Category Archives: Force Development

What Are We Afraid Of?

This article originally published on the Marine Corps Gazette in 2002 and is republished with permission.

By Col. Mark Cancian, USMCR

“. . . The enemy is not an inanimate object to be acted upon but an independent and ani­mate force with its own objectives and plans. While we try to impose our will on the enemy, he resists us and seeks to impose his own will on us. Appreciating this dynamic interplay between opposing human wills is essential to understanding the fundamental nature of war.”—Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1, Warfighting

Marines pride themselves on their willingness to take risks, to chal­lenge themselves, and to learn from their mistakes. Why, then, is Marine tac­tical training so timid? The typical Marine exercise is a highly scripted event against an opponent who passive­ly reacts to actions, never takes the ini­tiative and, as a result, never challenges Marines. We Marines believe we are master tacticians, ready to take on any adversary. In reality we are like a foot­ball team that scrimmages against easy opponents and, because it always wins, thinks it is ready for the Super Bowl. Are we in fact as good as we think? The only way to find out, short of actual war, is to pit ourselves against a dynamic, thinking, aggressive opponent.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens. The typical exercise begins with plan­ning conferences that lay out objec­tives, timelines, and scenarios. Then the exercising unit develops an opera­tions order based on a clear mission and, generally, accurate intelligence. Finally, the unit executes. In doing this we tell ourselves that we are exercising tactics, techniques, and procedures, but really we are only exercising tech­niques and procedures. Tactics are essentially choreographed; if there are aggressors, they have instructions about when to resist and when to fall back. They are training aids. If the exercise is a command post exercise (CPX), then there is a “game path” or master scenario event list — a sequenced set of events established beforehand to accomplish the training objectives. Too often the CPX becomes “a drill devoid of analysis and spontaneity.”1

Training in techniques and proce­dures does have real value. It reduces internal friction, speeds up the OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) loop by making routine events happen automatically, and allows staffs to process large quantities of raw data quickly and effectively. Excellence in techniques and procedures is a combat multiplier — fires arrive on time, fleet­ing opportunities can be grasped, and logistical support arrives when and where needed. But tactics are still paramount. Even highly refined techniques and flawlessly executed procedures count for little if the underlying tactics are flawed. As the combatants of World War I learned to their grief, detailed and precisely executed artillery barrages, meticulous timeta­bles of unit advances, and thorough logistical preparations will all fail if the basic scheme of maneuver calls for unprotected infantry to frontally attack prepared defensive positions.

The way to learn tactics is in free play, opposed exercises. Only then can Marines experience externally generat­ed friction, the uncertainty of an unscripted enemy, the value of high tempo and, ultimately, the learning that goes with failure. Classroom instruction has a place in teaching the basics — the principles of war, the nature of combat, the mechanics of planning, and the lessons of history. But classroom instruction can only go so far. Indeed, at some point classroom instruction becomes counterproductive because, when relied on exclusively, it implies a battlefield that is controllable, pre­dictable, and transparent. Furthermore, class­room instruction tends to emphasize form over content — that a properly formatted order is more important than the operations directed.

“. . . [O]nly in opposed, free-play exercis­es can we practice the art of war. Dictated or ‘canned’ scenarios eliminate the element of independent, opposing wills that is the essence of war. “—MCDP1

This idea of opposed, free play exer­cises is not new, having been adopted by all the other Services years ago. For example, in 1968 a Navy study of air combat over Vietnam showed that training weakness was in part to blame for the poor air-to-air exchange ratio. Accustomed to ratios in Korea like 6 to 1 or 8 to 1, the Navy was barely making 2 to 1 against a Third World air force with inferior aircraft, vulnerable bases, and a low level of technology. In response, the Navy established the Naval Fighter Weapons School — “Top Gun” — to train crews in air-to-air com­bat. Kill ratios rose to 12 to 1. The Air Force, seeing similarly disappointing performance in its air-to-air engage­ments, established its own force-on­ force exercises, called “Red Flag.” All of these exercises featured a realistic com­bat environment and an opposing force (OpFor) that, while using “threat” tactics, did its best to win. The Air Force’s research was explicit: in their first engagement American pilots had only a 60 percent chance of survival whereas by 10 missions they had a 90 percent chance. The key then was to realistically simulate the first 10 mis­sions in peacetime.

The Army’s National Training Center (NTC) has become the classic example of opposed exercises.2 Established in 1981, it is the world’s pre­mier ground training facility. Every year nine brigades rotate through “the box” engaging the OpFor in a series of real­istic battles. The OpFor has distinctive vehicles and uniforms and, most impor­tantly, a free hand to win if they can. What makes the experience distinctive, also, is the range instrumentation. The multiple integrated laser engagement system (MILES) uses lasers and sensors to simulate direct fire. There are no more arguments over who shot who. It is all recorded in the computer center for later replay and analysis.

Several aspects of the training expe­rience are noteworthy. First, the Army has resisted efforts to “dumb down” the OpFor. The OpFor, knowing the ground and being thoroughly trained in their simple but effective tactics, usu­ally wins. This embarrasses many “blue force” commanders who were accus­tomed to the usual exercise where the “good guys” always won. As one observ­er put it, these traditional exercises “smacked a lot of cowboys and Indians, with very stupid, indolent Indians.” Like Custer at the Little Bighorn, however, many commanders at the NTC find that they are not as good as they thought — nor is attaining victory as easy as they had been led to believe. But only through failure can units improve. Second, this is a training experience, not a test. Mistakes are accepted and learned from, not punished. This is very difficult for no-error, look-good, peace­time institutions to accept. Third, there is a ruthless after-action review. No sug­arcoated, self-esteem building, com­manding officer protecting, go-easy review here. A typical summary says something like the following:

“Insufficient combat elements desig­nated as main attack to penetrate enemy defenses. Task force [TF] attack was unsuccessful. TF did not accomplish mission. TF lost two­-thirds of combat power.”

Finally, NTC revitalized the Army’s lessons learned process because peo­ple actually wanted to know what happened before. Lessons learned were not just an intellectual exercise but something that affected unit and personal performance.

NTC is not perfect. It simulates indirect and aviation fires poorly, and it cannot replicate the sounds and fear of actual combat. It is also very expensive in both time and dollars. Still, it was a major step forward for Army training. The proof, many Army officers believe, was in DESERT STORM where U.S. units were not just technologically superior to the Iraqis but were tactically superior as well.

NTC was such a success that the Army replicated the training experi­ence for light forces (Joint Readiness Training Center), European forces (Combat Maneuver Training Center), and high-level staffs (Battle Command Training Program (BCTP)). This last is particularly interesting because it offers the opportunity for an opposed exer­cise without the disruption and cost of involving entire units. Further, it focus­es tactical training on the key players­ — commanders and staffs — without using their units as training aids. BCTP’s cap­stone event is a computer-driven CPX. In this exercise the blue force pits its plan against an independent, intelligent OpFor. Though not having as much lat­itude as the NTC OpFor — for both tech­nical and training reasons — the BCTP OpFor still regularly defeats the blue force. An after-action review at the end, using data collected by the computer and by exercise controllers, gives candid feedback to the exercising unit.

