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Twenty-First Century Information Warfare and the Third Offset Strategy

The following article originally published at National Defense University’s Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

“While the United States and our closest allies fought two lengthy wars over the past 13 years—the rest of the world and our potential adversaries were seeing how we operated. They looked at our advantages. They studied them. They analyzed them. They looked for weaknesses. And then they set about devising ways to counter our technological over-match.”

—Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work

By James R. McGrath

It is well established that both state and nonstate adversaries are gaining parity with current U.S. military-technological capabilities, and as a result adversaries are eroding the tremendous asymmetrical conventional warfare advantages once exclusively enjoyed by U.S. forces.1 This leveling of the playing field has been enabled through decreased costs of modern information technology and low barriers of entry to attaining precision weapons; stealth capabilities; sophisticated commercial and military command and control (C2) capabilities; advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and relatively cheap access to commercial and government-sponsored space and cyber capabilities.2 As a result, in November 2014, then–Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the Defense Innovation Initiative to counter adversary technical and tactical progress that, if left unchecked, will ultimately hinder U.S. ability to project power across the globe and permanently challenge its aims of retaining its coveted status as a global hegemon.3 While there are many aspects to this initiative, the Third Offset Strategy, as outlined in policy, does not adequately address the need for advanced information operations (IO), particularly IO wargaming, modeling and simulation (M&S), and training systems. The purpose of this article is to make the case that increasing the investment in joint live, virtual, and constructive (LVC) IO wargaming and simulations will generate lasting asymmetrical advantages for joint force commanders and will significantly contribute to the achievement of the Third Offset Strategy.

U.S. Navy E-2C Hawkeye 2000 aircraft assigned to “Wallbangers” of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 117 approaches flight deck of USS John C. Stennis while ship is underway in Pacific Ocean, July 13, 2006 (DOD/John Hyde)
U.S. Navy E-2C Hawkeye 2000 aircraft assigned to “Wallbangers” of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 117 approaches flight deck of USS John C. Stennis while ship is underway in Pacific Ocean, July 13, 2006 (DOD/John Hyde)

Military Problem

The Defense Innovation Initiative is aimed at solving the problem of ensuring that lasting power projection capabilities are available to the U.S. military in pursuit of the Nation’s core and enduring national interests, most notably safeguarding national security, promoting democratic values, maintaining long-term economic prosperity, and preserving the current international order.4 The solution to this problem—one that has yet to be fully articulated and bounded in scope, much less solved—has been named the Third Offset Strategy, meaning that there are a series of strategic capabilities that must be developed to give U.S. forces a decisive military-technological offset that generates lasting asymmetrical advantages over any potential adversary for the next 25 to 50 years. The strategy is so named because there already were two successful offset strategies in the 20th century.5 The first was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s New Look Strategy during the 1950s, which sought to develop advanced nuclear weapons capabilities to offset the Soviet Union’s overwhelmingly superior conventional forces and nascent nuclear capabilities. The second strategy was Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s Offset Strategy during the 1970s, which was aimed at countering recent Soviet advances in both numerical and technical parity regarding its nuclear arsenal, coupled with sustained numerically superior conventional forces deployed in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe. Essentially, the U.S. Offset Strategy invested in stealth technologies, precision weapons, sophisticated C2 capabilities, and advanced airborne and space-based ISR that were ultimately revealed to the world during the first Gulf War.

As outlined by Secretary Hagel and currently being championed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, the Defense Innovation Initiative emphasizes three key areas for sources of innovation: long-range research and development, new operating concepts, and reenergizing wargaming efforts and techniques.6 Currently, most of the discussion regarding this initiative is overly focused on purely technical, materiel solutions, such as unmanned autonomous systems and sources of new global strike and ISR capabilities. Regrettably, the appeal for the development of new operating concepts and wargaming techniques seems to be overlooked in the media and most defense policy think tanks.

What many analysts fail to realize is that the operating environment, specifically the information environment (IE),has changed, and our adversaries are undermining our asymmetrical advantages through innovative use of the information space, particularly by operating in the informational and cognitive dimensions on a global scale.8 What should be obvious—but unfortunately is not to many military and defense planners—is that IO is precisely the tool set that joint force commanders already have to attack our adversaries’ newly found advancements in C2 warfare, ISR, and precision weapons. Unfortunately, for example, the Russians,9 Chinese,10 and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,11 to name a few, are now also demonstrating advanced forms of information warfare that continually undermine U.S. tactical prowess and enable successful antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies that are the root cause of the problem.12 For U.S. forces to achieve the Third Offset Strategy, the joint force must be able to achieve information superiority at the time and place of its choosing. To do that, the joint force must develop innovative operating concepts for IO, wargame them using a variety of computer-based methods, and then train to the newly discovered tactics, techniques, and procedures that are absolutely essential for 21st-century warfare—a type of warfare aimed at breaking the will of the adversary through control of the IE.

Currently, IO is often treated as an ad hoc, additive activity during most joint LVC training events; therefore, IO is routinely ignored or underutilized despite being a major component of every real-world joint operation since Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm13 and arguably in other forms, such as psychological warfare and deception, throughout all of human history.14 Much of the reason for this routine omission and lack of prominence in major joint LVC exercises is that military information support operations (MISO, formerly known as psychological operations), public affairs, electronic warfare (EW), cyber warfare, military deception (MILDEC), special technical operations, and other information-related capabilities (IRC)15 are difficult to simulate over a relevant exercise time horizon. Even more challenging is the ability to realistically but sufficiently model the physical, technical, and cognitive complexities of the IE as a coherent whole whose sum is greater than its individual parts. If this can be achieved, U.S. joint forces would be able to train in synthetic environments that would ultimately enable them to effectively maneuver within the IE, counter recent adversary military-technological gains and newfound information warfare prowess, and provide the baseline for a newly defined technical, military, and psychological offset.

IO as the Solution

By acknowledging the fact that adversaries are reducing our operational advantages and conventional overmatch through innovative use of the IE, it becomes increasingly imperative that U.S. IO training, wargaming, and operating concepts be improved. It is also important to emphasize that this improvement should not only mirror-image the activities of our adversaries, but also provide joint force commanders with a comprehensive set of tools and concepts that allows them to outmaneuver adversaries within the cognitive, informational, and physical dimensions of the IE. As a starting point, a brief analysis of modern IO reveals at least six interrelated IO lines of effort (LOE), which if truly integrated with each other could facilitate the Third Strategic Offset. These primary LOEs or mission areas are psychological warfare, C2 warfare, denial and deception, cyber warfare, engagement, and IE situational awareness.16

While on the surface some of these IO LOEs appear well-established IRCs, that is not the intent or the case. These highly complementary and interdependent mission areas are IRC agnostic—meaning that no one particular IRC is necessarily required for a particular mission.17 In fact, multiple IRCs applied in a combined arms fashion are a prerequisite to achieving success in any one of these critical mission areas. This idea is consistent with the accepted Department of Defense (DOD) IO definition and is precisely why they are considered germane to any serious discussion of future IO.18 The following discussion briefly highlights the need for further development and implementation of these six mission areas, as well as their relevance to the future joint force.

Generally speaking, psychological warfare is defined as actions against the political will of an adversary, his commanders, and his troops, and includes inform and influence operations directed at any third party capable of providing sympathy or support to both the adversary or friendly forces.19 This mission area directly targets the cognitive dimension of our adversaries’ operations in the IE and ultimately attacks their will to resist. It should be the primary focus of the joint force in order to ensure lasting tactical, operational, and strategic success, especially while state and nonstate actors are simultaneously competing for dominance in this highly contested space. After all, by definition, war as a contest of political wills by other means is the primary basis of most warfighting philosophies.20 Therefore, increasing the effectiveness of joint operations in this mission area would certainly require improved MISO, EW, cyber, and MILDEC capabilities and authorities at all levels of war.

C2 warfare is about controlling the physical and informational dimensions of the IE by cutting off an enemy force from its commander, key decisionmakers, or automated control systems through attacking vulnerable control mechanisms or by simply attacking the commander and removing him or her from the C2 equation, ultimately resulting in the collapse of his or her subordinate forces.21 Applying IRCs for C2 warfare purposes is one of the few ways to overcome the joint operational access and A2/AD problems. Using a combination of physical destruction, EW, cyber, MISO, and MILDEC capabilities would be indispensable to the process of systematically unravelling an adversary’s integrated air and coastal defenses; undermining his ballistic and cruise missile standoff weapons; and blinding his advanced land, sea, air, cyber, and space-based ISR platforms. Furthermore, there is a defensive aspect of C2 warfare that requires advanced electromagnetic spectrum operations, information assurance, and defensive cyberspace operations to ensure assured C2 over friendly forces on a global scale. Without a modern, robust defensive C2 warfare capability, U.S. global power projection is nearly impossible.

