Tag Archives: Sea Control

Fighting For Sea Control in the Next War

Sea Control Topic Week

By Lars Wedin

The sea is growing ever more important. Conflicting interests make it a prime domain for future wars. Historically, securing command of the sea and exercising sea control has been an overall naval strategic objective and a prerequisite for the carrying out of other naval missions. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has been able to exercise Sea Control when so needed without having to fight for command of the sea.This comfortable situation is now going away – and it has already disappeared regarding a potential conflict with China.

The Notion of Sea Control

In general terms, sea control means being able to use the sea for one’s own interests while denying an adversary the same possibilities. The French Admiral Castex elegantly summed up what this means: “Depending on having control of the sea or not, one can or cannot

  • In an offensive mode, intercept maritime communications of the adversary and attack his territory from the sea,
  • In a defensive mode, assure his own communications and stop the enemy from attacking his country from the sea.”2

Castex also insists on the fact that “command of the sea is not absolute. It is simply relative, incomplete, and imperfect.”3

Already during World War II, a prerequisite for sea control was control of the air domain. Today it is more complicated. Land based aircraft and missiles – like the Chinese DF-21D, “carrier killer” missile – affect operations far from the coast. At the same time, naval missiles can strike far inland as showed by Russia when, on October 5-6, 2015, a land-attack cruise missile, Type 3M-14 Kalibr (NATO: Sizzler), was launched from corvettes in the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria.4 Hence, the coastal zone must also be under some control. Modern naval tactics are also heavily dependent on space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains.

To conclude, sea control still means being able to use the sea for one’s own interests but the concept as become much wider and immensely more complicated. The last major conflict at sea was World War II. Sea power has certainly been brought to bear many times since, but there has been no major war at sea since 1945. An analysis of some of the changes may be of importance in order to find out what is needed to secure command of the sea and exercising sea control today and tomorrow.

What Has Changed?

Globalization is one of the main strategic trends of today. People, ideas, money, and merchandise circulate relatively freely around the globe. Globalization, in turn, means a growing maritimization of global affairs as globalization to a large extent is driven by the sea linking continents and markets. Depending on the way of calculation (volume, weight, or value) some 80 and 90 percent of global commerce is transported on ships. With the delivery principle of just in time, enterprises and countries depend on the more or less daily delivery of merchandise.  Furthermore, 95 percent of electronic communications are also transited by sea in cables on the ocean floor. The flow of information in such cables could, however, be intercepted and probably manipulated by specialised submarines like the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23).5 With the ability to work on ever greater depths, minerals on the seabed become accessible. Seawater contains important substances for a range of industrial activities. The sea is a veritable pharmacy.6  Finally, for one billion people, fish is the main source of protein.

The sea in itself is also of vital strategic importance. Energy for our societies increasingly comes from thousands of oil and gas platforms, wind turbines, and wave energy converters. As more and more of a country’s energy comes from sea-based assets – platforms, wind turbines etc. – these become strategically important and potential targets requiring protection. Furthermore, this infrastructure constitutes a zone which is neither land, nor sea. Platforms may be used as staging points by small ships, craft, and small submarines – like the “Boghammers” during the war between Iran and Iraq 1980 – 88. They also constitute physical obstacles for navigation and may generally have an impact on tactics. Rotors of wind turbines, for instance, affect doppler radars with which most modern aircraft are equipped.

Corbett’s famous quote: “The object of naval warfare therefore is the control of communications …”7 is, consequently, not sufficient today. Modern sea control includes controlling the sea itself and its resources. But this fact will also cause conflicts regarding the “ownership” of these resources. The latent conflict between China and its neighbors including the U.S. regarding the Chinese “blue territory” (or “nine-dash line”) is a prime example.

It is quite possible to argue that the risk of a major war is quite low thanks to globalization and the interdependence that is one of its major results. However, the growing importance of the sea also means that conflicting interests at sea will increase in importance; in particular regarding the “freedom of the sea” and its antithesis “territorialization of the sea.” This also means that the risk of war by miscalculation cannot be disregarded.

Attacking and Defending Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs)

Being able to attack an adversary’s SLOCs while defending one’s own is traditionally one of the prime objectives for conquering the sea. The battle for control of SLOCs had a decisive impact during the two World Wars.