The Marine Corps is not a complete stranger to opposed exercises. During the 1980s at Quantico, for example, there was a surge of interest connected with 29th Commandant Gen Al Gray’s emphasis on maneuver warfare. Quantico experimented with a variety of exercise forms, from completely scripted to completely free play. They discovered that opposed and free play exercises are not an either/or proposi­tion but a continuum where the struc­ture depends on the purpose of the exercise. However, the key to deciding whether an exercise was truly free play was whether the Marine side was ever defeated. Many exercises claimed they were free play, but the Marines always won. The Marine Corps also used the Army’s instrumented ranges to conduct a major force-on-force experiment (Advanced Antiarmor Vehicle Eval­uation (ARMVAL)), but from a training perspective the results were not encour­aging. As the head evaluator noted:

“The Marine force was soundly defeated in battle after battle until the Marines were able to get their act together and develop the techniques necessary to win…It was a sobering experience.”3

What’s the Real Value of Opposed Exercises?

Yes, everyone agrees in a general sense that opposed exercises provide excellent training, but what exactly is so important that it cannot be obtained in a regular exercise?

  • Experiencing friction. Clausewitz said that friction is what separates real war from war on paper. To be sure, unop­posed exercises also have friction, sometimes a lot. As everyone who has maneuvered down the Delta Corridor at Twentynine Palms knows, the tar­gets may not move or shoot back, but they are sometimes very difficult to hit given the internal friction and sometimes plain cussedness of our fire support system. Nevertheless, fac­ing a dynamic, thinking, hostile opponent creates a whole new level of fric­tion. Instead of passively waiting to be “serviced,” targets move around, hide, and even shoot back.
  • Seeing what works tactically. The problem with tactics in an unop­posed exercise is that everything succeeds. At the bar afterward Marines may argue about what tactics might have succeeded and what might have failed, but it is all theoretical. In the end one person’s tactics are as good as another’s. No one really knows. With opposed exercises there is an answer. In 1982 there was a dramatic illustration of this at the Amphibious Warfare School when the final exer­cise was structured as a free play exer­cise against an unconstrained OpFor. The “Marine” side was crushed, not just once but three times, the result of unimaginative tactics.
  • Testing theory and doctrine. The Marine Corps has used opposed exer­cises very effectively in its WARRIOR series of battle experiments. HUNTER WARRIOR showed that “swarm” or “infestation” tactics, while having promise in some situations, were not yet a substitute for more traditional approaches, contrary to the hopes of its advocates. In URBAN WARRIOR the Corps discovered that its existing urban tactics, based on civilian police models, produced unacceptable casu­alties and needed radical revision. Both experiments took institutional courage because the favored out­comes were not achieved.
  • Developing fingerspitzengefuehl. Literally “fingertip feel,” finger­spitzengefuehl means developing an intuitive feel for battle. Although German terms are now out of favor, this term does capture what is missing in Marine tactical training — the competence that comes from deep experience.

“Training scenarios must pit Marines and their commanders against skilled and determined adversaries who fight to win. We must continually test ourselves in dif­ficult situations . . . Marines will make tactical mistakes from time to time. If we treat these mistakes as learning opportu­nities, the lessons will not be forgotten. “—Commandant of the Marine Corps Campaign Plan, 1999

So What Do We Do?

In his campaign plan, the Commandant laid out clear direction to conduct opposed, free play training, but unfortunately, that guidance has never been implemented. Further, Marines have always had great interest in such exercises and periodically units do, in fact, conduct them. What is need­ed, therefore, is a way to institutionalize this training so that it happens routinely. The problem, of course, is cost, both in dollars and in training time.

Ideally, the Marine Corps would have some equivalent of the Army’s NTC, perhaps as part of a Marine expeditionary unit (special opera­tions capable) workup or a rotation to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Training Command Twentynine Palms. A battalion-sized force-on-force exercise would chal­lenge not just commanders and staffs but platoon leaders, squad leaders, and individual Marines as well. With its purchase of MILES 2000 the Marine Corps owns the basic equip­ment. To be sure, this would consti­tute a substantial commitment of resources. Perhaps as an experiment the Marine Corps might conduct one such exercise to test the concept, ascertain its value, and understand the commitment of resources.

CPXs offer a way to train comman­ders and staffs without committing whole units and might, therefore, be an easier way to begin. Furthermore, the Corps has the mechanisms already in place to implement free play, opposed CPXs. One mechanism is the MAGTF Tactical Warfare Simulation (MTWS). MTWS is a computer assisted wargam­ing system that replaced the older Tactical Warfare Simulation Evaluation. Physically, MTWS consists of a suite of terminals for different players all connected to a central processor. The computer simulates the operations, from ground combat to fire support and nuclear/biological/chemical warfare. It has been fielded to each Marine expe­ditionary force (MEF), to Quantico, and to Twentynine Palms. Currently MTWS is used mostly to prepare for major exercises and to hone techniques and procedures. However, it does have pro­visions for an OpFor and could easily provide an opposed, free play evolution for commanders and key staff.

For higher-level staffs there is the MAGTF Staff Training Program (MSTP). MSTP is the Corps’ institu­tional expert on the Marine Corps Planning Process, providing instruc­tion and supporting exercises on all aspects of the planning process. Its most visible activities are two annual MEF training programs that culmi­nate in a major CPX involving the hundreds of Marines needed to establish a MEF-level command network. Structuring the exercise is an elabo­rately prepared scenario and a sophis­ticated computer simulation. Because the MEF exercises involve so many people and organizations, maximiz­ing training value is key. Although the simulation gives insights into tactical success or failure, exercises need to unfold in planned ways so that all the training objectives are covered. Unfortunately, this minimizes spon­taneity and free play. However, MSTP has all the elements to provide an additional, separate training opportu­nity for key staff, either as part of the MEF training or separately. Such an exercise could focus on tactics. Instead of taking entire command posts to the field, a small number of commanders and key staff could par­ticipate in a free play exercise using MSTP’s OpFor and computer simula­tion. Another possibility would be to provide this kind of training for Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) staffs. The Corps has recently reestab­lished MEBs but has not yet found a good way to exercise these staffs. A free play, opposed CPX might be a good mechanism for both training in tactics and organizing MEB staffs.


From Belleau Wood to Tarawa to Hue City, the Marine Corps has a long history of overcoming faulty tac­tics through blood and courage.4 But we should not climb to victory on the backs of our Marines. Commanders owe their troops the highest level of tactical competence. Opposed, free play exercises offer a way to better train commanders in their foremost task — tactical decision-making. As MajGen J. Michael Myatt noted in his article, “Comments on Maneuver” (MCC, Oct98), “If we, the senior lead­ership, understand that we must out­think our opponents, then there will be a lot less fighting and dying by those youngsters entrusted to us.” Yet, opposed exercises are a training experience that the Corps has not much used and where the Corps is noticeably behind the other Services. The reason for this failing is unclear. Are our egos so fragile that losing in an opposed, free play exercise would fatally wound our self-esteem?

Colonel Mark Cancian is the Director, Land Forces Division, Office of the Secretary of Defense.


1. Ennis, Michael, Maj, “A Realistic Command Post Exercise,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 1983, pp. 53-57.

2. See, for example, Marine Corps Gazette, June and October 1999.

3. Thompson, Robert H., Col, “Lessons Learned From ARMVAL,” Marine Corps Gazette, July 1983, pp. 36-44. Anyone who believes that Marines are tactically well trained should read this article. Although 20 years old, the article’s insights are still very powerful.