Denial and deception operations are a combination of operations security and MILDEC activities, supported by a wide-range of IRCs, to protect critical information, facilitate surprise, and deliberately mislead an adversary to achieve a tactical, operational, or strategic advantage. Denial and deception operations provide force-multiplying advantages by enabling operational access and joint forcible entry operations under A2/AD conditions and contributing to the cognitive demise of an adversary as part of the psychological warfare effort. In addition, counter–denial and deception operations are critical to future conflicts, as demonstrated by our adversaries’ skilled use of deception in Syria, Iraq,22 and the Crimean Peninsula.23

Cyber warfare in the IO context is about controlling the content and flow of information within the information dimension of the IE. It includes the convergence of the cyber and EW IRCs, where cyber is enabled at the tactical level through radio frequency spectrum operations; cyber warfare in support of the other five IO mission areas; and offensive cyberspace operations in support of traditional kinetic operations. For instance, a prime example of this IO mission area in action is the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, during which the Russians executed the world’s first synchronized cyber attack in concert with major combat operations, likely using both state cyber capabilities and nonstate hackers to attack key Georgian communications, finance, and government nodes prior to and during combat operations to control the narrative and pace of the psychological war as well as demonstrate Russian resolve and future deterrence capabilities.24 Furthermore, there is tremendous opportunity for future cyber warfare operations to: 1) support C2 warfare in A2/AD conditions by creating gaps and seams in an adversary’s defensive system of systems from standoff ranges, especially during the early shaping phases of an operation; 2) enable the psychological warfare effort through focused and broad social media messaging; and 3) support both the engagement and IE situational awareness efforts as message delivery and ISR platforms.

Then–Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announces Defense Innovation Initiative and Third Offset Strategy during Reagan National Defense Forum at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, November 15, 2014 (DOD/Sean Hurt)
Then–Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announces Defense Innovation Initiative and Third Offset Strategy during Reagan National Defense Forum at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, November 15, 2014 (DOD/Sean Hurt)

The U.S. Army has recently established engagement as a concept for a seventh warfighting function and defines it as influencing people, security forces, and governments across the range of military operations to prevent, shape, and win in the future strategic environment.25 While there are close similarities, in this context, engagement is an IO mission—not a warfighting function focused on the intersection between partnership activities and special warfare activities.26 In this context, engagement is about operating in the cognitive dimension of the IE through informing and influencing partner and adversary nations using a wide range of IRCs, including but not limited to media operations using public affairs and MISO. Engagement as an IO mission also includes public affairs operations to harden the friendly force against adversary psychological warfare. Moreover, for the foreseeable future, engagement will remain a combatant commander’s primary tool for Phase 0, steady-state, and theater security cooperation (TSC) operations, used to send signals to our adversaries and allies that we are committed to the current international order and a stable security environment. For instance, engagement could and should be used to amplify our TSC actions in the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility to ensure that Chinese psychological, media, and legal warfare27 are countered with the overarching goal of ensuring that our regional allies are able to observe our actions and interpret them as U.S. commitment to defend our common interests.

Lastly, IE situational awareness is defined as understanding past events within all three dimensions of the IE, tracking ongoing events, and being able to adequately model and reliably predict (or at the very least wargame) a wide variety of possible outcomes in support of the other five IO mission areas. These activities include not only all traditional intelligence disciplines but also the use of a broad range of IRCs operating on the battlefield as sensors, processors, and actors. In addition, IE situational awareness requires advanced M&S to aid IO planners and commanders in the extremely difficult task of understanding the dynamic, nonlinear, and ever-changing IE. Furthermore, IE situational awareness requires a detailed understanding of individuals, social groups, behavior dynamics, communication architectures, exploitation of narratives, and target audience vulnerabilities, as well as the newly emerging techniques of real-time, live big data analytics, social media scraping, and memetic warfare.28

IO M&S Requirements

As discussed, there is a known gap for joint force commanders to exercise their IO cell within the six mission areas outlined above. There is also a gap for exercising both supporting organic and non-organic IRCs and then integrating them with traditional kinetic fires. Closing this gap with computer-based M&S would ensure that joint forces are well trained in a repeatable and expandable synthetic environment prior to employment across the full range of military operations. This is particularly important because IO mission areas and their supporting IRCs are highly sensitive in nature, and live IO training events are nearly impossible to conduct. For instance, certain EW, cyber, and special technical operations capabilities must be well protected to achieve any form of technical surprise, and MISO, EW, cyber, MILDEC, and special technical operations also have uniquely strict political and legal sensitivities.

Achieving repeatable, scalable, and fully integrated simulation of the IE is not an easy task. However, if the Third Offset Strategy is to be realized, the Services and DOD must invest in materiel solutions to enable the joint force to train its IO forces in a synthetic environment. There are several key additional requirements for any useful automated M&S of the IE and IO for advanced wargaming purposes:

  • Must encompass a system-of-systems approach that includes training for individual IO and IRC mission essential tasks through the highest levels of a joint force’s collective-level training events. Examples include a range of immersive virtual environments for individual and small-unit IRC tactical trainers through high-level constructive simulations supporting strategic- and combatant command–level wargaming, capable of seamlessly integrating with each other as well as other kinetic and legacy M&S systems.
  • Must incorporate the full array of possible effects that can be generated by organic and non-organic IRCs from the strategic to the tactical level of warfare.
  • Must be interoperable with other joint and Service-level LVC M&S networks and systems.
  • Must be compatible with all major constructive M&S programs of record in order for IO M&S to be fully integrated into a single common tactical and operating picture.
  • Must be interoperable with current command and control systems and classified intelligence systems up to Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information and other high-level operational security control measures to be integrated into a single common tactical and operating picture.
  • Must incorporate open source media and the replication or emulation of social and traditional media for analysis, using advanced forms of data analytic techniques to simulate actions in the IE.
  • Must incorporate advanced decision support M&S techniques, including but not limited to artificial intelligence–enabled augmented reality, chatbots, and other expert systems to facilitate understanding of actions in the IE.
  • Must leverage state-of-the-art artificial intelligence algorithms, machine-learning software, and advanced M&S paradigms, such as agent-based modeling, systems dynamics, and game-theoretic modeling in a federated architecture, to accurately model complex, adaptive systems with the goal of replicating the behaviors and communications conduits of a vast array of thinking target audiences and their highly automated information systems.

Ultimately, the desired endstate for developing an advanced IO M&S capability is to ensure that there are highly trained forces ready to design, plan, rehearse, execute, and assess operations within the IE, particularly when confronted with a sophisticated, technologically enabled 21st-century adversary. This can and should be implemented via a family of tactical- through strategic-level M&S systems that adequately model and simulate friendly, neutral, and adversary decisionmaking capabilities, behaviors, and information systems as well as the complex feedback loops that comprise all relevant aspects of the physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions of the IE.

IO Considerations

There are five prominent counterarguments that immediately come to mind for not developing advanced IO M&S capabilities. These arguments range from the cost of IO M&S materiel solutions, the presence of other existing solutions, widespread doubts regarding the efficiency and efficacy of IO across the full range and spectrum of military operations, and the complex framework of legal and policy restrictions governing most joint force IRC employment.

The first counterargument is that developing IO M&S systems would be expensive and that the technology for simulating the IE is not mature. However, this is exactly the type of investment that the Defense Innovation Initiative is calling for: an investment that leverages advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, agent-based modeling, and big data analytics that our adversaries would not likely have ready access to exploit. This investment in IO M&S would also lead to new operating concepts that would be tested during high-level joint wargames using the very same systems, which is precisely the intent behind the second and third key areas for innovation outlined by the Defense Innovation Initiative.

The second counterargument is that the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are already investing in IO M&S through the use of the Joint IO Range and other cyber and EW initiatives. While that is a first step, the Joint IO Range is only a stovepipe capability for cyber warfare effects rather than a capability that truly exercises all relevant IRCs in support of joint operations—that is, something more than cyber and EW operations are required to realize the true potential for full-spectrum IO, specifically how to assemble a relevant array of IRCs aimed at placing an adversary on the horns of a dilemma and then inducing a complete collapse of their will to resist our aims and objectives. Without being able to model and integrate the cognitive, informational, and physical aspects of the IE in a coherent simulation, influencing adversary decisionmakers and their supporting systems would not be achievable to the level of what is required for the Third Strategic Offset.

