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The Elephant in the Room: E-2D and Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann

Admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta introduced the concept of distributed lethality over a year ago as a “means  to increase the offensive might of the surface force and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter killer surface action groups.’”[i] The basic concept as outlined in the original article and further discussion has evolved into “the condition gained by increasing the offensive power and defensive hardening of individual warships and then employing them not only in traditional roles but also in different ways than have been the practice in the past few decades” according to Ryan Kelly.[ii] Discussion and interest grew around the country over the past year and with the formation of the Distributed Lethality Task Force. Many great minds have come together, primarily from the surface navy, to offer ideas and solutions. Furthermore, three key initiatives describe what needs to be harnessed within Distributed Lethality: To Deceive, Target, and Destroy.

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One area of involvement that has been partially neglected in the distributed lethality discussion is aviation.  In an update to distributed lethality, Admiral Rowden states:

Nothing we do in Distributed Lethality should be seen as taking away from our historic and necessary role in enabling naval power projection and helping protect CVN’s and ARG’s. We start from the proposition that HVU operations and defense is our main mission, and then work to create operational problems with more lethal and distributed surface forces from there. Our proposition is that the Surface Force can do more, and we are going to take the necessary time to study and analyze that proposition in order to get it right.[iii]

The perceived assumption is that the surface navy is either supporting power projection by providing “HVU operations and defense” or operating independently from the air wing with more “lethal and distributed surface forces.” 

Dmitry Filipoff proposes a third option of a dispersed surface force that is supported by air wing assets:

While distributed lethality deemphasizes carrier strike missions, the air wing will be a critical enabler for the distributed force. A distributed air wing can provide rapid response anti-submarine warfare capability and function as communications relays for maintaining a responsive decision cycle while the dispersed force operates under EMCON. The air wing’s screening and early warning functions will be indispensable for enabling commanders on the scene to exercise initiative and engage on their own terms.[iv]

In this article we build upon the ideas of Mr. Filipoff, specifically focusing on the unique capabilities of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Before proceeding further it might be helpful to offer some background information on the Hawkeye Community and its relevant areas of warfighting focus. 

The Hawkeye was developed primarily as a blue water airborne early warning platform capable of long range detection of both aircraft and ships. While detection is the primary organic capability, Hawkeye aircrew are well versed executing real time command and control over a wide range of mission sets, including anti-surface warfare (ASuW). Through application of the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) concept, new air intercept controllers and mission commanders learn the basics of conducting  ASuW during the earliest stages of their training, which is then built upon throughout the work up cycle. At the same time, as an airborne C2 asset the Hawkeye is more than capable of bridging the gap (both literally through network relay and bridging, and figuratively through the ability to have one coordination entity) between warfare commanders.

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flown by Test and Evaluation Squadron TWENTY demonstrating proof of concept of in flight refueling. Photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).
E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flown by Test and Evaluation Squadron TWO ZERO demonstrating proof of concept of in flight refueling. Photo taken by Kelly Schindler (US Navy).

That being said, no amount of training or warfighting culture is going to matter if processes are not in place to make use of that corporate knowledge. Enter the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye with the APY-9 radar and associated sensors and communications equipment. While specific ranges of the radar are classified, suffice to say that the APY-9 greatly increases the ability of a strike group (or individual cruiser or destroyer) to detect and classify contacts at range. Furthermore, the data link and communication suite enables the Hawkeye to connect widely dispersed forces through multiple networks and means of voice communication. The continuing development of integrated fires offers unique employment options.

Taking into account the systems as well as the aircrew operating the platform, the organic and currently fielded capabilities of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye serving as the centralizing  C2 node, bring the persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), Command and Control, and strike group defense capabilities otherwise unavailable to the distributed fleet. 

The overall theme of this article seeks to speak to several of the “key issues” brought up in Mr. Kelly’s call for articles, but particularly:

How should the upcoming Adaptive Force Package be employed: including Tactical Situation (TACSIT) execution, organic and inorganic targeting, fielding of modified weapons, and improved integration with Amphibious Forces and Expeditionary Marine Corps units in support of sea control operations?