4. Moore, Scott, LtCol, “How Expensive Heroism Seems When It Comes With the Price of Dead Marines,” Marine Corps Times, 23 July

Featured Image: CAMP FUJI, SHIZUOKA, Japan (March 14, 2022) – U.S. Marines with Battalion Landing Team 1/5, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, engage targets during an unknown distance course at Combined Arms Training Center Camp Fuji, Japan, March. 14, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Manuel Alvarado)

In the Same Boat: Integrating Naval Intelligence 

By Will McGee

In March 2020, the Commandant of the Marine Corps released Force Design 2030, the strategy outlining structural changes to the Marine Corps operating forces. It is intended to re-orient the Marine Corps towards its traditional role as a naval amphibious force working in tandem with the Navy to project power ashore, after two decades of expeditionary non-maritime campaigns. The major changes outlined in Force Design primarily deal with investment/divestment decisions for the Aviation and Ground Combat Elements, driven by the modern warfighting concepts articulated in the joint Navy and Marine Corps’ Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.1 Force Design 2030 does not contain specific guidance for the Marine Corps Intelligence Community as it deals mostly with altering the structure of the major components of the operating forces to act as “a landward complement to Navy capabilities” through the provision of “mobile, low-signature sensors.” 

At the crux of these concepts is the development of a network of sensors to provide battlespace awareness to the fleet, and so it implies that naval integration: the ability for the Navy and Marine Corps information warfare communities to work together seamlessly, is a prerequisite for the operating concept’s success. This integration cannot be ‘surged’ once the war begins. Instead, systemic change is required of both services to ingrain habits of cooperation in peacetime garrison operations so that they can be relied upon to seamlessly work together when deployed. How can the Marine Corps intelligence community better integrate with the Navy to create a joint naval intelligence enterprise?

Operating Concepts Review

As noted in the joint 2017 Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), since at least 2006, successive Chiefs of Naval Operations and Commandants of the Marine Corps have called for closer cooperation and integration between the two services.2 LOCE outlines supporting concepts to facilitate this integration: Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) integration into the Composite Warfare Construct (CWC), possibly as the Expeditionary Warfare Commander or Strike Warfare Commander; creation of joint blue-green fleet/JFMCC staffs; the development of Littoral Combat Groups task-organized with additional capabilities based on an assessment of projected employment; and additional areas of exploration for future experimentation, specifically, Expeditionary Advanced Bases. Inclusion of the Marine Corps in the CWC would allow for the MAGTF to be used as another element of the maritime force, tasked by the warfare commanders like any other Navy asset. 

The Marine Corps corollary to Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations, envisions bases that provide “land-based options for increasing the number of sensors and shooters beyond the upper limit imposed by the quantity of seagoing platforms available.” Put more generally, the idea is that groups of Marines would be emplaced on shore to support fleet operations by providing a base from which to collect information, conduct follow-on actions like refueling and rearming, or (once counter-ship systems have been acquired) control areas of key maritime terrain.3 

By distributing forces across geographically disparate locations, these concepts hope to increase the capability for the naval services to survive and project power in less-than-friendly environments. Both concepts call for close integration between the Navy and Marine Corps and both use “sensor” emplacement as one of the reasons for the new operating concept. LOCE calls for “[the creation of] a modular, scalable, and integrated naval network of sea-based and land-based sensors, shooters, and sustainers that provides the capabilities, capacities, and persistent yet mobile forward presence necessary to effectively respond to crises, address larger contingencies, and deter aggression in contested littorals.”[Emphasis added.] EABO, likewise, uses land-based sensors as an argument for the emplacement of expeditionary bases, specifically to “position naval ISR assets”[emphasis added] and “provide expeditionary surface scouting/screening platforms.”

The structural changes outlined in Force Design 2030 were driven by these operating concepts, with the stated purpose to “equip our Marines with mobile, low-signature sensors and weapons that can provide a landward complement to Navy capabilities for surface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, air and missile defense, and airborne early warning.” The Commandant of the Marine Corps specifically calls for future planning and experimentation to “focus on capabilities required to satisfy approved naval concepts of DMO, EABO, and LOCE.”4

These concepts envision the use of platforms (DMO), bases (EABO), and a combination of the two (LOCE) to emplace sensors creating a network of information-collecting devices that develop battlespace awareness and inform the estimate of the naval commander. Members of the Information Warfare community, particularly intelligence officers, might be more familiar with this idea if its authors referred to it as “collection operations” instead of “sensor emplacement” but the gist is the same. While there are kinetic operational reasons for expeditionary bases and distributed platforms, the increased ability to collect intelligence is one of the most significant arguments articulated for these joint and service concepts. Each document calls for a Navy/Marine Corps amphibious team, optimized for the future operating environments, that can create a network of collection assets to inform decision-makers of the situation. The creation of a seamless network of inter-service intelligence assets will require community-wide integration between the two services. Members of the Navy and Marine Corps must develop habits of action in peacetime garrison operations to enable frictionless employment forward. What is the state of current integration and how can the services be brought closer together?

State of Current Integration: Same Department, Different Services

A brief description of the author’s career will provide a useful example of the current state of integration between the naval intelligence enterprises. 

I attended the Ground Intelligence Officer Course at the (then-named) Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in the fall of 2015. Even though the Marine Corps instructors were a part of a Marine Detachment in a Navy command and despite the inherently naval nature of the Marine Corps, the curriculum focused on intelligence support to the Marine Corps Planning Process in the context of primarily ground campaigns, and there was little communication with the Navy instructors or students during the course. Although all Navy and Marine Corps training occurred in the same building, the only interactions I had with Navy personnel occurred because my younger brother happened to be in the Navy’s intelligence officer’s course. 

Four years later I attended the MAGTF Intelligence Officer Course at the (tellingly) now-retitled Information Warfare Training Center. During this course—the last formal training required of a Marine Corps Intelligence Officer—the only formal interaction with Navy Intelligence personnel was a three-hour lecture by an Amphibious Ready Group Intelligence Officer. It was a great briefing, but nowhere near enough to prepare students to seamlessly operate with the Navy. At no point in the course did we discuss naval operating concepts, Navy intelligence collection assets, or any of the other topics that would prepare the student to quickly and seamlessly integrate with the fleet intelligence enterprise. 

When I arrived in the fleet at 2d Marine Division, there were three deployment opportunities: the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the Unit Deployment Program (UDP), and the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-AFRICOM (SPMAGTF-CR-AF). Only one of these, the MEU, involved interaction with Navy personnel or Navy Intelligence. I deployed on the SPMAGTF-CR-AF, a rotation with tasked mission sets of crisis response and theater security cooperation. This deployment did not require substantive interaction with the Navy or Navy Intelligence personnel. The expectation was that Intelligence Officers in 2d Marine Division deploy once during a three-year tour. This means that roughly only one in three Marine Corps intelligence officers had any experience working in an operational setting with the Navy. 

This experience gap was the norm during garrison training also. I participated in four major exercises at the Marine Expeditionary Force, Division, and Regimental levels: MEF Exercise 2016, Bold Alligator 2016 and 2017, and 2d Marine Division’s Large Scale Exercise 2017. Two of these exercises did not include the Navy whatsoever. While Bold Alligator was intended to be an amphibious exercise, during neither iteration did I ever interact with the Navy’s intelligence personnel. At the completion of my tour, I rotated to the supporting establishment. 

