Tag Archives: U.S. Navy

The Navy’s New Fleet Problem Experiments and Stunning Revelations of Military Failure

By Dmitry Filipoff

Losing the Warrior Ethos

“…despite the best efforts of our training teams, our deploying forces were not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” –Admiral Scott Swift 1

Today, virtually every captain in the U.S. Navy has spent most of his or her career in the post-Cold War era where high-end warfighting skills were de-emphasized. After the Soviet Union fell, there was no navy that could plausibly contest control of the open ocean against the U.S. In taking stock of this new strategic environment, the Navy announced in the major strategy concept document …From the Sea (1992) achange in focus and, therefore, in priorities for the Naval Service away from operations on the sea toward power projection.”2 This change in focus was toward missions that made the Navy more relevant in campaigns against lower-end threats such as insurgent groups and rogue nations (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya) that were the new focus of national security imperatives. None of these competitors fielded modern navies.

The relatively simplistic missions the U.S. Navy conducted in this power projection era included striking inland targets with missile strikes and airpower, presence through patrolling in forward areas, and security cooperation through partner development engagements. The focus on this skillset has led to an era of complacence where the high-end warfighting skills that were de-emphasized actually atrophied to a significant degree. This possibility was forewarned in another Navy strategy document that sharpened thinking on adapting for a power projection era, Forward…from the Sea (1994): “As we continue to improve our readiness to project power in the littorals, we need to proceed cautiously so as not to jeopardize our readiness for the full spectrum of missions and functions for which we are responsible.”3

Now the strategic environment has changed decisively. Most notably, China is aggressively rising, challenging international norms, and rapidly building a large, modern navy. Because of the predominantly maritime nature of the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy may prove the most important military service for deterring and winning a major war against this ascendant and destabilizing superpower. If things get to the point where offensive sea control operations are needed and the fleet is gambled in high-end combat, then it is very likely that the associated geopolitical stakes of victory or defeat will be historic. The sudden rise of a powerful maritime rival is coinciding with the atrophy of high-end warfighting skills and the introduction of exceedingly complex technologies, making the recent stunning revelations about how the U.S. Navy has failed to prepare for great power war especially chilling.

Admiral Scott Swift, who leads U.S. Pacific Fleet (the U.S. Navy’s largest and most prioritized operational command), candidly revealed that the Navy was not realistically practicing high-end warfighting skills and operations, including sinking modern enemy fleets, until only two years ago. Ships were not practicing against other ships in the realistic, free-play environments necessary to train and refine tactics and doctrine to win in great power war.

In a recent U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, Admiral Swift detailed training and experimentation events occurring in a series of “Fleet Problems.” These events take their name and inspiration from a years-long series of interwar-period fleet experiments and exercises that profoundly influenced how the Navy transformed itself in the run-up to World War Two. While ships practiced against ships in the inter-war period Fleet Problems, the modern version began with the creation of a specialized “Red” team well-versed in wargaming concepts and competitor thinking born from intelligence insights. This Red team is pitched against the Navy’s frontline commanders in Fleet Problem scenarios that simulate high-end warfare through the command of actual warships. What makes their creation an admission of grave institutional failure is that this Red team is leading the first series of realistic high-threat training events at sea in recent memory.

The Navy’s units should be able to practice high-end warfighting skills against one another without the required participation of a highly-specialized Red team adversary to present a meaningful challenge. But Adm. Swift strikingly admits that the Navy’s current system of certifying warfighting skills is not representative of real high-end capability because the Navy “never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks, against a free-playing, informed, and representative Red.” Furthermore, “individual commanders rarely if ever [emphasis added] had the opportunity to exercise all these complex operations against a dynamic and thoughtful adversary.”

Core understanding on what makes training realistic and meaningful was absent. Warfighting truths were not being discovered and necessary skills were not being practiced because ships were not facing off against other ships in high-end threat scenarios to test their abilities under realistic conditions. If the nation sent the Navy to fight great power war tomorrow, it would amount to a coach sending a team that “rarely if ever” did practice games to a championship match.

These exercises are not just experiments that push the limits of what is known about modern war at sea. They are also experimental in that they are now figuring out if the U.S. Navy can even do what it has said it could do, including the ability to sink enemy fleets and establish sea control. According to Adm. Swift, the Navy had “never performed” a “critical operational tactic that is used routinely in exercises and assumed to be executable by the fleet [emphasis added]” until it was recently tested in a Fleet Problem. The unsurprising insight: “having never performed the task together at sea, the disconnect” between what the Navy thought it could perform and what it could actually do “never was identified clearly.” Adm. Swift concludes “It was not until we tried to execute under realistic, true free-play conditions that we discovered the problem’s causal factors…” In the Fleet Problems training and experimentation have become one and the same.

Why did the Navy assume it could confidently execute critical operational tactics it had never actually tried in the first place? And if the Navy assumed it could do it, then maybe the rest of the defense establishment and other nations thought so, too. Does this profound disconnect also hold true for foreign and allied navies? Is the unique tactical and doctrinal knowledge being represented by the specialized Red team an admission that competitors are training their units and validating their warfighting concepts through more realistic practice? Even though it is impossible to truly simulate all the chaos of real combat, only now are important ground truths of high-end naval warfare just being discovered which could prompt major reassessments of what the Navy can really contribute in great power war.

The entirety of the train, man, and equip enterprise that produces ready military forces for deployment must be built upon a coherent vision of how real war works. The advent of the Fleet Problems suggests that if one were to ask the Navy’s unit leaders what their real-world vision is of how to fight modern enemy warships as part of a distributed and networked force their responses would have little in common. If great power war breaks out tomorrow, the Navy’s frontline commanders could be forced to improvise warfighting fundamentals from the very beginning. Simple lessons would be learned at great cost in blood and treasure.

Many of the major revelations coming from the Fleet Problems are not unique innovations, but rather symptoms of deep neglect for a core element of preparing for war – pitting real-life units against one another to test people, ideas, and technology under realistic conditions. Adm. Swift surprisingly describes using a Red team to  connect intelligence insights, wargaming concepts, training, and real-life experimentation as “new ground.” Swift also noted that as the Navy attempted its purported concepts of operations in the Fleet Problems “it became apparent there were warfighting tasks that were critical to success that we could not execute with confidence.” In a normal context, it would not always be noteworthy for a military to invalidate concepts or realize it can’t do something well. What makes these statements revelations is that the process of testing concepts and people in realistic conditions simulating great power war has only just begun. 

This is a failure with profound implications. The insight that comes from training and experimenting against realistic threats forms a critical foundation for the rest of the military enterprise. Realistic experimentation and training is indispensable for developing meaningful doctrine, tactics, and operational art. Much of the advanced concept development on great power war by the Navy hasn’t been validated by real-world testing. The creation of the new Fleet Problems is fundamentally an admission that not only is the Navy unsure of its ability to execute core missions, but that major decisions about its future development were built on flaws. While the Fleet Problems are finally injecting much needed realism into the Navy’s thinking, their creation reveals that the entire defense establishment has suffered a major disconnect from the real character of modern naval warfare. The Fleet Problems have likely invalidated years of planning and numerous basic assumptions.

The Navy must now account for how many years it did not practice its forces in meaningful, high-end threat training in order to understand just how widespread this lack of realistic experience has penetrated its ranks. There should be no doubt that this has skewed decision-making at senior levels of leadership. How many leaders making important decisions about capability development, training, and requirements have zero firsthand experience commanding forces in high-end threat training? Could the fleet commanders operate networked and distributed formations if war breaks out? Has best military advice on the value of naval power for the nation’s national security interests been predicated on untested warfighting assumptions?