Command and Control

First and foremost, the E-2 Hawkeye is an airborne command and control platform, capable of providing both C2 technology as well as “man-in-the-loop” decision making, necessary for effective control of a dispersed and dynamic battlespace. The E-2 is equipped with various data link capabilities which allow for the sharing of not only track data but also raw sensor information.  Additionally, the communication suite in a Hawkeye includes V/UHF, HF, and SATCOM communications with various options for secure and anti-jam capabilities. The typical stationing altitude of a Hawkeye and the power output of the communication and data link equipment allows for a large range of operation ensuring a widely dispersed fleet can stay connected without the requirement for individual ships to maintain line of sight with each other. 

Furthermore, the highly trained crew of the Hawkeye is capable of assessing the situation and making decisions for various commanders – carrying out their intent across various warfighting domains. This allows for the efficient choice of targeting solutions for offensive and defensive scenarios across the battlespace. 

And finally, the warfighting experience of the crew allows for tailoring of information for specific recipients, ultimately cutting down the volume of information sent.  For example, what the air defense commander needs to know is not necessarily what the surface warfare commander needs to know, or what the OTC or JFMCC need to know. The Hawkeye crew has the experience to tailor the information specifically desired by various levels of the chain of command, thereby limiting the total amount of information being transmitted.  In an environment where uncontested usage of the electromagnetic spectrum is not guaranteed, knowing exactly what information to send and only sending that information becomes paramount in reducing our own electromagnetic footprint.

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance

One of the biggest challenges facing friendly forces in an “over-the-horizon” war is positive identification of a contact at range. With inherent line of sight limitations there is currently very little organic capability in a Carrier Strike Group to determine what exactly a particular OTH contact is. In an area of high surface and/or air traffic, the ability to identify a contact becomes a great concern for self-defense, especially in a distributed fleet. Ultimately what is needed, and can be provided by the Hawkeye, is an ability to maintain a single persistent track with consolidated ISR from multiple assets.

The airborne E-2 detects and localizes a contact, and begins to evaluate the contact using available onboard sensors. Simultaneously, the Hawkeye crew begins to work with any and all available ISR assets (EP-3, EA-18G, FA-18, UAV, surface ships) to determine any additional information to help with identification. A track with consolidated ISR information is then “pushed” to the fleet via available data links and/or voice communication as required. When the on station E-2 is forced to leave station due to the end of mission time, the relieving E-2 conducts a positive turnover of all tracks of interest ensuring no change in reported data.  (Currently, station time is limited by fuel capacity, however in-flight refueling capability is currently in development for the E-2D which will significantly increase on station time). The result is a persistent, constantly communicated, consolidated “picture” of the area of interest. This picture is capable of being received by interested parties with very little, if any, electromagnetic emission.

Strike Group Defense

A dispersed and more offensive fleet creates some advantages for carrier strike group defense. For the threat, the left side of the kill chain becomes lengthened as it will be harder to find and track their intended targets. On the other hand if the threat is able to identify the high value unit they could face less resistance as the friendly layered air and missile defense will be reduced in strength. A reduced number of assets concentrated around the high value unit will inherently result in less overall defensive missiles, however technological advances and weapon system upgrades that have already reached initial operational capability, such as the SM-6 and E-2D, can reestablish a layered defense and reduce the number of assets required to defend the carrier strike group. Furthermore, these capabilities increase the defensive effectiveness of individual units spread throughout a distributed force. NIFC-CA is a tool that can be utilized for CSG defense and potentially establish a non-permissive environment for threat aircraft, but it is not the end-all solution. Cross community tactics must be developed to optimize weapons target pairing. Training and work-up cycles need to be significantly more integrated to exercise and reinforce new air and missile defense processes. The capabilities are in place (or will be soon) to defend a high value unit in a dispersed fleet; CVW aircrew and Surface Warfare Officers must remain flexible and innovative to most effectively employ the new capabilities available to them.

An E-2d from VAW-125 launches off of the aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Photo taken Ben Hayashi (US Navy).


