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Winning The AI-Enabled War-at-Sea

By Dr. Peter Layton

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is suddenly important to military forces. Not yet an arms race, today’s competition is more in terms of an experimentation race with many AI systems being tested and new research centers established. There may be a considerable first-mover advantage to the country that first understands AI adequately enough to change its existing human-centered force structures and embrace AI warfighting.

In a new Joint Studies Paper, I explore sea, land and air operational concepts appropriate to fighting near-to-medium term future AI-enabled wars. With much of the underlying narrow AI technology already developed in the commercial sector, this is less of a speculative exercise than might be assumed. Moreover, the contemporary AI’s general-purpose nature means its initial employment will be within existing operational level constructs, not wholly new ones.

Here, the focus is the sea domain. The operational concepts mooted are simply meant to stimulate thought about the future and how to prepare for it. In being so aimed, the concepts are deliberately constrained; crucially they are not joint or combined. In all this, it is important to remember that AI enlivens other technologies. AI is not a stand-alone actor, rather it works in the combination with numerous other digital technologies. It provides a form of cognition to these.

AI Overview

In the near-to-medium term, AI’s principal attraction is its ability to quickly identify patterns and detect items hidden within very large data troves. The principal consequence of this is that AI will make it much easier to detect, localize and identity objects across the battlespace. Hiding will become increasingly difficult. However, AI is not perfect. It has well known problems in being able to be fooled, in being brittle, being unable to transfer knowledge gained in one task to another and being dependent on data.

AI’s warfighting principal utility then becomes ‘find and fool’. AI with its machine learning is excellent at finding items hidden within a high clutter background. In this role AI is better than humans and tremendously faster. On the other hand, AI can be fooled through various means. AI’s great finding capabilities lack robustness.

A broad generic overview is useful to set the scene. The ‘find’ starting point is placing a large number of low cost Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in the optimum land, sea, air, space and cyber locations in the areas across which hostile forces may transit. From these sensors, a deep understanding can be gained of the undersea terrain, sea conditions, physical environment and local virtual milieu. Having this background data accelerates AI’s detection of any changes and, in particular, of the movement of military forces across it.

The fixed and mobile IoT edge-computing sensors are connected into a robust cloud to reliably feed data back into remote command support systems. The command system’s well-trained AI could then very rapidly filter out the important information from the background clutter. Using this, AI can then forecast adversary actions and predict optimum own force employment and its combat effectiveness. Hostile forces geolocated by AI can, after approval by human commanders, be quickly engaged using indirect fire including long-range missiles. Such an approach can engage close or deep targets; the key issues being data on the targets and the availability of suitable range firepower. The result is that the defended area quickly becomes a no-go zone.

To support the ‘fool’ function, Uncrewed Vehicles (UV) could be deployed across the battlespace equipped with a variety of electronic systems suitable for the Counter Intelligence Surveillance And Reconnaissance And Targeting (C-ISRT) task. The intent is to defeat the adversary’s AI ‘find’ capabilities. Made mobile through AI, these UVs will be harder for an enemy to destroy than fixed jammers would be. Moreover, mobile UVs can be risked and sent close in to approaching hostile forces to maximize jamming effectiveness. Such vehicles could also play a key role in deception, creating a false and misleading impression of the battlefield to the adversary. Imagine a battlespace where there are a thousand ‘valid’ targets, only a few of which are real.

A War-at-Sea Defense Concept

Defense is the more difficult tactical problem during a war-at-sea. Its intent is solely to gain tactical time for an effective attack or counterattack. Wayne Hughes goes as far in his seminal work to declare that: “All fleet operations based on defensive tactics…are conceptually deficient.”1  The AI-enabled battlefield may soften this assertion.

Accurately determining where hostile ships are in the vast ocean battlefields has traditionally been difficult. A great constant of such reconnaissance is that there never seems to be enough. However, against this, a great trend since the early 20th century is that maritime surveillance and reconnaissance technology is steadily improving. The focus is now not on collecting information but on improving the processing of the large troves of surveillance and reconnaissance data collected.2 Finding the warship ‘needle’ in the sea ‘haystack’ is becoming easier. 

The earlier generic ‘find’ concept envisaged a large distributed IoT sensor field. Such a concept is becoming possible in the maritime domain given AI and associated technology developments.

DARPA’s Ocean of Things (OoT) program aims to achieve maritime situational awareness over large ocean areas through deploying thousands of small, low-cost floats that form a distributed sensor network. Each smart float will have a suite of commercially available sensors to collect environmental and activity data; the later function involves automatically detecting, tracking and identifying nearby ships and – potentially – close aircraft traffic. The floats use edge processing with detection algorithms and then transmit the semi-processed data periodically via the Iridium satellite constellation to a cloud network for on-shore storage. AI machine learning then combs through this sparse data in real time to uncover hidden insights. The floats are environmentally friendly, have a life of around a year and in buys of 50,000 have a unit cost of about US$500 each. DARPA’s OoT shows what is feasible using AI.

In addition to floats, there are numerous other low-cost AI-enabled mobile devices that could noticeably expand maritime situational awareness including: the EMILY Hurricane Trackers, Ocean Aero Intelligent Autonomous Marine Vehicles, Seaglider Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, Liquid Robotics Wave Gliders and Australia’s Ocius Technology Bluebottles.

In addition to mobile low-cost autonomous devices plying the seas there is an increasing number of smallsats being launched by governments and commercial companies into low earth orbit to form large constellations. Most of these will use AI and edge computing; some will have sensors able to detect naval vessels visually or electronically.

All this data from new sources can be combined with that from the existing large array of traditional maritime surveillance systems. The latest system into service is the long-endurance MQ-4C Triton uncrewed aerial vehicle with detection capabilities able to be enhanced through retrofitting AI. The next advance may be the USN’s proposed 8000km range, AI-enabled Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV) which could cruise autonomously at sea for two months with a surveillance payload.

With so many current and emerging maritime surveillance systems, the idea of a digital ocean is becoming practical. This concept envisages the data from thousands of persistent and mobile sensors being processed by AI, analyzed though machine learning and then fused into a detailed ocean-spanning three-dimensional comprehensive picture. Oceans remain large expanses making this a difficult challenge. However, a detailed near-real time digital model of smaller spaces such as enclosed waters like the South China Sea, national littoral zones or limited ocean areas of specific import appears practical using current and near-term technology.

