Tag Archives: Sea Control

Strategy and Ship Design – History’s Lessons For Future Warship Concepts

Future Surface Combatant Topic Week

By Harry Halem


The development of the Future Surface Combatant (FSC) family of warships has widespread implications. These ships will form the backbone of the Navy’s surface force, and add sorely needed numbers to the fleet in general. They may also signal a reorganization of the Navy from its current strike group system to a more amorphous model. Additionally, the FSC’s projected service life indicates that it will encounter and employ technologies that today are only in the developmental stages. Creating requirements for this ship is obviously important.

However, proper assessment of the above factors in the FSC’s development is impossible without a broader conception of America strategy, the Navy’s role in that strategy, and the place of surface combatants within the Navy. New technologies may change the way wars are fought at the tactical and operational level, but policymakers and naval officers must organize those developments under a broader umbrella to understand their true application and effects.

History demonstrates the need to understand strategy, and a service’s role in that strategy, when modernizing a military force. In particular, a comparison of Britain’s largely successful naval modernization before the First World War can be compared to the less successful naval modernization and construction attempts in the U.S. from 1991 to the present. Comparing the underlying clarity of strategy in both modernization attempts offers major lessons to the modern policymaker that should be applied to the FSC’s development.

These lessons should reveal the primacy of sea control in orienting warship and fleet design. The FSC trio of ships should be designed to embody the surface Navy’s distributed lethality concept of operational warfighting against advanced A2/AD threats. These ships will take on specialized roles: the large combatant as an arsenal ship with numerous VLS cells to provide fires; the small surface combatant as an ISR-laden scout to probe the A2/AD envelope, hunt submarines, and retarget missiles; and the unmanned ship as a highly stealthy deception platform employing electronic warfare systems to lure and jam adversary assets. Together, these ships will provide a lasting sea control capability against an ever more challenging threat environment. 

Strategy and Fleet Design

In particular, one can employ the idea of a “strategic concept” to connect national strategy with a service’s strategy and force structure. Samuel Huntington coined the term in a 1954 Proceedings essay entitled “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” One can define a strategic concept as the way a specific service’s capabilities and missions fit into an overall national security strategy.

Huntington’s essay tracks the U.S. Navy’s development, contrasting the pre-1880s coastal and frigate Navy with the post-Spanish American War Mahanian Navy. In the former case, America’s primary objectives were located on land, giving the Navy the role of denying foreign powers access to the American coastline, protecting American international trade, and harassing enemy commerce and light warships during conflict. The Navy was subordinate to the Army, as most threats came from land, not sea. The Spanish-American War changed the U.S.’ strategic position, and changed the Navy’s role to defending American interests in the Atlantic and Pacific against European and Asian powers. Consequently, the Navy became the U.S.’ strategically important service. These differing strategic concepts created different fleets. The pre-1880s strategic concept necessitated a coastal navy with a handful of long-range frigates for blue ocean missions, while the post-Spanish American War concept required a battlefleet that could gain command of the seas.

Huntington’s argument specifically addresses the U.S. Navy’s strategic concept in the Cold War. A change in the international balance of power from multipolarity between states with land and naval power to bipolarity between a Eurasian land faction and an insular naval faction required a redefinition of the Navy’s strategic concept.

The present international balance of power has shifted from its 1991 state, and continues to shift as America’s adversaries expand their militaries. China approaches qualitative parity and quantitative superiority in the Pacific, while Russia and Iran can use long-range missiles and, in Russia’s case, a large submarine fleet coupled with a small but modernizing surface force. Each can challenge American sea control in their respective regions. For the first time since the Second World War, the U.S. faces adversaries in two hemispheres that are capable of not only denying it sea control, but also establishing sea control themselves. In the face of such a dramatic shift in the balance of power, understanding American strategy and the Navy’s role in that strategy is a prerequisite for sound fleet design.

The Scheme and Ship Design – Britain before World War I

This can best be shown by illustration of a situation in which a Navy had a clear strategic concept. The pre-First World War Royal Navy, dominated by Jacky Fisher and Winston Churchill, had a strong conception of Britain’s strategy and its own strategic concept. This enabled the success of “the scheme,” Fisher’s modernization program. Remarkably, this success occurred during a period when Britain’s government only loosely understood the implications of the policy choices, as Aaron Friedberg and Donald Kagan articulate.

Establishing the Royal Navy’s strategic concept during the pre-war period requires a brief review of British grand strategy from 1905 onward. Germany was slowly recognized as the primary threat to British power, particularly after the Russo-Japanese War. Britain’s desire to retain a free hand led to a reliance on its naval power, rather than a land army, to deter Germany. In the event that deterrence failed, Britain would use naval power to degrade the German economy through blockade while it mobilized resources to support its continental coalition partners.

This dictated a strategic concept for the Royal Navy that held sea control as its central objective. The concentration of a battle squadron in the North Sea would most effectively achieve this goal. Hunting down enemy raiding squadrons and protecting British and allied commerce was another a major component of the sea control objective. In addition, the Navy was expected to influence the land war through the aforementioned blockade of the Central Powers, impossible if Germany could operate freely at sea. Tangential to this were limited power projection attempts, including the Cuxhaven Raid and the much larger Gallipoli Campaign.

Fisher’s “scheme” is a reflection of this strategic concept, as demonstrated by its main components, the dreadnought battleship and the battlecruiser. The dreadnought fulfilled the need to deny Germany naval parity. The role of the dreadnought is not remarkable – a capital ship is inherently designed to destroy other capital ships. However, by leveraging technology, namely long-range gunnery advances and new propulsion techniques, Fisher and the Royal Navy were able to make all non-dreadnought battleships obsolete, forcing Germany to devote even more resources to its Navy in the pre-war period, or, as eventually occurred, surrender naval superiority to Britain.

HMS Dreadnought in 1906. (Wikimedia Commons)

The dreadnought’s development has strategic aspects, but the invention of the battlecruiser indicates the clear link between strategy and effective fleet design. Conceived by Fisher as “cruiser-killers,” the ships were armed with dreadnought-style guns, but eschewed the armor of a battleship for additional speed. As conceived, the battlecruiser could outrun anything powerful enough to destroy it, and catch anything lightly armed enough to fall prey to its heavy guns. When used in their intended role, such as at the Falklands, the ships excelled. Even the battlecruiser’s notable failures, such as at Jutland and Dogger Bank, had more to do with tactical handling than the inherent concept of the ship class.

After Fisher departed the admiralty in 1910, the new First Lord, Winston Churchill, continued the scheme’s progress, frequently taking advice from Fisher on fleet design and expansion issues. This continuity of thought up until the Great War began gave the scheme remarkable staying power. Indeed, the Fisher-Churchill fleet served Britain through both world wars. The Revenge and Queen Elizabeth-class battleships are two notable examples of this fact. The ships remained useful not only because of the quality of their construction, but also because they were designed with a specific role that remained strategically relevant for Britain over the entirety of their service lives.

