Category Archives: Fleet Warfare Week

Fleet Warfare Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Last week CIMSEC featured analysis submitted in response to our call for articles on fleet warfare. Authors explored many themes, including the potentially decisive tactic of homeport strikes, more deeply integrating fleets into acquisition and interagency processes, and putting the surface fleet at the forefront of U.S. sea control doctrine.

As great power competition endures and intensifies, navies must consider the specter of fleet warfare and what it implies for naval policymaking and reform. Intense clashes between fleets may decide major historical outcomes and radically alter the balance of power for years to come.

Below are the authors who featured during Fleet Warfare Week, and we thank them for their excellent contributions.

Homeport Strike: A Decisive Tactic in Fleet Warfare,” by Hee-Cheol Jung

“The criticality of homeport infrastructure to naval power makes bases an attractive target. Neutralization of a homeport not only stands to neutralize the warships located at the homeport, but can significantly damage the operational longevity of fleets operating at sea.”

The Numbered Fleet: The New Main Supported Force,” by Major Robert Holmes, USMC

“The Navy’s numbered fleets must now prepare to assume the role of the primary supported unit in a major theater of operations, one that can integrate effects in all domains in pursuit of large-scale sea control. Significant changes can be made in how fleets integrate with the acquisitions process acquire capabilities and how they leverage non-Defense Department agencies.”

Transitioning Away from the Carrier Strike Group and Toward Distributed Maritime Operations,” by CDR Anthony LaVopa, USN

“To effectively win a war against a peer competitor, the Navy should transition to the decentralization and distribution inherent in DMO by empowering the surface fleet to take the lead in prosecuting sea control.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image:  The PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer Kunming (Hull 172) fires its close-in weapons system at mock aerial targets during a maritime actual combat training exercise in April 2018. ( by Yu Lin)

Transitioning Away from the Carrier Strike Group and Toward Distributed Maritime Operations

Fleet Warfare Week

By CDR Anthony LaVopa, USN

The United States Navy and its allies have enjoyed uncontested control of the world’s oceans for over thirty years. But the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been ambitiously pursuing the development of its military to compete with the U.S., specifically in the maritime domain. The PRC has invested in a large Navy, a land-based mobile rocket force fielding long-range anti-ship weapons, and a modernized air force. These investments in military buildup and modernization demonstrate the PRC’s urgency to be ready for a conflict sooner rather than later. President Xi has told the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027.1 However, the U.S. military, specifically the Navy, does not demonstrate that same sense of urgency. Decades spent fighting insurgents have diverted the Navy’s attention away from its original purpose – establishing and maintaining command of the seas through fleet warfare.

Since World War II, the Navy’s principal means of seizing command of the seas has been the carrier group. However, the service’s warfighting concept of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is fundamentally predicated on a different set of capabilities and force packages. The Tri-Service Maritime strategy Advantage at Sea – defines DMO as “an operations concept that leverages the principles of distribution, integration, and maneuver to mass overwhelming combat power and effects at the time and place of our choosing.”2 To effectively win a war against a peer competitor, the Navy should transition to the decentralization and distribution inherent in DMO by empowering the surface fleet to take the lead in prosecuting sea control.

The Challenge to Decentralize and Distribute

The decentralization of combat power is required to conduct effective DMO. Following the logic of the memorable Captain Wayne Hughes, DMO aims to secure the operational advantage of firing effectively first.3 It can enable a good offense and subsequently reduce the requirement for a good defense. However, generations of naval officers have matured through their careers using the carrier-centric Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) construct. This construct is inherent to using the CSG as the primary element of naval power projection, but it is in tension with the broader fleet-level principles of DMO.

Since the Gulf War, the CSG employment model has evolved into a managed defense of an aircraft carrier (High-Value Unit – HVU) to ultimately preserve the capabilities of the carrier air wing. The platforms and weapons in today’s surface fleet are those that have been optimized to support the CWC construct as part of a CSG. They are relatively short-range weapons that rely on exquisite platforms to deliver them in large quantities. Aside from the air wing, the rest of the platforms in the CSG are having their armaments, dispositions, and roles mostly driven by defensive imperatives.

