Basic training conducted at Vessel Training Centers (VTCs) is essential to PLAN preparations for high-end conflict in maritime East Asia, which is the primary focus of China’s current military strategy. The surface force, working in conjunction with PLAN aviation, submarines, and coastal defense missile batteries, plus relevant units from the PLA Air Force and PLA Rocket Forces, would be expected to vie for “command of the sea” (制海权) in key operational areas within the first island chain and contest U.S. operations in waters beyond. Yet very little is known about the VTCs charged with helping them prepare to do that. This report seeks to fill this knowledge gap by providing an overview of VTCs— who they are, what they do, and how they do it—and examining some of the main factors affecting their effectiveness.
In particular, this report tracks recent efforts by the PLAN’s VTCs to evolve to meet the requirements of a rapidly expanding and modernizing surface fleet. This expansion/modernization began in the early 2000s, with the development of new classes of destroyers, frigates, and fast attack craft, but has accelerated since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012. In the last decade, the PLAN has invested massive resources into new construction of advanced surface combatants, from stealthy corvettes intended for “near seas” operations to amphibious assault ships designed to project Chinese naval power throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The PLAN’s embrace of surface warfare has placed huge stresses on the VTCs—to train more ship crews, to keep pace with new technologies and mission sets, and to ensure that training quality matches Beijing’s aspirations for a “world-class” navy. This report argues that despite some enduring challenges, the PLAN’s VTCs have generally succeeded in adapting to these new requirements.
VTCs serve two core missions. The first is to provide “basic training” to crews of newly commissioned surface vessels and older surface vessels that have completed major repairs, upgrades, or extended maintenance and need to be prepared to return to active status. Most classes of PLAN surface ships receive basic training at VTCs. This ranges from fast attack craft to hospital ships, corvettes to cruisers. VTCs are not responsible for training the crews of aircraft carriers. Ships enter VTCs as “Class 2” (二类) vessels (nondeployable) and, assuming they meet all requirements and pass all tests, depart for their operational units as deployable assets (“Class 1,” 一类). The VTCs second core mission is to conduct formal “evaluations” (考核) to ensure that the ship as a whole meets basic standards of readiness and that individual sailors meet the training requirements for their respective posts. These evaluations occur over the course of basic training. Basic training also culminates in a final “comprehensive training evaluation” (全训合格考核) that determines whether or not the ship can be certified for deployment.
The basic training conducted at VTCs is comparable to “Basic Phase” training done by the U.S. Navy’s surface force. VTCs themselves are analogues of the U.S. Navy’s Afloat Training Groups. Like with the U.S. Navy, basic training received at VTCs lays a tactical and technical foundation for the crews of individual ships to conduct more advanced training in conjunction with other ships (“surface action groups,” or ship “formations” in PLAN parlance), other arms of the navy (air, submarine, etc.), and the joint force…
…Ships are “stationed” (驻训) at VTCs for the duration of basic training. This allows the crew to focus entirely on the task at hand and use the dedicated training equipment and facilities available at the VTC. There is no explicit timeline within which basic training must be completed, but in practice it typically takes 6-12 months for a newly-commissioned ship to pass the comprehensive training evaluation. This differs from the U.S. Navy’s basic phase training, which is intended to last precisely 24 weeks (5.5 months).
While each VTC has some latitude to decide how it fulfills its training and evaluation missions, all must strictly adhere to a set of “Outlines on Military Training and Evaluation” (军事训练与考核大 纲, OMTE). The PLA issues a general, military-wide OMTE containing key principles that inform the development of a narrower set of OMTEs for each service.
To date, the PLA has issued three military-wide OMTEs. The first was issued in 2001, going into effect on January 1, 2002. Among other aims, the 2002 OMTE sought to ensure that training evaluations were true assessments of capabilities instead of “theatrical performance.” The 2009 update sought to increase the quantity of combined arms training, focus more on operations in complex electromagnetic environments, augment use of simulators, expand training for non-war military operations, increase “confrontation” (i.e., blue/red) training, and raise standards for basic training. These new requirements directly impacted the policies and approaches of the VTCs. Very little is known about the 2018 OMTE, as the PLA did not allow any media commentary about its contents. Four years later, key themes contained within it remain largely unknown. Each military-wide OMTE begets a separate set of service-specific OMTEs. These documents, in turn, inform the development of OMTEs for different service arms, and in the case of the PLAN surface force, OMTEs for each ship class. VTC instructors adhere to existing OMTEs for ships they are training, and they also help develop OMTEs for new classes of ships.
… Over time, the focus of at-sea training transitions from basic proficiency to handling complex scenarios under stressful situations. The experience of the Type 052D destroyer Qiqiha’er is a case in point. In October 2020, just two months after her commissioning, the Northern Theater Command Navy VTC took the Qiqiha’er out for seven days of training in the Yellow Sea. The training involved 20+ subjects, including firing the ship’s main gun against a surface target (an “enemy frigate”), missile defense (by simulating the firing of the ship’s surface to air missiles and actual firing of its close-in weapons systems—CIWS), man overboard recovery, and underway replenishment.
Basic training at VTCs involves use of live ordnance. Surface combatants fire their main guns against surface targets or targets ashore, CIWS against target drones, rocket-propelled depth charges, and surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles. Ships engaged in at-sea training also use onboard combat systems to simulate the firing of missiles and torpedoes.
Though the focus of basic training is on developing the technical and tactical capabilities of individual ships, VTCs will organize two or more ships to train together at sea, often for several days at a time. For example, in February 2021 the North Sea Fleet VTC took out eight ships for five days of at-sea training in the Yellow Sea. Participants included the Type 056A corvette Zhangjiakou; the Type 052D destroyers Huai’nan, Qiqiha’er, and Tangshan; and the auxiliary Beilan 770.