Today, the structure of the world’s merchant fleets has gone through important changes. The traditional close link between flag state, owner, and crew does not exist anymore. A ship may carry a Liberian flag, have a Croatian Captain while the crew is from the Philippines hired by a Cypriote management company, and chartered by a French company having its office in London. A large part of the international fleet sails under flags of convenience. This development is important as it is the flag state that is responsible for administrative, technical, and social matters of ships flying its flag.8 In a conflict, it is the flag state that should protect its ships – which obviously is not possible for a flag like, e.g., the one of the Marshall Islands. Would shipowners scramble to change registration into, for instance, the U.S. flag? Or vice versa? Insurance costs would certainly have a great impact on the flow of shipping in time of crisis and war. General shipping will certainly be reduced in zones threatened by war and produce economic shock. Ships flying flags of convenience will not go into harm’s way voluntarily or at least not for free.

A state can enlist the service of ships flying its flag in accordance with national laws. Such ships can then be sent to/through war zones in order to provide essential services. This will be particularly important for ships used for logistics and other transports of necessity for the war effort. In that case, they also need to be protected by the flag state and its allies. By definition, such defense is possible in areas where the flag state exercises sea control. On the other hand, such control is never complete. Convoys are hardly practical regarding today’s big ships – a 20,000 TEU container ship has a massive radar cross section. To defend such ships in contested waters would certainly be very difficult. Support ships of various sorts, on the other hand, need to have direct protection. Crews of such ships also could be given the training needed to cooperate with naval forces.

Naval Ships

Attrition is especially difficult to manage in war at sea. The U.S. lost 1,768 ships during World War II but on the other hand a Liberty cargo ship could be built in less than a week. That is not possible with today’s merchant ships, and especially warships. A lost ship will be difficult to replace during a modern war. This means that states need to have enough ships already in peacetime.

During World War II and immediately afterward, the U.S. built 24 Essex-class carriers. This is not possible today because arms are becoming ever more expensive. A certain saying says “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap years, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”9 Also warships become ever costlier with reduced production runs. Trained personnel are scarce in an era of growing technological sophistication. The result is a trend toward minimal manning because of cost and the problem to recruit and retain qualified seamen and officers. Already today some states – notably the U.K. and Germany – cannot man all their ships.

The mix of naval ships – the Hi-Lo mix – seems to be an important area to study. All ships also need to be resilient in the case of damage and downgrading. Are today’s enormously expensive naval ships the best for a real war if they cannot be built in great numbers? How to expand the cadre of trained personnel when there is a risk of war? In wartime, damage control and downgraded systems require a lot of people. Consequently, navies need to be able to mobilize reserve personnel for wartime duty.

The result is that a lost naval ship and naval personnel will probably not be replaced during a war. The relatively small numbers of qualified ships make each one strategically more important. The loss of a major warship would be a national catastrophe, at least in the West. The result may be an aversion against risk-taking leading to tight government control of operations and tactics; with certain awkward results.

Network Centric Warfare

A modern carrier strike group consists of not only a number of surface ships but also aircraft of various types, and submarines. All this will be networked into a system of systems using, primarily, the electromagnetic spectrum. This means that the position of the force is relatively easy to pinpoint with electronic support measures (ESM) and that the force is susceptible to attack in the electromagnetic domains as well as by kinetic weapons. Being “silent” is of course a possibility but would pose difficulties for Command and Control (C2). Not using the network would also mean a severe loss of combat capacity. In reality, the choice of tactics in this regard will depend on the situation and, hence, be a variable during battle. If the network is resilient enough, it will give a great advantage when fleets are in contact. However, the network may, on the other hand, be downgraded by kinetic, electromagnetic, and cyber-attacks. Such a tactic would require ship commanders that are able to make decisions on their own (mission command), a rare quality in some navies.

Consequently, navies need to invest more in tactical training and the creation of trust between command levels. This also means that officers are allowed to make mistakes. The Zero-Defect Mentality, where it exists – must be abandoned.

What To Do

Sea control in a major war poses theoretical as well as practical, tactical and operational problems.

On the theoretical side there is a need to think through the issue of escalation into the nuclear domain. Would such an escalation be inevitable, just possible, or convenient? What about the Russian idea of “escalate to de-escalate?” Would sea control be relevant in a nuclear war, and could the nuclear exchange be limited to the maritime domain? What would the ecological impact of a nuclear war at sea be?  