Captain Bill Shafley argued that “as the DMO concept suggests, disaggregation of the CSG is driven now by lethality and survivability.”4 The essence of DMO should be to distribute and decentralize combat power based on the long-range fires capability carried by surface combatants. The vast majority of the Navy’s cruise missile firepower and vertical launch cell capacity is fielded by the surface fleet, which operates significant numbers of platforms compared to the handful of capital ships in the fleet. But the surface fleet currently lacks the long-range weapons required to mass anti-ship firepower in coordinated offensive strikes as envisioned by DMO.

The distribution of ships still assigned to a CSG is not DMO in the fullest sense, but rather just a CSG spread out over larger distances, while still using a centralized model of command and control in the form of CWC. The viability of the CSG in a high-end threat environment depends upon an initial campaign of DMO, which sets the conditions and creates a more permissive operating environment for high-value units. Forces that operate under DMO must be able to penetrate into an adversary’s weapons engagement zone and take on risks that high-value units cannot. Tethering the surface fleet to capital ship defense therefore hamstrings the broader operational potential of the fleet and diminishes the extent of physical distribution that is possible.

To realize the full potential of DMO, the Navy must pivot its focus away from platforms and focus on the underlying weapons and effects that deliver the critical enabling capabilities. As Dmitry Filipoff notes, “The ability to combine fires against warships heavily depends upon the traits of the weapons themselves. These traits offer a valuable framework for defining the aggregation potential of individual weapons and the broader force’s ability to mass fires.”5 The transition to a distributed surface force with widely-fielded anti-ship weapons could tip the operational advantage toward the U.S. Navy and set the stage for new fleet-level force packages that are less centered on capital ships the Navy can ill afford to lose.

(Jan. 22, 2020) Ships from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 23 transit the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh)

Effective DMO Requires Long-Range Fires

The ability to deny an adversary navy the opportunity for a decisive opening salvo depends upon a fleet having a superior first strike capability. However, U.S. naval forces lack meaningful, long-range anti-ship weapons that they can employ in a distributed nature because the fleet has relied principally on the concentrated firepower of the air wing. This critical dependency on carrier aviation’s short-range anti-ship fires significantly limits the degree to which the Navy can effectively execute DMO. In his article “DMO – A Salvo Equation Analysis,” Captain Anthony Cowden (ret.) noted that:

“the single point of failure for a distributed force is the ability to coordinate a strike on another force. This coordination becomes even more complex with greater distribution of one’s force, and even more so when the enemy’s force is distributed. If the distributed force cannot coordinate their fires, they lose in every scenario.”6

This points to how the Navy must ensure it has the requisite long-range anti-ship weapons and the networks to guide them so it has a variety of resilient options for maritime strike. Without the right long-range weapons, the viability of DMO is heavily degraded because forces will struggle to effectively distribute from one another and maintain the ability to concentrate firepower. This is the situation the U.S. Navy is in today with its CSG-centric paradigm that features only a small amount of anti-ship firepower that is almost entirely concentrated in the carrier. As Filipoff notes in his article describing the current state of U.S. anti-ship firepower shortfalls and the challenges of using the air wing to sink warships, “…it would mean coming to terms with how the vast majority of the U.S. Navy’s force structure and missile arsenal is hardly able to threaten modern naval formations with anti-ship firepower.”7 This lack of weapons from a range and quantity perspective severely handicaps the proper implementation of DMO.

The Navy has made some modest strides in increasing the lethality of its surface ships, particularly with SM-6 having the capability of operating in an anti-surface mode. However, the most common variant of SM-6, with a range of about 150 miles, is still well out-sticked by the Chinese surface fleet’s YJ-18 with a range of 330 miles.8 Although newer variants of SM-6 and Tomahawk are expected to provide much longer-range anti-ship capability, it is doubtful whether ships would have the capacity to carry a meaningful amount of these weapons for these roles, since the need for heavily biasing VLS loadouts toward defense is driven by the capital ship-centric design of current U.S. naval operations and force packaging.

The PLA Navy Type-055 guided-missile destroyer Wuxi steams to a designated sea area during a maritime training exercise. ( by Wang Zezhou)

The transition to surface ships loaded with long-range, offensive weapons substantially changes the overall importance of each individual combatant. No longer will surface ships simply be a defensive adjunct to the carrier and its air wing. Soon surface ships will possess the firepower to execute sea control operations, and in ways that could be more aggressive than what is prudent for capital ships. The transition to fleets centered on numerous distributed surface ships executing core offensive missions, while operating at significant distances from the nearest U.S. capital ship, is the true essence of DMO.


