With the fielding of increasingly capable anti-ship missiles, the centerpiece of the next conflict with a near-peer maritime power will be warfare to deny the adversary the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition information required for successful anti-ship missile attack on surface combatants and capital ships. Land, air, surface ship, and submarine launched anti-ship missiles are and will increasingly be the dominant threat to surface navy operations. Ballistic anti-ship missile systems such as the Chinese Dong Feng 21 (DF21D) and Dong Feng 26 (DF26); hypersonic anti-ship missiles such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon (NATO SS-N-33); and, anti-ship cruise missiles leveraging artificial intelligence for threat avoidance and target acquisition dramatically increase the threat and severely challenge the anti-ship missile defense capabilities of the surface navy.
The trend favors the offense. The longstanding and current investments in fleet kinetic and electronic defense against incoming launch platform or inbound anti-ship missiles will remain necessary but increasingly insufficient. A sea-skimming, Mach 6, ZIRCON anti-ship missile, breaking the radar horizon at 15nm from a surface target, would impact the ship in approximately 15 seconds. With these short reaction times the likelihood of a navy surface ship detecting and destroying the incoming missile is low.
One way to offset this dramatically increased threat is to counter the adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (TA) capabilities. Even the most sophisticated anti-ship missile systems are dependent on a chain of events starting with intelligence to support the targeting decision process, followed by reconnaissance and surveillance to find the target, and ending with weapons effects on the target. It includes the communications and data links for the transfer of information along the kill chain and the command and control decisionmakers. The attack will be unsuccessful if any of the links in this anti-ship missile kill chain are broken.
The concept of a kill chain is well established in the U.S. military as evident in terms such as Sensor-to-Shooter; Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA); and Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA). Though similar in concept, the kill chain for anti-ship missile attack against moving maritime targets requires a detailed decomposition to identify the links in the chain of events that must be completed for attack success. The following is a representation of a notional anti-ship missile kill chain.
The links in the kill chain that reference “observables” all depend on own force/own ship offering visual, infrared, acoustic, RF (radar, communications, data links) observables that can be exploited by the adversary to complete the kill chain. In addition to technical observables, the operations of the force/own ship offer observables such as course, speed, and formation from which to deduce that the entities are military and that entities being screened by a formation might be the highest value. Many of the observables that can be exploited by the enemy to acquire this information can be controlled or manipulated to degrade links in the enemy’s anti-ship kill chain.
In response to the rapidly evolving threat, the Navy needs a strategy that officially recognizes the requirement and places high priority on breaking the anti-ship missile kill chain. There are several elements to the execution of this strategy. First, it requires very detailed intelligence on the end-to-end kill chain for each type of anti-ship missile, identifying, locating, and assessing the technical characteristics and performance of each link in the chain. Second, it requires operational intelligence on how a potential adversary actually uses or trains to operate the kill chain for each type of missile. Third, it requires analysis of the observables offered by U.S. Navy combatants that could inform an adversary’s kill chain. Having knowledge of all three elements, the analysis can be performed to identify both material and non-material alternatives; and assess their effectiveness, technical and operational feasibility, probability of success, and costs.
Breaking the anti-ship missile kill chain requires a response that integrates a variety of national, theater, and Navy information-related activities executed ashore and afloat. Composite Warfare Commanders and their supporting Information Operations Warfare Commanders will be required to have detailed knowledge of adversary ISR and TA systems and their capabilities. They will require situational awareness sufficient to determine whether the force is within enemy detection range, and assess whether the adversary has located and identified the force. This assessment drives the decision of if and when to transition from denying observables to active electronic and kinetic defense when it is tactically advantageous.
It will also require creation of a new warfighter career path focused on countering enemy ISR and TA and breaking the anti-ship missile kill chain. This career path would be technically challenging, requiring personnel educated in the physics of the various types of sensing, such as satellite reconnaissance, Over-The-Horizon Radar (OTH-R), Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR), time difference of arrival (TDOA), frequency difference of arrival (FDOA), imaging and non-imaging IR, and acoustic systems. The knowledge of physics at work in the acoustic, atmospheric, and ionospheric environments and in the various types of sensing systems has to be followed by knowledge of how various techniques are employed by adversaries along individual steps of the kill chain when hunting surface ships and aircraft. This foundation of knowledge forms the basis for the conceptualization and testing of new concepts, formulation of new requirements, the fielding of new systems, the development of doctrine and tactics, and manning of the fleet with ready warfighters.
In summary, the fielding of ballistic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles by Russia and the China constitutes an alarming increase in the threat to U.S. Navy surface ships. It demands a strong, focused, offsetting response aimed at defeating these new weapons by breaking their respective anti-ship missile kill chains. This strategy will be successful only if it is treated as a major new direction for the U.S. Navy, with sustained high-level support, strong organization, and innovative leadership.
Dick Mosier is a recently retired defense contractor systems engineer; Naval Flight Officer; OPNAV N2 civilian analyst; SES 4 responsible for oversight of tactical intelligence systems and leadership of major defense analyses on UAVs, Signals Intelligence, and C4ISR. His interest is in improving the effectiveness of U.S. Navy tactical operations, with a particular focus on organizational seams, a particularly lucrative venue for the identification of long-standing issues and dramatic improvement. The article represents the author’s views and is not necessarily the position of the Department of Defense or the United States Navy.
