Tag Archives: Tactics

The American Wolf Packs: A Case Study in Wartime Adaptation

This article originally featured on Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Dr. F.G. Hoffman

To paraphrase an often ridiculed comment made by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the joint force you have, not necessarily the joint force you need. While some critics found the quip off base, this is actually a well-grounded historical reality. As one scholar has stressed, “War invariably throws up challenges that require states and their militaries to adapt. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for states and militaries to anticipate all of the problems they will face in war, however much they try to do so.”1 To succeed, most military organizations have to adapt in some way, whether in terms of doctrine, structure, weapons, or tasks.

USS Steelhead (SS-280) refitted with 5.25-inch deck gun, April 10, 1945 (retouched by wartime censors) (U.S. Navy)USS Steelhead (SS-280) refitted with 5.25-inch deck gun, April 10, 1945 (retouched by wartime censors) (U.S. Navy)

The Joint Staff’s assessment of the last decade of war recognizes this and suggests that U.S. forces can improve upon their capacity to adapt.2 In particular, that assessment calls for a reinvigoration of lessons learned and shared best practices. But there is much more to truly learning lessons than documenting and sharing experiences immediately after a conflict. If we require an adaptive joint force for the next war, we need a common understanding of what generates rapid learning and adaptability.

The naval Services recently recognized the importance of adaptation. The latest maritime strategy, signed by the leadership of the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard, defines the need to create “a true learning competency,” including “realistic simulation and live, virtual, and constructive scenarios before our people deploy.”3 History teaches that learning does not stop once the fleet deploys and that a true learning competency is based not only on games, drills, and simulations but also on a culture that accepts learning and adaptation as part of war.

This lesson is ably demonstrated by the Navy’s refinement of wolf pack tactics during the Pacific campaign of World War II. The tragic story of defects in U.S. torpedoes is well known, but the Navy’s reluctant adoption of the German U-boat tactics against convoys is not often studied.4 There are lessons in this case study for our joint warfighting community.

The success of the U.S. submarine force in the Pacific is a familiar story. The Sailors of the submarine fleet comprised just 2 percent of the total of U.S. naval manpower, but their boats accounted for 55 percent of all Japanese shipping losses in the war. The 1,300 ships lost included 20 major naval combatants (8 carriers, 1 battleship, and 11 cruisers). Japanese shipping lost 5.5 million tons of cargo, with U.S. submarines accounting for almost 5 million tons.5 This exceeded the total sunk by the Navy’s surface vessels, its carriers, and the U.S. Army Air Corps bombers combined. By August 1944, the Japanese merchant marine was in tatters and unable to support the needs of the civilian economy.6 The submarine campaign (aided by other joint means) thoroughly crippled the Japanese economy.7

This critical contribution was not foreseen during the vaunted war games held in the Naval War College’s Sims Hall or during the annual fleet exercises in the decades preceding the war. Perhaps the Navy hoped to ambush some Japanese navy ships, but the damage to Japanese sea lines of communication was barely studied and never gamed, much less practiced. A blockade employing surface and submarine forces was supposed to be the culminating phase of War Plan Orange, the strategic plan for the Pacific, but it was never expected to be the opening component of U.S. strategy. Submarines were to be used as scouts to identify the enemy’s battle fleet so the modern dreadnoughts and carrier task forces could attack. Alfred Thayer Mahan had eschewed war against commerce, or guerre de course, in his lectures, and his ghost haunted the Navy’s plans for “decisive battles.”8

The postwar assessment from inside the submarine community was telling: “Neither by training nor indoctrination was the U.S. Submarine Force readied for unrestricted warfare.”9 Rather than supporting a campaign of cataclysmic salvos by battleships or opposing battle lines of carrier groups, theirs was a war of attrition enabled by continuous learning and adaptation to create the competencies needed for ultimate success. This learning was not confined to material fixes and technical improvements. The story of the torpedo deficiencies that plagued the fleet in the first 18 months of the Pacific war has been told repeatedly, but the development of the Navy’s own wolf pack tactics is not as familiar a tale. Yet this became one of the key adaptations that enabled the Silent Service to wreak such havoc upon the Japanese war effort. Ironically, a Navy that dismissed commerce raiding, and invested little intellectual effort in studying it, proved ruthlessly effective at pursuing it.10

Learning Culture

One of the Navy’s secret weapons in the interwar era was its learning culture, part of which was Newport’s rigorous education program coupled with war games and simulations. The interaction between the Naval War College and the fleet served to cycle innovative ideas among theorists, strategists, and operators. A tight process of research, strategic concepts, operational simulations, and exercises linked innovative ideas with the realities of naval warfare. The Navy’s Fleet Exercises (FLEXs) were a combination of training and experimentation in innovative tactics and technologies.11 Framed against a clear and explicit operational problem, these FLEXs were conducted under unscripted conditions with opposing sides. Rules were established for evaluating performance and effectiveness, and umpires were assigned to regulate the contest and gauge success at these once-a-year evolutions.

Torpedoed Japanese destroyer IJN Yamakaze photographed through periscope of USS Nautilus, June 25, 1942 (U.S. Navy)Torpedoed Japanese destroyer IJN Yamakaze photographed through periscope of USS Nautilus, June 25, 1942 (U.S. Navy)

Conceptually framed by war games, these exercises became the “enforcers of strategic realism.”12 They provided the Navy’s operational leaders with a realistic laboratory to test steel ships at sea instead of cardboard markers on the floor at Sims Hall. Unlike so many “live” exercises today, these were remarkably free-play, unscripted battle experiments. The fleet’s performance was rigorously explored, critiqued, and ultimately refined by the men who would actually implement War Plan Orange.13 Both the games and exercises “provided a medium that facilitated the transmission of lessons learned, nurtured organizational memory and reinforced the Navy’s organizational ethos.”14 Brutally candid postexercise critiques occurred in open forums in which junior and senior officers examined moves and countermoves. These reflected the Navy’s culture of tackling operational problems in an intellectual, honest, and transparent manner. The Navy benefited from the low-cost “failures” from these exercises.15

Limitations of Peacetime

The exercises, however, had peacetime artificialities that reduced realism and retarded the development of the submarine. These severely limited Navy submarine offensive operations in the early part of World War II.16 With extensive naval aviation participation, the exercises convinced the fleet that submarines were easily found from the air. Thus, the importance of avoiding detection, either from the air or in approaches, became paramount. In the run-up to the war, the Asiatic Squadron commander threatened the relief of submarine commanders if their periscopes were even sighted in exercises or drills.17 This belief in the need for extreme stealth led to the development of and reliance on submerged attack techniques that required commanders to identify and attack targets from under water based entirely on sound bearings. Given the quality of sound detection and sonar technologies of the time, this was a precariously limited tactic of dubious effectiveness.

Technological limitations restricted the Navy’s appreciation for what the submarine could do. The Navy’s operational plans were dominated by high-speed carrier groups and battleships operating at no less than 17 to 20 knots for extended periods, but the Navy’s interwar boats could not keep pace. They were capable of 12 knots on the surface and half that when submerged. They would be far in the wake of the fleet during extended operations. This inadvertently promoted plans to use submarines for more independent operations, which eventually became the mode employed against Japanese commercial shipping in the opening years of the war.

Though they were a highly valuable source of insights at the fleet and campaign levels, the FLEXs had not enforced operational or tactical realism for the submarine crews at the tactical/procedural level. In fact, a generation of crews never heard a live torpedo detonated, proving a perfect match for a generation of torpedoes that were never tested.18 Nor did the Navy practice night attacks in peacetime, although it was quite evident well before Pearl Harbor that German night surface attacks were effective.19 Worse, operating at night was deemed unsafe, and thus night training was overlooked before the war.20 The submarine community’s official history found that the “lack of night experience saddled the American submariners entering the war with a heavy cargo of unsolved combat problems.”21 Once the war began, however, the old tactics had to be quickly discarded, and new attack techniques had to be learned in contact.

Overall, while invaluable for exploring naval aviation’s growing capability, the exercises induced conservative tactics and risk avoidance in the submarine world that were at odds with what the Navy would eventually need in the Pacific. As one Sailor-scholar observed:

Submarines were to be confined to service as scouts and “ambushers.” They were placed under restrictive operating conditions when exercising with surface ships. Years of neglect led to the erosion of tactical expertise and the “calculated recklessness” needed in a successful submarine commander. In its place emerged a pandemic of excessive cautiousness, which spread from the operational realm into the psychology of the submarine community.22

Unrestricted Warfare

Ultimately, as conflict began to look likely, with a correlation of forces not in America’s favor, students and strategists at Newport began to study the use of the submarine’s offensive striking power by attacking Japan’s merchant marine.23 During the spring semester of 1939, strategists argued for the establishment of “war zones” around the fleet upon commencement of hostilities. These areas would be a type of diplomatic exclusion zone, ostensibly to support fleet defense during war. However, the proponents’ intent was to conduct unrestricted warfare aimed at Japan’s long and vulnerable shipping lines.24

Yet there was a gap between what submarines could do and what the emergent plans to conduct unrestricted warfare were calling for. Well before Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s senior leaders understood that unrestricted warfare was a strategic necessity. However, the implications of this change were not acted upon at lower levels in the Navy in the brief era before Pearl Harbor. Doctrine, training, and ample working torpedoes were all lacking. This created the conditions for operational adaptation under fire later.

The Campaign

Due to an insufficient number of boats, limited doctrine, and faulty torpedoes, the submarine force could not claim great success. By the end of 1942, the Pacific Fleet had sent out 350 patrols. Postwar analyses credit these patrols with 180 ships sunk, with a total of 725,000 tons of cargo.25 Although this sounds impressive, over the course of the year, the Navy had sunk the same amount as the German U-boats had in just 2 months in the North Atlantic. This level of achievement was against a Japanese navy that had limited antisubmarine warfare (ASW) expertise and little in the way of radar. The damage inflicted had no impact on Japan’s import of critical resources and commodities, and the campaign could not be seen as a success. The war’s senior submariner, Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, admitted that the submarine force was operating below its potential contribution.26

Tasked with the ruthless elimination of Japanese shipping, the Pacific Fleet was not producing results fast enough. Some of this shortfall was the result of faulty weapons, and some was attributed to the cautious doctrine of the interwar era. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King directed a new approach. He wrote to Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor on April 1, 1943, noting that “effectiveness of operations and availability of submarines indicate desirability, even necessity, to form a tactical group of 4 to 6 submarines trained and indoctrinated in coordinated action for operations such as now set up in Solomons, to be stationed singly or in groups in enemy ship approaches to critical areas.”27 Nimitz immediately directed the implementation of King’s suggestion.28 Interestingly, despite his experience combating U-boats in the Atlantic and protecting the vital sea lines of communication to Europe, King was still oriented toward the employment of submarines against Japanese naval combatants. But in line with the pre–Pearl Harbor vision of unrestricted warfare, the U.S. submarine force was following a strategy of attrition against Tokyo’s merchant shipping, and the Navy submarine force continued to emphasize individual patrols and independent command. They had not been successful in dealing with Japanese warships in critical battles such as Midway. King apparently believed that if they could be properly “trained and indoctrinated in coordinated action,” this shortcoming might be rectified.

