Frigate Bayern in the Pacific: The Return of German Gunboat Diplomacy?

By Moritz Brake and Sebastian Bruns

The German government recently announced the deployment of the frigate Bayern to the South China Sea. With this deployment, Berlin is aiming to send a strong signal to its European and American allies. However, it is one that comes with an exit strategy of a kind that is unique to the use of naval forces. On one hand, Germany wants to be seen as standing up against unilateral Chinese appropriation of international waters. On the other hand, China’s potential counterreactions need to be closely monitored and dangerous escalation avoided, especially in light of China’s current conventional and nuclear capabilities, and Germany’s economic dependence on the Middle Kingdom.

Enter the Bayern. The deployment of a warship to the region, the level of visibility of which can be adjusted depending on the actions and reactions of the powers at be, allows Germany to achieve a delicate balance between cooperation and conflict with China. Therefore, what is described in the latest Chatham House commentary as an “unclear message” is precisely the point of this mission under the given circumstances: the deployment of the Bayern preserves room for maneuver at the appropriate time, as the situation unfolds on the scene.1 After all, blunt ‘sticks’ or empty ‘soft words’ are hardly sufficient to deal with such a complex situation.

Since September 2020 at the latest, when the German government published its Indo-Pacific Guidelines,2 there have been concrete plans to deploy a German warship to the region. Germany has only 10 of these ships of various classes, and given many other operational commitments, they are a scarce commodity. Even if a single frigate may seem a modest contribution when compared to a single British or several American aircraft carriers in the region, it is not insignificant. If one also takes into account what the deployment means in the context of previous German naval contributions and the domestic political debate, the mission of the Bayern is remarkable.

Following the announcement, the term “gunboat diplomacy” made its rounds once again in the German public, as is so often the case when it comes to new naval deployments. A bit of folklore is simply part of the security policy debate in Germany. However, in view of the Strait of Hormuz discussion,3 which faded out of public view somewhere between the EU Commission and the German Chancellery, as well as the recent capers of the SPD parliamentary group on drone procurement in the Bundeswehr, it is important not to forget how quickly ideological hobbyhorses can be harnessed to the cart of domestic political power games.

In this context, political messages sent internally and externally are crucial to the value of the mission of the Bayern. This kind of communication is in the DNA of every navy. After all, their very existence is intended to send messages to friends, neighbors, and potential rivals, ranging from the ability to act in cooperation or in belligerence. Modern navies like the German Navy also demonstrate through such deployments that they are capable of generating political and strategic effects in a broader spectrum of activities with global reach. These include deployments and mission-equivalent commitments as well as port visits, maneuvers, engagement in international alliances, or personnel and technical exchanges with other states.4

From the foreign policy dilemma alone, whose pitfalls Germany wants to avoid in the process, it is clear: this is not about gunboat diplomacy. Anything that could be remotely described as a combat mission is clearly not up for discussion during this Indo-Pacific cruise. Rather, it is about combining the protection of the rules-based order, free sea lanes, and multilateralism, with the simultaneous maintenance of vigilant cooperation with China.This “squaring of the circle” could also be described as a maritime attempt at an Asian variant of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik—the careful navigation between Western unity in resistance in the face of aggressive Chinese foreign policy, and the “outstretched hand” in the omnipresent awareness of Brandt’s dictum: “Peace is not everything, but everything is naught without peace.”6

Therefore, the mere fact that Germany, which otherwise acts very cautiously towards China, is sending a ship at all is a surprisingly clear signal. Moreover, the choice of the ship to be sent is relevant. Frigates are the most combat capable warship that the German Navy can deploy. While a single frigate cannot and will not pose a military threat to China, Germany is visibly expressing its message and interests through its deployment.

Last but not least, the deployment of the Bayern is also remarkable on a deeper level. Given the difficulties with deploying armed forces in the service of a dynamic foreign policy, which Germany had in its own unique way after the end of the Cold War, it was hardly surprising that the special diplomatic value of the navy was slowly recognized. Beginning in the 1990s, a process of development ensued that encompassed not only the public and politics, but also the navy. Ultimately, however, the navy itself had to develop a coherent concept of its own diplomatic impact in order to function as a “diplomatic influencer”:7 an advisor to policy at home and an ambassador abroad.