To Train the Fleet for What?

“The department directs that a board of officers, qualified by experience, be ordered to prepare a manual of torpedo tactics which will be submitted by the department to the War College, and after such discussion and revision as may be necessary, will be printed and issued to the torpedo officers of the service for trial. This order has not been complied with. If it had been, it would doubtless have resulted in a sort of tentative doctrine which, though it might well have been better than the flotilla’s first attempt, could not have been as complete or as reliable as one developed through progressive trials at sea; and it might well have contained very dangerous mistakes.”William S. Sims 4

Adm. Swift reveals that it was even debated whether free-play elements should play a role at all in certifying units to be combat ready: “there was concern in some circles that adding free-play elements to the limited time in the training schedule would come at the cost of unit certification. Others contended it was unrealistic and unfair to ask units that were not yet certified to perform our most difficult warfighting tasks.” The degree of certification is moot. Sailors are failing anyway because the shift in warfighting focus toward great power competition has not been matched by new training standards and therefore not penetrated down to the unit level.

Adm. Swift notes startling lessons: “In some scenarios, we learned that the ‘by the book’ procedure can place a strike group at risk simply because our standard operating procedures were written without considering a high-end wartime environment.” This is a direct result of the change in focus toward power projection missions against threats without modern navies. According to Adm. Swift the regular exercise schedule consisted of missions including “maritime interdiction operations, strait transits, and air wings focused on power projection from sanctuary” which meant that forces were “not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” In this new context of a high-end fight in a Fleet Problem, according to Adm. Swift, “If we presented an accurate—which is to say hard—problem, there was a high probability the forces involved were going to fail. In our regular training events, that simply does not happen at the rate we assess will occur in war.” The Fleet Problems are revealing that Navy units are not able to confidently execute high-end warfighting operations regardless of the state of their training certifications. 

These revelations demonstrate that the way the Navy certifies its units as ready for war is broken. A profound disconnect exists between the Navy’s certification and training processes for various warfighting skills and what is actually required in war. Entire sets of training certifications and standard operating procedures born of the post-Cold War era are inadequate for gauging the Navy’s ability to fight great power conflict.

Mentally Absent in the Midst of the Largest Technological Revolution

“The American navy in particular has been fascinated with hardware, esteems technical competence, and is prone to solve its tactical deficiencies with engineering improvements. Indeed, there are officers in peacetime who regard the official statement of a requirement for a new piece of hardware as the end of their responsibility in correcting a current operational deficiency. This is a trap.” Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (Ret.) 5

Regardless of a major shift in national security priorities toward lower-end threats, the astonishing pace of technological change constitutes an extremely volatile factor in the strategic environment that needs to be constantly paced by realistic training and experimentation under free-play conditions. The modern technological foundation upon which to devise tactics and doctrine is built on sand.

The advent of the information age has unlocked an unprecedented degree of flexibility for the conduct of naval warfare as platforms and payloads can be connected in real-time in numerous ways across great distances. This has resulted in a military-technical revolution as marked as when iron and steam combined to overtake wooden ships of sail. A single modern destroyer fully loaded with network-enabled anti-ship missiles has enough firepower to singlehandedly sink the entirety of the U.S. Navy’s WWII battleship and fleet carrier force.6 On the flipside, another modern destroyer could field the defensive capability to stop that same missile salvo.

Warfighting fundamentals are being reappraised in an information-focused context. The process by which forces find, target, and engage their opponents, known as the kill chain, is enabled by information at each individual step of the sequence. A key obstacle is meeting that burden of information in order to advance to the next step. This challenge is exacerbated by the great distances of open-ocean warfare and the difficulty of getting timely information to where it needs to be while the adversary seeks to deceive and degrade the network. Technological advancement means the kill chain’s information burdens can be increasingly met and interfered with.

The threshold of information needed for the archer to shoot decreases the smarter the arrow gets. Information-age advancements have therefore wildly increased the power of the most destructive conventional weapon ever put to sea, the autonomous salvo of swarming anti-ship missiles.

The next iteration of these missiles will have a robust suite of onboard sensors, datalinks, jamming capability, and artificial intelligence. These capabilities will combine to build resilience into the kill chain by containing as much of that process as possible within the missile itself. More and more of the need for the most up-to-date information will be met by the missile swarm’s own sensors and decided upon by its artificial intelligence. Once fired, these missiles are on a one-way trip, allowing them to discard survivability for the sake of seizing more opportunities to collect and pass information. Unlike most other information-gaining assets, these missiles will be able to close with potential targets to resolve lingering concerns of deception and identification. The missile’s infrared and electro-optical capabilities in particular will provide undetectable, jam-resistant sensors for final identification that will prove challenging to deceive with countermeasures. On final approach, the missile will pick a precise point on the ship to guarantee a kill, such as where ammunition is stored. 

The most fierce enemy in naval warfare has taken the form of autonomous networked missile salvos where the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) decision cycle will be transpiring within the swarm at machine speeds. Is the Navy ready to use and defend against these decisive weapons?

The Navy may feel inclined to say yes to the latter question sooner because shooting things out of the sky has been a special focus of the Surface Navy and naval aviation since WWII. The latest technology that will take this capability into the 21st century, the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter-Air (NIFC-CA) networking capability, will help unite the sensors and weapons of the Navy’s ships and aircraft. Aircraft will be able to use a warship’s missiles to shoot down threats the ship can’t see itself. This is decisive because anti-ship missiles will make their final approach at low altitudes below the horizon where they can’t be detected by a ship’s radar. Modern warships can be forced to wait until the final seconds to bring most of their defensive firepower to bear on a supersonic inbound missile salvo unless a networked aircraft can cue their fires with accurate sensor information from high above.

This makes mastering NIFC-CA perhaps the most important defensive capability the fleet needs to train for, but this will involve a steep learning curve. Speaking on the challenges of making this capability a reality, then-Captain Jim Kilby remarked that it involves “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”Is the Navy truly practicing and refining this capability in realistic environments? At least three years before the Fleet Problems started, the Chief of Naval Operations reported that concepts of operation were established for NIFC-CA.8

There should be little confidence that naval forces have a deep comprehension of how information has revolutionized naval warfare and how modern fleet combat will play out because there was a lapse in necessary realistic experimentation at sea. The way the Navy thought it would operate may not actually make sense in war, a key insight that experimentation will reveal as it did in the interwar period.

Training and Experimentation for Now and Tomorrow

If…the present system fails to anticipate and to adequately provide for the conditions to be expected during hostilities of such nature, it is obviously imperative that it be modified; wholly regardless of the effect of such change upon administration or upon the outcome of any peace activity whatsoever.” –Dudley W. Knox 9

The extent to which the Navy’s current capabilities have been tested by meaningful real-world training and experimentation is now in doubt. This doubt naturally extends to things that the Navy has just fielded or is about to introduce to the fleet. Yet Adm. Swift revealed a fatal flaw in the Fleet Problems that is not in keeping with a high-velocity learning or warfighting-first mindset: “We are not notionally employing systems and weapons that are not already deployed in the fleet. Each unit attacks the problem using what it has on hand (physically and intellectually) today.”

It is a mistake to not train forces to use future weapons. Units must absolutely attempt to experiment with capabilities not yet in the fleet to stay ahead of the ever-quickening pace of change. Realism should be occasionally sacrificed to anticipate the basic parameters of capabilities that are about to be fielded. Sailors should be thinking about how to employ advanced anti-ship missiles about to hit the fleet that feature hundreds of miles of range like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), Standard Missile 6, and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk. These capabilities are far more versatile than the Navy’s only current ship-to-ship missile, the very short-range and antiquated Harpoon missile the Navy first fielded over 40 years ago and can’t even carry in its launch cells. Getting sailors to think about weapons before their introduction will mentally prepare them for new capabilities and warfighting realities.