Ammunition is an important issue. Modern precision guided munitions are expensive and the result of air warfare in conflicts shows that great amounts of ammunition needed. NATO air operations against Serbia in 1999 required 38,000 missions during 78 days of operations instead of a couple of days as planned for – and that against a very weak opponent. A modern Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) destroyer carries over 90 missiles of various sorts. In a major war, this might be a rather low number considering the difficulty of reloading in a war zone. Consequently, the logistics of munition will be a very important issue. The mix between defensive and offensive weapons will constitute a problematic decision. The reasoning above seems to imply a high degree of defensive weapons, but to win there must be strong offensive capacity. Would it be better to have a greater number of less sophisticated munitions? Does the railgun provide an answer to this question? In any case, there must be a lot of ammunition for reloading and that under combat conditions. The requirement for a high number of ammunition will also put a premium on the logistics chain. Damaged warships and aircraft need to be salvaged and repaired, if possible. Wounded crewmembers need qualified medical care. Support fleets like the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) with experienced crews would be very much in demand. Consequently, more funding should be diverted to logistics.

Conclusion

The issue of sea control in a major war brings forward a number of unknowns as well as known unknowns. This is only natural as the world has not experienced major naval war in today’s strategic and technological setting. It is also natural because war is a human affair and it is always characterized by uncertainty and friction. The one who believes that a naval war would imply fighting with most systems intact will be in for a big surprise.

Captain Lars Wedin (ret.) was appointed an officer in the Swedish Navy in 1969. A surface officer, he served on destroyers and fast-patrol boats and commanded several times at sea. He is a graduate from the Swedish and French naval war colleges. Wedin later served as a military advisor in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and as Chief of Concepts Branch in the EU Military Staff. His last appointment in uniform was as director of military history. Since retiring in 2004, he has worked as an independent researcher specializing in general and maritime strategy. He has written several books, among them Maritime Strategies for the 21st Century:The Contribution by Admiral Castex (Paris: Nuvis, 2016). Wedin is a member of the Royal Swedish Society of Naval Sciences, an associate member of the French Académie de marine, and a silver member of the U.S. Naval Institute.

References

[1] Robert C. Rubel, « Command of the Sea, An Old Concept Resurfaces in a New Form », Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, vol 65, No 4. p. 30.

[2]Amiral [Raoul] Castex, Théories stratégiques, Paris, Institut de Stratégie Comparée et Économica, 1997. Vol V, P. 87.

[3] Castex, Théories stratégiques. vol I, p. 92.

[4] https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/iraq-syria-battlespace-october-2015. Accessed February 29, 2016.

[5] Joseph Le Gall, « Cyberguerre sur les mers », Marine & Océans no 241, octobre – novembre – décembre 2013. p. 63.

[6] Antoine Le Vavasseur, ”Océans, pharmacies du futur?”, Cargo Marine, 2015, No 6. p. 5.

[7] Sir Julian S.Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, Conway Maritime Press 1972 [1911]. P. xii.

[8] UNCLOS art 94.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine%27s_laws. Accessed April 16, 2016.

Featured Image: The flagship of the Royal Navy, the HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves the port of Gibraltar after her maiden overseas stop. (Royal Navy Photo)

The Nature of Sea Control and Sea Denial

Sea Control Topic Week

By Dr. Ching Chang

The Awareness of Maritime Dominance

The desire of sea control comes from awareness of the maritime dominance. Various human societies have created maritime civilizations through their access to maritime activities. Without maritime activities, no human society could have had the opportunity to produce maritime interests. If maritime interests that stem from these maritime activities may fully satisfy all the parties involved then there is naturally no ground for the occurrence of maritime struggle.

Nonetheless, the reality of maritime interest follows the same economic rule that limited production fails to satisfy unlimited demand. The competition for maritime dominance was accompanied by maritime struggles in various forms. Armed campaigns, commercial competitions, and diplomacy are accommodated into the integrated efforts of maritime struggles. The command of the sea is the final concept born from maritime struggles as the general goal for safeguarding maritime interests generated by maritime activities and all the associated dependence.

As for sea control, it is only a part of the concept included by the command of the sea concept since sea control is alternatively parallel with sea denial, another important approach within the command of the sea concept. We may define sea control as acquiring and securing the privilege to utilize the maritime space in the period of time as expected. Nonetheless, whether the adversaries and neutral parties may use the same maritime space at the same time is not necessarily the concern of sea control approach. On the other hand, we may also define sea denial as excluding adversaries from utilizing the maritime space in an expected period of time and place of choosing. Integrating these two aspects of sea control and sea denial together and their effects on the nature of choice can serve as a foundation for maritime operational design for earning command of the sea.

The Nature of Sea Control

What is the objective of sea control? Can the sea itself be controllable? What is the exact essence of sea control? The maritime space is a medium for transportation and communication. Nonetheless, the realization of sea lanes of communication might not be necessarily confined to the maritime space itself but the platforms for transportation in the maritime space.

