Bringing Back the Fleet? A Review of NWP-3 Fleet Warfare, Change 1

By Barney Rubel

The Navy recently issued Change 1 to one of its key new doctrine books, Navy Warfare Publication 3, Fleet Warfare. The change was issued to update the definitions of a number of key terms to keep them in accordance with joint doctrine. The issuing command, the Navy Warfare Development Center, says “Ultimately, Change 1 to NWP-3 enhances fleet-centric warfighting effectiveness through establishing a framework for the execution of fleet warfare at the operational level of warfare.” Certainly there is an advantage to maintaining consistency across the services in the definition of terms, but NWP-3’s contribution to warfighting effectiveness is less than it could be due to its generic approach to the subject. Granted, it is an unclassified publication, but nonetheless, it could have offered more practical detail on the evolving nature of the Navy’s approach to warfighting. An unclassified practical framework would be vital to operationalizing the Navy’s renewed emphasis on fleet-level warfare.

Beyond including the definition of various terms like strategy, operations, tactics, and mission command, NWP-3 describes the three levels of war and the command and control arrangements the U.S. has established to direct forces within that framework. Focusing on the Navy piece of the action, NWP-3 defines numbered fleets as the Navy’s highest tactical-level commands, although in certain cases like Fifth Fleet (specific fleets are not mentioned in the text) the fleet staff might also function as a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) in which case it would constitute an operational-level command. The Navy components – Pacific Fleet, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and U.S. Naval Forces Northern Command – are the Navy’s highest operational level of war commanders. This is depicted conceptually by the graphic below.

So long as the strategic issue is confined to a particular theater, this graphic – and the U.S. military command structure (Unified Command Plan or UCP) – is an accurate depiction of how things would work. But for the Navy, there is a problem associated with the fact that the oceans of the world are all connected, essentially forming one single world ocean that cuts across combatant command jurisdictions. While NWP-3 mostly confines its discussion to the framework of the UCP, it makes one excursion that acknowledges the disconnect. It quotes a Chinese white paper that declares the PLAN will focus on the far seas, which sets up a global challenge, and then says on page 10:

“Warfare against an enemy of such resource and reach will require the Navy to operate as a globally unified force, orchestrating naval power in a manner that overcomes geographic, organizational, and administrative boundaries. It will require that commanders align, share, and synchronize assets, capabilities, operations, and understanding across the globe while balancing challenges unique to their regional theaters. Fleet warfare will require the holistic, integrated application of distributed naval power across an entire fleet, working in concert with other fleets in other operational areas to confound, dislocate, and defeat our enemies. Campaigns must account for fleet warfare on a global scale, and form an integrated, coherent unity of purpose, effort, and effect across the naval, joint, and likely coalition force. Fleet warfare in an era of GPC requires integrated and distributed multifleet operations on a global level.”

It then promptly reverts back to the theater-by-theater model for the following 35 pages, until it offers an impromptu solution on page 45:

“Fleet warfare in this GPC era will require global coordination that crosses traditional CCDR boundaries. The supported CCDR’s JFMCC will integrate naval activity across CCDR lines under the authorities of a support command relationship. The SECDEF establishes and prioritizes support between and among CCDRs via the support command relationship. When a supporting commander cannot fulfill the needs of the supported commander, the SECDEF will be notified by either commander and will rely on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Services to determine solutions.”

While this may reflect what is permissible in the context of the UCP, it is an awkward and probably slow arrangement that does not seem consistent with the description of global naval coordination requirements on page 10. If NWP-3 is trying to advocate for something different in the way of global naval C2, this is a pretty subtle and frankly weak approach to doing so. The discrepancy between the two paragraphs could be confusing, especially as a doctrinal publication trying to navigate the seams of the issue.

This harkens back to the early 2000s when the Navy was attempting to achieve some degree of global coordination due to shrinking force structure. It established Tenth Fleet to globalize cyber operations, the Global Engagement Strategy Division N52, and according to then-Fleet Forces Commander Admiral John Nathman, a global network of naval component commander operations centers that would coordinate with each other. It is still not clear how much global coordination the Navy is able to accomplish on its own recognizance. This has relevance due to calls by certain members of Congress for the Navy to develop a new global maritime strategy, something which in theory the Navy has no authority to do under the joint structure.

NWP-3 unfortunately does not spend a lot of time discussing naval operations in a joint context. When it does, it says:

“Future fleet warfare will increasingly rely on capabilities not necessarily under direct fleet command. For example, special operations forces, embarked on fleet vessels, could be used to enhance targeting, communications, and other capabilities. Capabilities can also include those inherent within other fleets, or resident within naval forces already in theater. Joint forces, now including space and cyberspace, all have capabilities that can support fleet warfare. Additionally, national capabilities are increasingly responsive and pervasive as technological advances expand across the maritime domain. Furthermore, integrated campaigning below the level of armed conflict provides opportunities in peace to find and refine efficiencies that are practical in war.”

The significant omission in this paragraph has to do with the Air Force and airpower. A large portion of a fleet warfighting manual ought to outline how Navy forces would work with the Air Force in defense (integrated air and missile defense), offense, and scouting. Air Force bombers have considerable maritime strike and mining capabilities that could be magnified via Navy cooperation. Large swaths of ocean create significant demand for domain awareness and tactical-level intelligence that aircraft can provide. Land-based aviation typically outranges carrier aviation and could offer major augmentations to carrier concepts of operation. The other services also deserve more explicit mention. The Marine Corps is getting into the anti-shipping business and the Army is talking about it with its Multi-Domain Operations concept. Why would the Navy’s capstone document on fleet warfighting not discuss all this? Mentions of potential joint collaboration should not be limited to brief hypotheticals, but rather expanded into detailed frameworks for how the joint force can bolster the capability of the fleet and vice versa. Despite being major service-level warfighting concepts, neither DMO nor EABO are mentioned in the document.