Being able to create a digital ocean model may prove revolutionary. William Williamson of the USN Naval Postgraduate School declares: “On the ‘observable ocean’, the Navy must assume that every combatant will be trackable, with position updates occurring many times per day. …the Navy will have lost the advantages of invisibility, uncertainty, and surprise. …Vessels will be observable in port…[with] the time of departure known to within hours or even minutes. This is true for submarines as well as for surface ships.”3

This means that in a future major conflict, the default assessment by each warship’s captain might be that the adversary probably knows the ship’s location. Defense then moves from being “conceptually deficient” to being the foundation of all naval tactics in an AI-enabled battlespace. The emerging AI-enabled maritime surveillance system of systems will potentially radically change traditional war-at-sea thinking. The ‘attack effectively first’ mantra may need to be rewritten to ‘defend effectively first.’

The digital, ‘observable ocean’ will ensure warships are aware of approaching hostile warships and a consequent increasing risk of attack. In this addressing this, three broad alternative ways for the point defense of a naval task group might be considered.

Firstly, warships might cluster together, so as to concentrate their defensive capabilities and avoid any single ship being overwhelmed by a large multi-axis, multi-missile attack. In this, AI-enabled ship-borne radars and sensors will be able to better track incoming missiles amongst the background clutter. Moreover, AI-enabled command systems will be able to much more rapidly prioritize and undertake missile engagements. In addition, nearby AI-enabled uncrewed surface vessels may switch on active illuminator radars, allowing crewed surface combatants to receive reflections to create fire control-quality tracks. The speed and complexity of the attacks will probably mean that human-on-the-loop is the generally preferred AI-enabled ship weapon system control, switching to human-out-of-the-loop as numbers of incoming missiles rise or hypersonic missiles are faced.

Secondly, instead of clustering, warships might scatter so that an attack against one will not endanger others. Crucially, modern technology now allows dispersed ships to fight together as a single package. The ‘distributed lethality’ concept envisages distant warships sharing precise radar tracking data across a digital network, although there are issues of data latency that limit how far apart the ships sharing data for this purpose can be. An important driver of the ‘distributed lethality’ concept is to make adversary targeting more difficult. With the digital ocean, this driver may be becoming moot.

Thirdly, the defense in depth construct offers new potential through becoming AI-enabled, particularly when defending against submarines although the basic ideas also have value against surface warship threats. In areas submarines may transit through, stationary relocatable sensors like the USN’s Transformational Reliable Acoustic Path System could be employed backed up by unpowered, long endurance gliders towing passive arrays. These passive sonars would use automated target recognition algorithms supported by AI machine learning to identify specific underwater or surface contacts.

Closer to the friendly fleet, autonomous MUSVs could use low-frequency active variable depth sonars supplemented by medium-sized uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUV) with passive sonar arrays. Surface warships or the MUSVs could further deploy small UUVs carrying active multistatic acoustic coherent sensors already fielded in expendable sonobuoys. Warships could employ passive sonars to avoid counter-detection and take advantage of multistatic returns from the active variable depth sonars deployed by MUSVs.

Fool Function. The “digital ocean” significantly increases the importance of deception and confusion operations. This ‘fool’ function of AI may become as vital as the ‘find’ function, especially in the defense. In the war-at-sea, the multiple AI-enabled systems deployed across the battlespace offer numerous possibilities for fooling the adversary.

Deception involves reinforcing the perceptions or expectations of an adversary commander and then doing something else. In this, multiple false cues will need seeding as some clues will be missed by the adversary and having more than one will only add to the deception’s credibility. For example, a number of uncrewed surface vessels could set sail as the warship leaves port, all actively transmitting a noisy facsimile of the warships electronic or acoustic signature. The digital ocean may then suggest to the commander multiple identical warships are at sea, creating some uncertainty as to which is real or not.

In terms of confusion, the intent might be not to avoid detection as this might be very difficult but instead prevent an adversary from classifying vessels detected as warships or identifying them as a specific class of warship. This might be done using some of the large array of AI-enabled floaters, gliders, autonomous devices, underwater vehicles and uncrewed surface vessels to considerably confuse the digital ocean picture. The aim would be to change the empty oceans – or at least the operational area – into a seemingly crowded, cluttered, confusing environment where detecting and tracking the real sought-after warships was problematic and at best fleeting. If AI can find targets, AI can also obscure them.

A War-at-Sea Offense Concept

In a conflict where both sides are employing AI-enabled ‘fool’ systems, targeting adversary warships may become problematic. The ‘attack effectively first’ mantra may evolve to simply ‘attack effectively.’ Missiles that miss represent a significant loss of the task group’s or fleet’s net combat power, and take a considerable time to be replaced. Several alternatives may be viable.

In a coordinated attack, the offence might use a mix of crewed and uncrewed vessels. One option is to use three ship types: a large, well-defended crewed ship that carries considerable numbers of various types of long-range missiles but which remains remote to the high-threat areas; a smaller crewed warship pushed forward into the area where adversary ships are believed to be both for reconnaissance and to provide targeting for the larger ship’s long-range missiles; and an uncrewed stealthy ship operating still further forward in the highest risk area primarily collecting crucial time-sensitive intelligence and passing this back through the smaller crewed warship onto the larger ship in the rear.

The intermediate small crewed vessel can employ elevated or tethered systems and uncrewed communications relay vehicles to receive the information from the forward uncrewed vessel and act as a robust gateway to the fleet tactical grid using resilient communications systems and networks. Moreover, the intermediate smaller crewed vessel in being closer to the uncrewed vessel will be able to control it as the tactical situation requires and, if the context changes, adjust the uncrewed vessel’s mission.

This intermediate ship will probably also have small numbers of missiles available to use in extremis if the backward link to the larger missile ship fails. Assuming communications to all elements of the force will be available in all situations may be unwise. The group of three ships should be network enabled, not network dependent, and this could be achieved by allowing the intermediate ship to be capable of limited independent action.

The coordinated attack option is not a variant of the distributed lethality concept noted earlier. The data being passed from the stealthy uncrewed ship and the intermediate crewed vessel is targeting, not fire control, quality data. The coordinated attack option has only loose integration that is both less technically demanding and more appropriate to operations in an intense electronic warfare environment.