The sea itself cannot not be explicitly controlled; neither can it be occupied like land. To exercise sea denial is essentially targeting the attempts or aspirations by other parties to exploit sea space. Basically, there are two different schemes, deterrence and compellence, to achieve sea denial. Deterrence is literally to force other parties not to take certain actions they would rather to do originally. On the other hand, compellence is actually to force other parties to take certain actions that they are not willing to do in the beginning.

The goal of sea denial is similar to exercising other forms of power that it may also manipulate others’ decisions and actions. It may adopt a deterrence scheme to discourage others to challenge the privilege of utilizing the maritime space. Otherwise, should the deterrence scheme fail, it may also actively adopt compellence schemes to defend the privilege of using the maritime space within a period of time. The essential element is targeting the decisions and actions of those who attempt to challenge the privilege of utilizing the maritime space, not the specific maritime space itself.

We also need to identify the causal relationship between freedom of navigation and sea control. To safeguard a sea lane of communication is to secure the maritime communication lines at the operational level in order to further support other strategic and operational maneuvers. It is not always necessary to occupy specific maritime space to undermine or destroy maritime communication lines. This is different in nature compared to breaking communication lines or transportation networks on land which are often attained by destroying vital transportation nodes such as tunnels or bridges, or occupying physical space.

However, paralyzing maritime transportation is executed by destroying the maritime platforms directly since it is relatively hard to “occupy” a maritime space unless one has truly uncontested maritime supremacy. The matter is to exercise sea control in order to terminate adversaries’ freedom of navigation, or vice versa, to eliminate adversaries’ freedom of navigation in order to achieve the status of sea control. Sea control and freedom of navigation, or alternatively known as safeguarding the sea lanes of communication, are both the ends and means of the command of the sea concept.

One should always recall that the value of maritime space is justified by its connectivity. To secure a maritime space by excluding the presence of other parties through sea denial but in the process also precluding substantial maritime activities (such as civilian commerce) can quickly become counterproductive. However, to dominate a maritime space of poor connectivity is like to occupy a desert none have interest in. To exercise sea control in a maritime space that an adversary rarely ever attempts to challenge can sometimes suggest the maritime space in question is perhaps not so important to a greater ambition of command of the seas.

There are many misperceptions about sea control. First, the sea control is only a means to secure the privilege of utilizing the maritime space. And subsequently, the major utilization of the maritime space is maritime transportation. We therefore may conclude that the freedom of navigation or the maritime communication lines should be the true purpose of sea control efforts. Second, the maritime space could not be occupied or controlled like land territories, though blockade operations can still be practical in a maritime campaign. Blockade operations are actually exercising a form of sea denial as a function of sea control.

Last but not the least, three major factors, force, space and timing, at the operational level are still interrelated in exercising sea control. The forces necessary for conducting a sea control scheme are decided by the scale of the maritime space and the length of duration expected by utilizing the maritime activities there. Also, the size of the adversaries’ forces to challenge this privilege may also be the variable in the overall sea control formula. The process of sea control is always interactive.

Conclusion: Can There Only Be One?

Human societies may divide land into different spheres of influence and draw borders, but will this become the case in the maritime space in an era of great power competition? The value of maritime activity is derived from its connectivity. Occupying or dominating a maritime space but disconnecting it from other parts of the global oceans is a misuse of power born from the historical experience of landpower applied to the maritime theater.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a very productive commentator on the Chinese military affairs, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings.

Featured Image: ParticipanxvParticipants from the RIMPAC 2000 exercise establish a flotilla off the coast of Kauai. (Photo via U.S. Military Sealift Command)

Bringing Back Sea Power from the Deckplate on Up

Sea Control Topic Week

By ENS Olivia Morrell

Deckplate Sea Power

Sea Power is of the utmost importance in terms of global control of both economic and geographical regions. Walter Raleigh wrote in the 17th century, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” The U.S. has remained the leading force at sea, and in recent years has re-affirmed its dedication to command at sea. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power lists sea control as one of the five essential functions of the Navy. Sea control and sea power are terms written about in no short supply, and that are constantly highlighted by the leaders of our combatant forces. While sea power is by itself a complex issue, the means by which we achieve it are far more intricate.

The most important challenges faced by the U.S. Navy in achieving sea power are not technological, but human. The current strategy laid out by the U.S. on Sea Power is multi-faceted and dynamic, but does little to address the day-to-day challenges of our Sailors. An expectation of being the most elite Navy in the world is impossible to achieve through strategic placement of assets if we can’t properly man and train our assets. When the Navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for Sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?

