Tag Archives: SWO

The Surface Navy: Still in Search of Tactics

By Captain Christopher H. Johnson

A month before deployment, the captain of an Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigate sits quietly in his cabin. With the long process of pre-deployment inspections over and the threatening waters of the Persian Gulf a few short weeks ahead, now, more than ever before, he considers his three line department heads in the context of their impending role as Tactical Action Officers (TAOs) for the ship when it arrives in the Northern Persian Gulf. To this point, these young officers have been measured by their ability to juggle priorities, pass inspections, sustain planned maintenance at acceptable accomplishment levels, keep the squadron staff happy, and perform a number of other administrative tasks. Now they must become tacticians, and a fleeting sense of despair crosses the captain’s mind.

He recalls when he was a lieutenant junior grade serving on a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, and he remembers the officers who taught him. There were operators who could sense what was happening around them with a gut instinct that distinguished them as mariners and naval officers. For a moment, he thinks about his TAOs and realizes that they are different. Yes, the world was simpler when the most complicated weapon on board was a 5-inch/38-caliber gun, but despite new weapons of enormous capability and complexity, today’s officer is better at paperwork than he is at tactics and operations.

The captain also recalls a discouraging afternoon three months ago when the operations officer and three petty officers brought to his cabin every tactical memorandum, tactical note, and Naval Warfare Publication on the ship, as references for new battle orders. Surely, within the tactics library of his ship, there would be the pearls of wisdom he needed for operations in the Persian Gulf.

Instead, he found an endless succession of publications that often dealt with obscure tactical problems and were generally out-of-date, long-winded, rarely insightful, and almost always too complex. As the petty officers packed up the publications and departed, the captain wondered why, after all this effort in tactics, there was so much paper with so little knowledge to show for it.

Now, the same question haunts him again. “I must find a way to make these department heads into tacticians,” he says aloud. “But what are tactics, and how do I prepare a tactician?” His thoughts are interrupted by a knock on his door. “Sorry to bother you, Captain,” booms the executive officer, “but we’ve got to talk about Seaman Jackson and his family problems.”

This captain’s plight is not unusual, but it is dismaying. Where have tactics gone in the modern surface Navy? Perhaps officers are too focused on being managers and administrators, and maybe the emphasis on engineering has diverted them from tactical thinking. Maybe we have accepted the contention that, in an era of overwhelming technical complexity, everything must be reduced to a lifeless, static procedure to be understood. Whatever the cause, the loss of tactics – and the subsequent appearance of hundreds of publications which masquerade as tactics – is a problem that reaches the very heart of our profession. Tactics must be resurrected.

Brilliant success on the battlefield is the object of command as practiced by Spruance, Nimitz, and other great naval tacticians of the past. Such success is not simply the result of perfect methodology, but rather it is rooted in a hierarchy of preparation and thought. First, success requires knowledge of the technical environment in which naval operations take place. Second, it requires specific procedures to guide the operation of combat systems. Third, and most important, it requires tactics.

Tactics build on knowledge and procedure, but go far beyond either. Contrary to the common definition, tactics are not like check-off lists, diagrams, or procedural doctrine. Tactics are the educated process of thought by which a battlefield commander adapts procedure, knowledge, and insight to the situation at hand and molds a winning plan. Tactics, therefore, are characterized by responsive, analytical, and individualized solutions to real-life circumstances. Tactical ideas or procedures may be found in books, publications, or manuals, but tactics rely on ingenuity, instinct, and innovation. Tactics are never a single answer to a generic tactical problem; but a continuous effort to find the right way to undermine, exploit, and beat the enemy.

In the tactician’s mind, the heart of this tactics thought process is his continuous, individual, and deeply personal struggle with an assortment of intangible measurements, including his vision of the mission at hand, its bounds, rules of engagement, sequences, priorities, and urgencies; analysis of the critical capabilities and limitations of own force; experience, courage, and determination; his commitment to the safety of the ship and personnel; an evaluation of the enemy’s frame of mind, liabilities, strength, and mission; and an appreciation of the opportunities provided by geography, environment, or political conditions.

The process has an immediate and an ultimate product. The immediate object of tactics is a real-time vision, or sense of the tactical balance sheet. What are the key opportunities and critical liabilities inherent in the situation? Where are we strong, and where is the enemy weak? What actions will confuse the enemy? How can friendly forces further undermine enemy strength? How can the enemy’s confidence be shaken?

This analysis leads to the ultimate object of tactics: a course of action, springing from inspiration and evaluation of all factors, which will win with minimal cost. To win while taking few losses defines brilliant action and is the indisputable purpose of tactics, inherent in all the greatest naval victories in history. Our country wants us to act boldly and bring our sailors home safely. Sadly, the tactics underpinning this goal have come to be procedures for pitting one weapon against another, rather than a thought process for winning.

It is useful at this point to contrast the tactician with today’s officer who is more accustomed to the role of technician. Technicians live in a world of black and white, focusing exclusively on mechanics and measurements; they are often caught up in an engineering-oriented ethic which asserts that there is a single, discrete solution for every situation. To the technician, combat is a toe-to-toe struggle where the most perfectly designed and operated system wins. Conversely, the tactician sees this technical struggle as essential but subordinate to other vital issues. To him, the engagement is a series of chess moves where the best thinker, the most accomplished facilitator of quick, decisive, and perfectly timed action will win. To the technician, the victory at Midway was fortune; to the tactician, Midway was brilliant tactical instinct reaping its rightful reward.