A Play with Undertones, Nuances, and Subtle Harmonies

The long voyage from Wilhelmshaven to the Pacific will bring Bayern into contact with numerous security problems and lines of conflict that preoccupy Berlin’s foreign and security policy. These are also closely observed in the capitals of EU partners and NATO allies. Competition between states is a constant feature in modern history. In the 21st century, however, it is no longer limited to one domain—maritime, land, or air. The maritime domain is contested and the dominant vector for global power projection. Still, it also offers its own valuable approaches to the peaceful containment and resolution of conflicts. At the same time, the impact of warships is by no means exhausted by the things they can influence through the use of force. 

Like a jazz musician acknowledging with a nod the tunes of the past still lingering in the air, the voyage of the Bayern appears to cite hidden notes of Germany’s foreign policy evolution over the past thirty years. In the Mediterranean, she joins NATO’s maritime security mission “Sea Guardian”—the mission carried out by the NATO standing naval group from which Germany once joined one of its first crisis response missions after the Cold War—“Sharp Guard” in the Adriatic in 1993—coincidentally commenced by another Bayern—the old 1960s destroyer of the same name.

Former West German destroyer Bayern, in service from 1965-1993. (Photo credit: Bundeswehr)

Next, at the entrance to the Indian Ocean, the Bayern is to join the EU’s counter-piracy operation “Atalanta.” The naval deployment is part of a broader networked approach to the long-standing crisis in Somalia. However, this is also the first EU-led naval mission, one in which Germany has been significantly involved from the beginning. Furthermore, it was at the Horn of Africa that the German Navy finally left behind old Cold War reservations for so-called “out-of-area”-deployments. It successfully evacuated the Bundeswehr’s first armed peacekeepers in 1994 and later came to participate in the War on Terror with the largest fleet that ever sailed from a German port after the World Wars. In 2002, this latter mission was even spearheaded and led by the very Bayern which is now bound to sail these waters again.

On Somalia’s opposite coast, in Yemen, a civil war and proxy conflict is raging between the Arab regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mines, naval blockades, attacks with guided weapons and drones on sea targets, as well as the prospect of a huge oil catastrophe determine the maritime situation there.8 More than just a critical hot-spot in its own right, the major players of the multipolar world of our time are meeting at the Horn of Africa. China maintains a base in Djibouti and from there supports not only its maritime operations but also foreign policy in Africa. Russia recently announced the construction of a naval base in Sudan. The United States patrols the region with its 5th Fleet, while both the EU and NATO maintain continuous presence at sea. It is here that China’s strongest economic branch of its foreign policy strategy meets the economic lifelines of Europe: “The Maritime Silk Road” connects to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

Indeed, twenty years of maritime security operations at the low end of the spectrum have long concealed the escalation potential of great power competition in the region. On top of this, with Pakistan and India, two nuclear powers lie on the northern rim of the Indian Ocean, bound together in deep antipathy and at the same time readjusting their alliances.

After the Horn of Africa, the Bayern’s course should then continue towards the strategically important Strait of Malacca, which is another important site of recent German naval history. When a devastating tsunami struck on 25 December 2004, the German combat-supply-vessel Berlin was at once dispatched in a rapidly concerted humanitarian aid effort. Alongside European and American allies, it provided urgent, sea-based aid to Indonesia. The Malacca Strait is one of the world’s strategic maritime chokepoints, a natural bottleneck for all maritime traffic between East Asia and Africa, and the Arab world and Europe. Its control, for better or for worse, is crucial for the security of maritime connections and the entire region. It is also here that the strategic rivalry between India and China meets: India controls the western access to this important lifeline of the Chinese economy via the Andaman and Nicobar island groups.

In the further course of the symbol-laden route along visible signs of Germany’s multilateral foreign policy, the Bayern then joins the United Nations’ maritime embargo of North Korea. The Korean conflict has preoccupied security policy-makers for seven decades now, and it once was the tipping point in the Cold War that led to German post-war rearmament and the establishment of the Bundeswehr. With nuclear weapons in the north, it has also become dangerously explosive in recent years. Therefore in addition to revisiting its post-Cold War history, with just one voyage, the Federal Republic of Germany aims to demonstrate its commitment to the three cornerstones of its multilateral foreign policy: NATO in the Mediterranean, the EU at the Horn of Africa, and the UN off the Korean peninsula.

In the Western Pacific, the most delicate task awaits the Bayern and Berlin’s foreign policy: the South China Sea. Much of this sea area is claimed by the People’s Republic of China in violation of international law. With the help of dubious interpretations of “historical” documents, but even more with faits accompli, built-up reefs turned into artificial islands with large military bases, China wants to expand its sphere of influence. An aggressive policy against its neighboring littoral states complements the quest for sea control to overcome the dilemma of Chinese geography. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has ruled that these measures are illegal. China, in turn, does not appear to feel bound by this ruling and international law. The presence of the US Navy, in particular in the South China Sea, is intended to strengthen freedom of the sea and prevent a customary expansion of Beijing’s sphere of power.

