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Interwar-Period Gaming Today for Conflicts Tomorrow: Press ‘Start’ to Play, Pt. 3

By Major Jeff Wong, USMC

Interwar-Period Gaming  Insights and Recommendations for the Future

The militaries of Germany, Japan, and the United States utilized gaming between the First and Second World Wars to help them overcome challenges relating to doctrine, organization, training and education, and capabilities development. The Versailles Treaty prohibitions prompted Germany to use means other than live-force exercises to study and mature its combined arms concept, test naval and air doctrine, and drive planning for the invasions of Poland, France, and the Low Countries in the European theater. Japan effectively used wargames to inform doctrine and war planning, but biases affected game outcomes and subsequent planning of future campaigns, particularly the Battle of Midway. Japan gamed both strategic and tactical elements of its ambitious Pacific campaign, studying in detail essential tasks as part of its Pearl Harbor and Midway operations plans. Game insights prompted planners to change parts of its Pearl Harbor attack, but failed to sway leaders to examine more closely a critical element of the Midway campaign. The United States, particularly the Navy, combined wargaming with analyses and live-force exercises to study upcoming likely threats and advance naval concepts and capabilities such as carrier aviation. In the United States, Naval War College games of different variations of Plan Orange exposed officers to the theater, operational, and tactical challenges of a conflict against Japan. Many games played over the years between the world wars created a baseline of understanding about how naval officers would fight when war broke out. Now, nearly a century later, today’s U.S. military should apply best practices from those interwar years to spur innovation and overcome the kinds of strategic, operational, and institutional challenges that plagued these adversaries before the Second World War.

This is the final part of a three-part series examining interwar-period gaming. The first part defined wargaming, discussed its potential utility and pitfalls, and differentiated it from other military analytic tools. Part two discussed how the militaries of Germany, Japan, and the United States employed wargames to train and educate their officers, plan and execute major campaigns, and inform the development of new concepts and capabilities for the Second World War. This final part offers recommendations, taken from effective practices of this period, to leverage wargames as a tool today to provide a strategic edge for the U.S. joint force tomorrow.

Wargaming for Today

First, the U.S. military must expand and deepen the use of wargaming at PME institutions as a training and educational tool. Similar to the interwar period, wargames should be used to train officers to make decisions from a commander’s perspective, gain insights into likely adversaries, and learn about the war plans to counter or defeat them. Wargaming design should be part of the regular curriculum to reinvigorate this technique within the uniformed military, since PME institutions are intended to broaden officers’ professional horizons and allow them to explore new ideas. 

At the interwar-period Kriegsakademie, some students had never experienced the brutal combat of World War I and never faced decision-making under fire. Wargaming woven throughout the curriculum gave these future leaders an opportunity to practice “commandership” from the commander’s perspective. Thus, students playing in wargames estimated situations based on given scenarios, outlined courses of action after assessing situations, executed plans, and then absorbed honest critiques of their decisions. In the 1920s and 1930s at the Naval War College, students also received a primer in commandership against the backdrop of a Pacific naval campaign. The students who played the games, as well as the faculty members who designed and umpired these events, shaped and fed a shared mental model about the strategic, operational, and tactical challenges of fighting the Japanese in the coming war. Officers returning to Newport as faculty members brought with them recent operational experiences, including fleet experiments that shaped carrier aviation and informed the requirements of new capabilities.  

Beyond the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, current U.S. PME students are not taught how to plan and develop wargames as part of their regular course work. At U.S. Marine Corps University, for instance, wargaming is taught during a six-week elective at Command and Staff College (if enough students express interest in the elective), but the course fails to relate how games are relevant to real-world war planning and critical U.S. defense processes such as capabilities development.

At the next-level PME institution, students of the Marine Corps War College (lieutenant colonels and commanders) participate in a wargame as part of the curriculum’s Joint Professional Military Education II (JPME II) requirement, but they are never taught how to plan, execute, and analyze a game themselves. Within the Air Force, the Air Force Materiel Command offers three-day introductory courses with curricula tailored to the needs of a client command or organization, but these courses fall short of the integral nature that wargaming fulfilled for the German Army, Japanese Navy, and U.S. Navy during the interwar years.