The tactician also is distinguished from the technician by the breadth of innovative weapons that he brings to bear on the tactical problem. Modern technician-tacticians think in terms of missiles, guns, torpedoes, and mines. These are valid pieces of the tactical problem, but the real tactician also thinks in terms of influences and effects far beyond ordnance. The tactician must consider the aspects of positioning and timing, secrecy, surprise, deception and confusion, demonstration and intimidation, and command and control.

Tacticians strive to anticipate; to be constantly ahead of the enemy; to occupy the high ground; to use land or water conditions to advantage; and never to allow the enemy an open, unobscured, or unambiguous shot. They seek ways to strike first and to preempt the enemy at every juncture. They use weapons envelopes to advantage; they position friendly forces so they can always concentrate fire and support one another while forcing the enemy to scatter his attack. Consider some of the following facets of tactics:

There is nothing as fundamental to warfare as secrecy. The unalerted enemy is an ill-prepared enemy. Without warning, he cannot ready, deploy, instruct, maneuver, position, or effectively command his forces.

Surprise is another quintessential ingredient. The Trojan War, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Grenada, Libya, and Desert Storm were all overwhelming victories because of surprise, a navy’s greatest force multiplier. Not technologically demanding, not requiring budget in the Future Years Defense Plan, and not necessitating field changes, this aspect of tactics consistently achieves victory with minimum loss.

For deception and confusion, the tactician uses the natural cloak of the sea to misdirect, blind, disrupt, or coax an adversary into apathy. The opportunities are endless, limited only by imagination. Merchant shipping lanes, land, emission control, turn-count masking, zig-zag patterns, and mock radio communications all offer opportunities to keep the enemy off-guard, to delay or unravel his tactical plan.

For years, U.S. aircraft carriers always intercepted foreign aircraft at long ranges from the carrier. Such intercepts conveyed the unmistakable message that aircraft could not approach in wartime and hope to survive. It is a superpower’s privilege to sap an enemy’s will and confidence by repeatedly demonstrating how surely and decisively he can be detected and destroyed. A true tactician showcases his abilities in peacetime as a continual, effectual reminder of his inherent superiority.

Perfectly anticipated, precisely controlled action is another mark of the tactician. He collects the right pieces of information to predict the enemy’s next move, and he consistently develops the ability to act more quickly and with more precision than his opponent.

Commanding officers and their key subordinates must embrace these aspects of tactics. Regrettably, the technician has generally eclipsed the tactician, especially in the case of TAOs, which exist on the crease of two powerful interpretations of their role. On one hand, it is fashionable to view the TAO as an automaton whose role is to react to threats with machine-like, button-pushing precision. On the other hand, the TAO’s real purpose is to be the intelligent being who measures the evolving situation and takes every conceivable step to win and keep the ship safe.

If the TAO’s purpose is simply to direct scripted action, then the technician will suffice; if the TAO is there to guide action intelligently and to find resourceful ways to win, however, he must be a tactician first and foremost. With the technician, the CO enters the combat information center (CIC) and sees a TAO bent over the scope, immersed in the mechanics. With the tactician, the CO should see an officer rising above the details with every option in mind, ready to act in ways that are both sure and insightfully adapted to the situation.

Is it possible that modern technology has made tactics irrelevant? Are today’s operations so linked to technical issues or foreordained by combat system mechanics that there is no place for tactics? No, the opposite is true. The advent of modern technology makes greater, not lesser, demands for superb tacticians.

Consider a single navy ship on a critical mission that will take it through a strait guarded by an adversary. On the west side of the strait at least one conventional submarine is on patrol; on the east shore are truck-mounted, anti-ship cruise missiles. In these days of modern weapons, this scenario may seem like a simple matchup of combat systems. Torpedoes, helicopters, and sonars against the submarine; missiles, guns, and electronic warfare against the cruise missiles. The prudent CO will be assured that these weapons are ready and that the procedures for using them are optimized, in place, and practiced.

The tactician, of course, will go one enormous step farther. He will employ tactics. He will measure the situation carefully, looking for opportunities to exploit. Should he transmit on electronic sensors or remain passive? Should he challenge the enemy or avoid him? In what ways should he confuse, delay, deceive, or surprise the enemy? What pieces of tactical information does he require to anticipate the enemy’s moves, and exactly how will he control his ship’s weapons to assure lightning-quick yet accurate responses?

On the west side of the strait, this tactician will probably “attack” the submarine by using merchant shipping lanes, darkness, and darken ship to hide his approach. He will use speed and maneuver to disrupt any track a submarine might gain. He will take his ship through shallow water to confound and outmaneuver the submarine. He will cover his close-in weapon system mount with gray herculite, remove white windscreens, and paint out distinctive white hull numbers to take away any visual cue of his identity. Finally, he will use helicopters to search for periscopes and masts and drive the submarine to depth.

On the other side of the strait, he might avoid the enemy’s attempts to find him by mixing with merchants or by land shadowing; he could shut down his electronic emissions to prevent identification and classification; he might use oil platforms, or other natural obstructions, as shields against an attack; conceivably communications jamming or deception might be used to misdirect or confuse the enemy’s targeting reports.

In this example the tactician dramatically alters the battle equation. More than simply preparing his ship to repel any attack, through tactics he shields his ship from even becoming a target. He achieves the successful transit without confrontation, without having to pit one weapon against another. He has in essence opened up a panorama of tactical options that improves the probability of success and significantly reduces the levels of risk.