An alternative concept is to have a large crewed vessel at the center of a networked constellation of small and medium-sized uncrewed air, surface and subsurface systems. A large ship offers potential advantages in being able to incorporate advanced power generation to support emerging defensive systems like high energy lasers or rail guns. In this, the large crewed ship would need good survivability features, suitable defensive systems, an excellent command and control system to operate its multitude of diverse uncrewed systems and a high bandwidth communication system linking back to shore-based facilities and data storage services.

The crewed ship could employ mosaic warfare techniques to set up extended kinetic and non-kinetic kill webs through the uncrewed systems to reach the adversary warships. The ship’s combat power is not then in the crewed vessel but principally in its uncrewed systems with their varying levels of autonomy, AI application and edge computing.

The large ship and its associated constellation would effectively be a naval version of the Soviet reconnaissance-strike complex.  An AI-enabled war at sea then might involve dueling constellations, each seeking relative advantage.


The AI-enabled battlespace creates a different war-at-sea. Most obvious are the autonomous systems and vessels made possible by AI and edge computing. The bigger change though may be to finally take the steady scouting improvements of the last 100 years or so to their final conclusion. The age of AI, machine learning, big data, IoT and cloud computing appear set to create the “observable ocean.” From combining these technologies, near-real digital models of the ocean environment can be made that highlight the man-made artefacts present.

The digital ocean means warships could become the prey as much as the hunters. Such a perspective brings a shift in thinking about what the capital ship of the future might be. A recent study noted: “Navy’s next capital ship will not be a ship. It will be the Network of Humans and Machines, the Navy’s new center of gravity, embodying a superior source of combat power.” Tomorrow’s capital ship looks set to be the human-machine teams operating on an AI-enabled battlefield.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He has extensive aviation and defense experience and, for his work at the Pentagon on force structure matters, was awarded the US Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on grand strategy and has taught on the topic at the Eisenhower School. His research interests include grand strategy, national security policies particularly relating to middle powers, defense force structure concepts and the impacts of emerging technology. The author of ‘Grand Strategy’, his posts, articles and papers may be read at:


1. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet tactics and naval operations, 3rd edn., (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 33.

2. Ibid., pp.132, 198.

3. William Williamson, ‘From Battleship to Chess’, USNI Proceedings, Vol. 146/7/1,409, July 2020,

Featured image: Graphic highlighting Fleet Cyber Command Watch Floor of the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy graphic by Oliver Elijah Wood and PO2 William Sykes/Released)

Service Squadron Ten and the Great Western Base

By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN

USS Houston (CL 81), in a hard turn with her underside exposed, felt the torpedo explosion across the ship. Commander William Behrens recalled “that all propulsive power and steering control was immediately lost. The ship took a list to starboard of 16 degrees. All main electrical power was immediately lost.” The tactical situation was still perilous, and with Houston “rolling sluggishly in the trough of the sea… her main deck [dipping] under at frequent intervals,” Behrens ordered Houston abandoned, save key personnel and damage control parties. USS Boston (CA 69) took Houston under tow for the next 43 hours, until another Japanese torpedo hit Houston again on the starboard side. Most of the preceding shoring and dewatering efforts were undone and Houston risked foundering again. Over the next two weeks, the crew, assisted by the fleet tugs USS Pawnee (ATF 74), USS Zuni (ATF 95), and other ships managed to limp more than 1200 miles to Ulithi. 

That Houston, and many other ships during World War II, survived such attacks and returned home was due in part to the heroics of the crew, but equally to the unsung heroes of Service Squadron Ten, who allowed the Navy to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations continuously for almost two years without returning to port. Service Squadron Ten kept the fleet supplied, fed, fueled, repaired, and happy during that time. The ability to generate combat power so continuously for half the war was a decisive advantage for the United States in the Pacific. 

The Service Squadrons played a pivotal role in sustaining the Fleet as it fought across the Central Pacific. It is a largely unknown history, but one worth relearning with the reemerging possibility of war between major powers. That experience highlights the need to make forward deployed logistics and repair capabilities both robust and mobile to better support the Fleet. Battle fatigued sailors and battle damaged ships simply cannot afford the five thousand mile journey from the South China Sea to Pearl Harbor. Nor can they count on facilities in East Asia for support, just as their predecessors realized during the interwar period when developing War Plan Orange on the game floors of the Naval War College in the development of War Plan Orange. 

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday mandated in FRAGO [fragmentary order] 01/2019 that the Navy and Marine Corps must make naval logistics more agile and resilient to support distributed maritime operations, generate greater readiness, and support the increasing numbers of unmanned systems that will enter the Fleet in this decade. The Navy should take a page from Admiral Nimitz’s playbook and re-establish the Service Squadrons with aircraft carriers as their core. Combined with the other assets, modern Service Squadrons would enable distributed maritime operations, expeditionary advanced base operations for the Marine Corps, and accelerate the deployment of unmanned systems. The history of Service Squadron Ten affords the opportunity to replicate the magic of the Central Pacific campaign in the modern era. 

The Great Western Base

Strategic thought at the turn of the 20th century required the Navy to accomplish one of two objectives: to gain, in peacetime, a strongly fortified base in the Western Pacific or to rapidly establish a major alternative land base in the Western Pacific early in the war. Most timetables required seizure of islands within months after the outbreak of hostilities. 

By the early 1920s, war games and diplomatic failures to secure the “Great Western Base” in the Philippines had forced even the most conservative admirals to reconsider these core tenets of naval doctrine and start innovating around them. The Navy began developing larger colliers, auxiliaries to service ships at sea, fleet oilers, floating drydocks, and more. By 1923, the need for mobile basing had become sufficiently accepted that it became an appendix in War Plan Orange. These advances paved the way for the Navy to unhesitatingly reject Great Britain’s request in 1941 that the U.S. take over one of the finest bases in the Western Pacific: Singapore.1 The doctrine of fixed bases had completely given way to strategic mobility. 

During the interwar period, admirals and planners shifted to a mobile strategy when the basing problems in the War Plan Orange games proved so intractable and unsatisfying to the objectives for the drive across the Central Pacific. These revelations must have been unnerving, “yet they were steps along the path to a formula for victory because planners learned from their frustration to distinguish viable programs from evanescent dreams.”2 A career of preparation, for all the officers involved, allowed them to rapidly adapt to the conditions on the ground and effectively establish the concept of operations for Service Squadron Ten.