The Board of Strategy plots moves during a Naval War College wargaming session in the cabin of the USS Wyoming (BB-32). Such rigorous preparatory training during the interwar years. (U.S. Naval Institute Archive photo)

To yield substantive benefits, wargaming must be integrated into service PME starting with captain-level career courses. The first exposure should be at the rank of captain in order to give young leaders intensive, virtual decision-making experience before they assume company command. Company command is the appropriate time to introduce gaming to an officer’s development because his unit gets four times larger (a Marine rifle company has 182 personnel by table of organization, compared to 43 personnel in a Marine rifle platoon) and he must have the mental acuity and confidence to operate without constant supervision from superiors. Gaming gives leaders this experience.  

As an officer’s career progresses, the wargaming curriculum should teach students how to develop, plan, and execute wargames on a larger scale. At top-level schools, an officer should be expert at applying game insights into the vast U.S. military bureaucracy, feeding future-leaning commands and organizations within the supporting establishment that play a key role in developing future strategies, concepts, capabilities, and resource allocations. With its emphasis on decision-making and reflection on the implications of those decisions, wargaming provides a tool to foster imagination and intellectual growth inside and outside a formal schoolhouse setting. Teaching wargaming design to uniformed military members empowers them to create the intellectual venues themselves when they return to the fleet, flight line, or field – much like the officers of the German Army, Japanese Navy, and American Navy did during the interwar period.

Second, the U.S. military should more closely bind service-level wargaming, analysis, and live-force exercises to provide the intellectual and practical test beds to explore and develop new concepts, capabilities, and technologies to overcome unforeseen warfighting challenges. The games and exercises should be conducted as distinct events that are separated by weeks or months, unlike the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 event, which attempted to synchronize a wargame, experiments, and exercises involving live forces around the world. 

Wargames, analysis, and exercises are complementary elements of a cycle of research that offered fresh approaches and shaped new capabilities during the interwar period. Wargaming provides an environment for players to make decisions and understand their implications without expending blood or treasure. Insights derived from games are generally qualitative in nature. Analysis uses mathematical tools – primarily computer-generated models in today’s military – in an attempt to duplicate the physical processes of combat. Insights derived from analysis are usually quantitative in Both wargames and analysis, however, are only abstractions of reality. Together, they can inform exercises that give real forces the opportunity to implement in the physical domain the new approaches and ideas suggested by wargames and analysis. (See Table 1, Comparison of Campaign Analyses and Wargames.)

Table 1. Attributes of campaign analyses and wargames.

U.S. Navy Commander Phillip Pournelle writes that each of the tools “suffer from their own biases, simplifications, and cognitive and epistemological shortcomings. When integrated judiciously, however, the cycle of research gives leaders at all levels critical facts, synthetic experiences, and opportunities to rehearse a range of events in their minds and in the Fleet or the field.” (See Table 2, Comparison of Exercises and Wargames.)

Table 2. Attributes of exercises and wargames.

The cycle of research has increased momentum at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s (MCWL) Ellis Group, which hosts weekly wargames to examine emergent Marine warfighting challenges. The games serve as an incubator for concepts and capabilities under development. During a game in 2015, dozens of uniformed officers and civilian experts gathered around a large sandtable separated by a barrier. A young Marine infantry captain explained how he planned to land his company.  On the other side of the barrier, red cell members – retired field-grade officers and staff noncommissioned officers – determined how they would oppose the landing. On the group’s periphery, analysts recorded observations made by the participants. Scribes filled whiteboards with insights from the game, which they matched against the command’s prioritized list of warfighting challenges. U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Dale Alford, MCWL’s commanding general, adopted the weekly games after observing the Naval War College’s Halsey Groups use operations analysis and wargaming to examine naval warfighting challenges. “It was mostly about getting the right people involved and in the same room,” he said.

Third, wargaming leaders must ensure an accurate and intellectually honest representation of the enemy. Most games played by the Germans, Japanese, and Americans during the interwar period featured two sides: friendlies and adversaries playing against one another. Some of today’s large service-level games are one-sided, with friendly “blue” actions being played against pre-scripted enemy reactions or a control group attention divided between representing “red” and running the overall event. However, if war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” as Carl von Clausewitz suggested in On War, these games must adequately portray the adversary’s will.  One-sided wargames lose the essence of the opposing will when the enemy’s actions are not represented by another human being seeking to win. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, who previously served as director of Command and Staff College, required all Command and Staff College games to be two-sided affairs. “You need two free-thinking wills … within the bounds of the problem,” said Van Riper, who has consulted on many joint and service games since his retirement from active duty in 1997 and served as the red cell commander during the Millennium Challenge event.