The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is uniquely equipped and positioned to facilitate the deception of dispersed forces, the targeting of the adversary and ultimately, the destruction of designated targets. This assistance and support can enable the surface force to indeed perform better with a more lethal positioning of forces distributed across the battlespace. The development of distributed lethality will include identifying current gaps in training and capability that can make our force more lethal. As we as a Naval force continue to develop innovative ways to counter adversaries, we would be wise to develop cross-domain warfighting tactics and increase the interoperability of our forces.   

LCDR Christopher Moran and LT Ryan Heilmann were both assigned to VAW-125, the first operational E-2D Advanced Hawkeye squadron. Their views do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency. 

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[i] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, ‘Distributed Lethality’, Proceedings Magazine – January 2015, vol. 141/1/1.343.

[ii] Kelly, Ryan. Distributed Lethality Task Force Launches CIMSEC Topic Week, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) website, 1 February 2016.  http://cimsec.org/21579-2/21579

[iii] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, ‘Distributed Lethality: An Update’, CIMSEC website, 12 March 2015, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-an-update/15484

[iv] Filipoff, Dmitry, ‘Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War’, CIMSEC website, 4 January, 2016, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

Reconfiguring Air Cushioned Vehicles to Enhance Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By John Devlin

With the continuing buildup of Chinese and Russian navies, as well as increasingly capable regional actors, the task of leveraging a 300 ship US Navy using distributed lethality (DL) as a force multiplier in response remains a formidable task. It is reminiscent of another period in our history when our scientists and engineers had to conjure a way to prolong a life sustaining air supply while constrained to only limited resources available to a stricken space craft. Most of us are familiar with the story of Apollo 13 astronauts using duct tape and plastic bags to adapt parts never intended to work together in order to return safely back to earth. Those scientists and engineers toiled feverishly with various configurations before agreeing on a workable course of action. The birth of distributed lethality is similarly constrained, but with a much larger mission and far-reaching consequences.

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BRAVO ZULU to the tacticians and engineers who adapted the SM-6 surface-to-air missile (SAM) to a surface-to-surface missile (SSM) to rapidly extend the stand-off range for our surface action groups (SAG).  It is encouraging that these innovators were not dissuaded from their pursuit by the arguments against using an air warhead against a surface target or the $4M cost per unit or the command and control implications of shooting at a target so many miles over the horizon potentially dispersed among friendly vessels. This is an innovative first step to demonstrate the capability.  The necessary refinements will follow as the value of this new weapon becomes accepted and integrated into battle group tactics.

Figure 1. Air Cushioned Vehicle easily maneuvers over a rocky beach.

Let’s examine the advantages of the SM-6 in the SSM mode and why this adaptation is a smart and innovative use of existing ships and munitions. The missile dimensions are the same as the SM-6 in the SAM mode which allows the use of existing launchers and platforms. Crews are in place. As mentioned previously, the stand-off range is substantially improved. The kill probably of a continuous rod or fragmentation warhead against hardened ship targets is unlikely; however, a soft kill of the target’s sensors and communications antennae, at least initially, is almost as good as sinking it. It will likely blind the enemy’s fire control systems. The allocation of missiles in the ship’s missile magazines for SSM versus SAM targets is an old discussion and is only appropriate when discussed relative to the expected opposing force. Another potential negative is the $4M cost of these missiles. But nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction and is in alignment with distributed lethality.

Where else can the US Navy apply this type of innovative thinking to further increase lethality? How do we out gun, out run, and out maneuver opposing forces using the current inventory of platforms, weapons systems, C2, and manning? Why not reconfigure the 1st generation Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) into shooting platforms? The VLS Hellfire missiles can be mounted in the cargo deck. Pedestal-mounted APKWS missiles could be similarly mounted. Chain guns such as the M61 Vulcan 20mm Cannon or the Mk38 25mm machinegun can all be mounted in the cargo deck for line-of-sight targeting. This craft has demonstrated 100 knots speeds.  Its ability to maneuver in shallow water, reef zones, shifting sand bars, riverine, and beach zones gives it the maneuverability of no other afloat vehicle. This tactical advantage of speed and maneuver cannot be matched. It travels at near-helicopter speeds, can carry 10 times the helicopter’s payload, with four times the on-station time. It could be configured with an AEGIS Ashore Missile Payload and positioned at many improved and unimproved sites.