The composition of training groups changes over time, as some ships complete their training/evaluations and return to the fleet and new ships arrive. For example, in July 2021 the Type 052D destroyer Huai’nan that participated in the February 2021 training event (described in the previous paragraph), departed with another group of ships for six days of training in the Yellow Sea: the Dongpinghu (Type-903A), Kaifeng (052D), Xinji (056A), and Dongying (056A)…
… Despite going out as a group, the focus remains on individual ships. But in some cases, two or more ships in the group will operate together to fulfill training requirements. For example, the preferred PLAN approach to ASW requires multiple ships, aircraft, and other platforms working in close concert. Therefore, ASW training will sometimes involve two or more ships in the group, plus embarked helicopters…
…In at least some, perhaps all, cases, ships engaged in basic training at VTCs conduct more advanced “formation training” (编队训练). This involves members of a task force operating together as a surface action group, synergizing their efforts to complete tasking. For example, in October 2021 the Northern Theater Command Navy VTC took out two Type 052D destroyers (the Huai’nan and the Kaifeng) and three Type 056A corvettes for five days of formation training in the Yellow Sea. While at sea, the five ships practiced joint air defense involving simulated attacks against enemy aircraft, joint fires strikes against enemy-held islands, mine countermeasures, and surveillance and countersurveillance. Video footage of the training shows the ships operating in conjunction with at least one China Coast Guard vessel, demonstrating the ability of VTCs to enlist forces from other services to support training goals. By contrast, the U.S. Navy defers task force and combined arms training until after Basic Phase training is complete.
At-sea training organized by VTCs is designed to be “realistic” (实战化), i.e., to approximate real combat situations. This involves bringing a ship (or small group of ships) to sea and forcing crews to demonstrate mastery of the training subject in unpredictable circumstances. Ships receive orders to leave port to respond to a particular crisis—e.g. the menacing presence of an enemy warship—and must be prepared to cope with threats almost immediately upon departure. Inevitably, the crisis will escalate and the Chinese ship will be ordered to simulate an attack on the enemy combatant. The ship’s crew might also be forced to fend off attack from an enemy aircraft or evade an enemy missile. The purpose of at-sea training is to place crew members under stress to improve their ability to apply skills developed ashore (in simulators) to real world circumstances. These combat scenarios are created by VTC staff members, who also observe and critique the crew’s responses to them.
To further bolster realism, VTCs will sometimes enlist the help of other PLAN units to serve as adversary (i.e., “blue”) forces. For example, while conducting basic training in 2013, the Type 056 corvette Bengbu trained with a PLAN submarine. In December 2015, the Type 052D destroyer Changsha conducted “confrontation” training with PLAN submarines, aircraft, and other ships. The PLAN’s emphasis on “realism” differs from the U.S. Navy’s Basic Phase training, the focus of which is to ensure that crew members develop the technical skills to perform their jobs. While creating “realistic” scenarios is cited as a U.S. Navy training aim, it clearly does not reach the same degree of priority as in the PLAN. In fact, unit-level combat scenarios designed to stress the whole crew only occur during the “Final Battle Problem”—a 2-3 day event at the end of the Basic Phase. Moreover, unlike the PLAN the U.S. Navy does not generally involve real aircraft or submarines to serve as adversary (“red”) forces in the Basic Phase…
Improving Training Quality
At the same time that VTCs have strived to expand capacity, they have also sought to improve the quality of the training they provide. This has not been easy. At the core of this effort has been the development and improvement of a system of “training supervision” (训练监察). Initially, in the early 2000s, this involved the creation of a Training Supervision Department in each VTC, which later evolved into a set of committees charged with the task of monitoring training quality, providing feedback, and (as discussed below) ensuring the integrity of evaluations. Training “supervisors” ( 监察员) point out problems/failings of individual crew members and weaknesses in the performance of the ship as a whole. They record these problems in dossiers, which can be reviewed by the training staff and officers aboard the ship undergoing training so that adjustments can be made. For example, Eastern Theater Command Navy VTC training supervisor Liu Zhiwan (刘志皖) noted eleven specific problems during a 2017 ASW training event. Among these, “the ship CO’s tactical awareness was not strong, the sonar operator lacked a clear mastery of the [tactical] situation, and the towed array was deployed at the wrong time.”
VTCs’ pedagogy has evolved over time to foster better training outcomes. For years, VTCs employed what was called a “nanny style” (保姆式) approach. That meant that VTC instructors did the bulk of actual teaching. This approach resulted in passivity among ship officers and “weakened the initiative” of ship COs. In 2010, the East Sea Fleet VTC, taking its cues from new OMTE requirements, revised its approach by empowering COs to take greater responsibility in organizing training for their ships. This reportedly increased the agency and creativity of the COs. Henceforth, they were responsible for organizing training for “ordinary” training subjects. The CO took the lead, with VTC staff providing assistance. They were also allowed a greater role in the organization of more important training subjects. The new approach, called a “guiding style” (指导式), “fully mobilized the initiative and creativity” of ship COs….
….VTCs have taken steps to ensure a highly-motivated training staff. By 2013, the leaders of the North Sea Fleet VTC, for example, had concluded that the attitudes of instructors assigned there were too lax. The problem was that the job was too “stable,” so that some of them “lacked enterprising spirit.” To stimulate greater zeal for their work, the North Sea Fleet VTC instituted an “incentive mechanism” and began providing extra compensation for high-performing training captains, trainers, and mission area experts.
VTCs have also instituted mechanisms that allow sailors receiving training to provide feedback on particular instructors or instructional practices. For example, the South Sea Fleet VTC invited sailors to complete appraisals of their instructors and mission area experts. Staff members with negative appraisals were reprimanded for their failings. Students dissatisfied with the quality of instruction can also provide feedback directly to training supervisors at the VTC.
Evaluation: Making Sure the Ship is Ready to Fight
Evaluations are the method by which the PLAN ensures that desired levels of technical and tactical training proficiency are reached for all training subjects. They are also seen as an instrument—in their words, a “command stick” (指挥棒)—to force units to train hard and well…
…After the ship passes all subject evaluations, it can proceed to the comprehensive training evaluation. Taking place at sea over the course of two or more days, the comprehensive training evaluation is both a judgment of the competence of the ship’s commanding officer (and other senior officers) and the competence of the ship as a whole. The core focus is on “integrated offense/defense” (综合攻防), i.e. engaging multiple threats from all three domains (air, surface, and subsurface). PLA media coverage of these events often shows footage of the CO and XO in the ship’s CIC, issuing orders to neutralize (or avoid) enemy threats. Behind them stand members of the “evaluation group” (考核组), who judge the correctness of their words and actions given the situations that they face. Other members of the evaluation group are likely dispersed around the ship, observing the performance of other crew members.