The intent of DMO should not be to render the CSG irrelevant, but rather to ensure that the CSG is not relied upon as the sole vanguard of sea control in the initial stages of a high-end conflict against a peer competitor. DMO must delay and degrade the decision-making of adversaries while denying them the opportunity to engage first. It is about establishing and maintaining temporary sea control for operational needs and sea denial all other times. The transition away from using the air wing to prosecute sea control means fully embracing the true manifestation of DMO – lethal, distributed surface ships that can combine long-range fires across broad geographic spaces.

However, given the state of weapons development and procurement, the Navy’s lack of progress in implementing the DMO concept is concerning. Against a peer competitor, the appropriate type of long-range weapons, fielded in sufficient numbers to support effective DMO, will increase the survivability of fleet and ensure its ability to maintain the initiative by firing effectively first. This transition away from the longstanding muscle memory of fighting under the CWC construct and toward a concept of using large numbers of coordinated but distributed surface units to launch fires will be essential to winning modern fleet warfare.

Commander Anthony LaVopa commanded the USS Hurricane (PC 3) and also served as a DDG-1000 requirements officer at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He recently graduated with a Masters in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College as a Halsey Group Fellow and is currently the Prospective Executive Officer (PXO) of USS Bulkeley(DDG 84). 



2. “The US Tri-Service Maritime Strategy,” Strategic Comments 27, no. 5 (2020): p. iv-vi,

3. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).


5. Dmitry Filipoff, “FIGHTING DMO, PT. 2: ANTI-SHIP FIREPOWER AND THE MAJOR LIMITS OF THE AMERICAN NAVAL ARSENAL,” Center for International Maritime Security, February 27, 2023,

6. Anthony Cowden, “DISTRIBUTED MARITIME OPERATIONS – A SALVO EQUATION ANALYSIS,” Center for International Maritime Security, March 23, 2023,


Featured Image: Ships participating in Valiant Shield 2020 steam in formation while E/A-18G Growlers and FA-18E Super Hornets from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, a P-8 Poseidon assigned to Commander Task Force 72, and U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors and a B-1B Bomber fly over the formation. (U.S. Navy photo)

The Numbered Fleet: The New Main Supported Force

Fleet Warfare Week

By Major Robert Holmes, USMC


As the nature of combat in the maritime domain continues to intensify– in terms of size, scale, complexity, and consequence – the U.S. Navy must seek out and implement numerous structural changes now if it wants to win the next fleet-level fight. Gone are the days of smaller naval formations, such as amphibious readiness groups or specified task units, acting as supporting forces that assist a land force’s limited objectives. The Navy’s numbered fleets must now prepare to assume the role of the primary supported unit in a major theater of operations, one that can integrate effects in all domains in pursuit of large-scale sea control. Significant changes can be made in how fleets integrate with the acquisitions process acquire capabilities and how they leverage non-Defense Department agencies. Purposeful and urgent action is needed now if the Navy is to win the future fleet-level fight. 

Operational-Level Trends

Future great power war will almost certainly feature a requirement for large-scale and continuous sea control. This requirement for sea control stems from the likely objectives of future wars and the need to keep options open. Maritime access will be essential for projecting U.S. power into contested areas, maintaining vital links with allies, and for maintaining options for opening new fronts against adversaries. Adversary objectives will in turn hinge upon the degree of sea control they can secure in support of their critical objectives, such as invading Taiwan or threatening NATO partners from maritime flanks. Sea control will enable the broader fulfillment of the joint force’s objectives across multiple domains and will serve as a major operational-level objective in its own right.

This requirement for sea control is a marked departure from the wars the U.S. has fought since 1945. Vietnam featured practically no fleet combat, nor did the limited campaigns in Grenada and Panama. The U.S. deliberately ceded localized sea control during the initial stages of Desert Storm in order to prevent a premature maritime engagement, but commensurately allowed the Iraqis to mine sea lines of communication in their own coastal waterways.1 This then necessitated a time- and risk- intensive de-mining campaign after the cessation of hostilities with Iraq.2 The Global War on Terror and its two main fronts – Afghanistan and Iraq – likewise did not involve clashes over sea control. Neither country had a functioning navy to contend with and the U.S. Navy was able to provide support to land forces with relative impunity.