The strategies of the U.S. Navy are still heavily influenced by the 19th Century writings of men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian S. Corbett. Both men have written extensively on the importance of Sea power, as well as on how to achieve it. While each have distinct opinions, both agree that command of the sea serves national politics, and that it is not enough to merely have control of commercial shipping. Battle, the ability to engage in and respond to threats, must always be the underlying design of a Navy. We must ensure that we not only have the resources and plans to execute such decisive action, but also the human capability and training to do so efficiently. Corbett wrote in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, “it is not enough that a leader should have the ability to decide rightly; his subordinates must seize at once the full meaning of his decision and be able to express it with certainty in well-adjusted action.” In other words, it is not enough that our combatant commanders know the central strategy and governing tactics that guide and shape our daily lives, they must also be able to communicate and empower their Sailors to execute.

The Navy is unique to most other branches of the military in that we train in the same environment that we fight in. Our day-to-day job consists of preservation and maintenance of the weapon, vehicle, and berthing in which we will deploy. While most forces train at home to prepare for the environment in which they will fight, we operate every day in the environment from which we will fight. Marines and Soldiers must learn to manage their expectations for engagement as many who joined with the desire to fight on the frontlines may never step foot in a hostile environment. Sailors on the other hand, rarely asked to engage in hand-to-hand combat, will be “in the field” from the moment they pull out of homeport and will remain in a hostile, dangerous environment until their homecoming. Whether operating off the coast of Florida or transiting through the Straits of Malacca, Navy ships are constantly engaged in mission-focused operations. Due to the environment in which we operate, we must remain vigilant and ready to execute combat missions at all times. This need for vigilance has been tragically embodied in the recent collisions at sea of the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. The requirement for constant readiness to fight is demonstrated by the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were successfully launched into Syria in 2017, as well as countless other operations Navy vessels are engaging in on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our ability to respond to the order to launch missiles was not met by our ability to safely navigate our vessels. Even more unfortunately, 17 Sailors paid dearly for that imbalance.

Sea power must start at the deckplates. Naval officers and chiefs are taught that deckplate leadership is vital to ensuring that Sailors are taken care of, maintenance is done properly, and ultimately that the mission is accomplished. Deckplate leaders are leaders that are constantly present in the lives of their Sailors, who know what the orders they give actually mean, and who are engaged from the moment an order is given until it is accomplished. This type of leadership must extend beyond the demands of routine maintenance and preservation. We need leaders on the deckplates who know and can adequately represent the strategic objectives of the Navy to the Sailors on whom that mission depends. When Marines are training for a deployment to the Afghanistan, they train in simulated combat environments that help prepare them for the desert heat, as well as the intense atmosphere they will encounter. We must learn to adapt simulation tactics to our needs in the Surface Navy. Sending the bridge watchstanders to a simulator a couple times a year will not suffice. Strategy is at the forefront of Marine Corps training, every Marine knows the impact he or she has on the mission, and the role they play. The strategy of the surface Navy is on such a large scale, that it often is not felt by individual Sailors in the way it can be felt by a Marine practicing tactical team maneuvering or executing room-clearing procedures. The tactics of the surface Navy involve ships as a whole where captains and key watchstanders are sometimes the only people on board who know the role of the ship in the operational theater. Many of those watchstanders do not even understand the role their ship plays in the Navy’s larger strategy for sea power. Clearly communicating that role to every Sailor on board is the only way that we can begin to operate at the elite level which our nation’s strategy requires.

What this means today, is that we need to do a better job at training the whole Sailor and the whole ship. We need to impart on every Sailor and officer the value and importance of their role and ensure every aspect of our mission is met. It is not enough to drive our ships well, nor is it enough to launch missiles with accuracy. Every Sailor on board every ship in our fleet is important, from the ships forward deployed to the ships in the yards, it must be clear what we are working toward. Small tactical mistakes, maintenance deficiencies, and lackluster training must be treated with as much regard as a combat error. The only way to ensure that care is given to the smallest of tasks on board our ships, is to train and emphasize sea power from the deckplates up.

Olivia J. Morrell is from Albuquerque, NM, and graduated with a degree in Oceanography from the Naval Academy in 2017. She is currently a Surface Warfare Officer onboard the USS Cole (DDG-67), in Norfolk, Virginia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (August 24, 2018) Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class William Decker (left), from Pinedale, Arizona, and Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Matthew Thomas, from Port St. Lucie, Florida, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, perform maintenance on the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared System aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyleigh Williams)