Post-Cold War Strategic Malaise and Fleet Development

The same cannot be said of the U.S. Navy’s development projects since 1991. While America’s national security strategy shifted throughout the Cold War, the underlying political and strategic situation remained consistent, facilitating remarkable continuity in the Navy’s role. The 1982 Maritime Strategy and successive strategic documents were the clearest articulations of this approach, which one could term a strategic concept, to borrow from Huntington. In the event of a conflict, the Navy would use the Mediterranean as a staging ground for strikes against advancing Soviet forces while protecting allied convoys from submarines. Russia would need to divert attention from the central front, while the U.S. and its allies would gain operational flexibility. A 600-ship Navy of supercarriers; large and small surface combatants; attack and ballistic missiles submarines; and amphibious ships, emerged from this approach.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 created a new strategic environment within which the Navy had difficulty articulating its purpose. The Navy published two operational and strategic documents during the 1990s: …From the Sea in 1992 and Forward…From the Sea in 1994. Both rest on the assumption of absolute sea control, and indicated a shift in focus to littoral operations. One can derive the Zumwalt-class destroyer and LCS from this focus. The former was designed in part to replace the battleship in the naval gunfire support role while using stealth technology to avoid detection by enemy shore installations. The latter was intended to counter low- and medium-level littoral threats like diesel-electric submarines, mines, and, fast-attack craft.

The Navy’s post-Cold War missions did support this role. During the Gulf War, the Navy used 288 Tomahawk missiles to strike Iraqi ground targets, while the embarked MAGTF in the Persian Gulf combined with the First Marine Division’s frontal assault on Iraqi positions in Kuwait pinned Saddam’s forces in place for Schwarzkopf’s turning movement. The Navy played a critical facilitating role in the opening stages of the war in Afghanistan, providing air support for Special Forces and CIA operatives. During Iraq, the Navy played a similar role. However, the 700,000-strong ground force deployment during the Gulf War overshadowed the Navy’s strike role, while the counterinsurgency campaigns of the early 21st century further diminished the Navy’s public visibility.

Moreover, …From the Sea and Forward…From the Sea were based on assumptions that no longer hold true. The Navy can no longer assume universal sea control. This is most apparent in the Asia-Pacific. In 1991, the PLAN was unsuited for missions beyond China’s immediate coastline. It possessed no aircraft carriers, and had only one SSBN, precluding steady nuclear deterrence patrols. So pronounced was China’s naval inferiority that, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, an American aircraft carrier and amphibious assault ship were able to sail through the Taiwan Straits without fear of retaliation. The U.S. had achieved absolute naval supremacy in the Pacific, preventing China from isolating American regional allies, and constricting Chinese freedom of movement in wartime.

Today, the PLAN surface combatant fleet outnumbers the U.S. Navy’s, while the PLAN has nearly achieved numerical parity with the U.S. attack submarine force. It currently operates one ex-Soviet STOBAR carrier, will operate two STOBAR carriers by 2020, and will field an 85,000-ton CATOBAR carrier by 2022. Moreover, the PLA employs long-range anti-ship missiles like the DF-21 to create an anti-access bubble in the South and East China Seas, within which its surface fleet can operate relatively unopposed. Littoral operations and power projection are made less feasible in an environment where long-range missiles force American warships to remain hundreds of miles away from hostile coastlines.

Regarding recent U.S. Navy surface combatant programs, the Zumwalt-class destroyer incorporates a number of technological advances. It is one of the world’s first stealth ships, has the potential to use energy weapons due to increased power generation, and was designed to use terminally guided artillery shells that were eventually cancelled due to cost. The program ran over budget, was cut from 32 ships to just three, and has experienced multiple mechanical issues during testing. The Littoral Combat Ship has fared slightly better, but still has budgetary and mechanical issues. Additionally, survivability and lethality concerns have compelled a potential “frigate” spinoff class, indicating the initial design’s weaknesses in the emerging strategic environment.

PEARL HARBOR (Sep. 4, 2016) Littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) returns to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam after experiencing an engineering casualty while transiting to the Western Pacific. Coronado departed Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Aug. 26 to continue its independent deployment to the Western Pacific. Prior to departing Pearl Harbor the ship participated in the Rim of the Pacific 2016 exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katarzyna Kobiljak/Released)

Both the Zumwalt and LCS were built to field advancing technologies that, according to the transformation doctrine of the early 21st century, would revolutionize warfare. Transformation proponents may have been overzealous in predicting the initial operability of their technologies, but the general assertion that networked computing, combined with precision weapons, stealth, unmanned systems, and other weapons developments would indelibly change tactics and operations is being proven correct today. Indeed, the LCS and Zumwalt may been seen as test projects for the advances that will dominate warfare in the foreseeable future: automation, stealth technology, modularity, unmanned systems, and networking.

However, the transformation-RMA concept of warfighting did not translate into a coherent strategy that directed force structure, particularly in the context of the Navy. This was likely a historical accident. September 11th forced the Bush Administration, and the military as a whole, to entirely reorient its paradigm of war against a non-state enemy. The RMA, in contrast, was intended to revolutionize conventional warfare. Such a shift in threat perception did not translate well to naval development, and is in part responsible for the difficulties that the Zumwalt and LCS experienced.

Now, just as the military had adapted to the counterinsurgency framework of the early 21st century, it must return to a more traditional situation, albeit with persistent non-state threats. This strategic complexity and confusion can help explain the Zumwalt’s and LCS’ developmental difficulties. The Zumwalt may be an advanced ship, but its exact role is amorphous. The LCS’ modular nature appears to offer planners a greater breadth of employment options, but in reality decreases the overall lethality of the surface fleet.

An important lesson for the FSC’s development is that a solid conception of strategy, and from it the role each ship must play in an envisioned fleet, is paramount for effective acquisition and development. Therefore, a discussion of America’s national security strategy, and the Navy’s role in that strategy, is required.

American Strategy and the Navy’s Role

U.S. strategy is derived from the balance of power it currently faces internationally. Three sorts of threats undermine America’s international status. First, major state challengers like China and Russia threaten to undermine U.S. interests in the Pacific and Europe. China combines an expanding Navy with economic initiatives including the NDB, AIIB, and New Silk Road to create an independent Asian power bloc. Russia manufactures instability in Eastern Europe while using its foothold in Syria to wrap around the U.S. flank, and threaten the Balkans and Southern NATO. Second, medium challengers use traditional and non-traditional means to threaten American interests. Iran and North Korea fall into this group, with the former’s use of Shia militias in Iraq and Syria to increase its influence and the latter’s nuclear bullying, where both are designed to decrease American prestige and influence. Third, non-state actors, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, create pervasive instability in strategically important regions, while consistently attempting to strike American and allied citizens. These threats do not exist in isolation – multiple hostile actors operate within the same theater, as is the case in the Middle East.

The Navy’s role in responding to these threats returns to the Mahanian concept of “command of the seas.” The U.S. today faces a naval threat similar in effect to the great power fleets of the early 20th century. However, this threat is not expressed through battle squadrons intended for decisive fleet actions, but through an anti-access area denial (A2/AD) network. Each threat creates this network differently. As previously stated, China uses a more traditional fleet to establish sea control within the wider A2/AD bubble its long-range missiles create. On the lower end of the spectrum, Iran’s focus is on denying the U.S. sea control, rather than achieving its own regional command of the seas. Rather than investing in surface combatants and attack submarines, it uses missiles, fast-attack craft, and midget submarines for sea denial. Ironically, this bears greatest similarity to the situation …From the Sea and Forward…From the Sea initially envisioned, albeit with the added and pervasive element of advanced long-range missiles. Russian capabilities are more similar to Chinese ones, but Russia’s less advanced and smaller navy cannot achieve meaningful sea control in the same way that the PLAN can.