Initially, targeting can be line-of-sight with over-the-horizon targeting when DL integration development progresses. We have seen enemy fighters using mosques and urban

Figure 2. Air Cushioned Vehicle maneuvers from an obscure beach.
Figure 2. Air Cushioned Vehicle maneuvers from an obscure beach.

areas to shield them from incoming fire. We can expect enemy maritime forces to use fishing, merchant vessels, and fleeing refugees as defensive shields. Engagement criteria, for at least the initial engagement skirmishes, will be line of sight positive identification via manned observation or remote observation. Clear Rules of Engagement (ROE) will need to be developed and practiced. Greater forward force autonomy should be anticipated to ensure engagement success.

The air cushioned vehicles will be positioned forward of the battle group in picket roles in archipelagic regions or in strategic straits such as the Strait of Hormuz where the shifting sandbars are not an obstacle to maneuvering for these vehicles. Their maneuverability will allow them to cut the escape routes of marauding high speed conventional craft who traverse narrow channels with impunity because they know the potential of grounding a chasing naval vessel is an unacceptable risk to the USN.  Submarine based threats and mined areas are also of limited concern for a vessel that has no draft. 

But these air cushioned vehicles are not suitable to plow through high seas. How can we get them to theater and provide operating support?  Platform Supply Vessels (PSV) have been performing this type of role in the off-shore oil industry for three decades. They have transported the heavy equipment and operating supplies that allow oil rigs to operate at sea for long periods. These vessels are designed to carry a tremendous volume of drill mud, fresh water, and fuel needed for use in off-shore oil drilling. The drill mud storage tanks can be used to ballast down the stern and allow self-propelled access to air cushioned vehicles. They are rugged vessels and are built to withstand the rigors of high seas.  In the

Figure 33. PSVs can carry Air Cushioned Vehicles to theater on this wide open deck.
Figure 33. PSVs can carry Air Cushioned Vehicles to theater on this wide open deck.

post-Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil industry, they have reduced the high insurance costs of hoteling crews on the rigs by providing hotel services on the PSVs. As a consequence of the shale oil revolution and low world oil prices, new PSVs are tied to their piers because operating them is no longer profitable. They are available for lease, purchase, or contracted services.

As the new LCAC 100 comes into service, the old LCACs are headed to the scrap pile.  Why not reconfigure them with modular weapons to give the US Navy a combatant craft that can out gun, out run, and out maneuver opposing forces?

John Devlin is Director of Navy Programs with ISPA Technology and a retired US Navy Captain.  He was a Tactical Action Officer (TAO) in carrier battle groups as a Surface Warfare Officer and has experience in littoral operations as a Special Operations Officer.

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Enabling Distributed Lethality

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Josh Heivly 

Distributed lethality offers an innovative way ahead for the US Navy’s surface forces by returning them to a sea control role, detached from HVT defense and grouped into hunter-killer SAGs designed to complicate adversary targeting efforts, deter adventurism, and reassure allies and partners. This has been couched in terms of an “operating concept” and not a strategy, per se, but its implementation will certainly produce strategic effects.  Distributed lethality amounts to a form of strengthened dispersal, designed as a direct counter to anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies [1] while increasing the deterrence value of USN forces. The US Navy has already made strong efforts to find “least-cost” paths toward achieving the desired increases in lethality and survivability of surface platforms. The long term implications of distributed lethality may necessitate a revised USN approach to basing and shipbuilding – it could also prompt regional arms races as potential adversaries respond to distributed lethality by expanding their ISR and A2/AD capabilities in kind.