Sea Control at the Tactical Level of War

Sea Control Topic Week

By LT Adam Humayun, USN

From the dawn of naval war through the mid-twentieth century, sea control served political ends only indirectly. A force that exercised sufficient control of waterways could bombard, assault, withdraw, and feint from the sea, but could not (unless fighting an island enemy) produce war-ending consequences, absent victory on land.1 Witness Britain’s numerous post-Trafalgar conventional and guerilla campaigns against Napoleon. Even in the vast oceanic reaches of the Second World War’s Pacific theater, the Allies chose to seize key nodes in Japan’s island defensive network rather than simply suppress them. In the industrial era of warfare, comparatively few such nodes could be destroyed by fire, and new aircraft and ships could be made quickly available if destroyed. Sea control was an indispensable prerequisite to victory, but by itself did not win wars.2

In modern maritime war between great powers, sea control equates to leverage for war termination and the shape of post-war international relations. The late twentieth century saw two paired technical-tactical developments the – prevalence of missiles as the primary weapon at sea and the dawn of the post-industrial production era. As such, offensive power is no longer proportionate to the price or size of a combatant, and mass production can no longer be expected to replenish combat losses in time.3

Sea control is about sinking these ships and aircraft, platforms that are growing in vulnerability and are harder to replace than their predecessors. A force that performs well in attrition will weaken, and in many dimensions of military power, perhaps even disarm an adversary. Destroying military assets that cannot be effectively replaced for years, and only after the political issues at hand have been resolved, grants sea control today a value well beyond its immediate military effects. The battlespace, concrete and conceptual, in which contenders will struggle for sea control thus needs to be carefully defined.

This article explores sea control at the tactical level of war in an age defined by precision-guided munitions and post-industrial production. It opens by defining sea control in terms of objective, means, and effect, and proceeds to identify the capabilities key to achieving it. After discussing how to exploit and maintain sea control once won, it concludes by reflecting on the best path to effective training. Ultimately, sea control depends on attriting enemy sensors and shooters through superior scouting and decision-making – both processes complicated by the fog of war and by enemy interference. The review here is cursory, and further exploration of this general topic and the subtopics broached will be constructive.

Sea Control in the Missile Age: The Scouting and Network Battles

Modern combat at sea remains sudden, violent, and shrouded in uncertainty. The increasing speed, range, and autonomy of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and their associated sensors lends an advantage to the attacker.4 The fog of war persists: even when targeting information is available, uncertainty and human psychology often prevent its efficient exploitation. Electronic Warfare (EW), Cyber, deception, and anti-scouting capabilities will all play a role in expanding the fog of war, contra all predictions of “dominant battlespace knowledge.”5 Even superficial observation of trends in EW shows modern militaries are prepared to target sensors extensively.6

Sea control can be partial and is geographically defined. Objectively, it lasts only as long as the force and any defended assets remain outside the effective range of enemy PGM shooters; subjectively, only as long as the force believes this to be the case.

The net-centric force structures of modern great power militaries nest different types and levels of capability in different launch and scouting platforms. These networks may degrade gracefully under fire, but not in linear fashion.7 First, partial sea control can be said to exist when some platforms have been attrited (or when their force inventory is exhausted). Second, partial sea control can be said to exist when critical scouting capabilities have been denied, whether through attrition or (perhaps less likely, depending on the scenario) through non-kinetic fires. Either condition eases the problem of defending amphibious ships, merchants, and fixed sites on land by reducing options available to the attacker, conversely allowing air defense units to assume optimal dispositions against one or a few threats.

Sea control is about attrition. The long-range offensive power of nearly every platform in the missile age dictates this. The reconnaissance-strike complex composed of sensors –whether organic to the shooter or offboard – and missile systems of all kinds is increasingly able to reach out to hundreds of nautical miles of effective range.8 A place- (vice time- or method-based) maneuver warfare approach is not going to stop modern PGMs – only blinding the sensor or killing the shooter will do so.9

Sea control entails attrition; attrition in turn entails rapid and effective threat detection, combat ID (CID), targeting (inclusive of ROE), engagement, and battle damage assessment (BDA). In U.S. military parlance, this process is termed F2T2EA (Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess). Whatever their name, all these processes will be opposed by an adversary seeking to slow one’s own Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop.10 Given these underlying conflicts within the broader struggle at the tactical level, we can best understand them cut into two parts – a scouting battle for acquisition of targeting information, and a network battle for its exploitation.

The scouting battle entails the competition between reconnaissance-strike complexes –be they SAGs, carrier strike groups, aircraft, or any combination of these – to acquire targeting information. Electronic warfare, deception, and conventional weapons could all contribute to anti-scouting campaigns. Effectiveness in scouting relies on coordinating multiple platforms and techniques to maximize probability of detection and communication while minimizing the vulnerability of one’s own assets.11 Effective anti-scouting entails dispositions that are difficult for scouts to detect or to classify, early warning, rapid combat ID, and sufficient firepower at the right time and place to attrit reconnaissance platforms.