“These three forces – the forces at play in the maritime system, the force of the information system, and the force of technology entering the environment – and the interplay between them have profound implications for the United States Navy.”- A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.1
A capital ship’s capabilities has always revealed what is most decisive in naval warfare. In the next high-end fight, what will be most decisive is the ability to secure decision superiority in a contested information environment fraught with uncertainty and change. The understanding of how information will be contested and employed in future war remains in flux. The value of information in guiding fleet tactics and force structure is already being realized by China in unconventional ways. But what will emerge from an understanding of the future threat environment is that capital ships, especially aircraft carriers, can take the lead in contesting the electromagnetic domain itself.
China is winning the battle of presence in Asiatic waters. According to the Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, the level of presence the U.S. Navy will reach this year in the South China Sea is on track for 900 ship days,3 and that figure is higher than usual due to an uptick in strike groups operating in the region. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now shadows every U.S. warship that transits the South China Sea,4 FONOPs or otherwise, meaning the PLAN has likely surpassed the U.S. Navy in how much forward presence it maintains in key waters in Asia.
However, the PLA Navy is just the tip of the iceberg. China’s robust standing naval presence is augmented by coast guard units and potentially hundreds of paramilitary fishermen (maritime militia) and commercial vessels. China frequently leverages these forces for escalation, such as how the number of Chinese ships around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands’ contiguous zone surged to about 230 ships less than a month after The Hague ruled against China’s South China Sea claims.5In recent years there has been a consistent presence of about 70-90 Chinese ships around disputed East China Sea waters, up from virtually nothing a decade earlier.6
These paramilitary forces will readily provide escalation and wartime advantages for China, especially in the area of information. These units will likely exploit the protection rights of non-combatants to secretly contribute intelligence to China’s military in a theater of active hostilities. This will pose difficult legal, diplomatic, and military dilemmas and test the limits of rules of engagement. Fears over paramilitary units will exacerbate suspicions of thousands of civilian vessels and add new layers of complexity to the operating environment. Widely dispersed paramilitary units could provide early warning and conduct battle damage assessment without incurring the risk of emitting the unique signatures of military-grade equipment. Regardless of the fact that the majority of USN and PLAN assets reside outside forward areas during peacetime, this robust paramilitary presence would provide China with some sense of informational continuity in the transition between war and peace. It is an information-focused distributed fleet on the cheap.
The rise of China’s maritime might is causing a significant shift in the operating environment the U.S. Navy considered itself the lone master of for three-quarters of a century. This displacement is jeopardizing the credibility of U.S. security guarantees in the region and allowing China to more confidently intimidate its neighbors. It is also a direct challenge to the U.S. Navy’s core missions of upholding the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation and offering avenues of access for American power. The level of U.S. Navy forward presence will only grow more inferior as China continues its large-scale and comprehensive maritime buildup. America’s grip on maritime superiority in Asia is weakening, and the U.S. Navy must undergo a major transformation to stay on top.
Establishing a Vision of Networked War at Sea
“DO NOT – REPEAT NOT – BELIEVE WE SHOULD SEEK NIGHT ENGAGEMENT. POSSIBLE ADVANTAGES OF RADAR MORE THAN OFFSET BY DIFFICULTIES OF COMMUNICATIONS AND LACK OF TRAINING IN FLEET TACTICS AT NIGHT.”-Admiral Willis Lee responds to Admiral Raymond Spruance’s query on whether to attempt a night engagement on June 17, 1944, two days before the Battle of the Philippine Sea.8
A transformation is already underway as navies around the world seek to conceptualize what warfighting at sea will entail in the information age. A common vision must be founded on a basic understanding of how various aspects of war have been evolved or outright revolutionized by modern technology. Technology has turned the electromagnetic spectrum into the centrally contested domain that critical warfighting functions depend on across the entire breadth of their execution.
Networks are not only tools but battlefields. Winning in the electromagnetic domain will determine whether critical intelligence is transferred, instructions are conveyed, and if the complex process of accurately targeting modern weapons is completed. Electronic warfare, cyber warfare, and ISR will largely be directed at understanding, confusing, and then deconstructing the system of systems that forms the adversary’s battle network. The fundamental trust that operators place in their equipment and each other will be a prime target. Degrading this trust could cripple a force out of proportion to actual losses.
A key element of the U.S. Navy’s effort to adapt to this new environment will be widely distributing its combat power to gain sea control rather than closely aggregating units together as has been common practice for generations. Up until recently, fleet combat required physically concentrating forces for concentrating their firepower. Distribution reflects how the technology behind network-centric warfare has made it feasible to disaggregate ships yet still aggregate their capabilities. Distribution better postures a fleet for electromagnetic maneuver by deconflicting the electronic warfare capabilities of friendly units and forcing an adversary to spend more time localizing contacts across a large expanse of ocean.9 But managing the networked functions of a distributed fleet is a hard enough challenge that will grow even more difficult when the electromagnetic domain is contested in wartime.
Command and control grows more strenuous with greater distribution. U.S. and allied assets will already be dispersed throughout the battlespace in some manner at the onset of sudden war, and will have to be quickly maneuvered into some viable operational structure. The task of organizing a dispersed naval force across a large theater as hostilities break out will be critical not just for success but for survival against a near-peer opponent.
This challenge reveals how gaining momentary surprise at the onset of full-scale networked war at sea can reap strategically disabling blows. Even brief victories against networks will quickly translate into the sudden and decisive destruction that has always characterized war at sea. This grim possibility will be all the more important to guard against when the Navy is asked to project power against adversaries that will enjoy the benefits of operating close to home, such as land-based anti-ship capabilities that enjoy inherently steep logistical and survivability advantages over naval forces.