As the necessity for massive sea control increases, so too does the complexity of achieving it. The days of the decisive naval battle could be over, and the Navy may need to pursue a more cumulative campaign of gradually eroding the adversary’s combat power, much as how Ukraine has against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.3 In support of such a campaign, the Navy’s fleets must find a way to mass the effects of their weapons systems and ISR platforms without massing the physical signature of their ships.

China’s approach to warfighting encourages this rethinking at a much larger scope and scale. China likely does not want to meet American fleets head-on in a massed decisive battle. China is currently establishing a defense posture, both on its mainland and throughout its near seas region, that could prevent hostile forces from massing for a decisive engagement while allowing China to fulfill regional objectives.4 In contrast to the prevalence of unmanned vehicles in Ukraine, China’s anti-ship missile arsenal is a powerful asset that is designed to keep American fleets at bay and at risk. By imposing this separation, China can secure sufficient freedom of action within a protected bubble and dictate the terms of potential engagements.

The difficulty of penetrating into China’s A2/AD bubble creates a challenging set of operational requirements for U.S. fleets. Fleets must now reach beyond their organic capabilities if they are to prevail in future fleet-level warfare.5 Other entities throughout the joint force, and even whole of government, will be needed to set conditions in their respective domains to help win future fleet battles. Direct engagement and liaison with numbered fleet commanders and their staffs will be necessary for many parts of government. As the major supported entity, fleets must now fulfill the role of the great integrator. U.S. fleets need to be ready assume the mantle of main effort across the joint force and be prepared for the responsibility of integration.

Deepening Fleet-Level Integration

The Navy can do several things now to manage the aforementioned operational problems, mainly the requirement of achieving sea control and facilitating cross-domain reach at long range. The first is the acquisition of technology. Numbered fleets must be more deeply involved in the acquisition and force development process, from the initial definition of requirements, to subsequent tactical development and training reform, to the actual employment of a specific capability in combat. This process as it stands now is too decoupled from the tactical end user, fleets included. The nature of fleet-level warfare compounds the negative effects of this decoupling, because while fleet warfare is fought at the tactical level, it is won at the operational level.6 This necessity for operational-level victory and the nature of its scope forces fleet commanders to employ a wide variety of capabilities with different spans of influence. This variety of capability difficult to reconcile into an integrated whole, especially when siloed vendors, program offices, and service leaders do not readily involve end-users until well after a capability is established and fielded. Fleet commanders are then put into the position of having to reconcile a wide range of capabilities into an integrated approach at the operational level of war, even if that level was not factored into the original requirements of the capabilities.

Tactical users of emergent capabilities are forced to receive a specific piece of equipment or capability, determine if it meets their needs, then determine how to employ it in combat. Follow-on corrective action and tactical development is often necessary to meet warfighter needs well after a capability has been declared operational. The efficiency and effectiveness of this process can improve substantially if end users, in this case, fleets and their commanders and staffs, are involved from the very beginning of the acquisitions process. Tactical and operational considerations should feature much more prominently alongside the technical and engineering considerations that usually dominate the early acquisition process. The more commanders are involved in the acquisitions of their own equipment and capabilities, the more prepared they will be to integrate them into their broader operational-level constructs.

The inverse of the above point is another benefit to this “early and often” method of acquisitions – the more in tune fleet commanders are with all of their capabilities and their originating requirements, the more prepared they will be when one or more of these capabilities is taken off the battlefield.7 The enemy’s vote can and will force fleets to fight not as they are when they leave port, but as they are when they commence combat operations. Commanders can build branch plans, much as they do now, concerning the removal of specific capabilities and their effects in time and space. Commands should know how to win if their weapons guidance systems are jammed, if they cannot communicate with lower echelons, if the information environment is heavily saturated, if space-based ISR is not available, or any number of possible contingencies. If a fleet commander and their staff has consciously built the requirements for their desired effects early enough in the acquisitions process, then they will likewise have time to build branch plans that use other capabilities to compensate for the loss of desired effects. This is akin to General Eisenhower’s prescient adage – “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”8 The more involved fleet commanders are in acquisitions, the more prepared they will be to employ capabilities when most needed, and by extension, the more prepared they will be to prevail in combat despite the loss of these very capabilities.

