All posts by Brett Friedman

Black Swan: An Option for the Navy’s Future Surface Combatant

Future Surface Combatant Topic Week

By B. A. Friedman

As the Navy examines its options for the Future Surface Combatant (FSC) family of ships, the large surface combatant will most likely get the most attention and effort. However, the center of gravity will more than likely be the small surface combatant. The smaller craft will be of more importance because the Navy has let its small surface combatant fleet dwindle in recent decades, and the craft chosen will be the ship to restore the fleet’s balance. Despite a rich history with small combatants, the Navy will have to dredge up a lot of moldy institutional knowledge and begin applying it to the future operating environment.

There are a number of assessments of the future operating environment, including Joint Operating Environment 2035, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, and the recent Marine Corps Operating Concept. All of these documents correctly identify an operating environment characterized by pervasive surveillance and threat detection in the visual and electromagnetic spectrums, leading to a trend of small, dispersed, distributed combat units that depend on speed and stealth to survive and operate on the battlefield. The trends identified in these documents apply at sea as well as on land.

Fortunately, our allies have already been examining the use of small combatants in current and future fights. The most compelling concept is the Black Swan Concept, proposed by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense in 2012. It’s a modernized idea that traces its roots back to the Royal Navy and Royal Indian Navy Black Swan ships that served as convoy escorts in World War II. It’s built around a hypothetical Black Swan-class sloop of war ship, displacing 3,150 tons (larger than an Independence-class LCS, but smaller than a Freedom-class LCS).

The main difference between the Black Swan and the LCS, however, is its berthing spaces and its stern ramp. This would allow the Black Swan to embark a squad-to-platoon size unit of Royal Marines while still boasting a flight deck, a directed energy weapon system, a 30mm cannon, a side access port for boats, and storage space. The Black Swan was planned to be crewed by eight sailors, leaving room for 32-60 embarked personnel depending on configuration. Individually, each Black Swan ship would be extremely flexible and useful but, importantly, flotillas of multiple Black Swan vessels could be scaled to mission, with each individual ship configured for its specific purpose whether it acted as an unmanned system “mothership,” weapon system platform, or expeditionary platform. While budget restraints prevented the UK from investing in the program, the idea itself remains sound. Now that the U.S. Navy is looking at small combatant craft, what would an American version of Black Swan look like?

A Multi-Role Small Surface Combatant

The center of gravity of the Black Swan concept is the inherent flexibility of the platforms themselves. By marrying a ramp, flight deck, weapon platform, and embarked Marines in one vessel, the small combatant craft can accomplish a dizzying array of mission sets. Moreover, small combatant craft are more difficult to detect (both through visual and electromagnetic methods) and can be purchased in greater numbers, inherently complicating adversary targeting systems and processes.

Firstly, an American Black Swan would greatly contribute to increasing the Navy’s offensive capability through distributed lethality. Whether the weapon system married to the ship is a directed energy weapon like the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), a Vertical Launch System (VLS), the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), or an anti-aircraft system, these ships would provide fleet commanders with more options for offense and defense against a wide range of threats.

An American Black Swan would also enhance and expand options for amphibious operations. Future amphibious assaults will in no way resemble those of previous generations; small combatant craft will be useful for disembarking Marine squads and platoons at dispersed points, depending on speed and stealth to avoid detection and land where the enemy has no presence. Commanders tasked with one of the other four types of amphibious operation – raids, demonstrations, withdrawals, and amphibious support to other operations – will also find such a vessel useful. The ship could meet up with amphibious warships at sea, allowing the larger amphibious ships to stay out of the range of shore-based missiles until Marine raids – launched via the small combatant craft – are able to address the threat. In essence, an American Black Swan would allow the Marine Corps to match the Navy’s distributed lethality with distributed maneuver at sea. Perhaps most importantly, by putting more Marines at sea, a small combatant craft like the Black Swan will allow Navy commanders to better leverage Marine Corps capabilities to gain, assert, and assure sea control.

Additionally, there is no question that unmanned systems – air, land, sea, and undersea – are becoming more important. For now, only the Navy’s biggest ships boast significant unmanned capabilities. Increasingly, the Navy will need smaller platforms able to launch a wide range of unmanned systems, from counter-mine systems to hydrographic survey drones, to the already ubiquitous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unmanned aerial systems. An American Black Swan would provide far more bang for the buck, able to deploy a wide variety of unmanned systems in situations where employing a large surface combatant or capital ship would be too risky or overly expensive.  