Distribution enhances survivability by attacking left of the kill chain, the complex process of targeting modern weapons. By making the adversary’s information gathering and decision-making processes the focus, distributed warfighting emphasizes deception. Deception and distribution will exacerbate the severe challenge of processing the copious amounts of information gathered by powerful, modern sensors. For example, a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft can generate up to 900 gigabytes of data in a single mission.11 Overstimulating sensors can fray nerves and induce an adversary to make decisions to their own detriment, such as radiating active sensors which can compromise stealth, unknowingly maneuvering into firing envelopes, and even firing salvos of hard-to-replenish missiles at ghost contacts.
Gathering intelligence on the wide variety of unique signatures and capabilities that compose an adversary’s electronic order of battle will be pivotal in facilitating wartime adaptation. Threat libraries will be rapidly updated as adversaries reveal the true extent of their electronic capabilities. This intelligence will be fed into a fast-firing cycle of iterative adaptation where superior electronic capabilities will be fielded via something as quick as a software update.
Operators will strive to understand the implications of a variety of actions and inaction amidst a constant struggle for electromagnetic context. Ships will carefully regulate emissions to avoid detection, yet emissions are paradoxically important for delivering effects, managing command and control (C2), and updating situational awareness. Employing a powerful emitter such as a SPY radar can pose a liability, and ships that feel compelled to radiate and communicate for the sake of enabling their own defense can compromise friendly units and become more susceptible to follow-on attack.
An analogy for surviving modern naval combat can then be drawn from Dr. Stephen Biddle’s description of the revolution in land warfare that transpired in the early twentieth century:
“…the complexity of the earth’s surface offers enough cover and concealment to substantially shield land forces from the increasing potential lethality of modern weaponry. However, to operate a mass military of potentially millions of soldiers in a way that can exploit the natural complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment means accepting tremendous complexity in tactics and operational art. Relative to, for example, Napoleonic tactics where armies could be lined up in shoulder-to-shoulder linear formations and simply marched towards an objective, if you’re going to use the complexity of the earth’s surface to provide cover in ways those massed shoulder-to-shoulder formations couldn’t do, then you’re going to have to break down those massed formations into small handfuls of soldiers few enough in number that they can fit into the folds in the earth that create what militaries ironically call dead ground, where dead ground is of course where you can live…”12
The mass, attrition-based Napoleonic formations of today are the capital ship-centered strike groups, and the “small handfuls of soldiers” are a networked fleet’s dispersed surface action groups. The protective “folds in the earth” are the various nuances of the electromagnetic domain that is being contested and manipulated. Making sense of these nuances within the spectrum in order to recognize opportunities to deliver effects will define the competition.
The wartime implications of the latest technologies are often not fully understood before they are fielded, but having a common vision of future war at sea serves as a necessary foundation for training, equipping, and operating a navy. The extent to which such a vision is being jointly established and acted upon in a coordinated manner by the various communities within the U.S. Navy is unclear.
The surface Navy is in the early stages of operationalizing its distributed lethality concept that envisions numerous surface action groups operating offensively to achieve a cumulative sea control effect. This stands in stark contrast to the strike group constructs that have been the focus of surface ships for generations, where combatants specialized in escorting capital ships in mainly defensive roles. A new distributed operating concept for surface combatants should be facilitating a Navy-wide appraisal of what this means for all other communities and how the Navy interfaces with the joint force more broadly.
To the Navy’s credit, Naval Warfare Development Command recently convened stakeholders from across the naval enterprise to contribute to the development of a forthcoming Distributed Maritime Operations concept (DMO) that could serve as a focal point for force development.13 Where there is room for improvement is in articulating what role capital ships, especially aircraft carriers, will play in a distributed fleet.
Aviation-Centric Information Dominance CONOPS for the Distributed Fleet
“At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapon range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.” CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (ret.)14
The idea of a distributed fleet aggregating its capabilities through networking is not itself new.15 What is novel is the confidence in the ability of the scouting and communication enterprise to provide the information needed to effectively use high-tech weapons at ranges that were once considered extreme. But confidence is not capability, as evidenced by the decision to pull the anti-ship Tomahawk missile from the Navy’s inventory due to a lack of such confidence in the 1990s.16 Now within a decade an anti-ship Tomahawk will be back in the fleet, featuring a 1,000 nm range and offering a widely distributed sea control capability alongside other forthcoming networked missiles.17 The question is whether the Navy will be able to scout and communicate well enough to employ these weapons at range, especially when distributing the fleet compounds the information-related challenges of operating within a contested electromagnetic domain.
As warships spread out to confound an adversary’s situational awareness and offer options to deliver fires, capital ships will make scouting, secure information transfer, and deception their primary missions. The natural advantages aviation enjoys in electromagnetic and physical maneuver will make the aircraft carrier central in conducting these critical missions. By taking the lead in contesting the spectrum, the capital ship will animate the networked fleet by securing decision superiority.
Aviation’s Key Advantage
Electronic action is still bound by physical limitations. Aviation can act as the connective tissue of an ocean-going battle network because altitude has a corresponding effect on detection and communication capability via a superior ability to peer over the horizon compared to a ship. This extra dimension of maneuver introduces more flexibility for managing the risks of sensing and communicating, making aircraft the scouting and information transfer asset of choice.
