus is shifted perhaps too much toward the low-end, it really changed the perception of what navies can do. But I think that is being forgotten again.

Jeremy Stöhs is a security and defense analyst at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) and its adjunct Center for Maritime Strategy & Security as well as a fellow at the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda & Security Studies (ACIPSS).

Roger Hilton is the defence and Security stream manager at GLOBSEC, a global think-tank based in Bratislava, Slovakia  as well as a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI).

Featured Image: British Royal Navy air defense destroyers HMS Daring (front) and HMS Dauntless operate, February 2010. (Wikimedia Commons/UK Ministry of Defence)

The Fleet Problem Exercises: An Investment in the Future

By Walker Mills

Introduction

“Foe’s Force Superior.”1

“All ships except those laid up will take part in exercises.”2

“Forty-thousand men of the United States Navy and land forces of the United States Army here began a ‘battle’ at midnight tonight…”3

In the 1920s and 1930s the United States Navy had a problem. The fleet was almost completely comprised of ships that the Navy had never used in combat – the fleet’s last major combat actions were in the Spanish-American War. New classes of platforms that operated under the sea and in the sky threatened to even more drastically change naval warfare than the updates to battleships and cruisers since the last war.4 So the Navy ran a series of large-scale exercises with the goals of preparing the fleet for potential conflict, experimenting with new weapons and tactics, and refining operational plans.

These major exercises, some 21 in all, are unique in Navy history for several reasons. At first glance it is their scale that impresses, they often utilized every carrier and well over half of the battleships, cruisers and destroyers in the fleet for the duration of a single exercise measured in weeks, and that was conducted over thousands of miles of ocean and coastline.5 But upon closer inspection the appetite for innovation and tolerance for risk is even more impressive. Scenarios were truly free-play and designed so that the ‘blue force’ was often likely to lose and fight significantly shorthanded from the beginning.

The Navy conducted Fleet Problems across the Caribbean and the Pacific from Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii to Puerto Rico, with the last Fleet Problem held in 1939. By WWII virtually every senior leader in the Navy had participated in one problem or another either as a direct participant or as a planner. But these Fleet Problem exercises have not often received as much attention as other naval developments during the interwar period like arms limitation treaties and technological changes but the exercises were similarly if not more important in preparing the U.S. naval service for the Second World War.

Martin T4M-1 torpedo bombers of torpedo squadron one fly over USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) on 26 February 1929, shortly after that year’s fleet problem. Note aircraft laid smoke screen in distance. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

In 1923, the U.S. fleet conducted Fleet Problem I off the coast of Panama. At the time, the fleet was organized in a way where all of the vessels in the Navy fell under the operational command of the Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet, Admiral Hilary P. Jones. Jones was able to pull ships based in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific for the exercise or simply “maneuvers” as they were known. The exercise force divided into two parts referred to by color. Each iteration was blue against another color. Blue represented the United States, orange for Japan, red for Britain, and black for Germany. But in the 1920s political developments quickly made clear that the primary naval threat was orange. The Navy even went so far as to transpose Pacific geography on the Caribbean for some of the exercises with Japanese ports in the Windward Islands and the Panama Canal standing in for Manila and Corregidor. The first Fleet Problem focused on defending the Panama Canal from attack and it was scored as a resounding defeat for the defenders – the blue force. But the exercise was considered a major developmental success in that it led to critical assessments like the need to improve fleet communications, especially with aircraft and submarines to coordinate complex maneuvers.6

The exercises were designed to challenge and expand the thinking of the participants – they were not simply Mahanian duels of the battle line. They included, by modern definitions, both hybrid warfare and irregular warfare. The first Fleet Problem started without a formal declaration of war by the aggressor – foreshadowing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nineteen years later.7 In the third Problem one of the fleets sent an intelligence officer undercover as a journalist to place notional bombs at fuel depots and key canal control installations and obtained a schedule for the opposing fleet’s transit of the canal.8 In the fifth Problem the blue fleet received an “intelligence bonanza” after cracking the codes used by ‘black.’9 The exercises were also coupled with diplomatic initiatives and often ended with grand reviews of the fleet – huge public relations boons for the Navy.10

The Fleet Problems were often joint – combining land and sea-based forces (the Air Force did not yet exist as a separate service) and challenging commanders to decide which of their forces were the best to achieve their objectives. For example, during Fleet Problem III in 1924, 1,700 Marines landed under cover of night and seized Fort Randolph – a Army Coastal Defense fortification on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. Quickly overrunning the defenders, they moved on to seize a nearby submarine base and naval air station. The umpire for that part of the exercise proclaimed “The problem has conclusively shown that a Marine Expeditionary Force is a powerful weapon for a Commander-in-Chief engaged in any such operation…”11 In the next Problem the Marines employed an amphibious tank for the first time in their assault on the island of Culebra.12 The maneuvers also included significant notional, or as they were called at the time ‘constructive’ land forces to generate developments on land that would influence the play of the problems at sea. One Fleet Problem included a constructive expeditionary force of 150,000 soldiers.13 This jointness forced naval leaders to expand their thinking to include expeditionary operations and to try and adapt their tactics to leverage the advantages of land-based aviation and forces. This made for essential training for what would later be the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific.