Information-enabled capabilities have come to dominate every facet of offense, defense, and decision. Do naval aviators know how to retarget friendly salvos of networked missiles amidst a mass of deception and defensive counter-air capabilities while leveraging warship capabilities to target enemy missile salvos simultaneously? Do fleet commanders know how to maneuver numerous aerial network nodes to fuse sensors and establish flows of critical information that react to emerging threats and opportunities? Can commanders effectively manage and verify enormous amounts of information while the defense establishment and industrial base are being aggressively hacked by a great power? According to the Navy’s current service strategy document, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, warfare concept development should involve efforts to…re-align Navy training, tactics development, operational support, and assessments with our warfare mission areas to mirror how we currently organize to fight.” 10

Despite all the enormous effort and long wait times that accompany the introduction of a new system, the Fleet Problems remind the defense establishment that the Navy can’t be expected to know how to use it simply because it is fielded. New warfighting certifications are in order and must be rapidly redefined and benchmarked by the Fleet Problems in order to pace technology and make the Navy credible. This will require that a significant amount of time be dedicated to real-world experimentation.

So How the Does the Navy Spend its Time? 

“Our forward presence force is the finest such force in the world. But operational effectiveness in the wrong competitive space may not lead to mission success. More fundamentally, has the underlying rule set changed so that we are now in a different competitive space? How will we revalue the attributes in our organization?” –Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka  11

These severe experimentation and training shortfalls are not at all due to lack of funding, but rather by faulty decisions on what is actually important for Sailors to focus their time on and what naval forces should be used for in the absence of great power war. Meanwhile, the power projection era featured extreme deployment rates that have run the Navy into the ground.

The Government Accountability Office states that 63 percent of the Navy’s destroyers, 83 percent of its submarines, and 86 percent of its aircraft carriers experienced maintenance overruns from FY 2011-2016 that resulted in almost 14,000 lost operational days – days where ships were not available for operations.12 How much of this monumental deployment effort went toward aggressively experimenting and training for great power conflict instead of performing lower-end missions? Hardly any if none at all because Adm. Swift termed the idea to use a unit’s deployment time for realistic experimentation an “epiphany.”

In order to more efficiently meet insatiable operational demand and slow the rate of material degradation the Navy implemented the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) that reforms the cycle by which the Navy generates ready forces through maintenance, training, and sustainment phases.13 But Adm. Swift alleges that this major reform has caused the Navy to improperly invest its time:

“Commanders were busy following the core elements in our Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) training model, going from event to event and working their way through the list of training objectives as efficiently as possible. Rarely did we create an environment that allowed them to move beyond the restraints of efficiency to the warfighting training mandate to ensure the effectiveness of tactics, techniques, and procedures. We were not creating an environment for them to develop their own warfighting creativity and initiative.”

A check-in-the-box culture has been instituted to cope with crushing deployments rates at the expense of fostering leaders that embody the true warfighter ethos of imaginative tacticians and operational commanders. The OFRP cycle is under so much tension from insatiable demand and run-down equipment that Adm. Swift described it as a “Swiss watch—touching any part tended to cause the interlocking elements to bind, to the detriment of the training audience.” But as Adm. Swift already noted, pre-deployment training wasn’t even focused on preparing for the high-end fight anyway.

Every single deployment is an opportunity to practice and experiment. Simply teaching unit leaders to make time for such events will be valuable training itself as they figure out how to delegate responsibilities in an environment that more closely approximates wartime conditions. After all, if units are currently straining on 30 hours of sleep a week performing low-end missions and administrative tasks, how can we be sure they know how to make time to fight a high-stakes war while also maintaining a ship that’s falling apart?

Being a deckplate leader of a warship has always been an enormously busy job and there is always something a warship can do to be relevant. But it is a core competence of leaders at all levels to know what to make time for and how to delegate accordingly. From the sailor checking maintenance tasks to the combatant commander tasking ships for partner development engagements, a top-to-bottom reappraisal of what the Navy needs to spend its time doing is in order. Are Sailors performing tasks really needed to win a war? Are the ships being deployed on missions that serve meaningful priorities?

Major reform will be necessary in order to reestablish priorities to make large amounts of time for realistic training and experimentation. In addition to making enough time, it is also a question of having enough forces on hand when the fleet is stretched thin. Adm. Swift described a carrier strike group (CSG) being used in a Fleet Problem where “the entire CSG was OpFor [Red team] – an enormous investment that yielded unique and valuable lessons.” Does this mean that aircraft carriers, the Navy’s largest and most expensive warships, are especially hard-pressed to secure time for realistic experimentation and training? Can the Navy assemble more than a strike group’s worth of ships to simulate a competitor’s naval forces?

The recent deployment of three strike groups to the Pacific means it is possible. Basic considerations include asking whether the Navy has enough ships on hand to simulate a distributed fleet and enough units to simulate great power adversaries that have the advantages of time, space, and numbers. But with where the deployment priorities currently stand, the Navy may not have enough time or ships on hand to regularly simulate accurate scenarios. 

A Credibility Crisis in the Making

“…there are many, many examples of where our ships their commanding officers, their crews are doing very well, but if it’s not monitored on a continuous basis these skills can atrophy very quickly.”  Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson 14

When great power conflict last broke out in WWII the war at sea was won by admirals like Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and Raymond Spruance whose formative career experiences were greatly influenced by the interwar-period Fleet Problems. This tradition of excellence based on realism is in doubt today.

What is clear is that business as usual cannot go on. The fundamental necessity of free-play elements for ensuring warfighting realism is beyond reproach. The reemergence of competition between the world’s greatest powers in a maritime theater is making many of the Navy’s power projection skillsets less and less relevant to geopolitical reality. New deployment priorities must preference realistic training and experimentation to make up for lost ground in concept development, accurately inform planning, understand the true limits and potential of technology, and test the mettle of frontline units. 

The recent pair of collisions challenged numerous assumptions about how the Navy operates and how it maintains its competencies. Tragic as those events were, they thankfully stimulated an energetic atmosphere of reflection and reform. But the competencies that such reforms are targeting include things like navigation, seamanship, and ship-handling. These basic maritime skills have existed for thousands of years. What is far newer, endlessly more complex, and absolutely vital to deter and win wars is the ability to employ networked and distributed naval forces in great power conflict. Compared to the fatal collisions, countless more sailors are dying virtual deaths in the Fleet Problems that are revealing shocking deficiencies in how the Navy prepares for war. Short of horrifying losses in real combat, there is no greater wake-up call.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

References

[1] Admiral Scott H. Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018.  https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-03/fleet-problems-offer-opportunities

[2] Forward…From the Sea, U.S. Department of the Navy, 1994. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/navy/forward-from-the-sea.pdf 

[3] Ibid., 8. 

[4] William S. Sims, “Naval War College Principles and Methods Applied Afloat” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/naval-war-college-principles-and-methods-applied-afloat

[5] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, Second Edition, pg. 33, Naval Institute Press, 1999.

[6] Can be inferred from official U.S. Navy ship counts on battleships and aircraft carriers and near-term capabilities of anti-ship capabilities.