A high-flying aircraft with a powerful radar can sense surface contacts further out than surface contacts could sense one another over the horizon. An aircraft can emit or transmit, drop to lower altitude, and then relocate faster than a ship to mitigate risk and get information to where it needs to be.Aircraft can use their speed to maximize the use of line-of-sight communications whose considerable bandwidth and jam-resistant advantages will prove indispensable in a contested information environment.
These physical properties will allow aircraft to facilitate fleet connectivity by forming sensing and communication pathways through maneuver. Commanders will have a flexible means to augment the scope and focus of information that is being collected and shared throughout the force. Airborne sensor fusion will help commanders prioritize information flows to meet rapidly emerging needs. These characteristics hold significant tactical and operational implications for the distributed fleet.
Engage-on-Remote, In-Flight Retargeting, and Command and Control
The technology that makes distributed operations possible will be for naught if an evolution in tactical thought does not accompany it. A primary challenge of distributed warfighting will be delivering the information needed to employ the engage-on-remote and retargeting capabilities that are the hallmark of a distributed fleet’s combat potential.
Retargeting and engage-on-remote make weapons more reliable and fleets more flexible. The engagement process is transformed from a linear kill chain into an expansive kill web. Networked units can leverage capabilities from across the force to meet individual needs. Platforms will be able to fire without emitting, improving survivability. Salvos can build density as missiles from across the distributed fleet are aggregated.
But engage-on-remote and the long range of potential exchanges means that sailors will have to get used to firing weapons with incomplete information. The passage of time and the dynamic nature of the contested spectrum means that the information that precipitated an engagement will often not suffice to complete it. Retargeting will prove decisive by allowing new information to be fed into a live engagement. It will help keep firepower discriminate, resilient, and long-range while mitigating the risks of operating with less information.
Retargeting and engage-on-remote will dictate a fleet formation because a distributed force is not formless, but rather than an extended strike group of sorts. The ability to leverage engage-on-remote and retargeting capabilities from across the force will be a function of fleet connectivity and weapons range. The distance between platforms and payloads will affect the timeliness of information transfer, and weapons range will dictate the maximum extent to which forces can disperse from one another yet still combine their fires effectively.
An animation of a hypothetical scenario demonstrating the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). (JHU APL)18
The wide-ranging tactical flexibility that can be gleaned from retargeting and engage-on-remote is directly correlated with the ability to transfer information. Ideally any sensor or communicator will support any shooter or payload, but passing information between them all will be difficult when that information is contested and loses relevance with time. The ability to fire and contribute information without radiating organic sensors opens up numerous tactical options, but using this capability will mean the man on the scene will have to rely on a man not on the scene. Therefore these capabilities combine to fundamentally change the perception of time, timing, and opportunity for a fleet.
This will aggravate the challenge of precisely conveying commander’s intent and delegating the appropriate level of initiative to networked forces. Much of the public writing on distributed lethality has argued for delegating authority to the man on the scene, but that man will be just one more node in a network. They may not fully realize the tactical possibilities at hand compared to someone with better situational awareness and a broader view of how the fleet’s combat power is distributed. The organic sensors of ships cannot be trusted to independently target payloads that need to travel hundreds of miles through a contested information environment, especially when ships operate under EMCON. Launching a salvo will be a momentous decision as a large amount of a ship’s or surface action group’s magazine could be depleted in a single exchange, requiring confidence in information and the larger operational situation.
Aviators will become the tactical controllers of warship-based capabilities in a distributed fleet because their maneuver advantage translates into a superior ability to facilitate broad situational awareness, sensor fusion, and fleet connectivity. They will have more context and ability to make decisions, execute quick workarounds, and gather additional information versus warships that are tightly controlling their emissions while proximate to the adversary. Aviation-based network nodes can shift schemes of maneuver to help commanders balance the need for information up the chain of command with the need for initiative down the chain of command.
The fact that only aircraft can realistically trail and intercept missiles in real time means they can provide more inputs to facilitate retargeting, and could close with inbound enemy salvos to target their datalinks. Aviators (with automated decision aids) will manage information flows between sensors and communications to make numerous inputs into the engagement process as it is transpiring.Because corrupt information will be commonplace in the next high-end fight, and because autonomous machines cannot be entrusted with life-or-death decisions, humans must own this process. In-flight retargeting is a weapon’s insurance policy, and aviation can be its guarantor.
In this particular sensor-to-shooter construct, aircraft become the primary sensors and communicators because they can facilitate fleet connectivity through maneuver, and ships become the primary shooters. Since firing without emitting makes units less susceptible to detection, warships will become more survivable. This is preferable because aircraft are more numerous and replaceable than ships. But employing a dynamic ship-to-aircraft information interface will involve a steep learning curve. Speaking on the challenges of making the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability a reality, then-Captain Jim Kilby remarked that it involves “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”19
Aviation will also facilitate C2 by helping commanders with early-warning, battle damage assessment, and keeping tabs on one’s own forces. Having more time to react to threats will be key in crafting a tailored response from various tools that each have their own electromagnetic implications, rather than making commanders feel compelled to go all out to defend against the possibility of imminent destruction. Learning the status of dueling enemy and friendly ships can be risky, but when a ship under EMCON explodes in the ocean, does it make a sound?
