Uncomfortable Expositions for Unpopular Questions #1: Expendable Aircraft on Call

By Collin Fox and Harrison Schramm

This is the first in a series of articles that ask necessary but unpopular questions of the West’s defense-industrial complex. The best questions for this series are also the worst: they should be unpopular to ask and produce disquieting answers — when an answer is even possible. Got a provocative question? Send it to Content@cimsec.org.

Choose your own adventure: How is America’s next great power war most likely to end? (Pick one.)

A: The conflict is over rapidly, the U.S. is victorious, life goes on, and there’s nothing to analyze, 

B: The conflict is over rapidly, the U.S. is defeated, and there’s nothing to analyze, or

C: The conflict is over quickly, everyone is dead, and there is nothing to analyze.

If you chose ‘none of the above,’ you probably don’t have a future as a late 80’s action screenwriter,1 but you might have one as a strategist.

Let’s pull the thread on the implicitly rejected option D: The conflict drags on. The defense establishment’s preoccupation with nuclear conflict throughout the Cold War has left a poisonous fallout of assumptions with an unexpectedly long half-life, chiefly the implicit expectation for a short, sharp conflict between great powers. While this expectation has many repercussions, from combat logistics to global economics to conflict termination, the attrition of combat aircraft is the topic today.

Each Services’ jet fighter community chase highly favorable attrition ratios; these cannot be assumed for a future conflict. Although current U.S. aircraft are exquisite feats of engineering that border on the miraculous, the trend creates an (un)virtuous cycle: Fewer aircraft need to be more exquisitely engineered, and more exquisite aircraft are fewer in number. This cycle is perhaps best described by Norman Augustine: “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

In contrast, a conventional conflict against a peer adversary could very easily result in the rapid attrition of top-line munitions and aircraft, both in the air and on the ground. From there, the war would become an entrenched stalemate – an admittedly unpopular yet plausible proposition. What actions should the United States and its allies take now as a hedging strategy?

The idea of a stalemated war in the skies over the sea against China or Russia echoes the First World War’s Western Front. Here, a stalemate is not defined by earthworks and wire across physical territory, but rather the inability to field a second wave of air power after the first is lost. American airpower would get very thin very fast after removing F-22s and F-35s from the flightline, and even more so when the runway itself becomes cratered rubble scattered with burning aircraft. 

In the other corner, China’s significant production capabilities are neither unlimited nor invincible. The need for experienced replacement pilots to operate replacement aircraft may also be a critical factor in a future great power war, just as it was for Imperial Japan. In such a future, the ability to rapidly reconstitute a force of “acceptable” — vice “exquisite” aircraft will be a vitally important factor for the United States to support war termination on favorable terms.

A threefold sequential hedging strategy can preserve and expand aerial combat power against rapid attrition. The first tenant is that an aircraft saved is an aircraft produced. Existing exquisite platforms need to be carefully employed and well-protected by legions of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). Secondly, the United States should seriously consider – and exercise – a true capacity to quickly return retired (“mothballed”) aircraft to active status. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the United States should invest in the design and prototype production of new, replacement combat aircraft, both manned and unmanned, that are designed to be built quickly and in large numbers.

No plan survives first contact with the adversary

General war is (generally) unpredictable. Clausewitz underscores the play of random chance and probability in war; Sun Tzu advises commanders to win without fighting. After all, when politics can deliver desired aims with certainty, why escalate to the chaotic friction of combat? The present authors have formal education in applied probability and endorse the wisdom of getting a sure thing over a wager with blurry odds. A great power war in the coming decades would likely result from strategic miscalculation by one or more belligerents – namely, the eventual loser(s) – which would create a heady and uncertain operational fog in the opening engagements. Many commanders would be tempted to extract a rapid, decisive victory from this melee. In an era of long-range, precision guided munitions fired across expansive distances, combat aircraft will be the closest thing to shock troops charging to the front line, the bloody fray of attrition warfare.