During comprehensive training evaluations, surface combatants will live-fire weapons systems including main guns, CIWS, and rocket-propelled depth charges. When engaging aerial threats, they will launch decoys. When engaging enemy submarines, they will simulate the firing of torpedoes.
To mimic real combat conditions, comprehensive training evaluations are unscripted. Ships put to sea without any knowledge of the challenges they will face. Therefore, these events are naturally very stressful for the CO and the crew. PLAN officers often describe the years of preparation and the culminating event as “more difficult than getting a PhD.”
To further increase realism, VTCs will involve outside units to serve as “blue” aggressor forces. For example, in December 2021 the Northern Theater Command Navy VTC organized three ships—the destroyer Harbin and corvettes Xinji and Songyuan—to participate in a 72-hour comprehensive training evaluation. VTC staff members responsible for organizing the evaluation enlisted the participation of other PLAN surface vessels, at least one PLAN submarine, PLAN early warning and strike aircraft, PLAN observation and communications stations, and electronic warfare forces.
Ensuring the Integrity of Evaluations
… The PLAN does not release its OMTEs, so little is known about its standards of proficiency. But it does openly discuss its struggle to ensure rigorous enforcement of its evaluation standards, which has been long and not completely successful.
The first challenge to the integrity of evaluations is institutional. Specifically, groups and individuals who have an interest in high success rates for evaluations have been allowed to play key roles in the evaluation process. Through the 1990s, the task of evaluating training proficiency was the job of VTC staff members in charge of training. In PLAN parlance, “whoever organized training did the evaluations” (谁组训谁考核). This practice was later recognized as hugely problematic, since trainers had a professional interest in seeing high pass rates because it reflected well on them. As a result, “training was not realistic and evaluations lacked rigor” (训练不实、考核不严), and ships judged certified sometimes fell short when conducting real-world operations.
The VTCs took steps to mitigate this problem in the early 2000s. Responsibility for evaluating crew performance was stripped from training staff and assigned to training supervisors (discussed above). Supervisory organizations evolved over time, but the principle remained the same: namely, to “separate training from evaluations” (训考分离). But assigning training and evaluation to different staff members within the same organization is also problematic, since the organization has a strong interest in passing ships that received training there. High success rates reflect well on the training organization. In theory, VTCs have rules preventing senior leaders from directly interfering in evaluation results. However, that has not always stopped them from trying to exert influence. Moreover, members of the evaluation group no doubt feel indirect pressure to act for the benefit of the organization to which they belong.
This conflict of interest was not just a problem in the PLAN. Early in Xi Jinping’s tenure, the PLA recognized that organizations responsible for conducting training should not also be responsible for evaluating training outcomes. Doing so resulted in a lack of focused training, obsession with safety, exercises that were highly scripted (演习念稿子), formalism (形式主义; i.e., focus on image, not substance), and a tendency to fake results (弄虚作假). To remedy this problem, in 2014 the PLA as a whole began embracing principles of training supervision that relied on evaluators external to the organization undertaking training.
For its part, the PLAN took steps to create “third parties” responsible for supervising comprehensive training evaluations. By 2016, the East Sea Fleet, for example, was organizing third party “joint evaluation groups” (联合考核组) to evaluate officers for ship command. This resulted in more objective evaluations and much higher failure rates. By 2018, the Eastern Theater Command Navy Staff Department had begun sending teams to supervise evaluations of ships that had received training at the VTC. As a result, according to the VTC Deputy Director, Wu Guoyu (吴国瑜), “judgments had become more objective and accurate, and some problems with training had been exposed more prominently.” These accounts suggest that the involvement of the Fleet (now Theater Command Navy) Staff Department has strengthened the integrity of comprehensive training evaluations and improved overall training quality….
….What is clear is that institutional and cultural problems have undermined the PLAN’s efforts to ensure that ship crews actually meet all the training standards outlined in the OMTEs. This is done through formal evaluations over the course of basic training and a final, multi-day comprehensive training evaluation held after basic training is complete. VTCs have strong incentives to give passing marks to all ships/crews that they train, because doing so reflects well on them. However, in recent years the PLAN—following guidance from above—has implemented a system that involves “third party” entities in the evaluation process. These teams of experts from the Theater Command Navy Staff Department are more insulated from institutional pressures to achieve high success rates. By some accounts, this new system is yielding more objective assessments….
…Despite similar timelines, PLAN basic training appears to cover more content than U.S. Navy Basic Phase training. After completing basic training and passing all evaluations, PLAN vessels are expected to be ready for almost immediate deployment, as single ships or as members of “ship formations” (i.e., surface action groups). Therefore, basic training includes subjects such as joint ASW, joint air defense, and joint search and rescue, which the U.S. Navy leaves for later phases in the training process. Moreover, PLAN basic training concludes with a multi-day comprehensive training evaluation that certifies that a ship and its CO are ready for action. The U.S. Navy’s Basic Phase does not.
Lastly, PLAN basic training places much heavier emphasis on training ship crews under “realistic” combat conditions. The aim is to force sailors to demonstrate competence in unpredictable circumstances, under stress, and against “blue” aggressor forces enlisted for the purpose. Except for a 2-3 day capstone Final Battle Problem, reserved until the end of Basic Phase training, the U.S. Navy does not prioritize training under realistic conditions until months later, during follow-on training phases.
Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.
Featured Image: The guided-missile frigate Xuchang (Hull 536) attached to a destroyer flotilla with the navy under the PLA Southern Theater Command fires its close-in weapon system at mock sea targets during a maritime training exercise in waters of the South China Sea in late March, 2020. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Li Hongming and Li Wei)
The following is based on a presentation delivered to multiple think tanks and U.S. Navy staffs.
By Dmitry Filipoff
“How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” was an article series I published some time ago on CIMSEC. The series covers many topics so I’ll narrow it down and focus on what I believe are the more important things.