American bases in the Western Pacific today—Japan, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, and Singapore—provide vital operational command, logistics, and repair services for U.S. and allied navies, but will be untenable in wartime based on the reach of Chinese weapons. The U.S. military must prepare to fight the war from a sustained position at sea. Hawaii is too far removed from the theater to effectively exercise command and control (C2) in the digital age, with contested electromagnetic, cyber, and information domains, or efficiently sustain forward-deployed combat operations. It is fitting that during World War II, most fleet commanders exercised their authority primarily from the repair ships—USS Argonne (AS 10) being a favorite.

Current U.S. naval doctrine holds fast to carrier warfare, the supremacy of US technology, and the rapid victories that naturally follow. Assurances that American strike groups could operate with impunity in the South China Sea must be rebuked, and the Fleet, from its commanders down to the deckplates, must be re-trained to fight truly from the sea. The Navy must seek to permanently shift operational C2 arrangements down to aircraft carriers or Zumwalt-class destroyers. Aircraft carriers already provide many of the C2 spaces that a fleet commander would need to prosecute the war and offensive capabilities to protect the mobile service squadron. 

If We’ve Got it, You Can Have it

In September 1943, Admiral Nimitz ordered two service squadrons established to provide for fleet logistics and repair in preparation for the drive across the Central Pacific. After a bloody battle on Tarawa in November 1943, Service Squadron Ten moved forward to Funafuti to establish a fleet anchorage there. Several hundred miles closer than the United States’ western most base at the time, Espirtu Santo in Vanuatu, Funafuti provided a closer location to attend to the fleet and provide for repairs should the Japanese Navy decide to offer battle near the Gilbert Island chain. 

Admiral Nimitz gave Service Squadron Ten the responsibility to “furnish logistic support, including general stores, provisions, fuel, ammunition, maintenance, repair, salvage, and such other services as necessity may dictate in the support of an advanced major fleet anchorage in the Central Pacific Area.”3 The squadron would fall under operational control of Admiral Spruance, now in overall command of naval forces driving across the Central Pacific, and service anything that floated, along with Marine Corps and Army units to the maximum extent possible, in keeping with their motto: “If we’ve got it, you can have it.”4 

Admiral Spruance began his bombardment of Kwajalien and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, operating from the anchorage provided by Service Squadron Ten at Funafuti. The aerial bombardment lasted two months, and Service Squadron Ten’s reputation built by the day. The sailors of Service Squadron Ten often worked around the clock, despite being undermanned, to get the Fleet back to sea. A listing of various messages to the squadron shows the daily breadth of work that they did: 






There were certainly shortages of food, fresh water, ammunition, supplies, and even fuel at times, but the squadron distributed what they had equitably to all the units. 

By January 1944, Admiral Spruance realized the value that Service Squadron Ten provided, and insisted on a major change to the upcoming Operation Flintlock to take the Marshall Islands: the Marine Corps needed to first seize Majuro, the easternmost island in the Marshalls, to establish a forward fleet anchorage before executing the landings at Kwajalein and Eniwetok.6 Doing so would allow the Squadron to service the carriers so that they would not have to withdraw out of range to replenish, thereby leaving the Marines to face the Japanese airfields on the other islands alone.7 Admiral Nimitz and the Chiefs of Staff in Washington immediately approved the plan, and the result was significantly higher combat readiness and operational tempo for the Fleet.

After Flintlock, the Fleet remained at sea for the duration of the war, with Service Squadron Ten supporting it. At the Squadron’s commissioning on 15 January 1944, the squadron consisted of thirteen ships, from an original request of 100, consisting of tenders, tugs, repair ships, survey vessels, and barges. By the end of the war, Service Squadron Ten had grown to more than 600 ships, and the entire Service Force consisted of 2,930 ships and more than 500,000 sailors and officers—a third more than the entire active duty navy today.8 

Repairing the Fleet

It took years during the interwar period for the various Navy Bureaus and shipyards to believe that a repair ship or tender could provide any service of consequence beyond minor repairs.9 Actual combat and sailor ingenuity proved otherwise. In December, 1942, the predecessor to Service Squadron Ten fitted USS New Orleans (CA 32) with a temporary bow made of coconut logs after her bow was blown off at the Battle of Tassafaronga, enabling her to make the transit, stern first, to Sydney, Australia for further repairs. 

Naval battles mean hurt ships and sailors. “Ships had their bows blown off, their sterns blasted away, huge holes torn in their hulls by torpedoes whose explosions created a chaos that had to be seen at the time to be fully realized.”10 The closer the help, the better off the ship and crew were—the Houston never would have made it to Pearl Harbor, nor would hundreds of other ships and their crews no matter how heroic their efforts. Service Squadron Ten enabled the Fleet to keep the Japanese from realizing operational gains from damaging U.S. ships.

For Service Squadron Ten, floating drydocks, repair ships, tenders, crane barges, and a myriad of other assets allowed them to make major repairs to battle damaged ships. Service Squadron Ten made similar repairs throughout the war, and floating drydocks were critical in restoring ships to seaworthy and operative conditions. Their drydocks could easily dock an aircraft carrier or battleship. In February 1945, for example, the repair work of the squadron “varied from such big jobs as rebuilding 60 feet of flight deck on the carrier Randolph in 18 days and new bows on blasted ships, to replacing guns and electrical equipment. In that month 52 vessels were repaired in floating drydocks.”11 The pace of repair operations even began to cause problems back home: “The amount of repairs and the hours worked would have caused peacetime navy yards to throw up their hands in despair. As a matter of fact it was reported that one wartime yard complained that Service Squadron Ten was taking away its work.”12

Becoming Truly Expeditionary

From late 1943 on, the Fleet remained at sea conducting prompt and sustained combat operations. The planning for the campaign required the Navy to consider more than just keeping the Fleet supplied with food, fuel, and ammunition. Ships needed deep maintenance that could not be deferred, Marine companies needed replacements, carriers needed replacement planes and pilots, and sailors needed to rotate back to the States—all without the Fleet returning to Pearl Harbor. How did they do it?