The benefits to the Navy and the Marine Corps are one thing, but the Special Operations Community also has an interest in an American Black Swan capability. The ships would especially shine during support to special operations missions ashore, providing a secure platform, fire support, staged Quick Reaction Forces (QRF), insertion/ extraction, or logistics depending on mission requirements.

Lastly, small combatant craft designed to put the Marine Corps’ small units and their enablers at sea will bring junior Marine Corps officers and the Navy officers assigned as crew into more contact at early points in their careers, enhancing the integration of both services. The ship would also increase the opportunities for junior officers to get important and independent commands earlier in their careers, leading eventually to senior officers with more experience.


The small combatant is just one aspect of the Future Surface Combatant effort but, given that the Navy is already well-equipped with large combatants, it may be the most important. Warfare trends at sea, just like those on land, point towards greater dispersion of small-units that concentrate when necessary. Modern concept documents reflect this. Even so, the Black Swan concept does not clash with older concepts; it would increase Navy/Marine Corps capabilities for Operational Maneuver From the Sea and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver. The small combatant craft component should be focused on acquiring a vessel that is flexible, self-deployed, tailorable to the mission, and able to be combined into a task-organized flotilla for any situation. The UK’s Black Swan concept is exactly that. The Navy- and the Marine Corps- should take a cue from our friends across the pond to acquire a vessel able to execute it.

Brett A. Friedman is an officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He’s the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (forthcoming May 2017) from the Naval Institute Press. Brett holds a B.A. in History from The Ohio State University and an M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. He is a Founding Member of the Military Writers Guild. Follow Brett on Twitter @BA_Friedman.

Featured Image: HMS Black Swan (Royal Navy official photographer – photograph FL 2274 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, collection no. 8308-29)

Amphibious Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

The two giants of sea power theory, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, both touched on amphibious operations but both are properly considered sea power theorists. Mahan disliked amphibious operations, declaring that they were “harder to sustain than to make.” He judged them dangerous to those forces extended ashore and that this danger outweighed their potential benefit. In Mahan’s cost-benefit analysis of amphibious operations, they were a waste of resources. Mahan viewed the sea power side of the equation as decisive.

Corbett, however, was more of a fan. Corbett thought that naval forces could rarely be decisive on their own and thus need the ability to project land forces ashore to achieve a decision. But, amphibious forces are dependent on naval forces for protection from enemy naval forces, supply and sustainment, and fire support. For Corbett, the land power side of the equation is decisive.

A little known theorist came down right in the middle. Lieutenant Colonel Earl “Pete” Ellis, USMC, wrote about naval and amphibious strategy in the early 20th Century, including the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. Ellis viewed amphibious power as a symbiotic relationship between land and sea power. Expeditionary land forces are dependent on naval forces for the necessary sea control, transport, sustainment, and fire support. Naval forces are dependent on those land forces to secure key littoral terrain for protection and to secure forward supply bases. In the course of this analysis, he identified the need for specialized, task-organized amphibious forces that could fill this niche, especially since amphibious assaults were becoming far more difficult in the face of modern artillery and machine guns. Since the focus of all of his writings was on those amphibious forces and their uses, he is perhaps the only amphibious power theorist in history. For Ellis, the mutually reinforcing symbiosis of land and sea power was decisive. He was proved correct during World War II: the US Navy could not strike at the heart of the Imperial Japan without seizing lodgments across the Pacific and Marine and Army forces could not seize those lodgments without Navy transportation, support, and sea control.

In Colin S. Gray’s Theory of War Taxonomy, this theory of amphibious power falls into a category along with Mahan, Douhet, and Schelling. It is clearly not a general theory nor is it a general theory of a domain as it exists at the confluence of land, sea, and air. It does explain “how a particular kind or use of a military power strategically affects the course of conflict as a whole.” A brief look at history illuminates this point.

The Influence of Amphibious Power on History

A few examples from history suffice to illustrate the timeless nature of amphibious power. The first occurred early in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta began the war dominant on land, while Athens was dominant at sea. While Spartan land power allowed her to ravage the fields before Athens herself, Athenian fleets plied the waters of the Mediterranean. In 425 BC, Thucydides landed a fleet at Pylos in Spartan-controlled territory. The fighting that occurred at Pylos and the offshore island of Sphacteria eventually led to the defeat and capture of about 300 Spartan hoplites by Athenian expeditionary forces. Land power and sea control did not lead directly to strategic effect, but the use of sea power to project land power to defeat and capture Spartan hoplites shocked the Greek world and led directly to the Peace of Nicias. The Athenians subsequently botched the peace and thus squandered the strategic effect garnered, but they would not have had the opportunity at all if not for the use of amphibious power.

