Organizing to Fight and Win at Sea: The Surface Force Imperative

By Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener

As we look at our readiness to fight and win at sea, it is clear that our organizational structure is not optimized for the challenges ahead. For the past 30 years, the Surface Force’s administrative and operational chains of command centered on the Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) and the Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON). These core organizations stand at the crux between the Surface Type Commander (TYCOM) and the Carrier Strike Group Commander or, alternatively, the numbered fleet commander. They are charged with ensuring the material readiness of their ships as well as their operational employment in times of conflict. This model has supported our force in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, as we confront the return of strategic competition, a renewed focus on maritime power demands evolving the way we prepare our force to fight and win.

We—like much of the military—made trades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, trades that eliminated redundancy and capacity that contributed to combat effectiveness, trades made in the pursuit of greater efficiency. Those trades were reasonable and rational in an era without great power rivals. But we have returned to a time where the scale of efficiency and effectiveness must lean toward the latter.

The Surface Force must be prepared to execute dominant sea control and power projection missions against a peer adversary. Regarding this end, we must reimagine the DESRON/PHIBRON model to achieve greater warfighting readiness. The pursuit of greater efficiency in DESRON and PHIBRON staffs, logical in the post-Cold War environment, is no longer sufficient to support the organizational and operational necessities of today’s strategic landscape, particularly from a manning and training perspective. As a prudent response, we are identifying requirements and resources for a return to the proven approach of having an organization devoted solely to readiness and focusing squadrons on operations and tactics. In this approach, we believe there is an apt comparison to be made between our Navy today and that of the late 1960s – outnumbered by our adversary but never outclassed. We cannot relinquish that fundamental advantage of warfighting readiness.

With the support of Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, and the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, we move forward with a plan to establish readiness commands (Surface Groups or SURFGRU) in all fleet concentration areas that will be manned, trained, and equipped to manage Surface Force (SURFOR) ships through the maintenance and basic phases of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP), while maintaining oversight of readiness functions during the follow-on phases, to include deployments. These commands will be better positioned to support our ships, TYCOMs, and numbered fleet commanders as we make our Surface Force ready.

Operational squadrons, DESRONs, and PHIBRONs will still provide oversight of ships within their purview. But now with the focused support of the SURFGRUs during the maintenance and basic phases, precious time will be freed up for operational squadrons to concentrate on their warfighting role. During deployment and sustainment phases, DESRONs and PHIBRONs will execute the employment, tactical development, and advanced training of ships at the direction of the numbered fleet commanders and their strike groups. This dichotomy enables a greater focus on warfighting and readiness generation by clearly delineating these functions within the operational and administrative chains of command.

A similar model already exists today to support Forward Deployed Naval Force – Japan (FDNF-J) forces. The Commander, Naval Surface Group Western Pacific (CNSGWP) serves as the readiness SURFGRU commander, and COMDESRON 15 and PHIBRON 11 serve as the operational squadrons for all forward-deployed surface combatants and amphibious ships. This model was established in 2018 and has proven itself as an enduring structure to support surface ships across the OFRP. CNSGWP, with an acute focus on readiness, has reversed low maintenance completion percentages, worked to preserve basic phase training entitlement for ships, and served as a tireless advocate on the waterfront while freeing up operational commanders to focus on warfighting duties.

For those “of a certain vintage,” this plan reflects conditions once seen on the waterfront in the late Cold War era. From 1978 to 1992, Norfolk maintained two non-deploying “Readiness Destroyer Squadrons,” CDS 2 and CDS 10, each of which was led by a Sequential Commander (post-major command captain). These officers each exercised administrative control of between 15-20 frigates, destroyers, and for a time, cruisers during the non-deployed portions of those ships’ schedules. In San Diego, the Readiness Support Group (RSG) fulfilled the same roles. At the end of the basic phase, units would shift to the tactically-focused DESRONS for intermediate, advanced, and deployment operations. How those ships were employed was the focus of the DESRON, which was tied to an aircraft carrier battle group working up for or engaged in forward operations. While the DESRON had modest staffing for readiness functions (such as engineering and supply), most of those functions were retained by the Readiness Squadrons or RSGs. These DESRONS reported to numbered fleet commanders, and Readiness Squadrons reported to Type Commanders.