Depending on how the messages of the deployment are taken by its various audiences, and how the general foreign policy climate with China develops, it is not impossible that a Chinese port could also be visited. However, in view of the interaction between political and economic interests, all of Berlin’s partners will be watching closely to see what signals the Federal Republic of Germany sends to China. In any case, it can be assumed that port visits will be scheduled. But unless the Corona pandemic is overcome, visits could even be seen as a danger by the local population. An interesting side trip would be a visit to Vladivostok in Russia. As is well known, Russia shares a border with North Korea, and the large naval base on the Pacific could, subject to a diplomatic reconciliation of interests, be a destination that picks up threads of German-Russian talks beyond current tensions in Europe.

In all of this, however, it is important that Germany does not go it alone. Just as the itinerary clearly symbolizes multilateralism and a rules-based order, in the most difficult part of the mission—i.e. getting Europe’s message across to China—it is of the utmost importance for Germany not to undermine a common united front with its allies. This should also be symbolically demonstrated, wherever possible, in the joint appearance of European and American warships. If this is the return of German gunboat diplomacy, close coordination, joint maneuvers, and port visits with the French, British, and American ships are just as important as open communication with Beijing.

Moritz Brake is a Kapitänleutnant in the German Navy, doctoral student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and member of the German Maritime Institute (DMI). He is also a guest lecturer for “Maritime Security and Strategy” at the University of Bonn.

Dr. Sebastian Bruns is a naval strategist based in Kiel. He headed the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security (CMSS) at the Institute for Security Policy Kiel University (ISPK) from 2016 to 2021. He will join the US Naval Academy in Annapolis (Maryland) as the Fulbright-McCain Scholar-in-Residence this August.   


[1] Kundnani, Hans and Tusuoka, Michito, “Germany’s Indo-Pacific frigate may send unclear message,” Chatham House, 04.05.2021, via:

[2] “Germany – Europe – Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”: Federal Government adopts Indo-Pacific Guidelines. 01.09.2020,

[3] The joint deployment of European warships in response to an Iranian attack on a British merchant ship in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019.

[4] See Paul Chamberlain, “The Royal Canadian Navy and Naval Diplomacy,” Niobe Papers No. 14. Naval Association of Canada/Association Navale Du Canada, March 2021, p. 1.


[6] Swistek, Goran, “Squaring the Circle in the Indo-Pacific,” SWP News 2021/A 29, March 2021, via:

[7] Chamberlain, “The Royal Canadian Navy,” p. 1.

[8] Hamann, Sebastian. “Old threats in new guise: the maritime threat from Huthi rebels in the Red Sea.” SIRIUS – Journal of Strategic Analysis, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 178-183.

Featured image: Brandenburg-class frigate Bayern deployed in support Operation Enduring Freedom. (Credit: Bundeswehr)

Renaming Military Bases Is “History Correcting Itself”

By Bill Bray

In the past year or so, there seems to be more than usual public commentary about America’s past, particularly concerning racial and social justice. Some believe the past is being distorted and “canceled” to serve a progressive social agenda. Others believe as a nation we have never honestly reckoned with it. Still others seem to want to ignore or forget it. Move on.

As the Department of Defense Confederate naming commission continues its work and prepares to make its recommendations on what bases, buildings, sites, and perhaps even ships should be renamed, it is instructive to read and reflect on how humans understand and interpret the past. Social scientists and artists, among others, have long wrestled with this phenomenon. Both know that the past is not something we can simply know, as if we were looking at it objectively from a distance. Instead, it is something we never fully know or escape. To a large degree we interpret the past through what we want to believe, and that insistently informs how we think about the present.

However, acknowledging that we cannot fully know the past does not mean trying to know it is a hopeless endeavor. On the contrary, societies must never stop trying to understand their pasts. The quest for a strong, shared understanding of the past is an important component to living harmoniously together. The past can never be forgotten. Claiming otherwise is delusional or disingenuous. Forgetting is impossible. The past matters more than most realize or want to acknowledge. History is more than perspective. There are facts. But contemporary human experience is meaningless without memory—without a past. The past is in the present as oxygen is in water.