Regardless of the differences, RMA predictions enable all these A2/AD networks. America’s adversaries use long-range missiles and ISR architectures based on networked computing to counter the U.S. network of global super bases and forward deployed assets. A decade ago, the U.S. could reliably assume that, in the event of conflict, it could shuttle soldiers, aircraft, and other equipment to any point in the world without obstruction. Moreover, force deployments were relatively small – the Iraq War’s peak troop strength of 168,000 is dwarfed by Korea’s 325,000 troops, and Vietnam’s 500,000-plus-soldier commitment. Today, great power conflict is viable, creating the potential for larger force deployments, all while sea control is no longer guaranteed.

Ships must therefore be designed to combat the great power adversaries that field these A2/AD networks, rather than to focus on projecting power against land targets, or counter the low-tech littoral assets of rogue regimes. The Zumwalt and LCS will have a role in this new fleet architecture, but some of their original missions such as naval gunfire support and littoral dominance will have less relevance.

Nuclear weapons also complicate the Navy’s role. Russia, China, and North Korea are nuclear states, while Iran can obtain nuclear capabilities. Inland strikes against logistics and communications facilities could prompt a nuclear response and other forms of escalation. Using the Navy to blockade hostile nations and shifting its focus from power projection to sea control has military and political benefits, as it gives the U.S. greater control over a conflict’s escalation.

In modern conflict, applying decisive firepower is less dependent upon concentrating forces than before. Thus, although the Navy’s task will be more similar to the traditional role of a great power sea service than it has been since World War II, it will not need to seek out an enemy battlefleet in force in the traditional manner. Instead, its targets will be networked manned and unmanned air forces, ships, submarines, and land-based installations spread out over vast distances. The U.S. disposition is similar to this. The Navy can retain the CSG/ESG structure for certain operations, but the distributed lethality concept indicates the beginning of a concerted effort to network spread-out American warships.

The Role of Surface Combatants and the FSC

From an operational and strategic standpoint, one can identify many similarities between the A2/AD-network competition the U.S. will face in the near future and the First World War’s western front. Networking allows a broader distribution of forces, and decreases the need for, and effectiveness of, excessive target hardening. Nevertheless, one can envision a large-scale Sino-American conflict developing into a war of attrition in which China attempts to create an envelope within which it can establish uncontested sea control, and subdue American regional bases. Concurrently, the U.S. will use submarines and its own long-range missiles to punch through China’s A2/AD network, much like infiltration tactics and maneuver warfare schemes were used to break trench lines a century ago.

In this new environment, surface combatants can no longer be purely defensive ships as they are today. The Arleigh Burkes’ and Ticonderogas’ air defense capabilities will remain important, but surface combatants must have the means to strike enemy targets offensively, and not simply to protect American capital ships. Submarines will be the primary tool used to penetrate and degrade A2/AD networks, but surface combatants provide heavier capabilities in higher volumes than undersea assets in more domains. In addition to their strike role, surface combatants must be able to detect and destroy enemy submarines. The Pacific’s geography, combined with Russo-Chinese force structure, makes this an imperative. Outside of wartime, the FSC will also conduct presence missions in contested Asian and European maritime regions. Ideally, older ships like the Arleigh Burke could provide shore strike capabilities, while amphibious ships equipped with land-attack missiles would support naval landings. This overall structure would free up the FSC for greater sea control specialization.

The Navy’s overarching operational goal will clearly be to break down an A2/AD network. While submarines can avoid detection and hit critical nodes in this network, the FSC would best be used to provide sustained salvo fire against exposed targets, while delivering overwhelming firepower when a more significant target presents itself. In peacetime, the FSC’s components may operate independently while conducting presence or deterrence missions. However, during wartime, the best way to take advantage of networking and distributed lethality is to consistently use all three FSCs in tandem. Much as the Grand Fleet served as a blockade force and battlefleet in its station at Scapa Flow, these FSC SAGs would blockade China’s maritime space in the Asia-Pacific, while also forming the core of America’s Pacific battlefleet. Each FSC would have a specific role in fulfilling this strategy.

The large FSC would form the backbone of the SAG’s striking power. Much like the projected Arsenal Ship concept of the early 1990s, this ship must be maximized for its offensive firepower, using a low freeboard and long-range missiles to avoid retaliation. As envisioned, this ship would operate in two ways. First, it would receive targeting information from other assets deployed closer to enemy positions, launching strikes against those targets – like an advanced battleship relying on spotting aircraft to direct its ordinance. Second, the large FSC would launch its missiles and “hand off” retargeting control to other ships and aircraft more proximate to the target, serving as the SAG’s “quiver.” Considering its mission, the large FSC could be larger than a contemporary destroyer, and even approach the cruiser size of 15,000 tons.

The Navy should also consider nuclear propulsion for this FSC. This would enable the Navy to more quickly field directed energy weapons and railguns, likely for point defense against missiles, and would compliment the ship’s armament of long-range missiles by allowing for more launch cells to be allocated for offensive strike weapons rather than defensive anti-air munitions. Nuclear power will also provide critical advantages in endurance and logistics, allowing a smaller number of large FSC’s to service multiple SAGs. Underway VLS replenishment is critical for this ship, and for the Navy as a whole, if this SAG structure is to be used.

While the large FSC provides the bulk of the striking power, the small FSC serves as the envisioned SAG’s targeting ship,and ASW platform. Rather than fielding its own long-range missiles, the small surface combatant, which should be sized at no more than 5,000 tons (i.e. no larger than a small destroyer), would use unmanned vehicles to detect and target enemy A2/AD nodes. Several catapults, deploying Predator/Global Hawk style drones, would extend this ship’s ISR range. Rotary facilities are critical, as are point-defense anti-aircraft missiles. However, the small surface combatant should rely on its larger cousin for most air, surface, and land striking power. In return, the small surface combatant could use the extra space for a full ASW suite, augmented by UUVs to increase detection range. Short-range anti-ship missiles, similar to those envisioned on the fast frigate model LCS, would be the ship’s sole offensive armament. Networking’s most powerful effect will be seen here – independently or otherwise, the small surface combatant should rely on its larger cousin for long-range strike support while it scouts and penetrates the A2/AD bubble. The retargeting capability resident within the Block IV Tomahawk missile and LRASM would allow the small surface combatants closer to the target to redirect missiles launched from a stand-off position by the larger FSC.

Finally, the unmanned surface combatant should be used to jam and deceive enemy assets, while also supplementing the small FSC’s detection capabilities. Stealth is imperative for this ship, as it will operate closer to the enemy during combat than any other surface ship. While the large surface combatant provides firepower, and the small surface combatant detects threats, the unmanned surface combatant conducts electronic warfare schemes that misdirect and confuse enemies attempting to strike back at the SAG. This unmanned ship should be as small as possible, ideally no more than 1,200 tons.

Room for integration exists between the FSC-based SAG and the contemporary fleet. Arleigh Burkes can serve as makeshift arsenal ships, or as dedicated anti-air platforms, freeing up the large FSC for anti-ship missions. Regardless, the emphasis must be on networked integration, not only between the SAGs ships, but with the fleet more broadly, and with other armed services.

As described, the FSC would best be suited for interstate conflict, rather than for power projection against rogue regimes and non-state actors. This is a conscious choice – the Navy could use older ships and aircraft (or allied assets) in those contexts, freeing up advanced platforms for the most sophisticated threats. If constructed in this way, the FSC family of warships would help the Navy fulfill its future sea control mission requirements, while operating independently or as part of a strike group.