This honest portrayal goes beyond using an expert versed on enemy (e.g., “red cell”) capabilities, limitations, and doctrine. During the Wehrmacht wargames before the invasion of France and the Low Countries, the red cell correctly suggested that French-led Allied Forces would be slow to respond to a German main effort thrust through the Ardennes – prompting planners to shift resources to the army group approaching from the forest. The red cell did not portray an idealized version of the French doctrinal response, which would likely have prompted German planners to shift resources to a different army group and resulted in a different course of action. From the Japanese wargames before the Battle of Midway, historians and professional gamers often cite the sinking – and revival – of two Japanese carriers as an admonition against biases, poor assumptions, and predetermined outcomes.

Fourth, future wargaming efforts should use different types of games for different purposes and desired outcomes. A greater variety of games can attack a problem from different perspectives. A larger number of games provides more opportunities to create fresh solutions. For a new, evolving subject, a wargame with more seminar discussion, less action-counteraction play, and fewer rules might be more appropriate in order to generate player insights and spur creativity. On a topic for which much is already known, a wargame with less seminar discussion, more action-counteraction play, and more rules based on hard data might be more suitable to refine players’ understanding of capabilities.

Back to the Future

The German Army, Japanese Navy, and U.S. Navy used wargaming to shed light on strategic, operational, and tactical uncertainty during the interwar period. In the German Army, wargaming formed the bedrock for the education of officers and provided opportunities for commanders and staffs to rehearse complicated operations such as the offensive against France and the Low Countries in 1940. For the Japanese Navy, planners utilized wargames to examine different ways to employ the Combined Fleet in the opening salvo of the Pacific campaign. The Germans successfully used red cells during their wargames to accurately and honestly portray French forces’ actions during the 1940 campaign, while the Japanese demonstrated the dangers of predetermined notions during wargames before the Battle of Midway. The U.S. Navy found wargaming to be an effective tool for educating officers as well, inculcating the practice among generations of officers who attended the Naval War College and fostering a shared mental model through hundreds of wargames that focused on a potential future war with Japan. Likewise, American naval officers also wargamed carrier aviation, discovering optimal ways to employ forces that massed firepower and extended the reach of the Pacific Fleet. These insights fed the cycle of research that allowed American naval officers to study, experiment, and develop new concepts and capabilities leading up to the Second World War.  

Interwar-period wargaming provided users with a chance to shed light on an opaque future. Although the threats are different, senior U.S. defense leaders face similar ambiguity now. The reassertion of Russia in world affairs, a militarily stronger China, and a multitude of powerful non-state actors have dramatically changed the strategic landscape. Fast-developing capabilities, nascent technologies, unmanned weapons platforms, 3D printing, and human-machine interfacing are among the potential factors of the next great conflict. With no cost in blood and minimal in treasure, wargames can empower U.S. military leaders to exert intellectual leadership and innovate to be better prepared for the future.

Major Jeff Wong, USMCR, is a Plans Officer at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Plans, Policies and Operations Department.  This series is adapted from his USMC Command and Staff College thesis, which finished second place in the 2016 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Research Paper Competition.  The views expressed in this series are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  

1.  Commander Phillip Pournelle, USN (analyst at the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense), interview by Jeff Wong, September 24, 2015.

2.  As discussed previously, wargaming is different from COA Wargaming, which is a phase of the joint and services’ planning processes, e.g., the Military Decision-Making Process and Marine Corps Planning Process.

3. Colonel Matthew Caffrey, USAF (Retired) (wargame instructor at the Air Force Materiel Command), interview by Jeff Wong, October 15, 2015.

4. Gary Anderson and Dave Dilegge, “Six Rules for Wargaming: The Lessons of Millennium Challenge ’02,” War on the Rocks, November 11, 2015 (accessed April 1, 2016): http://warontherocks.com/2015/11/six-rules-for-wargaming-the-lessons-of-millennium-challenge-02/.