Critics who claim renaming U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals is tyrannical, “woke cancel culture” are—probably partially in ignorance—advancing a hypocritical argument deeply offensive to the thousands of Union Army, Navy, and Marine Corps veterans. Following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, these men formed a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (there were GAR chapters across the northern states). While initially created to advocate for better veterans’ benefits, by the end of the nineteenth century the GAR chapters were engaged in a fierce public relations campaign to debunk the Lost Cause mythology narrative. They opposed pensions for Confederate soldiers, statues and memorials to Confederate generals in Washington and other northern states, and the display of the Confederate flag, among other things. While the term was not in use at the time, GAR members knew what many contemporary historians have since aptly demonstrated—the Lost Cause narrative was the greatest “cancel culture” campaign in American history. 

Take, for example, this statement from the Michigan GAR in 1903 in response to the widespread practice of putting Lost Cause literature in Southern textbooks: “There is a sentiment which endeavors more or less to place the disloyalty of the South upon the same plane with the loyalty of the North, which aims to make an act of disloyalty less disgraceful. I have no use for such sentiment. It is only a matter of time when history will correct itself and place them in the true light on its pages as traitors.” In 1914, the department commander for the Indiana GAR wrote, “While I have long forgiven my ex-Confederate brother for the terrible mistake he made in trying to destroy this Union of ours . . . you should remember and never forget it, that there was a right and there was a wrong . . . a government that fails to recognize the difference between a patriot and a traitor, a defender and a destroyer, would and should pass from the earth.” 

The GAR did not oppose forgiveness and reconciliation, only veneration built on a lie. They opposed what Major General Henry Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, in writing to Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, called any effort to paint the “. . . crime of treason . . . with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government. . .” Sadly, just this year, the Confederate flag was brandished in the U.S Capitol during an attempted insurrection. History has still not corrected itself. Would it not be a wonder that the men of the GAR would be shocked that it has taken so long?

As the last of the Civil War veterans passed away in mid-century, the GAR had largely failed to counter the Lost Cause narrative and all that came with it for white and black Americans alike. For generations that came of age after World War II, including mine, in both the North and the South, the past was not understood independent of this narrative. It has infected both popular and academic literature. The long effort to resurrect the Confederacy as a noble cause has become part of the collective experience.

Thinking about the Past through Literature

One Southerner who would not be shocked at all began his writing career as this GAR campaign was in full fury. Perhaps no American writer dealt with the past more deftly and innovatively than William Faulkner. His technique of using inner dialogue across time—where past and present are intertangled and often indistinguishable, narratively—frustrates most first-time readers, but then, if they persevere, awakens them to how the past lives in all of us. Through so many unforgettable characters, Faulkner shows that experience is chaotic, disorienting, and often emotionally violent. Humans quickly order experience retrospectively to make sense of the world, a mechanism made possible only with memory—how they remember the past.

William Faulkner knew the past of his people well, but as an artist he was most interested in how they thought about the past, and how the past always lives in the present and determines the future. Past, present, and future are not neatly distinguished in the human mind, and Faulkner’s greatest achievement—the one that makes him perhaps the greatest writer in American letters—is how he demonstrated this narratively. In a 1956 interview with Jean Stein for The Paris Review, Faulkner remarked that, “The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully . . . proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as ‘was’—only ‘is.’ If ‘was’ existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.”

Most recently, Michael Gorra masterfully tackled how Faulkner dealt with how Southerners thought about the Civil War with his book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. With racial and social justice so prominent in the news today, no book from last year seems more relevant to me. It is an intricate blend of Civil War history, biography, and literary criticism.

As Gorra shows, Faulkner rarely includes Civil War scenes in his oeuvre, yet the war is always there, its traumas swirling just beneath the surface of both scenery and dialogue. Most of his characters know the Civil War only as a fragmented labyrinth of memories and myths passed down to them. They feel the past as their truth, while acknowledging, as Quentin Compson, one of Faulkner’s recurring characters, does in Absalom, Absalom!, that they do not fully understand their own history.

Readers of The Sound and the Fury (1929) know that Quentin kills himself on 2 June 1910, following his freshman year at Harvard. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) begins the year prior, in 1909, with a tortured Quentin discovering who he really is, a terrifying journey of self-awareness. Quentin is the past—an incarnation of the pathos of a region defeated and desperate for the balm of Lost Cause mythology. He bears the burdens of the racial divide that intensified following the failure of Reconstruction, and the rarely-acknowledged secret of Southern plantation heritage that would become the cardinal sin in the Jim Crow South—miscegenation.