Military modernization requires an understanding of strategy. Absent this, new weapons and platforms become imperfect tools to use against growing threats. With it, new assets multiply the fighting effectiveness of the service in question, while reinforcing a nation’s objectives. Therefore, the most important lesson history provides for the FSC’s development is the primacy of strategy. Without an understanding of America’s strategy and the Navy’s role in achieving America’s goals tactical, operational, and technological discussions are groundless.

Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at hh66@st-andrews.ac.uk

Featured Image: USS Zumwalt (Eric Kaufman)

China’s Aircraft Carrier: ‘Dreadnought’ or ‘Doctrinal Dilemma’?

This post first appeared on the National Maritime Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana, PhD

Less than five years after the China commissioned its first Soviet-origin aircraft carrier Liaoning in September 2012, it launched its first-ever domestic carrier – the Type 001A – on 26 April 2017. The new carrier is likely to be commissioned in 2020 as Shadong. Even though the Liaoning and the Type 001A are medium-sized conventionally powered (non-nuclear) vessels equipped with aircraft ski-jumps (not catapults), and thus far less capable than the super-carriers operated by the United States, the occasion was celebrated in China as a major achievement symbolic of China’s ‘great power’ status. A report indicates that a larger, next generation Type 002 carrier equipped with a steam catapult has been under construction since March 2015, and its follow-on carriers may be nuclear powered.  

The launch of the Type 001A is, indeed, a milestone in the development of China as a major naval power. It reminds us of the famous battleship HMS Dreadnought commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1906. The Dreadnought was a highly successful warship induction marking the dawn of the 20th century warfare at sea. It became iconic of a transformative naval capability in a manner that the older existing warships of the world began to fade into obsolescence as pre-Dreadnoughts. The celebration in Beijing similarly justified, given the achievement of China’s defense-technological endeavor within a relatively short period of time. It stands out rather conspicuously in comparison to India, which has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961, but is yet to commission its first indigenous carrier named Vikrant.

Moving from ‘symbolism’ to ‘substance,’ such ‘flat-tops’ are indeed valuable platforms for maritime force-projection, which, for centuries, has been an important naval mission of all major power navies. However, given China’s maritime geography and the kind of insecurities it encounters today from vastly superior adversarial navies of the United States and Japan operating in the western Pacific Rim, the PLA Navy’s growing doctrinal reliance on carriers seems to be an aberration. It may have been more prudent for China to focus on bolstering its existing Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2AD) operational doctrine with the naval doctrine of ‘sea-denial’ – particularly given the PLA Navy’s traditional strengths in submarine, sea-mine and missile warfare – rather than diluting its naval doctrine by adding the carrier-based ‘sea-control’ doctrine.

Chinese carriers will also be highly vulnerable in the western Pacific Rim, not only to the advanced navies, but also to the many unfriendly airbases and submarine bases of the littoral countries dotting the periphery of the East and South China Seas. It is well known that even the smaller countries in the region are building potent sea-denial capabilities against China. The recent induction of the six advanced Russian Kilo-class submarines into the Vietnamese Navy is a case in point. If a maritime conflict breaks out in the area, the PLA Navy carrier would surely be a prime target and any such successful targeting would be a major symbolic blow to China’s morale, and thus its war effort.

The Chinese believe that ‘sea-control’ is necessary to assert its maritime-territorial claims in the China Seas. This could have been achieved effectively – and at reduced risk – by optimally using the air-bases in the Chinese mainland and the occupied islands, which China is expanding through reclamation. Ironically, China’s island-building activity in the South China Sea has caused a major damage to China’s claim to its ‘peaceful rise’ theory, which is now being aggravated by its own carrier-building program. Furthermore, the program lacks operational credibility, much into the foreseeable future. It would take the PLA Navy many years to operationalize a full-fledged Carrier Task Force, and possibly decades to make it effective enough to achieve sea-control against advanced navies. Meanwhile, the process could cause an indelible dent in China’s objective to propagate a ‘benign’ and ‘constructive’ image in the Indo-Pacific region, including through its ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ (OBOR) initiative.

Chinese strategists also believe that carrier-based sea-control is necessary to protect their Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean, as indicated by China’s recently articulated strategy of “open-seas protection” in its 2014 Defense White Paper. However, this could have been achieved – again effectively, and at reduced risk – by deploying its warships in its naval bases at strategic locations such as Djibouti and Gwadar.

China is likely to have at least three aircraft carriers in commission at any given time in the future. The Chinese have clearly gone too far ahead for any reappraisal of its aircraft-carrier program, possibly lured into the ‘command of the seas’ gambit of the major western naval powers, without factoring their own geostrategic conditions and circumstances. One may therefore, expect that the PLA Navy’s ‘doctrinal duality’ in terms of primacy to both ‘sea control’ and ‘sea denial’ may become its dilemma in the coming years.

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a newly-built aircraft carrier is transferred from dry dock into the water at a launch ceremony at a shipyard in Dalian in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

Sea Control 133 – Hacking for Defense with Chris Taylor

By Matthew Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor Chris Taylor of Georgetown University to talk about the Hacking for Defense (H4D) movement. Pioneered by Stanford Professor Steve Blank, H4D is bringing Silicon Valley’s innovation ethos to combat national security challenges. Chris takes us through the defense innovation ecosystem, the partnerships which support it, and how H4D is becoming a fixture in university classrooms.

For those interested in learning more about H4D and the Silicon Valley principles which guide it, Chris recommended the following resources:

Download Sea Control 133 – Hacking for Defense with Chris Taylor

The transcript of the conversation between Chris Taylor (CT) and Matthew Merighi (MM) begins below. Special thanks to Associate Producers Roman Madaus and Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode.

MM: As I mentioned at the top I’m here with Professor Chris Taylor of Georgetown University and a member Hacking for Defense. Professor Taylor, thank you very much for being with us on Sea Control today. Now as is Sea Control tradition, Professor Taylor, please introduce yourself tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to be where you are right now.

CT: I spent 14 years in the Marine Corps as an enlisted infantryman and force recon. I finished undergrad at night. I went to night school my last three years. I left the Marine Corps and went to business school at the College of William and Mary where I earned an MBA and worked for five years after that. I went back to school at the Harvard Kennedy School where I earned an MPA in political economy and international security. I’m a two-time defense industry CEO and as you mentioned I’m an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University.

MM: You obviously have a very broad array of different experiences both in the military, outside of it, leading businesses, but also a very diverse educational background. What were the key decision points in your life as you were building your career and your educational background that guided you on the path which you eventually went down?

CT: I spent 14 years in the Marine Corps. I wanted my bosses’ job at the time I was a staff sergeant. My boss was a Major. When I did the reverse math, I would have had to have spent 10 more years to get promoted to Major just to have that job. As I evaluated all of the fantastic experiences that I had in the Marine Corps and what it had done to develop me as a leader, I thought maybe there was a different way and I wanted a way to push my Marine Corps experience through some sort of framework. I chose business school. I don’t regret that at all, it was fantastic. I loved every minute of my 14 years in the Marine Corps but I loved business school. I had a fairly easy transition to school, I got out, worked for five years in the private sector and then decided with the same formula; I had five years of experience and I didn’t know what framework to push it through to get the most of out it or contribute the most with it. So I went back to grad school at the Kennedy School. I was very fortunate. I had fantastic classmates, fantastic professors. Secretary Ash Carter was actually my adviser. So I had access to brilliant national security minds helping me think through how my experience would allow me to contribute further. That led me to leading some businesses that were successful and now I’ve dipped my toe into the teaching part of life to see how my experiences could help push forward the next few generations of national security leaders. That’s how we got to be on the phone today.