Tactics impel commanders not to be slaves to preconceived or formalized procedures. With tactics, the logistics or amphibious ship is not inherently defenseless in these straits, nor should the Aegis cruiser feel compelled by its mystique or its combat system to transit the straits openly, daring the enemy to react.

In this hypothetical situation, as in virtually all offensive and defensive tactical scenarios, the tactician opens a larger sphere of thought and action – and he guarantees success more assuredly than either the warrior or the technician.

Tactics are more vital now to the U.S. Navy than at any time in the past 20 years. Operations in the littoral areas of the world will put navy ships at great risk. At the edge of the sea, detection of modern antiship cruise missiles, mines, and conventional submarines will be difficult, and reaction times will be compressed. Defense in depth, the doctrine of the past, will be impossible so close to shore, and the dwindling number of carriers will reduce the combat power that has so frequently been just over the horizon. Survival will rest increasingly, therefore, on ingenuity, secrecy, deception, speed, and positioning.

Tactics must return to the forefront as a critical element of our profession. Tactics are our highest calling, and ought to be the focus of preparation for our officers, but today they are not. Tactical savvy is no longer our strong point; we have largely become a Navy of technicians and managers instead of tacticians. Reviving tactical proficiency does not require more money, more people, or a new doctrine command. It requires a dedicated, well-organized, and redirected return to the basics of knowledge, procedure, and tactics.

While naval tactics organizations have long pursued tactical knowledge and procedures, their search has been flawed in many significant ways. Efforts routinely confuse information for knowledge and persistently fail to extract from our tactical and technical experience the penetrating insights that support tactical decision making. To a great extent, our tactical procedures, as embodied in current tactical memorandums, tactical notes, and doctrines, lack coherence and essence. They are like having 50 street maps for various American cities without a map of the interstate system to describe how to get from one to another.

They are often unexecutable in a practical scenario and are frequently too complex to be internalized and fully understood by the lieutenant TAOs who must execute them. They fill a vault with their volume yet provide so little satisfaction to the captain. Despite decades of commitment and work, much remains to be done and undone in the area of communicating knowledge and designing procedure.

These well-intentioned efforts, though, are flawed not by lack of dedication but rather by lack of definition and expectation. We are a Navy largely focused on maintenance and are too comfortable with technical details, parameters, and procedures. Accordingly, we are generally satisfied with descriptions of how a combat system operates technically instead of insisting to know how a system performs tactically.

We understand, for example, how various modes of the SPS-49 affect the moving target indicator circuits or make the antenna scan faster, but we do not see the necessity of knowing explicitly how these modes change the radar’s performance against an incoming missile. We know in detail how much power the radar should have without a clear notion of how much power is enough to see targets of interest at suitable ranges. We have failed to extract the concise and meaningful insights required by tacticians to make correct decisions on the battlefield.

In the area of tactical procedures, the story is similar. Efforts at developing tactical procedures, apparently unaware of the tacticians ultimate role in defining tactics, often overstep the logical bounds of procedure, resulting in procedures that are too long, too intricate, and too numerous to be absorbed and understood by operators in the fleet. Moreover, the procedures fall out of date quickly as conditions, assumptions, and intelligence estimates change.

Finally, development and support of the tactics thinking process are even more adrift. As a rule we do not understand the nature of tactics; we do not perceive the essence. We neither nurture this tactical care in our careers nor explain or support it in “tactics” publications. Seniors do not groom it in juniors and frequently fail to employ sound tactics themselves.

The resurrection of tactics, today buried in procedure and cloaked by fundamental misunderstandings of their essential nature – now requires an extraordinary effort. It is essential that the surface community find the few real tacticians in its ranks – not the ones who claim to be tacticians because of their total recall of threat matrices or their superb dexterity on combat system consoles – but the innovative deep thinkers of our time.

These tacticians must be brought together and given a mandate to redesign the entire structure of our tactics effort. They must identify the essential pieces of tactical knowledge which truly support tactical decision making, and they must design a compact and useful system for conveying that information to the fleet. They must sift through the vaults of current tactical publications and identify the quintessential procedures that are the bedrock of effective tactical action. Then, they must distill them into knowable, concise, and simple guidance.

Finally, the core of these tacticians must form a tactics institute for the surface Navy. The institute must become a think-tank charged with exploring the science of tactical operations. They must investigate the envelope of tactical thought to include advancing new concepts of data fusion, analysis, command and control, maneuvering, targeting, positioning, deception, surprise, secrecy, mutual support, and teamwork. Through this institute the surface Navy can begin to ensure that the art of tactics formulation is nurtured in its officers, that suitable curricula for officers in the surface warfare training continuum is developed and supported, and that the commanding officer’s role as a bone fide tactician is established and solidified within the fabric of surface warfare. If we truly want to preserve tactics and tacticians from extinction, we must take radical steps and take them quickly.

As the frigate pulls away from the pier, the captain waves to his wife and family. The deployment has begun, but he agonizes because he is no closer to building tacticians than he was three weeks ago. He sees before him young officers who have been “methodologized,” consumed by the mechanical and procedural tasks which are properly the domain of senior enlisted men. He tries to make them think on their own, to make decisions, to have a vision, but it is slow progress.

He wonders, “Have we gone too far? Can we turn back the tide of administrators and managers and revive tacticians?”

His thoughts are interrupted by a knock on the door. “Trouble, Captain,” says the XO. “We forgot to send in our monthly retention report.”

This article originally featured in the September 1993 issue of USNI Proceedings, read it in its original form here. Reprinted from U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine with permission; Copyright © U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.