At the same time, King was fully engaged with responding to German Kriegsmarine wolf pack tactics, or Rudeltaktik. He was painfully aware how effective they were and was being strongly encouraged by both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to adopt defensive measures since the U-boats critically impaired Great Britain’s war effort.29 Moreover, King was aware that the U.S. Navy was not generating the same aggregate tonnage results as the German navy, and he may have concluded that emulating the Germans could produce better results.30 Lockwood, the commander of Submarine Force Pacific (COMSUBPAC), was certainly well aware of the comparisons; in mid-1942, he wrote that “Germans getting 3 ships a day, Pac not getting one ship.”31 Furthermore, his predecessor as COMSUBPAC issued a five-page summary of German wolf pack tactics via a widely distributed bulletin in January 1943.32

Comparisons between theaters may have driven King to propose the shift, but he may have also detected trends in Japanese ASW that would eventually weaken U.S. submarine effectiveness if changes were not put in place. The operational and tactical context facing the submarine force was increasing in complexity. By 1943, Japanese convoys were becoming larger, more organized, and better protected. The escort command was employing more airplanes and newer techniques for detection and attack.

As Lockwood noted in his memoir, collective action was not unknown to the submarine force. Before the war, experiments had attempted simultaneous attacks by several submarines, but communications between boats were not good enough to ensure safety in peacetime operations. These tactics were cursorily explored late in 1941 but were abandoned due to fears of blue-on-blue incidents and limited communications capabilities.33

Now, however, conditions were different, radar had been perfected, high-frequency radio phones were installed, and communications were vastly improved.34 Coordination could be achieved, but the American submariners had little practice at it. The submarine force would have to investigate new tactics on the fly in the midst of the war. (Somewhat ironically, King called for emulating German submarine tactics just as that force was passing the apex of its operational effectiveness. May 1943 was considered the blackest month for the U-boats in the cruel Battle of the Atlantic.35)

King’s message eliminated debate, but the Pacific submarine fleet took its time to interpret fully the doctrinal and tactical implications of the new approach. As a result, the U.S. Navy did not employ the same approach as the Germans. U-boat wolf packs in the Kriegsmarine were ad hoc and fluid. When Admiral Karl Dönitz received intelligence about the location and character of a convoy, he would direct a number of boats to converge on an area where he expected the convoy to be. He would thus direct the assembly of the wolf pack and coordinate its attack from long distance. There was no on-scene commander or collective attack.36 The U-boats were simply sharks, swarming and attacking at will, or swarming to designated areas when directed. The Atlantic convoys were rather large (30 or more ships), encompassing a relatively wide area. A convergence could bring together as many as a dozen boats swarming around a big convoy but without any on-scene battle management.37 A single U-boat would be easily driven off, but a pack would not be. They would stalk the merchant shipping and pick off the slowest quarry every time.

King’s intervention about collective action proved timely. The Japanese navy did eventually enhance its ASW efforts, employing land-based surveillance, better radars, and more coordination. As the U.S. boats were drawing closer to Japan’s home islands, their targets were hugging closer to shallow waters and staying within air coverage. This raised the risk that American submarines would be identified and attacked.

Concerted action by the submarines could offset these changes in the operating context. Singular attacks would draw all the attention of an escort, ensuring that the U.S. boats were driven deep and away from their wounded targets. Coordination by multiple boats would allow continuous pressure on a Japanese shipping convoy and increase the strangulation that Lockwood was aiming to achieve. Multiple threats would distract the convoy’s protective screen and generate more opportunities out of each convoy that was found.

The U.S. Navy did not embrace German wolf pack doctrine or terminology; the accepted term for the tactic was coordinated attack group (CAG). An innovative submariner, Captain Charles “Swede” Momsen, developed the tactics and commanded the initial U.S. wolf pack in the early fall of 1943.38 American CAGs would initially have a senior commander on scene, but it would not be one of the boat’s skippers, as Lockwood desired to have his older division commanders get wartime experience on boats.39

The investigative phase was exhaustive and deliberate over several months. Experienced submarine commanders, not staff officers, developed the required tactics and communication techniques. In an echo of prewar Newport, discussions evolved into small war games on the floor of a converted hotel, which conveniently had a chessboard floor of black and white tiles. The officers who would conduct these patrols developed their own doctrine and tactics.40 The staff and prospective boat captains tested various ways both to scout for targets and then to assemble into a fighting force once a convoy was detected. War games, drills, and ultimately at-sea trials were conducted to refine a formal doctrine. Momsen drilled his captains in tactics, planning to have three boats attack successively—one boat making the first attack on a convoy, then acting as a trailer while the other two attacked alternately on either flank. He also developed a simple code for use on the new “Talk Between Ships” system so that boats could communicate with each other without being detected or intercepted by the Japanese.

The American approach rejected the rigid, centralized theater command and ad hoc tactical structure of the Germans.41 Consistent with its culture, the U.S. Navy took the opposite approach. CAGs comprised three to four boats under a common tactical commander who was present on scene. Unlike the Germans, these attack groups trained and deployed together as a distinctive element. They patrolled in a designated area under a senior commander and followed a generic attack plan. Other than intelligence regarding potential target convoys, orders came from the senior tactical commander on scene and not from the fleet commander. This tactical doctrine called for successive rather than swarming attacks.42 Subsequently scholars have been critical of these deliberate and sequential attack tactics, which negated surprise and simplified the job of Japanese escorts.43

Strangely, there seems to have been little urgency behind COMSUBPAC’s doctrinal and organizational adaptation. This top-down direction from afar (from Admiral King) appears to have been resisted until met with bottom-up evidence derived from experienced skippers. In the records of this period, Lockwood appears to be guilty of delaying tactics, but captains John “Babe” Brown and Swede Momsen convinced him to have “a change of heart.”44

Lockwood and his team at Submarine Force Pacific did not merely take King’s directive and implement it. He and the commander of U.S. submarines based in Australia, Rear Admiral Ralph Christie, were not in favor of the change in tactics. In his memoirs, Lockwood noted in a single sentence that he was directed to conduct wolf pack tactics by King. He did apply groups of four to six boats in his packs. And while he did develop the doctrine King tasked them to create, he did not apply it as King desired, against military shipping or approaches to critical operational areas. Instead, Lockwood deployed the CAGs to his ruthless campaign of attrition against Japanese commerce. The developmental process was entirely consistent with bottom-up adaptation. Lockwood was permitted to develop the command and control process, tactics, and training program on his own. Centralized command from Pearl Harbor was rejected, which reflected both the traditional Navy culture of command responsibility and autonomy and Lockwood’s appreciation for how Allied direction finding and signals intelligence in the Atlantic were fed by Dönitz’s centralized control and extensive communications.

Even after his change of heart, Lockwood and the submarine force took their time to work out the required doctrine and tactics in an intensive investigatory phase. The first attack group, comprised of the Cero (SS-225), Shad (SS-235), and Grayback (SS-208), was not formed until the summer of 1943. Momsen, who had never been on a combat patrol, was the commodore and rode in Cero. The pack finished its preparations and deployed from Pearl Harbor in late September on its combat patrol from Midway on October 1, 1943, exactly 6 months to the day from King’s message. This was hardly rapid adaptation, given the lessons from both the German success story in the Atlantic and the lack of success in the Pacific.

The initial cruise was deemed a success. Momsen’s CAG arrived in the East China Sea on October 6, 1943. It made a single collective attack on a convoy and was credited with sinking five Japanese ships for 88,000 tons and damaging eight more with a gross tonnage of 63,000 tons. While this met the measures of success that Lockwood wanted, the commanders involved were less than enthusiastic. The comments from the participating captains were generally mixed, with many indicating they would prefer to hunt alone rather than as a member of a group. They believed that the problems of communication were technologically unsolvable and that the risk of fratricide was unavoidable. Moreover, commanders preferred operating and attacking alone—consistent with the Navy’s traditional culture and the community’s enduring preference for independent action (and the rewards that came with it). Momsen, perhaps reflecting an appreciation of the complementing role high-level intelligence could play, recommended centralized command from Pearl Harbor rather than an on-the-scene commander, something Lockwood immediately overruled.45 But various packs were planned and began training. Ingrained conservatism and fear of firing on a friendly vessel framed the emerging tactics. These in practice emphasized “cooperative search” over collective attack.46

Figure 1.

The need to explore innovative tactics was directed from the top, but the Navy leadership was patient in letting local leaders figure out the “how.” The validity of coordinated action grew on commanders such as Lockwood. Whatever reservations they might have held, the American wolf packs continued during the remainder of the year and were a common tactic during 1944. Unlike Dönitz’s Operation Paukenschlag(Drumbeat) in the Atlantic in early 1943, Lockwood’s force began to win the war of attrition in the Pacific. The success was likely due to the combination of finally having defect-free torpedoes and employing new search tactics. But as Lockwood noted in a tactical bulletin, for the first time, tonnage totals between the German effort and that of the American submarine force “now compare favorably.”47

One dramatic case gives an example of how effective CAGs could be. In late July 1944, Commander Lawson “Red” Ramage commanded the USS Parche, part of a wolf pack labeled “Park’s Pirates” after Captain Lew Parks, also aboard the Parche. The Pirates included the USS Steelhead, skippered by Lieutenant Commander Dave Whechel, and the USS Hammerhead, whose skipper was Commander Jack Martin. After a patch of bad weather and poor radio reporting, the Pirates found their quarry. Although frustrated by miscommunications, Martin identified a large Japanese convoy on the evening of July 30. Although it was a long shot, Parks ordered Ramage to give chase, and for 8 hours the Parche chased down the fleeing convoy.

What happened next was a maritime melee. Ramage surfaced inside the convoy in the dark and began a methodical attack, slicing in and around the larger tankers and setting up shots that ranged from only 500 to 800 yards. Ramage’s boat passed within 50 feet of one Japanese corvette on an opposite tack that could not depress its guns enough to strike it.48 The Parche was almost rammed once and was subjected to fire from numerous vessels as it raised havoc with the 17 merchant ships and 6 escorts of Convoy MI-11.

Within 34 minutes, Ramage fired 19 torpedoes and got at least 14 hits. Lockwood credited Parche with 4 ships sunk and 34,000 tons, while the Steelhead got credit for 2 ships of 14,000 tons. Ramage’s epic night surface attack earned him the Medal of Honor.49 His daring rampage was a perfect example of a loosely coordinated attack relying on individual initiative (not unlike a classic U-boat commander’s approach in its execution) rather than formal tactics or a set piece approach that failed to overwhelm the escorts.50

After mid-1944, there were no major adaptations in submarine warfare during the remainder of the Pacific campaign. Ships, doctrine, training, and weapons were highly effective. In a sense, the U.S. submarine war did not truly begin until the CAGs went to sea in late 1943. Until then, it “had been a learning period, a time of testing, of weeding out, of fixing defects in weapons, strategy, and tactics, of waiting for sufficient numbers of submarines and workable torpedoes.”51 Yet within a few months, Japan’s economic lifeline was in tatters.

Exploiting an increased number of boats and the shorter patrol distances afforded by advanced bases in Guam and Saipan, U.S. patrol numbers increased by 50 percent to 520 patrols in 1944. These patrols fired over 6,000 torpedoes, which had become both functional and plentiful. They sank over 600 ships for nearly 3 million tons of shipping. They reduced Japan’s critical imports by 36 percent and cut the merchant fleet in half (from 4.1 million to 2 million tons). While Japanese oil tanker production increased, oil imports dropped severely (see figure).52

Lockwood took wolf packs to a new level in 1945. Now a firmly convinced advocate, he carefully planned an operation with nine boats, operating in three wolf packs, that would traverse the heavily mined entrances of the Sea of Japan.53 The development of an early version of mine-detecting FM sonar allowed boats to detect mines at 700 yards and bypass them. Submarines could now enter mined waters such as the Straits of Tsushima surreptitiously and operate in areas the Japanese mistakenly believed were secure, cutting off the crucial foodstuffs and coal shipments transiting from Korea to Japan. Lockwood’s staff meticulously planned this operation, partially motivated by his desire to avenge the loss of the heroic Commander Dudley Morton and the USS Wahoo in the northern Sea of Japan in fall 1943. Each of the U.S. boats was fitted with FM sonar, and the crews received detailed training in its use. Once they had made the passage and were at their assigned stations in the Sea of Japan, the submarines, working in groups of three, were scheduled to begin a timed attack throughout the area of operations at sunset on June 9. This collective action group was unique in that, instead of gaining an advantage by concentrating their combat power on a single target or convoy, the Hellcats concentrated as a group for their entrance through the narrow Tsushima and then disaggregated. Their simultaneous but distributed attack was designed to shock the Japanese and overwhelm their ability to respond.