MM: Let’s talk a bit about the educational piece. I have here on the hacking4defensegu.com general info page a class titled “SEST-701 Hacking for Defense: Solving National Security Issues with the Lean Launchpad,” which I kind of understand as a man with a security and startup background. Walk us through this title. What exactly is Hacking for Defense and why is the Lean Launchpad a part of solving national security issues?

CT: Hacking for defense was a name that came along with the package when I was first asked to participate. Most people when they hear it only think it’s about cyber; that’s not true. Think about it in the way you’d think of life hacks: easy and quick ways to get things done which result in great benefit. The Lean Launchpad is a class that legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank has been teaching which is basically about how to create and run a startup. It came through a series of conversations that happened out at Stanford where Steve was teaching this with Pete Newell who is a retired Army Colonel and Joe Felter, also a retired Army Colonel. The thought was “how do we apply the Lean Startup methodology to national security challenges?” MD5, which is the national security technology accelerator at National Defense University run by [Adam] Jay Harrison, is the U.S. government proponent for the entire education program. I’ve known Pete and Joe for a number years and when they decided they were going to syndicate the class to universities across the country I raised my hand and said I wanted to bring it to Georgetown. We’re about to close out our first Hacking for Defense class on May 1.

MM: So this is just the first iteration of it?

CT: It’s the first iteration at Georgetown. Stanford begun their second iteration. There are others at U.C. San Diego, Boise State, University of Pittsburgh, and James Madison University.

MM: So the model is proliferating across different universities but it is still very new. Now that you are finishing your first session, from the feedback you’ve gotten from Professor Blank and the other institutions, how has the course been going so far? What have been the things that you expected and what has surprised you?

CT: First and foremost, the most exciting thing is that I have nothing but complete confidence in our graduate students across the country to solve national security problems going forward. Our class has been nothing less than stellar. They are smart, they are committed, they work well in teams, they’ve been doing lots of discovery. And they’ve been doing a lot to solve problems. It’s fantastic. The second thing is that what we’ve learned is that when you allow students to self-organize into diverse teams around a problem, you get exponentially better results than if you assigned them to a team and then assigned them a problem. We’re very clear that self-organization leads to the best outcomes. One of the amazing things about the Hacking for Defense class is that it’s actually a team of teams. The center is the student. Surrounding them are the teaching team: myself and Army Lieutenant Colonel Matt Zais, who is the Deputy Director of the Strategic Initiatives Group at U.S. Army Cyber Command, and my teaching partner.

Then we have a series of corporate partners. Companies like SAIS, Amazon Web Services, SAP National Security Solutions, and many others come every class to support the student teams if they get to a point where their problem-solving requires a specific resource, an engineering resource for instance, an instance in a cloud environment, or mentoring for how to think about a problem. We also have mentors who bring experience in the national security ecosystem and in business that they contact to discuss their problems and think differently. And then we have military and intelligence community liaisons. These are active duty military and people currently serving in the intelligence community who can ensure that these teams can reach out to people within the organizations they are working with, which we call their problem sponsors, to elicit as much information as they can to help solve the problem they have.

This semester, we are working on four problems. One is from Special Operations Command: it’s a cross-domain solution. The next is how to use augmented reality to help military and intelligence personnel see bad guys in unstructured crowds. The next one is a social media problem: how do we use social media from an information warfare perspective to better understand what our adversaries might be doing with social media against us. We also have a counter-drone problem. It’s all the rage; everyone is writing about counter-drone. We have a team that’s working on how to use low-cost solutions to counter drones, particularly drones you might see ISIS flying.

MM: That’s a really broad array of different topics. You mentioned at the top that this isn’t just about cyber but a very broad set of challenges. I’m curious about the people who are self-organizing in these teams, since I imagine this is offered through the Security Studies Program, correct?

CT: That is correct. The Security Studies Program (SSP) is where I teach. Bruce Hoffman and Dave Maxwell have given us exceptional support to continue doing this.

MM: In terms of the students who are in these teams, do they have technological backgrounds? Are they primarily ex-military or current intelligence officers? What are the demographics of the people participating in this?

CT: All of the above. We have tech folks. We have former and current military folks. We have data analytics folks. We have linguistics folks. We have policy folks. And then of course we have the SSP folks. The course is open to all schools and all programs across Georgetown University and next year we’re going to open up Hacking for Defense to all graduate schools and graduate programs in the National Capital Region. So instead of solving four problems next year we’re going to solve 40 problems. A bit ambitious and it keeps us moving but if we want to start to develop the capability to solve problems quickly, effectively, and cost-effectively, then there is no better group of talent than America’s graduate students to be able to help us do that. That’s why we are trying to expand it the way that we are.

MM: So this course will be open to everyone in the National Capital Region starting next year which, as a person who currently works in academia, I know that getting even simple things like cross-registration agreements handled can be a challenge, so best of luck to you as you navigate those minefields on the bureaucracy side; but it’s really exciting that so many people are getting engaged. The other method of engagement that I’ve noticed is that you livestream all of the lectures for this course, correct?

CT: Every class session is livestreamed on Twitter @h4dgussp and also on our Facebook Hacking4DefenseGeorgetown. Every week we put it out there. It’s kind of like our own national security reality TV show. We put it out there because we want people to see the quality of students that we’re attracting to this class and the difficulty of some of the problems that they’re working on because, quite frankly, for many of these students this is a 13-week job interview. Many of our corporate partners have reached out to our students and said “look, when this is done I’d really like to speak to you about this” and that’s because they’re doing it well. They’re digging in, they’re becoming better problem solvers, they’re becoming better team members, and they’re leveraging everything that they’ve learned in graduate school and everything they haven’t learned yet. They are learning on the fly to solving the particular problem they are working on.

MM: So you’ve seen firsthand the positive feedback loop of the organizations supporting the course wanting to continue getting access to the students and looping them into their own work.

CT: I just spent last Friday with one of our sponsors, OGSystems in Chantilly, Virginia where the CEO and two other executives sat us down and said “we want to be part of this forever.” And the reason is because we get to see some of the problems plaguing national security but the most interesting thing is that the talent sitting in that classroom is unbelievable. We have not seen that in any other classroom environment and so they, admittedly selfishly, want to find out how to hire the very best students out of Georgetown to become part of their companies. We’re ecstatic about that.

MM: Definitely. That’s always the concern, as a recent grad school graduate; the top of mind concern for those going through their final exams right about now. I’m curious that you have OGSystems and all of these other corporate partners and the military and intelligence liaisons. How did you go about building this diverse, multi-stakeholder team? It couldn’t have been easy to sell organizations, especially ones that aren’t as used to working with the military or with Georgetown in getting involved with this very ambitious, very unique program.