So, to summarize: none of my Marine Corps training or education has substantively addressed naval intelligence subjects and I have no specific operational experience in maritime operations. I will return to the operating forces next summer and if I am not sent to a billet slated to deploy on the MEU, it is likely that I will be a field grade officer who has spent (exponentially) more time underway as a Midshipman than as a Marine, and worked far more extensively with the Royal Marines than the United States Navy. 

My experience is anecdotal, and as such limited to the time and place in which it occurred: II Marine Expeditionary Force from 2015-2018. I am sure I have peers with significantly more naval operating experience than I. The fact, however, that this experience is derived from specific operational employment is indicative of the broader problem: neither of the standard training or career pipelines is deliberately structured to provide joint experience with the other naval service, and as a result, this experience is the exception rather than the norm. Greater integration is required. 

Integrating the Naval Intelligence Enterprise

If the stated intent is that the future Marine Corps and Navy operating forces operate seamlessly with one another, the intelligence warfighting function is no different from the rest of the force. Systemic changes are required to further integrate the naval intelligence enterprises. Following are suggestions for ways to more closely align the Navy and Marine Corps efforts. 

Service Intelligence Centers

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance describes the separation of the Navy and Marine Corps into two services with distinctly different priorities by stating that “The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, however, removed the preponderance of the [Fleet Marine Force] from fleet operational control and disrupted the long-standing Navy-Marine Corps relationship by creating separate Navy and Marine Corps components within joint forces. Furthermore, Navy and Marine Corps officers developed a tendency to view their operational responsibilities as separate and distinct, rather than intertwined.”5

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA). MCIA was created in 1987 and intended to bridge the gap between the (newly separated from fleet control) Fleet Marine Force and the national Intelligence Community.6 Located in Quantico, Virginia, it currently operates three lines of effort: production of intelligence estimates as required by the supporting establishment, support to the operating forces and intelligence community, and facilitating/coordinating efforts of the Marine Corps Intelligence Enterprise.7 None of these responsibilities seem to be dissimilar from those of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI); except that the institutional separation between the two likely limits coordination. Structure drives function. Establish MCIA as a tenant command under ONI and integrate the service level intelligence centers. Space is available—is the old ONI building being used? 

Doing so would benefit both organizations. ONI would gain subject matter expertise on intelligence support to ground operations and amphibious operations. MCIA’s production responsibilities involve inherently naval concepts and would likely be better served by close coordination with the nation’s premier maritime intelligence authority. Moving MCIA onto the ONI campus and into its structure would allow for routine interaction by reducing the 90-mile round trip required for in-person collaboration. It would also ease interaction with other members of the intelligence community and the other services’ intelligence centers, most of which are located inside the Washington, DC, beltway. 

Since the operating services call for an integrated network of sensors, and the Marine Corps plans to double the number of unmanned aerial vehicles it operates, the cell responsible for processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of intelligence gathered by these vehicles should operate in this proposed structure.8 In the LOCE and EABO constructs, information collected by sensors informs decision-makers of both services and so locating the PED for new Marine Corps ISR at a joint command would represent each service’s equities equally. 

Marine Corps and Navy intelligence officers assigned to the proposed MCIA/ONI combination would operate in an integrated naval intelligence structure and return to the operating forces with an understanding of the other service’s threat concerns and enterprise structure, creating a subset of officers with joint naval expertise as a part of their shore tours. Integrating the service level intelligence centers would shift the bifurcated efforts to a mutual comprehensive focus on the maritime domain beginning with the littorals and stretching to the bluewater ocean. Navy and Marine Corps interests are intertwined; why not their intelligence centers?

Personnel Exchange in Equivalent Billets

Since Marine Aviators attend Navy schools, use Navy-funded aircraft, and are held to Navy maintenance and readiness standards, why not standardize the training and employment of Marine Corps Air Intelligence Officers and Navy Aviation Intelligence Officers assigned to squadrons? Once standardized, these personnel could be exchanged for tours with the other service. Marines could deploy as part of a carrier strike group and learn the Navy Intelligence structure; Navy intelligence officers could integrate into the Marine Air Ground Task Force. Precedents exist, as every Marine unit already deploys with Navy medical and religious personnel. 

This would only work in Aviation Combat Element billets as these are the most similar between the two services. Marine Corps ground intelligence officers, for example, qualify as infantry officers as part of their training pipeline and so have very different expertise than that expected of Navy intelligence officers. However , since the Marine Corps uses Navy standards and funding for its aviation, formally integrating intelligence support systems should not be difficult, thereby creating a permanent reserve of junior officers who have operational experience in the other naval service.

Analysis Exchange

Formalizing a structure for analytic exchange would integrate the two services by allowing analysts to access products across the integrated enterprises. The Marine Corps already uses the Marine Corps Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Enterprise Knowledge Gateway (MKG). The MKG is an internet portal that resides on secure networks on which analysts upload their products. It allows, for example, an intelligence analyst at III MEF in Okinawa to read the work of analysts at 6th Marine Regiment in Camp Lejeune. Either the Marine Corps could add Navy operational units to the MKG or together the two services could develop a joint architecture for sharing tactical intelligence, enabling seamless integration in garrison and while deployed. Threats are service agnostic. Systems architecture should be as well. 

According to the services’ operating concepts, the Navy and Marine Corps intend to operate together seamlessly in a future naval campaign. Since one of the main arguments for these concepts is the creation of a network of sensors to inform decision-makers, the services’ intelligence and information warfare communities are vital to this effort—these communities can lead through deliberate structural change to involve the other service in its enterprise. The Navy and Marine Corps may be two separate services but when the next war kicks off they will be in the same boat. 

Will McGee is a student at Yale Law School and currently serving as a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves.  A 2013 graduate of the US Naval Academy, Will earned a Masters of Philosophy in Modern European History at Cambridge University, UK, as a Nolan Scholar, and served eight years as an active-duty Ground Intelligence Officer. 


1 United States Marine Corps, Force Design 2030.

2 United States Navy and United States Marine Corps, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment., page 6.

3 United States Marine Corps, Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations,

4 Force Design, 12.

5 United States Marine Corps, Commandant’s Planning Guidance,, page 2.

6 John Brown, Christina Clark, Jorge Miranda, Neri Terry, “Marine Corps Intelligence Activity Military and Civilian Interaction” (unpublished manuscript, June 2011),

7 “Marine Corps Intelligence Activity”

8 Force Design, 7.

Featured Image: U.S. Army Soldiers with 1st Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces Command, conduct an extraction during an Expeditionary Advance Base Operation exercise at the Northern Training Area, Okinawa, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Battlespace Awareness Tools Are Central to Fleet Readiness

By Michael Tiefel and Andrew Orchard

In his book Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Capt.(ret) Wayne Hughes states: “At sea the essence of tactical success has been the first application of effective offensive force.”1 Capt. Hughes’ warfighting axiom – applying offensive force first – is the distinct advantage information warfare (IW) intends to deliver, and it is predicated on sound battlespace awareness (BSA). Given the advances in the speed, precision, and destructive power of modern naval weapons, finding and fixing the adversary remains indispensable.