The second focus area is fleet integration across the joint force and whole of government. The demands of long-range influence and cross-domain reach at the fleet level necessitates widespread integration of the fleet across many sectors of government. The Navy’s sister services are a logical starting place. If it is determined that a particular numbered fleet and its campaign for sea control is the main operational objective in a given theater, then other players in that theater should adjust to strengthen the influence of this fleet. U.S. Air Force bomber squadrons should have fleet liaison officers to influence targeting decisions and the joint fires process. Army ground combat formations could ensure their land-objectives explicitly support the fleet’s campaign for sea control, likely through the seizure of land objectives that may influence the fleet’s ability to maneuver, and providing sensor coverage and killchain support in key areas. The Space Force has a plethora of capabilities, both in terms of ISR and targeting that fleets could surely put to use. Finally, the Marine Corps is especially tailored for this integration, as its nascent operational concept, the Stand-in Force, is designed to support fleets by contesting key maritime terrain from concealed land positions, all in an effort to enable the fleet’s success. Many elements of the joint force needs to consciously appraise their ability to support numbered fleets as the primary supported actor in a major theater of operations.

The Navy should not stop at leveraging the support of only the military, as the rest of the government has unique abilities to help fleets fight. All U.S. State Department embassies have political and military staffs that can shape the political environment in which a particular war is fought, both before and during hostilities. The intelligence community and its web of agencies is a major resource when it comes to collection and targeting in all domains. The Department of Transportation can play a critical role in mobilization and surge support. Many other government departments and agencies need to consider how they can contribute to fleet actions and be thoughtfully integrated into the plans of fleet staffs. The net of liaison officers should be cast as widely as possible, with all enablers involved as early and often as possible in the planning process.


The main mover and doer in the Navy is the numbered fleet, and the time is now to better enable these fleets for successful maritime combat in the near future. The importance of sea control is only increasing as the world becomes more interconnected and America’s potential adversaries become more belligerent in the global maritime commons. China is setting challenging conditions for the future maritime fight, and these conditions are complicating matters for the Navy and its fleets. These complications create the requirement for long-range and cross-domain reach at the theater level. These realities compel the Navy to more fully integrate the fleets into both acquisitions and force development, and with a wider scope of government partners. Through these efforts, the U.S. Navy can prepare to assume a role it has not assumed since World War II, that of the joint force’s main supported force in a major theater of operations.

Major Robert Holmes is a MAGTF Intelligence Officer and Eurasian Foreign Area Officer stationed at the United States Embassy in Riga, Latvia. Before his FAO training, he spent his formative company-grade years at 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, where he commanded at both the platoon and company level. In addition to CIMSEC, his writings have also appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette and the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings.


1. Department of the Navy, Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare (Norfolk, VA: Naval Warfare Development Command, 2021), 31.

2. Department of the Navy, Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare, 31.

3. Department of the Navy, Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare, 33.

4. Robert Holmes, “The Navy–Marine Corps Team Must Prevent an American Moskva in the Pacific,” Proceedings 149, no. 2 (February, 2023):

5. Department of the Navy, Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare, 8-10.

6. Department of the Navy, Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare, 27.

7. Department of the Navy, Naval Warfare Publication 3: Fleet Warfare, 54.

8. Angel F. Garcia Contreras, Martine Ceberio, and Vladik Kreinovich, “Plans Are Worthless but Planning Is Everything: A Theoretical Explanation of Eisenhower’s Observation,” in Decision Making Under Constraints, ed. Martine Ceberio and Vladik Kreinovich (Switzerland: Springer Cham, 2020): 93-8.

Featured Image: Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG 100), Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104), Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Murasame-class destroyer JS Kirisame (DD 104), and Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) Sejong the Great-class guided-missile destroyer Sejong the Great (DDG-991) sail together during a trilateral maritime exercise, Nov. 26, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Isaiah M. Williams)

Homeport Strike: A Decisive Tactic in Fleet Warfare

Fleet Warfare Week

By Hee-Cheol Jung

A fleet’s homeport performs vital functions that sustain naval power, including ship repair, resupply, maintenance, and training. The criticality of homeport infrastructure to naval power makes bases an attractive target. Neutralization of a homeport not only stands to neutralize the warships located at the homeport, but can significantly damage the operational longevity of fleets operating at sea.