Lastly, an aviation-centric C2 scheme will build upon the natural advantages of undersea forces. Submarines will be able to penetrate further into the battlespace than surface ships, improving their chances of discovering high-quality information about the adversary. Securely getting that information back to the fleet via aviation-based network nodes will make the risk worth it, and engage-on-remote and retargeting can impose a daunting tactical problem by forcing adversaries to localize a submarine that is firing missiles or deploying decoys at range.
Deception and Softkill Countermeasures
One of distributed lethality’s maxims is “If it floats it fights” but if it floats it should also deceive. Deception will enhance survivability, gather intelligence on the enemy’s electronic order of battle, and facilitate strikes. Superior deception earns decision superiority.
Deception-enabling capabilities can be distributed throughout the fleet by fielding a greater variety and quantity of decoys. These can include long-range decoy missiles that mimic the profiles of aerial platforms and conduct offensive electronic warfare, as well as shorter-range launched decoys and floatable payloads that can take on ships’ signatures. These systems often weigh less and take up less space than hardkill systems, making them easier to distribute en masse. For example, the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) missile is about half the length and a tenth of the weight of a Tomahawk cruise missile, and has a 500-mile range.20Such a decoy missile could enable an advanced fleet-wide deception capability by being fitted into launch cells, box launchers, and wing pylons.
Aviation can enhance fleet deception by flexibly deploying, retargeting, and transporting a large variety of decoys on demand. The extent to which the platforms themselves are actively at the forefront of deception should be minimized. Operators should strive to delegate as much deception as possible to decoys and unmanned platforms that can take on the risks of raising a higher electromagnetic profile. Deception plans involving decoy saturation would allow for momentary opportunities to break EMCON and gather information as an adversary reacts to the deception. Decoy missiles could act as penetration aids to improve the lethality of salvos and help aircraft scout risky areas. Aircraft can manage decoy missile datalinks in-flight to maximize their usefulness.
Lastly, softkill countermeasures can have far more favorable cost-exchange ratios against missiles compared to hardkill measures, allowing a distributed fleet to conserve munitions and improve survivability. Aviation assets could maneuver on short notice to deploy softkill payloads along the axis of an inbound salvo to dilute it at a distance from the intended target. These comparatively small and lightweight payloads would allow a capital ship, via an interoperable aviation platform, to flexibly deploy defensive countermeasures over a large area and replenish other ships’ decoy and softkill inventories on demand. This capability will be critical because a distributed fleet will often struggle to mass defensive firepower in a timely manner.
Wartime Adaptation and Augmentation
Capital ships themselves still possess unique advantages in information age warfare. Capital ships will play a key role in facilitating frontline wartime adaptation because they will field the largest afloat concentration of intelligence, cryptologic, and cyber expertise in the battlespace.21 As information is continuously gathered and transferred by aviation across the distributed fleet, capital ship-based expertise will lead the effort to process that information to discover vulnerabilities and devise fixes and exploits. Capital ships will in turn use their superior reach back capabilities to act as a conduit between the forward-most warfighter and national-level assets that can aid adaptation, such as Navy and DoD threat libraries.
Aviation can take those exploits and fixes back to the distributed fleet and the enemy from the capital ship. This will be especially poignant for sustaining a deception advantage, where both sides will place priority on unmasking the other’s means of deceiving. Fresh updates based on the latest intelligence could be patched into modular decoy payloads at the capital ship, and then aviation can transport these enhanced decoys back out to the fleet via a platform that is interoperable with capital ships and surface combatants.
Such a ubiquitous and modular aerial platform will allow the capital ship to compliment warship needs in a variety of ways. Aside from aiding various warfare- and information-related missions, having an aerial platform that can land on almost anything will open up options for augmenting logistics and personnel on the fly. It will also enhance capital ship survivability by allowing the surface force to take on some of the burden of sustaining aviation assets.
Unmanned systems can play a role by conducting a variety of the missions described, whether information transfer, sensing, or deploying decoys and softkill countermeasures. Because of their relatively small size and weight, the sensors and payloads required to conduct these missions can be fielded by unmanned systems in the nearer-term compared to heavier offensive weaponry. Additionally, automation alone will improve communications security because more automation means fewer operator inputs are needed. Because robotics has shrunken platform size, future capital ships will be able to easily host small undersea, amphibious, and surface unmanned systems to extend their reach into more domains than before.
“The competition is on, and pace dominates. In an exponential competition, the winner takes all. We must shake off any vestiges of comfort or complacency that our previous advantages may have afforded us, and move out to build a larger, more distributed, and more capable battle fleet that can execute our mission.” The Future Navy.22
Wayne Hughes offers an important caveat to all of this, that “tactical complexity is a peacetime disease” and that “the temptation to equate complex tools with complex tactics will be almost irresistible.”23As with what happened in WWII and elsewhere, the Navy and the U.S. military writ large will run the risk of employing tactics and technologies that are not yet fully inculcated into the force if war breaks out. Given the current pace of change, that risk may never go away.
