By Jeffrey E. Kline
The Problem: Forward Presence with a Smaller Fleet
A nation’s maritime forces are traditionally employed in war to contest sea control, secure seaborne logistic lines, deny an adversary their seaborne logistics, and to project power ashore. Common activities to achieve these goals include supporting movement of land and air forces, acquisition of advance bases, landing forces on a hostile shore, conducting blockades, and obtaining local sea control.1 As a result, naval campaigns have historically been planned and executed around these activities and objectives. The Guadalcanal and Central Pacific campaigns of WWII required all these activities, with the objectives of securing seaborne logistics and enabling power projection.
Today, U.S. naval forces also engage in the peacetime missions of diplomacy, assistance, and constabulary enforcement. Since World War II’s end, these missions are accomplished by the U.S. maritime services maintaining forward naval presence through regular deployments of carrier and expeditionary strike groups, U.S. Coast Guard cutters and forward basing a portion of these fleets. Deployments provide the peacetime benefits of forward presence, while also positioning forces to be immediately applied in the wartime objectives of establishing local sea control and denying adversaries’ seaborne logistics lines. But with the U.S. Navy struggling to increase its fleet numbers as adversaries greatly expand their navies, U.S. naval forces are increasingly challenged to provide enough competitive presence.
Under a constrained budget, how might the U.S. Navy’s future fleet design address this challenge? Can technologies associated with the robotics age of warfare make a major contribution to the day-to-day competition of forward presence? The Navy must explore the concept of an integrated naval campaign which leverages manned and unmanned systems to combine U.S. warfighting capabilities with coalition partners’ maritime security systems. The objective is to establish a persistent presence delivering enhanced surveillance and responsiveness to critical areas in peacetime, and a warfighting edge in conflict. Its purpose is to integrate with allies and partners in leveraging what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley describes as the changing character of war brought on by new unmanned system technologies.2
One desired campaign end state is envisioned as the Luzon Strait being patrolled by 50 unmanned surface sail, undersea, and aerial drones networked in a secure, burst mesh communication link with small missile ships, land-based attack drone sites, and mobile command-and-control centers. This littoral flotilla’s design, production, and employment are cooperative projects between the Philippines and U.S. to enhance maritime security. Its design parameters, however, enable quick transformation from a maritime security system to a local reconnaissance strike network capable of sea denial operations for hundreds of miles. The flotilla’s redundant design with many distributed sensors and shooters makes it resilient in a contested environment. The system is jointly crewed by Philippine and U.S. personnel, and maintained by industry from both nations. Such a system would make the U.S. and its allies much more competitive in peacetime operations and wartime clashes, while providing a more sustainable means for maintaining forward presence.
What is an Integrated Naval Campaign?
An integrated naval campaigning is a series of operations in, and from, the maritime domain conducted by joint, interorganizational, and allied forces to achieve strategic and operational objectives. The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning adds further detail by defining an integrated campaign as efforts by the joint force and interorganizational partners to achieve and maintain policy aims by integrating and aligning military and non-military activities across multiple domains.3 From a historical perspective, World War II’s six-month Guadalcanal and Central Pacific campaigns align with these definitions of integrated campaigns. The multi-service contest for Guadalcanal aimed to preserve sea lines of communication with Australia, while the taking of the Mariana Islands brought airfields within B-29 range of Tokyo to enable a strategic bombing campaign.
A more restrictive view of an integrated naval campaign may be a series of operations conducted primarily by U.S. maritime forces – the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard – to contribute to achieving joint, operational, and strategic goals. If one focuses on combining the Navy’s concept of Distributed Maritime Operations with the Marine Corps’ Stand-in Forces concept, this more restricted definition still readily applies to current challenges.
Both views can describe an integrated naval campaign conducted by coordinating U.S. military, diplomatic, and industrial efforts to enhance coalition partners’ maritime security and peacetime competitiveness. If a transition to conflict occurs, the campaign would also serve to provide superior battlespace awareness and access for joint and allied forces. This campaign is already underway, but in piecemeal fashion. Without an overall strategy to assign means to critical locations, or fully leverage the Navy’s unique diplomatic role as a foreign policy tool, the current application of integrated naval campaigning will have room for improvement.4
A modified vision of forward presence is warranted, one that integrates U.S. naval personnel and littoral surveillance systems with a host country’s maritime security forces. Fewer and more focused deployments of larger combatants will still occur, but not to the detriment of their wartime readiness. This proposal calls for an adjustment to U.S. maritime force design and force posture to include sufficient numbers of forward littoral forces to enhance allied maritime governance capabilities, while also increasing U.S. battlespace awareness and kinetic potential. This integrated campaign’s wartime objectives include imposing sea denial against adversaries and facilitating military access by coalition partners. A wartime adversary will face far greater challenges when confronted by a permanent network of local reconnaissance-strike complexes jointly operated by U.S. and partner forces in forward areas.