For the United States and its Allies, the risk to force for exquisite and hard-t0-replace platforms needs to be understood, acknowledged, and mitigated before they are exposed to risk in high-stakes battles. One way to mitigate the risk to force is to rely on unmanned systems; however, as these systems have similar – or in some cases, greater – complexity to manned systems, we expect that they will be subject to the same production shortages as manned systems. 

Along this line of effort, an attractive and ongoing approach is to develop risk-worthy UCAVs, which would blunt enemy attacks while also distributing friendly sensors and weapons. These platforms are a low-hanging fruit, relatively inexpensive, and ready for accelerated operational development after decades of development. In addition to these operational considerations, producing these platforms in significant quantities in the near future would also help maintain the industrial base for accelerating production should the need arise.

The Replacements

Assume for a moment that the 80’s screenwriters are wrong, and a great power war drags on through months and years. What mitigations should the U.S. put in place now? An extended great power conflict would require a fallback capability of ‘second tier’ aircraft. Much of this fallback capacity already exists in the form of reserve and Air National Guard squadrons, many of which would likely see combat. Nevertheless, the logic of attrition also applies to these reserve aviation forces. Aviation-specific manpower policies, motivated in part by Imperial Japan’s pilot shortfall in WWII, grant a relative abundance of trained and experienced American combat aviators. Even so, they still need aircraft to fly.

Fortunately, the United States also has a large collection of retired but ‘preserved’ aircraft, most of which are at the ‘boneyard’, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. While the modernization of current air wings are underway, budgeteers would do well to broadly consider service life extension programs (SLEP) for the ‘best’ past generation aircraft as a potential backfill for the attrition of manned aircraft and invest in greater capacity to accelerate the same.

While increasing funding for maintaining, preserving, and regenerating aircraft in the ‘boneyard’ is one course of action, it is admittedly not well-aligned with the broad incentives of either government or industry (with the possible exception of Arizona’s 2nd congressional district2).

A complementary approach is to prepare plans ‘at the ready’ for aircraft that can be rapidly built and fielded. For these aircraft specifically, the more parts they have in common with contemporary military (and civilian) aircraft, the better. 

“Good Enough” means both things: good must be good and enough must be enough. 

The first two hedges are admittedly expedient stopgaps, not optimal solutions. The most likely operational environment (the Indo-Pacific) and the most likely/dangerous belligerent (China) frames the required operational capabilities for replacement aircraft: They must have long range to be relevant across the vast distances of the Pacific and should be low-observable to evade detection and survive against capable air defenses. 

Clear and well-justified system requirements should be based on a stable, reasonable, and coherent vision of the planned operational environment. The fiscal operational environment for this concept also means that it should be designed for rapid production and moderate cost, and by extension, low technological risk. Speed of production is a key performance parameter. Other performance parameters, like airspeed, should be strictly scoped against requirements creep.

Let good be good and enough be enough.

The Department of Defense should start with these modest and well-justified requirements to then develop progressive iterations of merely sufficient designs. Early and detailed systems engineering can help reduce risk, as can the conscious integration of mature technologies over the exotic temptation of leap-ahead capabilities. Government-ownership of these designs would allow widespread and more competitive aircraft production if the need ever arose, in keeping with the successful development and acquisition model of the Tomahawk cruise missile. A wide base of the American manufacturing and political establishment could be incentivized to invest in aerospace manufacturing capacity through the grant mechanism previously described in Distributed Manufacturing for Distributed Lethality

Summation 

The uncomfortable part of this question is not overcoming an engineering challenge or reinforcing the industrial base. It’s the recognition of just how destructive a future great power war would be, and that our best, most expensive ‘kit’ will likely be the first to be lost. It’s the acknowledgement of just how important a fieldable ‘second line’ of aircraft could be as a hedging strategy should most of each side’s exquisite first rate forces end up on each other’s spears. 

Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a foreign area officer serving as a military advisor with the Department of State. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Chilean Naval War College.