Soldiers from Britain’s Royal Artillery train in virtual world during Exercise Steel Sabre 2015 (MOD/Si Longworth)
Soldiers from Britain’s Royal Artillery train in virtual world during Exercise Steel Sabre 2015 (MOD/Si Longworth)

The third counterargument is that IO is not suited for major combat operations, and thus many military planners perceive it as a tool only for counterinsurgency or irregular warfare, whereby keeping the violence threshold low or controlling the attitudes and the behavior of the local populace is paramount. This is not the case, however, since IO and IRCs have routinely been employed by U.S. forces throughout all phases of operations and all types of conflict, from World War II through Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Additionally, there is considerable evidence that increasing the lethality of operations using information warfare is central to the strategy of our 21st-century adversaries, most notably and recently demonstrated by the Russians operating in Ukraine and Syria.29

The fourth counterargument is that IO is not well suited for the strategic shaping and deterrence missions required by the Third Offset Strategy, or at least not as effectively as the physical advantages that the Second Offset capabilities have provided. However, in some sense, the luxuries that were afforded by the unprecedented freedom of movement, maneuver, and firepower that successfully held our adversaries in check for the past 25 years are also the root cause of our current military problem—namely that U.S. joint forces routinely win tactically and sometimes operationally, but continuously have their victories ultimately overturned at the operational and strategic levels, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ironically, it has been the overdependence on our physical, conventional superiority that has led the U.S. military to neglect the mental and moral aspects of warfighting, a deficiency that IO, by definition and if sufficiently raised to the appropriate level of prominence within U.S. warfighting doctrine, can immediately address.30 In addition, to further discredit the notion that IO is an ineffective strategic shaping and deterrence tool, it is a well-accepted fact that due to international legal, diplomatic, and political constraints, IO and a handful of select influence-oriented IRCs are our military’s only available tools to successfully prevent, deter, initiate, or close a conflict.

The fifth and final counterargument is that there are insurmountable legal and policy restrictions for the joint force to conduct full-spectrum IO. This is simply not the case. However, the two primary supporting counterarguments either revolve around U.S. Code Title 10, Armed Forces, versus Title 50, War and National Defense, arguments, or claim that the current review and approval processes for IRCs are too complicated to achieve timely and relevant effects in the IE. The first supporting argument is false because Title 10 and Title 50 issues have already been solved and are deconflicted on a daily basis using a highly complex but extremely effective ISR and strike network. This network is enabled by intelligence professionals and operators working side by side, both physically and virtually, and allows the lowest tactical formations to receive the benefits of strategic assets and vice versa. There is some truth to the second supporting counterargument that the review and approval processes are overly complex. Many IRCs do, in fact, require DOD- and national-level approvals. This is not true for all IRCs, however, and there are numerous IRC-unique programs already in place for military planners to immediately implement. In addition, all IRCs can be and already are implemented with great effect for those commanders with well-trained IO staffs. Hence, developing an IO M&S and training capability is actually part of the solution to the military problem and not an impediment. Lastly, as joint forces continue to demonstrate their increased proficiency for fighting and winning in the IE—and as our adversaries do the same—it is inevitable that over time, many of the authorities for certain sensitive IRC activities, currently held at the strategic level, will naturally be delegated to operational and tactical commanders.

Soldiers from U.S. Army’s 350th Tactical Psychological Operations, 10th Mountain Division, drop leaflets over village near Hawijah, Iraq, on March 6, 2008, promoting idea of self-government (U.S. Air Force/Samuel Bendet)
Soldiers from U.S. Army’s 350th Tactical Psychological Operations, 10th Mountain Division, drop leaflets over village near Hawijah, Iraq, on March 6, 2008, promoting idea of self-government (U.S. Air Force/Samuel Bendet)

Future Innovation

In the long run, creating the necessary technical innovation in the field of advanced IO M&S and training would no doubt lead to the maturation of capabilities and tactics needed to achieve the goals of the Third Strategic Offset. Furthermore, the gaps that IO M&S could immediately close are also the first steps in the necessary research, design, and development of an integrated global effects network that could and should act as the primary intellectual engine for an advanced, semi-autonomous global strike and ISR network—a network that has been considered the “holy grail” by those who already offer solutions to the Third Strategic Offset problem and that is a solution that is eerily similar to nefarious systems of science fiction literature and movies, such as The Terminator’s self-aware “SkyNet” and “Genisys” programs.31 The flaw in this popularized global strike and ISR network solution—other than the obvious science fiction connotations—is that it is short-sighted and deals only with the current problem within the physical dimension of the operating and information environments. The real solution is something far more complicated and worthy of the forward thinking required by the Third Strategic Offset problem set.

A better solution is an advanced, semi-autonomous hybrid kinetic and nonkinetic weapons system fully enabling the warfighter to, at a moment’s notice, conduct highly integrated, cognitively focused operations that are also simultaneously synchronized with other ongoing joint actions across the globe, as well as concurrently facilitating long- and short-term influence campaigns. Continuously and consistently striking at the will of our adversaries through the use of carefully selected physical, information, and cognitive-related capabilities should be the ultimate goal of this advanced weapons system concept. This system would facilitate maneuver warfare and mission command by integrating, synchronizing, and coordinating many different capabilities by different commanders at all levels directly against an adversary’s physical, moral, and mental critical capabilities. Again, this is something that clearly cannot be accomplished without advanced IO M&S accurately and continuously modeling the complex, nonlinear, and ever-changing IE. While the fusing of kinetic and nonkinetic modeling into a semi-autonomous global effects network might seem like material for science fiction, in the current era of machine-based learning and artificial intelligence–enabled autonomous vehicles, these capabilities are not too far over the horizon and are worthy goals for the ambitions of the Third Offset Strategy.

The military-technological gains of our adversaries over the past several decades are apparent and alarming. To counter this threat and meet the intended objectives of the Defense Innovation Initiative, a robust set of research and development programs, concept development activities, and wargaming efforts has begun to uncover a series of technologies required to achieve the Third Strategic Offset. While an advanced family of IO LVC M&S systems is not the only capability required to achieve this ambitious offset strategy, failing to recognize the prominence of IO in this new era would be a serious mistake. In addition, these IO M&S capabilities should be the foundation and focus of any future advanced, semi-autonomous global effects system. Therefore, advanced IO M&S is an absolutely indispensable capability that will fully enable the joint force to achieve lasting asymmetrical advantages over our newly emerging, emboldened, and technologically savvy 21st-century adversaries. JFQ

Lieutenant Colonel James R. McGrath, USMC, is the Information Warfare Department Head for Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic.


1 James R. Clapper, Opening Statement to the Worldwide Threat Assessment Hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee, February 9, 2016, available at <>.

2 Robert Martinage, Toward A New Offset Strategy: Exploiting U.S. Long-Term Advantages to Restore U.S. Global Power Projection (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, October 2014).

3 Chuck Hagel, “Secretary of Defense Memo: Defense Innovation Initiative,” November 2014.

4 National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, February 2015), available at>.

5 Martinage.

6 Hagel.

7 The information environment is an environment that is an aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information as defined by Department of Defense (DOD) Directive 3600.01, Information Operations (Washington, DC: DOD, May 2013), available at <>.

8 The information environment is comprised of three interrelated dimensions: cognitive, information, and physical. See Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, November 20, 2014), x.

9 Jolanta Darczewkska, The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare (Warsaw: Centre for Eastern Studies, May 2014), available at <>.

10 Larry M. Wortzel, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Information Warfare (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, March 2014), available at <>.

11 U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) G-2 Intelligence Support Activity, Complex Operational Environment and Threat Integration Directorate, Threat Tactics Report: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Fort Leavenworth, KS: TRADOC, November 2014), 1, 13–15, available at <>.

12 Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0 (Washington, DC: DOD, January 17, 2012), available at <>; and Joint Concept for Entry Operations (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, April 2014), available at <>.

13 John Broder, “Schwarzkopf’s War Plan Based on Deception,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1991, available at <>.

14 Jon Latimer, Deception in War (New York: Overlook Press, 2001), 6.

15 Information-related capabilities are tools, techniques, or activities employed within the dimensions of the information environment and can be used to achieve specific ends as defined by DOD Directive 3600.01.

16 Martin C. Libiki, What Is Information Warfare? (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 1995); Darczewkska; Wortzel; TRADOC.

17 Agnostic in this sense is based on the information technology context, where software and other processes are independent of hardware or various platforms. In this case, for example, psychological warfare objectives could be achieved outside the traditional doctrinal military information support operations construct with kinetic effects, maneuver, and other information-related capabilities (IRCs). Similarly, cyber objectives and denial and deception objectives could be achieved or supported outside the current cyber and joint military deception doctrinal framework using a variety of IRC effects—not to circumvent current DOD policy and authority framework but to simply acknowledge that there are other, perhaps more innovative means and ways to achieve the same ends.

18 Information operations are generally defined as the integration, coordination, and synchronization of IRCs to deny, degrade, disrupt, or usurp an adversary’s decisionmaking capabilities, people, and systems in support of a commander’s objectives as defined by DOD Directive 3600.01.

19 Libicki, 34.

20 Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. J.J. Graham (London, 1909), chapter 1, available at <>.

21 Libicki, 9–15.

22 TRADOC, 12.

23 Lucy Ash, “How Russia Outfoxes Its Enemies,”, January 29, 2015, available at <>.

24 David Hollis, “Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008,” Small Wars Journal, January 2011, available at <>.