Absalom, Absalom! appeared the same year Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, for which she would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Mitchell presented a highly romanticized, white-washed Civil War history to a still deeply racist country, and Americans loved it. While William Faulkner’s many flaws and contradictions regarding race are well documented, he, unlike Mitchell, was not popular with Southern segregationists. Complex depictions of the South’s post–Civil War reality were not their cup of tea. Faulkner was the far more courageous writer in never ceasing to search, through his literature, for what the Civil War really means for who we are and where we are going. 

Those charged with deciding whether to rename military bases named for Confederate generals or remove Confederate statues could do worse than to read William Faulkner’s books. As his character Gavin Stevens, the lawyer in Requiem for a Nun (1951), remarks, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Should a member of the GAR be alive today to witness a Confederate statue coming down or a base being renamed, he would never view it as an injustice or affront to Southern heritage. He would view it as history correcting itself—finally.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured image: Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service.

Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach

By Walker Mills

Nathan Lauterbach joins CIMSEC’s Jonathon Frerichs to talk about his recent article in USNI Proceedings “Marine Aviation is Naval Aviation.”

Download Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach



1. “Marine Aviation Is Naval Aviation,” by Nathan Lauterbach, USNI Proceedings, April 2021.

2. Commandant’s Planning Guidance, by David Berger, United States Marine Corps, July 2019.

3. Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, by United States Marine Corps, 2021. 

4. “Marines Update Force Design After a Year of Experimentation in the Field,” Megan Eckstein, USNI News, April 26, 2021. 


  • Jonathon Frerichs
  • Keagan Ingersoll
  • Walker Mills
  • Nate Lauterbach

Walker Mills is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the Sea Control team at

An Alternative History for U.S. Navy Force Structure Development

By John Hanley

U.S. Navy and Department of Defense bureaucratic and acquisition practices have frustrated innovations promoted by Chiefs of Naval Operations and the CNO Strategic Studies Groups over the past several decades.1 The Navy could have capabilities better suited to meet today’s challenges and opportunities had it pursued many of these innovations. This alternative history presents what the Navy could have been in 2019 had the Navy and DoD accepted the kinds of risks faced during the development of nuclear-powered ships, used similar prototyping practices, and accepted near-term costs for longer-term returns on that investment.

Actual events are in a normal font while alternatives are presented in italics.

Admiral Trost and Integrated Power Systems

Recognizing that electric drive offered significant anticipated benefits for U.S. Navy ships in terms of reducing ship life-cycle cost (including 18 to 25 percent less fuel consumption), increasing ship stealth, payload, survivability, and power available for non-propulsion uses, and taking advantage of a strong electrical power technological and industrial base, in September 1988, then-U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle Trost endorsed the development of integrated power systems (IPS) for electric drive and other ship’s power for use in the DDGX, which became the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class destroyer. He also established an IPS program office the following fiscal year.2

To reduce technical risk, the Navy began by prototyping electric drive on small waterplane area twin hull (swath) ships, including its special program for the Sea Shadow employing stealth technology. Using a program akin to Rickover’s having commissioned the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in just over three years of being authorized to build the first nuclear powered submarine, the Navy commissioned its first Arleigh Burke destroyer with an IPS in 1992. Just as Rickover explored different nuclear submarine designs, the Navy developed various IPS prototypes as it explored the design space while gaining experience at sea and incorporating rapidly developing technology.

Admiral Kelso and Fleet Design

Admiral Frank Kelso became CNO in 1990 at the end of the Cold War, shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Facing demands for a peace dividend. Admiral Kelso noted that the decisions the he made affected what the Navy would look like in 30-50 years and asked his SSG what the nation would need the naval forces for in future decades. The future pointed to the cost growth of military systems producing a much smaller fleet if the practice of replacing each class with the next generation of more expensive platforms continued. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell’s Base Force proposal in February 1991 called for reducing the Navy to 451 ships with 12 carriers by 1995, reducing the fleet from 592 ships (including 14 carriers) in September 1989. Having just accepted this, Kelso’s SSG briefed him that that cost growth would result in a Navy of about 250 ships by the 2010s if the Navy and Defense Department continued to focus on procuring next generation platforms rather than capabilities.

Building upon his reorganization of OPNAV and inspired by the joint mission assessment process developed by his N-8, Vice Admiral Bill Owens, Kelso disciplined OPNAV to employ this methodology. The effort reoriented Navy programs toward payloads to accomplish naval missions in a joint operation, rather than focusing on platform replacement. As restrictions on Service acquisition programs increased,3 Kelso worked closely with the Secretary of the Navy to fully exploit authorities for procuring systems falling below the thresholds for Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) approval to gain experience with prototypes before committing to large scale production costing billions of dollars. Under the leadership of Owens and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski, the Navy made significant progress in C4ISR systems needed for network centric warfare that were interoperable with other Services systems.4

Beginning the Revolution

In 1995, Chief of Naval Operations Jeremy (Mike) Boorda redirected his CNO Strategic Studies Group to generate innovative warfighting concepts that would revolutionize naval warfighting the way that the development of carrier air warfare did in World War II.

