Tag Archives: Fleet Problems

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 1: Combat Training

By Dmitry Filipoff

Series Introduction

“Fleet level processes and procedures designed for safe and effective operations were increasingly relaxed due to time and fiscal constraints, and the ‘normalization-of-deviation’ began to take root in the culture of the fleet. Leaders and organizations began to lose sight of what ‘right’ looked like, and to accept these altered conditions and reduced readiness standards as the new normal.” –2017 Strategic Readiness Review commissioned in the aftermath of the collisions involving USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56)

The U.S. Navy is suffering from self-inflicted strategic dysfunction across the breadth of its enterprise. This series seeks to explore the theme of the normalization of deviation in some of the most critical operations, activities, and attributes that prepare the U.S. Navy for war. Because the U.S. Navy is the senior partner in its alliance activities many of these problems probably hold true for allied navies as well.

Part One below looks at U.S. Navy combat training and draws a comparison with Chinese Navy training.

Part Two will examine firepower relating to offense, defense, and across force structure.

Part Three will look at tactics and doctrine with an emphasis on network- and carrier-centric fleet combat.

Part Four will discuss technical standards.

Part Five will look at the relationship between the Navy’s availability and material condition.

Part Six will examine the application of strategy to operations.

Part Seven will look at strategy and force development, including force structure assessment.

Part Eight will conclude with recommendations for a force development strategy to refocus the U.S. Navy on the high-end fight and sea control.

Combat Training

“This ship is built to fight; you’d better know how.” –Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke (ret.) at the commissioning ceremony of the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)

The training strategy of a military service is one of its most fundamental responsibilities. Training is central to piercing the fog of war as much as possible before combat exacts its price. Training is what forges people into warfighters.

Soon after the Cold War ended the Navy announced a “change in focus and, therefore, in priorities for the Naval Service away from operations on the sea toward power projection.”1 A new operating focus on low-end missions such as partner development missions, striking land targets, and deterring rogue regimes came to dominate its focus. Different training followed. This training and operating paradigm replaced the high-end threat focus the Navy was originally made for in an era of great power competition against the Soviet Union. But the shift was wholesale, and did not attempt to preserve a responsible minimum of important skills that still held relevance. Perhaps worst of all, somehow this shift allowed U.S. Navy training to fall to incredible lows and remain there for most of a generation.

So much valuable corporate memory has evaporated. Extremely unrealistic training exercises starved Sailors of opportunities to learn important skills and prove themselves. And while the U.S. Navy slipped for years its latest rival, the Chinese Navy, made strong gains in the very same skills the U.S. Navy was losing.

Realism and the Nature of U.S. Navy Exercising

“The mission of the fleet in time of peace is preparation for war, and in this preparation tactical training heads the list of requirements…No matter how perfect we are in every other respect, if we cannot make good here we might as well not exist.” –Captain William S. Sims, “Naval War College Methods and Principles Applied Afloat,” 1915.

For years the Navy’s training exercises took on a scripted character where the outcomes were generally known beforehand and where opposing forces were usually made to lose. Scripted training is not inherently wrong if it is used as a stepping stone to more open-ended and complex exercises. However, such events were very few and far between. As a result most U.S. Navy high-end combat training remained stuck at an extremely basic level that barely scratched the surface of war. As a report from the Naval Studies Board described Navy training, “There is little free play, and exercises are typically scripted with little deviation allowed.”2

One of the most important methods of making exercises realistic is facing off against opponents that can win. Going up against a thinking and capable adversary creates a level of challenge that simple target practice cannot approach. Red teams and opposing forces can be highly specialized units that incorporate key intelligence insights to make their behavior more like that of a foreign competitor. Opposing forces can also be more simple when using scratch teams where training units can be divided into opposing sides and told to challenge each other. Scratch opposition forces are not as realistic as using teams informed by intelligence on competitors, but scratch teams can pose a real challenge because it is still troops competing against troops.

It appears Navy exercising was devoid of opposition forces that stood a chance. In “An Open Letter to the U.S. Navy from Red,” Captain Dale Rielage, the intelligence director of U.S. Pacific Fleet, writes from the perspective of an opposing force commander to the U.S. Navy and offers insight into how the Navy minimized challenge in its training by handicapping its Red teams:

“Your opposing forces often are very good, but you have trained them to know their place…our experience is that they have learned to self-regulate their aggressiveness, knowing what senior Blue and White cell members will accept. As one opposing force member recently told us during a ‘high-end’ training event, their implied tasking included not annoying the senior flag officer participating in the event. They knew from experience that aggressive Red action and candid debriefs were historically a source of annoyance. They played accordingly.”3

Rielage invoked the infamous Millennium Challenge exercise. This exercise was a massive warfighting experiment that became a controversy after the opposing force commander Lt. Gen Paul van Riper quit in protest. Riper at first inflicted devastating losses on the Blue team through unconventional means, but subsequent rounds cemented parameters that forced Red to lose.4 According to Rielage, “The entire event generally is remembered as an example of what not to do…The reality is that we repeat this experience on a smaller scale multiple times each year.”

Rielage then goes on to suggest the problem is extremely pervasive and longstanding:

“You talk about accepting failure as a way to learn, but refuse to fail. It is instructive to ask a room of senior officers the last time they played in—or even heard of—a game or exercise where Red won.”

If the Red teams of Navy exercising are so constrained they rarely ever win then what are they being used for? Admiral Scott Swift, recent commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, gives a clue in “A Fleet Must be Able to Fight.” Swift points out that “Our warfighting culture focuses on kill ratio—the number of enemy losses we can inflict for every loss we take.”5 However, Navy exercising usually results in extremely favorable tradeoffs. Swift argued that the Navy’s “reliance on high kill ratios” causes it to focus on “exquisite engagements,” or “firing from a position of minimum uncertainty and maximum probability of success (emphasis added).” Swift concludes that in high-end operations “it is not possible to generate the number of exquisite engagements necessary to achieve victory.”

Warfighting culture is a product of training. If the Navy’s warfighting culture was focused on easy (“exquisite”) engagements that always earn high kill ratios then perhaps the reason opposing forces almost never won is because they were relegated to the role of cannon fodder.

One example of Red teams being used for simplistic target practice is seen in how submarines were often pitted against warships. Only three years ago did the surface fleet finally open a fully integrated tactical center of excellence for itself, the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC, or the TOPGUN of the surface fleet as they often say), whose responsibilities include improving training and tactics.6 One SMWDC commander spoke of how the Navy was using the surface fleet as an opposing force to train submarines in certain exercises, where according to Admiral John Wade, “Up until two years ago, surface ships were kind of just targets…They told you to go drive from Point A and Point B…The submarines were just crushing us.”7

How else can one reduce an opponent to easy prey? The Navy accomplished this in part through a linear style of training. Navy training took the form of a series of events that focused on individual warfare areas. These include mission areas such as anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare. Exercise and certification events mainly focused on working only just one skillset at a time. Admiral Swift suggested Navy training amounted to “ticking off a discrete schedule of individual training objectives” and argued that this is why the Navy could not execute critical warfighting tasks with confidence. While the Navy did manage to train individual skills, “…we as a force never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks…”8 

This limits the freedom to play an accurate opposition force. Capt. Rielage remarked that Red teams are most often constrained and used to only “perform a specific function to facilitate an event” (such as an individual training certification event) rather than behave like a thinking adversary.

Many naval platforms are multi-domain in nature, with the ability to attack targets in the air, on the ocean, and beneath the surface. Cross-domain fires are the norm in war at sea, such as how a submarine can fire missiles at a ship from underwater. Sinking a modern warship is at least a matter of knowing how to fight targets on the surface and in the air at the same time, simply because ships can fire missiles at each other. Naval warfare involves sensors and weapons that can reach out to hundreds of miles from a single ship. The scale of this multi-domain battlespace can be enormous while containing numerous types of threats. Through this complexity war at sea can be filled with an incredible scope of possibilities and combinations. Even in an era absent great power competition rogue regimes like Iran still field multi-domain capabilities such as submarines and anti-ship missiles. Practicing only one skillset at a time using cannon fodder opposition forces that almost never win barely scratches the surface of war, yet this is exactly how the U.S. Navy has been training its strike groups for years.

In recent decades it appears the Navy did not have a true high-end threat exercise until Admiral Swift instituted the Fleet Problem exercises two years ago.9 It must be recognized that because the Fleet Problems are so new they still may not accurately represent real war. Instead, they simply set and combine the basic conditions to present a meaningful challenge to train for the high-end fight.