Service Squadron Ten had carried the theme of mobile basing beyond its original conclusions: the Squadron was the Great Western Base. The myriad of repair ships, tenders, oilers, concrete barges, tugs, and other small boats rendered extensive land bases unnecessary. The Squadron simply moved with the Fleet, recalling the remnants of its rearmost bases forward. Escort carriers, usually remembered today for their heroic stand off Samar Island in October 1944 or hunting U-boats in the Atlantic, provided many of the third-order services that the Fleet needed to maintain sustained operations. A few weeks in the life of USS Copahee (CVE 12), is representative: 

“On 17 April, 2 months before D-day for the Marianas, the Copahee left Pearl with 86 aircraft, 390 passengers, and 196 cases of equipment. On the 23d she unloaded her planes at the Majuro air station for further transfer to the fleet, or for use as combat air patrols. Reloading, she took aboard 23 damaged planes, 2 aircraft engines, and 312 passengers, leaving on the 26th for Pearl. Back at Majuro again 12 May, she unloaded 58 planes, 20 of which she catapulted, and 7 cases of airplane parts. The next day she was underway once more for Pearl…”13

The escort carriers played a vital role in keeping the Fleet supplied with ready combat power. While the Fleet had been refueling at sea for some time now, replenishment by aircraft carrier was entirely new, and perfected by Service Squadron Ten and the Service Force later in the war. 

21st Century Service Squadrons

Today’s fleet train will be woefully inadequate in wartime. Two aging submarine tenders, both at risk in Guam, a few floating drydocks, two hospital ships, and the small combat logistics force are all that is available to service a battle force of nearly 300 ships. With most maintenance done ashore in contractor facilities, sailors have lost the ability to conduct the deep maintenance and repair that their predecessors did as a matter of course. 

The Navy has started to procure new auxiliaries, but the penchant for making a ship a jack-of-all-trades has driven the Common Hull Auxiliary Multimission Platform to a price tag of more than $1.3 billion per ship. The Office of Management and Budget sent the Navy back to the drawing board. Ships take a long time to procure. The Navy would do well to buy more floating drydocks and a flight of the new National Security Multimission Vessels, a training platform for merchant marine academies, and integrate them into fleet logistics and repair operations now. With space for a thousand personnel, a helicopter pad, roll on/off capabilities, and container storage, they are flexible platforms that could provide a myriad of services. 

The aircraft carrier should form the core of a modern Service Squadron Ten to meet the CNO’s call in FRAGO 01/2019 for more agile and resilient naval logistics. Combat Logistics Forces require significant protection and must remain mobile to allow Navy and Marine Corps forces to conduct expeditionary operations in the Western Pacific. Sustaining distributed, far forward operations requires the Navy and Marine Corps to rethink how they supply , maintain , and repair forces in a true threat environment. Like the escort carriers that enabled logistics in World War II, the aircraft carrier must shift its role from generating strike aircraft to becoming the sustainment and C2 hub needed to run the war. With it, the air wing must change from primarily strike aircraft to mostly CV-22s. This would provide the requisite lift capabilities needed to support distributed operations while allowing for combat aircraft to deploy forward on expeditionary bases ashore or amphibious ships. 

The rest of the service squadron forms around the modern misfits: expeditionary staging bases (T-ESBs), staging docks (T-ESDs), expeditionary fast transports (T-EPFs), assorted supply ships, hospital ships, floating drydocks, tenders, and a host of combatants, ranging from littoral combat ships to amphibious ships to cruisers. This arrangement keeps the historical responsibilities of Service Squadron Ten alive by generating greater operational availability for combat forces and giving damaged ships an improved chance at survival. The mix of ships in the service squadron would allow for detachments to:

The combinations are limited only by the number of ships on hand. Establishing a rotation of combat forces from combat duty to lighter duty assigned to the service squadron would give crews a much needed respite from arduous combat patrols and to conduct deeper maintenance without having to return to Hawaii or the East Coast. 

Change the Operational Narrative

The best innovations in warfare do not result simply from deploying new technology, but from using technology differently than the adversaries expect . The linking of technology with doctrine enables revolutionary advances in how the Navy fights. Given that China has spent two decades optimizing its national forces to counter American carrier strike groups, the U.S. Navy has the opportunity to change the character of that fight in a single stroke by leveraging its history. Service Squadron Ten provided Admiral Nimitz and his commanders with the necessary facilities, capabilities, and logistics, to keep the press on the Japanese through sustained combat operations at sea. As Admiral Carter noted in Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil

“Daring initiative has been a characteristic of American operations in both strategy and tactics. Our enemies have known the book doctrines as well as we, but they could not throw the book overboard and try something new as freely as we. Thus at times we have had the advantage of projecting moves that they did not anticipate.”14

The Chief of Naval Operations should throw the book overboard today. 

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.


[1] Edward Miller. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991, pp. 75-76.

[2] Ibid, p. 62.

[3] Carter, p. 95.

[4] Ibid, p. 122.

[5] Ibid, pp. 221-222.

[6] Ibid, p. 91.

[7] E.B. Potter. Nimitz. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976, p. 265-266.

[8] Carter, p. 8.
“Status of the Navy.” United States Navy. April 29, 2020.

[9] Carter, p. 1.

[10] Ibid, p. 55.

[11] Ibid, p. 291.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p. 145.

[14] Carter, p. 331.

Featured image: USS Iowa (BB-61) in a floating drydock at Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 28 December 1944. (U.S. Navy photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Worldwide Ocean Governance: Protecting the Most Vulnerable Assets—Ports and Harbors

By Jack Rowley

Worldwide “Ocean Governance” asks the important question: “How can navies and coast guards better coordinate with local governments and international agencies in countering violence at sea? What lessons can be learned from instances of good onshore/offshore collaboration? How are governments working together across jurisdictions and in international waters to counter this threat?”

As a former U.S. naval officer, naval architect and ocean engineer, I recognize that this is a crucial question. However, I believe that when most people think about the worldwide “ocean governance,” they think of the safety of ships on the seventy-percent of the globe covered by water. That is a normal reaction. Conversely, I think in terms of the most vulnerable part of the equation: the ports and harbors from which ships sail and that (unwittingly) often serve as the conduit for illegal activities such as trafficking in persons, drugs and many kinds of contraband.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on the term “globalization” – the international interaction of information, financial capital, commerce, technology and labor at exponentially greater speeds than previously thought possible. Globalization has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. And most would agree that trade – carried primarily by sea – has been the engine of globalization in the past and continues to be so today. While most press reports have focused on the importance of ships in carrying this vital trade, these same accounts have failed to identify the critical nodes that support this globalization and burgeoning world trade.