The first innovation SSG in 1995-1996 identified the promise of information technology, integrated propulsion systems, unmanned vehicles, and electromagnetic weapons (rail guns), among other things. They believed that the ability to fuse, process, understand, and disseminate huge volumes of data had the greatest potential to alter maritime operations. They laid out a progression from extant, to information-based, to networked, to enhancing cognition through networks of human minds employing artificial intelligence, robotics biotechnology, etc. to empower naval personnel to make faster, better decisions, for warfighting command and sustainment. For sustainment they imagined “real-time, remote monitoring systems interconnected with technicians, manufacturers, parts distributors, and transportation and delivery sources; dynamic business logic that enables decisions to be made and actions to be executed automatically, even autonomously; and a system in which sustainment is embedded in the operational connectivity architecture, becoming invisible to the operator except by negation.” Their force design proposed a netted system of numerous functionally distributed and physically dispersed sensors and weapons to provide a spectrum of capabilities and effects, scaled to the operational situation.5

Admiral Boorda passed away just as the SSG was preparing to brief him. After he became CNO, Admiral Jay Johnson decided to continue the SSG’s focus on innovation focus when he heard the SSG’s briefing.6 The next SSG in 1997 advocated many of these concepts in more depth, emphasized modularity, and added a revolutionary “Horizon” concept on how the Navy could man and operate its ships that in ways that would increase the operational tempo of the ships while changing sailors’ career paths in a manner that would provide more family stability and time at home.7 The following SSG worked with the Naval Surface Warfare Centers on designs for ships using IPS armed with rail guns that could sustain and tender large numbers of smaller manned and unmanned vessels for amphibious operations and sea control; among other enhancements.8 Subsequent SSGs extended such concepts, added new ones and enhanced designs for the future.9

Despite pressures on Navy budgets, OPNAV created program offices to pursue naval warfare innovations at a rate of about $100 million per year for each effort, though some programs required less.10

Building on the U.S. Army’s efforts to develop a rail gun for the M-1 tank, the Navy began heavy investment in prototyping rail guns in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. By 2005 prototypes had been installed in Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Since only warheads were required, magazines could hold three times as many projectiles as conventional rounds. The ability to shift power from propulsion to weapons inherent in IPS also stimulated more rapid advances in ship-borne lasers and directed energy weapons.

Rather than designing new airframes, the Navy automated flight controls to begin flying unmanned F/A-18 fighters and A-6 attack aircraft as part of air wings to learn what missions were appropriate and what the technology could support. This led the fleet rapidly discovering ways to employ the aircraft for dangerous and dull missions, reducing the load on newer air wings. Mixed manned-unmanned airwings began deploying in 2002. It also led to programs for automating aircraft in the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base boneyard to allow rapidly increasing the size of U.S. air forces in the event of war. Using lessons from existing air frames, the Navy began designing new unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).

The Navy prototyped lighter than air craft for broad area surveillance; secure, anti-jam communications, and fleet resupply. These evolved to provide hangers and sustainment for unmanned air vehicles.

Figure 1: The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ (Alamy stock photo/Used by permission)

Figure 2: Sea Shadow (IX-529), built 1984 (U.S. Navy photo 990318-N-0000N-001/Released)

Building on the success of the 1995 Slice Advanced Technology Demonstrator11 operated by two people using a computer with a feeble 286 processor and lessons from the stealthy Sea Shadow, the Navy began prototyping similar vessels of about 350 tons designed for rapidly reconfiguring using modular payloads of that could be for different missions including anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine warfare, sea control and air-defense using guns, strike, and deception.12 These prototype vessels used IPS and permanent magnet motors for high speed in high sea states. Initial modules employed existing systems while the plug-and-play nature of the modules allowed rapid upgrades. By 2005 the Navy had a flotilla of this version of optionally-manned littoral combat ships forward stationed in Singapore, refining tactics and organizational procedures. By 2010 the Navy had built a prototype of the SSG’s stealthy UCAV assault ship with a squadron of UCAVs.

