How The Fleet Forgot to Fight Pt. 8: A Force Development Strategy

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards. Read Part 5 on Material Condition and Availability. Read Part 6 on Strategy and Operations. Part 7 on Strategy and Force Development.

By Dmitry Filipoff


“You sort of take on the role of one of the leaders in those battles and you get to rethink it through and you lead the team through that talk and you’re there on station. It’s a very educational experience, and I’ve always envied the opportunity to do that…I always envied these land battles, and the Army or the Marine Corps that fought them because in our business we have nothing like [staff rides]…We can study our battles but we have nothing like that. At the end of our conflict, at the end of our battles, the winners sail away victorious and the losers sink to the bottom, and the sea washes over them and soon after, there’s almost no trace of what happened. Maybe, if you want to reach, you can think about walking the Constitution, and you get a chance to see what war at sea in the age of sail might have been like. Maybe you can walk the USS Missouri and you get a chance to see what fighting that battleship in World War II might have been like…Pearl Harbor, a naval battle of sorts…you can see where the terrain might have played a role. But in general, we don’t get a chance to do anything close to a staff ride, and it’s a stark testament to the unforgiving nature of our environment, and it imposes a level of accountability far greater than any administrative measures that any Navy could ever take.” –Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson1 

Major conditions are coming to fruition that will allow the Navy to transform itself for the high-end fight. A new national security strategy has officially refocused the Department of Defense on great power competition after decades of focusing on lower-end threats. A new deploying construct based on unpredictability will help the Navy reset its operating patterns and find more time to work on itself. New weapons and networks that will give the Navy greater firepower than ever before are about to hit the fleet. The time is ripe for revolution. What force development strategy will guide the Navy into the future?

Setting Priorities

“NIFC-CA employs ships and aircraft to consummate missile engagements beyond the radar horizon. This execution is operational rocket science. Those who master it will be identified as the best and brightest.” –Captain Jim Kilby, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense,” 20162

Force development is a process of evolution, where the education and equipment of the force is being continually updated to align with visions of how future conflict may transpire. A force development strategy must guide this evolution by aligning the components of military evolution, mainly capabilities, tactics, doctrine, and training. These components can be aligned toward producing specific warfighting concepts, and also toward generating individual tactics that are a key element of succeeding in future combat regardless of the higher-order concepts they serve.

But the major warfighting experiments and training events that make force development flourish are undoubtedly large expenditures of time and effort. Their scarcity can act as a constraint that forces prioritization. Numerous stakeholders will be competing for time in order to fully experiment with tactics, capabilities, concepts of operation, and other ideas. The products of force development will then compete for the time of the Sailor, and force the Navy to prioritize what it wants Sailors to be proficient at. As it considers a wide variety of demand signals, the Navy must deliberate on what specific force development questions are important enough to warrant sustained series of experiments and new training curriculum. If Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is an operational warfighting concept in need of a force development strategy, then the interconnected nature of force development can be revealed in a specific line of effort that develops a hallmark tactic of DMO.

Distributed naval forces will be able to use networking to aggregate anti-ship firepower from across the force and collect missiles into overwhelming salvos on demand. But it is still practically impossible for the U.S. Navy to execute missile aggregation tactics because almost all of its anti-ship missiles have a meager range of less than 80 miles. That hard limit means U.S. ships can barely spread out and distribute themselves if they want to keep their anti-ship firepower concentrated. A lack of long-range anti-ship firepower will stand in the way of the Navy’s ability to full realize its next major warfighting concept until new capabilities are introduced.

Capability introduction must be matched by tactical development. This will require a heavy experimentation component to identify the best means. What is the ideal method to collect firepower from across a distributed force? What are the best methods to program missiles in such a way as to overwhelm and confuse an adversary? Aggregating missile fires can be a hallmark tactic of distributed naval forces, but will depend on the ability of units to execute other tactics as a prerequisite. Units must be able to use engage-on-remote tactics to cue networked fires from widely dispersed forces, and to use retargeting tactics to keep the kill chains of those missiles fresh. DMO requires new interlocking sets of networking tactics if it is to be fleshed out as a concept. 

Training must prioritize proficiency for executing those specific tactics, and should seek to cultivate an overall tactical sense. Units will need good tactical sense to assess the risks of emissions control while facilitating networking. Units must also be trained in executing tactics for managing datalinks, including through jamming and deception. If Sailors are not well-trained in managing datalinks under contested conditions, then a training shortfall can also be enough to inhibit the Navy from making the most of DMO.

DMO can also take a note from how the interwar period Navy prioritized its own force development. Some of the interwar period Navy’s most important subjects of tactical and doctrinal investigation were fleet formations. The advent of airpower and the diverse types of units that could engage one another in naval combat added a significant degree of complexity in designing fleet formations. These formations attempted to promote maneuverability, facilitate the concentration of firepower, and give room for a variety of command and control options from the fleet commander down to the initiative of the unit leader.

Interwar period fleet formation for cruising. (Source: Trent Hone, “Building a Doctrine: U. S. Naval Tactics and Battle Plans in the Interwar Period“)

The advent of distributed operations and the enormous range of modern weapon systems presents the Navy with a similar challenge, but of greater magnitude. The Navy must focus a significant amount of effort into crafting a variety of distributed fleet formations – fighting stances for how a distributed fleet could steam into a contested zone or meet a hostile force of a certain kind.

Because the speed of a ship is miniscule compared to the speed of missiles, a formation of ships could hardly change during fleet combat. A modern fleet action could be over within minutes, causing fleets to rely heavily on speedy aviation for flexibility and responsiveness. Therefore a distributed fleet formation should also pay great care to a distributed airpower formation, and the nature of that fleet-wide ship-to-aircraft interface can help determine tactics for emissions control, retargeting, and engage-on-remote. Understanding how various distributed airpower schemes can overlay distributed fleet formations is a prime area of interest, as well as how critical networking capabilities like NIFC-CA and CEC can be flexed with different formations.

An animation of a hypothetical scenario demonstrating the Cooperative Engagement Capability and an associated fleet formation. (JHU APL)

Distributed fleet formations are a higher-order force development question for the Distributed Maritime Operations concept. A major fleet action is a complex mosaic of many warfighting dynamics, but the Navy needs to prioritizes specialized series of events that flesh out individual areas to gradually fill in this mosaic and refine the larger exercises and simulations.  

However, experimenting with force development usually suffers from handicaps posed by the numerous artificialities and practical restrictions that come with warfighting simulations. Safety regulations can sometimes be so restrictive that they harm the realism of exercises to an unreasonable degree. The use of special “war modes” for certain sensors and electronic capabilities can also be restricted. Firings are often simulated since it can be highly impractical and dangerous to use real weapons. But these restrictions and artificialities run the risk of hiding valuable insight and hindering force development. Force development must find ways to selectively push these limits for the sake of realism and to ensure that tactical investigations are thorough. A force development strategy should define targeted tactical investigations that are being held back by restrictions or obscured by artificialities, and execute specialized series of events in controlled environments. This will help ensure that the details of certain tactics or capabilities are not overlooked, and that surprise is not incurred.

A strong candidate for frequent live-fire testing and experimentation is the incoming generation of anti-ship missiles that are about to hit the fleet. A significant amount of tactical decision-making could still transpire after an anti-ship missile salvo is fired, and much of that decision-making could be in the hands of autonomous actors. Missiles can use a variety of sensors and networking to close in on their targets, refine their attack profiles, and evade defenses. Other platforms can use networking and retargeting to keep the salvo’s kill chain fresh, and ensure missiles are not deceived by decoys or jamming. Actors could in turn seek to interfere with the datalinks that connect the missiles within a salvo and with the broader force. Evolving the tactics, behavior, and decision-making of autonomous missile salvos and those defending against them is a paramount area of interest for focused tactical investigation. 

