The Bad Day Scenario Pt. 3: Developing a Dynamic, Distributed, and Lethal Global Force

By Jimmy Drennan

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” –Sun Tzu

Parts One and Two of the Bad Day Scenario series posited a worst case-style scenario for the U.S. Navy, discussed ways the Navy might respond with current capacity and capability, and introduced emerging concepts that could help the Navy address similar scenarios in the future as a more globally responsive force. Dynamic Force Employment (DFE), the U.S. military’s latest concept for employing the joint force with agility and unpredictability, will have a significant impact on how the Navy is used as an instrument of national power. Meanwhile, Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is the Navy’s emergent concept for force development and maritime operations that will be capable of generating combat power across a broad range of platforms, domains, geographical area, and potential adversaries. The rest of the Bad Day Scenario series aims to reconcile the DFE and DMO concepts into an overall model for developing a dynamic, distributed, and lethal global force by 2020.

There currently exists no satisfactory integration of DFE and DMO. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson addresses both concepts independently in his Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0. Essentially, he suggests the Navy will use DFE at the lower end of the range of military operations, and DMO at the high end. Design 2.0 recognizes the unsustainability of business-as-usual global maritime operations, but fails to acknowledge that DFE and DMO will simultaneously impact steady state operations and must account for each other to be effective. They are not two conceptual “buttons” which the Navy can press depending on the situation.

Proposing a new concept – Global Force 2020 – can provide the necessary integration of DFE and DMO to enable the Navy to operate efficiently on a daily basis, while remaining postured to respond to global crises and contingencies. Global Force 2020 is based on a six-factor model – Operational, Technological, Human, Partnership, Cultural, and Logistical – that highlights the unique challenges and opportunities that arise from the integration of DFE and DMO. The first three factors will be discussed in this part, and the remaining three will be discussed in Part Four.

Operational Factor

Global Force 2020 will fundamentally change naval operations, along with tactics and training, in a variety of ways. Most notably, the model will necessarily reduce the primacy of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) as the Navy balances a variety of force organizational constructs. Admiral Richardson seemed to acknowledge this shift when he said “our fundamental force element right now in many instances is the carrier strike group. We’re going to scale up so our fundamental force element for fighting is at the fleet level, and the strike groups plug into those numbered fleets. And they will be, the strike groups and the fleet together, will be operating in a distributed maritime operations way.”

Upscaling to the fleet as the basic fighting unit, however, could unintentionally hamper distributed execution by centralizing C2 at the three-star level, and would not incentivize the Navy to evolve its default CSG deployment model. Under Global Force 2020, existing constructs, such as Amphibious Readiness Groups (ARG) and Surface Action Groups (SAG), would see more emphasis, while emerging constructs, such as influence squadrons, war-at-sea flotillas, littoral combat groups, and unmanned or autonomous swarm formations, would be incorporated.

For decades, operations, tactics, and training in the surface force have focused too heavily on supporting the aircraft carrier. CSGs became the default force element. In the era of the Global War on Terror, carrier-based tactical air sorties became the naval force du jour for projecting American military might onto enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The Navy even re-designated Carrier Battle Groups to CSGs in 2004 to reflect the emphasis on power projection ashore. The demand signal from operational commanders ashore was so immense that the Navy deployed CSGs constantly to generate sorties in an almost industrial fashion. On a typical radar screen in the North Arabian Sea, ingressing and egressing carrier aircraft resembled widgets on a conveyor belt. To support this pace of sorties, nearly all surface combatant deployments were as part of CSGs.

Even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy was already structured to operate with the CSG as its basic building block. The modern CSG was conceived of during the Cold War to defeat Russian battle groups in blue water, force-on-force, high end conflict. The concept hinged on the CSG’s ability to defend the aircraft carrier and preserve its ability to generate combat sorties. The Aegis Combat System was designed for this purpose, specifically targeting sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). Eventually, “Aegis” became synonymous with “high end surface combatant.” Even the Command and Control (C2) concept, Composite Warfare Command (CWC), which was designed to enable CSGs to defend aircraft carriers against multi-domain threats, came to be applied almost universally in surface force operations.

CWC is based primarily upon two key principles: functional warfare commanders, and command-by-negation. Functional warfare commanders have command of the fighting function of CSG assets, not necessarily the assets themselves, within their individual warfare area or domain (i.e. Air and Missile Defense (AMD), surface warfare (SUW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW)). The warfare commanders are empowered to engage threats to the CSG without asking for permission. They are only required to notify the CSG Commander, who can then negate the order if he or she does not concur. This is the principle of command-by-negation.