[7] Sam LaGrone, “The Next Act for Aegis”, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 7, 2014. https://news.usni.org/2014/05/07/next-act-aegis

[8] CNO’s Position Report 2013, U.S. Department of the Navy. http://www.navy.mil/cno/131121_PositionReport.pdf

[9] Dudley W. Knox, “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/role-doctrine-naval-warfare

[10] A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. http://www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf

[11] Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origin, It’s Future.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1998-01/network-centric-warfare-its-origin-and-future

[12] John H Pendleton, “Testimony Before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Maintenance, Training, and Other Challenges Affecting the Fleet. Government Accountability Office, September 19, 2017. https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/687224.pdf

[13] “What is the Optimized Fleet Response Plan and What Will It Accomplish?” U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Navy Live, January 15, 2014. http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/01/15/what-is-the-optimized-fleet-response-plan-and-what-will-it-accomplish/

[14] Department of Defense Press Briefing by Adm. Richardson on results of the Fleet Comprehensive Review and investigations into the collisions involving USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, November 2, 2017. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1361655/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-adm-richardson-on-results-of-the-fleet/ 

Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (Feb. 28, 2018) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Megann Helton practices course plotting during a fast cruise onboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)

Game-Changing Unmanned Systems for Naval Expeditionary Forces

By George Galdorisi

Perspective

In 2018 the United States remains engaged worldwide. The 2017 National Security Strategy addresses the wide-range of threats to the security and prosperity of United States.1 These threats range from high-end peer competitors such as China and Russia, to rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, to the ongoing threat of terrorism represented by such groups as ISIL. In a preview of the National Security Strategy at the December 2017 Reagan National Defense Forum, National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster highlighted these threats and reconfirmed the previous administration’s “4+1” strategy, naming the four countries – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea—and the “+1” — terrorists, particularly ISIL — as urgent threats that the United States must deal with today.2

The U.S. military is dealing with this threat landscape by deploying forces worldwide at an unprecedented rate. And in most cases, it is naval strike forces, represented by carrier strike groups centered on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and expeditionary strike groups built around large-deck amphibious ships, that are the forces of choice for dealing with crises worldwide.

For decades, when a crisis emerged anywhere on the globe, the first question a U.S. president asked was, “Where are the carriers?” Today, that question is still asked, but increasingly, the question has morphed into, “Where are the expeditionary strike groups?” The reasons for this focus on expeditionary strike groups are clear. These naval expeditionary formations have been the ones used extensively for a wide-array of missions short of war, from anti-piracy patrols, to personnel evacuation, to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And where tensions lead to hostilities, these forces are the only ones that give the U.S. military a forcible entry option.

During the past decade-and-a-half of wars in the Middle East and South Asia, the U.S. Marine Corps was used extensively as a land force and did not frequently deploy aboard U.S. Navy amphibious ships. Now the Marine Corps is largely disengaged from those conflicts and is, in the words of a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, “Returning to its amphibious roots.”3 As this occurs, the Navy-Marine Corps team is looking to new technology to complement and enhance the capabilities its amphibious ships bring to the fight. 

Naval Expeditionary Forces: Embracing Unmanned Vehicles

Because of their “Swiss Army Knife” utility, U.S. naval expeditionary forces have remained relatively robust even as the size of the U.S. Navy has shrunk from 594 ships in 1987 to 272 ships in early 2018. Naval expeditionary strike groups comprise a substantial percentage of the U.S. Navy’s current fleet. And the blueprint for the future fleet the U.S. Navy is building maintains, and even increases, that percentage of amphibious ships.4

However, ships are increasingly expensive and U.S. Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary forces have been proactive in looking to new technology to add capability to their ships. One of the technologies that offer the most promise in this regard is that of unmanned systems. The reasons for embracing unmanned systems stem from their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high-threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies—especially their ability to operate autonomously.

The importance of unmanned systems to the U.S. Navy’s future has been highlighted in a series of documents, ranging from the 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, to the 2016 A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, to the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations’ The Future Navy white paper. The Future Navy paper presents a compelling case for the rapid integration of unmanned systems into the Navy Fleet, noting, in part:

“There is no question that unmanned systems must also be an integral part of the future fleet. The advantages such systems offer are even greater when they incorporate autonomy and machine learning….Shifting more heavily to unmanned surface, undersea, and aircraft will help us to further drive down unit costs.”5

The U.S. Navy’s commitment to and growing dependence on unmanned systems is also seen in the Navy’s official Force Structure Assessment of December 2016, as well as in a series of “Future Fleet Architecture Studies.” In each of these studies—one by the Chief of Naval Operations staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—the proposed Navy future fleet architecture had large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems as part of the Navy force structure. Indeed, these reports highlight the fact that the attributes unmanned systems can bring to the U.S. Navy Fleet circa 2030 have the potential to be truly transformational.6

The Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study is an example of the Navy’s vision for the increasing use of unmanned systems. This study notes that under a distributed fleet architecture, ships would deploy with many more unmanned surface (USV) and air (UAV) vehicles, and submarines would employ more unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). The distributed Fleet would also include large, self-deployable independent USVs and UUVs, increasing unmanned deployed presence to approximately 50 platforms.

This distributed Fleet study calls out specific numbers of unmanned systems that would complement the manned platforms projected to be part of the U.S. Navy inventory by 2030:

  • 255 Conventional take-off UAVs
  • 157 Vertical take-off UAVs
  • 88 Unmanned surface vehicles
  • 183 Medium unmanned underwater vehicles
  • 48 Large unmanned underwater vehicles

By any measure the number of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned vehicles envisioned in the Navy alternative architecture studies represents not only a step-increase in the number of unmanned systems in the Fleet today, but also vastly more unmanned systems than current Navy plans call for. But it is one thing to state the aspiration for more unmanned systems in the Fleet, and quite another to develop and deploy them. There are compelling reasons why naval expeditionary forces have been proactive in experimenting with emerging unmanned systems.

Testing and Evaluating Unmanned Systems

While the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have embraced unmanned systems of all types into their force structures, and a wide-range of studies looking at the makeup of the Sea Services in the future have endorsed this shift, it is the Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary forces that have been the most active in evaluating a wide variety of unmanned systems in various exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. Part of the reason for this accelerated evaluation of emerging unmanned systems is the fact that, unlike carrier strike groups that have access to unmanned platforms such as MQ-4C Triton and MQ-8 Fire Scout, expeditionary strike groups are not similarly equipped.

While several such exercises, experiments, and demonstrations occurred in 2017, two of the most prominent, based on the scope of the events, as well as the number of new technologies introduced, were the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), and Bold Alligator 2017. These events highlighted the potential of unmanned naval systems to be force-multipliers for expeditionary strike groups.

S2ME2 ANTX provided an opportunity to demonstrate emerging, innovative technology that could be used to address gaps in capabilities for naval expeditionary strike groups. As there are few missions that are more hazardous to the Navy-Marine Corps team than putting troops ashore in the face of a prepared enemy force, the experiment focused specifically on exploring the operational impact of advanced unmanned maritime systems on the amphibious ship-to-shore mission. 

For the amphibious assault mission, UAVs are useful—but are extremely vulnerable to enemy air defenses.  UUVs are useful as well, but the underwater medium makes control of these assets at distance problematic. For these reasons, S2ME2 ANTX focused heavily on unmanned surface vehicles to conduct real-time ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and IPB (intelligence preparation of the battlespace) missions. These are critical missions that have traditionally been done by our warfighters, but ones that put them at extreme risk.

Close up of USV operating during S2ME2; note the low-profile and stealthy characteristics (Photo courtesy of Mr. Jack Rowley).