A powerful suite of BSA tools exists now, and they hold the key to making sense of an increasingly complex environment for Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) IW Teams. Incorporating BSA tool familiarization and training in IW schoolhouses while exercising their use in the Fleet Response Training Program (FRTP) cycle is an opportunity the IW community must seize to maintain an edge over potential adversaries.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) integration will drive future conflicts. In 2018, the Department of Defense (DoD) published its Artificial Intelligence Strategy and established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) in recognition of this fact.2 The AI Strategy directs the military to accelerate research, development, and adoption of AI/ML into a range of defense activities. The JAIC, meanwhile, manages the DoD investment in the application of AI/ML in activities ranging from logistics management to BSA. It serves as the executive agent for the military’s adoption of AI Strategy and seeks opportunities to move the military from traditional “Handcrafted Knowledge Systems” towards the development and incorporation of AI/ML.3 JAIC’s efforts portend exciting changes and will fundamentally transform how the Navy approaches the BSA mission.

However, none of these AI/ML efforts have resulted in tools the force can use now. Fortunately, there are BSA tools available to make Information Warfare teams effective in today’s maritime fight and that of the near future until AI/ML capabilities mature. Potential adversaries also recognize the criticality of winning the BSA battle and the possibilities of AI/ML in the long term. To remain ahead of these challengers and prevent them from gaining “the potential for decision by technological surprise,” the US Navy must expand its advantages in understanding the operational environment, and that starts with the effective use of currently available BSA tools.4

The Future Is Now: A Powerful Suite of Tools Exists

There is a pervasive belief both within and outside the Information Warfare community that BSA watch standers cannot successfully compete in a data- saturated world without AI/ML to help them understand the tactical picture. Action officers have spent many hours writing urgent operational needs statements to argue for rapid development and fielding of analytical tools to do the work usually placed on junior officers and Sailors. This panacea AI solution probably will not materialize in the near term, even though the JAIC continues to work to this end. The tools currently available may be the ones with which the next maritime conflict will be fought, and the fact is they work! Information Warfare officers must make an earnest effort to train their Sailors to complement traditional analysis tools with multi-intelligence fusion applications. CSG and ESG Staff Intelligence Officers play a significant role in cultivating a culture within their watch and analysis teams to push the envelope of available BSA capabilities in order to build the most accurate maritime picture from which commanders make tactical decisions even under stressful conditions.

 Afloat intelligence teams are now prioritizing training in Intelligence Community-wide tools as a standard operating practice for BSA watches.5 Not only does this train personnel on “buttonology,” but it also ensures watch teams understand the data sources from which they derive information, identify alternative sources if available, and appreciate data that is not available and what that means to their analysis. Officers and Sailors must understand the fundamentals of BSA tools and the sources that feed them; they must know other search mechanisms when missing information and explain their analytical process to other ship watches, aviators performing pre-flight walkthroughs, or even the strike group commander.

Afloat intelligence teams are also employing these BSA tools for analysis across all work centers from the air wing to shipboard cryptology. It is our experience that core BSA tools including the Fusion Analytic Development Effort (FADE) tool suite, Thresher data fusion tool, and Defense Intelligence Agency’s Think, Analyze, Connect (TAC) are integral to understanding the threat and operational situation in today’s dynamic maritime environment.6 Watch standers and analysts more quickly and accurately cross-reference information, build greater confidence in their use of traditional program of record systems, such as generic area limitation environment (GALE), and make higher confidence intelligence assessments through their continued utilization of these and other BSA tools.

How to Make the Connection: Cross-functional Training

Cross-functional training is the natural complement to BSA tools implementation; Sailors require a functional understanding of how each discipline provides value to the organization to use these tools most effectively. This is not a novel concept. Many papers have been written on the need for cross-pollination within  intelligence and cryptologic communities to better operationalize information warfare.7 However, there is no better environment to push the boundaries of integration than in SUPPLOT or EXPLOT. 

A common understanding of the various intelligence and cryptology specializations enables efficiency both on the watch floor and in the other intelligence work centers. An Intelligence Specialist (IS) with an ELINT background can leverage a Cryptologic Technician Technical’s (CTT) skill to find uncooperative contacts while he or she resourcefully locates cooperative contacts. Similarly, a CTT able to correlate imagery with ELINT can identify a vessel of interest without assistance and allow for more economical use of time for those high demand positions such as the Red Database Manager or the Force Intelligence Watch Assistant. 

This cross-functional approach does not demand in-depth expertise, but instead requires a basic, working understanding of the IS and CT disciplines. Watch standers benefit from cross-functional working knowledge that breaks down knowledge silos and enables collaboration using a common language and BSA tool set.  A shared background fosters the free flow of analytical ideas by unifying the team. Ultimately, a unified and self-aware team will remain one step ahead, thereby creating a distinctive capability.8 At the Strike Group level, our distinctive capability begins with training personnel on Intelligence fields, data sources, BSA tools, and fleet operations.9 The goal is to familiarize, which precedes, or at least tightly accompanies, analytic skills development.

Watch standing qualification now requires a combination of fundamental and practical lessons to create a cross-functional foundation. The fundamentals portion provides a basic understanding of the “how” behind each facet. Much like Surface Warfare Officers must understand how a warship’s systems acquire and track targets; information warfare professionals need to understand the sources and methods behind the data. Such lessons also concentrate on improving technology literacy and operational knowledge. Both are critical to effectively using advanced analytics and associated technologies during the practical training. The practical segment seeks to build the technical skills an intelligence professional requires to turn data and information into intelligence. The best way to become an intelligence professional is to work through as many practical examples as possible. Initial practical training emphasizes the development of personnel skills, patterns of life, and technology familiarization. Once mastered, practical applications focus on cross-functional communication and team building to meet strike group intelligence demands.

Battlespace Awareness Tool Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Build BSA tools and cross-functional training into routine watch practices. Two years ago, Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG-5) introduced substantive changes to the SUPPLOT training syllabus. We recognized the need for cross-functional training on the various BSA tools currently available. All watch standers, whether they are direct support personnel assigned from a Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC), the USS Ronald Reagan, or Carrier Air Wing 5 complete both common and specialized job qualification requirements (JQR) that includes proficiency in a BSA toolkit (i.e., Thresher, MIST, TAC). At sea, our ability to train personnel relies upon knowledge gained through informal online training, on-the-job training and through active interest by the various IS, CT, and officer users. Additionally, CSG-5 frequently coordinates with CACI, NRO, ONI and the USAF to schedule training opportunities for watch standers as these courses are available.10 We recommend all deploying CSGs/ESGs build BSA tool competency and a cross-functional approach into their watch standing JQRs.

Recommendation 2: Ensure Information Warfare students receive BSA tool training early. The Center for Information Training (CIWT) must integrate modern Battlespace Awareness tools into its curricula across the basic Intelligence Officer, basic Cryptologic Officer, Cryptologic Resources Coordinator (CRC), and various IS, CTT and CTR “A” school training curricula. This aligns with Admiral Gilday’s charge in his NAVPLAN 2021 that the Navy reforms its education programs to win in day-to-day operations and in combat.11 We are confident our Information Warfare schools can find space within the margins of Training Requirements Reviews to incorporate initial training on FADE MIST, A2, Thresher, and TAC. This change will also address a training deficiency in the OPINTEL toolkit identified by LT William Murray in 2019.12 However, training in BSA tools cannot end at the accession level training commands.