September 14, 2023 – A Ukrainian unmanned surface vessel unsuccessfully prosecutes a suicide attack on Russian Navy corvette Vasily Bykov in the Black Sea. (Video via United24)
Of interest to most coastal nations is improving maritime security to counter state and non-state actors who are intent on interfering with the internationally agreed-upon use of the sea. This is particularly true in the case of countries along crucial maritime chokepoints, straits, and trade routes. Effective maritime governance of these locations is also in the United States’ interest to maintain the benefits of international trade and freedom to move forces.5 This common interest provides a foundation for cooperative efforts in the form of bilateral agreements, tailored military sales, and exercises. However, the vision for an integrated maritime security campaign is to go beyond traditional cooperative theater security operations, and instead move toward bilateral integrated and interoperable security systems at the local level. Instead of episodic bouts of cooperation and joint efforts, these would be sustained, long-term efforts aimed at creating a permanent operational capability.
Countries have the international legal authority to enforce governance over their economic exclusion zone and into their inland waters. The ability to exercise these authorities, however, is challenged by the difficulty of maintaining awareness over the expanse of the maritime domain. Effective maritime governance is therefore accomplished through four elements: a legal regime providing authority for enforcement, knowledge of the maritime area to be governed (also known as Maritime Domain Awareness or MDA), a command-and-control entity, and platforms to provide sensing, patrolling, and response.6
A system of manned and unmanned platforms provides sensing, patrolling and response – including manned surface platforms to conduct arrest, confinement and delivery of prisoners to shore. Aside from the arrest and confinement mission, the similarity between maritime security requirements and the requirements for executing a wartime detect-to-engage kill chain is clear. It is this congruence that enables a maritime security enforcement system to also provide a wartime sensing and striking capability.
Most littoral nations cannot afford to replicate the capabilities of the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard. According to Andrzej Makowski, one solution is having their maritime forces pursue cooperation with larger navies and collaborate in procurement and maintenance.7 This is one motivation for littoral nations to engage with the U.S. in an integrated maritime security campaign. This campaign will feature the bilateral designing, building, and employing of an affordable flotilla of multi-domain, unmanned, and manned sensors and platforms. These capabilities will be designed and employed based on local geographic and political requirements.
For the United States’ investment, the system’s deployment will enhance the host country’s maritime domain awareness and ability to contribute to regional stability. With continued U.S. involvement, it will also increase U.S. littoral knowledge in critical ocean areas and its overall global maritime awareness. These allied systems’ design will allow for the quick addition of lethal capability or rapid augmentation by U.S. systems in times of conflict. This converts a local maritime security system into a local reconnaissance-strike network capable of exercising sea denial in coordination with a variety of fires and air defenses.
In one recent Naval Postgraduate School exploratory design study, a proposed maritime littoral denial system capable of contesting a 4,500 nautical square mile area west of Palawan, Philippines featured over a thousand manned and unmanned platforms. The life cycle and manning cost of this system was $1.5 billion dollars.8 The study’s design objectives did not include a transition from maritime security system to local reconnaissance strike network as it was already a wartime system, but it does give a rough approximation for total system costs and coverage.
Funding for the integrated maritime security campaign may come from host nation purchases, U.S. foreign military sales, existing exercise and engagement programs, research and development funds, and/or retiring small portions of the conventional U.S. fleet. Similar to how the system’s design will be geographically flexible, it can be tailored to resources available.
The Ways—An Integrated and Inter-Organization Effort
Developing a strategic plan between the U.S. State Department, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps to prioritize specific partners for engagement and to resource its execution is the first step in execution. This may be best coordinated through the Chief of Naval Operations N52 staff, with rationale based on critical seaway location and current country relations. For example, considering Costa Rica for a dedicated integrated maritime security campaign due to their location near the Panama Canal and current friendly relations with the United States can serve as a first trial and learning experience for building partner capacity in more contested waters. Engagement activities and various systems can be assessed inside the Western Hemisphere and then improved and scaled before exporting to other regions.