25 TRADOC Pamphlet 525-8-5, Functional Concept for Engagement (Fort Eustis, VA: TRADOC, February 28, 2014), available at <>.

26 Ibid.

27 Wortzel.

28 Memetics and memetic warfare are used in the context of discrete ideas or units of culture being rapidly transferred to wide audiences, particularly over social media—that is, things “going viral” and their influence on cognition and behavior. See Jeff Giesa, “It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare,” Defense Strategic Communication1, no. 1 (Winter 2015), available at <>.

29 David Stupples, “How Syria Is Becoming a Test Zone for Electronic Warfare,”, October 9, 2015, available at <>.

30 Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Navy, June 7, 1997). Mental, moral, and physical aspects of maneuver warfare and the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy are discussed throughout the text.

31 Martinage.

Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 25, 2016) Sailors stand watch in the combat information center aboard USS Ross (DDG 71) Aug. 25, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)

Legitimacy at Sea: Is Sea Shepherd a Navy or Piracy?

By Joshua Tallis

A recent pair of dueling articles on CIMSEC sparked a firestorm of debate. The point of contention: does the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s (SSCS) fleet of whaler-chasing ships constituted a navy? The conversation was lively, informed, and freewheeling, bouncing from historical examples of British privateers to modern day terrorists in a bid to pin down a surprisingly elusive understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. Interspersed throughout this debate is a conversation on legitimacy and how it relates to defining a navy. Legitimacy touches on nearly every component of the arguments put forth by both the Affirmative and Negative articles. It is my belief that the resolution to this debate lies, in large part, on how we interpret such a loaded word.

Legitimacy and the State

When we are talking about legitimacy in the realm of politics and violence, the most fundamental question in international relations is who has the monopoly over the legitimate use of force (a la Max Weber). In the Westphalian system (which, despite news of its untimely demise, is still very much in force), only the state has the right to exercise violence. Legitimacy, violence, and the state are inexorably intertwined. And, as the Negative article points out, violence is truly at the center of this debate. Navies fight; an organization that is not coercive in nature could not even make the prima facie case for being a navy.

As a consequence of this nearly 400 year old understanding of sovereign legitimacy, very few would argue that a non-state body has the legitimacy to exercise violence. Even the nations that allow Sea Shepherd to operate from their ports, as the Affirmative article notes does happen, would never permit the organization to roguishly harass, ram, or board ships in their territorial waters. In the more extreme instances where a state authorizes Sea Shepherd’s involvement in kinetic maritime security operations (as detailed in the comments by Captain Paul Watson, ostensibly the actual founder of Sea Shepherd), the very sanctioning of the use of violence by the state reinforces the argument that only the state has the authority to legitimately employ force.

The associated argument that some states do not de jure recognize countries like Israel or Taiwan, and thus defining a navy need not be tied to a nation’s legitimacy, is creative but erroneous. Such a claim obfuscates the reality of their universal de facto recognition as sovereign states around the world, despite occasional political fictions maintained for domestic expediency.

More to the point, legitimacy is granted as much (if not more) by domestic consent than external validation. Under this interpretation, we could more reasonably debate the merits of regarding something like Hezbollah’s maritime components as a Navy, since the group has some internal validity and some external recognition. Of course, labels like paramilitary or terrorist organization are more appropriate even in that instance, as the group’s position as a sub-state entity clearly invalidates the notion that it has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.

Legitimacy and Semantics

This question of legitimacy also bears on the historical point brought up by the Affirmative article of eighteenth century privateers. Putting aside that contemporary, professional navies would have been unlikely to regard licensed privateers as peers (despite the quite genuine might of the latter), the fundamental point that the sovereign granted letters of marque to deputize privateer fleets again underscores the notion that legitimacy for violence stems from the authority of the state.

This last point informs an argument in the Negative article that a military is differentiated from non-state groups by the scale of the force it can exert. A navy, it argues, has warfighting capacity that exceeds the capability or intention of a non-state group like Sea Shepherd. Such an argument is semiotic, a way of understanding something through comparison to known others. The problem, however, is that a semiotic (and not theoretical) definition is vulnerable to false equivalencies. If a privateer fleet rivaled the local power of the Royal Navy, as some pirate bands did in the Golden Age of Piracy, a semiotic definition would backfire and elevate them to the status of a navy. Today, if a non-state actor (say a cartel) had the power to topple a small Caribbean nation, would the cartel be a military? Using the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence as our yardstick, the answer is clearly no. This approach negates the need entirely to define navies by their fighting capacity (something small states will be happy to hear).

The MY Steve Irwin going up river through Tower Bridge London 12 September 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)
The MY Steve Irwin going up river through Tower Bridge London 12 September 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are, of course, other important questions raised in this debate. Most centrally, why does a fleet have to be a navy? If we already have a word to describe a collection of ships, is it valuable to take a concept like navy (however nebulous, at least you ‘know it when you see it’) and widen its use so far you risk entirely deflating it? The answer may well be yes, but it needs defending. Lexicons, even if somewhat amorphous, have inherent value. The Affirmative’s argument about a post ­Westphalian system is an admirable attempt to define the need for that new lexicon, though one I find highly premature (and I staked a dissertation on elevating the significance of non­state actors).

Defining Piracy

Finally, if (as I have argued) Sea Shepherd cannot be regarded as a navy because its use of violence is either illegitimate or state­sanctioned, a follow on question emerges: is Sea Shepherd piracy? The answer, like the former debate, is far from clear. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft…” UNCLOS has, in the past, come under fire for separating piracy and armed robbery at sea by drawing an artificial distinction between acts of predation within or without territorial seas. As a consequence, many bodies (including the UN Security Council) prefer some version of the International Maritime Bureau’s definition, which is less territorially focused and more functional. According to the IMB, piracy is “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.”

East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. (Wikimedia Commons)
East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem, here, with either of these two most common definitions (legal or de facto) is that Sea Shepherd clearly employs coercion or force for political ends, not personal or private ends. Political ends are not a component of these definitions. One option, of course, is to argue that there exists an even greater need for a change in the lexicon on piracy than on navies.

Refining Piracy

Pirates the world over operate for a mixture of both private economic and broader political objectives. Pirates off Nigeria steal oil not only for financial gain, but to help fund political agendas as well (piracy typically peaks near elections in Nigeria). Pirates in Somalia hijack ships for astounding ransoms. They also cloak themselves in narratives of defending territorial waters against the predations of multinationals depleting fishing stocks and dumping toxic chemicals. Even the privateers of old, who often morphed into pirates themselves, attempted to form politically independent units in the Bahamas or Madagascar and fought in part to defend this short lived independence from the British or French monarchies. Jacobite-leaning pirates in the Caribbean even considered trying to help reinstate the Stuart line.

Instead of revolutionizing the use of the term navy, therefore, might we instead simply apply the term piracy as it conforms to its historical character, inclusive of both private and political ends?


Sea Shepherd’s fleet does engage in maritime violence and coercive acts. This was a prima facie requirement for even debating its eligibility as a navy. As Captain Watson noted in the comments of the original article, “Since Sea Shepherd was established in 1977 we have rammed more ships, sunk more ships, boarded more ships and blockaded more harbours than most of the world’s Navies.”

Without commenting on the ethics of Sea Shepherd, the organization’s coercive actions are clearly illegitimate in the current international system. Consequently, Sea Shepherd might fit far better into an updated definition of piracy than of navy. Such a definition, which conforms to piracy as it has been practiced for centuries, recognizes not only the pursuit of private wealth, but also the role of pirates’ political agendas—even if those pirates are fighting for ocean conservation.

Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.

Featured Image: Sea Shepherd ship MV Gojira, presently the MV Brigitte Bardot. (Sea Shepherd photo)

The Mobile Riverine Force as an Example for Riverine Ops in the 21st Century

This post first appeared on the Small Wars Journal and is republished with  permission. Read it in its original form here

By Rick Chersicla

An American Infantryman, laden with equipment and weaponry, steps off the ramp of a specially modified landing craft. He is not storming the beaches of Normandy or moving ashore on Guadalcanal – in fact, he is not even landing from the open ocean or a sea. Instead, this is the scene of a member of the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF), a joint Army-Navy venture formed during the Vietnam War. In an often-overlooked part of the war, soldiers and sailors worked together in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam to dominate the fluvial local terrain in the region—rivers, streams, and swampy rice paddies. Using World War II era equipment and creating tactics and techniques while under fire, the men of the MRF wrote the modern chapter on riverine warfare for the U.S. Army.

While preparing for riverine warfare is not a common task, it is not a new challenge for the U.S. Army. Since its inception, the Army has dealt with the tactical challenges caused by rivers – from New Orleans to Vicksburg, and from the Philippine Insurrection to the Rhine. Despite the fact that the Army’s experience with riverine warfare peaked with the MRF of the Vietnam War, the concept is not outdated.