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The strategic implications of employing USN surface forces using Distributed lethality concepts are considerable. Operationally it acts as a direct response to A2/AD concepts, complicating adversary sea denial efforts by filling the sea space with small groups of well-defended, heavily armed platforms, each of which is capable of producing additional deception and counter-targeting effects. Politically, doubling down on presence in the form of surface combatants will reinforce deterrence by complicating the operational picture, enable persistent challenge to the excessive maritime claims of regional actors, and counter larger strategies designed to weaken US influence. By creating uncertainty on the part of potential adversaries, distributed lethality ”…aims to degrade an adversary’s confidence in their weapons rather than through overwhelming force…,”[2] fundamentally altering calculations of risk and lowering the potential payoffs of initiating hostilities. Distributed lethality also acts to reassure and support US partners and allies by providing consistent presence and support, strengthening our coalitions abroad.

It is in the economic details that the viability of distributed lethality becomes a bit murkier. In the short term, the Navy has actually done very well by capitalizing on existing systems. Rapid acquisition and fielding efforts are currently underway to build a long-range strike capability to replace the aging Harpoon by adapting existing systems; possibilities include the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the Norwegian Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile [3], the SM-6 [4], and a proposal to modify existing stocks of TLAMs for anti-ship missions [5].  Survivability has also been addressed in the same way with an ongoing project to update and integrate SeaRAM [6].  All of these efforts are a testament to the Navy’s commitment to implement distributed lethality without calling for larger budgetary outlays. This makes distributed lethality easier to sell on the Hill and allows the Navy to claim the high ground on this issue in terms of resource utilization.

Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launch.
Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launch.

None of this changes the arithmetic of force generation required to create persistent presence.  There are only so many forward deployed platforms overseas, certainly nowhere near enough to complicate the operational picture of potential adversaries.  Sooner or later the Navy will need to reassess its ability to support distributed lethality with current platforms, systems, and budgets; achieving the desired effects (dispersal and deterrence) will require cost-effective numbers of platforms to be maintained on-station. Surface combatants will need to transit back and forth from CONUS bases, taking up large periods of time moving to and from operational areas. 

In order to maximize loiter time and capitalize on existing platforms, the Navy should take a long hard look at the forward basing of more surface combatants.  This will require close engagement with host nations and long term investments in infrastructure; shipyards, repair facilities, distribution centers, housing, and administrative activities would all need to be expanded to support additional hulls. The LCS, although designed as a littoral platform specifically in response to swarming attacks, partially fulfills the requirement for numbers of hulls, although the details of this system are still being worked out and the Navy is now working on an expanded “fast frigate” concept based on the LCS [7].  Small surface combatants have been proposed as a partial solution [8], offering cost-effective platforms that can be produced in quantity – but not without some compromises in survivability. It seems certain that the Navy will have to seek a balance of quantity and quality, and this will require a reassessment of design concepts.

Morning colors at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (US Navy photo).
Morning colors at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (US Navy photo).

Finally, by its very design, distributed lethality is intended to elicit a desired reaction on the part of potential adversaries [9]. A2/AD strategies were adopted by regional actors as an asymmetric response to US power projection capabilities, in direct support of their perceived interests; these countries will not simply drop this approach in the face of multiple hunter-killer SAGs operating nearby. They will undoubtedly expand their investment in ISR and A2/AD capabilities, responding with both increased quantity and quality of their own.  This increased expenditure of resources will produce comparatively greater strain on the more modestly sized and resourced militaries of these countries, many of which already labor under sanctions. Technological and industrial competition will almost certainly increase as a result.  Luckily, as the world leader in innovation, such a situation would favor the US, but only in general terms and with considerable uncertainty.

LCDR Josh Heivly is an active duty Navy Supply Corps Officer. The views voiced here are his alone and in no way represent the views of the US Navy or the Department of Defense.

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[1] Rowden, Thomas, Gumataotao, Peter, and Fanta, Peter.  “Distributed Lethality.”  Accessed 20 Feb 2016 at http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality

[2] Filipoff, Dmitry.  “Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War.”  Accessed on 16 Feb 2016 at http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

[3] LaGrone, Sam.  “SNA:  Navy Surface Leaders Pitch More Lethal Ships, Surface Action Groups.” Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at http://news.usni.org/2015/01/14/sna-navy-surface-leaders-pitch-lethal-ships-surface-action-groups

[4] Eckstein, Megan.  “Navy Finds Offensive Uses for Defensive Systems to Support Distributed Lethality.”  Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at http://news.usni.org/2015/12/01/navy-finding-offensive-uses-for-defensive-systems-to-support-distributed-lethality 

[5] Eckstein, Megan.  “A Year Into Distributred Lethality, Navy Nears Fielding Improved Weapon, Deploying Surface Action Group.”  Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at http://news.usni.org/2016/01/13/a-year-into-distributed-lethality-navy-nears-fielding-improved-weapons-deploying-surface-action-group

[6] Eckstein, supra. “Navy Finds Offensive Uses for Defensive Systems to Support Distributed Lethality.”