What should be clear, at least for now, is that there is still a place for capital ships in high-end warfighting. The distributed fleet of tomorrow can become real if capital ships dedicate themselves toward prosecuting the most important and elusive target of all: information.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
5. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Protest Against the Intrusion of Chinese Coast Guard into Japanese territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands”, August 6, 2016. http://www.mofa.go.jp/press/release/press4e_001227.html
7. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Trends in Chinese Government and Other Vessels in the Waters Surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and Japan’s Response – Records of Intrusions of Chinese Government and Other Vessels into Japan’s Territorial Sea”, August 3, 2017. http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/page23e_000021.html
8. James D. Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide, pg. 171, Bantam Books, New York, 2016.
Featured Image: SOUTH PACIFIC (June 29, 2017) Ships assigned to Carrier Strike Group 5 sail in formation during a coordinated live-fire gunnery exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke/Released)
As the U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Boarding Team prepares to board a commercial tanker suspected of trafficking narcotics, the Combat Information Center operator monitors the situation intently. Sitting just behind the operator is the Commanding Officer, who is watching the full tactical situation as it develops and waiting for the opportune time to direct a Right of Visit boarding to determine the vessel’s nationality. Three thousand miles away, the Coast Guard Eleventh District Commander anxiously watches the live video feed to determine in real-time if his team pinpointed the correct vessel of interest. The Boarding Officer signals to his team that embarkation is approved. Immediately, six Coastguardsmen enter the ship and sweep the inside hull and topside. For the first time in history, a boarding team is relaying what they see, without saying a word. Two members discover an undocumented shipping container on the manifest and head in the direction marked. One team member discovers packages wrapped in similar fashion of known traffickers. All eyes watching the video cheer in triumph.
Keeping Current with Technology and the Community
The proliferation of advanced technology in the last decade, coupled with a renaissance in electronic sensors, has amplified the situational awareness and effectiveness of command ships, command posts and combatant commanders tenfold. Despite these sophisticated tools, however, decision makers continue to wait in silence for minutes that feel like decades, all in hopes of receiving confirmation that the target is indeed of interest, carrying illicit narcotics, or smuggling illegal immigrants. What if they were able to see in real-time, though? What if the operation could unfold right before their very eyes? Hollywood exemplifies this notion in every secret agent movie and clandestine operation film. From society’s perspective, we have come to believe that this is the standard for all military operations. Although this may be a reality for some specialized subdivisions, it is not entirely true for the vast majority of operational units. The filming of Osama Bin Laden’s death demonstrated to the world that U.S. Special Forces have the ability to relay live video feeds during their operations back to command posts, providing Situational Awareness (SA) for optimal information gathering and sharing for analysis, as well as real-time decision making to the commander[i]. More importantly, it provides the commander additional sets of eyes (staff) to help inform his or her decision. While the team is trained to enter, sweep, and detain the threat, a set of analysts can provide insight back to the team in real time. Notably, this is where the blended concept of communications and video feeds come into play. A concept that is nothing new for the Department of Defense (DoD)[ii], but an innovative concept to integrate into high-risk law enforcement evolutions for the U.S. Coast Guard. Relevantly, the Posse Comitatus Act[iii] and military policy strictly prohibit DoD personnel from directly engaging in law enforcement activities. In turn, the Coast Guard was designated the lead agency for the interdiction and apprehension of illegal drug traffickers on the high seas.
On an average day, the U.S. Coast Guard screens about 360 merchant vessels for potential security threats prior to arrival in U.S. ports, seizes 874 pounds of cocaine and 214 pounds of marijuana, interdicts 17 illegal migrants, conducts 24 security boardings in and around U.S. ports, executes 14 fisheries conservation boardings, and lastly, completes 26 safety examinations on foreign vessels[iv]. For as long as the Coast Guard has been conducting law enforcement missions, it has relied upon two primary principles : Communication and Accountability. In terms of communication, boarding teams are able to portray on-scene conditions to the operational commander via words. The commander must then visualize the mission by painting a portrait of it in his or her head. Secondly, accountability provides a detailed account of what happened and normally documented in the form of After Action Reports or Situation Reports. There are two significant and inherent risks present in every boarding situation – people and vessels. In any given situation, there are myriad factors the boarding team must take into account; however, what if the team missed a critical element because it simply was focused on the threat and not familiar with the associated information? Filling that gap, the law enforcement exploitation team onboard the unit, also known as the “snoopie team,” documents as much vital information as possible as it receives photography and video from the boarding team on-scene. In turn, this enables the boarding team to collectively build a complete case file on the apprehended suspects, which is critical during the prosecution phase.
Moving Ahead Without Borders
Imagine if snoopie teams could watch live video feed and relay information back to the intelligence community for real-time assessment. This would allow boarding teams to shift their focus from being an information relay to actually executing the boarding. In addition to saving time and energy, the intelligence community could now assist with building the case package from a remote location, which inarguably would result in better overall case packages. Prosecution and approval for boardings or seizures becomes nearly instantaneous as well, without any latency stemming from sluggish relays through the various layers of the law enforcement hierarchy. Case packages have fewer chances of missing critical information, and from a legal standpoint, cases have fewer chances of being dismissed in court due to evidence. Further, case packages are now synced between the district, joint commander, and the unit itself. A Commanding Officer’s worst fear is a member of his or her team being ambushed or injured. While this situation is rare, there is potential it could occur, which normally causes a change in tactics, procedures, or policy. Live video feeds have proven themselves useful and convenient for the military, and it is time for the Coast Guard to embrace it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words – if that is the case, what then is a video worth?
As the Coast Guard continues to follow the ever-evolving “cat and mouse game” between the U.S Government and transnational narcotics traffickers, they will have an endless need to position themselves ahead of the curve. While the Coast Guard remains intently focused on the war on drugs and its essential “Western Hemisphere Strategy,” there are needs not outlined in the strategy that would follow them world-wide[v]. Such a system could pave the way for adaptation of live-video feeds onto current airborne platforms and future UAV and cutter programs, presenting a worldwide capability where any District or Area Commander has the full view and a complete operational picture when desired.