"While Iraq is nearly entirely land-locked, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that cross that country are navigable, and ISIS has been using watercraft for a variety of purposes, including transporting fighters and conducting improvised explosive attacks." (CNN)
“While Iraq is nearly entirely land-locked, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that cross that country are navigable, and ISIS has been using watercraft for a variety of purposes, including transporting fighters and conducting improvised explosive attacks.” (CNN)

This topic is relevant for modern strategists for the simple reason that while new technologies and global politics rapidly change and influence the way we fight war, terrain is an enduring aspect of war. Simply put, geography will continue to contribute to how the Army fights its wars. Furthermore, with the increasing focus on operations in littoral regions, riverine operations are a natural outgrowth from littoral concerns if the military is serious about projecting power. In this paper, I seek to explore what could be considered a capability gap in the field of riverine warfare. Using a case study of the MRF as an example, I hope to discern lessons learned in order to guide the possible formation and training of a future joint force similar to the MRF.

Origins of the Mobile Riverine Force

While the MRF was a joint Army-Navy venture, it was established on the bedrock of experience that the Navy had accumulated in South Vietnam. In 1959, naval advisors were approved to accompany the South Vietnamese Navy on operational missions, provided that they did not engage in actual combat.  The primary focus of the naval advisors had been to build the interdiction capabilities of the South Vietnamese Navy along the coast. By 1961, as the number of advisors increased, the mission itself was expanded to include the task “patrol the inland waterways.” The early Naval advisors faced significant equipment challenges due to the lack of coastal or riverine crafts in the Navy’s inventory.

In addition to the dearth of equipment, there was a surprising lack of doctrine given the history of “brown water” warfare, as river fighting has occasionally been referred to. The Navy looked to the earlier experience of the French for inspiration. The French involvement in Southeast Asia provided a more immediate blueprint for the basis of American riverine operations in Vietnam.  Between 1945 and 1954, the French developed river flotillas, the navales d’assault (naval assault divisions), better know as the Dinnassauts. Organized by the French Army for transportation and patrolling, the flotillas could support roughly a battalion-sized element. The Dinnassauts were comprised of a variety of types of landing craft, generally manned by the French Navy. The composition of the American MRF would mirror some aspects of the French organization, but more importantly, would seek to avoid some of the weaknesses of the French Dinnassauts.

French riverines (dinnassauts) conduct operations in Vietnam during the late 1940s. (Histoire du Monde)
French riverines (dissannauts) conduct operations in Vietnam during the late 1940s. (Histoire du Monde)

The French Dinnassauts did not have a large landing force organically assigned to it, a point that was rectified by Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MACV) planners for the United States. One of the strengths of the MRF was its joint relationship between the Army and the Navy – the Army units of the MRF did not rotate out to other commands or locations, as had happened during the French experience.

Similarly, the lack of organic infantry posed a challenge for the French with regards to the base defense for the Dinnassauts. The MRF would solve issue a decade later by rotating organic forces through security duty while conducting operations. When reflecting on their riverine experience in Vietnam, the French concluded that two of the key improvements that would have increased efficiency were increased armament, and the permanent joining of Army and Navy forces for riverine operations. These lessons learned would influence the formation of the riverine forces during the American experience in Vietnam, and directly contributed to the MRF’s joint nature and extensive firepower.

With the departure of the French, American military personnel stepped in to advise the military of South Vietnam. U.S. Naval advisors were the first Americans to operate in any appreciable number in the Mekong Delta, where the MRF would eventually conduct combat operations. The Navy gained experience operating in the rivers and off the coast of the Mekong Delta with Task Force 115 (code named MARKET TIME) and Task Force 116 (code named GAME WARDEN). The sailors of MARKET TIME had the key task of interdicting any infiltration attempts along the coast, while the GAME WARDEN sailors focused on interdicting enemy lines of communications along the Delta’s river ways. While there were both tactical and operational successes in both MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN, the exclusively naval force did not have the ability to project combat power onto the riverbanks and shore line.

Modern small craft pins in the U.S. Navy draw on the heritage of Vietnam operations: a Patrol Boat Riverine is depicted centered under three stars representing operations GAME WARDEN, MARKET TIME, and SEALORDS. (USA Military Medals)
Modern small craft pins in the U.S. Navy draw on the heritage of Vietnam operations: a Patrol Boat Riverine is depicted centered under three stars representing operations GAME WARDEN, MARKET TIME, and SEALORDS. (USA Military Medals)

By 1966, General William Westmoreland began to see the importance of the Mekong Delta to the overall strategy of the Viet Cong. By this time, there was enough evidence that the Viet Cong sought to control the Delta’s Route 4 (the only real overland link between Saigon and the southernmost regions of the country) in addition to using the area to infiltrate supplies and manpower. The Mekong Delta was essentially the breadbasket of South Vietnam, providing the majority of the food and livestock for the rest of the country, and to lose control of the Delta would be a critical blow to the regime in Saigon.

While MARKET TIME and GAME WARDEN were disrupting the enemy’s logistics, it would take a significant number of ground forces to truly project combat power and clear the Viet Cong from the Mekong Delta. With the United States Marine Corps (USMC) elements in country fully committed to the northern portion of South Vietnam, the assault infantry element of the force would have to be provided by the United States Army. General Westmoreland accepted the proposal to create specialized units that could maximize the watery terrain of the Delta to seek out and destroy the Viet Cong, and the concept for the Mobile Riverine Force was born.

Much of the organization for what became known as the MRF sprang from a MACV study entitled Mekong Delta Mobile Afloat Force Concept and Requirements, published on 7 March 1966. While there would be some adjustments made to the initial recommendations, the key element articulated in the plan and later implemented was the utilization of naval ships for the basing of the MRF. Had the Army seized a portion of what little dry land was available in the Delta, it would have provided the Viet Cong with a propaganda coup in the heavily agricultural region – that the imperialist Americans were seizing the land of the farmers.

As a result, the base at Dong Tam, which would serve as the home base for the MRF, was created entirely by dredging sand from the My Tho River. In this way, the Army Corps of Engineers and Navy’s Seabees established a foothold from which the MRF could conduct operations in the Delta by literally creating one. This was an important departure from the French, whose riverine units had operated off of fixed land bases.

Riverine craft moored at Naval Support Activity Dong Tam in 1968. (Norman Belanger via
Riverine craft moored at Naval Support Activity Dong Tam in 1968. (Norman Belanger via

The Old Reliables Arrive

Providing the combat power of the MRF was the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. The 9th Infantry Division had been activated at Fort Riley, Kansas, on 9 February 1966, the only Army division specifically stood up for service in Vietnam. Colonel William Fulton, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, participated in what became to be known as the “Coronado Conference” in Coronado, California.

It was at the Coronado Conference that the leaders of each component of the soon to be joint venture, Captain Wade Wells for the Navy and Colonel Fulton, met to discuss the organization and command structure of the MRF. Neither Captain Wells or Colonel Fulton were named as overall commander of the MRF, instead, each officer would follow his own service’s command structure, with General Westmoreland himself being the first common command element. This unusual command relationship would prove to be surprisingly harmonious, with cooperation superseding service rivalries, and each element focusing on working together to accomplish the mission.

The MRF consisted of approximately 5,000 total sailors and soldiers. The Army compliment included the brigade headquarters, three infantry battalions, a field artillery battalion, and support troops, to include engineers. Due to the accumulation of surface water in the area of operations, elements of the MRF lobbied to increase the number of rifle companies per battalion from three to four, in order to allow the units to rotate their troops out of the Delta’s rice paddies. This change allowed for a drying-out period for those infantrymen who had been operating in the paddies inundated with water, without losing the operational tempo that was seen as a key to success by the senior leadership. 

Naval ships served as the transportation and logistics element of the joint undertaking of the MRF. At its core, four World War II LSTs serve as barracks ships, equipped with helipads and modified for riverine operations. Additional means of support included a repair ship and an LST that could carry ammunition for 10 days of operations, and food for 30 days of operations.

These support elements as a whole were referred to as the Mobile Riverine Base (MRB), and were capable of moving up to 150 kilometers in a 24-hour period. Perhaps most importantly, elements could launch on day or night operations after only 30 minutes at anchor. The ability to move a force that was tailored to the environment such extreme distances and launch operations so quickly gave the joint force the reach needed to bring the fight to the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta.

Several types of small craft provided the mobility and firepower components of the Navy’s contribution to the MRF, referred to by the Navy as River Assault Flotilla No. 1. The Armored Troop Carrier (ATC) was a modified LCM-6, a World War II era landing craft. The ATC had significant upgrades to the simple troop carrying variant of the 1940s, carrying twin 20mm guns, two .50-caliber machine guns, seven .30-caliber machine guns, and two 40-mm grenade launchers providing a significant punch in addition to its physical payload of up to 40 troops.