[7] LaGrone, Sam. “SNA:  Modified Littoral Combat Ships to be Designated Frigates.”  Accessed 21 Feb 2016 at http://news.usni.org/2015/01/15/sna-modified-littoral-combat-ship-class-changed-fast-frigate

[8] McCabe, T. Holland.  “Capstone Essay:  Distributed Lethality Requires Distributed Capability Across the Surface Fleet.”  Accessed 17 Feb 2016 at http://blog.usni.org/2015/08/03/capstone-essay-distributed-lethality-requires-distributed-capability-across-the-surface-fleet

[9] Rowden et al.

Distributed Lethality, Non-traditional Fleets, and the Law of War

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Chris Rawley

In simplest terms, the U.S. Navy’s distributed lethality concept complicates the enemy’s targeting problem by dispersing larger numbers of platforms capable of offensive action over a wide geographic area.  With no significant increases in fleet size anticipated for the foreseeable future, it is incumbent that all avenues be pursued that will optimize the use of scarce ships.

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A video recently released by the Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet shows a variety of ships besides surface combatants equipped with anti-ship missiles and unmanned aircraft capable of targeting these weapons.  In addition to amphibious vessels, a Lewis and Clark Dry Cargo/Ammunition ship is depicted (minute 1:21) with a drop-in missile module. This ship, and 29 others in the U.S. Navy’s Combat Logistics Force (CLF), are controlled by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and manned by professional civilian mariners (CIVMARS).  The introduction of armed naval auxiliaries in the U.S. fleet would raise a number of important operational and legal questions.

In what sort of tactical situations might an offensively-armed replenishment ship be worthwhile?  Distributed lethality requires distributed logistics. Meaning, surface combatants operating alone or in small groups will require fuel, food, ammunition, and parts. In a major theater war, traditional replenishment ports will be placed at risk by mines, theater ballistic missiles, terrorist surrogates, and other area-denial capabilities. To mitigate these risks, underway replenishment has been a mainstay of U.S. naval surface ship operations for nearly a century. A CLF ship armed with self-defense weapons and a small number of medium ranged surface-to-surface missiles operating in tandem with a group of cruisers and destroyers (CRUDES) provides additional magazine capacity for the surface combatants.

Conversely, oilers operating solo while transiting to or from underway replenishment stations are an appetizing target for would-be adversaries. In some cases, these ships would require a dedicated “shotgun” surface combatant to protect their precious cargoes. But these escorts would take scarce CRUDES ships away from other offensive duties. CLF ships equipped with additional self-defense weapons, be they remotely-operated crew served machine guns or short-ranged surface-to-air missiles (like the SeaRAM), will enable defense against a variety of potential attackers. However, the possibility that CLF ships are capable of not just defending themselves, but of fighting back, will challenge indirect enemy strategies that rely on attrition of our logistic forces.  A CLF ship would target its over-the-horizon weapons by either cueing off another platform’s sensors or using organic manned or unmanned aircraft.  These ships sometimes deploy with MH-60s, which can carry their own weapons, but can also assist in targeting a ship’s missiles.  For longer ranges, future unmanned air vehicles such as DARPA’s TERN prototype could support CLF-launched missile engagements over hundreds of miles. Besides the aforementioned weapons, CLF ships providing replenishment operations within adversary threat envelopes will need to employ counter-targeting techniques and some will carry Surface Ship Torpedo Defense Systems.

Non-traditional or Normal?