5. Philip Pournelle, “Preparing for War, Keeping the Peace,” Proceedings 140, no. 9 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval Institute, September 2014), accessed October 15, 2015: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-09/preparing-war-keeping-peace.

6. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, 287.

7. Brigadier General Dale Alford, USMC (commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory), interview by Jeff Wong, November 23, 2015.

8. Carl von Clausewitz, On War ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 75.

9. Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (Retired) (faculty member at Marine Corps University), interview by Jeff Wong, February 2, 2016.

10. Pournelle, interview by Jeff Wong, September 24, 2015.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (May 5, 2017) U.S. Naval War College (NWC) Naval Staff College students participate in a capstone wargame. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)

Reagan-Era Navy Secretary John Lehman on Naval Recapitalization

By Dmitry Filipoff

John F. Lehman Jr. served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration from 1981-1987. In this role, he advocated for the 600-ship Navy and went on to lead one of the most significant naval buildups in American history. In this interview, he recalls the critical elements that drove the Reagan-era naval buildup and what lessons can be applied to the new administration’s effort to build a 350-ship Navy. 

In building up to the 600-ship Navy, what role did strategy play in informing budget? How did the 1980s Maritime Strategy help justify a naval buildup when many powerful voices argued against it?

Strategy played an essential role – arguably THE essential role. I spent years thinking about naval strategy before I became Secretary, sitting at the feet of masters, and I was able to hit the ground running to both promulgate and also implement that strategy through exercises at sea, within the context of President Reagan’s own well-thought-out goals, from the first day I was in office. I was blessed by CNOs who “got” strategy – especially Admirals Tom Hayward and Jim Watkins – and who developed and maintained a superb set of institutions and strategically-minded officers that were able to explain and carry out our Maritime Strategy from the get-go whether at sea; in Washington; in Newport, Annapolis and Monterey; and in Navy and joint commands all around the world. We were able to counter those “powerful voices arguing against it” time and time again.

How did you build a strong relationship with Congress and what arguments sustained their support?

We had many strong and experienced Navy supporters in Congress. First among them were Senators John Stennis, Scoop Jackson, John Tower and former SecNav John Warner. Our message to Congress was loud and clear: We had a disciplined logical  strategy that would lead to American maritime superiority and success at sea. To carry out that strategy successfully, we needed a 600-ship Navy. And, recognizing that such a navy would undeniably cost money, we committed ourselves to fundamentally change Navy weapons development and procurement, bringing costs down dramatically.

We did this by restoring authority and accountability to officials, not to bureaucracies. Gold-plating and a change order culture were ended, which enabled fixed-price contracts and annual production competition. Navy shipbuilding actually had a net cost underrun of $8 billion during the Reagan years, the first and only time in history. Congress saw that we kept our word and did what we said we would, and gave us its support year after year.

The new administration is seeking to build a 350-ship Navy. What will it take to achieve this goal sooner than later, and should this buildup be used as an opportunity to augment existing force structure?

First, it will take immediate enunciation of a clear, compelling strategy. Next, as the fleet shrank from 594 to the current 274, the Defense bureaucracy has grown. Bureaucratic bloat must be slashed immediately through early retirement, buyouts, and natural attrition. Next, the kind of line management accountability that marked the Reagan years can end constant change orders and enable fixed price competition.

In addition to these deep reforms it will of course take an immediate infusion of more money. And it will take an immediate refocus on drastically ramping up competition within the defense industry

With regard to force structure, the Navy desperately needs frigates. We do not need more LCSs nor can they be modified to fill the frigate requirement. We do not need to have a wholly new design as there are several excellent designs in European navies that could be built in American yards with the latest American technology. Indeed, the now-retired Perry class could easily be built again with the newest weapons and technology.

Naval aviation needs more and longer range strike aircraft. The advanced design F-18 can help fill this need with a program to procure a mix of both F-35s and advanced F-18s with annual buys, effectively competing the two aircraft for the optimum lowest cost mix.

The Navy faces multiple competing demands for resources including deferred maintenance that is hampering readiness and insatiable combatant commander demand for greater capacity. Additionally, the rapid rate of technological change is opening up numerous possibilities for new capabilities. Where should the Navy prioritize its investments to ensure credible combat power going forward?