Recommendation 3: Reinforce early training with sustained training events during the FRTP. Fleet training commands must begin to integrate follow-on training and OPINTEL tool utilization during all phases of the CSG/ESG work up cycle. For example, some Information Warfare Training Commands must invest in a second iteration of BSA tool training as part of the Supplementary Plot (SUPPLOT) and Expeditionary Plot (EXPLOT) Team Trainer (SETT) events. Fleet training commands, such as our Naval Information Warfare Training Groups, should then put the SETT classroom instruction into practice as part of the Fusion Analysis Team Trainer (FATT) and Afloat Information Warfare Team Trainer (AIWTT). Deploying CSGs and ESGs should have the confidence to explore these tools during Fleet Synthetic Training (FST) and Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) graded events. There remains an important role for NRO, CACI, ONI or USAF training opportunities beyond the introduction to these tools at the basic schools and into the FRTP process. We envision these organizations moving beyond teaching the basic application of these tools to more sophisticated training events that allow for mastery of these capabilities. Furthermore, repetitive training opportunities allow these organizations to refine their curriculums to address basic and advanced training requirements as well as update their tools through fleet feedback.

Recommendation 4: Engage IW WTIs to be our BSA tool experts. Finally, we must ensure our WTIs are well versed in the variety of BSA tools currently at our disposal and able to implement rigorous training programs for our junior officers and Sailors. Several WTI candidates communicated with CSG-5 during our 2020 deployment to discuss thesis topics and request reviews of their final projects. Looking back, we should have pressed them to write projects on the training and application of current BSA tools for deploying naval forces. Naval Information Warfare Development Center (NIWDC) must include robust training in BSA tools as part of their standing WTI curriculum to make our future training officers successful in the fleet. The fleet deserves NIWDC-trained instructors well versed in existing tools and energized to help nurture their use from the tactical level up through the operational level at Maritime Intelligence Operations Centers .

Battlespace Awareness Tools Allow the Navy to Act Decisively First

Potential adversaries will continue to develop the requisite technology and weaponry to amass an effective offensive force. In response, the Navy is introducing new hardware, more demanding pre-deployment training and exploring AI/ML to address these challenges. Information warfare will enable the success of these efforts by maintaining the Navy’s advantage in BSA using existing analytical tools, building commonalities across the IS and CT force to encourage collaboration and communication, and modifying officer and enlisted training syllabi to allow for early and continuous integration of BSA resources. Moreover, broad use of current BSA tools across both  intelligence and cryptologic communities and supported by our WTIs engenders feedback from multiple perspectives. This feedback continues to be critical to tool developers as they refine many of these analytical tools even as we move away from handcrafted knowledge systems towards contextual adaptation and beyond. 

To achieve battlespace awareness to the satisfaction of any commander is the intelligence community’s highest objective. Intelligence personnel must be best prepared to provide confident analytical assessments of the tactical situation so that commanders and naval forces can make informed tactical decisions with greater confidence and speed than their adversaries. As CAPT Hughes wrote, “winners have out-scouted [battlespace awareness] the enemy in detection, in tracking, and in targeting.”13 A growing appreciation for BSA tools accompanied by a robust training program tailored toward fast recognition and quick integration of all available data ensures information warfare professionals remain at the leading edge of this mission critical requirement to out-scout the adversary, even in the information realm. This will allow the Fleet to be the one “who would attack decisively first.”14 

Michael Tiefel is a U.S. Navy intelligence officer and currently serves as the Executive Officer at the Center for Information Warfare Training, Pensacola, FL.

Andrew Orchard is a U.S. Navy intelligence officer and currently the officer in charge of the Joint Reserve Intelligence Center New Orleans.

The authors thank Capt. James Pendergast, USN, commanding officer of the Hopper Information Services Center at the Office of Naval Intelligence, for his review and inputs into the final version of this paper.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


1 Hughes, Wayne P. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Naval Institute Press., 2018, 206.

2 Department of Defense. “SUMMARY OF THE 2018 DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE STRATEGY: Harnessing AI to Advance Our Security and Prosperity.”, 5.

3 Allen, Greg. Understanding AI Technology: A concise, practical, and readable overview of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technology designed for non-technical managers, officers, and executives. Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), April 2020, 3.

4 Hughes, 229.

5 Although we reference SUPPLOT throughout this article; our methodology and tools have equal practical application in Expeditionary Plot (EXPLOT) as well.

6 The National Reconnaissance Office maintains a suite of tools under their FADE program that contribute to the BSA toolkit used afloat.

7 Schwille, Michael, et al. “Improving Intelligence Support for Operations in the Information Environment.” RAND Corporation, 2020, doi:10.7249/rb10134.

8 Barney, Jay, and William Hesterly. “Strategic Management and Competitive Advantage.” Competitive Strategy, 2011, doi:10.7551/mitpress/8956.003.000, 149-153.

9 We recognize an appreciation for blue force capabilities is important. In fact, the CSG-5 Battlespace Awareness team works with surface, air, MISR (which resides within the N2 Department) and Information Warfare WTIs on a daily basis to ensure an understanding of blue force tasks and capabilities, allowing the SUPPLOT team to focus on N2’s Intelligence priorities. See Nelson, Christopher, and Eric Peterson. “Naval Intelligence Must Relearn Its Own Navy.” Proceedings, 13 Feb. 2020,

10 Individuals with SIPRNET accounts are welcome to review the SUPPLOT JQR on the CTF-70 Collaboration at Sea (CAS) webpage.

11 Gilday, Michael ADM. “CNO NAVPLAN 2021,”, 6.

12 Murray, William N. “Reimagine Intelligence Officer Training.” Proceedings, 21 Feb. 2019,

13 Hughes, 212.

14 Hughes, 212.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 17, 2020) Lt. Louis Petro, from Weeki Wachee, Fla., stands watch as the tactical action officer in the combat information center aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)

Fleet Problem IX and Enduring Lessons for the Anti-Access Dilemma 

By Daniel Kostecka

From 1923 to 1940, the United States Navy, sometimes in cooperation with other services, conducted 21 large-scale exercises known as Fleet Problems. These exercises were critical in developing tactics and operational concepts, along with the plans for platform development and acquisition crucial to the fleet’s success in the Second World War. Former Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Scott Swift, recognized the important role played by the Fleet Problems in developing and training the fleet and revived them as a core component of fleet level training in 2016.

One of the most noteworthy exercises conducted by the U.S. Navy between the World Wars was Fleet Problem IX. Conducted in January 1929 in the waters off Panama, the primary purpose of the exercise was to evaluate the Panama Canal Zone’s vulnerability to attack from the sea. However, its place in history comes from the demonstration of the offensive potential of the aircraft carrier and airpower delivered from the sea. Yet Fleet Problem IX also demonstrated the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to what are today referred to as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats.

In fact, the nature of the threats to the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers displayed during Fleet Problem IX are all too familiar to modern-day strategists wrestling with the difficult problem of how to cope with the increasingly sophisticated and diverse A2/AD systems fielded by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Western Pacific. The primary difference between 1929 and today is the sophistication and range of the weapon systems themselves, not the broader nature of the threats. Fleet Problem IX serves as an excellent starting point for understanding the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the A2/AD threat.

A Fleet Problem IX

Fleet Problem IX was a truly massive exercise. Participating units included 67 percent of the aircraft carriers, 72 percent of the battleships, 38 percent of the cruisers, 68 percent of the destroyers, 40 percent of the submarines, and over 52 percent of the Navy’s combat aircraft, including planes from the Marine Corps. U.S. Army ground forces and aviation units participated as well. Fleet Problem IX assigned the Blue Force to defend the Pacific side of the Panama Canal while the Black Force was charged with attacking it.