Arguably one of the most interesting recent developments in naval arms is the advent of the anti-torpedo torpedo, a novel system the U.S. Navy is currently installing on its capital ships. What makes this system noteworthy is that it introduces a hardkill dynamic into modern torpedo defense for what appears to be the first time. Prior to the advent of this system, it appears torpedo defense was confined to only softkill countermeasures – decoys and other distractions that could lure a torpedo away but not outright destroy it. Introducing a hardkill dynamic into torpedo defense could drastically change the tactics of undersea warfare, and create new offensive/defensive dynamics. If the anti-torpedo torpedo proves to be effective enough and widely proliferates, then it could negate much of the American military’s offensive advantage in the undersea domain until its submarines finally get anti-ship missiles. The tactical effects of this seemingly innocuous system could have serious strategic consequences.

Experimental Countermeasure Anti-Torpedo (CAT) launches from the fantail of USS George HW Bush (CVN-77) in May, 2013. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Power projection operations presume a degree of sea control in order to be executed, and in a similar sense, naval power presumes a degree of cyber control in order to function at all. Warships are highly complex machines made up of advanced electronics, and fleets form sophisticated networks from among their many elements. The cyber terrain of an individual warship is enormous (let alone that of a fleet), and offers numerous points of failure.

It is not too far-fetched to suggest that a cyberattack on a ship could spark grievous mechanical failures, hijack equipment from operators, or scramble the code of combat systems like Aegis. In a time of war, ships could be stuck pierside or dead in the water if they are being wracked by cyberattacks. No Navy can afford to lose in cyberspace, making cyberwarfare one of the most important areas for force development. In spite of this, those who led the cyberforensics investigation into the USS John S. McCain collision suggested that the Navy is extremely far behind on establishing even a basic cyber defense capability:

“To generate network situational awareness sophisticated enough to do cyber forensics, the team will need to search for electronic anomalies across a wide range of interconnected systems. A key component of anomaly detection is the availability of normal baseline operating data, or trusted images, that can be used for comparison. These critical datasets of trusted images do not currently exist.”3

Cyberwarfare is a prime area for the Navy to loosen the restraints and create a specialized series of tactical investigations and training events. However, it will be challenging to effectively resource and constrain this sort of exploration because of the expansiveness of the cyber domain. In order to resource realistic cyber warfighting practice and experimentation, the Navy should consider taking ships from each class and turning them into full-time cyber battlegrounds. Crews will be able to practice damage control on realistic terrain, and operators will be able to understand how gracefully (or ungracefully) their capabilities degrade. For certain experiments, cyber Red teams must be empowered to break things and attack systems with the relentlessness of a great power adversary. Over time this will help build a base of knowledge on cyber hygiene, and eventually aim to give the Navy the confidence that adversaries have not been able to pre-position cyber weapons into ships and systems during peacetime.

Designing the Field of Application

“Two interdependent activities, exercises and experimentation, help to bring joint concepts to life. Throughout history, military exercises have served to reduce uncertainty, increase readiness, and refine and test new concepts. Recognizing the complexity of today’s strategic landscape, we are reenergizing and reorienting the joint exercise program…” –Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford4

Military tools are more advanced and interconnected than ever, driving warfighting concepts toward more complex tactics and doctrine. Yet it is infeasible to realistically test the complex tangle of a great power battle when it can involve things as expensive as warships, as numerous as missile salvos, or as expansive as cyber warfare. These trends are pushing military experimentation and training further and further into the virtual realm, and making force development more vulnerable to the caveats of simulation. The difference between what can be reasonably tested and the nature of actual combat has grown to unprecedented heights, and surprises may lie within that gulf of the unknown. Because of this, force development must include a robust system of real-world experimentation and training that pushes these limits frequently and with rigor.

Exercises can serve as the bedrock of force development because only they can serve as the real-world field of application short of war itself. How these events and their participants evolve over time can reflect the pace of learning. The concepts and scenarios that are deemed worthy of sustained real-world testing and training will reflect the highest priorities. The standards that undergird the field of application can reflect the seriousness of force development, and the level of understanding on warfighting. The learning architecture that is built around exercises helps determine how stakeholders can make the most of the field of application. Ultimately, how the military makes use of exercises as the field of application can reveal much about the state of a force development strategy as a whole.

Exercise events can be widely dissimilar, depending if they are focused on training, experimentation, or partnership engagement. The Navy must define standards and create formats for its major warfighting experiments and training events. It can also learn from earlier difficulties in designing major experimentation exercises. The Fleet Battle Experiments intended to be exercises that could test out important ideas for the Navy’s development. However, they became overcomplicated. They often combined elements of virtual forces, live forces, readiness evolutions, and wargaming. On top of this hodgepodge they stacked numerous test goals driven by many stakeholders. All of this complexity made it difficult for the Navy to extract value from the events.

Adding virtual forces to live exercises can be driven by the need to create appropriately large scenarios. However, because they are simulations, virtual forces introduce simulation caveats which can complicate analysis. Compared to live opposing forces, virtual units can certainly be more accurate representations of adversaries in a technical sense, but their behavior may be more simplistic. Virtual forces can hold great value for training events, but they must be more carefully used when mixed with experimentation. 

Wargaming is a virtual field of application, and there is already a significant learning architecture built around certain wargaming programs. Wargames focused on tactics and doctrine should work together with the real-world field of application in a process of cooperative refinement, where wargames can refine concepts for eventual field application. But some balance must be struck between the two, lest wargames get too ahead of themselves or too much is spent on real-world trials.

Adding too many goals to the Fleet Battle Experiments made it difficult to organize follow-on events that could build on insights. Because warfighting is highly complex, multiple rounds of trial and error must characterize force development trials. However, if the Navy is to facilitate this sort of trial and error on the field of application, then events must be tightly constrained to focus on narrowly defined objectives. Otherwise, it is extraordinarily difficult to design the appropriate follow-through for a large-scale event that attempts to answer too many questions for too many stakeholders.

Multiple rounds of trial and error must also require that events take the form of a series, and where a single series can be focused on exhaustively probing only a handful of questions, warfare areas, or scenarios. One can look to the Air Force, with Red Flag as the premier combat training event, Green Flag as the main close air support exercise, and Space Flag which focuses on space-based effects. Those who program the schedule of events for the field of application should often think in terms of series, and not just one-off events.


In a responsible system of force development, warfighting concepts and programs should live or die by their ability to prove their tactical worth. Arguments on the lasting usefulness of a system are not settled by simply identifying the capability it brings or the mission areas it contributes to. Capabilities have to be tested with an eye toward the specific tactics they produce, and in fleshed out environments. Regardless if the systems are functioning in a technical sense, capabilities can be proven useless or even counterproductive in the context of their application. Poor tactical performance in simulations or exercises should be enough to force changes or cancellations as force development weeds out brittle ideas. If a service or a warfighting community is concerned about the viability of a particular concept or a system, then they should be made to compete through superior tactical innovation. But having realistic proving grounds, a robust learning architecture, and a healthy learning culture is not enough to have the utmost confidence in the military’s ability to change. Despite all the good they can do for military evolution, exercises and wargames have often been deliberately shaped to defend preconceived notions.

Objective tactical investigation and competition requires that trials be realistic, unbiased, and transparent to crucial stakeholders. However, defense programs and warfighting concepts do not exist in an objective vacuum, and involve bureaucratic and political equity. Various communities within each of the services compete with one another for resources for their respective programs, and each has their sacred cows. Multiple tools can exist for the same mission, such as for anti-submarine warfare, but reside among the different tribes and communities. Institutional divisions can emerge along varying interpretations on what will dominate in future war. The services can also compete with each other, such as in the infamous Revolt of the Admirals that was driven by arguments that pitted the Air Force’s strategic bombers against the Navy’s carrier aviation. Questions of tactical effectiveness are but one element of these debates, and sometimes parochial interests can become overriding. These dynamics can also go far beyond the Pentagon and also reach into the halls of Congress. Members of Congress can strongly depend on certain defense programs for jobs and political capital, and can hold other attachments to certain systems of interest. In the past, Congress has forced the military to retain platforms that the services deemed to have outlived their tactical usefulness, including battleships and the A-10.