In Operation Barney, nine boats led by Captain Earl Hydeman successfully surprised the Japanese and sank 27 vessels in their backyard.54 But it cost Lockwood one of his own boats, as the USS Bonefishunder Lieutenant Commander Lawrence Edge was lost with all hands.55

Without King’s top-down intervention, the adaptation to the use of CAGs may not have been initiated. The success of its adoption, however, was a function of letting local commanders develop their own doctrine. By the end of the war, Lockwood was more enthusiastic about the prospects of the American wolf packs. A total of 65 different wolf packs deployed from Hawaii, and additional groups patrolled out of Australia as well.56 Ironically, they never focused on King’s original intent of serving as ambushers against naval combatants. Instead, the packs remained true to Lockwood’s guerre de course against Japan’s economy.

Cross-Domain Synergies

The historical requirement to adapt in the future may be complicated by the evolving character of modern conflict and the expectation that the joint force will need to gain and exploit cross-domain synergies. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) is predicated upon creating cross-domain synergies to overcome operational challenges. Another element is to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative in time and across domains.57 Some of this synergy will no doubt be gained in peacetime through concerted efforts to improve interoperability. But if cross-domain synergy is to “become a core operating concept,” as suggested by former Chairman General Martin Dempsey (Ret.) in the CCJO, then we need to also expect to seek out new synergies in wartime.58 Here again, the submarine case study—with its numerous technological adaptations (surface and air search radars, sonars, and improved torpedoes) and cooperation with signals intelligence and the Army Air Corps—is evidence that trans-domain learning is both necessary and feasible, even in combat conditions.

This raises a set of critical questions about joint adaptation in tomorrow’s wars. In future conflicts, how prepared will the joint community be to establish test units and create synergistic combinations on the fly? How prepared are we to actively adapt “under fire” as a joint warfighting community? Do we have the right learning mechanisms to create, harvest, and exploit lessons horizontally across the joint force during combat operations? Such horizontal learning has been crucial in successful examples of adaptation in the past.59 Based on this case study, and several others conducted in a formal case study of U.S. military operations, the following recommendations are offered.

Leadership Development. Senior officers should understand how enhanced operational performance is tied to collaborative and open command climates in which junior commanders can be creative, and plans and tactics can be challenged or altered. The importance of mission command should not excuse commanders from oversight or learning, from providing support, or from recognizing good or bad practices for absorption into praxis by other units. Professional military education (PME) programs should develop and promote leaders who remain flexible, question existing paradigms, and can work within teams of diverse backgrounds to generate collaboration and greater creativity. Case studies in military adaptation should be part of PME strategic leadership syllabi.

Cultural Flexibility over Doctrinal Compliance. Joint force commanders should instill cultures and command climates that embrace collaborative and creative problem-solving and display a tolerance for free or critical thinking. Cultures that are controlling or doctrinally dogmatic or that reinforce conformity should not be expected to be adaptive. Commanders should learn how to create climates in which ideas and the advocates of new ideas are stimulated rather than simply tolerated. If institutions are to be successful over the long haul or adaptive in adverse circumstances, promoting imaginative thinking and adaptation is a must.

Learning Mechanisms. Commanders should be prepared to use operations assessments to allow themselves to interpret the many signals and forms of feedback that occur in combat situations. If needed, they may elect to create special action teams or exploit formalized learning teams to identify, capture, and harvest examples of successful adaptation. These teams or units might have to be created to experiment with new tactics or technologies. Commanders should codify a standard process to collect lessons from current operations for rapid horizontal sharing. They have to be prepared to translate insights laterally into modified praxis to operational forces and not just institutionalize these lessons for future campaigns via postconflict changes in doctrine, organization, or education.

Chief Torpedo man Donald E. Walters receives Bronze Star for service aboard USS Parche (SS-384) (U.S. Navy/Darryl L. Baker)Chief Torpedo man Donald E. Walters receives Bronze Star for service aboard USS Parche (SS-384) (U.S. Navy/Darryl L. Baker)

Dissemination. Commanders should invest time in ensuring that lessons and best practices are shared widely and horizontally in real time to enhance performance and are not just loaded into formal information systems. The Israel Defense Forces are exploring practices that make commanders more conscious about recognizing changes in the operating environment from either their own forces or the opponent.60 There may be something to practicing learning in this way and making it the responsibility of a commander instead of a special staff officer.


As Ovid suggested long ago, one can learn from one’s enemies. The U.S. Navy certainly did. The Service did not just emulate the Kriegsmarine; it improved upon its doctrine with tailored tactics and better command and control capabilities. To do so, Navy submarine leaders had to hold some of their own mental models in suspended animation and experiment in theater with alternative concepts. Lessons were not simply harvested from existing patrols and combat experience and plugged into a Joint Universal Lessons Learned System, as is done today. The submarine force had to carve out the resources, staff, and time to investigate new methods in a holistic way from concept to war games to training against live ships.

Because the eventual role of the Silent Service was not anticipated with great foresight, the Americans had to learn while fighting. They accomplished this with great effectiveness, learning and adapting their tactics, training, and techniques. But the ultimate victory was not due entirely to the strategic planning of War Plan Orange. Some success must be credited to the adaptation of the intrepid submarine community.

Ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s superior organizational learning capacity, while at times painfully slow, was brought to bear. The Navy dominated the seas by the end of World War II, and there is much credit to assign to the strategies developed and tested at the Naval War College and the Fleet Exercises of the interwar era. However, a nod must also be given to the Navy’s learning culture of the submarine force during the war. The Service’s wartime “organizational learning dominance” was as critical as the foresight in the interwar period.61 To meet future demands successfully, the ability of our joint force to rapidly create new knowledge and disseminate changes in tactics, doctrine, and hardware will face the same test. 

Dr. F.G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The author would like to thank Dr. T.X. Hammes, Dr. Williamson Murray, and Colonel Pat Garrett, USMC (Ret.), for input on this article.


Theo Farrell, Military Adaptation in Afghanistan, ed. Theo Farrell, Frans Osinga, and James Russell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 18.

Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis, Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations, vol. 1 (Suffolk, VA: The Joint Staff, June 15, 2012).

A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, March 2015), 31.

For a good overview, see Anthony Newpower, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).

Theodore Roscoe, United States Submarine Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1949), 479.

Wilfred Jay Holmes, Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 351.

James M. Scott, “America’s Undersea War on Shipping,” Naval History, December 2014, 18–26.

Ian W. Toll, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942 (New York: Norton, 2012), xxxiv.

Roscoe, 18.

10 Joel Ira Holwitt, “Unrestricted Submarine Victory: The U.S. Submarine Campaign against Japan,” in Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755–2009, ed. Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, October 2013).

11 Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923–1940 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010).

12 Michael Vlahos, “Wargaming, an Enforcer of Strategic Realism,” Naval War College Review (March–April 1986), 7.

13 Nofi, 271.

14 Craig C. Felker, Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 6.

15 Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 75.

16 Nofi, 307.

17 Holmes, 47.

18 Clay Blair, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (New York: Lippincott, 1975), 41; Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the SunThe American War with Japan (New York: Free Press, 1985), 484.

19 Charles A. Lockwood, Sink ’Em All: Submarine Warfare in the Pacific (New York: Dutton, 1951), 52.

20 I.J. Galantin, Take Her Deep! A Submarine Against Japan in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 18.

21 Roscoe, 57.

22 Felker, 62.

23 See J.E. Talbott, “Weapons Development, War Planning, and Policy: The U.S. Navy and the Submarine, 1917–1941,” Naval War College Review (May–June 1984), 53–71; Spector, 54–68, 478–480.

24 Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”: Freedom-of-the-Seas, the U.S. Navy, Fleet Submarines, and the U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Warfare, 1919–1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 479.

25 Blair, Silent Victory, 334–345.

26 Lockwood, Sink ’Em All, 27.

27 Steven Trent Smith, Wolf Pack: The American Submarine Strategy That Helped Defeat Japan (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2003), 50; Lockwood, Sink ’Em All, 87.

28 Smith, 51.

29 Ibid.

30 Galantin, 126.

31 Library of Congress, Lockwood Papers, box 12, folder 63, letter, Lockwood to Admiral Leary, July 11, 1942.

32 National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), RG 313/A16 3 (1), Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific, Tactical Bulletin #1-43, January 2, 1943.

33 Roscoe, 240.

34 Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Hellcats of the Sea (New York: Bantam, 1988), 88.

35 Peter Padfield, War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict During World War II (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1995), 308–336; Michael Gannon, Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies’ Defeat of the German U-boats in May 1943 (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

36 Blair, Silent Victory, 360.

37 Clay Blair, The Hunters, 1939–1942 (New York: Random House, 1998); Michael Gannon, Operation DrumbeatThe Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 89–90.

38 Blair, Silent Victory, 511–516; Roscoe, 240.

39 Library of Congress, Lockwood Papers, box 13, folder 69, letter, Lockwood to Nimitz, May 4, 1943.

40 Galantin, 124–129.

41 Padfield, 85–130.

42 Galantin, 129.

43 Padfield, 404–405.

44 Blair, Silent Victory, 479–480.

45 Roscoe, 241.

46 Ibid., 341.

47 NARA, RG 38, Naval Command Files, box 357, Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific, Tactical Bulletin #6-43, November 22, 1943.

48 Stephen L. Moore, Battle Surface: Lawson “Red” Ramage and the War Patrols of the USS Parche (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 116.

49 Ibid., 110–116.

50 Padfield, 433. On the engagement, see Moore, 101–118. See also War Patrol Report #2, August 1944, available at <http://issuu.com/hnsa/docs/ss-384_parche>.

51 Blair, Silent Victory, 524.

52 Ibid., 791–793; Roscoe, 432–433.

53 The operation is covered in detail in Peter Sasgen, Hellcats: The Epic Story of World War II’s Most Daring Submarine Raid (New York: Caliber, 2010).

54 Holmes, 459–461.

55 NARA, RG 38, Naval Command Files, box 358, “Operation Barney” in Submarine Bulletin II, no. 3 (September 1945), 10–16.

56 See the list at <www.valoratsea.com/wolfpacks.htm>.

57 “Chairman Releases Plan to Build Joint Force 2020,” new release, September 28, 2012, available at <www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=118043>.

58 Cross-domain synergy is a key concept in joint concepts such as the Joint Operational Access Concept and the Chairman’s Concept for Joint Operations. See Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, Joint Force 2020 (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, September 10, 2012), 13.

59 Robert T. Foley, “A Case Study in Horizontal Military Innovation: The German Army, 1916–1918,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 6 (December 2012), 799–827.

60 Raphael D. Marcus, “Military Innovation and Tactical Adaptation in the Israel-Hizbollah Conflict: The Institutionalization of Lesson-Learning in the IDF,” Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no. 4 (2014), 1–29.