Functionally arrayed warfare commanders and command-by-negation work well for the point defense of an aircraft carrier by her surrounding escorts. Multi-domain threats along multiple axes afford little reaction time, and decentralized C2 among concentrated forces offers the best chance for successful defense. As maritime operations become more distributed, however, the efficiency and efficacy of CWC diminish significantly. The individual ships of a CSG already operate disaggregated across entire theaters, well outside of organic weapons and high data-rate communications ranges. Ships can communicate via satellite relay but at a certain distance the ships will be part of different communication architectures which complicates tactical communication. Lower data-rate methods such as high frequency (HF) radio also do not support tactical communication. Functional warfare commanders cannot effectively defend assets when they cannot communicate rapidly, build shared awareness, or cover with their own armament. Global Force 2020 will not be able to rely on CWC as an effective method of tactical maritime C2. DFE and DMO are bringing about a sea change in naval C2 that will require commanders to operate effectively both independently, and as part of a larger networked force.

Future fights will require naval force elements to interface with joint and coalition constructs more frequently and more dynamically. Today, for example, a CSG or an ARG may be required to detach from a scheduled mission on short notice to join a Joint Task Force or multinational operation. In the future, this could become commonplace for ad hoc force elements to “plug in” to joint or international constructs. CWC, while highly effective for defending an aircraft carrier, does not translate well to the widely-used Prussian general staff structure, which is comprised of functional directorates (e.g. administration, intelligence, operations, logistics, plans, communications, etc.). The friction is evident even within Navy commands. Fleets are often broken into task forces, but task forces often employ CWC instead of further subdividing into task group and units. When a ship shifts from one task force to another, she sometimes retains her warfare commander duties to the former, creating a conflict for the fleet staff to manage.

Along with C2, the Navy must also adapt training to account for the reduced emphasis on CSG operations under Global Force 2020. Surface ships will no longer deploy with CSGs by default, and therefore will not be able to rely on a training curriculum tailor-made for CSG operations. Training should be geared toward each ship’s unique capabilities, not necessarily her expected role within a group, and should include practice integrating into joint and coalition force elements under a wide range of circumstances. Likewise, threat recognition and study of enemy tactics cannot be exclusive to a single geographic region. Ships may be asked to respond to any number of contingencies around the globe while potential adversaries are increasing their own out-of-area deployments.

Finally, an important element of Global Force 2020 operations will be deception. Inherent in the DFE concept is an element of unpredictability, which can be supported by military deception, both operational and tactical. As DFE seeks to keep potential adversaries on their heels by making the location and timing of naval deployments less routine, the Navy can further confuse their operational picture and frustrate efforts to understand U.S. intent through the use of information operations. Tactically, the Navy can employ Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare to make the enemy think the fleet is concentrated where it is not, and vice versa.

Technological Factor

A variety of emerging technologies, and some long-established but neglected by the U.S. Navy, now enable the U.S. to deliver decisive effects without the need for concentrating forces on the objective. Naval warfare has come a long way since the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, the first naval engagement in which opposing warships did not sight each other. Today’s weapons, sensors, and communication systems enable friendly forces to coordinate fires outside visual range of each other and the enemy. In the future, some key technologies will enable naval forces to engage targets when not even in the same theater. Global Force 2020 will utilize long range hypersonic missiles and aircraft, next-generation cruise and ballistic missiles, next-generation unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber to name a few.

Much has been written on the advent of hypersonic weapons, airborne projectiles that travel faster than Mach 5. Some have even suggested a new hypersonic arms race is underway. On the other hand, some argue there is nothing transformational about these weapons, and they do not alter strategic fundamentals. This perspective fails to recognize the second and third order effects that the resultant force disposition and commander’s decision time will have on naval warfare. Hypersonic attacks, sometimes described as Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS), would be a core maritime mission instead of just a strategic one. Hypersonic manned or unmanned aircraft could also transform naval operations in unforeseen ways, but the Navy should exercise caution in investing too heavily in them, potentially sacrificing lower cost, higher quantity missiles for an exquisite technological solution just to fit the current operational paradigm of naval aviation.

Anti-ship missile technology has advanced in a number of ways aside from velocity. Since the U.S. Navy first fielded the Harpoon missile in 1977, technology for propulsion, maneuver, and homing have all revolutionized the way in which missiles can be employed against ships. Anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), such as China’s DF-26 with a range of 3400 miles, pose a significant challenge to legacy fleet air defense systems. Modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), such as Russia’s 3M22 Zircon, can perform terminal maneuvers even at hypersonic speeds and employ stealth technologies to significantly reduce their radar signature. Meanwhile, terminal homing technology is constantly improved to counter defensive electronic warfare systems. Today, the U.S. Navy still only employs four to eight Harpoon missiles on its surface combatants. While lagging far behind other naval powers in anti-ship missiles, the U.S. is now making significant gains in terms of funding, acquisition, and research and development.