However, for rational worldwide resource allocation, a lead maritime organization must be designated to program, budget, and schedule the three U.S. maritime services to employ these maritime security systems through coalition partners and U.S. fleet commanders. Although there are several candidates for managing the execution of a maritime security campaign, the Navy’s Expeditionary Combat Command is promising due to its experience with littoral warfare and its mandate to organize, train, and equip maritime expeditionary forces.9 Such a designation will require that the Expeditionary Combat Command’s staff be enlarged with U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, and naval systems commands personnel. The latter will be critical to support the systems’ design, maintenance, and employment in the campaign. The former are necessary to operationalize the system and provide continuity across a spectrum of conflict.
Regional U.S. State Department embassies are essential components of this integrated naval campaign. They will be on the leading edge to propose closer maritime security cooperation. Following initial State Department engagement, fleet-to-fleet staff talks, bilateral engineering design workshops, prototype experimentation, systems development and deployment, and bilateral exercises that include coordinated command-and-control of the system will produce the littoral system. Once established, U.S. exchange officers from the three maritime services should be assigned as liaison officers to the host country’s maritime security system to enable information exchange, resource coordination, and future exercise planning – especially for more advanced conflict scenarios.
The final step in bilateral collaboration may be the realization of Phillip Pournelle’s vision of an integrated maritime force with the host country, a force that “can assist allies and partners in regaining and maintaining governance of and sovereignty over their territorial waters and rights in their exclusive economic zones.” An integrated maritime force will be composed of a partner’s maritime security system augmented by all three U.S. maritime forces’ personnel and assets.10
Building a smaller nation’s maritime security capabilities near critical ocean geography is subject to the risk of that nation’s changing politics, such as a potential partner turning into an antagonist. This risk can be somewhat mitigated through the co-dependence of the country’s maritime security system on U.S. industry, logistics, and maintenance support. Losing the U.S. as a partner will risk degrading the country’s ability to safeguard its maritime interests. The sustained integration of U.S. and partner forces will also build relationships that lessen the likelihood of a radical turn against the U.S. by the host nation’s maritime forces.
An Integrated Naval Campaign, or Maritime Strategy?
This argument followed the “ends, ways, and means” construct of a strategy. The U.S. Navy’s growth in traditionally high-end yet potentially vulnerable multi-mission ships is constrained by real budget concerns. As mentioned, having fewer ships means fewer are deployed forward, intensifying tradeoffs on where to allocate naval power across a demanding global force posture. To address this issue, several navalists – including the author – have proposed a bi-modal fleet force design, which includes a sea denial component composed of many smaller manned and unmanned lethal systems deploying forward in high-risk areas. The sea denial forces will integrate with Marine Corps Stand-in Forces and partner maritime security systems to deny an adversary’s maritime passage. The bi-modal fleet’s sea control component will feature the fleet’s larger blue water ships, which establish sea control across contested logistic lines in coordination with more powerful allies.11 This is the fundamental wartime concept of employment for the bi-modal fleet design.
By assisting potential coalition partners in developing multi-domain, manned-unmanned flotillas to enhance their regional maritime security, the U.S. could also be building a foundation to integrate the U.S. Navy’s denial capabilities into contested regions, and enable worldwide control of critical sea routes. This frees the U.S. Navy’s larger ships to conduct more focused and fewer deployments as a result.
This maritime strategy maintains the nation’s worldwide maritime influence without the 600-ship Navy of the 1980s. Instead, it is a closer manifestation of Admiral Michael Mullen’s Global Maritime Partnership Initiative (the “1,000-ship navy”) and the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy.12 It enhances peacetime security of the maritime global commons, builds coalitions to strengthen deterrence, strengthens capacity for competing against gray zone activities, improves smaller nations’ naval capabilities, provides opportunities for U.S. industry, and maintains U.S. maritime influence with a more diversified naval force design.
For this maritime strategy to be successful however, a major national commitment in funding, personnel, and engagement must be observed and experienced by potential partners in the integrated naval campaign. Reorienting the U.S. Navy to include maritime security with expeditionary forces as a major mission area, specifically with the goal to provide kinetic warfighting advantage, may require that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command be elevated to the level of a joint command, like Special Operations Command. In this way, Naval Expeditionary Combat Command can become its own acquisition authority, rapidly deploying new systems as the technical opportunities and political environments evolve. Such a command could ensure more capabilities fit into the integrated design for rapid employment with unified commanders’ war plans. An appropriate rotation of U.S. Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Navy commanders at this expanded Naval Expeditionary Combat Command will emphasize closer integration between the U.S. maritime services.