In an October 2017 interview with U.S. Naval Institute News, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation, William Bray, stressed the importance of using unmanned systems in the ISR and IPB roles:

“Responding to a threat today means using unmanned systems to collect data and then delivering that information to surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. The challenge is delivering this data quickly and in formats allowing for quick action.”7

During the assault phase of S2ME2 ANTX, the expeditionary commander used a USV to thwart enemy defenses. For this event, he used an eight-foot man-portable MANTAS USV (one of a family of stealthy, low profile, USVs) that swam undetected into the “enemy harbor” (the Del Mar Boat Basin on the Southern California coast), and relayed information to the amphibious force command center using its TASKER C2 system. Once this ISR mission was complete, the MANTAS USV was driven to the surf zone to provide IPB on obstacle location, beach gradient, water conditions and other information crucial to planners. 

Unmanned surface vehicle (MANTAS) operating in the surf zone during the S2ME2 exercise (Photo courtesy of Mr. Jack Rowley).

Carly Jackson, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s director of prototyping for Information Warfare and one of the organizers of S2ME2, explained the key element of the exercise was to demonstrate new technology developed in rapid response to real-world problems facing the Fleet:

“This is a relatively new construct where we use the Navy’s organic labs and warfare centers to bring together emerging technologies and innovation to solve a very specific fleet force fighting problem. It’s focused on ‘first wave’ and mainly focused on unmanned systems with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.”8

The CHIPS interview article discussed the technologies on display and in demonstration at the S2ME2 ANTX event, especially networked autonomous air and maritime vehicles and ISR technologies. Tracy Conroy, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s experimentation director, noted, “The innovative technology of unmanned vehicles offers a way to gather information that ultimately may help save lives. We take less of a risk of losing a Marine or Navy SEAL.”

S2ME2 ANTX was a precursor to Bold Alligator 2017, the annual Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary exercise. Bold Alligator 2017 was a live, scenario-driven exercise designed to demonstrate maritime and amphibious force capabilities, and was focused on planning and conducting amphibious operations, as well as evaluating new technologies that support the expeditionary force.9

Bold Alligator 2017 encompassed a substantial geographic area in the Virginia and North Carolina OPAREAS. The mission command center was located at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. The amphibious force and other units operated eastward of North and South Onslow Beaches, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. For the littoral mission, some expeditionary units operated in the Intracoastal Waterway near Camp Lejeune.

The Bold Alligator 2017 scope was modified in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as many of the assets scheduled to participate were used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The exercise featured a smaller number of amphibious forces but did include a carrier strike group.10 The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) orchestrated events and was embarked aboard USS Arlington (LPD-24), USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43), and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44).

The 2nd MEB used a large (12-foot) MANTAS USV, equipped with a Gyro Stabilized SeaFLIR230 EO/IR Camera and a BlueView M900 Forward Looking Imaging Sonar to provide ISR and IPB for the amphibious assault. The sonar was employed to provide bottom imaging of the surf zone, looking for objects and obstacles—especially mine-like objects—that could pose a hazard to the landing craft–LCACs and LCUs–as they moved through the surf zone and onto the beach.

The early phases of Bold Alligator 2017 were dedicated to long-range reconnaissance. Operators at exercise command center at Naval Station Norfolk drove the six-foot and 12-foot MANTAS USVs off North and South Onslow Beaches, as well as up and into the Intracoastal Waterway. Both MANTAS USVs streamed live, high-resolution video and sonar images to the command center. The video images showed vehicles, personnel, and other objects on the beaches and in the Intracoastal Waterway, and the sonar images provided surf-zone bottom analysis and located objects and obstacles that could provide a hazard during the assault phase.

Bold Alligator 2017 underscored the importance of surface unmanned systems to provide real-time ISR and IPB early in the operation. This allowed planners to orchestrate the amphibious assault to ensure that the LCACs or LCUs passing through the surf zone and onto the beach did not encounter mines or other objects that could disable—or even destroy—these assault craft. Providing decision makers not on-scene with the confidence to order the assault was a critical capability and one that will likely be evaluated again in future amphibious exercises such as RIMPAC 2018, Valiant Shield 2018, Talisman Saber 2018, Bold Alligator 2018 and Cobra Gold, among others.

Navy Commitment to Unmanned Maritime Systems

One of the major challenges to the Navy making a substantial commitment to unmanned maritime systems is the fact that they are relatively new and their development has been “under the radar” for all but a few professionals in the science and technology (S&T), research and development (R&D), requirements, and acquisition communities. This lack of familiarity creates a high bar for unmanned naval systems in particular. A DoD Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap provided a window into the magnitude of this challenge:

“Creation of substantive autonomous systems/platforms within each domain will create resourcing and leadership challenges for all the services, while challenging their respective warfighter culture as well…Trust of unmanned systems is still in its infancy in ground and maritime systems….Unmanned systems are still a relatively new concept….As a result; there is a fear of new and unproven technology.”11

In spite of these concerns—or maybe because of them—the Naval Sea Systems Command and Navy laboratories have been accelerating the development of USVs and UUVs. The Navy has partnered with industry to develop, field, and test a family of USVs and UUVs such as the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (“Sea Hunter”), MANTAS next-generation unmanned surface vessels, the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), and others.

Indeed, this initial prototype testing has been so successful that the Department of the Navy has begun to provide increased support for USVs and UUVs and has established program guidance for many of these systems important to the Navy and Marine Corps. This programmatic commitment is reflected in the 2017 Navy Program Guide as well as in the 2017 Marine Corps Concepts and Programs publications. Both show a commitment to unmanned systems programs.12

In September 2017, Captain Jon Rucker, the program manager of the Navy program office (PMS-406) with stewardship over unmanned maritime systems (unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles), discussed his programs with USNI News. The title of the article, “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” captured the essence of where unmanned maritime systems will fit in tomorrow’s Navy, as well as the Navy-after-next. Captain Rucker shared:

“In addition to these programs of record, the Navy and Marine Corps have been testing as many unmanned vehicle prototypes as they can, hoping to see the art of the possible for unmanned systems taking on new mission sets. Many of these systems being tested are small surface and underwater vehicles that can be tested by the dozens at tech demonstrations or by operating units.”13

While the Navy is committed to several programs of record for large unmanned maritime systems such as the Knifefish UUV, the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV), the Large Displacement UUV (LDUUV) and Extra Large UUV (XLUUV), and the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) vehicle (since renamed the Medium Displacement USV [MDUSV] and also called Sea Hunter), the Navy also sees great potential in expanding the scope of unmanned maritime systems testing:

“Rucker said a lot of the small unmanned vehicles are used to extend the reach of a mission through aiding in communications or reconnaissance. None have become programs of record yet, but PMS 406 is monitoring their development and their participation in events like the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, which featured several small UUVs and USVs.”14

The ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force remains the most hazardous mission for any navy. Real-time ISR and IPB will spell the difference between victory and defeat. For this reason, the types of unmanned systems the Navy and Marine Corps should acquire are those systems that directly support our expeditionary forces. This suggests a need for unmanned surface systems to complement expeditionary naval formations. Indeed, USVs might well be the bridge to the Navy-after-next.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the Director of Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures at the Navy’s Command and Control Center of Excellence in San Diego, California. 

The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

Correction: Two pictures and a paragraph were removed by request. 

References

[1] National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: The White House, December 2017) accessed at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf.

[2] There are many summaries of this important national security event. For one of the most comprehensive, see Jerry Hendrix, “Little Peace, and Our Strength is Ebbing: A Report from the Reagan National Defense Forum,” National Review, December 4, 2017, accessed at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/454308/us-national-security-reagan-national-defense-forum-offered-little-hope.