61 R. Evan Ellis, “Organizational Learning Dominance,” Comparative Strategy 18, no. 2 (Summer 1999), 191–202.

Featured Image: USS Cuttlefish submerging. (Official USN photo # 80-G-K-3348)

Multidomain Battle: Time for a Campaign of Joint Experimentation

The following originally appeared on Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Kevin M. Woods and Thomas C. Greenwood

The term multidomain has reached beyond mainstream military parlance to dominate defense-related discussions, concept papers, and op-eds. While the idea of operating across warfighting domains is hardly original, the rapid growth of capabilities tied to the newly minted space and cyber domains is forcing a re-examination of all previous military concepts and doctrine. This article explores the debate around multidomain battle (MDB). Developing a new warfighting concept (as opposed to a slogan or bumper sticker) is difficult because new concepts need to demonstrate that they are sufficiently better than the status quo at addressing the challenges and opportunities in order to justify the disruptive effects of the change. This, as it should be, is a high bar.

SOFWERX hosts Cyber Capability Expo at its newest facility in Tampa, Florida, to identify cyber technologies to meet current and future Special Operations Forces requirements, October 19, 2017 (U.S. Air Force/Barry Loo)

The desks of the Pentagon are littered with “transformative” joint warfighting concepts that have appeared with great fanfare only to fall into obscurity. Despite serving as a vehicle to explore ideas, in the end, concepts like Rapid Decisive Operations and Air-Sea Battle failed to move beyond the nascent stage. Some of this can be attributed to a natural resistance to top-down joint concepts, the difficulty of exploring future concepts while maintaining readiness, the lack of coherent institutional processes for examining concepts across organizational boundaries, and, ultimately, the lack of patience for what can be an intellectual slog. As a result, many such efforts were never sufficiently examined so as to generate compelling evidence to drive more than cosmetic changes across the force.

This article advocates two approaches to exploring MDB. The first is to link the MDB concept to the existing body of available evidence. The second is to generate new evidence through experimentation. These approaches are offered not because Service concept developers have not already begun this process—as evidenced by the MDB draft concepts and plans for U.S. Army MDB experimentation in 2018 and 2019. Rather, this article argues that in addition to the bottom-up development of what could arguably be deemed a joint concept, there should also be a parallel effort to explore the top-down or explicit joint, theater-level implications of MDB.

The term multidomain itself is most often used as a modifier for a particular application of military force, such as (multidomain) battles, (multidomain) operations, or (cross or multidomain) fires; however, more substantially, MDB promises more fluid, adaptive, and effective operations simultaneously across five domains (land, sea, air, space, and cyber). Although operations are conducted in and occasionally across these five domains, the promise of a concept that makes domain integration the norm and not the exception is a tall order. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The logic of MDB’s underlying tenets is widely accepted, but that is not the same as demonstrating the concept’s viability. Will the application of a multidomain approach enable the Department of Defense (DOD) to overcome current warfighting challenges? Will it allow the Services to seize new opportunities? Or, instead, will MDB distract the Services from restoring atrophied conventional warfighting capabilities? Perhaps more importantly, can MDB serve as a unifying concept that DOD business processes can be organized around for the development of future concepts and capabilities?

MDB is a future concept (perhaps near-future, but future nonetheless). As such, it “must be stated explicitly in order to be understood, debated and tested to influence the development process.”1 The maturation of a concept is a critical first step in the birth of any capability. Concepts are narrative descriptions of suppositions formulated from historical and contemporary experiences; however, as debatable propositions, they must be validated before they transition from concept to capability. This requires settling the debatable elements. This article thus argues that concepts on the scale of MDB require a campaign of experimentation that provides compelling evidence for the concept by fleshing out its operational and institutional contexts.2

The State of the Debate

Proponents of the emerging MDB concept make the case that the joint force must adapt to the times, or, as one author put it, “multi-domain battle . . . doctrine is being developed to address the interconnected, Omni domain battlespace of the 21st Century.”3 One of MDB’s strongest proponents, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, argues that “MDB conceptualizes bringing jointness further down to the tactical level [by] allowing smaller echelons to communicate and coordinate directly while fighting in a decentralized manner.”4 Regardless of the operating theater and specific mission, tactical-level MDB operations, noted U.S. Army Pacific Commander General Robert Brown, will drive the Services to “change their distinct Service cultures to a culture of inclusion and openness, focusing on a purple (or joint) first mentality.”5 Rhetorically, at least, the emerging MDB concept is progressing from the often stated but little realized goal of Service deconfliction to increasing interdependency and, in the optimistic version of MDB, seamlessly integrated operations across domains.6

MDB critics dismiss its significance by arguing that it is old wine in a new bottle.7 Even proponents agree that the “idea and desire for cross-domain effects is not new” but contend the traditional Service-domain alignments are inadequate for coping with the new security environment.8 A more fundamental challenge is made by those arguing that the categorization of future war by domain—especially but not limited to the cyber domain—is neither logical nor practical. As one observer notes, “the word [domain] contains some built-in assumptions regarding how we view warfare that can limit our thinking . . . [and] could actually pose an intractable conceptual threat to an integrated joint force.”9

Joining the critics are the cynics, some of whom see MDB’s real purpose as programmatic: a ploy to restore or preserve force structure by returning land power to the tip of the spear in joint operations.10 Others see the concept as requiring deep institutional reforms that are simply unattainable.11 As one pessimist argued, “without consistently organizing, training, and equipping as a joint team, the Services will be ill-prepared to provide multi-domain capable forces to combatant commanders, continuing history’s trend of falling short of the vision of jointness.”12 The institutional questions loom large here. At one end of the spectrum there are calls to form separate Services for the space and cyber domains.13 At the other end, one MDB proponent provides fodder for the cynics by arguing that the only way to implement MDB is to create a single force and eliminate the independent Services.14

Running parallel to the ongoing MDB debate are distinct theater versions of the concept. Because practice trumps theory in the application of military force, how the MDB concept evolves will be strongly influenced by how the operating theaters find a way to employ its promise.

In the Pacific, where much of the initial energy behind the cross-domain idea began, MDB has been described as:

ground-based batteries of anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-ship weapons, supported by long-range sensors and jammers, that can strike targets well out to sea. Islands defended by such Army batteries (or Marine Corps outposts) could serve as unsinkable anvils, with the Navy and the Air Force as the highly mobile hammers.15

In support of developing MDB, the Army has recently established a Multi-Domain Task Force in U.S. Army Pacific to accelerate the process of overcoming the tactical and technical challenges associated with reincarnating the Army’s capability to “sink ships.”16 This bottom-up approach to building a joint capability, as one commentator noted, has the potential to simultaneously work toward joint interoperability, interdependence, and integration. But this may fall short of answering how the Services can organize, train, and equip themselves to sustain the readiness required to operate as an MDB capable force.17

Meanwhile in Europe, the Army is offering MDB as a conceptual solution to a different, but in many ways familiar, problem set. The Russian army is no longer the colossus of the Cold War era, but it still presents the challenge of mass. Whereas the Russia’s army does not boast a raw-troop-strength advantage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is threatening a multidomain equivalence in long-range missiles, rockets, drones, sophisticated cyber attacks, jamming, and an integrated information campaign.18 The solution, argues the commander of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, is to take the multidomain fight to the adversary:

AirLand Battle started developing the concept of “extended battlefield.” This concept noted that different commanders had different views of the battlefield in geographical terms. [MDB] continues the concept of extended battlefield but now with a focus on the extension across domains and time. . . . [MDB] endeavors to integrate capabilities in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another, creating and exploiting temporary windows of advantage.19

This NATO-centric version of the MDB development process explicitly argues that, just as the earlier Soviet threat drove large-scale change in the U.S. military’s warfighting doctrines, the new Russian threat will drive long-overdue updates to Army force structure and critical warfighting capabilities, especially in the areas of long-range fires and cyber/electronic warfare.20

It is clear, then, that there are multiple lenses through which one can view the emerging MDB concept. Each perspective brings a unique set of operational and institutional contexts to the process of concept development. Having a unique perspective can be a healthy part of a robust debate, but progress requires an agreed-upon set of facts, or, in the case of an emerging concept, a common basis of evidence. The concept development challenge is to generate credible evidence that is relevant to decisionmakers from across the tactical-operational and conceptual-institutional divides.

The Emerging MDB Concept

According to a new Army–Marine Corps white paper, the MDB concept “describes how U.S. and partner forces organize and employ capabilities to project and apply power across domains, environments, and function over time and physical space to contest adversaries in relative ‘peace’ and, when required, defeat them in ‘war.’”21 The white paper posits three key tenets or “interrelated components of the solution,” as they are so labeled in the document.

First, MDB requires appropriate force posture for the “calibration of forward presence, expeditionary forces, and integration of partner capabilities to deter the adversary and, when necessary, defeat the enemy’s fait accompli campaign.” The latter is defined as an enemy campaign that seeks to rapidly achieve military and political objectives before an allied response can be generated. Next, MDB will be executed by resilient forces that “can operate semi-independently in the expanded operational area while projecting power into or accessing all domains.” Headquarters elements will use a mission command philosophy to integrate operations with advanced capabilities. Finally, converging joint force capabilities will “detect and create physical, virtual, and cognitive windows of advantage” during the three phases of an MDB campaign: competition, defeat the enemy in armed conflict, and return to competition. The white paper concludes by offering that the MDB concept allows U.S. forces to outmaneuver adversaries physically, virtually, and cognitively, applying combined arms in and across all domains. It provides a flexible means to present multiple dilemmas to an enemy by converging capabilities from multiple domains to create windows of advantage enabling friendly forces to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to defeat enemies and achieve campaign objectives. Employing the ideas in this concept, the Joint Force can credibly deter adversary aggression, defeat actions short of armed conflict, deny the enemy freedom of action, overcome enemy defenses, control terrain, compel outcomes, and consolidate gains for sustainable results.

While these three tenets establish a useful framework for institutional considerations of the concept, they do not capture some of the explicit and tacit implications of MDB’s potential utility in a theater or joint campaign. To that end, this article offers the following four attributes, derived from the current MDB concept, as potentially useful in developing a joint campaign of experimentation to better understand the concept and to develop evidence for or against its military utility in the joint force.

First, despite the battle suffix, MDB may have more to do with campaigns than tactical actions. The battle aspects required to create windows of advantage are a necessary precondition to creating decisive overmatch.22 However, various descriptions point to an operational-level concept designed to maneuver friendly forces—and direct their kinetic and nonkinetic fires or effects—simultaneously across five domains.

Second, overmatch in one domain may trigger cross-domain multiplier effects that theater commanders can leverage to bypass, unhinge, and defeat an enemy. This, of course, works in both directions, which is why failing to adequately defend the force across multiple domains may have an outsize impact on war termination.23

Third, cyber and space domains may become tomorrow’s most valued battlespace given U.S. force dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum and satellite-enabled intelligence and communications. The continued development of sophisticated cyber weapons and employment means—as well as the direct and indirect weaponization of space—could exacerbate this trend.

Fourth, MDB implies the need to reexamine our approach to joint command and control. The authorities needed by geographic combatant commanders charged with planning, coordinating, integrating, deploying, and employing forces (and their effects) simultaneously across five domains will increasingly challenge the very concept of boundaries and the traditional relationships used to conduct joint campaigns.

The MDB concept remains more aspirational than practical at this point. To overcome the cognitive challenges and bureaucratic inertia described earlier, the concept needs to demonstrate that it is both more than the sum of its parts and sufficiently better than the status quo.

Operational Antecedents: Two Case Studies

Historical case studies aid the concept development process by contextualizing the problem. As critics and proponents alike have noted, “cross-domain” or combined arms operations stretch back into antiquity. The following case studies offer two examples of multidomain operations. Like any case study, some imagination is required to place the perceptions of the past into a future context. These cases provide some insights for how cross-domain capabilities, applied primarily at the tactical level, can have outsize operational implications.