There are some who argue that the dismal state of readiness must be dealt with first, and then the procurement of a larger fleet after. That would be a mistake. The priority is to achieve balance. Readiness and sustainability must be dealt with simultaneously with embarking on procuring the necessary new ships and aircraft.

In the 80s I was a vocal proponent of 15 carrier battle groups. But I was no less an advocate for 100 attack submarines. The Navy defends the nation across the entire spectrum of conflict—from what my old shipmate CNO Jim Watkins called the “violent peace,” through deterring and controlling crises around the world, to fighting and winning wars and deterring nuclear holocaust. That’s a tall order, but a necessary one.

Navy Secretary John Lehman in October 1982 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Navy needs to be able to pummel targets ashore, land Marines and SEALs, sink submarines and surface ships, knock sophisticated airplanes and missiles out of the sky by the dozens, lay and neutralize mines, get the Army’s and Air Force’s gear to the fight, and use both hard kill and soft kill power to do all that, as required.

The force structure needed to perform successfully at sea across that range of operations is extraordinarily varied, and must be continually balanced and adjusted, as we did with our 600-ship force goal all through the 1980s. It can be done, and the new administration and Congress must do it.

Your time as SECNAV involved hard-fought battles with industry to ensure better and more cost-effective shipbuilding. How can the Navy better work with industry to facilitate a buildup and improve acquisition?

The Navy must get its procurement system under control. It must end gold plating and constant design changes. Industry cannot sign fixed price contracts unless the Navy has completed detailed design and frozen the requirements. When that is done the disciplines of competition and innovation can return. Shipbuilders can make good profits by performance, cost reduction, and innovation in such a disciplined environment.

Of the possible operational contingencies the Navy faces around the world, which poses the greatest challenge to the Navy in successfully defending American allies and interests?

Would that it were so simple. The Navy is the nation’s premier flexible and global force. It must be able to deter disturbers of the peace like Islamist terror, and potentially the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and North Koreans, and to destroy their forces if deterrence fails. The Navy must meet them toe-to-toe all around the world wherever they stir up trouble.

True, during the Cold War, we focused – and appropriately so – on pushing Soviet naval bears back into their cages in the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the Med, and the Arctic. But we also had to be prepared – and were prepared – to turn on a dime to carry out President Reagan’s orders in and off Lebanon, in Grenada and off Nicaragua, over Gaddafi’s Libya, in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, and all over the world against Middle Eastern hijackers and terrorists. Simultaneously we were engaged in saving hundreds of lives rescuing Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea, and performing many other humanitarian missions around the globe.  

What strategic and operational concepts would best apply naval power to today’s threats and adversaries?

To reestablish maritime supremacy and “Command of the Seas.”

The size, deployments, and capabilities of the U.S. Navy are indicative of America’s chosen role in world affairs. What would it mean for the Navy if the incoming administration adopts isolationism?

Despite occasional tweets to the contrary, an administration that has sworn to protect its citizens and businesses everywhere, renegotiate trade deals, and destroy ISIS cannot be characterized as “adopting isolationism.” Such a policy is unthinkable today.

200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson tried to get by with isolationism on the cheap, invested in a fleet of low-end gun-boats of limited value, and set his successor James Madison up to fight the War of 1812 to no better than a draw.

A little more than 100 years later, a succession of administrations adopted isolationism as their policy and disarmed their by-then world-class Navy through bad international treaties and worse budgets. As a result, the Navy struggled during the first two years of World War II before hitting its stride and surging to victory (read Jim Hornfischer’s and Ian Toll’s recent books for how we did that).

Threats to the nation won’t go away just because the country may turn inward. They will just try to push the country back across the oceans and then keep pushing ashore. American naval supremacy will guarantee that can’t happen.

What final advice do you have for the next Secretary of the Navy?

Have a sound strategy, and stick to it. Have a robust but achievable force goal. Cut costs and increase competition everywhere you can. Balance and adjust the fleet among all its competing missions, regions, and levels of conflict, and above all, ensure the capability to deter or defeat the most dangerous potential enemies of our nation. The new secretary must immediately go on the offensive against bureaucratic bloat, against sloppy contracting, against gold-plating and for fixed price production competition, and technological innovation through block upgrades.