In How Much Is Enough, Alain Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith pointed to how military culture and bureaucracy can be susceptible to unobjective influences, and how independent analysts in the once-controversial Systems Analysis office were able to compensate:

“Military officers as a group (and some civilians as well) are in a position to have very limited intellectual and career independence. While many individuals succeed in standing up to the system, there are numerous institutional factors working to limit the officer’s intellectual independence…The military man lives in an atmosphere in which many assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs – generally unspoken – are shared…Officers who do not share these beliefs are liable to reprisal on their annual fitness reports…This lack of career independence further helps to ensure conformity to the Service point of view…[independent civilian] analysts could more easily ask the hard questions and pose genuine alternatives, arriving at a recommendation via a more rational and objective process. They were not constrained to defer to rank, age, experience, or chain of command. They had the time to think about important long-range policy problems and [had] the room for imagination, initiative, and fresh thinking. They were comparatively free to gore sacred cows. Such liberties are institutionally very difficult to exercise in a military organization, joint or single Service. There have been loud complaints about civilians ‘muzzling the military’; but anyone who is familiar with the system knows that most of the muzzling is done by the military themselves.”5 

For these reasons and others, the Department of Defense and the Congress should establish an independent body that seeks to provide an unbiased set of eyes on major exercising and wargaming programs. Important independent bodies already exist in the Department of Defense, such as the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE, which is descended from the Systems Analysis office) and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOTE). These organizations aid in assessing major programmatic decisions and provide oversight and evaluation of weapons testing, respectively. These organizations play important roles in providing independent assessments, maintaining standards, and help act as a check on the military’s parochial interests. An organization that seeks to provide similar functions for major exercises and wargames could focus on accounting for:

  • Nature and extent of exercise/wargame artificialities and assumptions
  • Fidelity and behavior of opposing forces
  • Fairness of adjudication
  • Effective inclusion and communication of results in follow-on reporting

Exercises and wargames can have enormous programmatic implications like the programs CAPE and DOTE assess. However, they are venues that can still be corrupted by institutional bias. One such example includes the Congressionally mandated “flyoff” between the F-35 and A-10, which was supposed to be an exercise designed to assess the tactical merits of the platforms in the close air support mission. However, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent watchdog, released a scathing report on the flyoff that argued the exercise design was deliberately distorted to favor the F-35. While pointing to a variety of flaws, POGO claimed:

“Air Force leaders…are staging an unpublicized, quickie test on existing training ranges, creating unrealistic scenarios that presuppose an ignorant and inert enemy force, writing ground rules for the tests that make the F-35 look good—and they got the new testing director, the retired Air Force general Robert Behler, to approve all of it. According to sources closely involved with the A-10 versus F-35 fly-off, who wished to remain anonymous out of concerns about retaliation, this testing program was designed without ever consulting the Air Force’s resident experts on close air support, A-10 pilots and joint terminal attack ground controllers…”6

The frequency with which it appears the military distorts the field of application to protect assumptions, to include scripting behaviors and other measures, points to an uncomfortable truth of force development. The military cannot be expected to always accept or disclose the most disruptive implications that can come from investigating the future of war. Despite their hefty mandate, the armed forces, like any other organization, can still stifle progress through bias, bureaucratic inertia, and an unreceptive culture. An independent body that assesses major exercises and wargames can add needed discipline to force development, safeguard the field of application, and promote military evolution that is appropriately receptive to change.

Resourcing and Reorganization

“Sailors are the most modular, lethal, and adaptable asset the Navy has. No weapon system, no matter how technologically advanced, is more instrumental to warfighting effectiveness than the person directing it. But competency and confidence are not naturally ingrained in a sailor. Warfighting effectiveness only can develop in a sailor who is properly educated, rigorously trained, and meaningfully assessed—and all these factors require resourcing.” –Lt. Brendan Cordial, “People Over Payloads,” 20187

If strategy is to inform budget in an age of great power competition, then the Navy must decide how it can invest more into learning tactics and doctrine. Resourcing priorities can focus on providing more operational units in order to increase the frequency of major training events and warfighting experiments, as well as investing in the unique personnel assignments that are specifically tailored toward force development. However, the current political environment and other constraints are not going to allow for a sudden major increase in force development funding. When it comes to resourcing, how the Navy makes the most of its force development will greatly depend on how it reinvests its time.

The Navy’s force development agenda and the overseas operational agenda will compete for the fleet’s time and units. The Navy’s current ability to resource its own force development with enough field trials and opposing forces will be heavily tied to its ability to wind down its overseas operations. With respect to becoming a learning organization that intends to learn more about high-end warfighting specifically, the Navy must weigh the learning value of major force development events versus overseas operations. In this vein, it should be plainly clear that advanced training and experimentation events help the Navy learn more about high-end warfighting than virtually any presence patrol or maritime security mission.

If the Navy wants to maximize the “reps and sets” of its force development, then it can invert what it has long been its operating paradigm. Advanced events like SWATT and the Fleet Problems shouldn’t just be the prelude to a long deployment, they can become the point of a deployment. Allowing units to do these events several times in the course of a single stretch will accelerate the Navy’s learning to incredible heights, and give the training audience multiple attempts to better themselves in large-scale venues. More importantly, this will add greater speed to the Navy’s ongoing transition away from the low-end focus and gradually reduce the strategic liability it incurred. How frequently the fleet chooses to conduct high-end training events at the onset of this transition will determine how quickly the Navy can close the door on any adversary that seeks to capitalize on the Navy’s lingering neglect of full-spectrum skills.

A baseline resourcing requirement can include defining a dedicated opposing force, because major real-world trials will often need meaningful opposition as a basic realism requirement, and dedicated opposing forces require adequate time to train to foreign doctrine. By designating a combination of units to act as a dedicated opposing force, the fleet will also have a major unit that can be mostly focused on solving Navy problems and not just combatant commander problems. Such a force can maximize its size and availability by including virtual units and operating on a workup cycle similar to that of forward deployed naval forces. 

Another resourcing requirement will come from how the field of application is organized, and the various series of events that are defined. Some events could focus exclusively on training while others focus only on experimentation, since the two can be distinct types of events. Many tactical investigations will require a series of experiments, and many units will need to pass through training crucibles each year. How the Navy organizes the field of application and then allocates units and spends readiness across the various events can drive resourcing requirements. 

The Navy has a tremendous advantage over its great power rivals when it comes to resourcing force development. The numerous allies the U.S. has around the world can also put their navies to use in answering critical force development questions. Allies can be asked to investigate specific tactical problems, and can offer more units to serve as opposition forces. Every allied navy adds size to the field of application, and can allow for a more expansive force development agenda that is shared among partners.

Aside from investing more energy toward live exercises and away from forward operations, the Navy must learn to better resource learning at the individual level. The Navy must give Sailors the time to focus on what makes them better warfighters, and also improve access to the career opportunities that hold the greatest value for their development as warfighters.

Debriefs and replays can and should be reviewed by many more than those who actually participated. No Sailor needs to wait to participate in order to learn from a Fleet Problem, a SWATT evolution, or a wargame. The Navy can widen the reach of its learning architecture by creating deliverable lesson plans and replays for each of these events. Easily digestible and widely disseminated deliverables will multiply the size of the training audience, and make the most of expensive exercises. However, this sort of learning experience should not be left to the initiative of Sailors, since the Navy’s lessons learned systems are infamously difficult and underutilized. Instead, Sailors should be mandated to review these sorts of replays and debriefs as a part of their training curriculum, which will ensure the Navy multiplies the value of these events. Also, for certain trials, opposition forces need to be capable and unpredictable enough so this sort of reviewing doesn’t amount to finding an answer key.