Guadalcanal. The conceptual assumption in MDB is that the joint force commander must leverage the interdependencies occurring between diverse operational activities simultaneously across multiple domains. It is not enough just to manage, coordinate, deconflict, and integrate. In his 1987 article “Thinking About Warfare,” Lieutenant General Phillip D. Shutler, USMC (Ret.), used the 1942 South Pacific campaign to highlight the three strategic pathways (primarily air, sea, and undersea) that U.S. forces had to successfully transit during World War II before they could project combat power overseas. Although he labeled the strategic pathways regimes instead of domains, the underlying concept remains the same.

Shutler observed that once enemy airfield construction on Guadalcanal was completed, Japanese land-based aircraft were capable of attacking U.S. planes stationed 500 miles to the southeast on Espiritu Santo—threatening the supply lines connecting the United States with Australia and New Zealand. Accordingly, the Marines were ordered to seize the airfield on Guadalcanal to deny its use to the Japanese. In other words, U.S. land forces, in effect, were directed to create an antiair warfare shield at Guadalcanal to protect Espiritu Santo. But as the operational campaign progressed, the Marines’ (and later the Army’s) mission shifted from antiair warfare to enabling U.S. land-based aircraft to support subsequent island-hopping battles to the north and the eventual reduction of the Japanese strongpoint on Rabaul.

Initial success, however, required the United States to prevent Japanese ground forces from reinforcing Guadalcanal. A successful landing would have turned the battle into yet another symmetrical and protracted, single-domain, attritional fight between opposing land forces—both of whom sought to control the airfield. As Shutler noted, accomplishing this required U.S. submarines, surface ships, and naval aviation to establish maritime and aviation “shields” (that is, anti-submarine, anti-surface, antiair defenses) that the Japanese had to penetrate before their ground reinforcements could reach Guadalcanal.24

During the critical phases of the campaign, Japanese forces were unable to effectively penetrate the “multidomain” defensive shields, and the Marines were able to preserve their tactical overmatch ashore on Guadalcanal (approximately 11,000 Marines against 2,000 entrenched Japanese, many of whom were civilian laborers). The tipping point occurred on November 14, 1942, when U.S. naval forces attacked and sank seven Japanese troop transports that were carrying approximately 7,000 embarked Japanese troops trying to reinforce Guadalcanal.25 Although the Japanese did partially penetrate the U.S. shields during the campaign, they were unable to do so with sufficient combat power to alter the battle’s outcome.

Once U.S. air operations began at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, a multiplier effect occurred because the Japanese fleet was largely restricted to conducting night operations. This was due in part to additive U.S. airpower projected from ashore and concomitant flexibility gained from an untethered U.S. fleet that could inflict serious losses on Japanese shipping during daylight hours. This reduced Japanese flexibility and freedom of maneuver with implications well beyond the tactical area of operations and marked the start of the U.S. island-hopping campaign.

Like many similar operations in the Pacific theater, Guadalcanal had only marginal tactical utility as an island except for its value to the air domain. The airfield was the operational lynchpin that was denied to the enemy by adroit integration of multidomain activities on the land, sea, and in the air. This further enabled U.S. land-based airpower to support the drive from the Solomon Islands northward into the Central Pacific and eventually to the Japanese homeland.26

Falkland Islands. Almost 40 years after Guadalcanal, we can observe the same multiplier effect in a more modern campaign—the 1982 Battle of the Falklands—that revolved around a centuries-old territorial dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands.27 Like the U.S. fleet in the Solomon’s Campaign, the United Kingdom established maritime and antiair shields around the Falklands in order to isolate the objective area, protect Royal Navy/Marines amphibious operations, and deny Buenos Aires the ability to reinforce its forces.

Multidomain actions in the Falklands campaign were numerous, and the multiplier effects these actions had on the campaign’s outcome were significant. The sinking of the 13,500-ton Argentine cruiser General Belgrano (armed with 15 6-inch guns and 8 5-inch guns) by three conventional torpedoes fired from the British nuclear submarine Conqueror took the lives of 323 Argentine sailors (slightly more than half of their total casualties suffered during the war). But more importantly, this action had a cross-domain effect that forced the Argentine surface navy to remain inside its territorial waters for the duration of the campaign.28 Additionally, the sinking of the Belgrano dramatically relieved naval surface pressure on Great Britain’s fleet operating in the Falkland littorals, which in turn allowed Royal Navy vessels on picket duty more time to visually detect Argentine aircraft being launched from the mainland and alert the British Task Force.29

The multiplier effect continued when British special operations forces, supported by naval gunfire, conducted an amphibious raid on Pebble Island to further reduce the Argentine air threat. The raid destroyed 11 forward-based Argentine aircraft. While Argentine helicopters and light aircraft were subsequently dispersed around the islands, the raid forced Argentina to withdraw most of its high-performance aircraft 400 miles back to the mainland.30 Thus, Argentine aircraft were required to fight at their maximum operating radius, which greatly reduced their time on station (Argentina had only limited aerial refueling capability). This was a major advantage for Great Britain’s amphibious fleet and embarked ground forces, who were worried they would not have air superiority during the amphibious landing.

Dismissing the Falklands as nothing more than a creative use of limited assets under extreme conditions risks overlooking key multidomain insights that contributed to operational success. If the notion of achieving dominance in one or more warfighting domains is a thing of the past, then learning to leverage a broader but perhaps relatively less robust toolkit is necessary. To modify a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill, “Gentlemen we are out of overwhelming resources; Now we must think.”31

It might be easy to dismiss military case studies of the previous century as irrelevant to the challenges faced when looking forward into the current one. But it is worth considering how these multiple domains were integrated in the first place. The process (including technical, conceptual, and instructional efforts) of integrating new-fangled flying machines into the traditional warfighting domains of the land and sea began decades before a mature concept. It was not a straight line or a preordained outcome. The associated technologies and tactical concepts were leavened by decades of peacetime “experimentation” and wartime adaptation. The resulting capabilities for presenting an adversary with multiple, simultaneous dilemmas across domains changed the way the United States fights at both the tactical and operational levels of war.

Developing Evidence

The second source of evidence with which to examine the viability of the MDB concept is to look at it from operational perspectives and across a range of contexts. To do this, DOD should subject the MDB concept and its supporting tenets to a rigorous campaign of joint experimentation—even as the specific capabilities are still being developed. Joint experimentation in this context is an inclusive phrase meant to indicate the exploration of ideas, assumptions, and crucial elements of nascent MDB capabilities. To be clear, joint experimentation covers a wide range of activities (from structured seminars, virtual and constructive environments, to field events) and should be seen as complementary or undertaken in parallel with the development of specific capabilities or tactical employment concepts.

We employ the term campaign in association with joint experimentation to indicate that no single event can generate the quality or variety of necessary data. Moreover, only an experimentation campaign utilizing iterative activities with learning feedback loops (including workshops, wargames, constructive and virtual simulation, and live field events) can generate sufficient evidence to genuinely assess what it will take to realize, adapt, or abandon the MDB idea.

In terms of military experimentation, no single method has ever worked. The complex nature of military problems, and especially ones with interactions across five domains, argues for diverse forms of “discovery experimentation” to introduce novel systems, concepts, organizational structures, and technologies into settings where their use can be observed and Red Teamed.32 The results of such a comprehensive assessment will help identify MDB similarities and differences between the theaters, and will inform future doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy initiatives that must be addressed before MDB can become a deployable set of capabilities.

Airman aboard KC-135 Stratotanker participates in Red Flag 16-3, one of four Red Flag exercises that focuses on multidomain operations in air, space, and cyberspace, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 18, 2016 (U.S. Air Force/David Salanitri)

One of the most complex challenges in debates about future joint concepts is not the concept per se; it is the nature of jointness as practiced in a post–U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) environment. Without digressing too far into the history of USJFCOM’s role in joint concept development and experimentation, it is worth contrasting the contexts. Formed in 1999, USJFCOM developed a generally top-down approach to joint concept development and experimentation. While this approach had some advantages, it often resulted in excessively large experiments, with the Services playing a limited or marginally productive role. When USJFCOM was disestablished in 2011, joint concept development reverted to the Joint Staff J7, whose time and resources for experimentation was more limited.33 More recently, Service or multi-Service–led efforts to develop and experiment with new joint concepts are increasing. This can be seen as a bottom-up, collaborative effort. While this approach has many practical advantages over the top-down approach, it is not without challenges—a key one being that the longer joint stakeholders (that is, combatant commands and prospective joint force commanders) remain spectators to the Service-dominated joint experimentation process, the less likely MDB’s theater-wide and strategic-level implications will be subjected to a full examination by the customer.

Under Joint Staff policy for concept development, experimentation begins after concept development. This may be adequate for narrow concepts or mission/domain capabilities where one Service has the lead. But this approach seems ill-suited for complex and multifaceted warfighting concepts such as MDB. As the two case studies indicate, cross-domain overmatch and multiplier effects are often discovered and subsequently leveraged in the course of operations. Early discovery experimentation with some level of joint analysis and sponsorship is essential. Not only will such early experiments increase the capacity to do joint experimentation, but they can also help co-develop Service concepts within a joint context.

As noted at the outset of this article, the MDB debate at this stage is a useful set of thought experiments, but it is not producing tangible evidence. Such evidence would shift the debate from a primarily subjective one to a more balanced and objective conversation. However, the recent history of joint concept development and the very nature of institutional jointness as practiced in DOD are not encouraging. According to the Joint Staff, joint concepts are assessed “using various analytical methods; the joint concept community evaluates both developing and approved concepts to determine whether they are feasible and promote informed decisions on developing new joint capabilities.”34

One potentially more lucrative approach would be to embark on a series of parallel joint discovery experiments designed to identify the specific characteristics, demands, and challenges associated with assessing the feasibility of MDB transcending theater-specific applications to serve as a more universal warfighting concept. Such a joint discovery experiment has historically been at the heart of military experimentation.35

The objective of discovery experiments is to learn, so it is useful to begin with a set of well-defined conceptual and operational conditions. One does not seek a well-defined “concept,” rather a statement of the military problem and a clear understanding of the initial military context. The discovery experimentation approach, supported by an initial data collection plan, is designed to tinker with the variables, modify the conditions, and challenge the assumptions and constraints in a way that dynamically helps refine a nascent concept and identify the kinds of capabilities worth considering. This notion of progressive learning through experimentation generates feedback that enables concept framing, definition, and refinement to occur dynamically.

The ability to use experimentation to explore the utility of emerging technologies and concepts is a force multiplier. Technology cannot be optimized until its impact on warfighting concepts and doctrine is fully appreciated. According to the National Academy of Sciences in a study done for the Navy:

By simulating future systems, [military commanders] can also learn how those systems will work in simulated combat environments and how to use forces equipped with such proposed systems. By such means they can explore new ideas and concepts for the use of variously composed and equipped forces against diverse anticipated threats, and they can learn how to integrate such forces on a large scale in the joint and combined force environment.36

One major challenge in calling for more joint experimentation is the large gap between the operating environment envisioned in the MDB concept and the availability of validated models and simulations. Earlier efforts to support joint analyses (both constructive and human-in-the-loop) with custom designed joint models “amounted to a costly failure with little or no resulting joint analysis capability gain for the Department.”37 Nevertheless, progress in MDB will require some capability to integrate space, cyber, and electromagnetic effects into models designed to explore the interaction of new capabilities and human decisionmaking. Any effort to explore MDB in a joint context must include an effort to integrate existing Service modeling and simulation tools (in the same bottom-up approach discussed here). This will help the Services to operate across new domains in support of specific joint priorities instead of attempting to create a standalone, top-down modeling and simulation solution.