Harrison Schramm is a retired Naval Aviator. He is President of the Analytics Society of INFORMS and a Principal Research Scientist at Group W. 

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of any institution with which they are affiliated.

Endnotes

1. In turn: A. “Top Gun”, “The Final Countdown”, etc;, B. “Red Dawn”, C. “The Morning After.”

2. Where “the boneyard” is located.

Featured Image: Navy aircraft from the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force and a B-52 bomber from Barksdale Air Force Base conduct integrated joint air operations over the South China Sea. (Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Stephens/Navy)

Sea Control 309 – Lessons from LCS with Emma Salisbury

By Jared Samuelson

Emma Salisbury joins the podcast for a deep dive into the military-industrial complex as we explore her War on the Rocks article, “Lessons on the Littoral Combat Ship.”

Download Sea Control 309 – Lessons from LCS with Emma Salisbury

Links

1. “Lessons from the Littoral Combat Ship,” by Emma Salisbury, War on the Rocks, November 15, 2021.

Jared Samuelson is Co-Host and Executive Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.

This episode was edited and produced by Jonathan Selling.

Two Platforms for Two Missions: Rethinking the LUSV

By Ben DiDonato

The Navy’s current Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) concept has received heavy criticism on many fronts. To name but a few, Congress has raised concerns about concepts of operation and technology readiness, the Congressional Research Service has flagged the personnel implications and analytical basis of the design, and legal experts have raised alarm over the lack of an established framework for handling at-sea incidents involving unmanned vessels. An extensive discussion of these concerns and their implications would take too long, but in any case, criticism is certainly extensive, and the Navy must comply with Congress’s legal directives.

That said, the core issues with the current LUSV concept arise from one fundamental problem. It’s trying to perform two separate roles – a small surface combatant and an adjunct missile magazine – which have sharply conflicting requirements and require radically different hulls. A small surface combatant needs to minimize its profile, especially its freeboard, to better evade detection, needs a shallow draft for littoral operations, and must have not only a crew, but the necessary facilities for them to perform low-end security and partnership missions to provide presence. The adjunct missile magazine, on the other hand, must accommodate the height of the Mk 41 VLS which substantially increases the draft and/or freeboard, should not have a crew, and should avoid detection in peacetime to increase strategic ambiguity. Not only do these conflicts make it irrational to design one vessel to fulfill both missions, but they point to two entirely separate types of vessels since the adjunct missile magazine role should not be filled by a surface ship at all.

The Adjunct Missile Magazine

The adjunct missile magazine role is best filled by a Missile Magazine Unmanned Undersea Vessel (MMUUV). Sending this capability underwater immediately resolves many of the issues associated with a surface platform since it cannot be boarded, hacked, detected by most long-range sensors, or hit by anti-ship missiles, and so obviates most crew, security, and legal questions. The size required to carry a full-sized VLS also makes it highly resistant to capture since it should have a displacement on the order of 1,000 tons, far more than most nets can bring in, and it could also be designed with a self-destruct capability to detonate its magazine.

The cost should be similar to the current LUSV concept since it can dispense with surface ship survivability features like electronic warfare equipment and point defense weapons to offset the extra structural costs. Because it has no need to fight other submarines and would use standoff distance to mitigate ASW risks, it has no need for advanced quieting or sonar and could accept an extremely shallow dive depth. Even a 150-foot test depth would likely be sufficient for the threshold requirement of safe navigation, and anything past 200 feet would be a waste of money. These are World War One submarine depths. Furthermore, since it only needs to fire weapons and keep up with surface combatants while surfaced, a conventional Mk 41 VLS under a watertight hatch could be used instead of a more complex unit capable of firing while submerged. For additional savings, the MMUUV could be designed to be taken under tow for high-speed transits rather than propel itself to 30+ knots. A speed on the order of 5 knots would likely be sufficient for self-propelled transit, and it would only need long range, perhaps 15,000 nautical miles, to reach its loiter zone from a safe port without tying up underway replenishment assets. Since visualization is helpful for explaining novel concepts, the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) design team produced a quick concept model to show what this platform might look like. In the spirit of minimizing cost at the expense of performance, and projecting that tugs could handle all port operations, all control surfaces are out of the water while surfaced to reduce maintenance costs.