The difference between Fleet Problem IX and previous exercises was the inclusion of modern large aircraft carriers. Previous exercises had included the small carrier USS Langley along with surface ships acting as stand-ins for carriers, but Fleet Problem IX included the two new and massive carriers USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.

Saratoga served as the centerpiece of the attacking Black Fleet along with nine battleships, a light cruiser, 36 destroyers (plus six constructive), and eight submarines (plus four constructive). To defend the Canal, the defending Blue Force assembled an impressive A2/AD system composed of USS Lexington, four battleships (each representing a division of three ships), five light cruisers, 29 destroyers, and 24 submarines, plus 5000 troops from the Army’s Panama Division, and approximately 50 land-based aircraft of all types and three seaplane tenders with attendant amphibious patrol planes.

Vice Admiral William V. Pratt, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Battle Force and a future CNO, commanded the Black Fleet. The fleet began the operation at Magdalena Bay, Mexico roughly 3,200 miles northwest of Panama. Pratt authorized Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves onboard Saratoga, escorted by the light cruiser USS Omaha, to separate from the main force of battleships and make a high-speed run to the Galapagos Islands, and launch a surprise air attack on the locks of the Panama Canal from the southwest while the main task force made a direct approach from the northwest. 

Before 0500 hours on January 26, Saratoga, operating 140 miles offshore, launched an 83-plane strike against the Panama Canal. The rest is written in the lore and mythology of naval history. Shortly before 0700 hours, Saratoga’s aircraft arrived over their targets, surprising the Canal Zone’s sleepy defenders, and executing what would have been a crippling strike on the Canal’s Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks and Army facilities at Fort Clayton and Albrook Airfield.

General Fleet movements and dispositions during Fleet Problem IX, January, 1929. Graphic by CIMSEC staff, background map via Google Maps. Click to expand.

The offensive potential of the aircraft carrier was clear. Vice Admiral Pratt stated after the exercise, “I believe that when we learn more of the possibilities of the carrier, we will come to an acceptance of Admiral Reeves’ plan which provides for a very powerful and mobile force.” The Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral Mark Wiley said, “No single air operation ever conducted from a floating base speaks so eloquently for the advanced state of development of aviation as an integral part of the Fleet.” Pratt even honored Saratoga and her crew by transferring his flag to the carrier for the return to the United States.1

USS Saratoga (CV-3) at anchor off Panama following Fleet Problem IX,  March 9, 1929. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

However, while the overall truth of the statements by Admirals Wiley and Pratt is beyond dispute, Fleet Problem IX also displayed the vulnerability of aircraft carriers in addition to the offensive potential of sea-based airpower. This is because while Saratoga’s aircraft did launch a successful attack on the Panama Canal, the Blue defenders’ A2/AD system had its own share of victories.

The Blue Forces scored their first successes on January 25 when Blue intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets detected Saratoga and Omaha as they approached the launch point from the direction of the Galapagos Islands. The Blue commander, Vice Admiral Montgomery Taylor, deployed two groups of destroyers to cover the approaches to Panama and at 1613 hours on January 25 the destroyer USS Breck struck paydirt when it found Reeves’ carrier. 

Breck was quickly dispatched by USS Omaha and by gunfire from Saratoga herself, but she managed to send a position report. Two hours later the light cruiser USS Detroit found the carrier and her escorting cruiser. While Detroit suffered the same fate as Breck, the Blue defenders were now aware of Saratoga’s location and course and the fact that she was operating independently of the main Black Fleet.

While Saratoga was still able to launch her strike against the Panama Canal the next morning, less than two hours after her planes were in the air, she encountered three battleships from the Blue Fleet. With no aircraft aboard to defend her she was ruled sunk by gunfire. For good measure, shortly afterwards a Blue submarine fired a spread of four torpedoes against Saratoga at 1200 yards and she was declared sunk for the second time in less than an hour. 

An hour later, planes from Blue’s carrier, USS Lexington, arrived and attacked as Saratoga was recovering aircraft from the strike against the Panama Canal. The exercise umpires determined she would have at least been badly damaged. Saratoga and her crew were spared a fourth “sinking” when Blue torpedo bombers from VT-9, operating out of the seaplane base at Balboa, attacked their own carrier, Lexington—an easy mistake given that the two sister carriers were only separated by 12 miles at the time.

The U.S. aircraft carriers USS Lexington (CV-2) (top), USS Saratoga (CV-3) (middle), and USS Langley (CV-1) (bottom) moored at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington (USA), in 1929. (Photo via U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum)

Saratoga’s experience with the Blue Force defenders during Fleet Problem IX highlights the dangers of attacking a diverse and layered A2/AD defensive system. No single aspect of Vice Admiral Taylor’s ISR and defensive networks were sufficient, but the varied and multilayered nature of the system he deployed ensured some degree of success. Blue’s reconnaissance aircraft failed to find Saratoga, but Taylor’s scouting destroyers filled the gap and the Blue Fleet’s submarines were on the prowl as well.

After she was detected, it is possible any one of the varied attacks against Saratoga would have failed. Saratoga had a 12-knot speed advantage over the battleships that “sank” her on January 26. Perhaps she could have run from them and it is entirely possible the submarine torpedoes fired at her would have missed. Rear Admiral Reeves himself claimed that in wartime he could have run from Vice Admiral Taylor’s forces and taken the loss of his air group as acceptable casualties in exchange for damaging a strategic target, but peacetime safety requirements necessitated remaining in position to recover his aircraft.

Theoretically, Lexington’s aircraft should not have been able to attack Saratoga because Lexington herself had run afoul of the Black Fleet’s battleships the day before but was only ruled “damaged” by the umpires in order to maintain her participation in the game. However, had Lexington been knocked out of the game on January 25, then VT-9’s torpedo bombers would not have mistaken her for Saratoga and likely would have attacked their intended target instead. The point is the redundant nature of the ISR network and A2/AD system deployed by the Blue Force meant that to get within range of the Panama Canal, Saratoga entered a hornets’ nest of threats where her detection and destruction were highly likely, if not guaranteed.

Lessons for Today

Submarines, surface ships, and land and carrier-based aircraft were all part of a sophisticated A2/AD system assembled by the Blue Fleet during Fleet Problem IX. That each of these capabilities administratively sank or damaged USS Saratoga at different points during Fleet Problem IX demonstrates the value of a multi-faceted and layered A2/AD system for opposing aircraft carriers. It is therefore not surprising that each of these capabilities form components of the A2/AD system that China is developing to oppose the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups in the Western Pacific should conflict ensue.

China’s PLAN is an increasingly modern and flexible force capable of conducting a wide range of peacetime and wartime operations at expanding distances from the Chinese mainland. With an overall battle force of over 360 ships, including more than 130 major surface combatants and more than 60 submarines, along with its own aviation arm of more than 300 land- and sea-based aircraft of all types, the PLAN is the largest navy in the world. However, it is as an A2/AD force organized, trained, and equipped to oppose U.S. combat operations in East Asia and the Western Pacific that the PLAN is at its most dangerous.

Just as a Blue Fleet submarine claimed USS Saratoga during Fleet Problem IX, PLAN submarines would be at the forefront of any Chinese attempt to deny key operating areas in the Western Pacific to the U.S. Navy. The PLAN submarine fleet consists of 50 conventionally-powered and six nuclear-powered attack submarines, 44 of which are armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), including eight Russian built Kilos armed with the SS-N-27B (120nm range) and 36 Song, Yuan, and Shang-class submarines armed with the 290nm range YJ-18.