Figure 3: SLICE ACTD 1996 (about 100 tons). (Pacific Marine & Supply Co. photo)

Figure 4: UCAV Assault Ship concept in 1997

The Navy replaced the Marine’s existing Maritime Prepositioning Force and redesigned the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force, with a cost saving $17 billion over 35 years using a common hull form using an integrated propulsion system, electric drive, and electromagnetic/directed energy weapons in a logistics and expeditionary ship variants. The electric drive freed space for unmanned surface, air, and undersea vehicles to support both combat and logistics functions. The expeditionary ships were capable of sustaining operations for 30 days without resupply and large enough to configure loads for an operation, rather than having to go to a port and load so that equipment came off in the appropriate order, which was the extant practice. The logistics variant could accommodate a 400-ton vessel in its well-deck to serve as a tender for forward deployed flotillas. The force was designed to project power up to 400 nautical miles inland using a larger tilt-wing aircraft than the V-22, which could fly at 350 knots.

Command decision programs emphasized the use of algorithms to inform repeated decisions. Building on combined arms ASW tactics employing surface, air, and submarine forces that proved successful in the 1980s, the Navy developed an undersea cooperative engagement capability for the theater ASW commander, exploiting maps of the probability of a submarine being at a particular location in the theater. This included development of advanced deployable arrays that allowed the Navy to surveil new areas on short notice. Additionally, capabilities to surveil and deliver mines using undersea unmanned vehicles were enhanced to allow maintaining minefields in adversary ports and choke-points.

One of the biggest advancements was in fleet sustainment. Technologies and policies that industry and had applied provided a roadmap for changing the Navy’s maintenance philosophy. Netted small, smart, sensors; networks; and on-site fabrication enabled the development of a cognitive maintenance process. By 2010 watchstanders no longer manually logged data and neural networks predicted times to failure. Platform status could be monitored remotely. Detection of anomalies in operating parameters would trigger automatic action in accordance with business logic. Using data from computer aided design both provided tutorials for maintain equipment, and identified parts needed to conduct repairs; allowing automatically generating parts requests. Inventory control systems ordered replacement parts as they were used. Sharing this data across the fleet and the Navy made much of the manpower involved in supply redundant. Ship’s force was freed from supply duties to focus on fighting the ship. Providing the data to original equipment manufacturers allowed them to track failure rates and update designs for greater reliability. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) allowed deployed ships to make parts needed for rapid repairs and reduced costs for maintaining prototype equipment and vessels. Only a few years was required to return investments required to transition to sustainment and inventory practices used by industries such as Caterpillar, General Motors, and Walmart (and now Amazon). Sustainment practices allowed ships to remain forward deployed in high readiness for much longer periods. Advances in employing AI for sustainment contributed exploiting AI for weapons systems.

The Navy began experimenting with the Horizon concept which called for creating flotillas of ships with the majority forward deployed with departmental watch teams rotating forward to allow sailors more time at home in readiness centers where they could train and monitor the status of ships to which they would deploy. Sailors would spend 80 percent of their careers in operational billets, advancing in their rating from apprentice, to journeyman, to master as they progressed. Assigning sailors to extraneous shore billets to give them time at home was no longer required.13 Readiness centers were established originally for smaller classes of ships, and the concept was in place for Burke-class destroyers and incoming classes of surface combatants in 2008.14 The advantages to this operational approach included: (1) the number of deployment transits were substantially reduced; (2) gaps in naval forward presence coverage in any of the three major theaters was eliminated; (3) two of the three ready platforms remaining in CONUS were operationally “ready” platforms 100% of the time, and all three over 90% of the time.15 New non-intrusive ways of certifying the platforms and crews as “ready” for operations freed them from the yoke of the inspection intensive inter-deployment training cycle and joint task force workups. This allowed the Navy to move away from cyclic readiness and towards sustained readiness.

The U.S. Navy in 2019

Using extensive prototyping of small manned and unmanned vehicles, weapons, combat, and C4ISR systems enhanced by AI with human oversight and control, the Navy in 2019 had a diverse set of capabilities to deal with rapidly emerging security challenges and opportunities. Forward stationed and deployed flotillas with their tenders provided surface and undersea capabilities similar to aircraft flying from a carrier.16 The agility provided by this approach over past acquisition practices developed for the Cold War allowed the Navy to enhance budgets for those prototypes that proved successful while accelerating learning about how to integrate rapidly changing technology. The success of rail guns and directed energy weapons as standard armaments on dispersed forces flipped the offense-defense cost advantages for air and missile defense. Implementing the sustainment and readiness concepts removed large burdens from ship’s forces that allowed them to concentrate on warfighting rather than maintenance and administration.