The Fleet Problems are large-scale, long-duration, and open-ended events. Large-scale, in that the unit being tested can be a strike group or larger; long duration, in that the exercise is at least several days long instead of less than 24 hours; open-ended, in that they give wide latitude to the troops involved rather than narrowly constraining them to execute proscribed methods.10 Perhaps most critically, the Fleet Problems include an opposition force that is capable of inflicting painful losses. They also force the Navy to exercise multiple warfighting areas in combination rather than one at a time, which was the standard design for the Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX) that was considered the peak of high-end sea control training in every deploying strike group’s workup cycle.11 The novelty of the Fleet Problems suggests the Navy’s overseas exercises on deployment were not much better. While these individual training conditions are not totally unprecedented in the Navy the Fleet Problems appear to be the first events in many years to effectively combine them on a large scale.

Before the Fleet Problems the Navy’s training system stood in stark contrast to the exercise programs of other branches. Both the Army and the Air Force are keenly aware of the need to use dedicated and capable opposition forces to hammer warfighting competence into their units through high-end threat training.12 Hundreds of aircraft participate annually in the Air Force’s Red Flag exercise where opposing aggressor squadrons often impose high cost. Nearly a third of the Army’s brigades rotate every year through the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin where Army units are regularly challenged by dedicated opposition forces. The table below shows how Army Brigade Combat Teams do not always score high kill ratios at the NTC.13 

Original caption from source: This table captures the lethality of four armored BCTs (ABCTs) that trained under live-fire conditions at NTC by outlining the total number of threats presented to the ABCTs and the effects of the BCTs’ weapon systems. Of note is that greater than 94 percent of the “enemy” destroyed during these live-fires were destroyed with direct-fire systems (including attack aviation), meaning that our formations fought a “fair” fight.

The National Training Center and Red Flag exercises have existed for decades and are among the highest priorities for their respective military branches. Evolving real-world threats frequently combine with new technology to introduce fresh challenges into these capstone training events. Yet in spite of everything that was changing about the Navy’s technology and advances being made by foreign competitors the Navy’s premier pre-deployment exercise stagnated. Admiral Phil Davidson suggested, “we’ve made more changes during the last 18 months to COMPTUEX than in the last 18 years.”14

The problem of military training becoming so scripted that victory is assured is not unprecedented. The Marines also have some history with this issue. In 1990, Marine William Bradley blasted the Corps for unrealistic training, questioning exercises that “smack of ‘zero defect’ artificiality,” and charging “who among us can say he has participated in major exercises where ‘success’ was not artificially preordained?”15 More recent writing suggests that opposing forces in the Marine Corps have been often made to simply “die in place.”16

Scripted training might come from some organizational pathology born from a zero-defect culture, a failure to evolve target practice into something that resembles dynamic battle, or some other combination of complacence and lack of imagination. What is certain is that it bears little resemblance to the sort of wars the military of a superpower can be asked to fight.

The Navy has made moves in the right direction only recently though much of Navy training probably remains a heavily scripted affair. Truly difficult exercising for the high-end fight at the strike group level has begun with the advent of the Fleet Problems. COMPTUEX is becoming more challenging, although through more virtual means.17 Two years ago SMWDC instituted a new training event called Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) that finally gives the surface fleet its own integrated training phase prior to joining capital ships for larger events in the workup cycle.18

Given how new they are however the extent to which the Navy will sustain and make the most of these activities remains unclear. What is certain is that they are taking place within a context and a culture shaped by a generation of neglect. As Admiral Swift succinctly put it, “There is no classroom instruction and little doctrine or guidance for fighting a fleet.”

The Structure of U.S. Navy Training

“Peacetime maneuvers are a feeble substitute for the real thing; but even they can give an army an advantage over others whose training is confined to routine, mechanical drill.” –Carl von Clausewitz, On War.

After deploying beyond its means for years the Navy was facing unsustainable growth in maintenance backlogs, yet rising demand for naval power meant the Navy would hardly budge on delaying deployments. As ships went through their usual phases within the workup cycle to prepare for deployment something had to give as pressure built from both sides. Navy leadership characterized the situation as a “rise in operational demand, maintenance availabilities going long, and training getting squeezed in the middle.”19 According to Navy officials cutting weeks of training became the preferred remedy to get ships out on time.20

Cutting training time is not necessarily wrong however because training could go on forever. Even with cuts ships still have months of time devoted to training within the workup cycle and more opportunities when deployed. The Navy cannot blame operational demand or maintenance backlogs alone for compressed training. Instead, it is the fault of poor decision-making on how to structure the training process and assume risk.

Sailors feel constantly rushed while training, especially within the workup cycle, because they are being forced to do hundreds of training events in order to satisfy an impossible number of requirements that only seem to grow.21 As training and certification events grew more numerous they were forced to become more shallow because they were stuffed into fixed or even shrinking timeframes. As the Naval Studies Board lamented, “There are no empty blocks on the exercise and training schedules.”

Time pressures encouraged scripted events because training can be passed more quickly. Hard training involves repeat attempts after failure, a larger selection of open-ended scenarios, and a thorough after-action review process. All of these things cost time. Scripting can help make time for more events and cut corners when needed. Scripted training became an important means to help Sailors stay on schedule in a system that was overburdened with too many requirements.

These excessive requirements come from a desire to cover too many bases. A warship, being an advanced machine, can experience technical failure and take damage in numerous ways. Ships can also be employed in a wide range of missions. Training to manage the degradation of a ship and the complexity of naval warfighting is an incredibly difficult task. However, it is impossible to train to every kind of scenario or prevent every kind of failure. A training system represents calculated risk where strong proficiency in some areas must come at the expense of skill in many others.

An example of poor risk calculation with respect to tactical training can be seen in the submarine force where according to LT Jeff Vandenengel:

“…virtually every officer on board can explain complex engineering principles, draw diagrams of entire reactor systems, and have conducted countless complex engineering-casualty drills, but few to no simulated attacks on an enemy warship. So much time, energy, and effort is spent on engineering issues that the study, development, and practice with tactical systems and techniques are often treated like afterthoughts.”22

The Navy has allowed the technical complexity of its ships and the flexibility of naval power to overwhelm the ability of Sailors to effectively train for war. Miscellaneous administrative burdens have also ballooned. Risk aversion has been mistaken for due diligence where a risk averse culture prone to adding training and inspections sought to mitigate risk that should have been accepted. Now it has become impossible to expect Sailors to become skilled at core warfighting tasks when there are too many boxes to check.

The training certification system has become so backward it is inhibiting the very sort of skill it should be promoting. According to Vice Admiral Joseph Tofalo, recent commander of the U.S. submarine force, they were “…really working hard by taking a hard scrub of our assessment and certification process” just to make only 10-15 days’ worth of time to insert high-end threat training into the months-long workup cycles of submarines.23 The bloated certification system is suffocating the ability of senior leaders to implement meaningful training reform.

But even with a bloated system why is it such a struggle for the Navy to make so little time for one of the most important types of training there is?

Training and Evaluation

“You cannot allow any of your people to avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it’s going to be bad.”–James Mattis

Most of the Navy’s training is not actually training in the fullest sense of the term. Rather, most events appear to be readiness evaluations. The intent of a readiness evaluation is not necessarily to create an in-depth learning experience, but to pass an event and earn a certification that indicates a unit is competent at a certain task. The term “certification” is almost always used in relation to the intent and end result of Navy training. Sailors in the fleet are often worrying about maintaining their numerous certifications because they require periodic refreshing.

Good training is about pushing to failure, testing limits, and taking risk head on. This makes it necessary to have training events that do not culminate in a pass/fail evaluation that can reflect poorly on a participant. When under evaluation one will likely fall back on previously known methods instead of using the opportunity to try something new. By frequently conflating readiness evaluations with training the Navy has failed to create enough space where Sailors can safely experiment and learn from their mistakes.

A singular focus on certification can encourage scripting because the goal simply becomes passing the next event rather than genuine improvement over time. Scripting away risk makes the chances of passing certification events much better. Yet much of the point of military skill is in knowing how to manage violent risk.

The Navy’s scripted style of training calls the trustworthiness of the certification system into question. In reference to unit-level training LT Erik Sand described a training and reporting system that allowed for “easy gaming and cheating” and that “because ships design their own drills, they can hide their weaknesses.” Ships were able to write the training packages they would be evaluated on and rehearse them enough to minimize surprise in advance of their inspections. LT Sand felt compelled to argue for the obvious: “In combat, a ship cannot pick where she takes a hit. The crew should not be able to do so in an inspection…the ship’s crew should not have specific foreknowledge of drill scenarios.” The end result was not an inspection process that seriously tests warfighting skill, but instead “evaluates the crew’s ability to stage-manage a show.”24

The quality of any certification is based on the standard of training it was earned through. How credible is a warfighting certification earned through scripted training?