Apart from missiles, the railgun is a popular weapon often discussed as the future of naval gunnery. China purportedly fielded a prototype on one of its warships in 2017; however, the U.S. Navy recently admitted the weapon’s limitations and signaled its intent to pursue alternatives. With a theoretical range of over 100 nautical miles, the railgun certainly would have a place in Global Force 2020, but the verdict is still out on its viability in naval warfare. Interestingly, in 2018 the U.S. Navy did test fire hypervelocity projectiles, the railgun’s munition, from a conventional 5” deck gun.

Meanwhile, unmanned systems are proliferating rapidly and giving the world’s navies the operational reach that was once reserved for superpowers. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can provide surveillance, extending the over-the-horizon targeting range of individual combatants, and communication relays, allowing force elements to operate disaggregated without relying on satellite networks or more conventional communications, which may be denied in future conflicts. Future UAS will also conduct strike and aerial refueling missions. On the surface, the U.S. Navy is also pursuing Medium Diameter Unmanned Surface Vessels (MDUSV) to hunt mines and submarines, and to serve as a communications node to network a larger force. Similarly, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) will become an integral part of advanced undersea warfare systems to detect, identify, and counter enemy ships and submarines.

Another emerging technology, artificial intelligence (AI), could make it possible for unmanned systems to operate autonomously when range or environment prohibit communication links for tactical control. Fielding autonomous weapons invokes substantial legal and ethical debate, but the technology can certainly benefit dynamic and distributed operations. Global Force 2020 will employ force elements comprising a mix of manned assets and autonomous systems. Beyond vehicles, AI will also be used in communication systems such as cognitive radio to dynamically access the electromagnetic spectrum and make it more difficult for adversaries to deny friendly use of the spectrum. In the cyber domain, payloads could be programmed with AI and deposited into enemy networks to conduct its mission autonomously without reach back.

A key aspect of cyber warfare as it relates to Global Force 2020 is that it permits engagement of the enemy irrespective of range. As long as friendly cyber forces can connect to adversary computer networks, cyber warfare can be conducted from anywhere in the world. By maintaining presence around the world, the Navy brings the capability of connecting to certain networks that would otherwise be inaccessible. A Littoral Combat Ship in the Caribbean Sea could connect to a local Wi-Fi network to deliver a cyber payload to an adversary’s power grid halfway around the world.

Human Factor

As technology inevitably increases in complexity and permeates every aspect of naval operations, the U.S. Navy will need to embrace the benefits of specialization in human capital management. In July 2018, Rear Admiral William Galinis, the Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Ships, remarked that the new Flight IIIs of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer (DDG-51) have been maxed out with technological capabilities. This critical loading of the ship’s combat systems happened gradually, as the Navy rolled out new DDG Flights and Aegis baselines to accommodate ever more lethal, and complex, warfighting technology. While the Navy appears aware of the effect of this technological evolution on its ships, it may have underestimated its effect on the officers who lead and manage them. Global Force 2020 will give rise to a new level of complexity in the warfighting capabilities that Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) will be expected to employ, and missions they will be expected to execute. It is prudent to ask whether the surface force has maxed out the cognitive capacity of generalists, and whether it is time for SWOs to be trained as specialists to become experts in a single mission or warfare domain.

The idea of dividing officers into subspecialties, such as engineering, operations, and combat systems, is not new to the world’s navies. The British Navy, and many others, employ this model. The U.S. Navy, however, develops ship and submarine officers as generalists, for the most part. They are trained and educated in all aspects of naval affairs, serving in assignments that cover as many subject areas as possible. Usually, this means they are not afforded the time or resources to gain subject matter expertise in any one area. The phrase “an inch deep and a mile wide” is commonly used to describe SWOs. Naval aviators, however, are treated as specialists for the aircraft that they fly, since the technical and tactical differences can be significant. The U.S. Navy needs surface tactical action officers who are as proficient with their ship’s combat systems as an aviator is with his or her aircraft.

The U.S. House Armed Services Committee approved language in the draft 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would have required surface warfare officers commissioned after 2021 to specialize into either an engineering, operations, or combat systems career path. Ultimately, this language was stricken from the approved NDAA, but not before sparking much debate among navy pundits. Opponents argued this was an overreaction to the USS McCain and Fitzgerald collisions, as indicated by Rep. Rob Wittman’s comments in January 2019, and that it would degrade the quality of command at sea in the U.S. Navy. On the other hand, proponents argue that the Navy’s current way of managing officer careers contributed to the 2017 tragedies and should embrace specialization as a potential solution.