Sailors still need to be given enough time if they are to have better learning experiences. The Navy already makes plenty of time for Sailors to learn things, but among numerous workshops, inspections, and trainings, not enough are truly focused on making Sailors better warfighters. Leaders have long sought to cut these burdens and have made some progress, but Sailors are still overburdened and their focus spread thin. The Navy must recognize that many of these burdens are the accumulated baggage of a risk-averse culture and a low-end operating focus that was not well-constrained. Similar to how a SWATT exercise teaches more than virtually any presence patrol, spending a few hours watching a Fleet Problem replay teaches more about warfighting than virtually any admin paperwork. The Navy should redefine individual training requirements for the high-end fight, and then force most other burdens to conform to those requirements and not the other way around.

By the time the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbor, 99 percent of the U.S. Navy’s admirals were graduates of the Naval War College.8 All the admirals who graduated from the interwar period Naval War College learned from a curriculum that included a heavy wargaming component. Through multiple wargames that could last weeks at a time, naval officers acted out major fleet actions against great power rivals and became engrossed in warfighting specifics. This shared wargaming experience was invaluable in giving the Navy’s admirals a common baseline of expertise on tactics, doctrine, and operational thinking.

The first move of Tactical Maneuver IV for the Naval War College class of 1923. This chart shows the Red fleet at the upper right and the Blue fleet in the lower left. (“Battle of Emerald Bank, Tactical Problem IV, TAC 94, 1923. Naval Historical Collection) [Click to Expand]
While many of the modern Navy’s flag officers are also graduates of the College, the current curriculum is more diverse and does not come close to producing the base of warfighting expertise the interwar Navy earned through the same institution. Wargaming programs at the College such as the Gravely and Halsey programs have become very exclusive, yet do not often feature in the experience of flag officers. Wargaming experience should become more mainstream throughout the Navy’s officer ranks because it is a valuable training and research experience, and it is far more affordable training than live exercising.

Distinction in wargaming should also be rewarded with better career prospects. This should hold especially true for earning flag rank because wargaming can help compensate for the natural disadvantages of how command experience evolves. Naval officers usually do not have the opportunity to lead multi-ship operations until they have served for decades and are already fairly senior. A more mainstream wargaming curriculum will help the Navy identify leaders with a knack for commanding large-scale combat operations far earlier in their careers, and ensure that the senior ranks are populated with leaders that have experience thinking through high-end conflict scenarios.


Whether artillery begins to rain on the Korean peninsula, or Iranian mines litter the Strait of Hormuz, or a major terrorist attack unfolds, the Navy must never again allow itself to totally do away with preparing for the high-end fight. The story of the modern American Navy is unfortunately that of an organization that was divorced from the main purpose that had long animated its spirit,  and dysfunction radiated throughout its institutions as a result. A difficult transition looms ahead, its urgency underscored by the sudden naval ascendance of a great power rival. 

The U.S. Navy still retains its global preeminence, and has the greatest potential of any other navy today. Its history is replete with historic victories, its resources are unmatched, and the world still regards it as a powerful expression of American global leadership. The mettle of the fleet will be forged anew as an emerging era of great power competition infuses it with urgent spirit.

Now the U.S. Navy is embarking on a bold transformation, and soon it will rediscover the power of its essence–to command the seas. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at


1. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, USN, Keynote Speech before the Surface Navy Association, January 9, 2018. 

2. Captain Jim Kilby, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Integrated Naval/Air Missile Defense,” CIMSEC, April 4, 2014. 

3. Zachary Staples and Maura Sullivan, “Cyberphysical Forensics: Lessons from the USS John S. McCain Collision,” CIMSEC, January 22, 2018. 

4. General Joseph Dunford, USMC, “From the Chairman: Maintaining a Boxer’s Stance,” Joint Force Quarterly, June 19, 2017. 

5. Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much is Enough?, RAND , 1971. 

6. Dan Grazier, “Close Air Support Fly-Off Farce,” POGO, July 10, 2018. 

7. Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, “People Over Payloads,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceeings, May 2018. 

8. John Lillard, Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II, Potomac Books, 2016. 

Featured Image: NORWEGIAN SEA (Oct. 26, 2018) Aviation Machinist’s Mate Airman Jadah Martinez inspects an after burner for fuel leaks during an active test on the fantail aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Victoria Granado/Released) 

The Kriegsmarine and Compound War at Sea in WWII

By Matthew Connors

The campaign against Nazi Germany is often characterized as a land battle, but Hitler also lost the war by losing the sea. The former army corporal never truly grasped the importance of sea power and did not appropriately invest in Germany’s navy. Despite this, the Kriegsmarine nearly broke Britain through its use of aggressive surface action groups (SAGs) and irregular commerce raiders. The Kriegsmarine entered a war it was ill-suited for, well before it was prepared to fight, but by employing a form of maritime compound warfare it nearly disrupted Allied sea control which would have starved Britain and the Soviet Union of seaborne supply. Germany’s near victory demonstrates the potential of compound war at sea.

Qualifying Germany’s Naval Campaign as Compound War

In compound war a commander makes use of irregular units operating out of secure bases and augments them with the threat of conventional forces that can also take on irregular operational patterns.1 These irregular operations can force an opponent to disperse forces across a broad space to protect vital points and supply lines from irregular raiders and guerillas. This works in tandem with the presence of a regular conventional force which requires an adversary to also maintain a sizeable concentration of units to potentially counter a large-scale offensive, similar to a fleet-in-being.

This dilemma is precisely what makes it difficult to counter a compound campaign. On land, successful compound campaigns have been waged by Washington, Wellington, and Ho Chi Minh. At sea, compound war is less common, where fleets usually contest control of the sea through fleet combat actions dominated by regular units, or raid with irregulars and dispersed units. Yet, by employing a mix of both regular combatants and irregular raiders, the Kriegsmarine essentially waged compound war from 1939 to 1942.

Broadly defined, German naval forces can be split into regular and irregular combatants.2 Regular surface combatants could engage the enemy battle line or decimate lightly defended convoys. Germany’s surface striking forces mainly consisted of cruisers and battleships. These warships sowed chaos among the British Admiralty and forced the Royal Navy to cover multiple convoys and large areas while hunting small groups of German combatants.3 The presence of one pocket battleship or heavy cruiser in the Atlantic generated the need for convoys to have major surface ship escorts lest they fall prey to the big guns of a German warship. The high speeds and potent offensive capabilities of the German surface fleet could induce the Allies to scatter lightly protected convoys, which limited the damage done by heavy German combatants, but exposed them to the predations of German irregulars, submarines, and aircraft. The best example of this dual threat at work was the case of Convoy PQ17, an Arctic convoy traveling to the Soviet Union in 1942. The threat of a task force led by the German battleship Tirpitz forced the dispersion of the convoy’s ships and caused their subsequent destruction in detail by submarines and the Luftwaffe.4

German battleship Tirpitz firing during practice in 1941. (Colorized by Irootoko, Jr.)

Compound war at sea enhanced the psychological threats posed by German heavy surface ships and the German irregulars. By acting aggressively, the Kriegsmarine forced the British to deploy every available ship in their fleet to hunt for a handful of German surface ships.5 The Germans also conducted an extensive mining campaign that sought to deprive the British of their own shipping through destruction and neutral shipping through deterrence.The strain of constant operations and a shrinking merchant fleet was designed to cripple the Royal Navy and the commerce it protected, leaving the British Isles exposed and cut off.