Captain Johnson is the program manager for the Advanced Research Project Agency’s Maritime Systems Technology Office. His sea duty includes tours as executive officer USS Ramsey (FFG-2) and commanding officer USS Vandegrift (FFG-48) where he served as antiair warfare coordinator for the Persian Gulf during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. His last shore assignment was Director, Prospective Commanding Officer Course at the Surface Warfare School, Newport, Rhode Island.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (June 25, 2018) The guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) transits the Pacific Ocean while underway conducting operations in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer/Released)

Lost In The Fog: Putting Warfighting Proficiency First in SWO Culture

By Themistocles

Current commentators consider the combination of collisions, groundings, and senior reviews of 2017 to be a watershed event for the Surface Warfare community. Rather than a wakeup call for the community, 2017 should be viewed as a culminating point for the Surface Warfare community overall and the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) culture in particular. Just as Napoleon’s policy objectives failed to bring Europe under his rule, despite brilliant military victories,1 many post-Cold War policy decisions for the Surface Warfare community, as admitted by past and current leadership, were misinformed. In some cases, they appear to have done more harm than good to the Surface Warfare community. More importantly, those changes in policy drove changes in the SWO culture. And, while many people debate the merits of some of those earlier policy decisions, the debate is lost in the fog and the SWO community is missing the real opportunity to reclaim its warfighting excellence by recreating the culture which led to victories within the last century in the same waters in which sailors died in 2017.

By identifying the warfighting traits the community believes necessary to lead, fight, and win at sea, by developing a modern approach to promotions and assignment processes, and by leveraging readily available techniques and solutions in use by leading industrial sectors,2 the SWO community can return to a culture built on warfighting competence and professional proficiency – excellence – that it once exemplified as it stood as the premier community in the Navy. This is no small task. But it is readily doable and doable in short order.

Leveraging Modern Techniques And Solutions To Restore SWO Warfighting Excellence

The national and global competition for talent in business, industry, and academia has driven the development of a variety of techniques and solutions to help organizations win the competition. Current techniques and solutions include compliance with federal and state job application laws, tailored machine reading, and the ability to develop specific questions or processes in an effort to find the right talent. Applicants build their profile and post or submit their resume. Depending on the traits the customer is looking for, applicants are screened. If their profile and resume are assessed to not meet the desired factors, applicants are notified by email that they are no longer needed to participate in the screening process. Or, if they score high enough, applicants may be required to participate in another level of screening in the form of a battery of questions or other online exercises – all before a single human has reviewed their submission. Of course, articles abound about how inhuman and unfair the process has become. However, more and more talent is migrating to these online processes to find employment and more and more organizations are paying for these services in order to win the competition for talent. These existing techniques and solutions could be applied to improve and align warfighting skill sets and proficiency for the SWO community.

Developing the Warfighting Trait Model

For starters, past naval heroes were not rated by the same processes used today. However, unstructured data in the form of biographies, articles, battle reports, and other sources can be processed using current cognitive processing methods to glean or extract a set of character traits common to those past naval heroes deemed to have exhibited warfighting excellence. In parallel, a cadre of junior officers, with very few select retired flag officers as advisors, can separately develop a set of warfighting traits.3 It is essential that the ideal of warfighting excellence is captured by this group. Once both sets of warfighting traits are generated, they are then synthesized into a single warfighting trait model that would exemplify an individual with premier warfighting excellence. With the ideal trait model in hand, the Surface Warfare community can then embark on “scoring” individual warfighting proficiency reflective of its officers’ performance.

Scoring Individual Warfighting Capability

Returning to warfighting excellence to reinvigorate and restore the SWO culture may necessitate a reconsideration of not only the factors by which warfighting excellence is determined but also an expansion of the data set from which those factors are pulled. The existing performance evaluation system and its fitness reports, and how they are used, do not meet the need and do not drive warfighting excellence. Fitness reports serve a purpose and can continue to serve as one source of data for an officer’s performance. However, there are a myriad of unique and high performing skills demonstrated daily in the fleet. Yet, the proficiency with which those skills are performed is not assessed or recorded. Reportedly, every landing onboard an aircraft carrier is an opportunity to rigorously and objectively score the pilot’s performance, and provide critical feedback in the performance of this critical warfighting skill. The Surface Warfare community should immediately adopt an approach similar to that used by Naval Aviation.

For example, the shiphandling skills necessary to get a ship underway may be observed or scored during the Basic Phase or periodically in a simulator, but there are dozens more special details which are not required to be scored. Similarly, ships routinely go alongside for underway replenishment, but this opportunity is lost for assessing shiphandling proficiency.

In a healthy command, the plan-brief-execute-debrief (PBED) process is alive and well, but scoring against community-wide professional standards does not exist. Establishing such standards and scoring an officer’s performance to those standards would contribute to establishing officer’s warfighting capability and proficiency scores. Table 1 lists some of the means to establish an officer’s warfighting scores.

Some aspects of the warfighting scores would necessarily have a temporal component as proficiency degrades over time, especially time spent away from the waterfront. For example, an Executive Officer (XO) who last took a ship alongside for replenishment at sea four years ago would (and should) have their warfighting capability score appropriately degraded. All things being equal, the XO who went alongside yesterday is likely to be much more proficient at that skill than the XO who went alongside four years ago.