CT: It was a little bit of everything. A lot of it came from my own personal network from being involved in the business of national security for so long. Certainly the folks at Stanford at Hacking for Defense Incorporated (H4DI) were very helpful in introducing us to different folks who wanted to be involved. I’ve gotta be honest with you: it’s not a difficult sell. This is the coolest class being taught. If you’re any type of international relations, national security, diplomacy, government, or business geek at all this is the coolest class being taught anywhere. So it’s not a hard sell. But we want to get the right people involved because there are investors in the classroom as well. At the end of the day, if there’s a “there” for the solution that the student teams have come up with, either the government will give them some money to continue their work or they’re going to start a company and they’re going to get venture money to get it going. There’s nothing else like this happening around the country right now.

MM: What is the next step for Hacking for Defense, the course you in particular are teaching, besides expanding it to the other schools in the National Capital Region? What do you see as the vision for where you want this very unique and clearly very successful business model to go?

CT: I’m involved on the education side, so I want to continue working with the Hacking for Defense and H4DI folks out in Palo Alto and also with MD5 to make sure we can leverage all of the talent in the National Capital Region. There’s 16 different universities in the National Capital Region consortium and we want to take advantage of all of that graduate school talent across all of the schools and programs against the hard problems our problem sponsors are giving us. What we’re coming to find is that now there’s international interest. Oxford University has interest in forming a partnership at Georgetown. I know that the NATO representative at the Pentagon for Strategic Transformation, General Imre Porkoláb, is all over trying to bring this to NATO. From an education perspective, Georgetown will play a role in the National Capital Region. From an enterprise-wide perspective, a company out in Palo Alto called BMNT has the lead on bringing the Hacking for Defense methodology into government offices, corporations, and friendly and allied militaries. So there’s a corporate and commercial side to this with BMNT and there’s an education side and that’s H4D.

MM: And for the people who are out there, whether they are currently in the Fleet or listening to our partners at the University of Kiel in Germany or down in Australia, what would you recommend for ways for those people to get involved or to learn about your organization?

CT: First, I’m glad you mentioned Australia. One of our mentors for Hacking for Defense at Georgetown is a gentleman by the name of Jamie Watson and he is an Australian military liaison for innovation and technology. He’s actually helped bring Hacking for Defense to the Australian military already. So if you’re out in Australia, we’re coming to a base near you. BMNT is bringing it out there. If you are a member of the military or intelligence community and you have a particularly difficult problem and you don’t have the capacity to solve it yourself, they should go to H4DI.org and register as a problem sponsor. Darren Halford who runs H4DI.org will help them curate the problems and then get it in to the hands of the right university who can help them solve the problem. We want as many problems as the national security ecosystem can give us and we want to put as many talented graduate students against them as we can. But it has to start with a problem. So for anyone who has a challenge they want looked at, they should go to H4DI.org and start the process.

MM: Obviously the program sponsors and liaisons are very helpful for building this Hacking for Defense system but there are other innovation initiatives happening within the defense community or outside of it. What other organizations have you been working with and what sort of support, whether it’s financial or advocacy or guidance, have you been getting from outside the Hacking for Defense Initiative?

CT: Everyone has been supportive. [Defense Innovation Unit: Experimental] DIUx has been fantastic to us. The Defense Innovation Board has been very involved; Josh Marcuse and Aaron Schumacher from the Defense Innovation Board have been exceptionally supportive of us. The Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum (DEFx), run by Jim Perkins and Ben Taylor, have been all over us. They serve as mentors for us, they get the word out to the innovation community. They very much welcome this new thing into their innovation meadow and we all try to help each other make progress together. I can’t say enough about the Defense Innovation Board, DIUx, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Selva’s office has been exceptionally supportive. And of course our friends at MD5: Jay Harrison, Joe Schuman, and Libbie Prescott have been fantastic to us, as has everyone out at Stanford. It’s a rockstar crew and we couldn’t be happier to be working with all of them.

MM: As you approached these organizations for the first time, were they receptive right off the bat and wanting to work on partnerships and provide support or was it something that you need to sell?

CT: It was not a difficult sell but I’ll tell you what sold everybody is inviting everybody to our opening class at Georgetown. We had 20 students but 113 people in the classroom. And they were all curious about how this Hacking for Defense program was going to work. At the end of the class, everyone was on board. We have routinely 80 people in the classroom every week for 13 weeks working on helping us get better. The corporate partners are fantastic, too. They step up every time. Once the different islands of innovation, like DIUx and Defense Innovation Board, saw it? Sold. It was kind of like finding a kindred spirit in the national security innovation wilderness.

MM: It’s very interesting what you’re working on but we’ve started to reach the end of our interview. As is Sea Control tradition, from time to time, I want to know more about what you’re reading. What things have you been reading recently that will either help the audience learn the ideas behind Hacking for Defense or even unrelated topics?

CT: Since we’re still in the semester, I am focusing on the books that we are using for Hacking for Defense. One of them is called Value Proposition Design by Alex Osterwalder. Steve Blank’s book The Startup Owner’s Manual is one of our texts and it is fantastic. His other book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, is also great. As I mentioned before, it’s important for students to understand how to better have conversations and elicit information so Talking to Humans is a great book. Personally, I just finished Ed Catmell’s book Creativity, Inc which was just amazing to me. I thought it was one of the best books on not only business management but also on how to think through problems. For national security stuff, I’ve become addicted to the Cypher Brief. They do really smart stuff by really smart people. It’s different from what everyone else is doing. I read it every morning.

MM: Everything you’re working on is wonderful. It’s exciting to me personally. I may go down the hall tomorrow when everyone is back to work after Patriot’s Day and talk to the people at the Security Studies Program at Fletcher about maybe trying to start a course like this. Thank you very much for the work you’re doing on behalf of the nation and world security. Thanks for being on Sea Control today.

CT: It’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

Chris Taylor, a global business leader and entrepreneur, is a two-time national security industry CEO. A veteran of 14 years in the Marine Corps, he has an MBA from the College of William & Mary and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Chris serves as an adjunct associate professor of national security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service Security Studies Program where he teaches “The Business of National Security” and “Hacking for Defense.”

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control. He is also Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and CEO of Blue Water Metrics.

Sea Control 132 – Great Power Competition with Jack McCain

By Sally DeBoer and Matt Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Lieutenant Jack McCain, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, about the theme of this year’s Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference: A New Era of Great Power Competition. Joined by recurring special guest Michael DeBoer, the group talks about the role of navies for great powers, the perils of over-reliance on technology, and Jack McCain’s new book Angola, Clausewitz, and the American Way of War.

Download Sea Control 132 – Great Power Competition and Jack McCain

Listen to the audio above or read the transcript below of the conversation between Sally DeBoer (SD), Jack McCain (JM), and Michael DeBoer (MD). Production credits go to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua.

SD: The theme of this year’s conference, A New Era of Great Power Competition? is of particular interest to our listeners here at Sea Control and our readers at CIMSEC. We’ll start off by asking each of our guests to characterize their thoughts on the importance of this discussion in our current dynamic international system. LT McCain, you first – specifically, we’d be interested to hear your take on why this discussion is important for tomorrow’s military and civilian leaders to be having here at NAFAC.

JM: I think this year’s conference topic is very prescient and very present in that this is something that both our youth and our policymakers are beginning to have to grapple with, this idea of are we actually in a new era of great power competition? It is interesting to watch, and the thing I drew out most from this conference is this a whole new set of challenges that my students and our conference participants are being socialized into as a generation. Great power competition is not new to the U.S. or the world, but in the post-Cold War world, the U.S. was in a unique position and didn’t have to consider the nature of great power competition. We probably should have been, but we were lucky in that respect as the last standing superpower. We went back and forth about whether to call the last 25 years a unipolar world, but what really stood out was the sparking of a new conversation to drive some ideation and really examine the implications and realities of just what this great power competition may look like in the future.