[3] Otto Kreisher, “U.S. Marine Corps Is Getting Back to Its Amphibious Roots,” Defense Media Network, November 8, 2012, accessed at: https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/return-to-the-sea/.

[4] For a most comprehensive summary of U.S. Navy shipbuilding plans, see Ron O’Rourke Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, November 22, 2017).

[5] The Future Navy (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, May 2017) accessed at: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/TheFutureNavy.pdf. See also, 2018 U.S. Marine Corps S&T Strategic Plan (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, 2018) for the U.S. Marine Corps emphasis on unmanned systems, especially man-unmanned teaming.

[6] See, for example, Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, October 27, 2016, MITRE, Navy Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, July 1, 2016, and CSBA, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, January 23, 2017.

[7] Ben Werner, “Sea Combat in High-End Environments Necessitates Open Architecture Technologies,” USNI News, October 19, 2017, accessed at: https://news.usni.org/2017/10/19/open-architecture-systems-design-is-key-to-navy-evolution?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=b535e84233-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-b535e84233-230420609&mc_cid=b535e84233&mc_eid=157ead4942

[8] Patric Petrie, “Navy Lab Demonstrates High-Tech Solutions in Response to Real-World Challenges at ANTX17,” CHIPS Magazine Online, May 5, 2017, accessed at http://www.doncio.navy.mil/CHIPS/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=8989.

[9] Information on Bold Alligator 2017 is available on the U.S. Navy website at: http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=102852.

[10] Phone interview with Lieutenant Commander Wisbeck, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, Public Affairs Office, November 28, 2017.

[11] FY 2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, pp. 39-41.

[12] See, 2017 Navy Program Guide, accessed at: http://www.navy.mil/strategic/npg17.pdf, and 2017 Marine Corps Concepts and Programs accessed at:  https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/.

[13] Megan Eckstein, “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” USNI News, September 21, 2017, accessed at: https://news.usni.org/2017/09/21/navy-racing-test-field-unmanned-maritime-vehicles-future-ships?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=fb4495a428-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-fb4495a428-230420609&mc_cid=fb4495a428&mc_eid=157ead4942

[14] “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships.”

Featured Image: Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment prepare a Weaponized Multi-Utility Tactical Transport vehicle for a patrol at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 13, 2016. (USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte)

A Thoroughly Efficient Navy for the 21st Century, Pt.1

By David Tier

America has grown weary of the post-9/11 wars. Long, drawn-out conflicts have worn down American resolve and left many defense officials nostalgic for “the good-old days” when adversaries were easier to describe and devoted military efforts toward preparing for conventional warfare. Seizing an opportunity, the U.S. Navy has capitalized on growing disillusionment and sought to exaggerate the military challenges posed by an ascendant China for parochial benefit in terms of gaining larger budgets and greater quantities of more expensive ships. The Navy should consider an external strategy review that accounts for efficiency as an aspect of its operating concept. This article reviews America’s current naval strategy and is divided into two parts. Part 1, below, analyzes U.S. naval defense strategy in light of 21st Century national defense threats. Part 2 will recommend changes to the Navy’s force structure to gain significant cost savings while still satisfying America’s naval defense requirements. 

Introduction

In 1987, William W. Kaufmann analyzed U.S. Navy force requirements and determined that the Navy sought to procure a force much larger than necessary to meet realistic Cold War-era force projection demands.His review dissected the Navy’s threat assessments and his work was used as a successful tool to stunt the Navy’s attempts at inducing greater budgets. Today, in much the same way as then, we see the Navy favor approaches like AirSea Battle and “sea-basing” that counter anti-access/area-denial strategies but are anchored in conventional warfare concepts that discount the less-sophisticated threats more likely to challenge our nation. The attention and resources diverted from chasing terrorists on land will almost surely have negative consequences for the U.S., while the challenge of using naval power to forcefully gain access into contested regions will likely not be necessary, or perhaps even suicidal if tried. Despite implications to the contrary of the Navy’s parochial interests, naval officers should advise America’s leaders that the danger of being denied military access to a theater of operation is manageable and that the threat of terrorism is the greater national security problem. To do otherwise puts American interests at greater risk. This article explores the Navy’s missions in the context of the current strategic environment, proposes adjustments to its missions to align with its national defense role, analyzes the number of platforms and capabilities required to counter projected threats, and recommends reallocating budget to reduce excessive capacity in the Navy’s force projection mission in favor of sustaining the Army and Marines’ counterinsurgency capability.

The Navy’s Missions

Throughout its nearly 70-year history, the Department of Defense has struggled to build a joint force portfolio that distributed resources in proportion to priorities established in the national defense strategy. However, intra-service politics often hampered efforts to cross-level in line with the strategy and each Service wound-up with nearly equal budgets instead. There have been a couple of noteworthy exceptions to this strategy-to-resources mismatch, however. The Eisenhower Administration’s policy of “massive retaliation” emphasized the role of nuclear forces over conventional, whereby the Air Force and Navy benefitted from budget increases at the expense of the Army. The Kennedy Administration reversed Eisenhower’s course with its “flexible response” policy, which sought to improve the Army’s ability to withstand a conventional attack in Europe as well as to develop counterinsurgency forces.

The military strategies that followed these policy changes gave birth to a principle that the U.S. should maintain capability to simultaneously fight at least two major regional wars. The U.S. maintained this defense strategy for decades and only recently sought to scale back. Still, not all was smooth sailing in the Defense Department, as defense analysts noted the need to curb budget waste that resulted from factors ranging from Congressional pork barrel projects to misplaced Service priorities. Kaufmann observed that the Navy had drifted off course in his 1987 analysis titled, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy.

At the time the Navy sought a 622-ship fleet cruising with 15 aircraft carriers, and submitted budget requests based on a vision articulated in 1986’s The Maritime Strategy. Overseen by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins, the document went so far as to envision decisive warfare against the Soviet Navy called “Carrying the Fight to the Enemy,” which advocated using naval power to attack the flanks of the Soviet Union during the course of a potential war.2 The Maritime Strategy persuaded defense planners of the need for a large Navy to accomplish this end.3 Although the Navy advertised its conclusions to justify necessary means to accomplish assigned missions, outsiders viewed it as a parochial argument intended to gain force structure.

Kaufmann deconstructed the Navy’s approach and determined that a naval attack against the Soviet Union would incur losses that outweighed the value of the strikes, or might even be suicidal.4 In his analysis of the maritime threats, he observed an overstated stated need for aircraft carriers, and proposed force reductions that would have substantially curbed Navy carrier-building. 

Like The Maritime Strategy, the Navy’s 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower is similarly off course. Section III of the document, titled “Seapower in Support of National Security,” overstates the need to achieve “all domain access” and to project power. It conditions the reader to expect that inflated anti-access threats imply that the most prudent solution is to apply brute force of naval power. One must examine the Navy’s purpose and missions within the context of today’s strategic security environment to establish a baseline for more reasonable Navy force requirements.

Notwithstanding the national defense strategy’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the Navy’s enduring missions in priority sequence are:

1. Protect the U.S. and deter enemy attack, particularly from seaborne threats
2. Secure economic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to support national livelihood
3. Deny an adversary the use of the sea for military advantage
4. Secure military SLOCs to ensure access to distant theaters of operation, and enable military transport vessels safe transit to discharge their matériel in support of joint operations inland from the sea
5. Project forces that can attack adversary interests on land in support of other combat operations

Some may argue that these missions omit important tasks that the Navy is required to perform and others may argue that they are incorrectly prioritized. However, these arguments do not hold water. Although there is no mission listed above to provide “presence,” humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or establish maritime superiority, these missions can be accomplished with the same assets needed for the other missions described, or otherwise derived from a combination of them. Forces conducting the first mission could assist humanitarian relief efforts and, in effect, the second, third, and fourth missions combine to describe graduating levels of sea superiority. No further forces would be necessary to accomplish these other missions. A close examination of the five listed missions can help identify and determine the capabilities required of America’s Navy.