The Regular Naval Threat: Surface Forces

In 1939 and 1940, aggressive commerce raiding in the Atlantic and Indian oceans by German heavy ships caused panic in Britain. The deployment of the Scheer, a pocket battleship, caused the Royal Navy to dispatch an aircraft carrier and six cruisers.7 A subsequent cruise by the battleships Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau sank 115,000 tons of shipping in two months, forced the deployment of the British home fleet, and managed to delay convoy sailings until battleship escorts could be found.8 In late 1941, plans were drafted for the operation of a surface action group out of Norway coupled with a commerce raiding deployment launched out of France. The surface action group would have drawn the British home fleet away while the raiders sowed chaos on Allied shipping.9 These operational plans and deployments typified the German approach and were designed to spread confusion and disruption through aggressive action.

German heavy ship operations featured regular units acting in irregular ways. While any individual platform could engage a rival, they did not have enough to risk themselves in regular combat. Therefore, the Kriegsmarine sought to fight on favorable terms against lightly guarded convoys. When the German forces found themselves outmatched by convoy escorts, they would still engage, but they would often avoid wholly committing themselves to fighting a well-guarded convoy.

Despite their irregular behavior, the German surface fleet’s potential as a regular naval threat remained potent, demonstrating the power of a fleet-in-being. The retention of a German fleet also provided the British with a strategic situation in line with the compound war concept. The continued existence of German heavy units required the Royal Navy to retain a home fleet sufficient to crush a concentrated German excursion while forcing it to also protect distant supply lines against commerce raiders, even after SAG deployments effectively ended in 1942. Even as the German surface fleet was either bottled up or sunk, it remained a real threat and a constant source of British dread. While auxiliary cruisers and submarines could be dealt with by destroyers and aircraft, German battleships and cruisers demanded strong attention from the Royal Navy.

At one point early in the war the Commander-in- Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Erich Raeder, asserted that the loss of a major German capital ship was not of major significance, especially if lost as a result of “bold action.”10 Audacity, aggression, and frequent operation on the part of the capital ships was part of cultivating their threat potential and stressing the Royal Navy’s resources and leadership. Their mere existence as a fleet in being posed a threat and required the British to divert resources from anti-submarine warfare operations and convoy escort duties. German SAG deployment arguably stalled Allied convoy departures and reduced British imports far more effectively than the grinding destruction of U-boat warfare.11 But after the battleship Bismarck was lost on a raiding mission in the Atlantic the utility of these heavy units shrank as Hitler became concerned about their potential loss and was unwilling to further risk them in combat.

The Irregular Subsurface Threat: Submarines

Admiral Karl Donitz, the head of the U-boat wing and eventual commander of the German Navy during WWII, conceived of a mathematical war against the British. The war of tonnage was designed to sink first British and French and later American merchant shipping quicker than it could be built. The resulting reduction in carrying capacity and goods would cripple Allied industry and force an armistice.12

The irregular component of the Kriegsmarine’s maritime compound warfare was executed by irregular surface and subsurface commerce raiders. These small, cheap platforms were designed to be stealthy enough to bypass the Allied naval blockade and cruise against allied shipping. Despite some false starts and early restrictions, unrestricted submarine warfare, once joined, proved theoretically possible. While British and American shipbuilding and convoy systems eventually overwhelmed the U-boat Arm’s destructive capacity, it wasn’t until 1943 that production outstripped destruction. 1943 also witnessed a sharp decrease in the U-boat’s efficacy as Allied convoy tactics, air-ASW, and the breaking of the Enigma codes proved increasingly effective at neutralizing U-boat attacks on convoys.13 The entry of the U.S. into the war and the increasing tactical effectiveness of ASW saved the Allies in the Atlantic.

However, had German force structure and strategy been built around commerce destruction by the time war broke out in 1939, it may have succeeded in breaking Britain.  German unrestricted submarine warfare proved ineffective, not because of tactical failings or strategic blunders by Admirals Raeder and Donitz, but because German industry, technology, and strategic cooperation proved inadequate. The incredibly small size of the U-boat Arm at the start of the war, only a sixth of the estimated force necessary to break the British, would grow as production gradually ramped up, but losses exceeded production until July of 1940. The force did not reach the necessary 300 boats until April of 1942, but only after the U.S. had entered the war and after tactical ASW was trending in favor of the allies.14

A rough estimate of the required tonnage destruction rate that could force British capitulation was 1,800,000 tons per quarter.15 Assuming a similar destruction rate, had the 82.5 deployed U-boats per quarter attained in 1944 been reflected in the average 1940 quarter, total tonnage destroyed could have amounted to 4,294,207 tons destroyed per quarter.16 Such a shock would have starved the British war machine and people. However, the German U-boat force of the first years of the war was, like the surface force, insufficient for the requirements of the German campaign.

U-boat strength vs. shipping strength during WWII. (Via HistoryNet)

The famed wolfpack was even temporarily abandoned after it became apparent that there were not enough U-boats to actively execute the tactic.17 As Allied ASW efforts improved, convoys became capable of inflicting heavy damage on their attackers and U-boats became increasingly subject to destruction en-route to the hunt. In 1943 the mid-Atlantic “air gap” was closed by escort carriers and Allied ASW units improved in both quantity and quality, reducing the U-boat’s destructive potential.18 The U-boat force peaked in early 1943, and production spiked to 79 new U-boats in 1944, but the window had passed.19

Organizationally, German U-boats were kept under relatively centralized control. Their limited ability to detect convoys and coordinate with other U-boats necessitated their direct operational command by Donitz and the U-boat branch in Wilhelmshaven.20 Wilhelmshaven would act as a central processing hub for data, either from submarines, aircraft, spies, or auxiliary cruisers and then concentrate a number of U-boats in the vicinity of a convoy. This concentration of boats would then attack at night on the surface where they had a speed advantage over allied merchantmen. However, the Naval Staff would also give orders directly to commanders, which complicated the command and control process.21 Tight control and cueing was necessary to ensure U-boats made contact with as many enemy ships as possible so as to maximize their statistical impact. This control, encrypted by the Enigma and Triton cyphers, was subject to Allied penetration. When this occurred, the Allies started avoiding submarines, reducing their efficacy.

One of the most crippling deficiencies of the German strategic approach resulted from the schizophrenic nature of Nazi high command. Historian Donald Steury assessed inter-service competition between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine as a major hinderance to joint operations against Allied shipping.22 Donitz himself points to Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering’s staunch prohibition of an independent maritime airwing and bogarting of resources as having both limited the operational capabilities of the fleet in a broad sense and the size of the U-boat arm in particular.23 This resulted in minimal aerial scouting which frustrated Donitz’s early efforts to coordinate wolfpack operations and interdict Allied convoys.24

The Kriegsmarine had a sound strategic concept, but an inadequate force that lacked joint support. Despite their fearsome reputation, the U-boat was never properly employed to its full potential, and when coupled with Allied efforts this meant the effective defeat of Germany at sea.

U-boat efficacy by year.25

The Irregular Surface Threat: Auxiliary Cruisers

Auxiliary cruisers were launched to raid allied commerce but carried out a variety of support operations. These ships were converted merchantmen, altered to carry heavy armament and equipped with reconfigurable superstructures. Designed as stealth commerce raiders, there were only a few of these ships but they had an outsized impact. HSK-5, the Pinguin, sank or captured 154,619 tons of allied shipping, a total tonnage on par with some of the U-boat wing’s top performers. By comparison the U-boats sank approximately 11,023 tons per U-boat commissioned.26 Comparatively, the auxiliary cruisers did quite well, between the nine ships deployed from 1940-1943: 844,321 tons of allied shipping were destroyed, or 94,035 tons per auxiliary cruiser.27 Their effectiveness demonstrates the potential of such a vessel and role.