Rendering of the MMUUV. (Author graphic)

On the command-and-control front, the situation is greatly simplified by the fact that the MMUUV would spend most of its time underwater. In its normal operating mode, it would be dispatched to a pre-planned rendezvous point where it would wait for a one-time-use coded sonar ping from a traditional surface combatant commanding it to surface. It would then be taken under tow and fired under local control using a secure and reliable line-of-sight datalink to eliminate most of the concerns associated with an armed autonomous platform. A variation of this operating mode could also be used as a temporary band-aid for the looming SSGN retirement, since MMUUVs could be loaded with Tomahawks, prepositioned in likely conflict zones, and activated by any submarine or surface ship when needed to provide a similar, if less flexible and capable, concealed strike capability to provide strategic ambiguity. Finally, these platforms could be used as independent land attack platforms by pre-programming targets in port and dispatching them like submersible missiles with a flight time measured in weeks, instead of minutes or hours. Under this strike paradigm, a human would still have control and authorize weapon release, even if that decision and weapon release happens in port instead of at sea. This focus on local control also mitigates cybersecurity risks since the MMUUV would not rely on more vulnerable long-range datalinks for most operations and could perform the independent strike missions with absolutely zero at-sea communications, making cyberattack impossible.

As a novel concept, this interpretation of the adjunct missile magazine concept obviously has its share of limitations and unanswered questions, particularly in terms of reliability and control. Even so, these risks and concerns are much more manageable than the problems with the current LUSV concept, and so give the best possible chance of success. More comprehensive analysis may still find that this approach is inferior to simply building larger surface combatants to carry more missiles, but at least this more robust concept represents a proper due-diligence effort to more fully explore the design space.

The Small Surface Combatant

The other role LUSV is trying to fill is that of a small surface combatant. These ships take a variety of forms depending on the needs and means of their nation, but their role is always a balance of presence and deterrence to safeguard national interests at minimal cost. The US Navy has generally not operated large numbers of these types of ships in recent decades, but the current Cyclone class and retired Pegasus class fit into this category.

While limited information makes it difficult to fully assess the ability of the current LUSV concept to fill this role, what has been released does not paint a promising picture. The height of the VLS drives a very tall hull for a ship of this type which makes it easy to detect, and therefore vulnerable, a problem that is further compounded by limited stealth shaping and defensive systems. There also does not seem to be any real consideration given to other missions besides being an adjunct missile magazine, with virtually no launch capabilities or additional weapons discussed or shown. This inflexibility is further compounded by the Navy’s muddled manning concept, which involves shuffling crew around to kludge the manned surface combatant and unmanned missile magazine concepts together in a manner reminiscent of the failed LCS mission module swap-out plan. Finally, the published threshold range of 4,500 nautical miles, while likely not final, is far too short for Pacific operations without persistent oiler support.

The result is a vulnerable, inflexible ship unsuited to war in the Pacific, and thus incapable of deterring Chinese aggression. This may indicate the current LUSV concept is intended more as a technology demonstrator than an actual warship. However, because the U.S. Navy urgently needs new capabilities to deter what many experts see as a window of vulnerability to Chinese aggression, the current plan is unacceptable.