The network battle consists of the competition between reconnaissance-strike complexes for the use of targeting information. It is a race to make and communicate decisions, one where sabotage is also possible. A force well-postured for the network battle will rely on mission command, including austere C2 and pre-planned responses, emphasizing rapid and seamless transition between the paradigms of “structured battle” and “melee” that were well-identified by CAPT (Ret.) Robert Rubel in a 2017 article.12 At the same time, the force will use all available means – including communications jamming, deception, and other information operations – to slow the adversary OODA loop, delaying and diluting the impact of its discovery and targeting.

These twin lines of effort pay dividends for sea control. The force that “wins” the scouting battle – all other things being equal – will be in a better position to contend for sea control, winning timely and accurate targeting information while denying the same to the enemy. Advantage in the network battle allows a force to quickly respond to changing conditions, maximizing firepower – and, perhaps, surprise – through quick reaction, as well as maximizing resiliency through reducing dependence on top-down, unitary, and vulnerable C2 nodes.

Winning and Maintaining Sea Control: Lethality versus Shaping

The discussion thus far has centered on attrition – what one might term the lethality approach to sea control. But why not seek to win or maintain sea control through less violent means? An alternative to the lethality approach to sea control is at least conceivable. This alternative can be termed shaping – a reliance on unit-level deterrence. Where a lethality approach continues the emphasis on attriting adversary scouts and shooters, a shaping approach targets the perceptions of threat platform COs, adjusting their perception of risk and reward to deter aggressive action. In the abstract, it seems the lethality approach would be applicable against challenges to sea control that fall under CAPT Rubel’s structured battle and melee combat paradigms. At least against a modern naval threat the shaping approach has good prospects only against challenges that rely on Rubel’s sniping paradigm.13

The tactical dynamics of the missile age undermine the shaping approach. Substantial advantage accrues to the side that “attacks effectively first;” where anti-missile defenses of all types and ship survivability are sufficient if effective attack blunts counterattack.14 Several countries have made substantial investments in advanced ship- and aircraft-launched anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and consistently train for their employment.15 The highly centralized C2 seen in some navies also might reduce the scope of decision-making authority available to unit commanders.16 During a crisis with a peer competitor, it appears unlikely that either side could muster sufficient force to absorb a first strike should shaping fail.

Even against isolated PGM snipers, however, the shaping approach has significant drawbacks. Unlike the submarines of World War II, modern warships and submarines have effective firing ranges measured in hundreds of miles. Particularly the latter have likely improved their relative ability to avoid detection, if not to escape prosecution. Not all COs will be as easily intimidated as the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Admiral Kurita at the Battle Off Samar.  The forces needed to deter a professional and determined adversary would be better employed hunting that same adversary. Even once sea control is won, a lethality approach that emphasizes attrition remains primary.

Training for Sea Control: Nested Competition

A Tactical Action Officer (TAO) on watch at night onboard a destroyer acting as SAG commander (SAGC) confronts two empty large screen displays, their blue monotony broken only by the occasional merchant or commercial aircraft track. In searching for the enemy SAG, the TAO and the watchteam must be able to pick out the foe from environmentals and neutrals, satisfy rules of engagement (ROE), match weapon to target, win concurrence from the Commanding Officer and other appropriate legal authorities, and do all this quickly enough to “attack effectively first.”17 When this is done, the salvo away, the force must quickly conduct battle damage assessment (BDA) to determine if reengagement is needed. This is sea control in practice: a realm of ambiguity where human factors, especially level of knowledge, presence of mind, and sangfroid, are decisive in tactical effectiveness.

Training for sea control ought to reflect the reality of sea combat in the age of PGMs: that despite all technical developments, human factors continue to define war. The importance of winning the scouting and network battles, of blinding the enemy, of working inside his OODA loop, of deceiving him – all to the end of delivering the first effective attack – all of these pieces can be seen in “lessons learned” from SAG vs. SAG and similar free-play events in many U.S. and multilateral exercises. The extent they confront participants with the experience of the totality of combat – psychological and technical – will mean these events can prepare trainees well.

From a U.S. Navy standpoint, progress is evident. Scripted firing events are gradually being supplanted in favor of Live Fire With A Purpose (LFWAP) events mimicking real-world weapons employment conditions. A comprehensive and usable standard ruleset for SAG vs. SAG and freeplay events, and the explicit, fleetwide understanding that these mock combat events – vice scripted certification evolutions or PHOTOEXs – are the “main course” in major exercises would facilitate planning and maximize training value.