I’ve been guilty of using the phrase “non-traditional” naval vessels when referring to auxiliaries engaged in naval operations other than logistics. A recent example would be MSC’s Expeditionary Fast Transports serving as Partnership Station platforms. Historically, however, civilian-run shipping has been integral to naval warfare for as long as humankind has fought on the seas. Lincoln Paine discusses a number of non-traditional fleets in The Sea and Civilization, an amazingly comprehensive chronology of all aspects of maritime trade and warfare. In lieu of a powerful navy, the early Roman Empire established coloniae maritimae (maritime colonies), which exempted their men from service in the legions in exchange for their promise to destroy invading enemy vessels. A millennium later, Byzantium held off Muslim invaders at sea with a largely provisional force of merchants and fishermen. In the 19th Century, pirates turned privateers were engaged as naval commerce raiders by various states including Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas.

In World War I, the British Admiralty encouraged merchant vessels to arm themselves with deck guns, ostensibly for the purposes of defense. Some of these merchants took it upon themselves to actively attack German shipping, often using false flags. The German Empire, as one might expect, grew to view these vessels as belligerents, rather than as neutral shipping, a role they were initially accorded by international law. Then in World War II, thousands of American merchant ships were protected by Naval Armed Guards, who manned anti-aircraft weapons and up to 3″ deck guns. Merchant mariners supported these gun crews by passing ammunition, but were also trained to employ the weapons when necessary, and many did so, distinguishing themselves in battle.

Historical Precedence: Naval Armed Guard Sailors Man the stern 6″ (15.2 cm) gun on S.S. Mongolia in May 1917 (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH 41710) .

More recently, we’ve watched the emergence of China’s rather sizable maritime militias, which are a key aspect of the PLAN’s expansion strategy in the South China Sea. These sorts of maritime surrogates have kept up with changing naval technology. Today, instantaneous data communications have made over-the-horizon networked targeting by civilian craft a distinct possibility. Additionally, concealable anti-ship weapons, such as Russia’s Club-K containerized missile system, could raise the threat posed by merchant shipping. These non-traditional fleets are not anomalies, but rather mainstays of offensive naval warfare.  How does this historical reality reconcile with modern legal norms of international armed conflict?

Nuances Riding on a Single Letter

Traditional prohibitions against civilians taking a direct part in hostilities are based on a duty to discriminate between combatants who may be lawfully targeted and non-combatants who may not be intentionally targeted. International humanitarian law is also designed to protect duly-recognized combatants from prosecution and provide for status as prisoners of war. In modern times, these distinctions have been interpreted to prohibit civilians aboard a warship from serving as a weapons release authority or standing tactical watches.  Besides CIVMARS, a host of civilians routinely ride naval ships, including maintenance contractors, college instructors, and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation planners; all of course, in non-tactical roles.

The hidden shipping threat: Russian Club-K containerized missile system.

To understand the legal nuances behind arguments for and against non-traditional naval vessels undertaking offensive operations, it’s worth examining the distinction the U.S. Navy makes between warships and naval auxiliary vessels.[1] In accordance with Navy Regulations, Article 1259, a commissioned warship – designated USS – requires “a personal flag or command pennant of an officer of the Navy, or a commission pennant.” U.S. Naval Ships (USNS) operate under the control of civilian mariners, and therefore do not technically qualify as warships. Under the same regulations, in some circumstances, a USNS ship can be reclassified as a USS hull, but this requires approval by the Secretary of the Navy.  These conventions are supported by Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states a warship is “a ship belonging to the armed forces of a State bearing the external marks distinguishing such ships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent, and manned by a crew which is under regular armed forces discipline.” The 1994 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea also provides a non-binding, but widely-accepted view of naval auxiliaries in warfare.

Auxiliaries are vessels, other than warships, that are under the exclusive control of the armed forces of a state. Some interpretations of international law infer that naval auxiliaries (non-warships) may defend themselves and other friendly forces in the vicinity, but may not be used to conduct offensive belligerent acts. Under the strictest legal interpretations, MSC ships would be prohibited from a range of activities to include launching anti-ship weapons, but also to missions as innocuous and defensive as clearing a channel of mines for the safe passage of commercial shipping. International agreements are important, but we should not ignore historical precedence and operational necessity that may force auxiliaries into combat roles. As further precedence, not every vessel conducting offensive missions in the U.S. Navy meets the criterion required for warship. For example, combatant craft of the Navy’s Special Boat Teams and Coastal Riverine Squadrons are not commissioned warships, but may carry out offensive operations. Of course, these boats are run by Navy crews, and a commissioned officer resides at some point in their chain of command (though not always embarked).