Discovery experimentation is not a free-for-all, but a deliberately crafted and planned approach for addressing an issue long before it becomes a pressing problem. It allows operators to interact with new or potential concepts and capabilities to explore their military utility—something that is not often supported through traditional studies or hypothesis-based experiments. It requires careful attention to the specification and collection of data that will provide solid evidence for the conclusions reached by conducting experiments. If all these constraints are observed, discovery experimentation could be a valuable tool and a useful “way of weeding out ideas that simply do not work, forcing the community to ask rigorous questions about the benefits being sought and the dynamics involved in implementing the idea, or specifying the limiting conditions.”38

It is time to subject the MDB concept to discovery experimentation. To modify slightly Sir Michael Howard’s admonition about future doctrine, it is the “task of military science in the age of peace to prevent new capabilities from being too badly wrong” when the next war starts.39 

Dr. Kevin M. Woods is Deputy Director of the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Colonel Thomas C. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.), is a Researcher at IDA.


1. John F. Schmitt, A Practical Guide for Developing and Writing Military Concepts, Defense Adaptive Red Team Working Paper #02-4 (McLean, VA: Hicks & Associates, December 2002), 4, available at <www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/writing/dart_paper_writing_mil_concepts.pdf>.

2. An experiment campaign consists of “a set of experiments, complementary analyses, and synthesis activities . . . conceived, orchestrated, and harvested” in order to better understand the complex issues associated with a warfighting concept. See David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes, Campaigns of Experimentation: Pathways to Transformation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2005), 4.

3. Amos C. Fox, “Multi-Domain Battle: A Perspective on the Salient Features of an Emerging Operational Doctrine,” Small Wars Journal, May 21, 2017.

4. Senate Armed Services Committee, Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., USN, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, on U.S. Pacific Command Posture, April 27, 2017, 19.

5. Robert B. Brown, “The Indo-Asia Pacific and the Multi-Domain Battle Concept,” March 20, 2017, available at <www.army.mil/article/184551/the_indo_asia_ pacific_and_the_multi_domain_battle_concept>.

6. For example, see Joint Staff–issued concept papers Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012), Joint Operational Access Concept (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012), and Joint Concept for Rapid Aggregation(Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2015).

7. Richard Hart Sinnreich, “Multi-Domain Battle: Old Wine in a New Bottle,” The Lawton Constitution, October 30, 2016.

8. Brown.

9. Erik Heftye, “Multi-Domain Confusion: All Domains Are Not Created Equal,” Real Clear Defense, May 26, 2017, available at <www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/05/26/multi-domain_confusion_all_domains_are_not_created_equal_111463.html>. For an early related argument, see Martin C. Libicki, “Cyberspace Is Not a Warfighting Domain,” I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society 8, no. 2 (2012).

10. Mike Pietrucha, “No End in Sight to the Army’s Dependence on Airpower,” War on the Rocks, December 13, 2016, available at <https://warontherocks.com/2016/12/no-end-in-sight-to-the-armys-dependence-on-airpower/>.

11. A.J. Shattuck, “The Pipe Dream of (Effective) Multi-Domain Battle,” Modern War Institute at West Point, March 28, 2017, available at <https://mwi.usma.edu/pipe-dream-effective-multi-domain-battle/>.

12. Mike Benitez, “Multi-Domain Battle: Does It End the Never-Ending Quest for Joint Readiness?” Over the Horizon, May 2, 2017, available at <https://overthehorizonmdos.com/2017/05/02/mdb-joint-readiness/>.

13. See James Stavridis and David Weinstein, “Time for a U.S. Cyber Force,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 1 (January 2014). The House Armed Services Committee mark of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act calls for the creation of a separate Space Corps.

14. Michael C. Davies, “Multi-domain Battle and the Masks of War,” Small Wars Journal, May 11, 2017, available at <http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/multi-domain-battle-and-the-masks-of-war-why-it’s-time-to-eliminate-the-independent-services>.

15. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army Must Be Ready for Multi-Domain Battle in Pacific ‘Tomorrow,’” Breaking Defense, January 31, 2017, available at <https://breakingdefense.com/2017/01/army-must-ready-for-multi-domain-battle-in-pacific-tomorrow/>.

16. Megan Eckstein, “Army Set to Sink Ship in 2018 as PACOM Operationalizes Multi-Domain Battle Concept,” USNI News, May 30, 2017. The Army had a standing mission to “sink ships” in the form of the Coast Artillery Corps from 1901 to 1950.

17. Benitez.

18. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army’s Multi-Domain Battle Gains Traction Across Services: The Face of Future War,” Breaking Defense, March 13, 2017, available at <https://breakingdefense.com/2017/03/armys-multi-domain-battle-gains-traction-across-services/>.

19. David G. Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Joint Combined Arms Concept for the 21st Century,” Association of the United States Army, November 2016, available at <www.ausa.org/articles/multi-domain-battle-joint-combined-arms-concept-21st-century>. The notion of extended battle dates to General Don Starry and the development of the AirLand Battle Concept in the early 1980s. See Don Starry, “Extending the Battlefield,” Military Review 61, no. 3 (March 1981), 31–50.

20. J.P. Clark, “In Defense of a Big Idea for Joint Warfighting” War on the Rocks, December 22, 2016, available at <https://warontherocks.com/2016/12/in-defense-of-a-big-idea-for-joint-warfighting/>. Kevin Benson, “Extending the Second Offset and Multi-Domain Battle,” Real Clear Defense, November 29, 2016, available at <www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/11/30/extending_the_second_offset _and_multi-domain_battle_110411.html>.

21. U.S. Army–Marine Corps White Paper, “Multi-Doman Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century,” September 30, 2017, available at <www.tradoc.army.mil/multidomainbattle/docs/DRAFT_MDBconcept.pdf>. The Air Force is developing a related Multi-Domain Operations concept that combines Air Force theater contributions into a unified air-space-cyberspace capability set in support of the joint force. See “Multi-Domain Command and Control: The Air Force Perspective with Brigadier General B. Chance Saltzman” (Part 1 of 2), Over the Horizon, April 3, 2017, available at <https://overthehorizonmdos.com/2017/04/03/multi-domain-command-and-control-the-air-force-perspective-with-brigadier-general-b-chance-saltzman-part-1-of-2/>. Saltzman makes the distinction with traditional combined arms by arguing, “[combined arms] is using the assets you have, in some cases from different functions or different domains. Whether it’s artillery, armor, infantry, aviation, those are the traditional arms we’re talking because a lot of times we talk about combined arms in terms of the Army sense of things.”

22. Overmatch is defined as “the application of capabilities or unique tactics either directly or indirectly, with the intent to prevent or mitigate opposing forces from using their current or projected equipment or tactics.” See U.S. Army–Marine Corps White Paper, 13, 17, 55, 61, 73.

23. In the context of a specific campaign, all domains are not of equal value. Even opponents in the same battle may, for a host of reasons, not share the same view of a domain’s value.

24. Phillip D. Shutler, “Thinking About Warfare,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 1987, 20, 23–25.

25. J.J. Edson, “The Asymmetrical Ace,” Marine Corps Gazette, April 1988, 51.

26. Guadalcanal was a pivotal battle in the larger Solomon’s campaign but a closely contested fight to the bitter end. The United States suffered a terrible naval defeat in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8–9, 1942, which reduced Allied heavy cruiser strength in the Pacific by more than 33 percent and compelled Navy transport and supply ships to depart the objective area prematurely. Command relationships between senior Marine Corps and Navy commanders were also overly complex, which led to unnecessary friction. For a more detailed account, see Jeter A. Isley and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 130, 153–162.

27. The proximate cause, however, was a textbook case of two serious and mutually reinforcing misjudgments. These misjudgments, as one scholar put it, stemmed from “the belief in London that Argentina would not invade the Falkland Islands and the expectation in Buenos Aires that Britain would accommodate itself to a military takeover of the islands.” See Richard Ned Nebow, “Miscalculation in the South Atlantic: The Origins of the Falkland War,” Journal of Strategic Studies 6, no. 1 (1983), 5.

28. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1992), 246.

29. In an effort to isolate the islands and limit the scope of the campaign, Great Britain declared a 200-mile radius Total Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands. This declaration had the tacit effect of making the Argentinian home waters a bastion for the Argentine navy.

30. Sir Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands, Volume II: War and Diplomacy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 431. Freedman wrote, “This was a remarkably successful raid, depriving the garrison of a number of aircraft and undermining morale, by demonstrating the capacity of special forces to mount operations on the Islands against units that were detached from the main forces.” That said, Argentine aircraft remaining in the Falklands after the raid were assessed to be three Shyvan light transports, two navy Tracker early warning aircraft, nine Pucara counterinsurgency aircraft, four Chinooks, three Puma, and one Agusta 109. Although none of these aircraft threatened the overall outcome of the campaign, they remained a major concern throughout it.

31. The most common original Churchill version is “Gentlemen, we have run out of money: Now we must think.” Some evidence suggests Churchill borrowed the phrase from famed physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford.

32. The other two major types of experiments are hypothesis tests and demonstrations. Both could play a role in narrow aspects of the campaign but could not serve as a description of the overall experimentation effort.

33. Joint operating concepts (JOCs) “broadly describe how the joint force may execute military operations within a specific mission area in accordance with defense strategic guidance and the CCJO. Collectively, JOCs describe joint capabilities required to operate across the range of military operations and encourage further examination through wargaming, joint training, and a variety of studies, experimentation, and analyses.” See Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3010.02E, Guidance for Developing and Implementing Joint Concepts (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, August 17, 2016), A-10.

34. Ibid., A-1.

35. Examples include the Navy’s Fleet Problem series in the 1920s and 1930s that in.tegrated fledgling naval airpower into fleet operations, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s Project B experiments on the use of airpower against shipping, or the Marine Corps’ Fleet Landing Exercises in the 1930s leading to the validation of Major Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis’s amphibious concepts. See Williamson Murray, Experimentation in the Period Between the Two World Wars: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, November 2000).

36. National Research Council, The Role of Experimentation in Building Future Naval Forces (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), available at <www.nap.edu/catalog/11125/the-role-of-experimentation-in-building-future-naval-forces>.

37. The failure of the Joint Warfare System, Joint Simulation System, and Joint Modeling and Simulation System programs stemmed from not only the efforts’ complex and high-risk technical natures but also some of the same integration and development issues that challenge the development of joint capabilities. For a summary of the issues and lessons, see Robert Lutz et al., Factors Influencing Modeling and Simulation to Inform OSD Acquisition Decisions (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses and Johns Hopkins University, April 2017).

38. The authors are indebted to our colleague Dr. Sue Numrich for input on discovery experimentation. See also David S. Alberts, ed., Code of Best Practice: Experimentation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, July 2002), 21.

39. Michael Howard, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” RUSI Journal 119, no. 1 (1974), 2.

Featured Image: Reconnaissance Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force, sourced from Force Reconnaissance Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, and embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), jump from a CH-53E Super Stallion during helocast training in the Gulf of Aden, May 28, 2015. The Super Stallion belongs to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 (Reinforced), 24th MEU. The 24th MEU is embarked on the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and deployed to maintain regional security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joey Mendez/Released)

Warfare Tactics Instructor: A Unique Opportunity for Junior Officers

By Rear Adm. John Wade and Cmdr. Jeff Heames

Rapid technological advancements and the re-emergence of near peer competition require that we continue to invest in high end tools – platforms, weaponry, and sensors. Equally important are the tactics to employ them and the associated training investment we must make in today’s warfighters and future leaders in the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) cadre. The centerpiece of an amped-up warfighting culture in surface warfare is the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) program, available to all division officers, department heads eligible for shore duty, and a small number of limited duty and chief warrant officers.