Conclusion

The tactical dynamics and political-military impact of combat at sea are mediated by technological trends, but human factors remain central to its actual conduct. Topics deserving further exploration include, among many others: to what extent does the OODA loop model so ingrained in U.S. and Western forces remain valid at sea in an age of semi-autonomous weapons? What capabilities and which tactics, techniques, and procedures provide the greatest leverage for the scouting and network battles? Which C2 constructs do so? Are there elements of the “dominant battlespace knowledge” concept that are not fatally flawed on their assumptions? The force that is prepared to ask these questions, answer them, and then incorporate lessons learned into training and practice will have the advantage in a near- to-medium-term struggle for sea control.

Lieutenant Humayun, a native of Madison, New Jersey, graduated summa cum laude from The George Washington University with a B.A. in International Affairs (Conflict and Security Studies) in 2012. He commissioned in December 2013 from the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Onboard USS SHILOH (CG 67) he has served as CF Division Officer and Turbines Officer, and onboard USS MUSTIN (DDG 89) as Fire Control Officer.

He participated in multiple Strike Group patrols, Combined, and Joint Operations in the SEVENTH Fleet AOR, coordinated successful live SM-2 firing exercises in 2017 and 2018 and led planning for MUSTIN’s role as SAG commander in MULTISAIL 2018. Lieutenant Humayun is a qualified Tactical Action Officer who has stood the watch both at Condition III and for Special Evolutions in a high-threat OPAREA.  

Lieutenant Humayun’s decorations include the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and various unit and service awards. 

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or any of their subcomponents.

References

1. See generally Corbett, Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Operations (1911 ed.). Accessed 9/2/18 <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15076/15076-h/15076-h.htm>

2. For the Pacific Campaign, see Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.

3. See Hughes, Wayne P. “Missile Chess: A Parable,” in Hughes, Wayne P. ed. The U.S. Naval Institute on Naval Tactics. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015 (181-190).

4. An excellent general introduction is Watts, Barry. The Maturing Revolution in Military Affairs. Report. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, D.C., 2011. Accessed 9/2/2018 <https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/2011.06.02-Maturing-Revolution-In-Military-Affairs1.pdf>

5. For examples of confident predictions of dominant battlespace knowledge, see Stewart E. Johnson, “DBK: Opportunities and Challenges,” in Libicki, Martin and Stewart  E.Johnson, eds. Dominant Battlespace Knowledge. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1995. For anti-scouting, see Hughes, Fleet Tactics, pg. 193.

6. Gordon, Michael R., and Jeremy Page. “China Installed Military Jamming Equipment on Spratly Islands, U.S. Says.” The Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2018. Accessed September 2, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-installed-military-jamming-equipment-on-spratly-islands-u-s-says-1523266320.

7. Hughes, Wayne P. Fleet Tactics, Table 11-1 (First Strike Survivors).

8. Watts, “Maturing Revolution,”pg. 21-25.

9. Surprise and deception are not unique to maneuver warfare approaches, but are inherent in the maneuver paradigm. For comparison of various (mostly pre-missile age) approaches to deception, see Whaley, Barton. Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War. Artech House, 2002.

10. Implicit in John R. Boyd’s presentation, “Patterns of Conflict,” accessed 9/2/18 <https://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/patterns_ppt.pdf>. See especially slides 101-117

11. An excellent discussion is Kline, Jeffrey E., “A Tactical Doctrine for Distributed Lethality,” Center for International Maritime Security, February 22, 2016. Access 9/2/18 <http://cimsec.org/tactical-doctrine-distributed-lethality/22286#_edn7>

12. Rubel, Robert C. “Mission Command in a Future Naval Combat Environment.” Naval War College Review Vol. 71 No. 2 (Spring 2018), 110-113. Accessed 8/23/18 <http://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol71/iss2/8>

13. Rubel, “Mission Command,” 110-113.

14. Hughes, Fleet Tactics.

15. Gormley, Dennis M. et al. “A Potent Vector: Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments.” Joint Force Quarterly No. 75 (September 2014). Accessed 9/2/18 <http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/577568/jfq-75-a-potent-vector-assessing-chinese-cruise-missile-developments/>.

16. Erickson, Andrew S. and Michael S. Chase, “Informationization and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy,” in Saunders, Philip et al., eds The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities,Evolving Roles. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2011, pgs. 265-268.

17. Hughes, Wayne P., Jr. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 24, 2018) An E-2C Hawkeye, with Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 117, sits chocked and chained on the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). John C. Stennis is underway conducting routine operations in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class William Rosencrans)