When those two major reviews tried to explain why those collisions happened out in the Pacific, one term that got used was the “normalization of deviation.”1 This term is the main theme behind this series, that the Navy is suffering from very serious self-inflicted problems and is deviating in many of its most important efforts in how it prepares for war.
What specifically inspired the series was writing in Proceedings, mainly writing on the new Fleet Problem exercises by Admiral Scott Swift, who was the Pacific Fleet commander, and also writing by Captain Dale Rielage, who was the Pacific Fleet intelligence director.2 Especially an article of his called, “An Open Letter to the U.S. Navy from Red.”3 These articles helped spark the series because of how they describe the character of the Navy’s combat exercises. And given how important these exercises are, this issue really sheds light on systemic problems throughout the Navy.
When looking into the Navy’s exercises, the key themes that kept coming up were things like high kill ratios, training one skillset at a time, ad-hoc debriefing, and shallow opposition. I’m going to briefly go over some of these things.
The structure of combat exercises in the Navy usually took the form of focusing on individual skillsets and warfare areas—anti-surface warfare and anti-air warfare, and so on. But these things were not often combined in a true, multi-domain way. Instead, exercise and training certification regimes often took the form of a linear progression of individual areas.
The opposition forces were made to behave in such a way as to facilitate these events. However, a more realistic and thinking adversary would probably employ the multi-domain tactics and operations that are the mainstay of war at sea. But instead, the opposition often acted more as facilitators for simpler target practice it seems, which is why very high kill ratios were the norm. But more importantly, a steady theme that kept reappearing was that the opposition pretty much never won.
There are so many of these events, so many training certifications that had to be earned in order to be considered deployable that Sailors feel extremely rushed to get through them. And these severe time pressures help encourage this kind of training, especially at the expense of having a solid after-action review process.
By comparison, if you are losing and taking heavy losses then you should be taking that extra time to do after-action reviews and debriefing to figure out what went wrong and how to do better. The after-action review of a combat exercise can be a really humbling experience for the warfighting professional, where leaders are forced to take responsibility for mistakes that, in real combat, would have gotten their people killed. How a leader accounts for such consequential errors can reveal something about their command philosophy and leadership style. And so the way this kind of after-action conversation plays out is absolutely fundamental to the professional development of the warfighter, and it is an important expression of the culture of the organization.
Now when it comes to debriefing culture across the Navy’s communities you can see a difference in the strike fighter community, where candid debriefing and opposition force training is more embedded into how they do business.4 But I’d say the opposite was very much true of the Surface Navy’s system. And what is being described here also applies more broadly to how things were done for larger groups of ships, such as at the strike group level.
But overall, the Navy’s major exercises often took a scripted character, where the outcomes were generally known beforehand and the opposition was usually made to lose. Training only one thing at a time against opposition that never wins barely scratches the surface of war, but for the most part this was the best the Navy could do to train its strike groups for years.
So is this common? It looks like all the services have some history of doing heavily scripted combat exercises, but there is a major difference between what the Navy was doing, and what the Air Force and the Army have been doing for a long time.
The Army and Air Force do have high-end combat exercise events they rotate their people through. For the Air Force this is a major exercise called Red Flag and for the Army this happens at the National Training Center.
There they compete against opposition that often inflicts heavy losses and employs a variety of multi-domain assets at the same time. Those forces are composed of units that are dedicated toward acting as full-time opposition for these events, such as the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, where units across the Army rotate through the NTC to face off against them specifically. The job of these standing opposition forces is to learn and practice the doctrine of foreign adversaries and then put that into practice to make for a much more realistic fight. But by comparison it seems the Navy doesn’t have a major, multi-domain standing formation to act as full-time opposition for the high-end fight.
When it comes to the Marines, a valuable question was posed by Captain William Bradley. In an article he asked, “Who among us can say he has been a part of major exercises where ‘success’ was not artificially preordained?”5That article published more than 30 years ago. In the early 2000s, in an article entitled “What Are We Afraid Of?” Colonel Mark Cancian wrote that “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’s ready for the Super Bowl.”6 Much more recent writing on how opposition forces were used in the Marine Corps kept referencing something called the “die-in-place” method.7
Now when it comes to the Chinese Navy, those public reports the Office of Naval Intelligence puts out paint a very different picture from what the U.S. Navy was doing.8 The Chinese Navy often trains multiple skillsets at a time, they do not always know the composition and the disposition of the forces they are facing off against, and they do not always know exactly what will happen when the event is about to go down. And not only did Chinese Navy combat exercises become increasingly intense, they were willing to impose on themselves certain warfighting fundamentals of friction that the U.S. Navy was unwilling to do.
They have been training like this for some time now, and with a specific institutional focus on high-end warfighting at the very same time the U.S. Navy was focusing on the low-end spectrum of operations.9 And this is a disparity worth highlighting because it can have strategic consequences. For years the U.S. Navy did not try to practice destroying modern fleets, while the Chinese Navy was.
The PLA also explicitly and candidly states that this habit of guaranteeing victory in heavily scripted exercises is counterproductive and something to be overcome.10 We rarely if ever hear similar things from U.S. Navy leaders.
Recently there have been some positive changes for the U.S. Navy. There are the Fleet Battle Problem exercises Admiral Swift started which seem to be the first truly contested, large-scale, high-end exercise events the Navy has had in a long time. Unit-level exercises and larger-scale events are becoming more difficult through LVC, or Live Virtual and Constructive training, especially the COMPTUEX exercise ships do before deploying.11 The Surface Navy is going through these new SWATT exercises which are now some of the most advanced events surface ships experience.12 The submarine force has stood up a new aggressor squadron.13 And there have been some similar changes for the Marines.14
But what all of these changes have in common is that they only started within the past several years. The extent to which the Navy will really make the most of them is unclear, and this progress is still reversible. It is also unclear if these improvements have been matched by a willingness to be defeated by the opposition. But what is clear is that the corporate memory of the fleet, the institution of the modern U.S. Navy, has been heavily shaped by decades of these heavily scripted exercises.