Comparing Chinese Navy Training

“He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Winning is not about being the best, but simply being better than the opposition. In this vein, how does the U.S. Navy stack up against its chief rival, the Chinese Navy?

The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) regularly releases unclassified reports on foreign navies. Its reports on the Chinese Navy (People’s Liberation Army Navy – PLAN) criticize training shortcomings that the U.S. Navy is itself committing. However, these reports also paint a picture of a force that is serious about training harder and working to overcome past disregard for realism.

In its 2015 report ONI stated the PLAN is “rectifying training methods by avoiding formalism and scripting in exercises.”25 As it looks to improve, less scripted training events that aim to “stress tactical flexibility, are occurring on a regular basis…” ONI’s 2007 report indicates the PLAN was making similar reforms earlier. The report said a limitation of the PLAN was its “reliance on scripted training events” and that new training guidance emphasized opposition force training and injecting surprise. In what the PLAN calls Naval Combat Readiness Exercises the exercise plan is “kept from the unit being exercised until just before orders are issued, or until the warning or signal is given.”26 The 2015 report said that a key goal of opposing force training exercises happening “on a regular basis” is “to evaluate a leader’s ability to develop and execute operational plans according to loosely defined objectives.”

Compare this to how Admiral Swift described the reaction of U.S. Sailors being presented with a Fleet Problem exercise: “Some teams clearly were uncomfortable, looking for the gouge on how the problem would go down. Many seemed astonished that the part of the order tasking them (‘Here is my intent. Your charge is to develop the required tasks to achieve it.’) often was less than a page long.” Swift said the fleet staff had to urge these leaders several times to “Stop asking for the plan; plan your solution.27 

The 2007 ONI report noted that “Typically, PLAN units previously conducted only one training subject per sortie in a building block approach” and that under new training standards units “now conduct more than one training subject per sortie.”

Compare this to how Admiral Swift described Navy training in his recent writing, in that “Much of the process of unit training certification consists of performing individual techniques, often in a set sequence and a reduced tempo. In a fight, these techniques need to be combined and executed with speed.”

In addition to being chief of intelligence for U.S. Pacific Fleet Captain Rielage also serves as the senior member of the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team (PNAT) that was created a few years ago.28 PNAT seeks to incorporate intelligence insights on adversaries to create accurate representations of their thinking and behavior. PNAT then puts these insights into practice by leading opposing forces in certain events such as the Fleet Problems where Admiral Swift says PNAT “frequently surprises” leaders all the way up to the four-star level “unlike current strike group training.”29 Capt. Rielage also has interesting insights into how Chinese Navy training is evolving.

In “Chinese Navy Trains and Takes Risks” Rielage writes that PLAN units often engage in force-on-force exercises that incorporate key elements of surprise such as where live opposing forces do not know the “exact composition or disposition of the adversary.”30 Units that exercise initiative to increase the difficulty of their training events are regularly praised in official PLAN media. According to Rielage, “The clear impression is that the PLAN is more willing to accept risk in its training evolutions than its U.S. counterparts.”

There is also a stark difference in the sort of missions the U.S. Navy and the Chinese Navy are focused on training for. Rielage claims the PLAN is “underpinned by an institutional emphasis on training for high-end naval warfare” and that “there is a strong argument that success in this mission is the PLAN’s primary and defining priority.” Compare this to how Admiral Swift characterized U.S. Navy training in the power projection era:

“A quick glance at a Composite Training Unit or Joint Task Force exercise schedule showed maritime interdiction operations, strait transits, and air wings focused on power projection from sanctuary. But despite the best efforts of our training teams, our deploying forces were not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.”31

For years the U.S. Navy has not tried to practice destroying modern fleets, but the Chinese Navy has.

The importance the PLAN places on training is also reflected in its leadership. While serving as Commandant of the Naval Command College and prior to becoming the current chief of the PLAN Admiral Shen Jinlong helped create a “Blue Force Center” that seeks to improve the realism of opposition force training. Earlier in his career he served as director of a naval vessels training center and was credited for establishing a training system for new-type ships.32 The current leader of the Chinese Navy is no stranger to training innovation.

Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong tours USS Blue Ridge (Original U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Weldin)

The rate of tactical learning in the PLAN compared to most other navies is especially high, and not just because of its training values. With a hint of condescension the 2015 ONI report said that before the PLAN expanded its distant operations in 2009 it was “largely a training fleet, with very little operational experience.” But a force focused on hard and realistic training can certainly be effective when it will count most in war. The PLAN still has very few steady overseas commitments, and can afford to spend the bulk of its readiness on force development just like the interwar period U.S. Navy.33 On the other hand the modern U.S. Navy is stretched thin across the globe, and chooses to spend most of its readiness on overseas operations which are not the same as focused force development conducted close to home. The American and Chinese Navies have been spending their time on very different priorities.

Regardless of where they stand in relation to one another on the continuum of military excellence it appears the Chinese Sailor is learning and becoming a more lethal professional at a rate that far outstrips his American rival.

Training and Satisfaction in the Profession of Arms

“If we fight our fleets in mimic fights against each other, every officer and seaman, and fireman, and ward-room boy will understand enough to become interested. What we need more than anything else is to make our people interested…certainly no profession gives the opportunities for continued interest that ours does…yet is there anything more heartbreaking in its dullness than a man-of-war is often made to be!” –Commander Bradley A. Fiske, “American Naval Policy,” 1905.

A key distinction between institutions that provide security and most other organizations is that they rarely get to apply the full scope of their potential until an immediate threat demands a response. Most other organizations operate under a steady grind where they regularly apply foundational skills and often in direct competition against many others who are doing the same. Until an imminent threat appears an organization focused on security must remain in a self-imposed state of vigilance. This comes with unique challenges of promoting professional satisfaction and morale.

Being a sentry, as important as that may be, is hardly gratifying. The logic of promoting deterrence is often not tangible enough to be professionally fulfilling on its own to most who wear the uniform. After spending an ungodly amount of time filing paperwork, attending sessions, and conducting so many other preparations warfighters crave the opportunity to do their job and put their skills to the test. An organization focused on security should conduct hard training not only for the sake of preparedness but to give its people opportunities to push their limits and enjoy the fulfillment of becoming a better professional. In the absence of a pressing mission that demands the immediate use of specialized skills a focus on growing those skills is the next best thing.

While the Navy featured prominently at the opening of many campaigns and saved lives in humanitarian disaster the emphasis on low-end missions and training hardly helped Sailors experience the full potential of the powerful Navy they joined. The power projection era precluded Sailors from practicing many of the core high-end missions and skills a superpower Navy is usually built for, yet Sailors were still responsible for the extensive maintenance that high-end capability required. Scripted training under the bloated certification system has turned most tactical training into just another chore on a checklist rather than a stimulating exercise that focuses on quality learning and professional development.

The professional development opportunities that come with joining the most powerful Navy should be especially unique. In how many places can someone practice warfighting skills and operations using some of the most advanced warships ever made? How many jobs allow someone to become the best in the world at taking command of the seas through skill of arms? Surely there is some connection between the level of opportunity to grow as a better warfighter through hard trials and the unique job satisfaction that comes with being a military professional. Has the Navy harmed retention and morale by letting too many requirements, inspections, and low-end missions crowd out time for hard training? Clearly people joining the Navy would much rather be “forged by the sea” instead of forged by their inbox.

Training and Human Capital in the Profession of Arms

“…I would argue that nothing takes precedence over the peacetime commander’s job of finding combat leaders.” –Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (ret.), Fleet Tactics, Theory and Practice

The training certification system is unable to maintain a consistent standard across the force because luck plays an important role in how well the American Sailor gets trained. The fixed nature of the workup cycle and the variety of deployment experience create a roulette wheel of training opportunity. A Sailor can report to a ship only to spend the entirety of their assignment stuck in drydock with limited operating time. A Sailor that happens to report aboard closer to a deployment will have far more opportunity to conduct at sea operations, especially integrated training within a larger group of ships.34 One Sailor can deploy to mainly exercise with numerous third world navies while another’s deployment can feature exercises with more capable allies. The nature of the workup cycle and the variety of overseas experience sends a hodgepodge of training experience throughout the Navy’s ranks. This creates the need for major training events that are disconnected from the deployment cycle to better standardize proficiency. By the time a combat arms leader becomes a general officer in the Army or Air Force they have usually paid multiple visits to Red Flag and the National Training Center across their career.