The second example occurred during the Second Punic War. The sea control of the Mediterranean gained by the Romans after the First Punic War had profound strategic effects: it force Hannibal into a difficult march through the Alps which depleted the combat power he was able to bring to Italy and prevented significant reinforcement once he had gained a lodgment in Italy. His eventual defeat there, however, failed to end the war with Carthage. It was not until Scipio used sea control to project Roman land power across the sea to Carthage itself that decisive effects occurred and Carthage surrendered.

During the American Civil War, Union forces secured sea control early on and held it throughout the war as part of the Anaconda Plan. While the Anaconda Plan certainly produced strategic effects that choked the Confederacy off from reliable and consistent sources of supply, it did not have decisive effects by itself. In this case, amphibious power would not have decisive effects but the tactical level is interesting. Union General Ambrose Burnside was an amphibious visionary. As a Brigadier General, he formed an expeditionary force and developed radically new ship-to-shore tactics which allowed him to seize virtually all of coastal North Carolina for the Union.

Another waypoint in the history of amphibious operations occurred in 1915. During the Gallipoli campaign, British forces attempted to seize control of the Dardanelles from the Turks, allied with Germany. While the attempt failed, it is easy to see what kind of strategic effects victory could have produced. If British and French forces seize the Dardanelles, control of Constantinople could have easily followed, knocking Turkey out of the war entirely. Additionally, control of the Dardanelles would have allowed supplies from the Western allies to flow to the Eastern front, shoring up their Russian allies. The British and French had the sea power and the land power, but using both as amphibious power had great potential, if unrealized.

Lastly, World War II proved to be a high water mark for amphibious operations. In the Western theater, the Allies also largely secured sea control while Germany dominated the continent. That sea control granted the allies the ability to project power ashore in Africa, Italy, and eventually in France. In the Pacific Theater, the entire Allied strategy depended on amphibious power. A measure of sea control was gained by the U.S. after the battle of Midway, but amphibious power was necessary to secure lodgments to allow the U.S. to project force across the Pacific Ocean. That sea control had to be translated into force projection ashore at dozens of islands, producing a credible threat of an amphibious assault on Japan herself and the ability to use air power to strike Japanese soil.

Conclusions from Theory and Praxis

Sea power can enable land power, land power can enable sea power, and the projection of power ashore is now dependent on air power. The fusion of all of these capabilities is amphibious power.

Specialized troops are needed to wield credible and effective amphibious power. Burnside’s pick-up team of amphibious soldiers ran into daunting tactical problems in North Carolina. While U.S. Army troops drew on Marine tactics in the European theater, hard lessons had to be learned in North Africa and at Anzio and Salerno.

Despite the need for specialized troops to effectively conduct amphibious operations, amphibious operations are never solely the interest of marines. Navy forces and air support are essential to success and must train to the unique problems associated with projecting land power ashore. Armies are also concerned with amphibious operations. In a large scale conflict, there will not be enough Marines to conduct every assault. While the U.S. Army famously conducted more amphibious operations than the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, they did so using doctrine developed by the Marines and capabilities already resident in the Navy.

Strategic Effects

There are numerous tactical lessons that can be learned from history as well. James Wolfe’s campaign in Quebec during the Seven Years War is illustrative as is MacArthur’s master stroke at Inchon in 1950. Both battles achieved far reaching strategic effects. Amphibious power provides options to the side that has it, and the mere threat of amphibious forces the opponent to expend resources to defend against it, constraining his options. During the Gulf War, U.S. Marine forces aboard ship in the Persian Gulf forced Iraqi forces to station seven infantry divisions along the Iraqi coast to prevent a landing, depleting their combat power in Kuwait. Amphibious power, in and of itself, will rarely be directly decisive at the strategic level. It does, however, indirectly contribute to strategic effects because of the options it grants to the joint force. It is usually necessary to establish beachheads through which ground forces can flow, it can extend the range and reach of air forces, and can control littoral chokepoints to ensure the safety of naval forces. Additionally, amphibious power forces the enemy to defend their shores everywhere an amphibious assault is possible, consuming their resources and tying down combat power. Shifting defenders from one shore to another simply opens up another opportunity for a successful assault. Thus, a theory of amphibious power explains how that particular capability can affect the course of conflicts.