The most infamous example of homeport strike is the attack on Pearl Harbor, highlighting how the major operational value of this type of attack can make for a critical war-opening move. The U.S. Navy considered similar strikes against its Soviet rival during the Cold War. In 1977, U.S. Navy Admiral Thomas Hayward, then commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, devised a strategy of directly attacking the homeport of the Soviet Pacific Fleet in Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula by using a fleet of four carrier battle groups. The neutralization of the Soviet Navy’s Pacific Fleet homeport would not only help ensure the security of U.S. allies, it would also set the conditions for projecting power deeper into the Soviet homeland. Homeport strike has also prominently featured in the war in Ukraine, with strikes against Russian warships and naval infrastructure in the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean homeport of Sevastopol. These strikes have been effective enough to force the relocation of Russian naval forces away from their traditional homeport and into less developed bases that are farther from the battlespace.

The forward magazine of the destroyer USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. (Photo via U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

In a war with China, the U.S. would be able to leverage a much more credible threat of homeport strike compared to China, given how U.S. forces would be operating in an expeditionary nature far from home and in China’s front yard. This asymmetry may weigh heavily upon Chinese naval strategists, who must cope with the constricted geography of the first island chain and the close proximity of multiple U.S. allies to Chinese Navy homeports.

If successful, a homeport strike can neutralize most of the fleet based out of the homeport, but many conditions must be met to succeed. Naval bases can also feature substantial air defenses, extensive sensor coverage, and a sprawling complex of enabling infrastructure that poses more targets. Pierside warships may have sufficient readiness and weapons loadouts to quickly activate defensive capabilities and shoot down missiles even from their static locations. The challenges of homeport strike will be magnified if numerous pierside warships are able to combine their capabilities to thicken the air defenses and sensor coverage protecting the naval base. Naval bases are home to more than just warships, they often include substantial aviation assets as well, who can be more quickly dispersed across alternative infrastructure. Homeports may also be close to air force bases and airfields that allow numerous aircraft to quickly launch in support of defending the homeport, further complicating the challenges of attack.

A satellite image shows smoke billowing from a Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters building in Sevastopol, Crimea, September 22, 2023. (Photo via Planet Labs PBC/Reuters)

Mass fires may be necessary to break through the dense defenses of a major naval base and inflict damage against its platforms and infrastructure. The carrier strike group in particular can generate a significant volume of fire that could meet the demands of homeport strike. The static nature of the warship targets also widens the extent of firepower that can be leveraged. Land-attack cruise missiles could be used to sink warships at the pier, whereas mobile warship targets would limit the suitable weapons to anti-ship missiles, which can require more complex seekers and killchains compared to land-attack missiles. In the case of the U.S. Navy, which fields thousands of land-attack cruise missiles but only a small number of truly long-range anti-ship missiles, homeport strike may be one of its few good options for sinking an adversary Navy from long range. Focusing on land-attack fires also widens the amount of force structure the U.S. Navy can apply to homeport strike by including numerous surface warships and submarines. Anti-ship missile strikes by comparison would disproportionately involve aircraft carriers and increase risk to the capital ship platforms the Navy can least afford to lose. The carrier-centric design of the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship firepower therefore encourages it to conduct homeport strike, otherwise the U.S. Navy may be required to increase risk to its carriers to pursue more challenging at-sea targets.

For naval forces to carry out a homeport strike, they may have to neutralize or bypass sea denial forces. In the 1980s, the U.S. Navy actively utilized the complex terrain of Norwegian fjords to frustrate the surveillance of the Soviet Union’s aerial maritime patrol force and simulate attacks on the Kola Peninsula, where the Soviet Northern Fleet’s homeport was located. For the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Navy employed a highly sophisticated deception plan designed to mislead the perceived whereabouts of its naval forces and maximize the element of surprise.