And exercises go far beyond training. At the tactical level, they are the one activity that comes closest to real war. So exercises are supposed to play a vital function in setting a standard and serving as proving grounds for all kinds of concepts, ideas, and capabilities. This goes to the very heart of one of the most important missions of a peacetime military, which is to develop the force for future conflict. So the Navy’s decades-long exercise shortfall is far more than an issue of operator skill, it is a sweeping developmental problem.
Consider how you could go about exploring a new tactic, a wargame, or a warfighting concept. You come up with an idea and refine it as much as possible through simulations or other methods. And then you finally try it out in the real world through an exercise. You make sure to use serious opposition to see where things may go wrong or backfire. You then repeat trial and error until you have a sturdy, resilient concept. And once you have that, you convert lessons learned in experimentation into new training, you update the training events, and then rotate your people through those events so they have a chance to learn and apply the new thing.
But this is not how force development worked in the U.S. Navy.
When it comes to at-sea experimentation, relatively few warfighting ideas were ever tried out in the real world to begin with. But if an idea managed to get tested in some sort of combat exercise, it often went up against heavily scripted opposition. As a result it had few, if any, rounds of trial and error. Instead, it often was a one-and-done “validation” event that was deliberately crafted to prove the idea right. But if they moved on in spite of that, the idea was perhaps turned into some publication that was then tucked away in a lessons learned library somewhere. And there it will sit among many other publications that hardly anyone is really familiar with.
Now if they do happen to be familiar with it, they will not often have the chance to actually apply it and practice it in a live combat exercise. But if they do have the chance to actually practice it, it most likely turned into just another check-in-the-box scripted certification event, lost among the dozens if not hundreds of other certifications that are all competing with each other for the time of the extremely busy Sailor. And the Sailors often have no real choice but to rush through them and frequently cut corners just to make due and get out on time for deployment.
It is important to recognize that these scripted exercises and this bloated training certification system overlayed an era of supposed transformation for the Navy, because the littoral power projection era was happening at the very same time as the network-centric era. The Navy promoted supposedly transformative warfighting concepts like ForceNet and AirSea Battle, but to the average deckplate Sailor these concepts didn’t change much. There just never was much AirSea Battle training, network-centric warfighting doctrine, or extensive tactical development for many new major capabilities.
Now, the Navy certainly made an effort to transform, but progress cannot be measured by how many new capabilities come online, how many CONOPs or doctrine documents get published, or how many wargames or simulations get run. If these things are going to truly come alive they have to be taught to and refined by the people that will be charged with their execution. In my mind at least when it comes to force development and warfighting, real progress and skill is best defined by what the Sailors and commanders on the deckplate know how to do well, and for that there is only training.
So looking back on the Navy’s recent history of force development, so much of what the Navy did just didn’t go that far. This habit of unrealistic exercising and this overflowing training certification system came together to render so many warfighting methods untested, unrefined, and untaught.
For an important example on why other parts of force development have to be grounded in combat training and translated into combat training, you can look to the Navy’s wargaming enterprise. These wargames are really important to how the Navy thinks about the future, and among many things these wargames can inform war planning. But if you read more into it, these wargames aren’t always as scripted or as straightforward as the live training and exercise events, and the fleet often takes very serious losses in these wargames. Especially against China.15
So what could be the implications of having a large disparity between the realism of training and the realism in wargaming? For one, it means the war plans the United States has drawn up for great power conflict are filled with tactics and operations for which the U.S. Navy has made barely any effort to actually teach to its people. To paraphrase a certain DefenseSecretary, you go to war with the fleet you trained, not the one you wargamed.16
Strategy and Operations
Another major implication of the exercise shortfall was in how the Navy applied strategy to operations, or what the fleet was spending its time doing on deployment in recent decades. Because the Navy not only has the chance to work on force development through exercises within the workup cycle, but also once ships are certified and out on deployment. But once ships deployed in the power projection era, their operations mostly focused on missions that didn’t contribute all that much to high-end force development.
It should be remembered that many of the low-end power projection missions that dominated Navy deployments during these past few decades, things like security cooperation, forward presence, maritime security, these things were at first not seen as overriding demand signals for the Navy’s time. The strategy and policy documentsthe Navy was putting out just after the Cold War ended essentially characterized the opportunity to do many of these missions as a luxury, something that was afforded to the Navy only through the demise of a great power rival.17
When it comes to the major campaigns the U.S. was involved in these past few decades, mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, what needs to be understood is that blue water naval power really struggles to find relevance in these kinds of wars. A destroyer or a submarine just cannot do much to fight insurgents or nation-build. So for the vast majority of the fleet’s ships, they usually did other things with their time, including many of these missions that were certainly helpful but often optional. Plenty of these operations are better described as the many opportunities that come with the especially diverse set of missions you see at the low-end spectrum of operations, rather than really pressing requirements driven by wartime demand or acute geopolitical risk. For just one example, while tens of thousands of Soldiers and Marines were solely focused on advising heavily embattled Iraqi and Afghan troops, the Navy enjoyed the luxury of partnering with dozens of other nations, almost all of whom were not engaged in any major hostilities.
Now in spite of their own crushing operational tempos, the Army and the Air Force have guaranteed significant amounts of forces for their high-end exercises. Hundreds of aircraft participate in the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises each year, and about a third of the Army’s active-duty brigades rotate through the National Training Center annually.18
The force generation models of these services, and the associated combatant commander demand signals, have preserved significant amounts of forces and readiness for these services to consistently conduct major high-end force development exercises at home. The ready forces of these services are not all exclusively allocated toward feeding COCOM demand.
Compared to this the Navy operates under a different model. The Navy is a continuously deploying expeditionary force, compared to the more garrison-oriented postures of the Army and Air Force. Once U.S. Navy ships complete maintenance and certification and are deemed ready for high-end operations, they are then turned over to the operational chain of command. The Navy is essentially the only service that is afforded little to no ready forces for its own use and force development agenda. So it looks like for the past few decades almost all of the ready naval power of the fleet was being spent on combatant commander demand. And those demand signals were so overpowering that they made it incredibly difficult for the Navy to pull together enough ready ships to do truly large-scale and high-end exercises on a regular basis.