Reconsidering Threats and Missions

First, protecting the nation from attack is the purview of all armed forces. Military threats to the U.S. are the primary reason America should procure military capability. Naturally, the Navy’s portion of this mission should focus on seaborne threats and, to an extent overlapping with the Air Force, threats overflying the sea. The primary maritime military threat to the United States today is the threat of ballistic missile submarines operating within firing range of American shores. There is no real threat of an amphibious attack against the U.S. There is also no serious threat of any enemy carrier or surface strike group threatening American territory, nor will there be any in the foreseeable future. The threat of submarine-launched missiles however, particularly nuclear ballistic missiles, should be the number one priority for the Navy to defeat. Therefore, the capability to detect, track, and destroy “boomers,” and even intercepting their missiles, should be the Navy’s primary focus. This places a premium on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms such as long-range patrol aircraft, attack submarines, ASW helicopter-equipped surface action groups, and ballistic missile defense systems such as Aegis-equipped ships. Although fixed-wing ASW aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier also perform well in this role, aircraft carriers are not optimally employed in ASW and are an inefficient means to address this threat. Likewise, nuclear deterrence through deployment of U.S. ballistic missile submarines is an important capability for the Navy to maintain as part of the strategic deterrence triad. In conjunction with the other legs, it helps discourage enemy attacks against the U.S. by providing a credible second-strike threat.

Second, securing SLOCs to enable global maritime traffic and foiling an enemy’s attempt to blockade the U.S. is a vital maritime mission that ensures the nation’s way of life can continue despite attempts to wage war against it. This mission does not include protecting traffic in or through an active theater of war, but requires a capability for the Navy to establish safe lanes of transit from the territorial waters of the U.S. to the territorial waters of major international shipping ports around the globe. The primary military threat that sea-going commercial traffic might encounter would be attack submarines, although land-based long-range attack aircraft, and, to a lesser extent, surface groups or small water craft, could pose a threat. Accordingly, these threats require the Navy to maintain a transoceanic ASW capability, defensive anti-air warfare (AAW) capability, and the capability to defend against smaller surface threats. These are largely the same capabilities required in the first mission above, and greater numbers of the same types of assets can effectively be used for this second purpose. 

The third mission for the Navy is to deny, or at least inhibit, enemy use of the sea for military advantage. An enemy must not be able to outflank land forces using maritime maneuver. This is where the need for sea-based fixed-wing attack and air-intercept aircraft makes their first appearance, as the Navy needs a limited strike and air combat capability to prevent an enemy from gaining localized sea control. America’s potential adversaries, however, do not furnish a strong blue-water capability that threatens to overturn the Navy’s long-established control of the sea. Even the most vaunted projected maritime threat, the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China (PLAN), will possibly field three aircraft carriers in the coming years, 85 ocean-going surface combatants, and nine nuclear-powered attack submarines.Although this may sound like a substantial challenge at first glance, a closer look assuages concern about blue water contests with the Navy. In a potential war against the U.S., the PLAN would not survive beyond the reach of land-based air cover since the Navy’s attack submarines would almost assuredly destroy their task forces on the open seas, and even be a significant threat for PLAN forces in their home waters. Furthermore, the Air Force’s long-range bombers would severely hamper Chinese maritime freedom of maneuver outside of the East and South China Seas. Therefore, only a few cruise missile-equipped ships, and possibly a single aircraft carrier with multi-role fixed-wing aircraft would be necessary to accomplish this third mission per theater of war. Even the amphibious assault ship-based U.S. Marine Corps attack aircraft may sufficiently address this role. A joint task force of attack submarines, amphibious assault ships, and Air Force strike aircraft could fulfill this task, thus lessening the demand for supercarriers. 

The fourth mission for the Navy is to secure SLOCs into a theater of war, which necessitates a stronger offensive capability. This mission includes the possibility of forcefully gaining access to contested theaters and, combined with the second and third, accounts for the Navy’s desired capability of sea control as articulated in the Navy’s vision statement, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.6 The AirSea Battle concept envisions the most challenging aspect of this fourth mission. AirSea Battle considers a worst-case scenario where the Navy must escort military transports into the full weight of sophisticated enemy defenses—within ample range of the enemy’s inventory of attack aircraft, cruise missiles, attack submarines, and mines. However, there are only a few locations in the world where Navy forces would have to confront this most challenging task by themselves, and only one current location where this is even conceivable: the South China Sea. Regardless, even the worst-case scenario there would probably require no more naval forces than required during Operation Desert Storm or in the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the Navy deployed six aircraft carriers in each instance.7 Although this may seemingly vindicate the Navy’s need to maintain a double-digit number of carriers, we must be realistic about the threat faced. Admittedly, the challenge to escort convoys would substantially increase as task forces approached theaters of war but the chance that regional partners would not allow greater basing access assumed in some studies is overly pessimistic. This, combined with the low likelihood that a severe South China Sea problem would actually occur, reduces the challenges posed.

From a different perspective, consider more pessimistic accounts such that there were no bases in the region from which American forces could launch attacks, no allies contributing meaningful forces to assist the cause, and an enemy force that actually developed into the great adversary it is predicted to become. Were six carriers required in both wars against Iraq that sought to eject entrenched forces from an occupied country or force regime change as the 1991 and 2003 military missions respectively, or was that overkill? Couldn’t four carriers have accomplished the more limited objective of simply “gaining access” to that theater?  Self-serving parochial aspects aside, the Navy should recognize that overselling the capability to execute a highly-contested South China Sea mission under the worst circumstances promises to divert resources that could be employed against other, more likely threats, such as transnational terrorism.

The Navy has encountered difficulties persuading defense planners of the full narrative for its fifth mission—power projection—since the end of the Cold War. The Navy should indeed maintain a capability to project power into distant theaters of operation since there is great value in an ability to assail an enemy in as many ways as possible. The main problem with the Navy’s approach, however, is that it single-mindedly envisions large carrier strike groups for this role. Carrier strike groups should, at best, only be one part of a comprehensive package that could be accomplished by guided missile-capable attack submarines alone or with surface combatants, and possibly to a greater degree, by long-range bombers and tactical aircraft controlled by the Air Force. This is a joint, overlapping mission set. Because the power projection argument has lost favor in recent years, the Navy has sought a different narrative to justify its service size. Hence, the AirSea Battle concept was born.

Conclusion

This examination has identified, prioritized, and placed limiting stipulations on five core missions the Navy must accomplish. Next, an examination of the Navy’s present forces it has to carry out these missions, particularly its aircraft carriers, will help determine if there is excess capability it could reduce in favor of other national defense interests. 

David Tier is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and serves as a strategic plans and policy officer. He holds a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, has served three combat tours of duty in Iraq, served a tour of duty in the Pentagon, and has authored several articles. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or any of their components.

References

1. William W. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987), 123.

2. Admiral James D. Watkins, The Maritime Strategy, (Annapolis, MD.: US Naval Institute Proceedings Supplement, January 1986), 9-13; John B. Hattendorf, Ph.D., Peter M. Swartz and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, (Newport, R.I.:  Naval War College Press, 2008), 221.