Embarked Security Team (EST) watchstander on the Military Sealift Command’s Expeditionary Fast Transport (T-EPF-1) in Sekondi, Ghana, Feb. 14, 2015 (US Navy photo).

Given generally-accepted views of international law, what are the alternatives available to include naval auxiliaries as offensives nodes in a distributed lethality regime? A handful of warships in the U.S. Navy, including USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15), two flagships, and submarine tenders, feature a hybrid crewing model. These ships are commanded by a commissioned naval officer, though their navigation and engineering functions are primarily conducted by CIVMARs. This hybrid crewing approach enables them to conduct or command offensive operations in accordance with international law. Implementing this approach on a wider scale would require the reclassification of armed CLF ships to USS and the introduction of permanent Navy crews, an option not necessarily supported by today’s manpower budgets.

Embarking military detachments to operate defensive and offensive weapons might be another acceptable alternative. Over the past few decades, the combat logistics force has transitioned from USS ships, to USNS ships embarking military detachments (MILDETS) run by a junior surface warfare officer, and now to primarily USNS ships with no MILDETS. When embarked, MILDETS mostly handled command and control (C2) functions. Many of these roles have been absorbed by CIVMARS, but others, like operating self-defense weapons, are still supported by embarked Navy security teams. It’s possible that arming a CLF ship and operating its weapons systems with a MILDET, without reclassifying it as USS could put a ship’s status as naval auxiliary in jeopardy during hostilities. However, like merchant shipping that was targeted during the World Wars, that becomes largely an irrelevant academic argument once ordnance starts flying and logistics ships become primary targets themselves.

In an era of declining Navy end strength and increasing personnel costs, it is no longer fiscally prudent to assign full time military detachments to every ship that might require one in wartime.  The Navy’s reserve component (RC) provides a feasible C2 alternative which can be surged forward during contingency operations, while meeting legal and operational requirements for offensive operations. In recent years, military detachments for theater security cooperation missions onboard MSC ships have been created ad hoc from cross-decked active duty Sailors or sourced from existing staffs such as Destroyer Squadrons. In the event of a major contingency, it is likely that these staffs will be tied up with their primary missions and unable to dedicate manpower to supporting auxiliary C2 requirements. In recognition of these demands, the Military Sealift Command recently established a dedicated Navy Reserve unit designed to provide C2 elements for MSC ships involved in non-logistics missions. This nascent capability has been demonstrated with embarked detachments onboard various MSC ships during fleet exercises and security cooperation missions.

The expansion of additional RC military detachments should be explored that support not only theater security missions, but future offensively-armed combat logistics force ships. The advantages of this capability residing in the reserve force are several: The first relates to cost.  On average, a part-time reservist costs the navy approximately one fifth of an active duty Sailor. In peace-time, reservists would train for the mission by embarking CLF ships to support weapons testing and fleet exercises, and surge forward if required for contingency missions.  Additionally, reserve Sailors, some of them with licensed merchant credentials themselves, have a strong knowledge of MSC ship unique operating procedures and understand how to integrate well with CIVMARs. The habitual relationships dedicated reserve units build with CIVMAR crews have proven valuable in other missions.

Regardless of whether the decision is made to increase the weapons capabilities of our Military Sealift Command ships, additional RC detachments would provide the legal and operational top-cover necessary to perform other traditional naval operations on these vessels in peace and war to include maritime security operations, mine-countermeasures, special operations direct action support, and amphibious raids.

Chris Rawley is a Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve and serves as Commanding Officer for the Navy’s sole unit dedicated to providing command and control detachments aboard Military Sealift Command vessels. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency. 

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[1] The author is not an operational law attorney.  The reader is encouraged to seek out other legal interpretations.