While machines reflect learning as they grow in capability corporate memory is mainly carried forward by people. In this respect the Navy’s wholesale shift toward power projection not only inhibited its ability to practice war well, but failed to preserve a responsible minimum of institutional memory for full-spectrum competence. As Cold War-era personnel retired and separated from the service the Navy hemorrhaged skills and experience born from a time of better warfighting standards.35 Those with Cold-War era experience who still serve today saw their tactical skills atrophy under a new strategic focus. The result is that on average American Sailors know far less about high-end combat and sea control than they did 30 years ago. An organization that often describes its training in terms of “reps and sets” should have also understood the concept of use it or lose it.

American Sailors can put their training into a different “reps and sets” context. How many times have they run the exact same scenarios? How many times have they seen a live opposing force defeat a strike group? Are scripted exercises the defining training experience of a generation of American Sailors? In a system where everyone gets a trophy it is hard to know who is any good.

But training should not always be about winning or passing a test. Training is supposed to be a learning experience where failure is welcomed as an opportunity to learn and further prove oneself. Scripted training inhibits arguably the most important part of the training process – the after-action review. In the after-action review troops are expected to confront their mistakes, reflect upon alternatives, and contemplate their thought process. Without failure or the fear of future failure there will be less to question and reflect on. A solid after-action review process is necessary to give people a space where they can distinguish themselves as learners.

The after-action review of a training exercise can be a most humbling experience for the military professional where leaders are forced to take responsibility for mistakes that would have gotten their people killed in war. How a leader accounts for such consequential errors can reveal something about their command philosophy and leadership style. There is also a large difference in taking responsibility for failure within view of hundreds if not thousands of participating Sailors after a live exercise versus a virtual wargame that is played in the company of only a handful of fellow officers. The highly concentrated nature of modern naval capability and authority has given the enlisted Sailor virtually no ability to shape his or her fate through tactics in high-end war at sea.36 It is on the ship’s officers to know how to fight well for the sake of everyone else aboard.

Scripted exercises inhibit the warfighter’s ability to develop the unique professional skills critical to success on the battlefield. These special skills can range from employing warfighting techniques and tactics, maintaining unit cohesion while taking heavy losses, and knowing how to gamble with equipment and lives. Skillfully managing the chaos of war favors certain personal qualities such as the utmost candor, open-minded thinking, and a willingness to push to failure. These traits hardly describe the character of heavily scripted training. Without hard combat trials one cannot prove skill and virtue in ways only a warfighter can.

What scripted exercising has done to the Navy is damage its ability to discover those within its ranks who best exemplify the profession of arms.


“After their examination, the recruits should then receive the military mark, and be taught the use of their arms by constant and daily exercise. But this essential custom has been abolished by the relaxation introduced by a long peace. We cannot now expect to find a man to teach what he never learned…” –Vegetius, De re militari

If the most important peacetime military mission is to realistically prepare for war then what happens if this primary mission does not act to unify effort across the enterprise? Compared to all other peacetime operations exercises are the activity that come closest to real war which makes them an indispensable foundation for force development.37 Realistic exercising is what best integrates and filters the vital functions that evolve training, tactics, and doctrine. Exercises are also some of the best means for investigating the changing character of future war as technology evolves. The lack of realistic exercising is much more than an issue of questionable operator skill. It is a broader developmental problem for how the Navy is deciding its future.

It should go without saying that trying things in the real world under challenging conditions is how to mold vision into reality. The choice to disregard realistic exercising for a generation overlapped with a time when evolutionary ideas and networking capabilities were hitting the fleet. As the Information Age excited the imagination the Navy hailed transformative warfighting concepts such as ForceNet and AirSea Battle, but to the average Sailor these concepts changed little. There never was any serious AirSea Battle training, network-centric warfighting doctrine, or exhaustive tactical development for new major capabilities like CEC.

The Navy certainly made an effort to transform, but progress and proficiency should never be measured by how many new capabilities come online, CONOPs or TACMEMOs that get published, or wargames that get played. If these things are to have life then they must be taught to and refined by those charged with their execution. Real progress and skill is best defined by what the Sailors and commanders on the deckplate know how to do well, and for that there is only training. Because warfighting concepts did not translate into new and realistic force-wide training many of the Navy’s most ambitious efforts to transform can safely be described as stillborn.

If the Navy’s standards of exercising have been so poor for so long then it is natural to be skeptical of other elements of force development that feed into one another such as wargaming and test and evaluation. The functional linkage between strategy, tactics, and technology demands that force development activities use a shared set of realistic standards that evolve together to pace threats. Excessively scripting the one activity that comes closest to real war means failure was not a meaningful force of change for much of the naval enterprise. Clearly many unhelpful things have made it into the fleet if realistic exercising was not there to set a standard, serve as a proving ground, and anchor the Navy’s focus on warfighting.

What makes the Fleet Problem exercises and SMWDC key drivers of change is not that they are some special evolution of ongoing activity. Instead, finally the Navy has a challenging high-end exercise, and finally the surface fleet has a command that integrates the surface warfare enterprise for the sake of tactical development. And when key things that should have existed are finally created and imposed upon a system they shed light on dysfunction that has long gone unnoticed. In the words of Admiral Wade, “We are just at the beginning here, but we have uncovered so many issues.”

Part 2 will focus on Firepower.

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

(References for Part 1 appear at bottom of Part 2 due to page limitations. Links to sources and references have been embedded as reasonably as possible throughout.)

Featured Image: Featured Image: Pacific Ocean, NNS (April 18, 2018) Lieutenant Craig Stocker, a Warfare Tactics Instructor assigned to Surface Warfare Officer School Newport, R.I., is temporarily attached to Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) tracks and mentors crewmembers during an Anti-Submarine exercise onboard the USS Stockdale (DDG 106). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda A. Hayes/released)

Learning War and The Evolution of U.S. Navy Fighting Doctrine with Author Trent Hone

By Christopher Nelson

Author Trent Hone joins us today to talk about his new book Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. This is a great book. And as others have noted, it’s a fine compliment to John Kuehn’s work on the Navy General Staff, Scott Mobley’s book Progressives in Navy Blue, and I would add, Albert Nofi’s To Train The Fleet For War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

We talk about everything from Admiral Frank “Friday” Fletcher to “safe-to-fail” systems vs. “fail-safe” systems. And stick around to the end. Trent Hone offers some advice to the CNO on how we can build a better learning organization.

Nelson: For the readers, could you tell us briefly what your book is about?

Hone: My book investigates how the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century learned to innovate. I explore how the Navy invented new technologies, created new tactics, and found ways to rapidly evolve its combat doctrine based on peacetime exercises and wartime experience. Today, we would describe the Navy of that era as a “learning organization.” I explain what that means and describe the mechanisms the Navy used to effectively learn and innovate. I believe there are lessons from that time that are very relevant for today’s organizations, both military and civilian.

Nelson: Why did you want to write this book?

Hone: I’ve been interested in naval tactics for a long time. I remember reading Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics when it first came out in the 1980s and being fascinated (It’s a great book now on its third edition). In the 1990s, I decided to explore the Navy’s surface warfare tactics before and during World War II. I wanted to know what Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have done if Pearl Harbor hadn’t been attacked. That research led to a series of articles on the development of Navy tactics—including a prize-winning one in the Naval War College Reviewand, ultimately, began to overlap with other work I was doing. 

I started my career as a software engineer. As I assumed positions of greater responsibility, what became most interesting to me was not the development of the software, but how teams organized to create software and do innovative work. I studied various techniques and methods to improve the teams I supervised and eventually transitioned into advising and coaching organizations to help them get better at learning and innovating. 

As I continued looking at the evolution of the Navy’s tactical doctrine in the early twentieth century, I saw patterns that resonated with today’s most-effective learning techniques. The language was quite different, and the specific processes were different, but some of the underlying principles were remarkably similar. I realized it was a story that had to be told. I describe an arc of innovative creativity that stretches back decades by charting the evolution of surface warfare tactics.

Nelson: Early in the book you talk about “fail-safe” systems and “safe to fail” systems. The latter, you say, are best for a culture that encourages innovation. With this in mind, what would you say Rickover’s submarine culture consisted of? Is he a rare exception in the case of a system that is “fail-safe” yet innovative?

Hone: I’m glad you brought this up. Alicia Juarrero’s term “safe to fail” gives us a new way to think about failure modes and how to account for them. The key difference between the two is that with “fail-safe” we attempt to anticipate possible failure modes and design ways to mitigate them. With “safe to fail,” we recognize unanticipated failure modes will occur and organize to ensure survival when they do. This has relevance to organizations because when we want to learn and innovate, we are going to fail. A “safe to fail” organization finds ways to explore new ideas and experiment with them without endangering its long-term survival. The Navy was good at that in the early twentieth century. 