Those nodes are the world’s harbors. From Shanghai, to Rotterdam, to Los Angeles, to other mega-ports, as well as hundreds of other, smaller ports, these harbors are critical to world prosperity. A disaster in one of them – an oil tank explosion, a fire or other catastrophe on a large oil tanker, or any of a host of other events – could close one of these ports for an indefinite time and also spill an enormous amount of pollution into the oceans. The challenge of providing comprehensive security for an average size port, let alone some of the world’s mega-ports, can sometimes lure port authorities into wishing away the challenge.

Port authorities must ensure port security twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. This task includes continuous inspection of port assets as well as on-demand inspections after storms or other disasters, threat detection and security response, ongoing surveys to ensure navigable waterways, hull inspections, and a wide-range of other missions. Port authorities must accomplish these myriad tasks while monitoring port activities’ impacts on the environment and maintaining a positive image with the local community.

Today’s State of the Art for Port Security

Current security measures in most ports involve monitoring the video provided by cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the ports’ expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of port authorities to provide comprehensive security and typically leads to serious – and potentially fatal – gaps in coverage.

Cameras offer one means of monitoring a port. That said, the human cost is often high. Someone must monitor the video for the cameras to have any purpose, let alone effectiveness. With some ports maintaining scores of cameras this entails having a command center and enough watchstanders to monitor all of the cameras in real-time, around the clock.

There are similar challenges involved in the use of manned craft to patrol a harbor of any size. Manned vessel operations are often limited by weather and water conditions. For most ports, multiple manned vessels are needed to guarantee sufficient revisit time to ensure that a threat has not slipped through the security net. Compounding the issue is the physical toll of riding a small vessel – either a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) or other craft. Unlike watchstanders on land who might be able to work shifts as long as eight or even twelve hours, pounding through often-choppy harbors in a RHIB or other small craft means that a watch rotation of somewhere between three and four hours is about all most people can endure.

All-in-all, this is an expensive undertaking. Moreover, there are many shallow areas throughout ports that are beyond the reach of any manned vessels. Even limited draft craft like RHIBs draw some water when they are loaded with people, communications equipment, weapons and the like.

Given the challenges of providing comprehensive security for ports with current state-of-the-art systems and capabilities, it is little wonder that port officials are searching for technology solutions that will enable them to provide better security, at lower costs, and without putting people at risk. Some have begun to turn to new technology like unmanned surface vehicles to complement current capabilities.

A Mega-Port with a Challenge

The Port of Los Angeles is the busiest port in the United States. This mega-port comprises forty-three miles of waterfront, forty-two square miles of water and eighty-six ship-to-shore container cranes. Last year, the Port of Los Angeles handled almost ten million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo. This volume is predicted to increase year-over-year. Additionally, POLA is scheduled to soon bring on a substantial liquid natural gas (LNG) handling capability.

Today, Port of Los Angeles (POLA) officials monitor the video provided by 500 cameras, and patrol the port with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide 24/7/365 security. Additionally, POLA has a large number of shallow areas throughout its forty-three miles of waterfront that are beyond the reach of any of the manned vessels.

Current capabilities to secure the Port of Los Angeles involve monitoring the video provided by hundreds of cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the port’s expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide around the clock security.

Port of Los Angeles officials must ensure security against a wide range of human attacks as well as natural disasters. One need only spend a short time on the ground and on the water of this port to understand the magnitude of the challenge. And what is crucially important is that the Port of Los Angeles challenge is not a unique one. It exists in ports from Singapore, to Antwerp, to Shanghai, to Rotterdam to many, many others.

Results of the Port of Los Angeles Demonstration

Port of Los Angeles officials had a mandate from a number of stakeholders to determine if using unmanned surface vehicles could help secure the port. The port invited Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) to visit and demonstrate the capabilities of their MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV). MANTAS is a high-performance USV built on a catamaran-style hull and comes in a number of variants ranging in size from 6-foot to 50-foot. A demonstration was conducted with a 12-foot MANTAS as it was currently available, and the 12-foot size would be the minimum size viable for conduct of any of the wide-variety of POLA missions described above.

The 12-foot MANTAS (T12) has a length of twelve feet and a width of three feet. It draws only seven inches of water. The vessel weighs 260 pounds and has a carrying capacity of 140 pounds. Its twin-screw electric propulsion prime mover enables the T12 to cruise at a comfortable 20 knots in sea state three.

The modularity of the MANTAS allows it to be equipped with a wide variety of above-surface sensors (EO/IR/thermal video) and below-surface sensors (sonars and echo-sounders), as well as other devices such as chem/bio/nuclear sensors, water quality monitors, and above/below surface environmental sensors. Real-time monitoring is provided by a MANTAS communications package that can support marine VHF, networked RF, 4GLTE, or satellite communications.

In their efforts to find an unmanned surface vehicle manufacturer to provide a port and harbor security demonstration POLA authorities did their due diligence that led them to MARTAC Inc. MANTAS had performed well in a port security demonstration conducted by the U.S. Army. Three MANTAS T-series vessels were part of the Mobile Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration in Concord, CA. The objective of this demonstration was to assess MANTAS’ ability to patrol and protect the harbor, and especially the loading of ammunition ships. For these missions, three MANTAS vessels, T6, T8 and T12, were used to perform different operations.

The MANTAS T6 was utilized as an intercept vessel to quickly address potential threats at high-speeds – up to 55 knots. It was equipped with a standard electro/optical camera focused on rapid interdiction and base threat identification. The second vessel was a MANTAS T8, with a medium performance envelope of 25 knots. Its role was as a forward-looking harbor vessel situational awareness asset. The T8 operated forward of a harbor patrol vessel working in areas that were not accessible with manned vessels.