DESRON 2 and DESRON 10, like the amphibious-equivalent PHIBRON 10, were always in the ship’s chain of command, never relinquishing responsibility for readiness. One staff focused on readiness for warfighting, the other focused on the art and execution of warfighting. It is in this direction the Surface Force must once again proceed.

Make no mistake—these organizational changes in no way dilute existing command relationships with respect to Operational Control (OPCON) of forces. Rather, we move in this direction to ensure the proper resources and attention are directed at the critical combat requirements of unit-level readiness and operational excellence. Every day and every dollar spent on training and maintenance must be ruthlessly prioritized and allocated to deliver warfighting outcomes. Informed prioritization and allocation by organizations wholly devoted to waterfront readiness is a better construct to deliver on our ultimate goal of more capable ships.

This 21st century inception will create a number of readiness-devoted “Surface Groups” (i.e. Surface Group Mid-Pac (SGMP), Surface Group Southeast (SGSE), etc.) in each fleet concentration area, and will lead to DESRONS and PHIBRONS with focused warfighting functionality. DESRONs will encompass the Sea Combat Commander (SCC) functions with greater tactical efficacy and training. Similarly, PHIBRONs will serve as the critical Surface Force connection to Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and the Marine Corps Joint Strike Fighter capability.

This organizational change is designed to meet the demands of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) with an emphasis on Surface Force effectiveness. The warfighting architecture of DMO requires highly capable and networked ships in numbers to present an adversary with multiple operational dilemmas and provide the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) with multiple methods to eliminate key targets. Put another way, DMO depends on more ready ships, and that is what we are all about.

We are determined to meet the challenges of strategic competition through embracing data analytics, appreciation of past lessons, and adoption of organizational changes to drive greater effectiveness in our force readiness generation. The conviction entrenched in our Competitive Edge strategy is not an end, but a means. As the CNO recently noted in his 2022 Navigation Plan, “…The Navy which adapts, learns, and improves the fastest gains an enduring warfighting advantage.” The Surface Force is pursuing changes to our readiness structure to maintain and enhance this warfighting advantage. We must and will be prepared to fight and win at sea.

Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener is Commander, Naval Surface Forces, and Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (June 23, 2020) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59) steam in formation during dual carrier operations with the Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Groups (CSG). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Philip Wagner, Jr./Released)

The 2022 Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation: Mobilization, Maritime Law, and Socio-Economic Warfare

By Olga R. Chiriac

On July 31, 2022, Russian Navy Day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the approval of the new Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation in a speech given during a parade at the Kronstadt naval base. To be fully understood, the doctrine must be put into a much broader, global context, factoring in the historical timeline, internal dynamics, especially the general direction of Russian foreign policy and the vertical power structure of the Russian state.

The new doctrine replaced a previous document from 2015 that was published after the Russian annexation of Crimea and is strikingly different in content and tone. A notable difference is that the new version has a more dominant socio-economic dimension. It is important to analyze the doctrine from a Russian vantage point, one that understands it as “a strategic planning document that reflects the totality of official views on the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation and maritime activities of the Russian Federation” and not to zoom in too much on the “why,” which quickly devolves into guesswork. The essence of the new doctrine is communicating Russian national interest as it is conceptualized by Russian leadership.

Total “Hybrid War” with the West and Multipolarity

At the macro level and through a great power politics perspective, the new Russian maritime doctrine confirms that Russia considers itself in direct confrontation with the West or a “total hybrid war with the Collective West.” The new document is meant to be analyzed in concert with the 2021 National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation, where Russia declared that it was “effectively resisting attempts at external pressure” and defending its “internal unity” and “sovereign statehood.” The same Security Strategy confirms that Russia is taking a leading role in “the formation of new architecture, rules and principles of the world order.” In August 2022, Russian Defense Minister, General Sergei Shoigu, spoke at the opening of the Moscow Conference on International Security. Among other important points that he made, one referred specifically to the confrontation with the West: “The Western world order divides the world into “democratic partners” and “authoritarian regimes, against which any measures of influence are allowed.” General Shoigu was repeating a common belief/narrative in Russia, specifically that “the start of a special military operation in Ukraine marked the end of the unipolar world.” This assertion is in line with a much broader dimension of Russian foreign policy, one meant to dilute US influence and power and to redesign security arrangements for a multipolar world. Minister Shoigu underscored how Russia is at war not only with Ukraine, but with the West: “In Ukraine, Russian military personnel are confronted by the combined forces of the West, which control the leadership of this country in a hybrid war against Russia.” The new maritime doctrine reflects this view that the global order is no longer unipolar and that Russia is in a hybrid war with the “collective West” making it ever more important to analyze the doctrine from a Russian vantage point.