I’m less familiar with Rickover’s time, but from what I understand, it would be inaccurate to describe the culture he developed as primarily “fail-safe.” Certainly, it used procedures with rigidly prescribed steps in order to prevent known failures, so in that sense it was “fail-safe.” However, he recognized that unanticipated failure modes can and will occur. Defined procedures are inadequate to account for these circumstances. Instead, it’s essential to rely on the collective skill and experience of people, so the culture integrated crewmembers together. Layers of human observation and experience became the means to identify, anticipate, and address unforeseen circumstances. In that sense, the culture has a “safe to fail” component. Things will go wrong; people will make mistakes. But trust and experience become the means to identify and resolve them. 

As it turns out, that’s the most effective way to deal with problems in complex environments. Standard procedures and automated routines free our mental capacity so that when unforeseen circumstances arise, we can quickly identify and address them. That’s what made the Combat Information Center (CIC) and its successors effective: the artful integration of standard processes, technology, and human judgment. I worry that with the increasing emphasis on automated systems, we might be taking the talents of our people too far out of the loop. There’s no substitute for human experience and skill when the unanticipated occurs. 

Nelson: What is the “edge of chaos” and why does it matter to any organization that is trying to be innovative?

Hone: The concept of the “edge of chaos” is easily misunderstood, so I’ll try to explain it succinctly. In any complex system—like a corporation or a military service—there are processes, procedures, and rules. In the language of complexity, these are called “constraints.” They channel and limit behavior. When constraints are restrictive, they inhibit the ability of people to experiment and try something new. Obviously, that’s a problem if you want to innovate. But the other end of the spectrum is problematic also. If constraints are too loose, there’s no coherence; it becomes difficult to assign cause and effect or make sense of an experiment. The “edge of chaos” is located between these two extremes. It is a space where constraints are sufficiently loose to allow room to explore new ideas and concepts but also rigid enough to focus that exploration and provide feedback on its effectiveness. 

Many of us intuitively understand this from our own experience. Software teams, for example, are most innovative (and generally most effective) when they’re given a clear objective and the creative freedom to determine how best to accomplish it. The objective serves as a constraint and focuses their energy. They use their initiative to explore several potential solutions, often arriving at the best combination of technologies that addresses the need. That’s why there’s been such an emphasis on moving away from rigidly detailed requirements documents; they overly constrain teams and limit their creativity. The parallels to military command, and the importance of well-written orders that foster the initiative of subordinates, are obvious. 

Nelson: What was the importance of the 1921 Destroyer Instructions?

Hone: The Atlantic Fleet’s 1921 Destroyer Instructions were important for two reasons. It was the first Navy doctrinal manual produced by a deliberately created system of learning. Immediately after World War I, the Navy was transitioning back to peacetime. Many valuable lessons had been learned during the war and officers set out to capture them. Two “colleges” were established, one in the Atlantic Fleet and another in the Pacific Fleet. They combined exercises at sea, wargames ashore, and experience from the recent war to devise new approaches. A regular correspondence was maintained between these two fleet colleges and the Naval War College. The result of their collective learning was incorporated into the Destroyer Instructions. 

The Destroyer Instructions were also important because they assumed individual commands—each destroyer squadron—would develop their own specific doctrines that reflected the strength of their ships and men. The Instructions were deliberately written to foster creativity within subordinate commands and avoid being overly prescriptive. The War Instructions of 1923 took the same approach, so Navy officers spent the interwar period exploring a variety of options for how to coordinate and employ their forces, leading to new and innovative techniques.

Nelson: Who was Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher? What were his battle instructions? And why are they an important milestone in naval history?

Hone: Frank Friday Fletcher led the intervention at Veracruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct. In September 1914, he became commander of the Atlantic Fleet, which contained the Navy’s most modern ships. The Atlantic Fleet had been regularly conducting exercises to work out how best to operate in battle, and Fletcher continued that practice. By May 1916, he and his staff had gained enough experience to issue a set of Battle Instructions. 

Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.

Fletcher’s Instructions marked a departure from previous approaches. He assumed battle was fundamentally uncertain and that centralized control would likely be impossible; this led him to emphasize two things. The first was the use of a plan that would outline objectives for subordinates. Fletcher wanted to encourage their individual initiative and creativity without overly constraining them. Second, Fletcher stressed the coordinated use of all weapons. Previous battle plans had emphasized battleship gunnery. Fletcher recognized that other weapons were coming into their own, particularly destroyer torpedoes. He planned to use his destroyer squadrons very aggressively. These two concepts—the use of a plan and coordinated employment of all arms—remained central to Navy tactical doctrine through World War II.  

Nelson: I enjoyed your comment about “type commanders.” You note in your book that during World War II that minor actions were neglected.  This mattered. And type commanders were born in light of these shortcomings. What were these “minor actions” and how did the type commanders address them?

Hone: The Navy’s primary focus in the interwar period (1919-1939) was a trans-Pacific campaign. It was expected to culminate in a “major action”—a large fleet battle—somewhere in the central Pacific. Accordingly, most of the fleet-level tactical doctrine focused on “major action.” Tactics for “minor actions”—engagements between smaller task forces—were left to subordinate commanders. It was assumed that these lower-level commanders would have time to develop doctrines for their forces, and, during peacetime, this assumption was largely correct. 

However, there were shortcomings. This led to the introduction of the type commands in 1930.

Type commands became responsible for identifying and capturing new tactical approaches for each various type—destroyers, cruisers, battleships, etc.—and there is evidence that new approaches were more rapidly developed after that date. The real problem, though, was the assumption that subordinate commands would be able to develop specific doctrines for their forces. 

In 1942, that process fell apart during the battles off Guadalcanal. Ships and commanders moved about too rapidly to develop cohesion. “Scratch teams” were formed and they often performed poorly, as you might expect. The Pacific Fleet addressed the problem by applying some of the same techniques used for “major tactics” to “minor tactics” and leveraging the type commands to rapidly share and disseminate lessons. 

Nelson: During World War II, how did the Fleet quickly inform commanders with updated doctrine? This is a problem throughout history, is it not? We make some assessments on what will or will not work in war, and inevitably we will be surprised. What would you recommend to a staff today on how to prepare for such things?

Hone: I love this question because when I first started my research decades ago, I thought that manuals—published doctrinal materials—would be the key to understanding tactical doctrine. I learned very quickly that’s not the case. Doctrine is a set of assumptions and mental models. The documentation provides a backdrop, but what really matters is how individuals think about problems and work together. During World War II, the Navy effectively used personal connections, like in-person conversations and conferences, to rapidly share and disseminate new ideas. There were formal means to do this (like Joseph C. Wylie being brought back from the South Pacific to help develop the CIC) but informal mechanisms were at least as important. Published doctrine tended to lag behind the information shared through these informal networks.

USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) At the Mare Island Navy Yard, 20 May 1942. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

If I were making recommendations, I’d stress the importance of informal mechanisms. Staffs can easily create mountains of briefings and other documentation. What’s more difficult is creating an environment where subordinates can readily exchange information, learn together, and build on the knowledge of their colleagues. I think a staff should actively work on enabling that. It’s not just about creating space and time; it’s about introducing the appropriate constraints to enable creativity to flourish. Then, once that is in place, the staff needs to keep tabs on what’s happening. New, more effective ideas will arise. When they do, the staff needs to act quickly to exploit them and make them available to the entire command. 

Nelson: How does the size of a navy – the number of ships and sailors – affect innovation? Quick growth, during World War II, for example, and steep reductions – ship numbers from the 80s to today for instance, do these affect innovation in different ways? How?

Hone: I think both offer serious challenges. The rapid growth in World War II made it very difficult to maintain the effective culture the Navy had nurtured during the early twentieth century. Rapid “scaling” (as we call it in the software world) tends to increase centralization, reduce flexibility, and inhibit innovation. That happened to the Navy as it grew during the war. 

The challenge I see with steep reductions is overburdening. Organizations often reduce their size without an equivalent reduction in their commitments. This leads to overwork: people become spread too thin; maintenance gets delayed; and equipment is overutilized. Individuals may still be able to sustain the pace of operations, but they frequently lose the ability to experiment with new ideas. Innovation slows as a result. When commitments are reduced along with reductions in size—as with the Navy after World War I—this can be avoided. 