Now, some might say the Navy actually did do a lot for force development on deployment when it was exercising with partners and allies abroad. But there are some issues with this. The U.S. Navy does not like sharing various types of classified information with many partner fleets, and this really limits the willingness of the Navy to fully flex its capability abroad. Another major reason is that there is a severe amount of concern on the Navy’s part, perhaps overconcern, on being surveilled by competitors when exercising in forward areas, or anywhere actually. So aside from what looks like a handful of exceptions, most of the exercises the Navy does abroad with partners are maybe even more straightforward than what it does close to home.
But the main point here is that the Navy hardly recognizes force development as a major driver of fleet operations. Things like working out wargames, warfighting methods, and new tactics in the real world must be recognized as some of the strongest possible demand signals for ready naval power. So as the Navy reconfigures itself for great power competition it has to think about how it will strike a new balance between spending time on forward operations versus spending time on working on itself.
The fleet can start with the strategic guidance the Navy has to align itself with. There is a national defense strategy that makes great power competition the main priority.19 So what does the Navy need to learn about for great power competition? There is certainly a broad spectrum of capability that is relevant to that competition, but high-end warfighting especially deserves greater emphasis compared to where it has been these past few decades.
So the Navy needs to identify what specific operations have the most learning value when it comes to getting better at great power competition skillsets. Look at the learning value of a Fleet Battle Problem or a SWATT exercise and compare it to maritime security missions or doing security cooperation with a third world partner. It should become pretty clear that these exercise events can teach the Navy far more about high-end warfighting than most forward operations.
And these events need to be deliberately resourced in global force management rather than be something that is squeezed in between events within the workup cycle, or squeezed into the window of time where a deploying unit has just completed certification but hasn’t yet reached the forward operating environment. And you have to view these exercise events as something directly connected to making Distributed Maritime Operations, or any of the Navy’s warfighting methods, a more tangible reality. Because the more reps and sets you do of these things the faster you will climb that learning curve and the quicker you will mitigate the outstanding force development risk residing within the Navy. Imagine how much progress could be made if a strike group spent a full two or three months on deployment working on Navy force development through focused reps and sets of contested opposition force exercises and at-sea trials. We could get to a place where these high-end exercises are often the point of some deployments and not just an accessory. The Navy can consider how steep it wants its slope of improvement to be.
Now I want to paraphrase something I read from an admiral who was the submarine force commander a couple years back. In a news article he said something along the lines of, “We’re taking a really hard look and in-depth scrub of our certification process….to insert ten days’ worth of force-on-force training for the high-end fight.”20 Only ten days’ worth within a months-long process. This points to something important about the Navy when it comes to trying to do more unscripted, contested exercises.
Why was it so difficult for the Navy to make so little time for one of the most important things it has to be doing? Whether it’s cutting certifications to make time for more thorough events within the workup cycle, or retasking ships on deployment, it has often been a tough bureaucratic fight to make space for these things. This problem suggests that the Navy has gone for so long without unscripted, contested force development exercises that the need for them may have turned into a blind spot, and it didn’t realize why it is so critical that it is missing out on these things, and why it is so fundamental to the well-being of the force. If there is not that much experience in doing this kind of thing then there will not be that many advocates. And so what the Navy has been doing with its time and its budgets and its forces for so many years was stretched to its limits in the absence of a major demand signal.
The Force Development Demand Signal
And that demand signal is something I really want to hone in on.
I want to try and describe a framework for why force development is a major demand signal for ready naval power. And I also want to try to describe the nature of failing to account for force development risk.
There are at least two elements that can drive this demand signal and increase force development risk. One is the force development of competitors and the other is the nature of disruptive capability surprise.
Looking at China, it is critical to understand that the Chinese military is primarily focused on its force development. They also have no significant overseas operations that split their resources elsewhere. And because of that, the operating posture of their fleet has far more in common with the interwar period U.S. Navy than the modern U.S. Navy does. This can make them especially dangerous, because like the interwar period U.S. Navy (that would of course go on to help win WWII) their operating posture allows them to spend most of their time on working on themselves for the high-end fight.
Going to a second major demand signal of force development, that is guarding against disruptive capability surprise.
Look at WWI, the machine gun, chemical gas, and rapid-fire artillery. When they finally put all these new things together, it created a type of warfare that nobody had really seen before. New technology had changed the nature of tactical success so much, but their peacetime force development failed to detect that. The disruption that came from those new weapons and the tactics they produced was so powerful it helped rip apart the operational and strategic plans of nations caught in great power war. And of course there was a tremendous human cost in failing to detect these new tactical trends.
So how do you get a sense of that burden today, of how much real-world combat experimentation needs to go into modern high-end force development? And how much latent force development risk could be residing within modern forces?
Look to how networked combat between great powers has never happened before, or how fleet combat between great powers hasn’t happened since WWII. Look at everything that has evolved since then. Electronic warfare, cyber, missiles, satellites, so much has changed, and our ability to truly know how all of that will actually come together to produce specific tactical dynamics and winning combinations is very hard to know for sure.
A lot of these questions are already being looked at by organizations within the Navy, but the furthest the analysis is able to go is often limited by the imperfections of simulations. Some time ago we published an excellent piece onCIMSEC where people from the Naval Postgraduate School, mainly wargamers and operations researchers, talked about doing tens of thousands of simulations and models to look at tactics for a new unmanned warship.21 Those kinds of people certainly learn plenty about new tactics, but I imagine they will tell you that they could benefit from a lot more real-world experimentation. That is because real-world experimentation can discover the decisive tactical truths that are hiding within the seams of simulation. And I also imagine that wargamers and operations researchers would want some of their insights to eventually be passed on to the deckplate Sailor through updated training.
Now when it comes to force development, clearly you want to enter a conflict with the most tried-and-true warfighting methods and capabilities. But it’s almost inevitable that when you finally get into a real high-end fight, something is going to break. So I want to use another example to show how force development risk reveals itself in wartime.