Modern U.S. naval forces should take inspiration from their Cold War predecessors. If a carrier strike group can operate from within allied littoral terrain that is proximate to rival naval bases, then it can leverage a wide variety of land-based force multipliers to improve its survivability, firepower, and detectability in support of homeport strike. Littoral geography and elevated terrain will complicate the adversary’s radar surveillance and the ability of hostile anti-ship missile seekers to close their killchains. Multiple critical Chinese naval bases can be held at risk by U.S. naval forces operating from within the maritime terrain of the Japanese home island of Kyushu. Figure 1 highlights the homeports of China’s three main fleets, allied and U.S. military bases, and the radius of carrier strike group reach when operating from allied littoral terrain.

Figure 1. The strike radius of a carrier strike group operating near the Japanese island of Kyushu and the Philippine island of Luzon, overlayed on the location of key Chinese Navy homeports. (Author graphic overlay)

This figure factors in the deployment of the MQ-25A unmanned aerial refueling tanker, which would extend the range of the air wing to a sufficient degree to carry out homeport strike. Similar support can also be made available by operating close to land and leveraging tanker aircraft operated by U.S. and allied air forces. Submarines can also be especially well-suited to homeport strike, whose proximity to targets may translate into a critical element of surprise that allows them to strike homeports at lower cost than more detectable forces. However, the U.S. Navy must also be mindful that the threat of homeport strike against allied bases may draw it into battles and postures that limit its flexibility.

Aside from cruise missiles, stealth aircraft can also play a valuable role in homeport strike. Stealth aircraft such as the F-35 and B-21 should theoretically be able to gain greater proximity to homeports than non-stealth aircraft, allowing them to deliver a greater volume of fire per platform. Rather than relying on non-stealth aircraft that can only fire a few expensive cruise missiles each from standoff range, stealth aircraft could launch several times more weapons from close range, such as by employing the Small Diameter Bomb or JDAMs. By increasing the available volume of fire, stealth aircraft could better allow forces to meet the difficult challenge of breaking through the dense air defenses that can protect naval bases.

Figure 2. The location and composition of major PLA Navy fleets and their homeports as of January 2021. (Graphic via U.S. Defense Department China Military Power Report 2021)

There are multiple steps the U.S. Navy should take to improve its capability for homeport strike. These include fielding the MQ-25A unmanned aerial refueling tanker to increase the combat radius of the carrier air wing, and increasing the proportion of stealth fighters fielded within air wings, such as the F-35C. The range of missiles fielded by the air wing must be increased. The U.S. carrier air wing has little in the way of long-range land attack cruise missiles, which could be improved by adding more JASSMs to the inventory. The Spear 3 missile in particular will feature a useful combination of small payload size and long range, which will improve the operational flexibility and survivability of stealth aircraft by allowing them to deploy a large volume of fire while operating from standoff distances beyond air defense umbrellas.

Homeport strike should be envisioned as a joint mission that incorporates fires delivered from multiple services. The U.S. Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps are rapidly increasing their cruise missile inventories which will improve options for homeport strikes. Stand-in forces operating across the first island chain can be especially well-suited for holding China’s naval infrastructure at risk. Allies can also contribute to the mission, such as how the Japanese military is set to procure hundreds of Tomahawk missiles. The proliferation of cruise missile weaponry across multiple services and allies should improve options for homeport strike. However, China’s robust missile arsenal is also growing more capable, and its ability to launch homeport strikes of its own should not be underestimated.

Homeport strike has long been a decisive method in naval warfare. But its significant operational utility should be tempered by its highly escalatory implications. Homeport strikes can expand naval conflict from the sea to the shore, and inflict major casualties directly on the territory of targeted states. As nations ponder their options for homeport strike, they should consider whether the potential for escalation outweighs the possible operational gains, which may prove short-lived if a war intensifies into a prolonged conflict.

Hee-Cheol Jung is an undergraduate student of major in Electrical and Computer Engineering, School of Engineering, Rutgers University. From 2016 to 2018, he served in the Republic of Korea Navy, and honorably discharged with the final rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class. He has published in the Naval Engineers Journal.

Featured Image: Battleship Row on December 7, 1941, after the Japanese attack. The sunken and burning USS Arizona (BB-39) is in the center. To the left of her are USS Tennessee (BB-43) and the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48). (U.S. Navy photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)