Nelson: Trent, to close, if you had ten minutes with the Chief of Naval Operations and he asked you what he needed to do to create a learning organization – what would you say?

Hone: I had about thirty seconds with Admiral Richardson last year when he presented me with the second-place award for his Naval History Essay Contest, and in those thirty seconds, I encouraged him to read my book. If I had ten minutes, I’d urge him to introduce a set of integrated feedback loops that couple regular experimentation regarding the nature of future war (tactics, technology, etc.) and OPNAV’s programming process. The goals would be twofold. First, officers need to be encouraged to regularly experiment to vary their tactical approaches to discover new, more effective techniques. They need to become accustomed to adjusting to unanticipated circumstances and leveraging the creativity of their commands. Second, the lessons from their experimentation need to revise and guide the Navy’s program so that force structure and procurement reflect—and ultimately anticipate—the new learning. 

We’re all familiar with the interwar Fleet Problems. What made them really powerful—what allowed them to transform the Navy—was the way they were integrated into the Navy’s planning and procurement processes. The second CNO, Admiral Robert E. Coontz, was primarily responsible for that. He created the feedback loops that allowed the Navy to not just experiment with new tactical doctrines, but to evolve force structure and war plans in light of emerging lessons. If Admiral Richardson wants “high-velocity learning,” if he wants to fully leverage the skills of the Navy’s officers, he needs to devise a set of similar mechanisms. Given the organizational changes since Coontz left office in 1923, a new set of structures and interfaces would have to be introduced. I have faith Admiral Richardson could do that, if he sets his mind to it. 

Trent Hone is an award-winning naval historian and a Managing Consultant with Excella in Arlington, VA. He is an expert on U.S. Navy tactics and doctrine. His article, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific” was awarded the U.S. Naval War College’s Edward S. Miller Prize and the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Ernest M. Eller Prize. His essay, “Guadalcanal Proved Experimentation Works” earned second place in the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest. He regularly writes and speaks about organizational learning, doctrine, strategy, and how the three interrelate. His latest book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945, was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in June 2018.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: USS Indiana (BB-58) fires a salvo from her forward 16″/45 guns at the Kamaishi Plant of the Japan Iron Company, 250 miles north of Tokyo. 

The Navy’s New Fleet Problem Experiments and Stunning Revelations of Military Failure

By Dmitry Filipoff

Losing the Warrior Ethos

“…despite the best efforts of our training teams, our deploying forces were not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” –Admiral Scott Swift 1

Today, virtually every captain in the U.S. Navy has spent most of his or her career in the post-Cold War era where high-end warfighting skills were de-emphasized. After the Soviet Union fell, there was no navy that could plausibly contest control of the open ocean against the U.S. In taking stock of this new strategic environment, the Navy announced in the major strategy concept document …From the Sea (1992) achange in focus and, therefore, in priorities for the Naval Service away from operations on the sea toward power projection.”2 This change in focus was toward missions that made the Navy more relevant in campaigns against lower-end threats such as insurgent groups and rogue nations (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya) that were the new focus of national security imperatives. None of these competitors fielded modern navies.

The relatively simplistic missions the U.S. Navy conducted in this power projection era included striking inland targets with missile strikes and airpower, presence through patrolling in forward areas, and security cooperation through partner development engagements. The focus on this skillset has led to an era of complacence where the high-end warfighting skills that were de-emphasized actually atrophied to a significant degree. This possibility was forewarned in another Navy strategy document that sharpened thinking on adapting for a power projection era, Forward…from the Sea (1994): “As we continue to improve our readiness to project power in the littorals, we need to proceed cautiously so as not to jeopardize our readiness for the full spectrum of missions and functions for which we are responsible.”3

Now the strategic environment has changed decisively. Most notably, China is aggressively rising, challenging international norms, and rapidly building a large, modern navy. Because of the predominantly maritime nature of the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy may prove the most important military service for deterring and winning a major war against this ascendant and destabilizing superpower. If things get to the point where offensive sea control operations are needed and the fleet is gambled in high-end combat, then it is very likely that the associated geopolitical stakes of victory or defeat will be historic. The sudden rise of a powerful maritime rival is coinciding with the atrophy of high-end warfighting skills and the introduction of exceedingly complex technologies, making the recent stunning revelations about how the U.S. Navy has failed to prepare for great power war especially chilling.

Admiral Scott Swift, who leads U.S. Pacific Fleet (the U.S. Navy’s largest and most prioritized operational command), candidly revealed that the Navy was not realistically practicing high-end warfighting skills and operations, including sinking modern enemy fleets, until only two years ago. Ships were not practicing against other ships in the realistic, free-play environments necessary to train and refine tactics and doctrine to win in great power war.

In a recent U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, Admiral Swift detailed training and experimentation events occurring in a series of “Fleet Problems.” These events take their name and inspiration from a years-long series of interwar-period fleet experiments and exercises that profoundly influenced how the Navy transformed itself in the run-up to World War Two. While ships practiced against ships in the inter-war period Fleet Problems, the modern version began with the creation of a specialized “Red” team well-versed in wargaming concepts and competitor thinking born from intelligence insights. This Red team is pitched against the Navy’s frontline commanders in Fleet Problem scenarios that simulate high-end warfare through the command of actual warships. What makes their creation an admission of grave institutional failure is that this Red team is leading the first series of realistic high-threat training events at sea in recent memory.

The Navy’s units should be able to practice high-end warfighting skills against one another without the required participation of a highly-specialized Red team adversary to present a meaningful challenge. But Adm. Swift strikingly admits that the Navy’s current system of certifying warfighting skills is not representative of real high-end capability because the Navy “never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks, against a free-playing, informed, and representative Red.” Furthermore, “individual commanders rarely if ever [emphasis added] had the opportunity to exercise all these complex operations against a dynamic and thoughtful adversary.”

Core understanding on what makes training realistic and meaningful was absent. Warfighting truths were not being discovered and necessary skills were not being practiced because ships were not facing off against other ships in high-end threat scenarios to test their abilities under realistic conditions. If the nation sent the Navy to fight great power war tomorrow, it would amount to a coach sending a team that “rarely if ever” did practice games to a championship match.

These exercises are not just experiments that push the limits of what is known about modern war at sea. They are also experimental in that they are now figuring out if the U.S. Navy can even do what it has said it could do, including the ability to sink enemy fleets and establish sea control. According to Adm. Swift, the Navy had “never performed” a “critical operational tactic that is used routinely in exercises and assumed to be executable by the fleet [emphasis added]” until it was recently tested in a Fleet Problem. The unsurprising insight: “having never performed the task together at sea, the disconnect” between what the Navy thought it could perform and what it could actually do “never was identified clearly.” Adm. Swift concludes “It was not until we tried to execute under realistic, true free-play conditions that we discovered the problem’s causal factors…” In the Fleet Problems training and experimentation have become one and the same.

Why did the Navy assume it could confidently execute critical operational tactics it had never actually tried in the first place? And if the Navy assumed it could do it, then maybe the rest of the defense establishment and other nations thought so, too. Does this profound disconnect also hold true for foreign and allied navies? Is the unique tactical and doctrinal knowledge being represented by the specialized Red team an admission that competitors are training their units and validating their warfighting concepts through more realistic practice? Even though it is impossible to truly simulate all the chaos of real combat, only now are important ground truths of high-end naval warfare just being discovered which could prompt major reassessments of what the Navy can really contribute in great power war.

The entirety of the train, man, and equip enterprise that produces ready military forces for deployment must be built upon a coherent vision of how real war works. The advent of the Fleet Problems suggests that if one were to ask the Navy’s unit leaders what their real-world vision is of how to fight modern enemy warships as part of a distributed and networked force their responses would have little in common. If great power war breaks out tomorrow, the Navy’s frontline commanders could be forced to improvise warfighting fundamentals from the very beginning. Simple lessons would be learned at great cost in blood and treasure.

Many of the major revelations coming from the Fleet Problems are not unique innovations, but rather symptoms of deep neglect for a core element of preparing for war – pitting real-life units against one another to test people, ideas, and technology under realistic conditions. Adm. Swift surprisingly describes using a Red team to  connect intelligence insights, wargaming concepts, training, and real-life experimentation as “new ground.” Swift also noted that as the Navy attempted its purported concepts of operations in the Fleet Problems “it became apparent there were warfighting tasks that were critical to success that we could not execute with confidence.” In a normal context, it would not always be noteworthy for a military to invalidate concepts or realize it can’t do something well. What makes these statements revelations is that the process of testing concepts and people in realistic conditions simulating great power war has only just begun. 