The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy in 2019

One downside was that the PLA Navy closely observed and copied the USN. Through industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property, the PLAN acquired USN designs as the systems were begin authorized for procurement. With process innovation, China was able to field many of these systems even more quickly than the U.S., resulting in greater challenges even than the rapid build-up of Chinese maritime forces and global operations over the past decade. This taught the U.S. to think through competitive strategies, considering more carefully the strategic effects of adversaries having similar capabilities, rather than blindly pursuing technological advantages.


Captain John T. Hanley, Jr., USNR (Ret.) began his career in nuclear submarines in 1972. He served with the CNO Strategic Studies Group for 17 years as an analyst and Program/Deputy Director. From there in 1998 he went on to serve as Special Assistant to Commander-in-Chief U.S. Forces Pacific, at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and in several senior positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on force transformation, acquisition concepts, and strategy. He received A.B. and M.S. degrees in Engineering Science from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in Operations Research and Management Sciences from Yale. He wishes that his Surface Warfare Officer son was benefiting from concepts proposed for naval warfare innovation decades ago. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense, the US Navy, or his institution.



1. As CNO, Admiral Tom Hayward established a Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in 1981 with the SSG as its core. His aim was to turn captains of ships into captains of war by giving promising officers an experiences and challenges that they would experience as senior flag officers before being selected for Flag rank. He personally selected six Navy officers, who were joined by two Marines. The group succeeded in developing maritime strategy and subsequent CNOs continued Hayward’s initiative. Over 20% of the Navy officers assigned were promoted to Vice Admiral and over 10 percent were promoted to full Admiral before CNO Mike Boorda changed the mission of the group to revolutionary naval warfare innovation in 1995.

2. This decision, however, was subsequently reversed due to concerns over cost and schedule risk with DD-21 (Zumwalt Class) being the first large surface combatant with IPS. The Navy established the IPS office in 1995 vice 1989. (O’Rourke 2000).

3. The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 restricted Service acquisition authorities and created significant challenges for the Navy (Nemfakos, et al. 2010).

4. Owens and Cebrowski were assigned to the first SSG as Commanders and shared an office. Their concepts for networking naval, joint, and international forces to fight forward against the Soviets significantly influenced the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s and led to changes in fleet tactics and operations. Owens went on to serve as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with Cebrowski as his J-6 continuing their efforts. Cebrowski later directed OSD’s Office of Force Transformation in the early 2000s.

5. (Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XV 1996). Imagine distributing the weapons systems on an Aegis cruiser across numerous geographically dispersed smaller vessels to cover more sea area while providing better mutual protection; elevating the phased-array radar to tens of thousands of feet using blimp-like aircraft; all networked to enhance cooperative engagement while providing a common operational picture covering a wide area.

6. Jay Johnson had served as an SSG fellow 1989-1990 and initially was unsure whether to return to the previous SSG model.

7. (Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XVI 1997)

8. Most of the detailed descriptions below are statement from what the SSGs envisioned would happen.

9. The SSG focused solely on naval warfare innovation beginning in 1997, substantially changing the mission from making captains of war, until CNO John Richardson disestablished it in 2016.

10. 1997 was the nadir for Navy procurement budgets following the post-Cold War peace dividend. Focused on the Program of Record, OPNAV decided not to pursue SSG innovations.

11. Though OSD had programs for Advanced Technology Demonstrations (ATDs) to demonstrate technical feasibility and maturity to reduce technical risks, and Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations (ACTDs) to gain understanding of the military utility before commencing acquisition, develop a concept of operations, and rapidly provide operational capability, acquisition reform beginning with the Packard Commission and Goldwater-Nichols and belief in computer simulation gutted the use of prototypes in system development.

12. The decision that the Littoral Combat Ship must self-deploy resulted in increasing the ship’s displacement by about an order of magnitude. Roughly ten of the smaller vessels could be purchased for each LCS. The missions in normal font are included in LCS modules.

13. Horizon sought to make 80% of Navy personnel available for deployment. In contrast, less than 50% of the Navy’s personnel were in deployable billets in 1996.

14. In 1997 the surface combatant 21 program which became the LCS and Zumwalt-class destroyers was scheduled for initial operational capability in 2008.

15. Based on a three to six-month depot availability once every five years.

16. Professor Wayne Hughes, Captain USN (Ret,) calls these a two-stage system.

Feature photo: Artist’s conception of DD-21: a low-signature and optimally-manned warship featuring railguns and an Integrated Power System (IPS). Public domain image.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.