The U.S. submarine force entered WWII with ill-conceived concepts of operation, a highly risk-averse culture, faulty weapons, and underdeveloped tactics. Submariners at first expected to mostly use sonar to attack their targets (which didn’t make much sense at the time), the torpedoes didn’t work well, and they didn’t have much doctrine for unrestricted submarine warfare.22
This force development failure happened in spite of interwar period wargaming, Fleet Problem exercises, and Admirals Nimitz and King both having a decent amount of submarine experience in their careers. U.S. naval commanders even had the benefit of watching German U-Boats earn combat experience as they sunk plenty of shipping in the Atlantic before the U.S. formally entered the war. But in spite of all of that, the U.S. submarine force punched far below its weight for many months while the rest of the force depended very heavily on them to take the fight to enemy home waters at the start of the conflict.
The submarine force would go on to fix these problems, but they were forced to experiment with their force development in the middle of the war.23 And this points to something important as to why you should really try to get your force development right in peacetime. The better you do in peacetime, the more you will be able to focus your wartime force development on proactive evolution, instead of retroactive corrective action. You would rather be taking those hard-earned combat lessons and using them to make the next best torpedo, rather than trying to figure out what’s going wrong with the ones you already have. And so if these force development shortfalls are worth taking the time to fix in the middle of a war, then surely they are worth fixing today in a time of relative peace.
But coming back to the present, it is hard to say just how many unhelpful and fragile things have made it into the modern U.S. Navy simply because hotly contested, unscripted, high-end exercises were not there to serve as proving grounds or set a standard. While the Navy was working to mitigate geopolitical risk through forward operations, the force development risk that resides within the Navy has been building, and building. The Navy’s system of trying things out in the real world has almost certainly primed the fleet for a lot of hard corrective action in the event of great power conflict.
And so imagine how this could play out. Imagine there was a new major concept of operations or set of TTPs in the works, and it was lucky enough to get the Navy to devote a single large-scale exercise to trying it out. And after that one exercise it got the stamp of approval and then was filed away in a lessons learned system somewhere. Now imagine a conflict breaks out and a fleet commander needs that concept. And when he sees it, it’s the first time he’s ever really looked at it, he’s never tried it out, he’s pretty sure nobody under his command has been trained to do it, and he can’t even be sure that the concept itself was the product of a rigorous series of at-sea combat trials.
Now how much risk do you think that has? The Navy has plenty of things like this residing within itself. And this points to why heavily scripted combat exercises and training events can be so self-defeating, because when you script the challenge out of an exercise, you mask the shortfalls you could be revealing, and you defer the critical warfighting lessons you could be learning. So it’s important to view the habit of heavily scripted exercises as a significant source of self-inflicted risk. And it’s important to contemplate just how much of this risk has been injected into the Navy after doing mainly these kinds of exercises for decades.
So it is safe to say that if a major conflict breaks out tomorrow, from the very start a lot of people in the Navy will be forced to improvise. And by its very nature, the skill of improvisation is just about the furthest thing heavily scripted training is able to teach.
Why Is This Happening?
Why is this happening, why does the Navy keep doing this? There are several reasons, and they include expedience, politics, and culture.
Heavily scripted exercises are expedient. They cost a lot less time than more contested events. It allows you to put many more exercises into the schedule, get more certifications done, and to get through the schedule with fewer interruptions.
A common thing you hear from naval officers who work on these things, is for example, when they tried to insert electronic warfare, or cyber, or some sort of degraded critical enabler into an exercise, it often gets white-carded out of the event. The umpires jump in, restart the event, and “white-card” those effects out of the experience. And the common justification is that they have a schedule to get through, they have to preserve that schedule. Which implies that the schedules are not designed with these things in mind, and that simply getting through the schedule or the checklist might be more important to some than the quality of the actual learning experience. This is a common theme of this problem. Scripting exercises saves time, which nobody has enough of.
When it comes to politics, hard-fought and contested exercises can have programmatic implications. And after something becomes programmatic, it can become political. There is a story that shows this. In the 1980s there was a naval officer, Vice Admiral Hank Mustin, who was a very hard-charging personality who focused much of his career on force development and operational innovation. In an exercise he organized, he scored simulated hits on a carrier with a notional anti-ship missile capability. He figured he had something worthwhile and filed it away in his exercise report. But as he tracked the progress of the report as it made its way through the chain of command, he noticed that the part about him getting hits on the carrier kept getting deleted. And he eventually found out that his superiors at the four-star level were doing this because carrier funding was a difficult topic with Congress at the time.24
If something keeps failing in contested exercises, it is perfectly natural to question if the service should continue to invest in it. The proper response is to innovate. You don’t suppress challenging feedback, you don’t script the risk out of the exercise, or force people to stick with disproven warfighting methods. Rather, you go back to the drawing board, you do trial and error, and you innovate with your tactics, operations, and training. Because that’s exactly what you would be doing in wartime. And so it’s not enough to have well-designed or realistic exercises, there needs to be the will to act on their results, a healthy tolerance for the inherent uncertainty of force development, and the patience for rigorous trial and error.
That brings me to the final point on why this is happening, and that is culture.
Some parts of the military services are afflicted by zero-defect culture. Zero-defect culture is a collection of inherently corrosive dynamics that undermine the health of institutions. What it boils down to is that it is often professionally unsafe to report problems or shortfalls, or even areas that simply have room for improvement. It can be professionally unsafe to make simple mistakes, even honest mistakes. But this culture can force people to engage in dishonest behavior as they try to navigate the irreconcilable contradictions of an overbearing system and a climate of fear in some parts of the fleet.
And this often affects combat training. Because the training requirements system is overflowing, it roughly takes the form of something like this: You have 200 days’ worth of training requirements to complete, but only 150 days to do it. And you’re immersed in a zero-defect culture. So what do you do, when what you have been asked to do is literally impossible? In the Navy it’s called gundecking, in the Army it’s called pencil-whipping. But basically, you report that things are green across the board, and that you completed every one of those 200 days’ worth of requirements.