One of the many benefits of live video feed is improved training. All professional sports teams “watch the tape” to better prepare for the next game. Similarly, boarding videos would provide the boarding team and trainees the ability to evaluate and critique their own performance in order to improve future evolutions. The days of “standard boardings” or training would be a thing of the past. Boarding teams on the frontline would now have the upper-hand and the opportunity to train and develop new techniques and tactics to better counter transnational narcotics trafficking and potential terrorist attacks. MSST and MSRT units training can relay the scenario back “live” to a control room where both trainers and decision makers can play through any scenario. Imagine taking a video feed from a high risk boarding today and streaming it to every boarding team tomorrow – the training benefit would be immeasurable.
A New World of Opportunity Awaits
Not only are members streamlining the safety and security process, but they are devising new reasons to challenge existing policy and improve it with lessons learned observed firsthand. The motto, “Time Is of the Essence,” comes to mind time and again. Current tactics have teams using GoPros for boardings, which creates a review delay back onboard and throughout the chain of command. In this case, latency is a major concern. Imagine your team is granted five minutes to conduct a quick search.
Admittedly, this may sound like fiction from a Hollywood movie, but it could be reality as early as tomorrow. Challenges will always present themselves (i.e., system integration, funding, legalities etc.), however, when the idea of live tactical video was presented to actual boarding team members, they were enthused and optimistic. Their reasons for wanting live tactical video were for enhanced situational awareness, improved focus on the actual boarding itself, and an improved flow of information up the chain of command. As mentioned, there are always limitations and risks vs. gains ranging from use in operations and policy, up to the program level. Fortunately, proven systems exist today i.e. the Harris “Tactical Video System,”[vi] and require minimal testing and integration from the Coast Guard. These systems are the stepping stones needed for a 21st century Coast Guard operating in a multifaceted environment. As the Coast Guard confronts counterintelligence and aggressive, evolving enemies, it must be optimally prepared to respond to any situation. By implementing an enhanced reconnaissance tool, the Coast Guard will be better suited to perform its missions and better protect the citizens of the United States.
Petty Officer Michael A. Milburn is a career cuttermen, with nearly 7 years of experience aboard four different cutters, including commissioning two National Security Cutters. Petty Officer Milburn’s awards include the CG Achievement Medal, CG Commandant Letter of Commendation, two Coast Guard Unit Commendations, three Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendations and three Coast Guard Meritorious Team Commendations. He is currently enrolled in American Military University to pursue his Bachelor of Arts in Cyber Security.
If you look for “distributed lethality” in doctrine, you won’t find it. It’s a concept that exists in articles, speeches and panel discussions, which paint the topic with broad strokes – easy to understand, but leaving plenty of room for forums like this one to flesh out details. Tempting as it is to think about a few Surface Action Groups (SAGs) heroically dominating the contested maritime battlespace with SM-6s hitting everything from FFGs to ASBMs, distributed lethality remains just one part of a larger joint fight. Distributed lethality, so far as it has been articulated, closely follows the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC).
Potential enemies – principally China and Russia – can hold our forces at risk in certain contested areas, denying freedom of action. JOAC starts at this hard truth of vulnerability and seeks to protect friendly forces operating within those contested areas. Conceptually, it all starts with force protection:
“A joint force will lessen its exposure by a combination of dispersion, multiple lines of operations, speed of movement, agile maneuver that reroutes around threats, deception, masking or other concealment techniques, and disruption of enemy intelligence collection through counterreconnaissance, countersurveillance, and other methods.” (JOAC Protection)
“[D]ispersion [and] multiple lines of operations” sounds a lot like the first part of distributed lethality, and in the naval context, it makes a lot of sense to spread out, hide, and try not to look too important when anticipating DF-21 and ASCM salvos. Dispersion has its own complications, though. Concentrated naval forces may be easier to target, but they generally have a more potent sensor and weapon mix, to say nothing of their C2. Dispersed forces must remain capable of self-defense and power projection, and so the second part of ‘distributed lethality’ follows from the first. JOAC puts it this way:
“Once arrived in the objective area, joint force elements can no longer use some techniques to avoid detection and will therefore rely on active and passive defensive measures to defeat actual enemy attack.” (JOAC Protection)
So far, distributed lethality resembles JOAC with naval characteristics, but JOAC keeps on going where the conceptual sketch of distributed lethality trails off. Distributed lethality, as a naval variation on a joint concept, should follow the conceptual path already beaten by JOAC.
Distributed lethality, like JOAC, requires reliable communications between sensor-shooter nodes. The ranges between distributed units and the bandwidth requirements for responsive C4I and lethal, cooperative targeting will drive communications onto SATCOM nets, networks that remain vulnerable to anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons, and cyber-attacks. GPS and intelligence satellites face the same threats. JOAC recognizes this vulnerability, and directs the joint force to “develop systems, technologies, and warfighting techniques to ensure continued freedom of action and access to space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum when and where needed.” Lacking that freedom of access, the implications are clear and dire for distributed lethality: the enemy would attack the distributed fleet sequentially, as it located ship groups, with locally massed fires. The distributed fleet, unable to communicate, could only respond with uncoordinated counterattacks. Sending a divided fleet with nothing but locally organic sensors and weapons deep inside an enemy threat WEZ courts disaster. In order to effectively implement distributed lethality, robust and resilient supporting networks are absolutely essential.