While engaged in this righteous offensive he must constantly explain and articulate his strategy, his objectives, and his vision to Congress, to the Sailors and Marines, and to the American people.

The nation elected a new President with a set of clear and purposeful goals. The Secretary of the Navy must ensure that – under his charge – the nation’s Navy becomes stronger and readier to carry them out.

The Hon. John F. Lehman Jr. is Chairman of J.F. Lehman & Company, a private equity investment firm. He is a director of Ball Corporation, Verisk, Inc and EnerSys Corporation. Dr. Lehman was formerly an investment banker with PaineWebber Inc. Prior to joining PaineWebber, he served for six years as Secretary of the Navy. He was President of Abington Corporation between 1977 and 1981. He served 25 years in the naval reserve. He has served as staff member to Dr. Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, as delegate to the Force Reductions Negotiations in Vienna and as Deputy Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Dr. Lehman served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, and the National Defense Commission. Dr. Lehman holds a B.S. from St. Joseph’s University, a B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently an Hon. Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. Dr. Lehman has written numerous books, including On Seas of Glory, Command of the Seas and Making War. He is Chairman of the Princess Grace Foundation USA and is a member of the Board of Overseers of the School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

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

Featured Image: Secretary of the Navy John Lehman aboard USS Iowa in July, 1986. 

Don’t Give Up on the Littoral Combat Ship

By LT Kaitlin Smith

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has been subjected to heavy scrutiny, and much of it is justified. What is getting lost in the discourse is the real capability that LCS provides to the fleet. From my perspective as an active duty service member who may be stationed on an LCS in the future, I’m more interested in exploring how we can employ LCS to utilize its strengths, even as we seek to improve them. Regardless of the program’s setbacks, LCS is in the Fleet today, getting underway, and deploying overseas. Under the operational concept of distributed lethality, LCS both fills a void and serves as an asset to a distributed and lethal surface force in terms of capacity and capability.

Capacity, Flexibility, Lethality

The original Concept of Operations written by Naval Warfare Development Command in February 2003 described LCS as a forward-deployed, theater-based component of a distributed force that can execute missions in anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine warfare in the littorals. This concept still reflects the Navy’s needs today. We urgently need small surface combatants to replace the aging Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships and Cyclone-class patrol craft, as well as the decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Capacity matters, and “sometimes, capacity is a capability” in its own right. We need gray hulls to fulfill the missions of the old frigates, minesweepers and patrol craft, and until a plan is introduced for the next small surface combatant, LCS will fill these widening gaps.

LCS was also envisioned as a platform for “mobility” related missions like support for Special Operations Forces, maritime interception operations, force protection, humanitarian assistance, logistics, medical support, and non-combatant evacuation operations. Assigning these missions to LCS frees up multimission destroyers and cruisers for high-end combat operations. We’ve already seen how LCS can support fleet objectives during the deployments of USS FREEDOM (LCS 1) and USS FORT WORTH (LCS 3). Both ships supported theater security operations and international partnerships with Pacific nations through participation in the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series. USS FREEDOM conducted humanitarian and disaster response operations following the typhoon in the Philippines, and USS FORT WORTH conducted search and rescue operations for AirAsia flight QZ8501. The forward deployment of the ships to Singapore allowed for rapid response to real-world events, while allowing large surface combatants in the region to remain on station for their own tasking. With an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat onboard, LCS is well-suited to conduct visit, board, search, and seizure missions in Southeast Asia to combat piracy and protect sea lanes.

The presence of more ships on station doesn’t just allow us to fulfill more mission objectives; capacity also enables us to execute distributed lethality for offensive sea control. One of the goals of distributed lethality is to distribute offensive capability geographically. When there are physically more targets to worry about, that complicates an enemy’s ability to target our force. It also allows us to hold the enemy’s assets at risk from more attack angles.

The other goals of distributed lethality are to increase offensive lethality and enhance defensive capability. The Fleet can make the LCS a greater offensive threat by adding an over-the-horizon missile that can use targeting data transmitted to the ship from other combatants or unmanned systems. In terms of defensive capability, LCS wasn’t designed to stand and fight through a protracted battle. Instead, the Navy can increase the survivability of LCS by reducing its vulnerability through enhancements to its electronic warfare suite and countermeasure systems.