The robotic age of warfare enables a much closer relationship between international partners using smaller, more numerous systems for maritime security and creating a lethal warfighting advantage by increasing surveillance, targeting, and weapon capacity in critical regions.13 Leveraging this relationship is the basis for a maritime strategy to maintain integrated forces with partners forward, while retaining major elements of the traditional fleet to preserve sea control along the ocean’s logistics lines. It can become the maritime component of a maritime nation’s national strategy, executed through a well-planned and worldwide integrated naval campaign.
Jeff Kline is a retired naval officer with 26 years of service, and is currently a Professor of Practice of Military Operations Research in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Operations Research department. In addition to designing and offering applied courses in Joint Campaign Analysis, naval tactical analysis and systems analysis, he provides executive seminars in risk assessment, organization transformation and force design to flag officers, general officers, and government senior executives. His research is in fields related to maritime operations and security, naval tactical analysis, and future naval force composition studies. He has served on the CNO’s Advisory Board for Fleet Architecture, several Naval Study Board Committee studies, and the Naval War College Review Advisory Board.
1. Frank Uhlig, Jr., How Navies Fight: The U.S. Navy and Its Allies, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994) p 399.
2. Mark A. Milley, “Strategic Inflection and Fundamental Change in the Character of War is Happening Now…While the Future is Clouded in Mist and Uncertainty,” Joint Force Quarterly, 110, 3rd Quarter 2023 pp6-15.
3. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, p33.
4. Jonathan Masters, “Sea Power: The U.S. Navy and Foreign Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 19, 2019 https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/sea-power-us-navy-and-foreign-policy.
5. Chief of Naval Operations, Navigation Plan 2022, (Washington, D.C., OPNAV Staff, 2022), p3.
6. Jeffrey E. Kline, “Maritime Security,” Securing Freedom in the Global Commons, Ed Scott Japser. Standford: Standford University Press, 2010 pp67-82.
7. Andrzej Makowski, “Dilemmas Faced in Developing Small Navies,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Winter 2023).
8. Matthew Witte et al., SEA 32 Multi-Domain, Manned-Unmanned Littoral Denial Systems. (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2023).
9. “Mission: Sustaining Navy Expeditionary Combat Forces,” Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, 6 June 2023, https://www.necc.usff.navy.mil/About-Us/Mission/.
10. Phillip E. Pournelle, “It Will Take More Than an MLR to Fight a Maritime Insurgency,” Proceedings, Vol. 148/12/1,438 (December 2022) found at https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2022/december/it-will-take-more-mlr-fight-maritime-insurgency.
11. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (2007) “A Bimodel Force for the National Maritime Strategy,” Naval War College Review,: Vol. 60: No. 2, Article 5 available at https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol60/iss2/5.
John Harvey, Wayne Hughes, Jeffrey Kline, and Zachary Schwartz, “Sustaining American Maritime Influence,” U.S. Naval Proceedings, September, Vol 139/9 (2013).
Jeffrey Kline, James A. Russell, and James J. Wirtz, 2022, “The U.S. Navy’s Generational Challenge,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Volume 64, Number 4, August-September 2022 found at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00396338.2022.2103264.
James Wirtz, Jeffrey Kline, and James Russell, 2022, “A Maritime Conversation with America,” Orbis, Volume 66, Issue 2, 2022 pg 166-183 found at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0030438722000060.
James Wirtz, “Unmanned Ships and the Future of Deterrence,” Proceedings, Vol 147/7 July 2021.
12. Bryan G. McGrath, “1,000-Ship Navy and Maritime Strategy,” Proceedings, Vol 133/1 January 2007.
United States Navy, Unites States Marine Corps, and United States Coast Guard, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, (Washington, DC, December 2020)
13. Jeffrey E. Kline, “Impacts of the Robotics Age on Naval Force Design, Effectiveness, and Acquisition,” Naval War College Review, Vol 70, no.3, Summer 2017, pp.63-78.
Featured Image: CAMP PENDLETON, CA (April 18, 2023) – U.S. Marines with 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, and members of the 2nd Intai Amfibi Battalion, Indonesian Korps Marinir, post security on a beach after an amphibious insertion as part of the culminating event of a reconnaissance exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Cameron Hermanet)