Fortunately, there is an alternative ready today. The Naval Postgraduate School has spent decades studying these small surface combatants and refining their design, and is ready to build relevant warships today. The latest iteration of small surface combatant design, the Lightly Manned Autonomous Combat Capability (LMACC), achieves the Navy’s autonomy goals while providing a far superior platform at a lower cost and shorter turnaround time. Where the LUSV design is large, unstealthy, and poorly defended, the LMACC has a very low profile, aggressive stealth shaping, SeaRAM, and a full-sized AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite designed to defend destroyers, making it extremely difficult to identify, target, and hit. While the LUSV concept is armed with VLS cells, LMACC would carry the most lethal anti-ship missile in the world, LRASM, as well as a wide range of other weapons to let it fulfill diverse roles like anti-swarm and surface fire support, something that cannot be done with LUSV’s less diverse arsenal. To maximize its utility in the gray zone, the LMACC design boasts some of the best launch facilities in the world for a ship of its size.

On the manning front, LMACC has a clearly defined and legally unambiguous plan with a permanent crew of 15, who would partner with the ship’s USV-based autonomous capabilities and team with a variety of other unmanned platforms. This planned 15-person crew is complemented by 16 spare beds for detachments, command staff, special forces, or EABO Marines to maximize flexibility, and also hedges against the unexpected complications with automated systems which caused highly publicized problems for LCS.

LMACC was designed with the vast distances of the Pacific in mind, so it has the range needed for effective sorties from safe ports and provisions to carry additional fuel bladders when even more range is needed. Unlike the LUSV concept which Congress has rightly pushed back on, LMACC is a lethal, survivable, flexible, and conceptually sound design ready to meet our needs today.

The full details of the LMACC design were published last year and can be found in a prior piece, and since that time the engineering design work has been nearly completed. A rendering of the updated model, which shows all exterior details and reflects the floorplan, is below. Our more detailed estimating work, which has been published in the Naval Engineer’s Journal and further detailed in an internal report to our sponsor, Director, Surface Warfare (OPNAV N96), shows we only need $250-$300 million (the variation is primarily due to economic uncertainty) and two years to deliver the first ship with subsequent units costing a bit under $100 million each. The only remaining high-level engineering task is to finalize the hullform. This work could be performed by another Navy organization such as Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, a traditional warship design firm, one of the 30 alternative shipyards we have identified, an independent naval architecture firm, or a qualified volunteer, so we can jump immediately into a production contract or take a more measured approach based on need and funding.

Rendering of the LMACC. (Author graphic)

LMACC has also been the subject of extensive studies and wargaming, including the Warfare Innovation Continuum and several Joint Campaign Analysis courses at NPS. Not only have these studies repeatedly shown the value of LMACC when employed in its intended role teamed with MUSVs and EABO Marines, especially in gray zone operations where its flexibility is vital, but they have also revealed its advantage in a shooting war with China is so decisive that not even deliberately bad tactics stop it from outperforming our current platforms in a surface engagement. Finally, while our detailed studies have focused on China as the most pressing threat, LMACC’s flexibility also makes it ideally suited to pushing back on smaller aggressors like Iran and conducting peacetime operations, such as counterpiracy, to guarantee its continued utility in our ever-changing world.

Conclusion

While there are still some questions about the MMUUV concept which could justify taking a more measured approach with a few prototypes to work out capabilities, tactics, and design changes before committing to full-rate production, there is an extensive body of study, wargaming, and engineering behind LMACC which conclusively prove its value, establish its tactics, and position it for immediate procurement at any rate desired. If the Navy is serious about growing to meet the challenge of China in a timely manner, it should begin redirecting funding immediately to pivot away from the deeply flawed LUSV concept and ask Congress to authorize serial LMACC production as soon as possible. Splitting the LUSV program into two more coherent platforms as described in this article will allow the Navy to fully comply with Congress’s guidance on armed autonomy, aggressively advance the state of autonomous technology, and deliver useful combat capability by 2025.

Mr. DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces. Feel free to contact him at Benjamin.didonato@nps.edu or 443-442-4254.

Additional points of contact:

The LMACC program is led by Shelley Gallup, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Research, Information Sciences Department, Naval Postgraduate School. Dr. Gallup is a retired surface warfare officer and is deeply involved in human-machine partnership research. Feel free to contact him at Spgallup@nps.edu or 831-392-6964.