The ideal onramp into the WTI community is during the first shore tour following completion of at-sea division officer assignments. This timing allows the WTI program to fit neatly in a career pipeline. Three attributes set the WTI program apart: the opportunity to develop expertise in areas the Navy needs, exposure to exclusive professional development opportunities during the readiness production tour and throughout a career, and the empowerment to make significant contributions at a very junior level.


The ability to develop confidence through professional expertise early in a career has a profound accelerating effect on an officer’s development, and directly contributes to a sense of purpose and fulfillment. WTIs are afforded the time, resources, and experience-building opportunities they need to learn while making substantive contributions to tactics and warfighting proficiency.

The WTI program offers a gateway for young officers to develop deep tactical expertise in the fields of Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), Anti-Submarine/Surface Warfare (ASW/SUW), and Amphibious Warfare (AMW). Each field begins with a two week Instructor and Tactics Course (ITC) followed by a tailored, 14-16 week course of instruction. During this instruction period, prospective WTIs are mentored and coached to develop their skills at leveraging the Plan, Brief, Execute, and Debrief (PBED) methodology for rapid learning. Following this training, WTIs complete a 24-month “readiness production tour” at SMWDC headquarters or one of four SMWDC Divisions – focused on Sea Combat, IAMD, AMW, or Mine Warfare – or selected training commands (CSG-4/15, TTGP/L, ATG, CSCS, or SWOS, to name a few). During this tour, WTI skills are matured both in the classroom – and at sea – during Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) and other fleet training events.

Learning by Teaching

The emphasis on teaching as a basis for learning is based on an idea espoused by the Roman philosopher Seneca, who declared, “docendo discimus” or, “by teaching, we learn.” This model of learning is also used to develop WTI candidates, which is why instructor skills are a main focus of ITC. Quality of lesson delivery is established through a rigorous standardization process that must be completed for each lecture delivered by a WTI. It’s not uncommon for a WTI to invest weeks or months of research, as well as conduct numerous “murder boards” with fellow WTIs, technical experts, and senior officers, before presenting at the podium. The process is meant to maintain a high standard of instruction where WTIs have established mastery of content and exhibit confidence in delivery.

Focused Specialty Areas

During initial WTI training, students are assigned relevant tactical projects that match critical fleet needs and account for student interests. Projects often involve new technology or capability that must be thoughtfully and effectively integrated into maritime warfare doctrine. Other projects center on updating existing doctrine or repurposing existing systems in new and innovative ways. Specialty areas and projects are assigned based on WTI preference and crosscut broadly, from high-end tactics to training systems and learning science.

Focus area research often extends past initial WTI training, into subsequent readiness production tours, and beyond. SMWDC provides mentorship, applies resources, and opens doors to connect WTIs to thought leaders, technical community experts, industry partners, and community leaders to develop their specialty area work.

Coaching and Training Skills

WTIs are the core workforce of SMWDC’s advanced tactical training at sea. They rely on replay tools that include systems data, voice, and other information to rapidly build ground truth and facilitate debrief sessions. Equipped with irrefutable data on what really happened, the “I thought” and “I felt” ambiguities are driven out of the debrief process, enabling shipboard watch teams to learn and grow together more rapidly.

The combination of WTI knowledge, replay-assisted PBED, and specialized training focused on team dynamics and coaching skills offers a powerful method for improving learning across the fleet. The aim is to create an environment of transparency and mutual trust among watch team members, where Sailors enter debrief sessions eager to identify their own shortfalls in order to improve team and unit performance.

Lt. Cmdr. Katie Whitman, left, provides advanced training during an event at sea during her readiness production tour at Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center headquarters on Dec. 15, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo)

At-sea training allows WTIs to observe multiple ships and teams across a variety of training and operational circumstances. The WTIs gain practical insight into how doctrine plays out on the deckplates, as well as hone their ability to identify team performance issues during at-sea training. While the immediate objective is to improve tactical proficiency and unit performance, the skills WTIs gain are extraordinarily useful in future roles as department heads.

Performance Analysis

The final link in WTI expertise development leverages the strong partnership between SMWDC and the technical community. Our ability to measure and analyze performance among units is a challenge due to complex weapons systems, ship configuration variance, and the number of watchstanders distributed in different controlling stations. To build a clear picture of how tactics, training, and systems converge into warfighting capability, a detailed event reconstruction must take place that considers system actions, operator actions, and tactics.

Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Corona, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Keyport, and SMWDC have developed a Data Analysis Working Group (DAWG) to conduct performance analysis of SMWDC training events. The intent is to extract empirical, data-driven insights from the careful analysis of systems, operators, and tactical performance.

The process is laborious, but straightforward. Following at-sea training, event data is extracted from unit combat systems and sensors and then brought to NSWC for detailed analysis. Following initial analysis from the technical community, WTIs and SMWDC leaders stand up a 1-2 week DAWG event.

By examining system performance, operator performance, and tactics as a consolidated effort, the process can lead to discoveries not captured by direct observation – system anomalies, operator actions, and flaws in tactics. Findings and lessons learned can be very useful because they are underpinned by empirical data and technical analysis. To date, more than 40 weapons system performance anomaly reports have been generated from DAWG events. Systems issues have been identified and funneled to the appropriate technical community to resolve, tactics have been updated, and numerous operator performance issues have been provided to the training community as opportunities to grow or strengthen curriculum. This allows SMWDC to advocate for tactical updates among partner warfighting development centers and provide feedback to the TYCOM and Surface Warfare training enterprise.

For the WTI, immersion in performance analysis activity with civilian technical experts offers a unique lens into how weapons systems, operator performance, and tactics are all linked to create combat potential.

Professional Development

Because the program is highly sought after by driven, focused professionals, the majority of WTIs are on track to return to sea as department heads. Notably, WTI cadre retention is double historical averages in the Surface Warfare community at roughly 70 percent. WTIs heading back to sea have a notable advantage given the training they receive and the experiences they gain at a formative stage of their career that others simply do not.

Assignment Consideration

Similar to officers with other subspecialty skills – Nuclear Program, Financial Management, Operations Analysis, and Space Systems – WTIs have unique skillsets based on their focus areas. For example, IAMD WTIs in readiness production tour billets at the Naval Air Warfare Development Center in Fallon, Nev., have completed the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School, becoming dual-patched WTIs. These officers are among very few in the Navy with expertise in Integrated Fire Control (IFC) from both the Aviation and Surface perspectives.

To maximize the return on investment for these unique WTI skills, SMWDC is closely aligned with PERS-41 in the distribution process, ensuring future assignments leverage these strengths (e.g., assigning a WTI with IFC expertise to IFC-capable units). While assignments will always consider many variables, this close relationship ensures WTI experience and skills are considered during the assignments process. 

Continuing Education

WTI training and readiness production tours leave less time to complete graduate education between division officer and department head assignments. To mitigate this challenge, WTIs are awarded priority for graduate degree programs at service colleges as well as the Naval Postgraduate School distance learning programs.

Additionally, WTIs are afforded unique and exclusive professional development opportunities that extend throughout their careers. Annual “Re-Blue” events held at SMWDC Divisions are a venue for WTIs, both in-and-out of readiness production tours to attend week-long immersive workshops where information is exchanged and re-distributed into the fleet. Funded travel to Re-Blue events keeps WTIs connected to the sharp edge of the operational Fleet during their readiness production tours and beyond. Re-Blue events are an example of SMWDC’s commitment to maintaining excellence within the WTI cadre.


SMWDC is unlocking the potential of our junior officers and post-department heads, empowering them to swarm and solve difficult problems. While experience will always have a place at the table, this new generation of naval officers holds several key advantages. Unencumbered by “the way things have always been,” these officers are better suited to envision a future that leverages trends in technology, communication, and learning. This is an area where fresh perspective is an asymmetric advantage. WTIs bring their creativity, ingenuity, and initiative to developing the next generation of cutting-edge tactics, techniques, and procedures.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 26, 2016) — Lt. Serg Samardzic and Lt. Aaron Jochimsen, Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTI) of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) coordinate missile exercise rehearsals on the USS Princeton during an anti-submarine exercise in the Southern California operating area Sept. 26, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Trevor Andersen/Released)

WTI’s are creating a positive impact in the Fleet. From immersion in their focused specialty areas to tactical projects, and deckplate innovations, WTIs have built an impressive list of contributions since SMWDC’s formal establishment in June 2015. Consider the below examples of projects inspired, developed, and built by WTIs, while being supported by SMWDC leadership.

  • Lt. Cmdr. Katie Whitman was the lead action officer developing the SWATT in port and underway curriculum from the ground-up, using best-of-breed practices culled from aviation and other communities. She developed replay-assisted PBED for rapid learning and crafted the SWATT performance analysis strategy, which are now distinctive features of the exercise.
  • Lt. Ben Graybosch partnered with NUWC Keyport to revise the VISTA replay tool to include A/V-15 sonar system data, enabling the detailed “ground truth” ASW replay for unit sonar teams within 4 hours of completing ASW events. Graybosch’s effort moved the needle on ASW ground truth replay availability from days or weeks down to hours after an event. With replay tools that offer ground truth much earlier, we can increase the velocity of learning within surface ASW teams dramatically. VISTA is now employed in every ASW event supported by SMWDC and other fleet training events.
  • Lt. Brandon Naddel was the lead author for the Naval Surface Gunnery Publication released in 2017. Naddel and his team revised a 15-year-old document laden with technical jargon and dated systems into an information-packed and easily understood tactical publication relevant to all surface ships.
  • Lt. Tyson Eberhardt authored tactical guidance for the emerging Continuous Active Sonar (CAS) capability. Eberhardt leveraged at-sea training and experimentation events to rapidly refine tactical guidance in 2017. Based on his work, the CAS capability was used to great success in the operational fleet later that year.
  • Lt. Matt Clark designed and built a Target Motion Analysis (TMA) training tool accessible on any classified terminal with built-in performance analytics. Clark’s tool has potential to provide insight on the rate of individual skills decay in TMA. This type of information could then be used to inform currency thresholds for future training requirements.
  • Lt. Aaron Jochimsen was the lead author for the SM-6 TACMEMO. He conducted extensive research on SM-6 that included production site visits, participation in wargaming and experimentation, as well as involvement in fleet missile firings.
  • Chief Warrant Officer Troy Woods completed a readiness production tour with the Center for Surface Combat Systems, where he was involved in training individuals and teams on IAMD skills. Woods was subsequently assigned to USS BUNKER HILL (CG 52), where his skills are being put to use as lead IAMD planner within the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. Woods attended the IAMD WTI Re-Blue event in Dahlgren, Va., to share the operational perspective with his fellow IAMD WTIs and receive the latest tactical information from SMWDC IAMD Division leadership.

The WTI Program is a career opportunity that values our officers and empowers them to solve complex and challenging problems. SMWDC WTIs naturally have an eye toward innovation, are re-building the surface warfare library of tactical guidance, are shepherding new capability from delivery to operational success, and challenging the status quo in surface warfare training. Lt. Jochimsen, the lead author of the SM-6 TACMEMO, said it best:

“The opportunity to develop deep knowledge – Subject Matter Expertise – is a game-changing confidence builder as a junior officer. I feel much more prepared for the challenges of an at-sea department head assignment after completing a WTI readiness production tour.”