This is a failure with profound implications. The insight that comes from training and experimenting against realistic threats forms a critical foundation for the rest of the military enterprise. Realistic experimentation and training is indispensable for developing meaningful doctrine, tactics, and operational art. Much of the advanced concept development on great power war by the Navy hasn’t been validated by real-world testing. The creation of the new Fleet Problems is fundamentally an admission that not only is the Navy unsure of its ability to execute core missions, but that major decisions about its future development were built on flaws. While the Fleet Problems are finally injecting much needed realism into the Navy’s thinking, their creation reveals that the entire defense establishment has suffered a major disconnect from the real character of modern naval warfare. The Fleet Problems have likely invalidated years of planning and numerous basic assumptions.

The Navy must now account for how many years it did not practice its forces in meaningful, high-end threat training in order to understand just how widespread this lack of realistic experience has penetrated its ranks. There should be no doubt that this has skewed decision-making at senior levels of leadership. How many leaders making important decisions about capability development, training, and requirements have zero firsthand experience commanding forces in high-end threat training? Could the fleet commanders operate networked and distributed formations if war breaks out? Has best military advice on the value of naval power for the nation’s national security interests been predicated on untested warfighting assumptions?

To Train the Fleet for What?

“The department directs that a board of officers, qualified by experience, be ordered to prepare a manual of torpedo tactics which will be submitted by the department to the War College, and after such discussion and revision as may be necessary, will be printed and issued to the torpedo officers of the service for trial. This order has not been complied with. If it had been, it would doubtless have resulted in a sort of tentative doctrine which, though it might well have been better than the flotilla’s first attempt, could not have been as complete or as reliable as one developed through progressive trials at sea; and it might well have contained very dangerous mistakes.”William S. Sims 4

Adm. Swift reveals that it was even debated whether free-play elements should play a role at all in certifying units to be combat ready: “there was concern in some circles that adding free-play elements to the limited time in the training schedule would come at the cost of unit certification. Others contended it was unrealistic and unfair to ask units that were not yet certified to perform our most difficult warfighting tasks.” The degree of certification is moot. Sailors are failing anyway because the shift in warfighting focus toward great power competition has not been matched by new training standards and therefore not penetrated down to the unit level.

Adm. Swift notes startling lessons: “In some scenarios, we learned that the ‘by the book’ procedure can place a strike group at risk simply because our standard operating procedures were written without considering a high-end wartime environment.” This is a direct result of the change in focus toward power projection missions against threats without modern navies. According to Adm. Swift the regular exercise schedule consisted of missions including “maritime interdiction operations, strait transits, and air wings focused on power projection from sanctuary” which meant that forces were “not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” In this new context of a high-end fight in a Fleet Problem, according to Adm. Swift, “If we presented an accurate—which is to say hard—problem, there was a high probability the forces involved were going to fail. In our regular training events, that simply does not happen at the rate we assess will occur in war.” The Fleet Problems are revealing that Navy units are not able to confidently execute high-end warfighting operations regardless of the state of their training certifications. 

These revelations demonstrate that the way the Navy certifies its units as ready for war is broken. A profound disconnect exists between the Navy’s certification and training processes for various warfighting skills and what is actually required in war. Entire sets of training certifications and standard operating procedures born of the post-Cold War era are inadequate for gauging the Navy’s ability to fight great power conflict.

Mentally Absent in the Midst of the Largest Technological Revolution

“The American navy in particular has been fascinated with hardware, esteems technical competence, and is prone to solve its tactical deficiencies with engineering improvements. Indeed, there are officers in peacetime who regard the official statement of a requirement for a new piece of hardware as the end of their responsibility in correcting a current operational deficiency. This is a trap.” Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (Ret.) 5

Regardless of a major shift in national security priorities toward lower-end threats, the astonishing pace of technological change constitutes an extremely volatile factor in the strategic environment that needs to be constantly paced by realistic training and experimentation under free-play conditions. The modern technological foundation upon which to devise tactics and doctrine is built on sand.

The advent of the information age has unlocked an unprecedented degree of flexibility for the conduct of naval warfare as platforms and payloads can be connected in real-time in numerous ways across great distances. This has resulted in a military-technical revolution as marked as when iron and steam combined to overtake wooden ships of sail. A single modern destroyer fully loaded with network-enabled anti-ship missiles has enough firepower to singlehandedly sink the entirety of the U.S. Navy’s WWII battleship and fleet carrier force.6 On the flipside, another modern destroyer could field the defensive capability to stop that same missile salvo.

Warfighting fundamentals are being reappraised in an information-focused context. The process by which forces find, target, and engage their opponents, known as the kill chain, is enabled by information at each individual step of the sequence. A key obstacle is meeting that burden of information in order to advance to the next step. This challenge is exacerbated by the great distances of open-ocean warfare and the difficulty of getting timely information to where it needs to be while the adversary seeks to deceive and degrade the network. Technological advancement means the kill chain’s information burdens can be increasingly met and interfered with.

The threshold of information needed for the archer to shoot decreases the smarter the arrow gets. Information-age advancements have therefore wildly increased the power of the most destructive conventional weapon ever put to sea, the autonomous salvo of swarming anti-ship missiles.

The next iteration of these missiles will have a robust suite of onboard sensors, datalinks, jamming capability, and artificial intelligence. These capabilities will combine to build resilience into the kill chain by containing as much of that process as possible within the missile itself. More and more of the need for the most up-to-date information will be met by the missile swarm’s own sensors and decided upon by its artificial intelligence. Once fired, these missiles are on a one-way trip, allowing them to discard survivability for the sake of seizing more opportunities to collect and pass information. Unlike most other information-gaining assets, these missiles will be able to close with potential targets to resolve lingering concerns of deception and identification. The missile’s infrared and electro-optical capabilities in particular will provide undetectable, jam-resistant sensors for final identification that will prove challenging to deceive with countermeasures. On final approach, the missile will pick a precise point on the ship to guarantee a kill, such as where ammunition is stored. 

The most fierce enemy in naval warfare has taken the form of autonomous networked missile salvos where the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) decision cycle will be transpiring within the swarm at machine speeds. Is the Navy ready to use and defend against these decisive weapons?

The Navy may feel inclined to say yes to the latter question sooner because shooting things out of the sky has been a special focus of the Surface Navy and naval aviation since WWII. The latest technology that will take this capability into the 21st century, the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter-Air (NIFC-CA) networking capability, will help unite the sensors and weapons of the Navy’s ships and aircraft. Aircraft will be able to use a warship’s missiles to shoot down threats the ship can’t see itself. This is decisive because anti-ship missiles will make their final approach at low altitudes below the horizon where they can’t be detected by a ship’s radar. Modern warships can be forced to wait until the final seconds to bring most of their defensive firepower to bear on a supersonic inbound missile salvo unless a networked aircraft can cue their fires with accurate sensor information from high above.

This makes mastering NIFC-CA perhaps the most important defensive capability the fleet needs to train for, but this will involve a steep learning curve. Speaking on the challenges of making this capability a reality, then-Captain Jim Kilby remarked that it involves “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”Is the Navy truly practicing and refining this capability in realistic environments? At least three years before the Fleet Problems started, the Chief of Naval Operations reported that concepts of operation were established for NIFC-CA.8

There should be little confidence that naval forces have a deep comprehension of how information has revolutionized naval warfare and how modern fleet combat will play out because there was a lapse in necessary realistic experimentation at sea. The way the Navy thought it would operate may not actually make sense in war, a key insight that experimentation will reveal as it did in the interwar period.

Training and Experimentation for Now and Tomorrow

If…the present system fails to anticipate and to adequately provide for the conditions to be expected during hostilities of such nature, it is obviously imperative that it be modified; wholly regardless of the effect of such change upon administration or upon the outcome of any peace activity whatsoever.” –Dudley W. Knox 9

The extent to which the Navy’s current capabilities have been tested by meaningful real-world training and experimentation is now in doubt. This doubt naturally extends to things that the Navy has just fielded or is about to introduce to the fleet. Yet Adm. Swift revealed a fatal flaw in the Fleet Problems that is not in keeping with a high-velocity learning or warfighting-first mindset: “We are not notionally employing systems and weapons that are not already deployed in the fleet. Each unit attacks the problem using what it has on hand (physically and intellectually) today.”

It is a mistake to not train forces to use future weapons. Units must absolutely attempt to experiment with capabilities not yet in the fleet to stay ahead of the ever-quickening pace of change. Realism should be occasionally sacrificed to anticipate the basic parameters of capabilities that are about to be fielded. Sailors should be thinking about how to employ advanced anti-ship missiles about to hit the fleet that feature hundreds of miles of range like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), Standard Missile 6, and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk. These capabilities are far more versatile than the Navy’s only current ship-to-ship missile, the very short-range and antiquated Harpoon missile the Navy first fielded over 40 years ago and can’t even carry in its launch cells. Getting sailors to think about weapons before their introduction will mentally prepare them for new capabilities and warfighting realities.