Consider other Navy communities such as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Divers, and Aviators. They all have skills that have an “expiration date.” In order to maintain proficiency and prevent triggering a requalification requirement, the skill must be demonstrated at some objectively established periodicity. While the periodicity can be lengthened such that the importance of the qualification is diminished, it must be a consistent standard to restore the warfighting excellence of the SWO community. If maintaining proficiency in basic shiphandling evolutions really is important to the SWO profession and culture, then SWOs will necessarily spend some of their shore duty in shiphandling simulators for their periodic assessments and community leadership will resource the requirement. Going to the Joint Staff for a 22-month tour will not be an excuse for not maintaining proficiency in warfighting skills.

Also listed in Table 1 are those methods that are available to and fully within the purview of a ship’s Commanding Officer (CO). This should help alleviate any concern the community might have on eroding the CO’s ability to lead or develop their wardrooms. While most of the methods are self-explanatory, it should be noted that the scores achieved during the Basic Phase are absent. Fundamentally, the Basic Phase is a training event. As such, introducing those scores into an officer’s warfighting capability score could diminish the training opportunity. In other words, activities that are primarily for training must be treated as such allowing mistakes to be made and learning to occur without concern about an officer’s warfighting capability score. Additionally, a CO’s assessment averages, just as with fitness reports, would need to be tracked as a forcing function to prevent inflating scores.

As an officer approaches a career milestone, such as a selection board or a slate, their warfighting capability score firms up and is then compared to the warfighting trait model. It is this comparison that determines their ranking within their respective cohort. For a selection board, this rank determines whether or not they are selected. Gone are the days where careers are determined by a system which is “as fair and unfair to everyone equally.” A bad briefer will not send the community’s best to “the crunch.” The Board members will know the warfighting trait model and they will be able to see the officer’s score against that model. They will see the score trends over a specific assignment and throughout the officer’s career. This way, warfighting competence and professional proficiency become the primary determinants for selection and assignment.

While most of the discussion has been focused on the determination of an individual’s warfighting capability score and proficiency, similar approaches can be used to assess shipboard teams and the ship as a whole fighting unit.

Slating For Unit Warfighting Excellence

Another benefit of knowing an individual’s warfighting capability score is developing slates which better support the fleet’s warfighting readiness needs by ensuring a ship’s overall warfighting capability score remains above a minimum level through slating officers to that ship using their warfighting capability scores.4 Consider that when a group of individuals come into their slating window, their warfighting capability score is again determined. The group is then ranked and divided into top, middle, and bottom thirds (or quarters). For example, a prospective Department Head who ranks in the top quarter will get slated to a ship where the current Wardroom’s overall warfighting capability score indicates they could use some talent. Of course, there is risk that an officers’ duty preferences will not align with the fleet’s needs, but that issue exists today and will continue to require the same quality engagement by community leaders. Detailers will still need to understand factors listed in Table 2. While Table 2’s factors are important to an officer’s quality of service, they are not factors for determining warfighting excellence. By grouping a slate by quarters or thirds, flexibility is created which allows accommodating factors in Table 2. But, the entering argument for the entire officer slating process is warfighting capability and professional proficiency.

The existence of a strong, objective warfighting excellence scoring system would allow the Surface Warfare community to manage warfighting capability within individual ships and across the fleet. It will provide a means by which the performance of individual ships and the fleet can be improved.

Things to Guard Against

The process of driving the SWO culture back to warfighting excellence and professional proficiency will be challenging and there are those who will fight the change tooth-and-nail. Senior officers will see this as an attack on “their Navy.” Detailers will see this as a challenge to their primary activities. Senior mentors and advocates will see this as an affront to their mentoring and their confederation of mentees. Some will see this approach as a challenge to various support organizations external to DON, such as the Surface Navy Association. Many will immediately start looking for ways to game or manipulate the system, eroding its effectiveness. These things must be anticipated and guarded against as a new process that attempts to change culture will have to face friction posed by existing culture.


If SWO warfighting excellence is the reason that the Surface Warfare Community exists, and if warfighting competence and professional proficiency is the critical need for the current and future maritime warfighting environment, the SWOs must rise to the challenge. By leveraging modern techniques and solutions to develop an objective and rigorous system of assessing warfighting capability for SWOs throughout their career, and by using the warfighting capability scores to make warfighting competence and professional proficiency the centerpiece of promotion and assignment, the SWO community will realize its greatest potential and return to a level of professionalism not seen since the end of World War II.

Themistocles is a pseudonym whose choice is intentional in order to focus on the subject of the article rather than the author. There is also the parallel in the choice of Themistocles that, while some of the ideas presented may not be popular with the establishment, the discussion and discourse prompted by these ideas may again assist in establishing the preeminence of the naval power of the world’s greatest democracy. Statements and opinions expressed in this article represent personal views and not that of the DoD or DoN.


Weldman, Thomas. War, Clausewitz and the Trinity. New York:  Routledge, 2013.

[1] Weldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, 79.

[2] While there is a vibrant debate about what is and what is not ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘machine learning’, and other relatively new terms, this paper focuses on the fact that there are modern techniques and solutions available rather than attempting to define terms which are new, changing and not yet agreed upon by the wealth of experts debating them.

[3] The involvement of and control by current flag and senior naval officers in articulating this set of warfighting traits must be purposefully limited so that an independently developed set of traits can be achieved. The concern is that traits which may have contributed to the current culture will be captured inadvertently. Additionally, the flag officer advisors’ role is to guide the junior officers and constructively challenge their ideas to strengthen their product. The flag officer advisors to have no veto over or approval authority regarding the junior officers’ results.

[4] A unit’s overall warfighting excellence score has further implications in how and when they are employed by operational commanders. However, those possibilities are not discussed here in order to keep the discussion focused on improving the SWO culture.