The Fleet Problems helped drive innovation in the Navy and gave naval leaders and Congress the information they needed to design a modern battle fleet. Some of the early lessons were the inability of legacy submarines to keep up with the battle line – leading to the development of faster and larger ‘fleet’ submarines. The Fleet Problems also led to the requirement for supply ships capable of cruising at twelve knots or faster. It was during maneuvers in 1924 that the Navy first employed the “riding abeam” or  the broadside method for underway replenishment.14 In the 1930s that the Navy developed the concept of “carrier task forces” and proved that carriers can operate most effectively and magnify their offensive combat power when separate from the fleet.15 Conservative thinking argued that aircraft were better employed defensively or as spotters for battleship guns but this was ultimately rejected based on experiences from the Fleet Problems. Repeated experiments and exercises eventually created a naval air arm that “became the principal means of naval strike by the end of the war…”16 The experiments were field by live-fire against target ships and the use of dummy bombs against specially modified ships covered in wooden planking. It is worth noting that in the Fleet Problems alone the U.S. conducted more mock air attacks on ships than were actually conducted by all combatants in the First World War – and sunk in training about half as many large warships as were sunk in the war.17 It was this experimentation that laid the groundwork for the Navy to develop an unmatched naval air arm during the Second World War.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Ranger (CV-4), foreground, USS Lexington (CV-2), middle distance, and USS Saratoga (CV-3) lie at anchor off Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, on 8 April 1938 during exercise Fleet Problem XIX. (Wikimedia Commons)

The maneuvers were a significant undertaking – requiring months or a year to plan. For support in designing and in assessing the Fleet Problems, leaders relied on the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. During the months between problems the Naval War College also ran many sophisticated wargames that continued the practice of innovation and experimentation at a much lower cost. The games also contributed directly to the refinement of the operational plans for war in the Pacific. The wargaming was so intensive and exhaustive that Admiral Chester Nimitz would later glibly state that the Newport war games had predicted almost every event during the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War.18 The Fleet Problems were also effective because they were mostly public, and naval leaders presented the conclusions directly to Congress. They were also covered in the press, helping exercise conclusions influence budgetary decisions in the most direct manner.

Conclusion

Today, like during the interwar period, the Navy is trying to reimagine itself and operationalize new technology and new concepts. The integration of several classes of unmanned surface vessels and aerial systems again will mandate changes in the tactics and operations of naval forces. The U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift, wrote last year that the Pacific Fleet is trying to use the Fleet Problem model for exercises, albeit on a much smaller scale, yet still they have been a resounding success.19 Other commentary in the pages of Proceedings and the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) have also called for the Navy to revisit the large-scale free play exercise of the 1920s and 1930s.20, 21 The Navy should look back on the high-priority it placed on innovation and experimentation during the Fleet Problems. Certainly, the Navy did not have the readiness problems or operational commitments then that it does now, and today’s fleet shoulders a significant humanitarian and constabulary commitment. But the value of doing large-scale exercises to prepare for war must be appropriately weighed against the myriad variety of demand signals.

The Fleet Problems were not easy to facilitate in their own time. The Interwar Navy was much smaller and more fiscally constrained with only about 90,000 men and dealt with especially severe Great Depression-era budget cuts.22 Stringent naval arms limits after the First World War meant that some of the Navy’s newest and most technologically advanced ships were scrapped or sunk as targets to keep the service within treaty limits.

Innovation and experimentation are never free and rarely cheap, but the Fleet Problems of the Interwar Navy offer a successful case study of how to go to sea to prepare for war even with limited resources.

Walker D. Mills is an active duty Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently assigned to the Defense Language Institute in preparation for an exchange tour in Colombia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

References

1. “40,000 Men Guard Canal from ‘Enemy’,” The New York Times ( 23 January, 1929).

2. “Navy to Maneuver in Pacific in 3 Months,” The New York Times (27 December, 1931).

3. “40,000 Men Guard Canal from ‘Enemy’,” The New York Times ( 23 January, 1929).

4. Norman Friedman, Winning A Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington D.C.: 2017) 7.

5. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, Naval War College (Newport, RI: 2010) 327.

6. Ibid, 55.

7. Ibid, 52.

8. Ibid, 63.

9. Ibid, 75.

10. Ibid, 23.

11. Craig C. Felker, editor, Testing American Seapower: The U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940, Texas A&M University Press (College Station, TX: 2007) 95.

12. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 67.

13. Ibid, 60.

14. Ibid, 61.

15. Geoffery Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier: The British, American and Japanese case studies,” chapter in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, U.K.: 1996) 221.

16. Geoffery Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier,” 225.

17. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 30-31.

18. Norman Friedman, Winning A Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington D.C.: 2017) 6.

19. Scott H. Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 3 (March 2018).

20. Dale Rielage, “Bring Back Fleet Problems,” Proceedings, Vol. 143, No. 6 (June 2017).

21. Ryan Hilger, “Fight the Next Fleet Problem in the Solomons,” Center for International Maritime Security (28 January, 2019) http://cimsec.org/fight-the-next-fleet-problem-in-the-solomons/39529.

22. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 13.

Featured Image: Martine T4M-1 torpedo bombers landing on USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) on 26 January 1929, during that year’s Fleet Problem. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)