Johnathan Mun, Ph.D. Research Professor, Information Sciences Department, Naval Postgraduate School. Dr. Mun is a leading expert and author of nearly a dozen books on total cost simulation and real-options analysis. Feel free to contact him at Jcmun@nps.edu or 925-998-5101.

Feature Image: Austal’s Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) showing an optionally-manned bridge, VLS cells and engine funnels amidships, and plenty of free deck space with a tethered UAS at the rear. The LUSV is meant to be the U.S. Navy’s adjunct missile magazine. (Austal picture.)

RDML Christopher Alexander On Accelerating Surface Navy Tactical Excellence

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss the evolution of the Surface Navy’s tactical development with Rear Admiral Christopher Alexander, commander of Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). In this discussion, RDML Alexander covers new initiatives on measuring tactical experience, the increasing demand for Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercises, and how SMWDC is transforming to accelerate tactical skill across the surface fleet.

How would you describe the value of SMWDC’s restructuring, such as the creation of the Surface Advanced Warfighting School (SAWS), the Fleet Training Directorates, the Technical Reachback Divisions, and other related changes?

Restructuring SMWDC from a mission-area focused organization (AAW, ASW, etc.) to an organization structured along functional lines creates efficiencies for SMWDC’s most valuable asset, the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). The reorganization will improve how WTIs are trained, how they train the fleet, and their involvement in the development of future capabilities with the highest tactical benefit to our customer, the fleet.

The reorganization to the specific functional lines of WTI Production, Training Directorates, and Fleet Technical Reachback Divisions facilitates consolidation of all the WTI courses of instruction (COI) in one location with the establishment of SAWS in San Diego. SAWS will standardize training across all WTI COI, cultivate innovation and collaboration across the WTI disciplines, and drive an all-domain approach to training and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) development.

Fleet training directorates will manage SWATT resourcing requirements, planning and executing SWATT exercises on the East and West Coasts, and Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). With the increasing number of advanced training events each year across the globe, Fleet Training Directorates — Pacific and Atlantic — are designed to leverage and build expertise on the geographic training differences of ranges and training resources of each SWATT location while allocating more WTI time and effort for the planning and execution of the training for the ships.

Finally, SMWDC intends to bring WTI warfighters closer to the combat system, weapon system, and platform developers. We are doing this by repurposing our IAMD Division in Dahlgren to a technical support division. Currently, Dahlgren is focused on training IAMD WTIs. The transition to a technical support division allows Dahlgren to focus on developing technical solutions to tactical problems and will enable us to integrate WTIs in the weapons system development process from conception. Our goal is to field systems with approved TTP and concepts the fleet can immediately use for tactical advantage against our pacing threats.

How are the SWATT exercises becoming more intense and challenging? How are the training audiences responding to these experiences and making the most of them?

When SWATT initially kicked off six years ago, we envisioned conducting approximately four a year for Carrier Strike Groups. However, SWATT proved to be very successful, and subsequently the demand for SWATT has increased to most surface ships participating prior to a deployment. As a result, around 8-10 SWATT events are now conducted annually, with nine completed in FY21.

The blue-to-blue integration provides the opportunity for ships and staff (Air and Missile Defense Commander and Sea Combat Commander) to work together and practice TTP execution, post-Basic Phase, and before Group Sail and Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX). As SWATT develops, we want to find the right mix of basic, intermediate, and advanced events, part of the Crawl, Walk, Run concept of progression. This mix ensures SWATT provides training for the high-end fight while addressing foundational proficiencies for the common operator and watch team, such as radiotelephone communications, link operations, risk identification, and systems setup.

SWATT is becoming more challenging as we increase Information Warfare integration, unmanned vehicle integration, leverage more complex Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) training events, Live Fire With A Purpose (LFWAP) events with emphasis on offensive surface warfare. We also integrate warfighting concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), U.S. Marine Corps Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). These challenging training events build watchteam cohesion, introduce warfighting concepts, and increase the performance of the participating units.