LCS may not be as survivable as a guided missile destroyer in terms of its ability to take a missile hit and keep fighting, but it has more defensive capability than the platforms it is designed to replace. With a maximum speed of over 40 knots, LCS is more maneuverable than the mine countermeasure ships (max speed 14 kts), patrol craft (max speed 35 kts), and the frigates (30 kts) it is replacing in the fleet, as well as more protective firepower with the installation of Rolling Airframe Missile for surface-to-air point defense. Until a plan has been established for future surface combatants, we need to continue building LCS as “the original warfighting role envisioned for the LCS remains both valid and vital.

New Possibilities

LCS already has the capability to serve as a launch platform for MH-60R helicopters and MQ-8B FireScout drones to add air assets to the fight for antisubmarine warfare and surface warfare operations. LCS even exceeds the capability of some DDGs in this regard, since the original LCS design was modified to accommodate a permanent air detachment and Flight I DDGs can only launch and recover air assets.

USS Freedom (Lockheed Martin photo)

We have a few more years to wait before the rest of the undersea warfare capabilities of LCS will be operational, but the potential for surface ship antisubmarine warfare is substantial. A sonar suite comprised of a multifunction towed array and variable depth sonar will greatly expand the ability of the surface force to strategically employ sensors in a way that exploits the acoustic environment of the undersea domain. LCS ships with the surface module installed will soon have the capability to launch Longbow Hellfire surface-to-surface missiles. The mine warfare module, when complete, will provide LCS with full spectrum mine warfare capabilities so that they can replace the Avenger class MCMs, which are approaching the end of their service life. Through LCS, we will be adding a depth to our surface ship antisubmarine warfare capability, adding offensive surface weapons to enable sea control, and enhancing our minehunting and minesweeping suite. In 2019, construction will begin on the modified-LCS frigates, which will have even more robust changes to the original LCS design to make the platform more lethal and survivable.

The light weight and small size of LCS also has tactical application in specific geographic regions that limit the presence of foreign warships by tonnage. Where Arleigh Burke-class destroyers weigh 8,230 to 9,700 tons, the variants of LCS weigh in from 3,200 to 3,450 tons. This gives us a lot more flexibility to project power in areas like the Black Sea, where aggregate tonnage for warships from foreign countries is limited to 30,000 tons. True to its name, LCS can operate much more easily in the littorals with a draft of about 14-15 feet, compared to roughly 31 feet for DDGs. These characteristics will also aid LCS’s performance in the Arabian Gulf and in the Pacific.

Of course, any LCS critic might say that all this capability and potential can only be realized if the ships’ engineering plants are sound. My objective here is not to deny the engineering issues—they get plenty of press attention on their own—but to highlight why we’ll lose more as a Navy in cutting the program than by taking action to resolve program issues. It’s worth mentioning that the spotlight on LCS is particularly bright. LCS is not the only ship class that experiences engineering casualties, but LCS casualties are much more heavily reported in the news than casualties that occur on more established ship classes.

Conclusion

LCS was designed as one part of a dispersed, netted, and operationally agile fleet,” and that’s exactly what we need in the fleet today to build operational distributed lethality to enable sea control. Certainly, we need to address the current engineering concerns with LCS in order to project these capabilities. To fully realize the potential of the LCS program, Congress must continue to fund LCS, and Navy leaders must continue to support the program with appropriate manning, training and equipment.

LT Nicole Uchida contributed to this article. 

LT Kaitlin Smith is a Surface Warfare Officer stationed on the OPNAV Staff. The opinions and views expressed in this post are hers alone and are presented in her personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR (July 12, 2016) – The littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) transits the waters of Pearl Harbor during RIMPAC 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Ryan J. Batchelder/Released)

Counter Influence Activities to U.S. Posture in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf

By Chad M. Pillai

The year is 2030, five years after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) officially expired, and Iran has made its move to go nuclear. As the United States and its allies attempt to militarily respond, they face a new reality: assured access and freedom of movement (FOM) is no longer guaranteed due to Russian and Chinese counter influence activities in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf Region. Should this scenario come as a surprise?  The answer is no, because the Russians and Chinese are putting the pieces in position now.  