Redesigning Borders on Land and at Sea

The recent change in the tone of both speeches from Russian officials and official documents is clear: the Russian Federation believes it is in the business of redesigning borders, both on land and at sea. President Putin himself declared: “We have openly marked the borders and zones of Russia’s national interests.” The international community has or should have known this for decades, as the Russian tactic of using “separatists” to rewrite national borders started in the Republic of Moldova back in 1992 when the Russian backed “rebels” initiated a war with Chisinau and the Moldavian people. It happened again in 2008 with the Russo-Georgian War, and in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time. The Maritime Doctrine touches on this and all the references are directly correlated to the maritime rules-based order. A conviction that great powers are entitled to redrafting borders and having zones of influence is prevalent in Russian official discourse as well as public opinion. The Helsinki Accords are often cited as a basis for “the division of spheres of influence between the USSR and the United States, with the recognition of existing borders, both formal (national) and informal (political), with the Russian Federation supposedly being understood as the inheritor of the USSR’s spheres of influence.

Russia’s top two “national interests” listed in the doctrine are: independence, state and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the inviolability of the country’s sovereignty, which extends to the internal sea waters, territorial sea, their bottom and subsoil, as well as to the airspace above them and ensuring the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Russian Federation in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf. The geopolitical position of the Russian Federation and its role in world politics (Russian elites strongly favor a multipolar order) are closely tied to international maritime law. Changing or challenging borders at sea has been slowly happening and it directly threatens the integrity of maritime regimes and treaties, including UNCLOS. The annexation of Crimea is the most relevant example. By illegally seizing Ukrainian territory, Russia also changed maritime borders and created new EEZs and territorial waters. This directly affects all regions covered by the new doctrine: from the Arctic and its Northern Sea Route to the Black Sea and the blockade of Azov or the “fluid” EEZs and territorial waters of the Russian Federation. International law is essentially what states make of it and by claiming Crimea, Moscow challenged the existing legal framework.

The doctrine is very specific about which areas Russia considers zones of “vital interest.” For example, it prioritizes: “fixing its external border in accordance with Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982.” Member of the State Duma Artur Chilingarov eloquently synthesized the essence of said “fixing” in 2007: “The Arctic is Russian.” Russia’s proposal to extend the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean is another example of “fixing borders.” Professor Chilingarov reference to the Arctic carries even more weight due to his extensive knowledges and experience in the Arctic. Artur Chilingarov, led several expeditions to the Arctic and is special Presidential Representative for international cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctica.

There already have been numerous events and incidents which have plagued the security of maritime regimes and there are major open legal cases addressing said violations: the International Court of Justice in the Hague and Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea) (dec.) [GC] – 20958/14 address the annexation of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg Case No. 26 concerning the detention of three Ukrainian naval vessels by the Russian Federation is on the roll, and the International Court of Arbitration at the Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm handles the Dispute Concerning Coastal State Rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and Kerch Strait. Essentially all these tribunals are now discussing Ukraine’s valid complaints vis-à-vis a Russian encroaching on Ukrainian territory, territorial waters, or continental shelf.

Socio-Economic Focus and “Mobilization”

In their coverage of the new maritime doctrine, Western press has focused on the NATO mentions and the paragraph which singles out the Alliance, particularly the United States, as the main threat to the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, there are numerous and very significant non-militaristic changes as compared to the 2015 document. Notably, the 2022 doctrine emphasizes the socio-economic and scientific-technological components of maritime security. 

The 2022 doctrine contains a marked focus on maritime activities aimed at “ensuring Russia’s economic independence and food security” to protect Russian national interest. Ports and maritime infrastructure play an important role in the new doctrine. There are plans to create new transport and logistics centers on the basis of Russian seaports that can handle “the entire volume of sea exports and imports of the Russian Federation.” Furthermore, the doctrine voices concern about the lack of naval bases located outside of Russia, as well as an inferior number of vessels, both military and commercial, under the Russian state flag. The doctrine establishes goals to form marine economic centers of national and interregional purpose in what the document calls “zones of advanced development” (Crimea, Black Sea-Kuban, and Azov-Don). A great deal of emphasis is put on the development of Russian merchant and transport fleets as well as “non-military and civil fleets.” The doctrine encourages an increase in the number of Russian-flagged vessels, but does not give any sort of indication as to how this will be achieved specifically.