These irregular platforms had a mix of advantages and disadvantages. They were always exposed and subject to possible destruction by a curious surface combatant, the conversion process from merchant to warship was lengthy, and escaping into the Atlantic or Arctic oceans exposed them to detection and destruction by British forces. However, their high average destruction rate is reflective of their inherent capabilities. As surface vessels, they could make high speeds, could remain underway and operational for extremely long periods of time (622 days in the case of the Atlantis), and even could operate light aircraft.28 The ability to operate aircraft afforded them a degree of independence not found in the U-boats, and where the U-boat was heavily dependent on outside cueing for finding targets rather than its organic search capability. Because auxiliary cruisers could operate aircraft they could expand their personal search horizons, far superior to that of the relatively low conning tower of a submarine or its sonar.

Auxiliary German cruiser Kormoran (Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, the expanded crew size and cargo capacity allowed these stealth platforms to execute covert auxiliary tasks. Auxiliary cruisers mined Allied harbors all over the world, supported U-boats, and captured or destroyed Allied shipping. As surface ships, their interactions with enemy merchantmen allowed them to extend operations by refueling and resupplying from the prizes.29 These ships remained operational in the Atlantic slightly longer than the regular German fleet. However, like regular surface raiders, these platforms became increasingly difficult to deploy and the last attempt at a breakout failed in February of 1943.30 The auxiliary cruiser was an innovative and potent tool undercut by a lack of investment and the later conservativism of the German fleet. Much like the submarine, the auxiliary cruiser was doomed by a profound lack of investment in the German fleet and Hitler’s naval hesitance.

German Naval Force Structure: Idealism at the Cost of Realism

Admiral Raeder, who led the Kriegsmarine from 1928 to 1943, was mostly responsible for the reconstruction of the German fleet in the interwar period.31 After Hitler seized power naval building accelerated. Light cruisers, heavy cruisers, battlecruisers, and two battleships were constructed.32 However, Raeder’s Plan Z shipbuilding program was designed to build a fleet optimized for a compound campaign against the British. The Plan Z fleet centered on a robust home fleet, several striking forces, and commerce raiders. The home fleet would be strong enough to challenge the British home fleet, thus demanding the retention of the bulk of the Royal Navy’s capital ships in home waters, while the striking forces and commerce raiders starved the British by crushing convoys and sinking lone merchants. However, Plan Z required a longer lead time than a competing fleet design plan which would have consisted of a large submarine branch and multiple pocket battleships.

Operating under the assumption that hostilities would not commence until the mid-1940s, the Germans selected Plan Z. However, the decision to launch WWII by invading Poland in early 1939 took the naval staff almost entirely by surprise. The invasion launched the Kriegsmarine into war prematurely and well before the Plan Z buildup could be completed.33

Losses and an increasing hesitancy on the part of Hitler to risk capital ships eventually reduced the potency of the German surface force and increased the Kriegsmarine’s reliance on submarines.34 However, the German Navy started the war with an insufficient submarine fleet of only 57 boats, when an estimated 300 were required for war with Britain.35 Hitler’s hesitance and ignorance of the sea kept the Kriegsmarine weak, when he lost his nerve in 1942, he constrained his surface navy which then became mostly irrelevant, leaving his inadequate submarine force to carry on what was becoming a losing naval campaign.


Early British deficiencies gave the Kriegsmarine a chance at victory. British ASDIC (active sonar) often performed poorly; the convoy system was initially resisted, and British shipbuilding was not able to catch up to the rate of destruction until 1943.36 The cancellation of the regular surface campaign in the Atlantic in late 1941 was followed by an uptick in overall British imports, despite the increase in U-boat sinkings in 1942.37 Raeder and Donitz had a winning strategic concept but an inadequate force. While compound threats are typically potent, the Kriegsmarine was unable to execute a consistent, effective campaign. As ‘Fortress Europe’ began to crumble, the effectiveness of the German maritime campaign plummeted further still. Ultimately, Hitler’s strategic failings and the small size of the German fleet at the beginning of the war caused the Kriegsmarine’s failure.

The Kriegsmarine’s shortcomings were matched with Allied successes. Cracking Enigma, the reimplementation of the convoy system, the implementation of air-based ASW, and general improvements in ASW operations saved the British merchant from the U-boat, while brave men in steel ships defeated the big guns of Hitler’s surface fleet. A future war at sea against a compound threat will require much of the same: superb code breakers, clever screen commanders, effective tactics, and brave Sailors willing to grapple with any threat.

Lieutenant Matthew Conners is a 2012 graduate of the Naval Academy and a Surface Warfare Officer. He has served in USS Hopper (DDG 70) as Repair Officer and  USS Chung Hoon (DDG 93) as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer. He is also the recipient of the Naval Postgraduate School’s 2018 Liskin Award for excellence in National Security Studies. He graduated from the Naval Postgraduate school in 2018 with a Master of Arts in Security Studies. He is stationed in San Diego at the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.


[1] Thomas Huber, Compound Warfare; That Fatal Knot, (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 2002) vii.

[2] There were no German naval aviation assets. Gronning quickly appropriated all related maritime aircraft to the Luftwaffe and the two German aircraft carriers under construction were never completed.

Eric Raeder, My Life, trans. Henry Drexel, (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1960), 154.

Robert Jackson, Kriegsmarine; The illustrated History of the German Navy in WWII, (London, Aber’s Books ltd 2001), 24.

[3] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 23.

[4] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 116.

[5] Terry Hughes and John Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, (New York, The Dial Press 1977), 20.

[6] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 49.

[7] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 123.

[8] Ibid, 125.

[9] Steury, “The German Naval Offensive,” 81-83.

[10] Cajus Bekker, Hitler’s Naval War, (Garden City, Doubleday and Company 1974), 141.

[11] Sturey, “The German Naval Offensive,” 81-83. 

[12] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 38-52.

[13] Assmann, Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed,” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 659-70. doi:10.2307/20030803 665, 667.

Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304, 305.

[14] Hughes and Costello, Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[15] A 1917 Imperial naval staff estimate. In Steury, The German Naval Offensive, 93.

[16] Based on a rate of 52,051 tons per quarter per U-boat deployed at a rate of 82.5 U-boats deployed in 1944. Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[17] Ibid, 49.

Hessler, Gunter, The U-boat War in the Atlantic, 1939-1945: German Naval History, (Great Britain, Ministry of Defense 1989), 12.

[18] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 48-55.

[19] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

[20] Ibid, 2.

[21] Hessler, The U-Boat war in the Atlantic, 9.

[22] Ibid, 91.

[23] Karl Doenitz, Memoirs: Ten years and Twenty days, (Cleveland, World Publishing Company 1959) 132-133.

[24] Doenitz, 133-134.


[26] Hughes and Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic, 304-305.

This includes U-boats launched after the bulk of Allied ASW efforts began to take effect.

[27] Bekker, Hitler’s Naval War, 381.

[28] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 69.

[29] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 69-77.

[30] Ibid, 77.

[31] Raeder, My Life, 138-139.

[32] Jackson, Kriegsmarine, 21-23.

[33] Jurgen Rohwer, “Codes and Ciphers: Radio Communication and Intelligence,” in To Die Gallantly; The Battle of the Atlantic ed. Timothy J Rynyan and Jan M. Copes, (Boulder, Westview press 1994), 38-38.

[34] Donald Steury, “The Character of the German Naval Offensive: October 1940-June 1941,” in To Die Gallantly; The Battle of the Atlantic ed. Timothy J Rynyan and Jan M. Copes, (Boulder, Westview press 1994), 81.

[35] Assmann, Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed.” Foreign Affairs 28, no. 4 (1950): 659-70. doi:10.2307/20030803 665, 667.

[36] Kurt. “Why U-Boat Warfare Failed,” 665-667.

[37] Steury, “The German Naval Offensive,” 84-87.

Featured Image: German battleship Bismarck in the Baltic Sea in May 1941. (Colorized by Irootoko, Jr.)

The Bad Day Scenario, Part 2: Dynamic Force Employment and Distributed Operations

Read Part One here.