The WTI cadre of warriors, thinkers, and teachers are uniquely equipped with the experience and knowledge to make significant contributions during their readiness production tours and throughout their careers. It is no coincidence that the same skills involved in developing tactical mastery are extraordinarily useful in subsequent assignments at sea – department head, XO, CO, and major command.

While statistically significant trend data does not yet exist for WTI selection for career milestone billets, members of the WTI cadre performed very well during recent administrative boards.

For those looking to increase their confidence and competitiveness for future at-sea assignments, the WTI program offers a unique opportunity to strengthen their professional attributes and shape the Navy for years to come.

Rear Admiral John Wade is Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. 

Commander Jeff Heames serves as the assistant chief of staff for operations, training, and readiness for Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 9, 2017) – Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI), Lt. Lisa Malone of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Canter (SMWDC), provides tactical training to officers aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a Group Sail training unit exercise (GRUSL) with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier strike Group (TRCSG). (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bill M. Sanders/Released)

A2/AD and the Long Lance Torpedo

In this two-part series on contested access in the Solomon Islands campaign, Part One will explore one of the IJN’s most successful weapons of World War II, which made area denial a reality for the IJN, the Type 93 ‘Long Lance’ torpedo. Part Two will compare the similarities of the Long Lance development to that of the DF-21D and discuss how the U.S. ultimately dealt with the Long Lance. 

By Bob Poling

As I mentioned in my introductory post, the intent of this column is to explore the historical use of strategies, tactics, and technologies which fall under the broad definition of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD). One of the most common practices of a nation using A2/AD is the adoption of asymmetric tactics and associated weapons systems to mitigate an adversary’s advantages in numbers and technology.

However, it this column’s assertion that the U.S. Navy may lack an appreciation for these asymmetric threats.  This is not due to a wanton disregard for A2/AD strategies and tactics, nor an unhealthy reliance on its weapons systems and technology. Instead, this lack of appreciation can be attributed to two factors. First, the U.S. Navy has not been truly challenged at sea since the end of the World War II. As such the Navy has produced several generations of naval officers that have no high-end combat experience. The second factor is a byproduct of the first. Since there has been no combat at sea for over 70 years, the Navy lacks case studies for training its current batch of officers. Therefore, this column will tap into the Navy’s combat history and offer historical examples that are arguably useful for contemporary and future challenges. For instance, the Solomon Islands Campaign is littered with examples of what today can easily be categorized as A2/AD strategies and tactics.

Contesting Access in the Solomon Islands

During the Solomon Islands Campaign, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) employed a strategy based on anti-access, in which they aimed to keep out the U.S. and allied powers from the inner reaches of the Japanese Empire. To that end, Japan developed several platforms, weapons systems, and tactics which would facilitate this strategy. Moreover, in the years leading up to the start of WWII, the IJN faced a predicament like the one that drove the Chinese to develop the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, that is, the challenge of how to deny freedom of access and maneuver to and ultimately defeat the U.S. Navy.

Type 93
Type 93 torpedo, recovered from Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on display outside U.S. Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

One of the most sophisticated and deadly weapons of WWII was the Type 93 torpedo. This torpedo was the ship killer of that era. The asymmetric tactics developed for its use in combat were revolutionary. Much like the DF-21D, the Long Lance was in development for 20 years. Experimental work began in 1916, and by 1935, IJN weapons designers had produced a working 24-inch torpedo. “Long Lance was the most powerful weapon of its kind in the world as it was 29ft, 6.3 in long, weighed 5982 lbs, carried a warhead of 1080 lbs, and had a range of 21,900 yards at 48-50 knots, 35,000 yards at 40-42 knots or 43,700 yards at 36-38 knots.”1 Granted, launches beyond 20 miles were unlikely, but the Type 93 gave the IJN a standoff weapon that could be launched outside of visual detection range, especially at night.  Additionally, the Long Lance out-ranged the guns of all USN ships except battleships, making this a particularly effective long range anti-access weapon. Finally, the U.S. Navy had no effective countermeasures or defenses against this torpedo.

To optimize the capability and destructive power of the Long Lance, the IJN incorporated it into their night-fighting tactics. “The origin of the Japanese Navy’s tactic of stressing the night engagement was old; in both the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars this tactic was used.”2 It should have come as no surprise that the IJN continued to develop night-fighting tactics given their success in these two conflicts. However, the USN surface forces had an air of invincibility and arrogance about them and held the IJN in contempt. 

This contempt was based on beliefs that the USN was technologically superior and more experienced, especially when compared to the IJN, which was only 70 years old.3 While USN battle tactics were still dominated by the pursuit of daytime gunnery engagements, and some U.S. Navy ships had radar, the IJN developed tactics to counter this practice mainly by the use of torpedoes coupled with guns fired in nighttime engagements. “Standard Japanese night-fighting doctrine was to launch torpedoes first, use gunfire only when necessary and searchlights as little as possible.” As the Long Lance was wakeless, it was nearly impossible to detect at night. The IJN counted on the USN to be taken unawares by this tactic and thus to be unlikely to maneuver. To facilitate this tactic and remain undetected, the Japanese’ primary method of detecting surface ships was the use of superb night optics. In fact, the IJN was constantly refining night optics during the interwar period and was regularly producing world-class optics in the 1930s. “Particularly noteworthy were binoculars of powerful magnification and light-gathering capacity, featuring lenses as large as 21 centimeters.”To use these binoculars, the IJN selected men to be trained as Masters in Lookout, and these petty officers trained day and night to hone their skills.6 No other navy of the era had lookouts as highly trained as these. When combined with the night optics, these men were in fact a part of the Long Lance weapons system. 

The U.S. Navy’s first encounter with the Long Lance was in the early morning of August 8, 1942 in Savo Sound off Guadalcanal. On the previous morning, the U.S. Navy had landed Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi as part of Operation Watchtower. Upon hearing the news of the invasion, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, Commander 8th Fleet, pulled together a force of seven cruisers and one destroyer and sailed for Guadalcanal that afternoon.

Arrayed against Mikawa were six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eight destroyers, which were divided into three groups. Of the eight U.S. destroyers, two were assigned radar picket duties patrolling both the western and eastern approaches to Savo Sound, but Mikawa’s striking force remained undetected. According to IJN accounts both radar pickets were detected visually at 10,000 meters by the IJN cruiser Chokai. However, neither Blue nor Ralph Talbot made radar contact even though Mikawa’s ships were only a little over five miles away.7 Once clear of the picket, Mikawa gave the order to attack.  The IJN achieved complete surprise, and its use of an A2 weapon coupled with asymmetric tactics had devastating results on the USN and RAN. As RADM Crutchley wrote,

“The result of the night actions fought during the night 8th-9th August proved costly. Four of our heavy cruisers – Vincennes, Quincy, Astoria and Canberra had been lost. Another heavy cruiser Chicago had been damaged and required dockyard repair. Two destroyers had been damaged, Ralph Talbot fairly heavily and Patterson not seriously.8

During the engagement, IJN cruisers Chokai, Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furrutaka fired 45 Type 93 torpedoes.9 Of the four USN cruisers participating in the battle, Quincy and Vincennes were sunk due to damage caused by Long Lance torpedo hits and Chicago had her bow blown off by a Long Lance, which immediately took her out of the fight.10 The other two cruisers lost in the battle, Astoria and Canberra, both were sunk due to damage inflicted by naval gunfire from the IJN cruisers.11

The Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai, which led the IJN attack at Savo Island. The recessed torpedo tubes are clearly visible under the whaleboat and second stack.

Two things stand out here as noteworthy anti-access tactics. First, part of an area defense strategy will likely include forward-based forces that can rapidly respond to an incursion and immediately conduct active defensive operations. In this case, it was Mikawa’s eight ships which caught the U.S. Navy completely unawares even though this operation was being conducted inside the IJN’s defensive sphere. The second A2 tactic was the night attack using a long-range, undetectable weapon. Much of today’s angst regarding A2 systems assumes the very same thing. Once the defenders realized they were under attack, it was entirely too late to respond and because of the nature of the Long Lance, it remained undetectable. The element of surprise was made all the more decisive by the effective use of a powerful anti-access weapon. 


A2 tactics are nothing new, and today’s Navy is aware of what those tactics may entail and which potential adversaries embrace these tactics today. Back in the Solomons, the USN’s troubles with the Long Lance would continue well into 1943. Ultimately, the Navy learned to adapt its tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to mitigate the threat posed by the Long Lance. However, what is important in this example is that no active counter measure was developed. Instead there was a realization that the threat was not going away, and a significant amount of risk was going to be present while conducting operations in the waters of the Solomon Islands. Acceptance of significant risk is an important part of defeating an adversary that aligns its strategy and tactics with A2/AD. Part Two will explore this aspect as well and how the Navy ultimate dealt with the Long Lance threat.

Bob Poling is a retired Surface Warfare Officer who spent 24 years on active duty including tours in cruisers, destroyers and as commanding officer of Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron TWO and Mission Commander of Southern Partnership Station 2013. From May 2011 to May 2015, Bob served on the faculty of the Air War College teaching in the Departments of Strategy and Warfighting. He was the Naval History and Heritage Command 2014-2015 Samuel Eliot Morison scholar and is pursuing his Ph.D. with the Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London where he is researching Air-Sea Battle concepts used to combat A2/AD challenges encountered during the Solomon Islands Campaign.


1. John Bullen, “The Japanese Long Lance Torpedo and Its Place in Naval History,” Imperial War Museum Review 3 (1988): 69–79.

2. ‘Development of the Japanese Navy’s Operational Concept against America’, Jisaburo Ozawa in Dillon and Goldstein, The Pacific War Papers, (Washington D.C., Potomac Books Inc., 2005), 74.

3. David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, Reprint edition (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 7.

4. Bullen, 69–79.

5. Evans and Peattie, 275.

6. Bruce Loxton and Chris Coulthard-Clark, The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster, 1st edition (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 43.

7. Captain Toshikazu Ohmae, IJN Ret., “The Battle of Savo Island,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 83, no. 12 (December 1957): 1263–78.

8. RADM Victor Crutchley, “Solomons ‘Watchtower’ OPS. Guadalcanal – Tulagi. Admiral Crutchley Report T.G. 66.6 Screening Force,” August 13, 1942, National Archives of Australia: B6121, 105A.

9. Eric LaCroix, Linton Wells, and Linton Wells II, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War, 1St Edition,(Annapolis, Md: US Naval Institute Press, 1997), 306.

10. Bureau of Ships, “USS QUINCY (CA39), USS ASTORIS (CA34), USS VINCENNES (CA44) LOSS IN ACTION BATTLE OF SAVO ISLAND 9 AUGUST 1942,” War Damage Report (Navy Department, June 21, 1943), The Navy Department Library, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/w/war-damage-reports/uss-quincy-ca39-astoria-ca34-vincennes-ca44-war-damage-report-no29.html, 21; Office of Naval Intelligence, “Solomon Islands Campaign II The Battle of Savo Island 9 August 1942 The Battle of the Eastern Solomons 23-25 August 1942,” Combat Narratives (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Navy, October 1, 1943), The Navy Department Library, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/s/solomon-islands-campaign-ii-savoisland-III-easternsolomons.html., 10.

11. Bureau of Ships, “USS QUINCY (CA39), USS ASTORIA (CA34), USS VINCENNES (CA44) LOSS IN ACTION BATTLE OF SAVO ISLAND 9 AUGUST 1942”; RADM Victor Crutchley, “Report of Proceedings Operation – ‘Watchtower,’” August 18, 1942, National Archives of Australia: B6121, 105A.

Featured Image: IJN DD  Isokaze at Saeki Bay, October 20, 1941. Colorized by Lootoko Jr.