The final vessel was a MANTAS T12 tasked with prosecuting above and below surveillance operations to detect and identify intruder vessels, divers, kayaks or other threats to harbor assets. The MANTAS T12 was tasked to detect and provide the precise images for operator threat identification to determine appropriate response level. The MANTAS boats, and specifically the T12, have an open architecture and modular design, which facilitates the rapid changing of payload and sensor components to provide day-to-day port security as well as on-demand inspections.

Port of Los Angeles organized their MANTAS evaluation into three segments:

  • An extended boat tour of the harbor so that MARTAC representatives could understand the entirety of POLA authorities’ span of operations.
  • A comprehensive briefing on MANTAS capabilities where MARTAC officials explained the capabilities of the various size MANTAS USVS.
  • A remote demonstration where port officials controlled and observed MANTAS operating remotely off the eastern coast of Florida.

Based on the results of this event, it was determined that the capabilities of this USV met the requirements for the Port of Los Angeles to use a USV to complement its extant monitoring capabilities. However, the Port further determined that a T12 was too small to accomplish the mission effectively. This determination, coupled with the suggestions of other port officials and U.S. Coast Guard representatives, resulted in MARTAC undertaking a process of “scaling-up” the MANTAS to larger 24-foot (T24), 38-foot (T38) and 50-foot (T50) vessels for conduct of the port and harbor security mission.

These larger size craft will provide better solutions for ports and harbors as they are more visible to ships entering and leaving the harbor, they can carry additional sensors and, most significantly, the larger craft provide for increased speed up to 80kts burst which would be used for unknown vessel intercept and identification. The larger MANTAS T24, T38 and T50 additionally provide for extended patrol distances and longer patrol endurance. A follow-up port and harbor security demonstration using both the T12s and a new prototype T38E was conducted in the Port of Tampa in October 2020. This demonstration, on site within the port, clearly illustrated the improvements that the larger craft brings to the mission success in the significant challenges presented within the realm of port and harbor security.

The Future of Port and Harbor Protection

The Port of Los Angeles event, coupled with the later Port of Tampa demonstrations, showed that commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned surface vehicles can conduct a comprehensive harbor security inspection of a mega-port through effective onshore/offshore collaboration. As facilities with longstanding needs to augment manned vessel patrol activities with emergent technology in the form of unmanned surface vehicles, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Tampa demonstrations provided best-practice examples of the art-of-the-possible for enhancing port security.

Until recently, the technology to provide reliable, comprehensive and affordable USV support to augment manned capabilities and expand the reach of port police at facilities such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Tampa did not exist. Today it is readily available in the form of commercial off-the-shelf unmanned surface vessels, and these can be harnessed to increase the effectiveness of port protection while driving down costs. The end result will be an enhanced comprehensive port security, not merely wishful thinking.

In an article in the January 2020 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Commander Rob Brodie noted: “When the Navy and Marine Corps consider innovation, they usually focus on technology they do not possess and not on how to make better use of the technology they already have.” Extrapolating his assertion to the multiple entities responsible for port and harbor security at mega-ports such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Tampa, one must ask if we are too slow to leverage an innovative solution that can be grasped immediately.

There is a distinct danger in waiting too long to put innovative COTS solutions to use. Mega-ports support globalization and the worldwide security and prosperity it delivers. Leaders should remain cognizant of the obligation and the challenge of protecting these vital nodes. Securing these ports must be a first-order priority for all nations. If successful, this will ensure that the most vulnerable assets in a quest for Worldwide Ocean Governance are protected.

LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley (USN-Ret) is a career Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer whose 22 years of active duty included nine years of enlisted service before commissioning. Since his retirement he has continued to work, as a Naval Architect and Ocean Engineer, with the marine ship design and construction areas in both government and commercial sectors. He has had extensive experience with unmanned surface vehicles including serving as the SAIC Lead Engineer in the early stages of the development of the DARPA/ONR Sea Hunter USV Trimaran now operating with the Navy in the Port of San Diego. He currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC).

Featured Image: Aerial view from the overhead the Port of Los Angeles, facing South, with Santa Catalina Island on the horizon. Photo credit: Port of Los Angeles.

Conventional Deterrence and the US Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now Pt. I

By Adam Taylor

Recent remarks by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM), highlights one of the most difficult challenges confronting US naval forces in the Asia-Pacific—America’s conventional deterrence posture in the region. He noted “the greatest danger for the United States in this competition [with China] is the erosion of conventional deterrence. Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order.” This statement deserves further consideration among naval observers given its assumptions about the nature of conventional deterrence, possible ramifications on the composition and disposition of US forces in the region, and implications for the Navy’s future force design. An assessment of the Navy’s recent “Battle Force 2045” vision against the utility of its traditional contributions to conventional deterrence and the implications associated with differing US and Chinese ideas about deterrence unfortunately demonstrates that the service’s future force design remains ill-equipped to address the deterrence deficit confronting the US.

Deterrence represents one form of coercive diplomacy, which the DoD defines as the “prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” Compellence constitutes a different form of coercive diplomacy, representing the “use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would.” States can employ these coercive approaches through various instruments of power in their pursuit of national interests.

Strategies of deterrence and compellence differ in their relationships to the prevailing status quo : Deterrence seeks to preserve the status quo, while compellent policies seek to alter it. Other important differences between both strategies include the passage of time and initiator of action. Deterrence strategies passively wait for the object of the deterrent strategy to initiate action, while compellence requires continuous and active efforts by the coercing state.

As a status quo great power, America’s deterrence paradigm informs the Navy’s contributions to the nation’s conventional deterrence posture. Three of its nine functional contributions to the joint force directly contribute to conventional deterrence posture:

  1. Conduct offensive and defensive operations associated with the maritime domain including achieving and maintaining sea control, to include subsurface, surface, land, air, space, and cyberspace;
  2. Provide power projection through sea-based global strike, to include nuclear and conventional capabilities; interdiction and interception capabilities; maritime and/or littoral fires to include naval surface fires; and close air support for ground forces;
  3. Establish, maintain, and defend sea bases in support of naval, amphibious, land, air, or other joint operations as directed.

The chart below from a Center for Naval Analyses report illustrates how the Navy’s deterrent contributions fit into the broader joint force deterrent posture.