For situations that require even more firepower, the Monitor served in a “support by fire” capacity. The Monitors were essentially “the battleships of the force,” loaded with a 105-mm turret forward and an 81-mm naval mortar amidships, with .50-caliber and 20-mm guns on the aft portion of the craft. The last small craft that served a vital role with the MRF was the Assault Support Patrol Boat (ASPB), a radar equipped, double-hulled minesweeper. During movement, the assault support patrol boats provided reconnaissance and security to the force.

Two Vietnam-era "Monitor" riverine craft. The vessel at right has been modified to support C2 functions by replacing the mortar pit with a communications center. (Doug Lindsey via
Two Vietnam-era “Monitor” riverine craft. The vessel at right has been modified to support C2 functions by replacing the mortar pit with a communications center. (Doug Lindsey via

A striking shortfall of the formation and deployment of the MRF was the lack of dedicated riverine training. While Colonel Fulton had been relatively certain that his brigade would be designated as the brigade afloat for the MRF, the short period of time allotted for training led to a focus on counterinsurgency training. The training that the 2nd Brigade and the rest of the 9th Division underwent focused on lessons learned thus far by Army units in Vietnam, as well as current standard operating procedures for units already in combat. Additionally, Colonel Fulton felt that his brigade had to master “basic operational essentials” before moving on to the little-studied field of riverine operations. For some of the infantrymen of the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division, their introduction to riverine training was their assignment to the USS Benewah upon arriving in the Delta.

While the bulk of the infantrymen in the 2nd Brigade did not receive riverine training, the brigade leadership and that of the subordinate battalions did participate in a ten-day course at the Naval Amphibious School in Coronado, California. While short in duration, the course (which had been set up at the request of Colonel Fulton) gave the Vietnam-bound command teams and their staffs the chance to focus exclusively on the challenge of riverine operations for the first time. This short course took place at the end of November 1966, and the bulk of the Coronado-trained officers arrived in Vietnam on 15 January 1967, serving as an advance party. Over the course of 31 January and 1 February 1967, the main body of the 2nd Brigade disembarked at Vting Tau in South Vietnam.

By late January 1967, efforts were underway for the men of the 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division to receive riverine training “in-country.” The lack of time available for training at Fort Riley had prevented the unit from conducting a brigade-level training event in riverine operations, so a dedicated effort was made to provide at least a ten-day period of training. The 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment however, was only able to complete three days or the requisite training before enemy actions resulted in the assignment of a mission in the Rung Sat special zone. The resulting mission was referred to as RIVER RAIDER 1, and was the first joint operation by U.S. Army and U.S. Navy units that would constitute the MRF.

As a result of the lack of dedicated riverine training and the dearth of accepted riverine doctrine (or at least joint doctrine), innovation played a key role in the operations of the MRF. To support medical evacuation and resupply efforts, another form of technology was needed to compliment the river-borne units. The soldiers and sailors of the MRF created what the brigade commander referred to as an “aircraft carrier (light)” when a helideck was added to an armored troop carrier.

An armored troop carrier modified with a landing platform prepares to receive a UH-1 MEDEVAC helicopter. (Mobile Riverine Force Association)
An armored troop carrier modified with a landing platform prepares to receive a UH-1 MEDEVAC helicopter. (Mobile Riverine Force Association)

This practice spread, and most of the armored troop carriers eventually sported a one-ship landing zone that could support a light observation helicopter. The men of the MRF also had to innovate when it came to employing indirect fire assets. The original plan called for separate barges to carry an artillery piece, and the prime mover (truck) required to tow it off the barge, up the riverbank, and into a firing position. When operations began, however, it became evident that not only were most of the banks of the rivers too steep and slippery for this practice to be put into effect, but that there was a lack of dry firing points other than the scant number of roads.

The 3rd Battalion, 34th Field Artillery Battalion experimented with the Navy and eventually called for six riverine artillery barges to be built in Cam Ranh Bay and sent to the MRF. The final product could carry two 105-mm howitzers and troop housing as well as up to 1,500 rounds for the howitzers, with the LCM-8 that towed the barge carrying additional ammunition. These artillery barges would travel at night and anchor offshore to supply close-in artillery support during operations.  Colonel Fulton, the senior Army officer in the MRF, believed that the “floating” field artillery riverine battalion was the single greatest contribution to riverine warfare by the MRF.

The presence of the MRF is credited with turning the tide of the war in the northern Mekong Delta in the favor of the United States and South Vietnam during 1967 and 1968.  Until 1967, enemy Main Force and Viet Cong units had moved virtually unhindered through the Dong Tam area. The enemy’s freedom of maneuver was greatly reduced, two Viet Cong battalions were pushed from the more populated areas, and the overall security in the city of My Tho was improved.

Most importantly, with Viet Cong effectiveness reduced, Highway 4 was reopened in 1967 and produce from the agricultural heart of Vietnam was able to flow to market along the Delta’s main ground route, for both domestic use and export. Overall, the MRF contributed to the overall counterinsurgency effort of the United States by pursuing the Viet Cong into what had long been uncontested sanctuaries, and supporting the local economy by the attrition of the Viet Cong who had closed down Highway 4. Colonel (later Major General) Fulton, credited the organization and mobility of the MRF for its success, writing that “the Mobile Riverine Force, because of its mobility, strength of numbers, and Army-Navy co-operation, was capable of sustained operations along a water line of communications that permitted a concentration of force against widely separate enemy base areas.

Post-Vietnam Operations

With the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War ended, interest from both the Army and Navy in riverine operations waned. The task of training in coastal riverine operations fell to Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadrons (CRS) until 1978, when they shifted focus to exclusively support special operations. The Marines retained a small number of craft for riverine operations, but neither the boats nor the units were intended or capable of executing large unit operations.  

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a limited resurgence in riverine operations as first Marine and then Naval units conducted security patrols around dams and other key infrastructure. The Navy embraced the “brown water” concept in 2006 by establishing Riverine Group One (RIVGRU 1), which grew to become three Riverine Squadrons (RIVRONs). However, even this change was fleeting, and by 2012 the Riverine Groups had been consolidated with the Marine Expeditionary Security Squadrons (MISRONs), and reflagged as the Coastal Riverine Groups (CRG). One CRG is located on each coast of the United States, but with only one riverine company per squadron, the focus is overwhelmingly on maritime security.

Coastal Riverine Squadron Four (CRS-4) conducted well deck operations with the Mark VI patrol boat for the first time aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) May 15, 2016. (Naval Today)
Coastal Riverine Squadron Four (CRS-4) conducted well deck operations with the Mark VI patrol boat for the first time aboard amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) May 15, 2016. (Naval Today)

While the CRGs conduct a variety of important missions, ranging from port defense and harbor security to small unit insertion/extraction and tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, they lack the power projection that was available to the MRF of the Vietnam era. The Mark VI Patrol Boat, the most recently acquired craft for the CRF, contains a bevy of advanced systems and weaponry, and will surely provide security to littoral areas. However, with a capacity to support only an eight-man team, the Mark VI provides more of a sharp jab than a knockout punch when it comes to force. Most importantly, the emphasis for both the Mark VI and the CRF that owns it is on coastal, not riverine operations.

Riverine Operations in the 21st Century

There are several reasons why riverine operations deserve more consideration by the Army. Simply put, joint operations can be a complicated affair, one in which “on the job training” can be costly in both lives and resources. As Lester Grau points out, the coordination and “commingling of forces” in a situation such as riverine operations would happen at a fairly low tactical level, among organizations that tend to have the least amount of experience with joint operations. A more detailed study of riverine operations in the context of the current operating environment could mitigate friction and prevent growing pains in the future.

A 2014 research paper from the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOSCOE) identified capability gaps in NATO doctrine related to riverine operations. While the paper was commissioned at the request of the French, its authors believe that the trends identified within it could be useful to other countries as well. The most relevant finding to any future U.S. joint riverine force is the conclusion that these types of organizations work best when they are joint.

A joint force, unified under a single commander, would allow that commander to extend influence beyond the riverine environment itself. For example, while a purely naval force would be limited to the rivers themselves, a force that included a conventional infantry platoon or company could be disembarked to move overland or transported up minor waterways and strike at enemy locations. This finding is concurrent with the success the MRF enjoyed as a true joint organization.

Riverine operations in the 21st century may not always be as simple as an infantry squad in a small craft conducting security patrols near a dam. Rivers could provide the mobility for a unit to interdict enemy lines of communication, patrol unit boundaries and move supplies, in addition to move larger strike forces as was seen with the MRF in Vietnam. With the wide array of security challenges facing the United States, there are multiple locations that could feasibly host operations comparable to those of the MRF between 1967-1969, from the Niger River in West Africa, to the Yellow River in China.