The 2022 Maritime Doctrine attaches particular strategic importance to the development of offshore pipeline systems for the transportation of hydrocarbons, including those produced on the continental shelf of the Russian Federation. An important change both from an economic perspective and from a maritime law perspective, given that several areas are in international litigation and illegally occupied. In comparison with the 2015 Maritime Doctrine, the development of offshore pipeline systems is singled out as an independent functional direction of the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation. In the same ranking for functional directions, naval activities are ranked last (fifth). Energy infrastructure in the Federation is under the control of state-owned companies, and we have yet to understand the scope of Russian Maritime “specialized fleets.” 

Finally, in this socio-economic direction, an interesting point is the repetitive mention of “mobilization training and mobilization readiness in the field of maritime activities.” The reference is not specific when it refers to vessels. It can be assumed that this will make it possible to introduce civilian vessels and crews into the Russian Navy, and ensure the functioning of maritime infrastructure in wartime. The doctrine is however very specific by region, for instance, it calls for further development of the forces (troops), as well as the basing system of the Baltic Fleet. In the Black Sea, the doctrine specifically declares the intention to address the “international legal regulation of the regime and procedure for using the Kerch Strait.”

The socio-economic direction is an important change in the new document, but it should not come as a surprise. The changes further subordinate other elements of Russian maritime power into a legal framework. This is very important when interpreting Russian maritime documents: the overreaching security strategy and Russian strategic thinking and political culture have a vertical power structure where maritime or energy assets are instruments of power first and foremost and economic/civilian ones second. And the doctrine underscores the primacy of Russian law over any other international legal arrangements.

Regional Directions: NATO, the Arctic, the Black Sea, and the Russian Far East

The new doctrine was approved by the Russian President “in order to ensure the implementation of the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation,” and it serves as a compass for “maritime activities” in the “regions” of strategic interest. The main regional directions of the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation are the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian, Indian Ocean, and Antarctic directions. The regional directions have shifted in priority compared to the 2015 doctrine. Put into the wider context of overall Russian foreign policy, it does not mean that the Black Sea is less important than the Arctic, but that the global security situation requires regional solutions fitted to regional specificities. For Russia, the Black Sea is already a theater of war, while the Arctic presents both opportunity for cooperation and the potential for further escalation. In both regions, Western strategists must re-conceptualize their approach to Russia in order to remain relevant and to produce effective results.

In the Atlantic region, the new Russian maritime policy is now “focused only on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as the imperfection of legal mechanisms for ensuring international security.” Considering the structure of Russian maritime forces, what this means for NATO is that it must take into account how to balance its mandate of military-political alliance with the task at hand. Clearly there will be a need for a more innovative operational approach. The United States will have to take on more leadership in the European maritime space and support allied navies in the Black Sea to modernize fleets with interoperable equipment. If in the Baltic Sea the military balance is quite favorable to the Alliance, especially after the accession of Sweden and Finland, then the Black Sea becomes more vulnerable. 

The Russian Federation is the largest country by land mass spanning over 16,376,870.0 km² in both Europe and Asia. However, this landmass is connected to the broader maritime world in only four places, including the Pacific on the Sea of Japan at Vladivostok, in the Baltic at Saint Petersburg, the Barents Sea through Murmansk, and in the Black Sea through the Crimean Peninsula. Russia has many other ports, however none of them are ice-free warm-water ports, and therefore they require expensive procedures during the infamous Russian winter in order to keep them operational. Russia needs warm water ports year-round for military operations as well as commerce. This is addressed in the new document and a lot of emphasis is put on the development of the Northern Sea Route. Russia is looking to comprehensively develop the Northern Sea Route in order to turn it into a safe, year-round trade route, competitive with other routes from Asia to Europe. In an interview in June, Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Representative to the Far East, Yury Trutnev, declared that he saw year-round navigation through the Northern Sea Route as a real possibility by 2024.