It is no accident that a submarine administratively “sank” USS Saratoga during Fleet Problem IX or that the same aircraft carrier was heavily damaged and “mission killed” twice by Japanese submarines in 1942. Submarines have always presented a substantial threat to aircraft carriers, and with sophisticated long-range missiles and patrol patterns reaching out into disputed waters in East Asia and the Indian Ocean, often within range of U.S. assets, PLAN submarines represent a formidable threat to American aircraft carriers today. Combined with the multilayered ISR assets of an A2/AD network, submarines could be cued to launch long-range anti-ship missile salvos from unexpected vectors and at much lower risks to themselves compared to a closer-range torpedo attack. 

While surface ships are not normally thought of as a threat to aircraft carriers due to the long reach of the carrier’s air group, that paradigm may be changing. During Fleet Problem IX and during the 1920s in general surface gunfire was a threat to aircraft carriers due to the short range of carrier aircraft and the lightness of their weapons. Even during the Second World War surface ships occasionally caught carriers, such as HMS Glorious, flat-footed. However, today it is the long range of the missiles employed by some surface ships that make them a threat to aircraft carriers, particularly in the opening stages of a conflict before before ships have had a chance to transition from an open deterrence posture to a more evasive wartime operating pattern. 

The PLAN currently possesses over 120 corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and cruisers armed with long-range ASCMs, along with approximately 60 fast missile patrol combatants. Included in this impressive array of surface combatants is the new Luyang III-class guided missile destroyer equipped with a ship-launched variant of the YJ-18 and the new Renhai-class guided missile cruiser also equipped with the YJ-18 and potentially a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile in the future. That a surface task force of the PLAN operated in the Central Pacific in January and February 2020 suggests the PLAN intends to use its ASCM-armed ships to expand its A2/AD envelope to guarantee its maritime security. The need to do so was stated by the PLAN’s Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhang in April 2009, “Only when the Chinese navy goes beyond the First Island Chain, will China be able to expand its strategic depth of security for its marine territories.”2

Blue Force land- and carrier-based aircraft were a substantial part of Vice Admiral Taylor’s A2/AD system during Fleet Problem IX and they play a substantial role for the PLAN today. The PLAN fields five regiments of JH-7 maritime strike-fighters armed with the YJ-83K ASCM, two regiments of long-range H-6 bombers capable of employing the supersonic YJ-12, and one regiment of modern Russian-built Su-30MK2 Flanker strike-fighters equipped with the Kh-31 air-to-surface missile. The PLAN also operates two aircraft carriers and is building a third.

Potential loadouts for Chinese H-6K/N bombers. Click to expand. (Graphic via H I Sutton)

While the PLAN’s two operational carriers are less capable offensive strike platforms than U.S. Navy carriers due to their ski jump launching mechanism instead of catapults, PLAN carriers could still play a key role in its A2/AD system. This is because even with airborne tanking, land-based Chinese fighters would still be hard-pressed to establish a persistent presence hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland and provide cover for surface ships and long-range maritime strike aircraft. However, carrier-based fighters could provide air defense to PLAN surface ships and bombers, enabling them to get within weapons range of U.S. Navy carriers.3 As demonstrated by Fleet Problem IX, the success of an A2/AD system is based on redundant and complementary capabilities as opposed to any one single silver bullet. 

In addition to the PLAN’s air, surface, and subsurface capabilities, another key component in China’s A2/AD systems are the land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) of the PLA’s Rocket Force (PLARF). A modern and extremely long-range take on an old maritime defensive system, coastal artillery, these weapons present an A2/AD threat unimaginable in the 1920s. The first ASBM fielded by the PLARF is the 810nm range DF-21D, operational since 2010. A new system, the DF-26 with a range of 2,100nm, is in the process of becoming operational and will be able to threaten U.S. aircraft carriers operating east of Guam.

Chinese DF-26 ballistic missile launchers. (Photo via Xinhua)

Fleet Problem IX also demonstrated the necessity of effective ISR to an A2/AD system. Vice Admiral Taylor deployed an array of ships, submarines, and reconnaissance aircraft to ascertain the movements of the Black Fleet. China is doing the same today in the Western Pacific. PLAN surface ships regularly patrol East Asian waters, and their operating areas are expanding into the Central Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Also patrolling regional waters are cutters from the China Coast Guard (CCG, like the PLAN the world’s largest) and numerous ships from local Chinese Maritime Militia forces. China has also launched new surveillance satellites that will bolster its maritime domain awareness.

It is possible if not likely that during a time of tension or in the run up to a crisis that U.S. Navy carrier strike groups operating in the Western Pacific will be shadowed by Chinese tattletales from the PLAN, the CCG, or Maritime Militia and could perform a similar role as the Blue Fleet destroyer that relayed the position of Saratoga. PLAN submarines will also play a substantial ISR role during any conflict and the PLAN’s growing fleet of special mission aircraft based on the Y-8/Y-9 airframe satisfy key maritime patrol and ISR requirements.

A crucial element of this overlapping ISR system of systems is the land-based skywave over-the-horizon radar (OTH), a growing array of reconnaissance satellites, and civilian maritime monitoring systems that contribute to China’s maritime situational awareness. The PLA’s weapons require a robust and redundant OTH targeting capability to be employed at long ranges. China’s investment in ISR along with the necessary command and control systems is designed to provide essential targeting information to airborne, surface, sub-surface, and land-based systems.


Fleet Problem IX—an exercise conducted almost a century ago—is still instructive for naval strategists, tacticians, and planners today. While it is remembered, and rightly so, for demonstrating the offensive potential of the aircraft carrier, it also demonstrated their vulnerability, particularly when the adversary presents an opposing carrier fleet with a multi-layered A2/AD system consisting of complementary capabilities. 

During Fleet Problem IX, the Blue Force commander Vice Admiral Taylor devised such a system to oppose the Black Fleet in defense of the Panama Canal. Today, China has built and is steadily improving a similar system in the Western Pacific. However, the overall design and construct of China’s A2/AD system of today is hardly much different than that developed and deployed by Vice Admiral Taylor for Fleet Problem IX. It is in this way that studying Fleet Problem IX provides enduring lessons for understanding the anti-access dilemma.

Daniel J. Kostecka is a senior civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy and has worked for the Navy for 16 years. He has also worked for the Department of Defense and the Government Accountability Office. He was an active-duty Air Force officer for ten years and recently retired from the Air Force Reserves with the rank of lieutenant colonel and over 27 total years of commissioned service. Mr. Kostecka has a bachelor of science in mathematics from The Ohio State University, a master of liberal arts in military and diplomatic history from Harvard University, a master of arts in national security policy from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, and a Master of Science in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University. Mr. Kostecka is also a graduate of Squadron Officer School, the Air Command and Staff College, the Air War College, and Joint Forces Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


[1] Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt – A Sailor’s Life. Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1974, pp 275.

[2] Cai Wei, “Dream of the Military for Aircraft Carriers,” Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan, 27 April 2009.

[3] Cui Changqi, Ed, Air Raid and Anti–Air Raid in the 21st Century, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2002.

Featured image: Battleships and other ships of the U.S. Fleet at anchor in Panama bay on 26 February 1929 at the completion of that year’s fleet problem. Photographed from USS Lexington (CV-2).