Featured Image: Pacific Ocean (April 21, 2018) USS Stockdale (DDG 106) fires its Mark 45 Mod 4 5-inch gun during a live fire exercise as part of a Cruiser-Destroyer (CRUDES) Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda A. Hayes/released)

Distributed Lethality and Situational Awareness

By Richard Mosier


The distributed lethality concept represents a distinct change in Surface Navy operations, one that emphasizes the offense, and one that requires the freedom of action only possible under mission orders. Both place heavy reliance on the Surface Action Group (SAG) having information superior to that of the enemy in order to be hard to find and thus avoid attack and achieve the offensive advantage of surprise. This is enabled in large measure by situational awareness: the warfare commanders’ perception of the tactical situation. It is achieved by the continuous collection, correlation, fusion, assimilation and interpretation of information from force organic systems, and nonorganic national, theater, and Navy systems. 

Deconflicting Doctrine

A core element of the distributed lethality concept is that SAG commanders operate under mission orders that allow them the freedom to make tactical decisions, a major change away from the long-standing convention of detailed direction from higher headquarters located ashore or on a CVN with its substantial tactical intelligence decision support capabilities. Consequently, the surface navy has had no driving requirement for the sophisticated Common Tactical Picture (CTP)1 or “plot” capabilities that are now required onboard surface combatants for the situational awareness required for the planning/re-planning, and tactical execution of distributed missions.

Current doctrine regarding the allocation of responsibilities for maintaining the Common Tactical Picture CTP or “plot” is fragmented. In accordance with NWP 3-56, Composite Warfare Doctrine, the Surface Warfare Commander (SUWC), ASW Commander (ASWC), and Air Defense Commander (ADC) are responsible for using all available information to maintain a complete geographic plot for their respective warfare areas. NWP 3-56 also assigns to the Information Operations Warfare Commander (IWC2) responsibility for integrating real time Electronic Surveillance (ES) contact reports with indications,3 and warning4 information. NWP 3-13, Information Operations, assigns the IWC responsibility for achieving and maintaining information superiority; establishing and maintaining the CTP through spectrum awareness; and, for integrating real-time ES contact reports with indications and warning information. Further, NWP 3-56 assigns a Common Tactical Picture Manager (CTPM) responsibility for establishing, maintaining, assuring quality of, and disseminating the fused all-source GENSER CTP. NWP 2-01, Intelligence Support to Naval Operations, describes a concept in which the principal role of intelligence in support of warfare commanders is to characterize the threat and classify all threat targets that may enter the detection range of U.S. or coalition naval forces. It states: “Intelligence correlates and fuses all source data, including intentions, to determine the threat, threat direction, and operational characteristics of the threat platform before the threat platform is detected by own forces.” It further states: “Operational and tactical intelligence support is designed to detect, classify, target, and engage all hostile subsurface threats before they reach maximum effective weapons release range.”

When viewed together, NWP 3-56, NWP 3-13, and NWP 2-01 suggest that the Navy needs a concept and coherent allocation of responsibilities for developing and maintaining the CTP, especially as it applies to a SAG operating in EMCON while executing mission orders.

Impetus for Change 

Changes to current Navy doctrine to accommodate the concept of distributed lethality will be driven by at least two factors. First, to achieve the surprise that is essential for distributed lethality mission success, the SAG will have to operate in RF silence to deny the enemy the opportunity to detect the force with passive RF sensors, one of the primary methods for surveillance of large areas to gain initial location and classification of detected units. All communications to the SAG from supporting entities will have to be routed to and disseminated via narrow and wideband satellite broadcasts such as CIBS-M and GBS. In effect, the SAG gets all the shore support while remaining hard to find thereby minimizing risk of attack.

Second, the surface navy will have to develop and field intra-SAG communications that are sufficient to command and control the force and maintain the CTP but covert enough to minimize the probability of detection and location by the enemy.

PACIFIC OCEAN (June 5, 2008) Chief Engineer, Lt. Dave Ryan, evaluates a tactical image in the combat information center of the guided-missile frigate USS Kauffman (FFG 59) during an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercise with the Chilean navy. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class J.T. Bolestridge)

Third, surface combatants have neither the space nor the systems to support the large intelligence presence such as that found on a CVN or other big deck. This suggests that when in EMCON, the SAG will be more heavily dependent on tactical intelligence provided from shore. Some sensor information such as combat information5 cannot be processed ashore into tactical intelligence in time to meet SAG requirements. Therefore, SAG combatants will require dramatically improved capabilities for automatically integrating tactical intelligence, combat information, and organic force sensor information. Given the criticality of time in tactical decision making, automated information correlation and fusion capabilities are essential. However, their output is never perfect or complete so the crew will have to have the skills, knowledge, and abilities to analyze and resolve ambiguities and conflicts.


Distributed lethality depends on being hard to find and securing the element of surprise enabled by superior situational awareness. With the adoption of the distributed lethality concept, it is essential that the concept and doctrine for establishing and maintaining the CTP be reviewed and optimized to assure warfare commanders enjoy the tactical advantage of decision superiority over an adversary. The clear assignment to the shore intelligence structure of responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, and timeliness of tactical intelligence support to the SAG would result in renewed focus on tactical requirements and renewed appreciation of the critical importance of the clock at the tactical level. Moreover, it would drive a new hard- edged fleet focus on the ability of shore-based tactical intelligence support elements to provide this mission-essential support. The clarification of responsibilities onboard ship for maintaining the CTP would serve to focus attention on the ability of those responsible to maintain situation awareness that comports with the realities of the operating environment. As shortfalls and opportunities are identified, the fleet would refine its requirements for the manning, training, and equipping of surface combatants to achieve the information superiority that is the key to mission success. 