In any case, specialization for officer career progression should be considered not only in response to preventable tragedies at sea, but also as a necessary adaptation to technological trends. In addition to proliferation and increasing complexity, modern technology has largely removed ship maneuvering from the kill chain. Naval officers have always needed to be proficient shiphandlers because a ship’s ability to deliver combat power depended heavily on maneuver, from ramming triremes to naval gunnery to submarine prosecution in multi-ship formations. Today, much of the naval kill chain resides far beyond the immediate space around the ship. Naval weapons such as missiles travel so far and so fast that ship speed and maneuvering have become almost irrelevant tactical factors. Cyber and electronic warfare also have almost nothing to do with maneuvering. It is true that attack and countermeasure effectiveness are affected by the physical, acoustic, and electromagnetic environment, but these can all be accounted for in tactical aids. Any moderately proficient mariner can take advice from tacticians to steer into the wind or minimize light and sound signature. The U.S. Navy already contracts substantial maintenance activities onboard deployed ships. Similarly, all Navies employ harbor pilots to guide them in and out of ports and certain chokepoints. The time may come when the surface force is compelled to consider contracting its maneuvering function, which will be increasingly irrelevant to combat, while SWOs specialize in areas that contribute directly to lethality.


Part Four will address the Partnership, Cultural, and Logistical factors of Global Force 2020.


Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Chelsea Mortimer, center, from Kent, Washington, directs an F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41, toward a steam-powered catapult on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 8, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Skyler Okerman)

2 thoughts on “The Bad Day Scenario Pt. 3: Developing a Dynamic, Distributed, and Lethal Global Force”

  1. One error and one misrepresentation in this essay:

    The error – the “D” in MDUSV is not diameter, it is displacement.

    The misrepresentation – the article linked to misrepresents CNO Richardsons comment, stripping it of context. CNO’s comments were with respect to the new emphasis, throughout DOD, of “rapid prototyping” as a means of quickly getting weapons prototyped and placed in the hands of warfighters for proving out, or failing out, new weapons. He pointed to the railgun as not the way the Navy is trying to develop such new systems, because, obviously, railguns involve such a big leap in technology that “rapid prototyping” simply does not apply.

    Rapid prototyping is great when dealing with commercial off the shelf (COTS) technologies. It does not work with revolutionary new weapons systems not available in the commercial world.

    So the railguns are most definitely NOT a “mess” or a failure and the Navy continues working it hard to get it out onto a ship as soon as possible. Latest expectation is to have a working prototype railgun on a Navy ship by 2025.

    As for the rest of the piece., ironically, it is the capabilities offered by railguns and laser defensive weapons that can do more than any other single factor to promote distributed maritime operations. With next gen CVNs like the Fords equipped to power such defensive weapons, it will no longer require 5 to 7 AEGIS escorts to keep a CVN safe from attack. AEGIS escorts, which also provide ASW defense, will still be needed for CVNs, but if we can cut the number needed down to 2 or 3 instead of 5 or 7, that frees up a lot of AEGIS warships to operate independently of CSGs.

  2. The article states: “The time may come when the surface force is compelled to consider contracting its maneuvering function, which will be increasingly irrelevant to combat, while SWOs specialize in areas that contribute directly to lethality.”

    This is already done on certain dual-crewed Navy/MSC ships, where civilian mariners from Military Sealift Command handle deck/navigation, engineering, and logistics functions, while active-duty military personnel handle operations, tactics, and weaponry.

    The challenge for this construct comes in time of war, where the civilians may decline to serve. For that, the Navy relies on its Strategic Sealift Officer reserve force of civilian mariners.

    The main downside of “insourcing” mariner functions to civilians – besides some command-and-control/maintenance friction – is that Navy personnel quickly forget how a ship works. In my own experience and training, fighting a ship skillfully as TAO rests intimately in one’s knowledge not only of weapons capability and limitations, but in the underlying abilities – deck, engineering, logistics, and personal – of the ship being driven. Think of Kirk coaxing the last juice out of Scotty’s engines or the extra angle out of Sulu’s conning – or coming up with at-the-limit ways to manipulate the Enterprise’s capabilities in a fight. Or Captain Jack Sparrow’s not-entirely-fictional manipulations of the Black Pearl. It’s the same, and always has been, for ships at sea. Wielding a ship against the enemy can’t be done expertly without a down-to-the-bolts knowledge of the ship and crew one fights. Even in the age of phasers – or missiles.

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