Since the end of WWII, the most potent aspect of the U.S. military has been its forward posture consisting of a network of forces, footprints, and agreements. With Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran being identified as the four primary state challengers to the U.S.-led global order, the Defense Department is examining its global posture to ensure it has the means to assure allies, deter challengers, and if necessary defeat aggressors. However, Russia and China have not been sitting idle as the U.S. seeks to strengthen its position. In fact, they have studied our doctrine and are implementing their own global posture initiatives to secure their national interests and, if necessary, threaten our interests. Their focus has been around the three critical maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz.   

Russia

Russia has been the most visible in re-asserting itself in the Middle East with its military campaign to support the Assad Regime in Syria. Russia’s principal interest in Syria is ensuring its continued access to a warm water port in the Mediterranean. The U.S. and its western allies’ early attempts to prevent Russian support for Syria by denying the Russians the ability to ship helicopters in 2012 motivated Russia to reposition its naval forces in the area and build relationships with countries in the region.

Tartus naval base in Syria. (Google Earth, DigitalGlobe)
Tartus naval base in Syria. (Google Earth, DigitalGlobe)

Its reinforcement of advanced air-defense systems in Syria extended Russia’s Anti-Access/Anti-Denial (A2/AD) network from the Baltic region to the Eastern Mediterranean. Recent reports also indicate that Russia is seeking to re-establish its military presence in Egypt at a former air base abandoned in 1972. If Russia is able to establish a foothold in Egypt, its bases in Syria along with its fleet operating in the Eastern Mediterranean would pose a significant challenge to U.S. and allied forces in a potential future conflict while attempting to conduct strikes or move through the Suez.

China

When it comes to China’s military expansion, most observers focus on events in the East and South China Seas and its susceptibility to the “Malacca Straits” dilemma. Like Russia, China has not been idle in developing a “globalized security posture” to secure its interests abroad. The construction of China’s first military outpost in Djibouti is a clear manifestation of China’s global outlook. This is a worrying development for the U.S., which operates from Camp Lemonier, a military base not too far from where China is establishing their base. The future danger of a Chinese base in Djibouti is demonstrated by the recent attacks against U.S. ships off the coast of Yemen. While the U.S. is capable of defending itself and responding to untrained Houthi rebels in Yemen, it may find a more competent and better equipped Chinese force threatening access to the Bab-el-Mandeb a more difficult challenge.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy soldier stands guard as Chinese citizens board a Chinese naval ship at a port in Aden last year. Photo: Reuters
A People’s Liberation Army Navy sailor stands guard as Chinese citizens board a Chinese naval ship at a port in Aden last year. (Reuters)

Besides Djibouti, China is reaching out to Oman for access and has established an agreement with Pakistan to use the Port of Gwadar. While the Port of Gwadar is viewed by many as a means for China to challenge India’s influence in the region, it could also be used to challenge the U.S. Navy from operating in the region as well, especially to reinforce its position near the Straits of Hormuz. In a nutshell, China in partnership with Russia and Iran, could shut down three of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world.

Conclusion

General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognizes the threat of Russia and China along with Iran, North Korea, and Violent Extremists in his 4+1 construct. However, our efforts to deter these actors individually could have the unfortunate consequence of drawing them closer together as an unholy alliance seeking to diminish U.S. influence. The scenario in the beginning is clearly possible if Russia and China in partnership with Iran choose to deny the U.S. assured access and freedom of movement. While the U.S. is developing numerous concepts to defeat various forms of A2/AD in the Pacific and Persian Gulf regions already, it must accept that for future operations against determined enemies who have studied our doctrine of warfare, the cost of winning will be considerably greater.  

Chad M. Pillai, an Army Strategist, is a member of the War on the Rocks (WOTR) Founders Club, the Military Writers Guild, and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). He has previously published The Bear, Dragon, and Eagle: Russian, Chinese, and U.S. Military Strategies and India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order for CIMSEC. He has also contributed to the Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks (WOTR), Infinity Journal, Small Wars Journal, Offizier, and Military Review. He earned his Masters in International Public Policy (MIPP) from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  

Featured Image: Iranian naval ships conduct an attack on a mock U.S. warship in the Strait of Hormuz (Hamed Jafarnejad/AFP/Getty Images)