As stated by VADM Rowden in the January 2017 Proceedings: “The force we send forward to control the seas must be powerful, hard to find, hard to kill, and lethal. These are the bedrock tenets of distributed lethality…” The concept has gained wide support in the surface navy and is being adopted as a broader Navy operating concept. Rapid progress is being made by the surface navy under the leadership of the surface warfare Type Commands and OPNAV N96. Changes to doctrine to accommodate command control of operations on mission orders are being investigated. Surface forces are being up-gunned to be more lethal. Surface Warfare Officers are being trained and developed as warfare experts for air, surface, and ASW at the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. This beehive of activity is resulting in rapid progress in all warfare areas except for Information Operations.  

Progress in this fourth foundational warfare area remains in limbo, owed in large measure to unaddressed OPNAV and Type Command organizational relationships and responsibilities for manning, training, readiness, equipping and modernization of the fleet for the planning and conduct of Information Operations. In the absence of progress in this warfare area the success of the distributed lethality is at risk against any near-peer nation with a sophisticated ISR capability.

Richard Mosier is a former naval aviator, intelligence analyst at ONI, OSD/DIA SES 4, and systems engineer specializing in Information Warfare. The views express herein are solely those of the author.


1. Common Tactical Picture — An accurate and complete display of relevant tactical data that integrates tactical information from the multi-tactical data link network, ground network, intelligence network, and sensor networks.  Also called CTP. (JP 3-01)

2. IWC in NWP 3-56, NWP 3-13, and as used in this article is the Navy’s abbreviation for Information Operations Warfare Commander.   It shouldn’t be confused with the Navy’s use of the same abbreviation to denote the Navy’s Information Warfare Community.

3. Indications — In intelligence usage, information in various degrees of evaluation, all of which bear on the intention of a potential enemy to adopt or reject a course of action. (JP 1-02)

4. Warning intelligence — Those intelligence activities intended to detect and report time sensitive intelligence information on foreign developments that forewarn of hostile actions or intention against United States entities, partners, or interests (JP 1-02)

5. Combat Information — Unevaluated data, gathered by or provided directly to the tactical commander which, due to its highly perishable nature or the criticality of the situation, cannot be processed into tactical intelligence in time to satisfy the user’s tactical intelligence requirements. (JP 2-01)

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 27, 2012) Air-Traffic Controller 2nd Class Karina Reid operates the SPN-43 air search radar system while standing approach control aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Petty Officer 2nd Class Gretchen M. Albrecht/Released)

Which Player Are You? Warfare Specialization in Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Jon Hill

The cruisers and destroyers that comprise our Surface Action Groups (SAG) are like the tight end of the figurative maritime football team. The tight end is a great position. The tight end is a jack of all trades. Sadly, this also relegates him to being a master of none. The tight end will inherently never have the speed to outrun a corner nor the size to take on a double team. He will be decent at those things but never great. His job is to be the flexible organic mass compensating for the all-star positions making big plays. Although direly necessary in its limited function, a team cannot be comprised of generic compensating mass alone. Like a tight end’s well-rounded skill set, the generalized load-outs of our CRUDES ships provide a comforting buffer and mission flexibility but dampen our potential lethality. In the immortal words of John Paul Jones, “He who will not risk cannot win.”

We need greater specialization in our Surface Action Groups. We don’t need more tight ends. We need wide receivers who can block and tackles who can catch a pass. These specialists with overlapping mission capabilities will create a more potent offensive force whilst maintaining an appropriate defense. The primary unit tasked with maintaining air superiority will not have to waste precious magazine space beyond minimal anti-surface capabilities because the ship entrusted with that mission area will have the equal and opposite armament to compliment his counterpart. The SAG must be modular and scalable to support the mission objectives laid before them. As easily as a coach can substitute a player, the Navy, too must be ready and flexible. With each ship’s warfare focus clearly defined, commanders will have the ability to add or subtract specific vessels in support of various mission sets and theaters of operation. Assets can be scaled up or down and allocated according to the tactical needs the mission warrants.

The Specialized SAG

Every warship will be commanded by a Weapons Tactics Instructor (WTI). Much like a marine and his rifle, these next generation warriors will be intimately familiar with the weapons they command. The WTI program, although still in its infancy, is guiding the Navy back to its tactical roots. It will create leaders tactically proficient in air, surface, and subsurface warfare areas that will be force multipliers for a SAG. These individuals must be identified and directed towards commands that will capitalize upon their knowledge and skillful utilization of the warship’s capabilities. The Integrated Air and Missile WTI will command ships tasked with air supremacy, the Surface Warfare WTI will command the seas, and so forth with the other WTIs and their respective mission areas. With the increased potency of our offensive capabilities, specialized individuals must be assigned and prioritized to relevant commands to ensure maximum effect with regards to possible kinetic solutions. There must be no wasted Sailors, ships, or munitions in the war to come. We require individuals in our SAGs who can utilize their weapons to the fullest potential.