Then shortly after SWATT execution, our new Final Performance Reviews (FPR) provides feedback that is actionable prior to COMPTUEX. The FPR also allows SMWDC to improve SWATT by incorporating fresh lessons learned and feedback from the training audiences into future training events.

What is SMWDC doing to better measure and track the tactical skills and experience of individuals, such as through the Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC)? How could this data be used?

SMWDC continues to improve a holistic and focused approach to generating the advanced tactical skills necessary to fight our ships and win the high-end fight. Foundational to that effort is better understanding the measures and drivers of proficiency of key tactical watchstanders. SWCTC will codify the training and experience standards Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) will be required to meet through their careers, recognizing the individual’s contribution to combat capability. By capturing training data at the individual level, the surface force will better understand performance trends and leverage data to help systematically produce the best tactical watchstanders.

A pilot program is underway to collect tactical experience data for SWOs standing tactical combat watches to understand how much tactical experience an officer gains throughout different phases of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan.

SMWDC is also developing grade sheets to assess a watchstander’s knowledge and aptitude. The grade sheets, divided into three parts, comprise:

  • A skills assessment (general skills based on the watch station and specific skills based on the scenario requirements).
  • A survey portion that is the assessor’s opinion of the watchstanders’ performance.
  • An overall assessment that gives the assessors’ confidence level in the watchstanders’ overall ability.

A framework is under development to allow SMWDC to collect tactical assessment data from the schoolhouses to measure an individual’s performance in various areas and how those translate into indicators of tactical prowess on a warship.

As data is collected it will provide SMWDC the tactical competency data needed to align warfighting training across the numerous training organizations, and identify gaps and seams in warfighting training to inform risk calculations and resource decisions.

SMWDC integrates various Surface Navy functions that before were often stovepiped, functions such as tactical development, doctrinal experimentation, schoolhouse instruction, and advanced training events with operating forces, to name several. How does SMWDC manage a connected learning environment that helps these integrated areas evolve together?

Creating a more cohesive learning environment is central to the SMWDC reorganization. Since SMWDC’s formation, we have taken pride in leveraging the synergy between TTP developers, instructors, and trainers. Along with consolidating all WTI training under one roof, SAWS now hosts our TTP department. By co-locating the TTP shop with the schoolhouse Subject Matter Experts (SME), we can utilize the SMEs who are teaching the future WTIs to also write and update TTP. Similar to our TTP-SAWS relationship, our N8/9 (Experimentation and Advanced Concepts) Branch is co-located with our Fleet Training Directorate in San Diego which allows for easy integration of fleet experimentation into advanced tactical training (SWATT, LFWAP, etc.).

A practical example of this advantage is when ships and SMWDC discover an urgent change is required in a weapons system’s TTP during SWATT. The embarked WTI comes ashore and coordinates with the SAWS SME to begin working on the TTP change. When the change is complete, it is pushed to the Fleet Training Directorate (FTD) to include in a future underway event to validate the update. Once the TTP is validated, the updated publication is released to the fleet, and schoolhouse instructors begin teaching the updated curriculum, which then propagates out to the fleet. Before SMWDC, this process could take years to accomplish; in 2021, SMWDC reduced this time to weeks. We are constantly striving to improve the TTP update time, which is an added benefit to SMWDC consolidation.

SMWDC regularly solicits comprehensive feedback. As a result, we have created and implemented processes to capture lessons learned and integrate them into future TTP and training updates. Some examples include our FPR, WTI Re-Blue — our yearly gathering of WTIs to keep them fresh on TTP and fleet developments — and our SMWDC ENGAGEMENT QUEUE, a classified tactical newsletter where fleet authors can share lessons learned.

How does SMWDC emphasize the culture of being a learning organization, of pushing beyond limits, and constructively harnessing failure in the drive toward tactical excellence?