MD: I agree with all of that, I thought that the question mark at the end of the theme was a useful exercise. It’s always a useful exercise to take a look at and map the international system and try to understand the landscape, whether that be great power competition or some other different model. I would agree with the premise that it is a new era of great power competition. The only other thing I would add for the Midshipmen is that RADM Kirby’s assertion the first day – that it us useful to see people and interact with people that are different from yourself in views, background, and interests – is always a useful exercise in both academia and independent thought

SD: One thing that I noticed among the panelists and participants was an effort to wrap one’s head around what makes a great power – a lot of that discussion went toward Russia and China. In your opinion what defines a great power?

JM: After spending a week at a round table where the goal was to try to define this issue, I have fewer answers than when I started. Our discussion really led us down a couple of roads, and everyone was in basic agreement that military power is a component of a great power, and it really came down to naval power, which was almost viewed as [the most] important form of military power. It was very interesting, I had juniors in college from civilian institutions bringing up Mahan, which left me both heartened and surprised. I would agree that military power takes a significant role in what determines a great power. I would place more emphasis on military power than economic power, based on the idea that without security, [a] nation can’t survive, but the notion of how that military power, as well as economic and diplomatic power, are utilized was really the interesting part of the conversation in asking the question does a great power also have to be a moral power? Do they have to be a power that other nations, aspiring powers, or revisionist powers, want to emulate? That motivated a significant portion of our conversation in asking does a respect for human rights have to be a part of a great power? A balance of military and economic power are your two core components in my opinion, but the idea of social or cultural power [was also discussed]. The U.S. has consciously or sub-consciously been the sole dominating cultural force for both better and worse for about the last 50 years. Everyone knows rock n’ roll and blue jeans, and the Golden Arches are all over the world, so does that cultural power translate into becoming a great power? I probably would have said yes before the conversation this week, and now I am not so sure.

MD: I guess that I would say that a great power has the ability to shape events outside its own borders, and there are several vehicles to do that. While I think it would be convenient for us to say that naval power is most important in international great power status, I am not necessarily sure that is always true. I certainly think naval power is important, but I think that may not recognize a generation of great powers that were land powers. 19th century Germany, certainly a great power, had limited naval power, or Russia, certainly a great power with limited naval power. I would caution against thinking that the ability to project power overseas is the only way to affect events outside your borders. But, it certainly is extremely helpful and provides a ton of flexibility.

SD: During the Technology and Cyber-Competition Panel, author of Ghost Fleet August Cole told the audience, “The writing process caused the authors to confront some uncomfortable truths.” The American way of war, he said, is predicated on a technical superiority that isn’t necessarily in line with our evolving reality. The reliance on tech creates a vulnerability, and through the lens of great power competition, we should be thinking about the difference between our assumptions about conflict and how conflict will actually be. What are your thoughts on this, and what can the U.S. do to manage, or even socialize, this reality among policymakers?

JM: While thinking about this question, WWII came to mind. When you look at the way the U.S. military views technology [today], it’s very similar to our own attitudes pre-WWII toward the Japanese navy. We believed in our inherent superiority, that one technology (the battleship) would play the biggest role in any naval confrontation. Circumstances after Pearl Harbor drove a refocus, rebalance, and forced us to start thinking about problems in more creative ways than we had anticipated. The true heroes of the Pacific were the submarine and the aircraft carrier, as well as the individual Marine with his rifle. That’s how I started thinking about this – what would force that creative flexibility today? Not only was Ghost Fleet an amazing book, but I agree with Cole that the U.S. military is hyper-focused on technology. You hear innovation in just about every conversation in the U.S. military right now, and this usually implies greater reliance on some sort of tech as a time or space saving utility. What has been so surprising, especially in the cyber realm, is that we believed we knew what cyber ops were going to look like. They would be attacks on infrastructure – but cyber operations or Information Operations have taken a very different tack recently and did not shape up the way we thought they would – things like election influence or the idea of seizing and shaping the strategic narrative through social media, [combined with] overt and convert sources, has been incredible to watch. That is one place that the U.S. is far behind, seizing the strategic narrative. As a democratic society, moving a single narrative is very difficult, as an open and free society – our ability to shape a narrative is countered by what we would have previously believed to be just overt propaganda which is now, due to the power of social media, not necessarily taken as such.

SD: How realistic are our policymakers about this reality and what can policymakers do to socialize this reality?

JM: That’s a tough question – I think without delving into anything political, in a general sense, this is a problem that is going to force policymakers to have to take action. What that action is will be hard to predict, in a liberal society we can’t just censor messages we don’t like. I think having policymakers that can seize on the strategic narrative that is needed to support whatever it is we’re doing will be helpful. Let’s say we are in an era of great power competition, and we’re trying to maintain a narrative offensive against an adversary – we need to make sure it’s a coherent message, shaped by social media and overt policy statements by the U.S. government. Policymakers need to understand the power of social media to shape a message, (which many policymakers understand inherently because it is a fundraising tool) and just how many people will buy into that message because of its nature. The psychological impact of those messages are hopefully going to be realized by policymakers. Short of something catastrophic, this will be an ongoing problem for the U.S.

SD: Mike, I know you had some thoughts in the same realm but more along the lines of military hardware – can you expand?

MD: The U.S. will likely maintain technical superiority – though I would like to say I am a fan of Cole’s and there are areas in which our advantage is eroding – there are areas where we will retain an advantage for some time. I would point to undersea warfare and sensor packages as an example, which I think will continue to exceed anything that any other great power can deploy in the near to mid-term. In the era of combat control and all the interstitial pieces that make up naval warfare, the Chinese and Russian fleets appear to be well far behind. I don’t think we should say this will last forever, but those are places where we could continue to invest and continue to make big strides to maintain major advantages in terms of systems and expertise as we go on. The other thing that’s worth at least keeping a good eye on, though it didn’t come up much in the discussion, but the hemorrhaging of technical capability in cyber both with the Snowden releases and cyber tools becoming available is putting us at a disadvantage in that arena. We need to seriously look at how we deal with the WikiLeaks phenomena and other major defense or national security disclosures, not just in the realm of whistleblowing but at a more macro level.

SD: General Allen’s Forestall address discussed the five global mega-trends affecting the international system as we know it, to include the shift of economic power from West to East, demographic changes, rapid urbanization, the rise of technology, and climate change. Did you agree with the general’s assessment of these mega trends and what can warfighters do to prepare?