As a nit, NWP-3 asserts that British Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar saved Britain from the threat of a French invasion. In fact, Napoleon had already abandoned such plans before the battle took place. The reality is more nuanced; the collective “mission command” decision-making of a number of Royal Navy admirals, along with inspired strategic directives by the First Sea Lord Barham, confounded Napoleon’s attempted combinations in the months preceding Trafalgar to lure Royal Navy forces away from the English Channel so he could mount an invasion. Trafalgar was a kind of coup de grace that freed Britain up to take the strategic offensive. A Navy doctrinal publication should exhibit more careful historical appreciation.

The publication seeks too much erudition in the theoretical realm, leading to a rather confusing conclusion: “Recent history suggests that fleet warfare will be a protracted affair of episodic decisive engagement as each side seeks degrees of sea control suitable for supporting operational objectives.” This illustrates the overall problem with the publication – it resembles more theoretical Naval War College reading than it does substantive and practical guidance for the fleets to operationalize.

The establishment of the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander headquarters and its embedded Maritime Operations Center (MOC) spelled a new approach to fleet-level command and control. This should be the focus of NWP-3. How do all the elements of a fleet, including surface, air, subsurface, logistics, and others work together? How do they all work in conjunction with joint and perhaps international forces? The theory of operational art is a good thing for officers to learn, but there is currently a gap between that and the teaching of unit and community tactics that needs to be filled. There must be some unclassified way of discussing fleet-level operations that bridges the operational and tactical levels that is specific enough to provide practical clarity for MOC watchstanders, JFMCC planners, and individual unit commanders. NWP-3 should ideally constitute a bridge between the strategic and tactical levels, yet it makes no mention of Admiral Bradley Fiske’s injunction that no strategy is valid unless it takes account of the tactics required to make it work. The idea at the fleet level is to set units up for tactical success rather than counting on them to exhibit tactical genius to make up for deficiencies in broader operational design.

Despite the theorizing about DMO and fleet-level concepts, right now the fleet would fight a conventional war at sea by mainly using carrier strike groups and submarines to some extent. P-8s would conduct anti-submarine warfare and such MQ-4s as are available would provide reconnaissance and surveillance, and perhaps targeting. How exactly the various elements would do this is naturally classified, but the fact that the main source of anti-ship capability still resides in the carrier air wings is something that should be explicitly talked about, and then how the other elements of the Navy support it. At a minimum, such a description would provide a baseline for thinking through other ways of doing business at the fleet level. The Navy needs clearer guidance to bridge its current formations and force packages into the larger-scale combat entity that fleet-level warfare is intended to wield.

NWP-3 is an indicator that the Navy is having trouble shifting gears from a service that has engaged almost exclusively in projecting power over the shore from unchallenged sanctuaries at sea to a force that will have to fight for command of the sea and conduct sea control operations in hostile environments. Moreover, it also indicates the Navy has not gotten joint in its heart despite the years of bureaucratic requirements set up by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The latest capstone document Advantage at Sea, along with its wingman, the CNO’s NAVPLAN, together offer a somewhat better vision of fleet warfighting than NWP-3, although those visions are also hardly satisfactory. As the Navy considers how to transform itself for fleet-level warfare, it will need stronger and clearer frameworks for what exactly that may look like in practice.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 20, 2022) The U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), steams in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Milius (DDG 69), Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship, JS Setogiri (DD 156), Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and the Royal Australian Navy supply ship, HMAS Stalwart (A304), in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Heather McGee)

3 thoughts on “Bringing Back the Fleet? A Review of NWP-3 Fleet Warfare, Change 1”

  1. To get a sense of what Capt Rubel is discussing, read Fleet Admiral King’s series of reports to the Secretary of the Navy, the US Navy at War, 1941-1945.
    One of the major themes King returns to time and again is how the Navy was operated as a global force with force allocation decisions coordinated across all theaters (ex, Normandy and Saipan invasions in June, 1944).

  2. The subject of NWP 3 is “Fleet Warfare” defined as the conflict between naval forces for freedom of action throughout the maritime domain.” (Page 4). The term Fleet Warfare suggests the US Navy believes that in a war with China or Russia the contest would be focused on and limited to naval forces. While NWP-3 acknowledges some support from other forces, the document studiously avoids the joint word, and conveys the sense that Fleet Warfare commanders will coordinate with but are not an integral component of the joint force. The reality is that war in the maritime domain is a joint endeavor led by a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander who commands not only assigned US Navy forces but supporting forces of other services such as the Air Force; and, depends on support from Space Force and national agencies.

    NTTP 3-32.1 Subject; Maritime Operations Center, April 2013 contains a comprehensive description of the organization and functions performed at the operational level (JFMCC) and the relationship with supporting and subordinate tactical commands that have to plan and execute the missions assigned. Though It could be improved, it appears to be the best unclassified presentation of the functions of the MOC, and the relationship of the JFMCC operational and subordinate and supporting tactical echelons.

  3. Recalling the quarterly message I was required to write and release, which prescribed which SecondFleet Hulls would be required in an a much believed USSR/US Atlantic area conflict gives me a serious head ache even thinking about this scenario. In the Atlantic we never forgot about convoys and anti submarine warfare and even up until I retired in 1989 is was for front in my mind. The Pacific has been “book shelved” far too long. It’s time for new doctrine across the full spectrum, but most notably the approaches to Straights of Mallaca, which include all of South China Sea, and the defense of ocean between Kodiak and San Diego, just for starters.

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