3. Hattendorf, Swartz, and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, 204.

4. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy, 102-104.

5. Kenji, Minemura, “China to start construction of 1st aircraft carriers next year,” The Asahi Shimbun, December 31, 2008, available online at http://web.archive.org/web/20090526192305/http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200812310046.html, accessed on October 16, 2014.

6. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, March 2015, 22.

7. U.S. Navy Captain (Ret.) Marty Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?” Forbes.com, available online at http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/07/17/why-does-the-united-states-only-have-eleven-aircraft-carriers/, accessed on October 16, 2014.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 3, 2017) Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) observe the guided-missile destroyers USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Halsey (DDG 97), USS Preble (DDG 86) and guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) during a Group Sail training unit exercise with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Spencer Roberts/Released)

Davy Jones Isn’t Done with Us Yet

The following essay is the second place finalist for CIMSEC’S 2017 Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest

By Chris Rielage

Cheaper, deadlier A2/AD weapons make a strong Navy a necessity, not a luxury.

The broad reasons for having a strong Navy remain the same as in past generations: the Navy protects U.S. trade; projects power from our isolated continent; and through ship deployments and port calls, adds weight to our diplomatic efforts. While these missions remain constant, the nature of piracy and area denial will evolve rapidly: weapons are becoming more capable and widespread, and the rise of unmanned ships will shift the focus of piracy and blockades from crews to cargo and hulls. If the U.S. intends to maintain open trade and a peaceful world order, it will need a Navy prepared to confront these changes.

New Weapons

On October 1 2016, the former HSV-2 Swift was hit and nearly sunk off Yemen by an anti-ship missile fired by Houthi rebels. Though the actions of a U.S. task force, led by the USS Mason and USS Ponce, over the following month prevented the rebels from blocking the passage, it ended up exchanging further fire with the Houthi three different times. While this particular incident ended well, the mere fact that a non-state actor had the resources, training, and will to use anti-ship cruise missiles to try and block a vital strait represents a shift in naval warfare.

While those particular missiles were likely provided by Iran, other, more threatening weapons are available on the free market. For example, a major Russian arms manufacturer offers the Club-K missile system: a matched set of four Kalibr anti-ship cruise missiles, a modern and widely used design, ready to launch in a standard 40-foot shipping container. This class of weapons can allow their users to threaten major surface vessels for as little as $10-20 million.

These types of deadlier, cheaper, and more independent weapons are the future of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technology. Once limited to great powers, serious area denial capability will soon be open to any minor power with ready cash. These new actors need not even invest in extensive systems; using a few Club-K-like systems hidden among more mundane shipping, they would be able to threaten wide areas with relatively few actual weapons.

The intelligence needed to target these weapons effectively is also growing more widespread. Since detailed and up-to-date shipping information, based on public AIS data, can be pulled from the internet, initial-stage targeting is a relatively simple matter. Additionally, firms like IHS Jane’s track military deployments and provide detailed analysis of satellite imagery to their customers. As launch prices drop below $1000 per pound and electronics further shrink, satellites are likely to become even more open to small actors. The French Spirale system, for example, recently demonstrated a ballistic missile detection network with only two 120 kg orbiters. As launch technology continues to mature, led by private firms like SpaceX and Blue Origins, it is only a matter of time before satellite surveillance networks come within the reach of small nations and powerful non-state actors.

In other words, the resource threshold to blockade or interfere with sea lanes is going down. Weapons are becoming cheaper, better hidden, and less dependent on a large infrastructure. The required intelligence is cheaper, and in many cases, freely available. This evolution comes at a particularly bad time, as sea lanes are becoming both more vital and more vulnerable.

New Weaknesses

The long-term, multi-century shift towards globalization continues relatively unabated. In the year 1600, the entire annual sum of trade between Scandinavia and the Baltic region was about 90,000 tons, spread out over a thousand freighters; in 1940, moving that same mass of cargo required only nine Liberty Ships, while today, the same amount of goods would barely half-fill a Chinamax.

It is worth addressing, while protectionism and insularity are popular buzzwords, they don’t reflect a realistic long-term approach. With the unique exception of North Korea, economic insularity has always proven temporary throughout history. The global economy is not shaped like a chain, but a spiderweb; trade will continue organically even if individual nations are removed from the network.

As resources move over the sea, they naturally tend to travel through dangerous areas, because of cost and time concerns. Shipping routes have always been dictated by geography; this is why Iran could threaten fuel routes during the Tanker Wars in the 1980s, why Somali pirates have been such a priority, and why control of the First Island Chain is such a concern for China and its competitors. The future will be no different. Whether the waters off the Middle East, or unstable portions of East Asia and Central America, the most popular sea lanes and bottlenecks are in the most dangerous areas of the world.

Unlike in the past, though, freighters of the future may have no crew to protect the ship or to be ransomed. Though automated container ships may seem far off, building drone or autonomous ships is simpler and cheaper than self-driving cars. While the unmanned ships will have to deal with the same problems, like corrosion and storms, that mariners have always confronted, the sea is an environment with few of the obstacles, such as pedestrians and speeding neighbors, that make land vehicles so difficult to automate. This will lead to a different model of piracy and blockades. With no crew to capture or ransom, there will be less incentive not to simply liquidate cargoes or destroy vessels.

Globalization will only continue in the long-run, sending more riches over the sea. Shipping lanes will take the same dangerous courses they always have, and ships will have no crew to protect them. While the potential reward to blockading or interfering with sea lanes will go up, the fact that drone ships have no crew to endanger will vastly simplify the process of doing so.

New Challenges

Up until now, commerce raiding (or its illegal twin, piracy) had to be one of three things: 1) limited in scope, like Confederate raiders or the Emden; 2) coastal, as in Somalia or Indonesia; or 3) carefully targeted, like the English hunts for Spanish treasure galleons. Proper blockades could only be accomplished by major powers with large, professional navies. In the near future, that will no longer be the case.

Any nation, from North Korea to South Sudan, will have the resources to institute an effective blockade; if Yemen is any example, even rebels and non-state actors could have power over sea lanes. However, these small A2/AD forces will always have fewer resources than the peer-level A2/AD we face in Russia and China. As the USS Ponce and USS Mason proved in October, U.S. task forces can defeat them. However, if current trends of fleet readiness and ship numbers continue, that edge will not last long; we will simply run out of ships to send. If we intend to maintain superiority, the U.S. will need to be deliberate about building a better Navy, soon.

Chris Rielage is an incoming midshipman at Stanford University.

Citations:

LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack.” USNI News, 12 Oct. 2016, news.usni.org/2016/10/11/uss-mason-fired-3-missiles-to-defend-from-yemen-cruise-missiles-attack. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Stott, Michael. “Deadly New Russian Weapon Hides in Shipping Container.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 26 Apr. 2010, www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-weapon-idUSTRE63P2XB20100426. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason ‘Appears to Have Come Under Attack’.” USNI News, 15 Oct. 2016, news.usni.org/2016/10/15/cno-richardson-uss-mason-attacked-cruise-missiles-off-yemen. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Kramer, Herbert J. “SPIRALE.” EoPortal Directory – Satellite Missions, 2012, directory.eoportal.org/web/eoportal/satellite-missions/s/spirale. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Jane’s Satellite Imagery Analysis. IHS Markit, www.ihs.com/products/janes-satellite-imagery-analysis.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Großmann, Harald. “Perspectives for Maritime Trade – Cargo Shipping and Port Economics.” Maritime Trade and Transport Logistics, hdl.handle.net/10419/102539. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Featured Image: Battle of the Chesapeake (Wikimedia Commons)