Everything we do at SMWDC centers on tactical improvement and learning. One of our main goals is to inculcate a culture of tactical learning across the Surface Force to create an effect where SMWDC’s influence lasts well after we work directly with a ship’s crew. The emphasis we place on the Plan, Brief, Execute, Debrief (PBED) process is an excellent example of harnessing the value in lessons learned. During each event in a SWATT underway period, WTIs lead the crew through a deliberate process where they learn tactics and emphasize the importance of critical self-assessment. Some of the best learning experiences these crews have had are during debriefs where the execution at times was less than optimal. Through advanced playback technology, WTIs can show the “ground truth” of an event and use voice circuit recordings, chat logs, and input from the watch team to review where execution could improve. The crew then plans for a more advanced scenario and attempts to apply those lessons from the previous event’s debrief. Each crew goes through dozens of PBED cycles during SWATT with the goal of the crew assuming a lead role in that process from the WTIs. This way, the crew can continue to grow and improve without SMWDC’s direct involvement.

Internally, SMWDC emphasizes critical assessment of the SWATT process, the WTI COI, and TTP development. All of these interconnected elements have the overarching goal of increasing the tactical proficiency of the surface fleet. As new systems or platforms come online, new potential adversary technology or tactics change, or national security concerns evolve, SMWDC constantly assesses if we are providing the right tactical training to the right people at the right time. In this era of great power competition, we need to remain a step ahead and anticipate the next fight, not just react to it.

Two great examples of this are LFWAP and TTP validation, which occur in conjunction with an underway SWATT. LFWAP not only increases the confidence of our crews in their capabilities and the system they are operating, but each event provides valuable information about our weapon systems for improvement during follow-on assessments. Likewise, when we draft a new TTP, we build it into SWATT scenarios to test and validate the TTP, which keeps crews involved in the innovative force development process and provides efficacy of the new TTP.

Pacific Ocean (April 27, 2018) A Standard Missile (SM) 2 launches from USS Spruance (DDG 111) during a Live Fire With a Purpose (LFWAP) event during an underway Cruiser-Destroyer (CRUDES) Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jeffrey Southerland/released)

How can WTI culture and education become more mainstream across the Surface Navy? Could there come a time where all SWOs receive this kind of instruction?

Our goal remains to increase the tactical proficiency and lethality of the Navy, and the best way to do it is by spreading the education and culture of WTIs through our current and future initiatives. WTI culture and education becomes more mainstream each year across the Surface Navy as we see more WTIs in Department Head, Executive Officer, and Commanding Officer positions.

In order to improve the tactical proficiency of the fleet we need to produce more WTIs and fill the follow-on production tours. Those two ingredients, WTI COI and a production tour, are needed to produce a cadre of officers whose “Day-Job” is to think critically about how we should tactically employ our weapons systems. By filling production tour billets we also increase the number of times a ship and crew interact with WTIs as they move through the phases of training. These interactions are where the cultural shift we seek comes to fruition. The WTIs help the crews see the right way of doing things and the tactical advantages in maintaining that standard when the WTIs are not embarked. The combination of WTIs in at-sea leadership billets and increased fleet interactions with WTIs through training events is leading a cultural change for the better.

The training investment in each WTI is extensive and not likely to be replicated across all SWOs. However, the WTI investment and the improved use of metrics previously discussed will very likely drive improvements in the broader SWO training pipelines for various tours, resulting in sustained combat proficiency as the fleet reaches new and higher standards. WTI production, SWCTC, and SMWDC are all part of that long-term drive toward a higher standard in the tactical performance of the Surface Force.

Rear Admiral Christopher Alexander, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, assumed the role of Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center in May 2021. Alexander commanded USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Princeton (CG 59), and the Surface Warfare Schools Command.

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

Featured Image: NORFOLK (Oct. 15, 2021) The guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG 61) sits pierside next to the Navy’s newest guided-missile destroyer, the future USS Daniel Inouye (DDG 118), at Naval Station Norfolk. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeremy Lemmon Jr.)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.