Satellites face the same persistent threat that prompted the concepts of JOAC and distributed lethality to begin with: the presence of friendly critical vulnerabilities inside the threat WEZ. The solution remains conceptually similar: increase the capability, type and number of available platforms such that the enemy never has the capability to decisively target and neutralize friendly critical capabilities. To that end, what naval “systems, technologies, and warfighting techniques” could change the sudden loss of our most important space-based assets from a travesty to a moderate inconvenience? The remainder of this piece will depart the broad conceptual discussion and dive down to some very tactical level solutions.
Rather than present the killer app, silver bullet or what have you, I’ll briefly introduce a few capabilities that could take the sting out of losing the most important satellites in a region during the opening salvos.
CosmoGator mitigates the loss of GPS by automating celestial navigation fixes and feeding them into the ship’s inertial navigation system, enabling weapons quality tracks even in a GPS denied or degraded environment – provided the stars remain visible. As anyone who has tracked a submarine with sonobouys can appreciate, imprecision in the sensor location yields imprecision in the target track and targeting solution.
Adding the capability to track non-U.S. commercial SATNAV constellations (Galileo, GLONASS, BeiDou, etc) would add navigational and time/time-interval redundancy to naval platforms. The targeting of U.S. navigational satellites should be a forgone conclusion, but targeting satellites of non-belligerent states is anything but.
Currently, communicating within a SAG is relatively easy, but at the cost of a very distinctive electronic signature. Distributed lethality requires low-observable and low-probability of attribution communications within the SAG.
First, low-attribution communications means taking existing commercial waveforms and using them to replace distinctively military signals. A DF scan for 2.4/5 GHz 802.11, CDMA, LTE or GSM signals in most contested areas would be overwhelmed by emitters. Coastal residents, merchant mariners and local fishermen tend to use these signals rather a lot without much concern for EMCON. Coupling these frequencies and waveforms with stabilized, high gain directional antennas would enable high bandwidth, low-latency line-of-sight communications within the SAG while maintaining the electronic signature of a freighter or coastal village. When sneaking through a forest of transmitters, it’s best to look like a common electronic tree.
In an update on flashing light Morse signals, the ONR project for High-Bandwidth, Free-Space Optical Communications is designed to support Marines at austere FOBs, but could also offer unimpeded communications in a highly attenuated – and therefore difficult to intercept – part of the spectrum. Like celestial navigation, meteorological conditions may occasionally preclude this method, but for the rest of the time, it’s a good way to complicate enemy targeting.
Finally, better integration of automatic level control – adjusting transmit power based on signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and signal-excess – could do much to reduce the probability of detection for existing RF transmitters. Only transmit the power required to reliably reach the ship 10 miles away, not the ELINT aircraft 400 miles further.
I’m not the first to think about making elevated nodes like satellites a bit more redundant for communications. DARPA and ONR have been developing the Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (TALONS), a towed shipboard parafoil system capable of lifting a 150 pound payload to 1,500 feet. Unlike most aircraft (manned or unmanned), a towed system can remain aloft for days on end. Improving on the system that well-tanned parasailing operators have been using for decades, DARPA has made an automated launch and recovery system. In the context of distributed lethality, ships such as the LCS and EPF (formerly JHSV) could serve as communication nodes for ships with long-range weapons.
The Air Force has been using the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) for years as a communications Swiss army knife to connect disparate platforms, waveforms, and standards. The technology is platform agnostic – the Air Force operates it from modified business jets (E-11A) and UAVs (RQ-4); the Navy could just as easily operate the system from P-8As or MQ-4s.
TALONS and BACN have their appeal, but also their limitations. A radar horizon of roughly 50 nautical miles limits TALONS, and on-station time limits BACN and systems like it. Counter targeting is a common threat to both. Ideally, a satellite replacement would be close to disposable and not so closely proximate to a manned and/or difficult to replace platform like the LCS, EPF, P-8A or MQ-4. Which brings us to lighter-than-air unmanned vehicles.
Google has deployed stratospheric balloons to bring internet services to remote locations, getting and keeping them on-station with altitude-picking algorithms. Similarly, the Navy could rapidly deploy very high altitude, very high endurance vehicles – atmospheric satellites – in the immediate aftermath of an attack on regional communications satellites at a lower cost and greater quantity than the enemy’s inventory of high-altitude missiles capable of taking them down. Much of the cost and difficulty of satellites is the launching part. Launching a balloon from a ship consists of setting a course and speed for minimal winds, opening a valve to a helium tank and assisting the inflation with a crane and a crew of deck handlers – hardly rocket science. Any naval platform with a flight deck could launch balloons on demand to fill in for neutralized satellites or to quickly add more C4ISR capabilities. While the time on station of roughly 100 days can’t match a satellite, it exceeds the state of the art for heavier-than-air vehicles by an order of magnitude.
It’s quite possible, even likely, that none of the particular solutions above have any place in the Navy’s future. I hope that the unifying theme, however, resonates: pragmatic over exotic, commercial off-the-shelf over bespoke military kit, and integration within a larger joint effort rather than a service specific attempt to win the next war singlehandedly.
Collin Fox is a Western Hemisphere Foreign Area Officer (FAO) assigned to U.S. Fleet Forces Command. In his former career as a SH-60F and MH-60S pilot, he flew over 1,400 flight hours and conducted three life-saving rescues. He earned a Master of Science degree in Systems Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, where his final project won the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Award for Excellence in Systems Analysis. The views expressed here are his own.