Information-enabled capabilities have come to dominate every facet of offense, defense, and decision. Do naval aviators know how to retarget friendly salvos of networked missiles amidst a mass of deception and defensive counter-air capabilities while leveraging warship capabilities to target enemy missile salvos simultaneously? Do fleet commanders know how to maneuver numerous aerial network nodes to fuse sensors and establish flows of critical information that react to emerging threats and opportunities? Can commanders effectively manage and verify enormous amounts of information while the defense establishment and industrial base are being aggressively hacked by a great power? According to the Navy’s current service strategy document, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, warfare concept development should involve efforts to…re-align Navy training, tactics development, operational support, and assessments with our warfare mission areas to mirror how we currently organize to fight.” 10

Despite all the enormous effort and long wait times that accompany the introduction of a new system, the Fleet Problems remind the defense establishment that the Navy can’t be expected to know how to use it simply because it is fielded. New warfighting certifications are in order and must be rapidly redefined and benchmarked by the Fleet Problems in order to pace technology and make the Navy credible. This will require that a significant amount of time be dedicated to real-world experimentation.

So How the Does the Navy Spend its Time? 

“Our forward presence force is the finest such force in the world. But operational effectiveness in the wrong competitive space may not lead to mission success. More fundamentally, has the underlying rule set changed so that we are now in a different competitive space? How will we revalue the attributes in our organization?” –Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka  11

These severe experimentation and training shortfalls are not at all due to lack of funding, but rather by faulty decisions on what is actually important for Sailors to focus their time on and what naval forces should be used for in the absence of great power war. Meanwhile, the power projection era featured extreme deployment rates that have run the Navy into the ground.

The Government Accountability Office states that 63 percent of the Navy’s destroyers, 83 percent of its submarines, and 86 percent of its aircraft carriers experienced maintenance overruns from FY 2011-2016 that resulted in almost 14,000 lost operational days – days where ships were not available for operations.12 How much of this monumental deployment effort went toward aggressively experimenting and training for great power conflict instead of performing lower-end missions? Hardly any if none at all because Adm. Swift termed the idea to use a unit’s deployment time for realistic experimentation an “epiphany.”

In order to more efficiently meet insatiable operational demand and slow the rate of material degradation the Navy implemented the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) that reforms the cycle by which the Navy generates ready forces through maintenance, training, and sustainment phases.13 But Adm. Swift alleges that this major reform has caused the Navy to improperly invest its time:

“Commanders were busy following the core elements in our Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) training model, going from event to event and working their way through the list of training objectives as efficiently as possible. Rarely did we create an environment that allowed them to move beyond the restraints of efficiency to the warfighting training mandate to ensure the effectiveness of tactics, techniques, and procedures. We were not creating an environment for them to develop their own warfighting creativity and initiative.”

A check-in-the-box culture has been instituted to cope with crushing deployments rates at the expense of fostering leaders that embody the true warfighter ethos of imaginative tacticians and operational commanders. The OFRP cycle is under so much tension from insatiable demand and run-down equipment that Adm. Swift described it as a “Swiss watch—touching any part tended to cause the interlocking elements to bind, to the detriment of the training audience.” But as Adm. Swift already noted, pre-deployment training wasn’t even focused on preparing for the high-end fight anyway.

Every single deployment is an opportunity to practice and experiment. Simply teaching unit leaders to make time for such events will be valuable training itself as they figure out how to delegate responsibilities in an environment that more closely approximates wartime conditions. After all, if units are currently straining on 30 hours of sleep a week performing low-end missions and administrative tasks, how can we be sure they know how to make time to fight a high-stakes war while also maintaining a ship that’s falling apart?

Being a deckplate leader of a warship has always been an enormously busy job and there is always something a warship can do to be relevant. But it is a core competence of leaders at all levels to know what to make time for and how to delegate accordingly. From the sailor checking maintenance tasks to the combatant commander tasking ships for partner development engagements, a top-to-bottom reappraisal of what the Navy needs to spend its time doing is in order. Are Sailors performing tasks really needed to win a war? Are the ships being deployed on missions that serve meaningful priorities?

Major reform will be necessary in order to reestablish priorities to make large amounts of time for realistic training and experimentation. In addition to making enough time, it is also a question of having enough forces on hand when the fleet is stretched thin. Adm. Swift described a carrier strike group (CSG) being used in a Fleet Problem where “the entire CSG was OpFor [Red team] – an enormous investment that yielded unique and valuable lessons.” Does this mean that aircraft carriers, the Navy’s largest and most expensive warships, are especially hard-pressed to secure time for realistic experimentation and training? Can the Navy assemble more than a strike group’s worth of ships to simulate a competitor’s naval forces?

The recent deployment of three strike groups to the Pacific means it is possible. Basic considerations include asking whether the Navy has enough ships on hand to simulate a distributed fleet and enough units to simulate great power adversaries that have the advantages of time, space, and numbers. But with where the deployment priorities currently stand, the Navy may not have enough time or ships on hand to regularly simulate accurate scenarios. 

A Credibility Crisis in the Making

“…there are many, many examples of where our ships their commanding officers, their crews are doing very well, but if it’s not monitored on a continuous basis these skills can atrophy very quickly.”  Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson 14

When great power conflict last broke out in WWII the war at sea was won by admirals like Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and Raymond Spruance whose formative career experiences were greatly influenced by the interwar-period Fleet Problems. This tradition of excellence based on realism is in doubt today.

What is clear is that business as usual cannot go on. The fundamental necessity of free-play elements for ensuring warfighting realism is beyond reproach. The reemergence of competition between the world’s greatest powers in a maritime theater is making many of the Navy’s power projection skillsets less and less relevant to geopolitical reality. New deployment priorities must preference realistic training and experimentation to make up for lost ground in concept development, accurately inform planning, understand the true limits and potential of technology, and test the mettle of frontline units. 

The recent pair of collisions challenged numerous assumptions about how the Navy operates and how it maintains its competencies. Tragic as those events were, they thankfully stimulated an energetic atmosphere of reflection and reform. But the competencies that such reforms are targeting include things like navigation, seamanship, and ship-handling. These basic maritime skills have existed for thousands of years. What is far newer, endlessly more complex, and absolutely vital to deter and win wars is the ability to employ networked and distributed naval forces in great power conflict. Compared to the fatal collisions, countless more sailors are dying virtual deaths in the Fleet Problems that are revealing shocking deficiencies in how the Navy prepares for war. Short of horrifying losses in real combat, there is no greater wake-up call.

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


[1] Admiral Scott H. Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018.  https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-03/fleet-problems-offer-opportunities

[2] Forward…From the Sea, U.S. Department of the Navy, 1994. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/navy/forward-from-the-sea.pdf 

[3] Ibid., 8. 

[4] William S. Sims, “Naval War College Principles and Methods Applied Afloat” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/naval-war-college-principles-and-methods-applied-afloat

[5] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, Second Edition, pg. 33, Naval Institute Press, 1999.

[6] Can be inferred from official U.S. Navy ship counts on battleships and aircraft carriers and near-term capabilities of anti-ship capabilities.

[7] Sam LaGrone, “The Next Act for Aegis”, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 7, 2014. https://news.usni.org/2014/05/07/next-act-aegis

[8] CNO’s Position Report 2013, U.S. Department of the Navy. http://www.navy.mil/cno/131121_PositionReport.pdf

[9] Dudley W. Knox, “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/role-doctrine-naval-warfare

[10] A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. http://www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf

[11] Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origin, It’s Future.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1998-01/network-centric-warfare-its-origin-and-future

[12] John H Pendleton, “Testimony Before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Maintenance, Training, and Other Challenges Affecting the Fleet. Government Accountability Office, September 19, 2017. https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/687224.pdf

[13] “What is the Optimized Fleet Response Plan and What Will It Accomplish?” U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Navy Live, January 15, 2014. http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/01/15/what-is-the-optimized-fleet-response-plan-and-what-will-it-accomplish/

[14] Department of Defense Press Briefing by Adm. Richardson on results of the Fleet Comprehensive Review and investigations into the collisions involving USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, November 2, 2017. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1361655/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-adm-richardson-on-results-of-the-fleet/ 

Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (Feb. 28, 2018) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Megann Helton practices course plotting during a fast cruise onboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)