JM: Absolutely. First of all, NAFAC was incredibly fortunate to have Gen. Allen come speak, he is a highly esteemed speaker, and he has addressed these five variables several times very articulately, [which] brings to the fore some issues we need to start thinking about as a nation if we are to maintain a great power status. The only caveat I put on that is that today, we have a tendency as a military and as a nation to believe that everything we are facing is a brand new challenge, that this is hyper-new and we have never faced it before. I find that a significant amount of my Plebes coming into the Naval Academy think everything is brand new. So, if I were to rephrase these five things or give an overall label to them, I would say “old problems, new flavor.” None of these changes…even the rise of tech and climate change are issues we haven’t faced in some form or fashion as a human race or as a nation, as a culture or society. They are different, absolutely, but if we stop thinking about them as these massive unknown challenges and look to history to draw context, this is the best way that we can start making a plan for how to address these challenges as a nation. One of the things that a keen policymaker would pay attention to is not the amalgam of all these problems but the flashpoints between them. Any one of these problems can cause a crisis, but when you have say, rapid urbanization, demographic changes, and a shift of economic power, that’s a flashpoint, and that can create conflict overnight. So, it’s not just these five things in isolation or as a monolith either, it’s the interactions between them that will be most important and represent the place where, if we think strategically about it, we can have the most impact. Gen. Allen really gave an excellent speech, I can’t say that enough.

SD: It was a highlight of the whole week for me as well. Mike, did you want to asses anything?

MD: One, I think that was an amazing set of statements, I really agreed with all of them. Gen. Allen was my first commandant at USNA and he is always a joy to listen to, I’ve enjoyed every time he has spoken. The things that I would add are, one, economic predictions, particularly that far out, are sometimes difficult. I think that though economic shifts are going on, they are the most likely factor to be disrupted by changes in the world’s status, and this is difficult to predict. Second, the most likely and most determinative of those is the demographic trends that Gen. Allen discussed. Demographics are certainly a major driver in the Palestinian problem, they are (in our view) driving Russia’s decline, and the China’s older vs. richer debate we’re all familiar with. These are being driven by major demographic changes, and in fact from a human capital perspective the U.S. is doing quite well with a manageable population growth. I think that might be the most “good news” story of the group, though any one of those could also be a source of potential friction, and friction leads to fire eventually. Finally, I thought another interesting thing, and I have no great answer but believe this will be a big problem – are force planning constructs in mega cities. Understanding what the U.S. military had to go through to project power into Sadr city or any of the other massive slums we’ve been operating on the edges of doesn’t paint a joyful picture of what future conflict in such an environment might breed. I believe that will be a strain on ground forces as they try to look at how to really conduct war in hostile places with masses of people – I think that outlines my thoughts.

SD: The rise of near-peer competitors and the effect of that rise on the international system was certainly a central theme of the round tables and panels at NAFAC. If any, what conclusions or consensus did you draw about the rise of proto-peer competitors and what the U.S. should do to maintain its primacy? Did you hear any unique insight to this effect during the course of the conference that you could share with our audience?

JM: To harken back to another point, this idea of technology’s effect, especially social media, on prevailing strategic narratives is something I have been thinking about recently, and was brought to the fore during this conference. What also really stuck out was that there is a lot of concern about China, which I understand, there’s a lot anxiety about it, but if there’s a lesson that can be drawn from the last 16 years of warfare or even longer, it’s that we have a tendency toward fixation as a society with regard to military operations or the general idea of power dynamics in the international system. We like a boogeyman, and we had a convenient one in the USSR for a long time, but this draws our eye off the ball from places that it should be. Just like Korea – that was the last place anyone expected what became the proxy war between the two great powers of the time with China folded in, and that kind of lack of strategic depth puts us at a disadvantage. When we over-focus or hyper-focus, we end up undermining our own ability to think strategically and get sucked into a tactical “how do we deal with tomorrow’s challenges” problem. That was an overarching point. We should try to avoid being hyper-focused on one enemy or problem, because there are many challenges for us to face if we wish to maintain a great power status, and this excessive focus or worry on one of them ends up biting us later on, or at least it]could.

MD: The only thing I would add is that the likely most important thing going forward is to start separating and trying to focus, not narrowly but precisely, on national interest. This means moving back to a model that we became very comfortable with in the Cold War but have lost comfort with. This model is identifying and aggressively pursuing national interest against competitors. This aggressive pursuit is, at times, lacking, not to criticize any individual or administration, I think that we’ve been too expansive and too reductive in defining our national interests, and as we move into an era in which we certainly have competitors interested in playing zero-sum games about national powers, we must become much more steely about the way we implement that national power abroad.

SD: LT McCain, I would like to take a moment specifically to talk to you about your forthcoming book. Can you tell us a little bit about your debut title?

JM: Absolutely! I think I may have been a little overambitious with the title. It is an attempt to sum up all of the thoughts I had in the book, so I rolled them into this ambitious title. It is a short book, it is not something that you’ll have to read over a period of days, it’s only about 115 pages, so it’s not any lengthy endeavor. But, I started this as my graduate thesis, and it grew out of there. When I sat down to think about what I wanted to write, I have always been interested in the South African border war because of my experiences in Africa, it is a conflict that no one discusses, but there is much value in it as a case study. I wanted to write about hybrid war, because as you’ll remember about two years ago hybrid war was the new boogeyman, and hybrid war was going to dominate all future wars and we had better get with the program. So I got on the bandwagon and looked to carve a niche for myself.

As I began researching and brought my own thoughts and experience to bear, I found the title of hybrid warfare to be almost useless; everyone has an idea of what it is or what it looks like, and I started to apply the same thought process to some of our other models. What does counterinsurgency warfare mean? What do we define conventional war as? All of these labels that we have a tendency to compartmentalize operational thinking into were not useful. I went back to my Clausewitz and pulled out a couple of prescient quotes to apply, and to paraphrase, he describes war as a chameleon: the first thing you must do in any conflict is understand the fundamental nature of that specific conflict. You can’t apply another model and expect some sort of miraculous result, it must be treated as unique. That one thought really forced me in several different directions, and I tried to accommodate them through this work, and what it came down to was [this]: Clausewitz has a general theory of warfare, and I use a couple of quotes to draw that out. The U.S. military has gone from the general theory of warfare into what I would call middle-range theories. We use counterinsurgency theory as a way to apply warfare doctrine, we are starting from an operational level and working out (vice strategic) which is not a good way to plan, fight, or execute a war.

The second piece I wanted to examine is the civil-military dialogue between our policymakers and the military. Is it functioning correctly, and in an ideal case what does that relationship look like and do we have it right? The answer I came up with is no, we don’t. As for the military, we are consulted for general advice at times, but in terms of being the foundational partner for strategic decision making, not so much. At the end of the book I talk a little about the Afghan surge and how that decision making process is a microcosm for our decision making and strategic planning. With all that said, I use the South African border war as my case study because there are so many of these “type elements” – unconventional, conventional, tank on tank, tank on armored vehicle, light infantry, clandestine ops – but the South Africans never got wrapped around the axle about what type of war they were fighting, they just fought the war according to the strategy that fit their policy aims. This is one of the perfect ways to execute a war – think about what ways and means will be, balance those, execute, and reassess. I don’t want to give too much away, but I use it as a case study to help inform, hopefully, what can be better strategic decision making with regard to future conflicts.

SD: When can our readers look for your title and where will it be available?

JM: It is available on Amazon, the Kindle version will be up hopefully in a couple of weeks.

SD: We certainly hope you’ll join us again to discuss your research and book in greater detail. It’s been our privilege to participate in the 57th annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference and our honor to have you as our guest here on Sea Control. Thank you for sharing your time with us!

LT John S. McCain IV is a Naval Officer currently serving as an instructor in the Leadership Department at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of Angola, Clausewitz, and the American Way of War.

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC, and also serves as CIMSEC’s Book Review Coordinator. Contact her at President@cimsec.org

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. 

The views herein are the guests’ alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.