By Jimmy Drennan

The first article of this series introduced the “Bad Day Scenario,” reminiscent of a similar scenario the Navy considered in 2003. The Navy went on to test its global responsiveness in the surge exercise Summer Pulse 2004. The scenario posited in Part One involves simultaneous reports of a mine strike in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, a paramilitary invasion of a Turkish town, and a Chinese attack on a U.S. military aircraft.

The Bad Day Scenario pushes the U.S. Navy, even with its global reach, to the brink of mission failure. Even if none of the three flashpoints boiled over into armed conflict, it is questionable whether today’s Navy could posture to deliver desired effects in a timely manner. There is also no true safe haven to be found in the other military branches or U.S. allies. The preferred military response would probably be a joint operation, but the Navy would likely be called upon to act first, if only to begin moving forces into position. Mobilizing naval forces could provide national leadership with decision space before crossing a strategic “point of no return” while achieving a rapid, politically acceptable result. If the Navy, however, could not position capable forces to respond in a given timeframe, such a response would be decidedly less feasible to political leadership.

Nor could the Navy rely on U.S. allies to save the day. First, prudent planning dictates that in a worst case scenario analysis, one should not assume the benefit of allies coming to their aid. Second, although unlikely, unilateral U.S. operations are entirely feasible. American presidents have routinely reserved the right to act unilaterally to preserve vital interests. Meanwhile, NATO is a shell of the military force that once served as a counterbalance to Russian aggression, and much of Europe is preoccupied with economic and domestic issues. Even if European allies could muster the political will to assist in Turkey, it is unreasonable to assume they would have the capacity to support in the Bab el Mandeb simultaneously. In the Pacific, it is possible U.S.  allies would view the downed aircraft as strictly a U.S.-China issue. There could also be murky questions as to the flight profile of the aircraft relative to China’s contentious claims of territorial airspace. However, U.S. allies in the region are far more likely to come to the aid of the U.S. over issues that impact their sovereignty or economy, such as China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.

Faced with the specter of having to go it alone, the Navy could capitalize on two emerging concepts to tackle the Bad Day Scenario: Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) and Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). Both concepts have the potential to improve the Navy’s global responsiveness. Integrating DFE and DMO into actual operations and doctrine creates both intriguing challenges and opportunities for the Navy of the future.

Dynamic Force Employment

Introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, DFE is a concept for employing forces on a global scale in an agile and unpredictable manner. DFE has a significant impact on the Navy by shifting carrier strike group (CSG) deployments away from the routine, almost clockwork, schedules that supported  the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades, and toward a demand-based methodology that could involve shorter or more irregularly spaced deployments to any number of locations based on current events. Among the many changes that DFE will bring, it will immediately impact the advanced training portion of the readiness cycle – ships and strike groups will no longer be able to focus on a predetermined set of threats based on geographic area.

DFE essentially addresses the timeliness aspect of the Bad Day Scenario. It is designed to maximize the probability that forces will be available to respond to global crises and contingencies. It sacrifices presence for responsiveness and agility.

Forward staging forces around the world on rotational deployments provide presence, but this approach has gradually degraded force readiness over the past two decades. In addition, there’s no guarantee forces are deployed where the next crisis will ignite, and it may take just as long for them to reposition as it would for them to deploy from CONUS. Instead, DFE uses responsive deployments. Forces deploy when and where they are needed, and when deployed, they can extend their presence on demand and far more easily than a unit coming off a long deployment.

The value of DFE’s agility is highlighted in the Bad Day Scenario. Under the traditional force employment paradigm, an east coast-based CSG would typically deploy to the Arabian Gulf. From there, it would take nearly as long to respond to the Turkey incident as a CSG in homeport, plus the time, risk, and resources incurred by transiting a potentially mined chokepoint in the Bab el Mandeb Strait or even the Suez Canal. DFE eliminates the “default” deployment to the Arabian Gulf, and increases the likelihood of east coast-based forces being allocated to the European region (6th Fleet), poised to respond to the Russian aggression in Turkey. Forces in the Middle East (5th Fleet) would be preferable to CONUS-based forces to respond to the mine strike in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. However, the unique defensive and force protection challenges of the region (e.g. anti-ship cruise missiles, explosive boats, lethal unmanned aerial vehicles) require capabilities that 5th Fleet’s assigned mine countermeasure forces do not possess. As the Navy’s Director of Expeditionary Warfare points out, having the wrong capabilities available is the same as having zero availability. Critical enablers such as Aegis cruisers and destroyers may need to deploy from CONUS after all. DFE forces the Navy to prepare for the possibility of having to rapidly deploy such a package for unique missions like mine clearance, potentially resulting in improved global responsiveness.

Lastly, DFE is ideally suited for the return to an era of great power competition by presenting unpredictability to potential adversaries, such as Russia and China. To be clear, DFE is in some respects a necessary outcome of budget restrictions and the end of nonstop naval air support to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, it is heartening to see DoD make a strategic transition so deftly. Instead of shifting default rotational CSG deployments from one area of responsibility (AOR) to another, DoD rewrote the game plan, simultaneously forcing potential adversaries to wonder where U.S. forces will show up next, while also creating operational tempo “breathing room” to help reset the force.

As Tyson Wetzel points out on the Strategy Bridge, there are some potential challenges to DFE becoming an effective force management system. Some Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) could view DFE as a threat to force allocations in their AOR since they have long been accustomed to continuous naval presence. Allies may view irregular deployments as a sign of waning U.S. commitment to their strategic partnerships. Above all else, DFE will remain constrained by overall end strength. No matter how dynamic the Navy is, it is ultimately only as responsive as the number of ships it has operationally available.

Distributed Maritime Operations

One way to overcome the limitations of end strength is to rethink how U.S. naval forces operate once deployed. This is, in part, the logic behind distributed maritime operations (DMO), the successor to Commander, Naval Surface Force’s distributed lethality concept. While a universally accepted definition of DMO does not exist, DMO emphasizes multi-domain maneuver and kill chain agility through incorporating lethality into more platforms, offboard sensors, network-optional C2 (i.e. a blend of mission command and networked operations), and unmanned systems, to name a few. It is an operational concept that guides the Navy toward fielding a force capable of applying efficient, tailored force packages to a wide range of potential missions and threats. To some, it represents a significant departure from the near-myopic focus on power projection ashore via high-end capabilities, such as CSG sorties and ship-launched cruise missile strikes to support land-based operations.

If DFE addresses the temporal aspect of the Bad Day Scenario, DMO addresses the spatial and doctrinal aspects. DMO, in concept, would allow the Navy to respond to multiple contingencies in different regions by operating in a distributed manner. Although the Navy has been slow to adopt DMO (due in part to “organizational inertia” associated with the preeminence of CSG operations), deployed CSGs, amphibious readiness groups (ARGs), and destroyer squadrons (DESRONs) are already accustomed to operating disaggregated units, sometimes even across COCOM AOR boundaries. DMO will theoretically take disaggregated operations to the next level. DMO will allow units to disaggregate and then effectively integrate with other distributed units to produce tailored force packages on demand as the situation dictates.

Specific to the Bad Day Scenario, DMO could improve the Navy’s responsiveness in multiple ways. A group or squadron operating in the Mediterranean or Red Sea could rapidly disaggregate to respond to both the Turkey and the Bab el Mandeb crises. And by building lethality into all platforms, there is a greater likelihood the Navy could respond to any of the incidents with the nearest available assets. With the current force, some otherwise capable platforms, such as the San Antonio-class LPDs, could not respond to the South China Sea incident due to a lack of integrated air and missile defense capability. Offboard sensors and unmanned systems are particularly useful in mine threat areas, which create greater standoff ranges in relatively small littoral areas such as the Bab el Mandeb Strait. DMO can integrate lower-end surface platforms with these capabilities, allowing them to conduct missions such as mine warfare without incurring undue risk or having to wait for the minesweepers to arrive.