Russian internal dynamics have always had a tension between areas of progress and modernization and isolated portions of land and peoples left behind by development. Using maritime development to help overcome the economic and infrastructural isolation of the Russian Far East from the industrially developed regions of the Russian Federation is named as a priority in the doctrine. Establishing sustainable sea (river), air and rail links with cities and towns in Siberia and the European part of the Russian Federation, including the development of the Northern Sea Route would significantly improve the connection between the rest of Russia and the Far East. The doctrine is actually quite ambitious in this regard, it talks about developing “a modern high-tech shipbuilding complex in the Far East, designed for the construction of large-capacity vessels, including for the development of the Arctic and aircraft carriers for the Navy.”

The doctrine also looks to the Arctic with a focus on maintaining global leadership in the construction and operation of nuclear icebreakers, an area where the United States is already playing catchup. The doctrine also asserts Russia’s belief in the “the immutability of the historically established international legal regime of inland sea waters in the Arctic regions and the straits of the Northern Sea Route” and “control of the naval activities of foreign states in the waters of the Northern Sea Route.”


The 2015 Russian maritime doctrine was rightfully perceived as a “showy demonstrations of strength,” but the new version presents a very different image. If properly analyzed, it is obvious Russia still considers itself a great power, including in the maritime space, yet is more self-aware of its shortcomings, both in the maritime domain and beyond. In the previous doctrine, Russia was declaring itself to be the word’s second-best navy, now it is content to be a great maritime power among peers. Russian leadership is looking to consolidate the Russian Navy’s position among the world’s leading maritime powers, but it no longer boasts about supposed superiority. The striking emphasis on mobilization speaks to this self-awareness. Russia is a nuclear power that believes it is prepared for total war, while simultaneously looking for opportunities to open itself up for cooperation with the international community that is beneficial to Russia. 

There is also subtle symbolism in the way that the new doctrine was released: Kronstadt is very closely linked to the Russian Navy. Russian culture places a lot of emphasis on symbolism and the current regime often employs history and collective memory as a tool to send messages domestically. Peter the Great had considered making Kronstadt the capital of his empire, and maybe most striking in symbolism is the Kronstadt Rebellion. Although the sailors’ revolt against the reforms of the Bolsheviks was crushed, it forced the system to adopt the “New Economic Policy” a temporary retreat form the aggressive policy of centralization and forced collectivization brought upon by Marxism–Leninism.

Similarly, the new Maritime Doctrine shifted emphasis on socioeconomic aspects and mobilization of a nation preparing for total war with the collective West. Hopefully both the United States and allied strategists understand the pragmatism of the Russian perspective, the symbolism, as well as the importance of more nuanced changes which could bring upon a new order, including in the maritime space.

Dr. Olga R. Chiriac is a Black Sea State Department Title VIII research fellow for the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and an associated researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies in Bucharest, Romania. She is an alumna of the Arizona Legislative and Government Internship Program and her research and forthcoming work is on the application of cognitive sciences in security and defense, with a focus on joint special operations and the maritime domain.

Featured Image: Russian Navy frigate Admiral Essen. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Sea Control 392 – Russia’s Arctic Strategy in a Changing Region with Katarzyna Zysk

By Zsófia Wolford

The Arctic is warming at least four times faster than the rest of the globe, opening up new trade routes and making natural resources more accessible to Arctic states. Changes driven by climate change, and regional competition and militarization have increased over the past decade, with Russia being a dominant player in the Arctic.

Katarzyna Zysk, Professor of International Relations at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), joins Sea Control to discuss current security trends in the Arctic. The discussion focuses on Russia’s Arctic strategy, the impact of the war in Ukraine on Russia’s abilities to strengthen its presence and influence in the region, and the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO and its effects on the security environment in the High North.

Download Sea Control 392 – Russia’s Arctic Strategy in a Changing Region with Katarzyna Zysk


1.  “Russia in the Arctic: Gauging How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Will Alter Regional Dynamics,”by Andrea Kendall-Taylor et al.,  Center for New American Security, September 15, 2022.
Russia Assumes Arctic Council Chairmanship amid Regional Tensions,” by Mary Chesnut and Anya Fink, Center for Naval Analyses, May 26, 2021.
3. “The Arctic Ice between Russia and The US Is Melting. What’s at Stake at The Top of The World?”, by Sherryn Groch, The Age, October 21, 2022.

Zsofia Wolford is a Co-Host and Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the podcast team at

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.