Deterrence: Total Force View

The Navy’s ability to “loiter” and remain minimally intrusive highlights why the service is best suited to provide mobile, prompt, and flexible conventional deterrent forces that can sustainably project power without a footprint. The resources needed to deploy and sustain land forces may effectively signal a state’s deterrent commitment, but require time to generate and are relatively less mobile within a theater of operations. Conversely, air power can provide prompt response and minimally intrusive capabilities, but is limited by platforms’ relatively short time on station compared to naval assets. The Navy mitigates these issues through a variety of means, as noted in the same report:

“When maritime power is used, countries can keep from appearing to have an overly close relationship with the United States that might spark new, or enflame ongoing, socio-cultural tensions and violence, while at the same time enjoying the security benefits of US forces in the area vis-à-vis regional adversaries. In fact, if there is a continuing trend in which countries want completely new US security commitments and/or strengthened assurances of existing guarantees, but at the same time do not want to host US forces on their soil, maritime power may increasingly become the primary military instrument used to simultaneously assure allies and deter adversaries.”

Naval operations can simultaneously address the need for commitment without the costs associated with permanent military installations because they do not need basing or overflight rights like land or air forces and can maintain either an overt or “over the horizon” presence. These qualities led Oliver Cromwell to famously declare that a “man-o-war is the best ambassador.” They also demonstrate how naval assets can credibly communicate the commitment needed to deter without incurring political costs or unnecessarily antagonizing potential belligerents.

These qualities ensure the Navy remains a crucial element of America’s deterrence posture in the Asia-Pacific given the contestable nature of conventional deterrence. Prompt denial mitigates opportunistic aggression by limiting the likelihood of quick and low-cost victory. The Navy’s combination of air, sea, and land assets ensures the service has the organic ability to counter aggression. Similarly, the service’s ability to loiter in zones of contention for extended periods of time means the Navy can demonstrate the political resolve and commitment needed to convince potential belligerents to abandon hostile courses of action – but only if those potential belligerents find the deployed forces to be credible.

China, however, pursues a conventional deterrence strategy at odds with America’s deterrence paradigm. The PRC defines deterrence as “the display of military power or the threat of use of military power in order to compel an opponent to submit.” This definition encompasses both dissuasion and coercion in a single concept. Chinese military writing emphasizes that deterrence has two important functions: “one is to dissuade the opponent from doing something through deterrence, the other is to persuade the opponent what ought to be done through deterrence, and both demand the opponent submit to the deterrer’s volition.” Beijing’s definition of deterrence also suggests it views deterrence as a way to achieve a desired political outcome. Deterrence represents a means to a specific end. American discussions tend to characterize deterrence as a goal. INDOPACOM’s mission to field a “combat credible deterrence strategy…” highlights this distinction.

American versus Chinese Views of Deterrence

Strategy Definition Temporal Constraint Object of Force Characteristics
American Deterrence Dissuade an opponent from taking an unwelcome action by threatening the use of force. Occurs during peace time. Passively influence enemy’s intentions to prevent future challenge to status quo. Status quo posturing can be viewed as first strike preparations.
Chinese Deterrence Dissuade or coerce an opponent through the display of military power or threatening the use of force in order to compel an opponent to submit. Occurs during peace and war time. Requires object of deterrence to preference Chinese political interests at object’s expense. Multi-domain; preemptive; contests disputed sovereignty claims; crisis amenable.

The PLA pursues deterrence through a strategy of “forward defense.” This strategy calls for China “pushing the first line away from China’s borders and coasts to ensure that combat occurs beyond China’s homeland territory, not on or within it…China’s borders and coasts are now viewed as interior lines in a conflict, not exterior ones.” China incorporates a variety of conventional, space, information capabilities, economic, and diplomatic means into its deterrence policy tool bag. All of these measures combine to aide Beijing’s deterrence policy which aims to compel an aggressor to abandon offensive intentions or cause a defender to conclude the cost of resistance remains too high. The offensive nature of Chinese deterrence means Beijing would consider preemptive action during periods of tension should the PRC conclude an aggressor has decided to violate China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing’s use of force in its deterrence strategy also highlights the value it places on crisis and tension. While American policy makers might consider a crisis that challenges the status quo a possible point of deterrence failure, Chinese leadership views crisis as an avenue to achieve favorable political outcomes. A crisis or increase in tension that might not normally exist under the status quo allows the PRC to probe an adversary’s intentions, foment friction among allies, weaken an opponent’s resolve, or decrease the domestic political support for an adversary’s policies.

The divergence in deterrence theory and practice between both nations has important implications for the Navy’s future force design. China’s impressive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities combined with a deterrence strategy that favors crisis escalation and encroachment on other nations’ sovereignty challenges the Navy’s ability to effectively deter. The Navy can no longer assume that its ships’ ability to loiter in zones of contention will deter an increasingly capable Chinese military from taking unwanted action. Navy leadership also must reconsider if the fleet’s current composition and posture adequately conveys America’s daily commitment to its allies or provides a realistic deterrent against belligerent Chinese behavior short of war. Aircraft carriers, high-tech destroyers, and attack submarines do an excellent job demonstrating the Navy’s capabilities should conventional war occur, but do not necessarily represent the best choice when dealing with the daily and persistent malign behavior that China employs. These platforms cost a lot to operate and maintain which means the Navy cannot endlessly keep them at sea in contested areas. Furthermore, it likely strains Chinese credulity to believe that the US would employ its qualitatively superior platforms to respond to every escalatory action Beijing engages in against American partners. Washington would look overreactive and all too willing to consistently let its ships and sailors operate in a costly A2/AD environment.

All of these issues raise important questions about the Navy’s ability to deter Chinese aggression, manage escalation, and credibly prevail in a great power conflict. The future fleet must possess the ability to decisively win a conventional conflict while also maintaining the capability needed to deter aggression short of war. Beijing’s deterrence paradigm requires a navy that can compete with China across the entire spectrum of operations. Unfortunately, the Navy’s recently released “Battle Force 2045” concept falls short of these requirements with its over investment in surface combatants, under investment in uncrewed ships, and unrealistic assumptions about defense budgets.  A more thorough review of the Navy’s ability to respond to conventional aggression against Taiwan will demonstrate the service’s current shortcomings and the way ahead for a more sustainable and effective force design.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: INDIAN OCEAN (March 20, 2021) Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ryan Walsh, from Monroe, N.Y., watches the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) March 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wade Costin)