While DFE has been rapidly implemented, DMO (and distributed lethality before it) has lingered on the Navy’s operational “whiteboard,” with many supportive ideas and unique definitions coming from across the Navy enterprise. The implementation of DFE benefited from top-down Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) guidance, whereas DMO, on the other hand, began with the Surface Force and had to gain acceptance from the broader Navy and Joint Force from the “bottom up” (or at least from a few steps down). DFE was received as a mandate from SECDEF, whereas DMO has to be sold as a valuable concept, which necessarily takes longer. The lack of a unifying guidance document may have contributed to the delay in widespread acceptance. In order to facilitate implementation, the Navy should prioritize publishing a Naval Warfare or Doctrine Publication (NWP/NDP) on DMO as soon as possible.

The Convergence of DMO and DFE

The advent of DFE, coming from the Joint Force, and DMO, being developed from within, create unique challenges and opportunities for the Navy’s global responsiveness going forward. Ignoring the necessary integration of the two concepts and addressing them in a vacuum could lead to sub-optimal implementation of both concepts, or an unnecessary rejection of one concept in favor of the other. (Likely DMO would be the one to suffer, given SECDEF’s endorsement and rapid implementation of DFE.) Instead, the Navy needs to analyze how DFE and DMO will coexist to maximize maritime warfighting effectiveness. With that comes several key implications which will be addressed in detail in Part 3 of this series.

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

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 16, 2018) Ships with the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group transit the Philippine Sea during dual carrier operations. Ronald Reagan and John C. Stennis are underway and conducting operations in international waters as part of a dual carrier strike force exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters)

USNS Comfort’s Latest Humanitarian Mission Throughout Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“My plain and simple message to our friends in the region is ‘the United States is a reliable and trustworthy security partner….Latin America and the Caribbean are not our backyard. It’s our shared neighborhood… And like the neighborhood … where I grew up, good neighbors respect each other’s sovereignty, treat each other as equal partners with respect, and commit to a strong neighborhood watch.”  Vice Admiral Craig Faller, USN,  before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sep. 25, 2018. 

By W. Alejandro Sanchez


USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has finished another deployment to the Western Hemisphere as part of the Enduring Promise initiative. The U.S. hospital ship’s latest tour took it to Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru where it provided free medical assistance to thousands of individuals in need. This is an example of medical diplomacy at work and a great initiative to improve U.S.-Latin American relations at a time when more cohesion among governments in the Western Hemisphere is needed.

Current Deployment

Comfort is a large vessel, with a length of 894 feet and a beam of 105 feet, the same as its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) – the two are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. According to the U.S. Navy, each platform “contain[s] 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” along with helicopter decks. Hence, the vessel is able to provide for vast numbers of patients simultaneously with different services. The vessel’s most recent tour, the sixth time that it has been deployed to the region, lasted 11 weeks.

Comfort was well-received by the local populations. For example, the vessel was in the city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, from 22-26 October. According to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense the medical staff attended between 500-750 per day, while a Southern Command press release stated that “Comfort has treated more than 4,000 patients, including nearly 2,500 medical patients, 1,100 optometry patients, 450 dental patients, and performed 81 surgeries.” An Ecuadorian ministry press release explained “The arrival of the vessel is part of the strengthening of defense relations between Ecuador and the USA.”

Comfort then traveled to Paita, in northern Peru, where it treated over 5,000 patients, according to the Peruvian government. The U.S. hospital ship also donated wheelchairs and medical supplies. The Peruvian government noted that this is the third time that Comfort has visited Peru, in 2011 it provided medical assistance to 7,352 patients, and in 2007, it aided 9,223 Peruvian citizens.

TRUJILLO, Honduras (Dec. 10, 2018) – Hospitalman Eric Trybus, from Oklahoma City, Okla., helps a patient walk to a medical station to receive treatment at one of two medical sites. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman J. Keith Wilson/Released)

The vessel’s stops in Colombia and Honduras had similarly positive results. In Colombia, the U.S. hospital ship docked in Turbo (Antioquia) and then Riohacha (La Guajira), with the local government estimating that some 7,400 patients were treated by Comfort’s medical staff. As a final point, it is worth noting that the citizens of these nations were not the only ones to receive treatment aboard Comfort. Case in point, while in Colombia medical personnel also helped Venezuelan migrants who have settled in Riohacha as they flee the political and socio-economic crisis in their homeland.


Enduring Promise is an example of a medical diplomacy initiative that helps promote a positive image of the U.S. In this case, the people that were helped by Comfort, along with their families and other loved ones, will likely now have a more positive view of the U.S. and its military due to the free and professional medical services they received. An indigenous person from the Wayuu ethnic community in Colombia described Comfort’s visit as a “blessing from God” as it helped vulnerable communities, peasants, and Venezuelan migrants, according to Colombia’s daily El Nacional. Even more, governments also get a load taken off their shoulders, as Comfort provided services that local medical services could not offer, or were too financially costly for families to afford. For the U.S. and its partners, this was a win-win situation.

One important fact to mention is that Comfort visited Ecuador. A few years ago, when former President Rafael Correa was in power, this trip would have been unthinkable, as the former South American leader was known for his anti-U.S. sentiments. He famously expelled the U.S. military from its base in Manta, in 2009, and he was a close ally of the late-Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Nevertheless, President Lenin Moreno has carried out a complete turnaround to Ecuador’s foreign policy by rapproaching the U.S. In recent months, the Ecuadorian Esmeraldas-class corvette BAE Los Ríos (CM 13) participated in the U.S.-sponsored UNITAS multinational exercise in Colombia, personnel from the U.S. Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School visited the South American country, and Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin has visited the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command. Comfort’s visit, thus, is the proverbial cherry on top of the cake of improving bilateral relations.

As for Honduras, the visit is likewise significant as a caravan of Central American migrants, mostly Hondurans, is attempting to enter the U.S. as they escape poverty and violence in their homeland. Comfort’s visit to the Central American state is an example of SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Navy providing humanitarian aid to Hondurans in need, irrespective of the rhetoric coming out of Washington lately. Hence, it is refreshing to read SOUTHCOM’s 25 October communique, which explains that “the embarked medical team will provide care on board and at land-based medical sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems caused partly by an increase in cross-border migrants. The deployment reflects the United States’ enduring promise of friendship, partnership and solidarity with the Americas.”

China’s Peace Ark 

As a caveat to this analysis, it is necessary to mention China’s hospital ship, Peace Ark. In a previous CIMSEC commentary, “The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America,” the author discussed how both Washington and Beijing utilize their hospital vessels as diplomatic tools in order to improve their image in countries that said ships visit during their humanitarian tours. As it turns out, both ships would be deployed simultaneously to the Western Hemisphere. While Comfort visited the aforementioned nations, Peace Ark visited Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Venezuela. Even more, on 15 November the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense announced that the vessel had docked in Guayaquil to provide medical assistance to as many as 3,200 patients.

While governments are free to decide which vessels from foreign powers can enter their ports, it is impossible to avoid the irony that the hospital vessels of two nations that continue to be at odds with each other, from trade wars to incidents in Asian waters, are back-to-back welcomed in the territory of third-party states. As a result, Ecuadorians living in the Esmeraldas and Guayaquil regions enjoyed free medical services from two rival powers, while Quito maintains good relations with both nations.

Final Thoughts 

Medical diplomacy is an effective way to improve bilateral ties between the U.S. and its Latin American allies. Comfort’s visit to four Latin American nations, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru will improve the U.S. image at the grassroot level, as the citizens of these nations that received free and professional medical service will know that, irrespective of the current rhetoric coming out of Washington, U.S. medical personnel are still there to help those in need.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: TRUJILLO, Honduras (Dec. 6, 2018) – The hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) is anchored off the coast of Honduras as part of an 11-week medical support mission to Central and South America as part of U.S. Southern Command’s Enduring Promise initiative. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Bigley) 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.