DAHLGREN, Va. (May 27, 2016) Graduates of the rigorous 19 week Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course pose for a picture with Rear Adm. James W. Kilby, Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (NSMWDC) (left), and Rear Adm. Ronald A. Boxall, Commander, Carrier Strike Group Three (right) at NSMWDC Detachment Dahlgren. Course graduates serve in a production tour as trainers and instructors at critical training and evaluation commands throughout the Navy and then return to operational Fleet command billets following their normal career progression model. (U.S. Navy photo by Information Management Specialist Laurie Buchanan)
DAHLGREN, Va. (May 27, 2016) Graduates of the rigorous 19 week Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course pose for a picture with Rear Adm. James W. Kilby, Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (NSMWDC) (left), and Rear Adm. Ronald A. Boxall, Commander, Carrier Strike Group Three (right) at NSMWDC Detachment Dahlgren. (U.S. Navy photo by Information Management Specialist Laurie Buchanan)

The cruiser will be the de facto SAG leader and primary air coordinator. With its combat suite optimized for an additional command detachment and enhanced command and control capability, the cruiser is a natural choice. Its additional Vertical Launch System cells and fourth Fire Control illuminator make it ideal for ensuring air supremacy for the rest of the SAG. No fewer than two destroyers will accompany the cruiser to bolster air superiority, and to ensure surface or subsurface dominance. They will be specifically configured based upon their warfare specialty and the requirements dictated by the mission and surrounding elements. We need appropriate magazines for these warriors to employ. The primary unit tasked with Air supremacy cannot afford to waste VLS cells on land attack missiles just as the primary Surface commander cannot sacrifice their anti-ship missiles for air beyond the minimum needed for self defense. While a Swiss Army knife is useful in its function, one would never build a house with it.  There is a reason the hammer has been invented.  It is the right tool for the right job not just a tool for a job. 

With the continued proliferation of unmanned vehicles, it will be necessary for an amphibious ship be attached to the SAG as both a staging platform and an invaluable battle force multiplier. The amphibious ship can host the unmanned complement to each specialty commander’s tasking. Instead of Marines and their supporting vehicles, the well decks will be filled with unmanned sub and mine hunters, as well as anti-surface vehicles for use by the SAG’s surface and subsurface commanders. The flight deck will be filled with drones controlled by the air commander. In a war of attrition, these assets will enhance survivability of blue units while increasing lethality to red. Lives need not be unnecessarily risked when we have machines to employ in their stead. The SAG will be given dangerous and pivotal missions in which their tactical ability will need to be without question in an environment where they will take casualties both to personnel and equipment. The amphibious ship will carry reserves of both to ensure the SAG can remain on station. The abundance of drones will supplement the numerically small yet heavily-armed ships comprising the SAG.

Contesting the EM Spectrum

In a world defined by the electromagnetic spectrum, it is no longer enough to attack the equipment. A SAG commander must be continually aware of and decide how to tactically manipulate their profile in a communications-denied and emission-controlled environment. We must instead aim for the operator interpreting the equipment’s reports. Technology will reach a limit where we can no longer overcome it with other technology. It will then be a matter of influencing the perception of the individual making decisions based on the information they receive. When the enemy is searching for a small contact they may pay not attention to the large ones. A single destroyer with the radar cross section of a tanker traveling along shipping lanes warrants no second thought compared to the apparent squad of rowboats making a trans-Pacific journey.  The enemy is looking for strike groups spread over hundreds of miles communicating on every frequency at their disposal and radiating each radar to its full capacity. 

We must use this knowledge to our advantage. In this regard, an Information Warfare commander will take on  greater responsibility for not only individual warships but the SAG as a whole. In concert with Air, Surface, and Subsurface commanders, the IW commander will coordinate the electromagnetic activities of the SAG while monitoring the perception of enemy operators. This warfare area is important for attacking left of the kill chain as the WTI are for attacking right of it. Because of this importance a greater weight must be placed upon IW and experts should be at the forefront in training  other warfare commanders on how to fight effectively in the dark.

While doing this, we must continue to operate as our opposition expects as long as peace allows while training for the eventuality of never being afforded this luxury again. The enemy has been lulled into a safe pattern of recognition due to our over-dependency on our once superior technology. While propagating this impression, it is essential that we develop our ships into perceptual landmines. A single mine found can guard an entire field or waterway and is the quintessential Occam’s Razor of Anti-Access/Area Denial. A warship, completely invisible to the electromagnetic spectrum, capable of unleashing devastation before disappearing once more, will shut down entire sectors of the ocean and control the seas through even the rumors of its presence. There will come a point where modern technology will fail us in our mission. The SAG that trains for this and draws upon antiquated techniques of navigation and war fighting will dominate the seas. 


It is important now to project our power and run up the score to ensure this team cannot hang with us until the fourth quarter. There is nothing wrong with the traditional SAG or the tight end, but he needs a specialized, supporting cast to win decisively. The Navy requires a wide receiver who can catch the long ball when the defense stacks the box and a fullback who can drive it down their throats when the defense shifts to compensate. While the tight end is a key player, rarely has a defense needed to plan their game around one. We too must divest ourselves from this safe yet unimaginative playstyle while not abolishing it completely. We require specialty players who can keep the enemy off balance and force them to adjust their defense. No longer can there be a generic force presented for the opposition to send generic units in response. That’s too easy and too safe. We project the exact power we want them to counter and dictate the pace of play accordingly. Our high impact players will keep the opposition reliant upon us for operational cues until we have ripened the battle space for the traditional tight end to deliver the killing blow. Their continued failure will promote uncertainty and further reinforce our sea power dominance moving forward.

LT Jon Hill is the Fire Control Officer onboard USS Bunker Hill (CG 52). The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of his ship, the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Will Gaskill