Navigable river systems are key lines of communication on every continent except antarctica. (European Joint Research Centre)
Navigable river systems are key lines of communication on every continent except Antarctica. (European Joint Research Centre)

Riverine operations follows logically after the Navy’s newest planning consideration, that of littoral operations. Several of the largest maritime threats of the 21st century, including terrorism and piracy, occur in coastal areas as opposed to the open ocean.  Accordingly, the Navy dedicated significant time and money into developing the appropriate capabilities to handle threats in shallow, littoral areas. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has been lauded as the answer to these shallow water threats, possessing the ability to move quickly and with more agility than larger craft. The LCS in many ways has replaced the frigates that have historically operated along coastlines.    

The recent Sealift Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise (SEDRE) conduct in April 2016 by a brigade from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division gives further credence to the argument for this capability. The first SEDRE conducted since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began over fifteen years ago, it challenged the Army elements involved, as they have not been common practice. The Army brigade worked with the Navy’s Military Sealift Command to load and unload almost 900 pieces of equipment. This SEDRE demonstrates that the Army and the Navy have given at least some thought to larger scale joint operations, and as the lessons learned from this SEDRE are disseminated, more serious thought can be given to developing a MRB concept for the 21st century.

While the Navy has had the prescience to move away from strictly “blue water,” open ocean warfare and expand its field of view with regards to future threats, it is not enough. The focus on littorals, as evidenced by the development of the LCS, is only half of the equation. To be truly effective, the United States has to be able to project power everywhere, and the LCS is too big to navigate most rivers. A modern riverine force would be the logical extension of this littoral focus, and the answer to this problem should mirror many aspects of the Vietnam-era MRF. The LCS fleet being fielded by the Navy could probably serve in a role similar to the MRB of the Mekong Delta. The key is fielding an element that can move platoon and company sized formation, with the option of massing an even conducting battalion sized riverine operations. If this theoretical next step was taken, the biggest challenges would be finding the most appropriate modern craft to recreate the role of the ATCs and Monitors of the MRF.

Hardware Challenges

The focus on larger ships for littoral operations, and the trend of riverine operations being within the domain of Special Operations Forces (SOF), means that one of the largest gaps for potential riverine operations is in existing U.S. Naval hardware. There are several possible contenders for the type of craft that could comprise the fleet of a future MRF. The current workhorse the United States Marine Corps should be a logical option, but the venerable Marine AAV-7 is too small and provides too little by way of firepower to serve as a new ATC. The AAV-7 carries 21 combat loaded Marines, and is armed with a .50 caliber machine gun and 40-mm grenade launcher. While it is tracked, which means it can move from water to land seamlessly, it would not meet the necessary requirements. What a modern MRF would need is something closer to the ATC of the late 1960s, a craft that carry closer to 40 troops and boast a more formidable armament.

The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom has two variants of landing craft that could serve as a good example upon which to improve. The LCVP MK5 can carry thirty-five fully equipped commandos (or vehicles and equipment), and their Landing Craft Utility Mk10 can carry up to 120 fully laden commandos. While these two options are improvements over the AAV-7, they both still lack firepower.  Additionally, none of these craft boast the helipads the ATCs of the MRF came to employ.

An LCVP Mk VI and LCU Mk 10 from the Royal Navy conduct an underway demonstration in 2008. (
An LCVP Mk VI and LCU Mk 10 from the Royal Navy conduct an underway demonstration in 2008. (

The most likely course of action would have to be a dedicated effort to either build specific craft for platoon and company size riverine operations in the 21st century, or to significantly modify existing watercraft. The British LCVP MK5 is not very different than the existing American LCUs, but they both lack the protection and firepower to fulfill the role of an ATC. The modifications made to the LCUs of the 1960s that resulted in the ATCs were the results of lessons learned from the French and early American river operations. They key to successful riverine operations in the 21st century is the design and adoption of these boats now, so doctrine and tactics can be developed before the threats are ready.

In addition to protection and firepower concerns, a 21st century MRF would have several planning considerations that the Vietnam-era MRF did not. The modern military relies so heavily on tactical satellite (TACSAT) and other advanced communications that there would be a significant increase in the amount of electronics aboard the river craft. Additional steps would probably have to be taken to water proof and safeguard our current systems.

The increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the past two decades has changed, and continues to change, the face of war. To be relevant, any modern MRF would have to incorporate drone and possibly counter drone measures into operations.  Another key different between 2016 and 1967 is the weight and size of the aircraft being used for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) purposes. The UH-60, the current primary MEDEVAC helicopter, is significantly larger and heavier than the Vietnam-era UH-1s, a consideration that would impact the design and practicality of an onboard landing zone.

Training Recommendations and Conclusions

There are ways to explore this operational concept in a budget-constrained environment. While simultaneously codifying doctrine, acquiring equipment and developing tactics, techniques and procedures would have to be refined before any form of modern MRF could be deployed. While the capability gap exists, acquiring funding for a new initiative or type of unit can be a herculean effort. To train on this task while not creating a large specialized unit in a resource-constrained environment, one solution could be the creation of an equipment set similar in concept to the European Activity Set.

Soldiers from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division road test two M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles as they draw equipment from the European Activity Set at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany ahead of exercise Anakonda 16 (US Army)
Soldiers from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division road test two M2A3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles as they draw equipment from the European Activity Set at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany ahead of exercise Anakonda 16 (US Army)

The European Activity Set includes 12,000 pieces of equipment, including approximately 250 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) and self-propelled howitzers.   There are currently elements of the European Activity Set in Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria. Using that concept, units could rotate to a location, familiarize and train on the riverine craft as needed. An additional benefit to this model is that riverine training could be conducted by U.S. Army Reserve or National Guard units conducting Annual Training (AT), as well as Active Duty (AD) troops since none of them would normally own the requisite equipment. The naval component of this possible force could maintain the watercraft and become the repository of knowledge for the joint riverine concept.


While not advocating any modern gunboat diplomacy, the hard truth is that by not having the capability- the equipment, doctrine, training- the Army is providing an exploitable weakness to any potential enemies. In acknowledging that rivers are not “simply obstacles to be crossed,” but terrain that can be controlled, the argument for another look at riverine operations for the U.S. Army becomes more urgent.  The U.S. faces a long list of global threats, from Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) to increasingly belligerent states seeking to become near-peer competitors such as China or a resurgent Russia. The U.S. must make hard choices in assessing threats and determining how to resource its national security objectives. 

While the MRB was a necessity given the fluvial environment of the Delta, it also provided the MRF with mobility, and a semblance of security. The potential benefits of the ability to influence land operations while not appearing overbearing on the local population cannot be overstated.  While that idea may run contrary to population-centric COIN, the lack of a physical footprint could be helpful for a mission set consisting of surgical strikes and raids, or for training missions in which the local population is very concerned with Western influence.

Members of the Nigerian Special Boat Service pose alongside British counterparts. (Beegeagle.Wordpress)
Members of the Nigerian Special Boat Service pose alongside British counterparts. (Beegeagle.Wordpress)

Using Nigeria as an example, an overt presence of larger American units could play into the narrative of the local Islamist group, Boko Haram. Operating from a new-generation MRB would be one way to circumvent the jihadist narrative, while still providing train and assist capabilities, or conducting more kinetic, joint operations. Regardless of any altruistic intentions, the U.S. assumes the moniker of “imperialist” in the eyes of those opposed to U.S. involvement the moment a boot touches foreign soil, and operating on rivers may provide an alternative narrative.

History has shown that riverine warfare is an enduring part of warfare, and an acquired skillset. Given both the history of its occurrence, and the possibility of littoral operations in the future, it would behoove the Army to look more closely at riverine operations and pursue in some capacity a joint riverine organization. The situation may arise that more than a rifle squad or SOF team is needed to effectively project power. If a strong, joint riverine element can be developed, the U.S. can bypass the traditional practice of building up a beachhead, and the “ship to shore” way of moving combat power can truly shift to one of power projection from the littoral, “upriver,” to population centers.

The views expressed in his articles are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Rick Chersicla is an active duty Infantry Officer in the United States Army. He is currently pursuing a M.A. in Security Studies at Georgetown University.

End Notes

[1] The CJOSCOE study cited later in this paper defines fluvial in accordance with Joint Test Publication 3-06, describing the fluvial environment as terrain where “navigable waterways exist and roads do not, or where forces are required to use waterways, an effective program to control the waterways and/or indirect hostile movement becomes paramount.”  This rarely used term is ideal when describing riverine operations.

[1] Lester W. Grau and Leroy W. Denniston, “When a River Runs Through It: Riverine Operations in Contemporary Conflict,” Infantry, July-September 2014, 31.

[1] Thomas J. Cutler, “Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam”,(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 19.

[1] Cutler, Brown Water, 21.

[1] Cutler, Brown Water, 24.

[1] Cutler, Brown Water, 44.

[1] Department of the Army, Major General William B. Fulton, Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969, (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1985), 10. MG Fulton, given his experience as the former Brigade Commander of the Army element in the MRF, has authored a comprehensive study of the formation and tactics of the MRF.

[1] Fulton, Vietnam Studies, 10.

[1] Ibid, 11

[1]  Ibid, 11.

[1] Ibid, 16.

[1] Ibid, 24.

[1] Ibid, 24.

[1] Ibid, 24

Featured Image: A Patrol Boat Riverine (PBR) MkII conducts operations during the Vietnam War, 1968. (U.S. Army Transportation Museum)

Rotary-Wing Aviation in the Royal Canadian Navy

By Matthew Gamble

A key part of any modern navy is its rotary-wing component. The capabilities that helicopters bring to naval operations are essential in the context of modern warfare, and many large navies around the world boast impressive fleets of shipborne rotary-wing aircraft. Smaller navies, however, need to make due with much less, and there is perhaps no better example of a small navy employing its limited rotary-wing assets to the fullest extent as the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

Serving with the RCN for over 50 years, the Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King has been the backbone of the navy’s deck based rotary-wing aviation. Based on the American-designed Sikorsky SH-3, the CH-124 was introduced in 1963 to augment the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) abilities of RCN vessels in response to the growing threat of increasingly capable Soviet nuclear submarines. Since then, the aircraft has proven its versatility by filling capability gaps in the sometimes cash-strapped Royal Canadian Navy by conducting search and rescue operations, disaster relief missions, and even patrols to monitor water pollution. Given the smaller size of Canadian naval vassals, the RCN found the Sea King’s fold-up rotor and tail to be particularly useful as this allowed the aircraft to be carried on the Iroquois-class destroyers and Halifax-class frigates. Likewise, the aircraft’s amphibious hull proved to be popular among its pilots, as it enabled the aircraft to conduct emergency “waterbird landings” if the need arises. Overall the Sea King became a jack-of-all-trades for the RCN, with the aircraft being one of the busiest in the whole of the Canadian Forces.

IS2005-2137a 31 July, 2005 Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) region Crewmembers from HMCS Winnipeg's helicopter detachment prepare a CH-124 Sea King for flight operations in the Gulf of Oman. The Canadian frigate is part of Operation ALTAIR, Canada's maritime contibution to the U.S.-led coalition campaign against terrorism mission known as Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Photo: Sgt Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera Le 31 juillet 2005 Région Arabo-Persique Des membres de l’équipage du détachement d’hélicoptères du NCSM Winnipeg préparent un hélicoptère dans le but de participer à des opérations aériennes dans le golfe d’Oman. La frégate canadienne participe à l’opération Altair, la contribution maritime du Canada à la campagne dirigée par les É. U., menée par la coalition contre le terrorisme et connue sous le nom d’opération Enduring Freedom. Photo : Sgt Frank Hudec, Caméra de combat des Forces canadiennes. Image size = 9.86" x 5.34" 300 DPI 2960 x 1604 pixels
31 July, 2005 Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) region Crewmembers from HMCS Winnipeg’s helicopter detachment prepare a CH-124 Sea King for flight operations in the Gulf of Oman. (Photo: Sgt Frank Hudec, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Landing the Sea King on the deck of a small vessel in rough seas, however, still proved to be a significant challenge for the RCN. Nonetheless, an ingenious solution was devised in the early 1960’s by Canadian pilots of Experimental Squadron 10 (VX 10) based in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, with assistance from Fairey Aviation. What they developed was the world’s first Helicopter Hauldown and Rapid Securing Device (HHRSD), sometimes referred to as “beartrap.” To employ the retrieval device, a probe-tipped cable is lowered from the Sea King to the deck of the vessel upon which the aircraft is attempting to land. The ship’s crew then attaches the probe to a heavier cable and runs the assembly through the HHRSD. The cable is then winched back up and attached to the helicopter. Once secure, the pilot increases power and the cable synchronizes the helicopter’s movements with those of the ship. The pilot gradually decreases power and the frame of the beartrap steadily ‘reels in’ the helicopter until it touches down safely on the deck. In essence, the beartrap has allowed the RCN to conduct flight operations under even the most hostile weather conditions, and Sea Kings gained a respected reputation for continuing to fly during exercises and on joint-operations even when other NATO allies had suspended flight operations. To this day the beartrap stands as a significant Canadian contribution to deck-based rotary-wing operations, and the device was subsequently adopted by various navies around the world.

ASE Systems Off Helo Hauldown Landing of CH-124 Sea King aboard HMCS Charlottetown in July 2012 during OP ARTEMIS in the Gulf of Oman. (Steve Barnes via Youtube)

By 1986, the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) began to seek a replacement for the now aging Sea Kings. Problems with the aircraft’s transmission raised concerns about its safety and continued viability among DND staff in Ottawa. Nevertheless, the aging Sea Kings remained in service and were even pressed into action in the Persian Gulf in 1990. Shortly after this successful deployment, the Canadian Progressive Conservative government led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed a $4.4-billion-dollar contract with European Helicopter to replace the aging Sea Kings with a version of the AgustaWestland AW101 to be designated the CH-149 Cormorant in Canadian service. However, a year later, the newly elected Liberal government led by Jean Chretien cancelled the order and only a few Cormorants were accepted into service. It would be another ten years before the Liberal government would sign a contract procuring a new helicopter for deck-based operations. 

Following a competition to find a suitable replacement for the Sea King held by the DND in 2004, the Sikorsky H-92 Superhawk emerged victorious. Shortly thereafter, the Canadian Government announced plans to acquire 28 new Superhawks under the designation CH-148 Cyclone. The price tag of the deal was a whopping $1.8 billion, a very significant sum for a Canadian defence expenditure. Deliveries were scheduled to start in 2009, but repeated delays due to development problems with the aircraft pushed the initial delivery of six helicopters back to June 2015. These delays caused significant political fallout as a number of government ministers publically criticized the program because of the setbacks. Nevertheless, the Canadian Government announced it was moving forward with the deal. Currently, a total of nine Cyclones have been delivered, finally allowing for the gradual retirement of the long-serving Sea Kings.

Although it lacks the amphibious capability of the Sea King, the Cyclone’s performance characteristics are vastly superior, and the new aircraft will greatly enhance the rotary-wing capabilities of RCN vessels. In addition to the latest avionics, the Cyclone is equipped with Integrated Mission and Sonobuoy Acoustic Processing Systems developed by General Dynamics Canada. Furthermore, the helicopter’s armament consists of two Mark-46 Mod V torpedoes mounted on BRU14 electro-mechanical ejector racks and door-mounted machine guns. The Cyclone’s airframe also incorporates protection from both lightning strikes and high-intensity radio frequency pulses. These characteristics make the CH-148 a very capable machine comparable to other modern deck-based rotorcrafts, such as the Eurocopter Panther and the NHIndustries NH90 NFH.

HS28-2016-0001-011 One of Canada's newly acquired CH-148 Cyclone helicopters practices landing procedures on HMCS Halifax off the coast of Nova Scotia on 27 January 2016. Photo: Ordinary Seaman Raymond Kwan, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax. HS28-2016-0001-011 Le nouvel hŽlicoptre CH-148 Cyclone, acquis rŽcemment par le Canada, pratique des manÏuvres dÕatterrissages sur le Navire canadien de Sa MajestŽ (NCSM) Halifax prs des c™tes de la Nouvelle ƒcosse le 27 janvier 2016. Photo : Matelot de 3e classe Raymond Kwan, Services dÕimagerie de la formation, Halifax.
One of Canada’s newly acquired CH-148 Cyclone helicopters practices landing procedures on HMCS Halifax off the coast of Nova Scotia on 27 January 2016.(Photo: Ordinary Seaman Raymond Kwan, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax)

In the future, rotary-wing aircraft stationed on Canadian vessels will face a variety of challenges. Chief among these is the evolving threat posed by increasingly sophisticated Chinese submarines. Therefore, the ASW capabilities of the Cyclone could ultimately prove indispensable to the RCN in future operations, especially in contested waters or in Canada’s vulnerable Pacific littoral areas. Similarly, as Canada pivots to take a more active role in the Arctic, the Cyclone will play a key role in that theater of operations as a countermeasure to the potential threat posed by surface or undersea incursions. In addition, the RCN is also increasingly called upon to assist in disaster relief operations where reliable helicopters often prove to be highly valuable. The Cyclone will certainly be called upon for search and rescue, as well as tactical transport.

Perhaps the greatest test the new helicopter will face will be to operate effectively in a low budget environment.Nevertheless, the Cyclone’s introduction into service signals a new era of enhanced safety and capabilities for rotary-wing operations in the Royal Canadian Navy, and the new aircraft will undoubtedly form the mainstay of this vital component for many years to come.

Matthew Gamble is an International Relations student at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. His interests primarily focus on the foreign policy of Eurasian states, and new developments in warfighting capability.