So how do you define good leadership in this dynamic? What do you make of the commander that gundecks the paperwork for his motorcycle safety certification, in order to buy a sliver of time to do more complex air defense training with his Sailors? Does that make him a slightly better leader than the commander who doesn’t do that? Possibly. But what happens when you have so many commanders across the Navy making that subjective judgment on their own, deciding which of these combat training requirements is worth actually doing, and which are worth only reporting as being done? And when you send that reporting up the chain, to the higher echelon commanders who have come up through this system, how do they decide what to believe? So when out-of-control training requirements come together with zero-defect culture, the natural result can be what the Lying to Ourselves Army War College report described as, a “state of mutually agreed deception.”25
So how does heavily scripted exercising complement zero defect culture? It spares the Navy from having the hard conversations its culture is not always the best at having. It allows people to be professionally safe, to keep their heads down, and stay in their lanes. Or would you rather be the person whose professional competence is immediately under suspicion because the opposition force pushed a little too hard in that last exercise? Or come across as the rogue maverick who tried out a new set of tactics in an event, rather than using an officially sanctioned checklist that might have been written 15 years ago? Or the Navy finding out that a certain capability or platform that it bought with a lot of taxpayer money is maybe not all it has been made out to be? The main thing is that in zero-defect culture, heavily scripted exercises can make things professionally and politically safe.
And so we can say a lot about how to make combat exercises more realistic. But the cultural and political factors are maybe the most decisive obstacles. When it comes to combat exercises, these factors have made it extremely difficult for the Navy to go harder on itself, to be more honest with itself, and to have a constructive approach toward pushing its people to their limits and beyond.
There is also a broader theme here. I’ve talked a lot about exercises, training, and force development so far, but these issues go much further than this. The main fundamental problem of concern is the state of tactical focus in the fleet. There is a resounding concern across many in the Navy that serious tactical learning and effectiveness has really fallen by the wayside. Whether it’s how the Navy does manning, personnel evaluations, PME, admin, inspections, for so many things in a very comprehensive way, it looks like serious tactical learning is struggling to make the list of top priorities. Instead, a large variety of other things have been allowed to overwhelm the time and focus of Sailors, and this is coming at the direct expense of their tactical warfighting skill. There are many ways to tell this story, and the story behind the Navy’s exercise shortfall is just one of them.
Now taking a longer strategic view, after the Soviet Union fell, the Navy could have taken a different path rather than pivoting all the way to power projection. This sort of awkward mismatch between blue water naval power for counterinsurgency could have actually been a blessing in disguise for the Navy while the other services were heavily tied down by operations in the Middle East. The Navy could have instead focused on settling complex developmental questions posed by emerging net-centric concepts. But the Navy effectively missed a historic opportunity to make major progress on force development, where the fleet could have focused on securing its future edge.
Instead, it let a rising rival close the gap. For a generation now the Chinese and U.S. Navies have focused their skills, training, and warfighting culture on opposite ends of the warfighting spectrum. This disparity can be far more fatal to the American fleet. A superpower navy does not threaten its existence by lacking low-end skills, but it can certainly risk destruction by not being ready for the high-end fight. This is why full-spectrum competence across the range of operations is so indispensable and can’t be ignored for a superpower fleet. Now a possible historical legacy of the likes of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and the Ayatollah could include helping the U.S. Navy lose enough high-end skill that it was taken advantage of by China.
To wrap it up, I would say much of the modern U.S. Navy’s story is that of an organization that was divorced from what had long been its defining mission, which was high-end sea control. And when that separation occurred at the end of the Cold War and the start of the littoral power projection era, problems radiated throughout the Navy’s institutions, and especially across its system of force development.
Now the Navy is embarking on a tough transition back toward great power competition, which has been made all the more urgent by the rise of a rival maritime superpower.
Quoted as: “With the demise of the Soviet Union, the free nations of the world claim preeminent control of the seas and ensure freedom of commercial maritime passage. As a result, our national maritime policies can afford to de-emphasize efforts in some naval warfare areas.”
The Navy recently issued Change 1 to one of its key new doctrine books, Navy Warfare Publication 3, Fleet Warfare. The change was issued to update the definitions of a number of key terms to keep them in accordance with joint doctrine. The issuing command, the Navy Warfare Development Center, says “Ultimately, Change 1 to NWP-3 enhances fleet-centric warfighting effectiveness through establishing a framework for the execution of fleet warfare at the operational level of warfare.” Certainly there is an advantage to maintaining consistency across the services in the definition of terms, but NWP-3’s contribution to warfighting effectiveness is less than it could be due to its generic approach to the subject. Granted, it is an unclassified publication, but nonetheless, it could have offered more practical detail on the evolving nature of the Navy’s approach to warfighting. An unclassified practical framework would be vital to operationalizing the Navy’s renewed emphasis on fleet-level warfare.
Beyond including the definition of various terms like strategy, operations, tactics, and mission command, NWP-3 describes the three levels of war and the command and control arrangements the U.S. has established to direct forces within that framework. Focusing on the Navy piece of the action, NWP-3 defines numbered fleets as the Navy’s highest tactical-level commands, although in certain cases like Fifth Fleet (specific fleets are not mentioned in the text) the fleet staff might also function as a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) in which case it would constitute an operational-level command. The Navy components – Pacific Fleet, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and U.S. Naval Forces Northern Command – are the Navy’s highest operational level of war commanders. This is depicted conceptually by the graphic below.
So long as the strategic issue is confined to a particular theater, this graphic – and the U.S. military command structure (Unified Command Plan or UCP) – is an accurate depiction of how things would work. But for the Navy, there is a problem associated with the fact that the oceans of the world are all connected, essentially forming one single world ocean that cuts across combatant command jurisdictions. While NWP-3 mostly confines its discussion to the framework of the UCP, it makes one excursion that acknowledges the disconnect. It quotes a Chinese white paper that declares the PLAN will focus on the far seas, which sets up a global challenge, and then says on page 10:
“Warfare against an enemy of such resource and reach will require the Navy to operate as a globally unified force, orchestrating naval power in a manner that overcomes geographic, organizational, and administrative boundaries. It will require that commanders align, share, and synchronize assets, capabilities, operations, and understanding across the globe while balancing challenges unique to their regional theaters. Fleet warfare will require the holistic, integrated application of distributed naval power across an entire fleet, working in concert with other fleets in other operational areas to confound, dislocate, and defeat our enemies. Campaigns must account for fleet warfare on a global scale, and form an integrated, coherent unity of purpose, effort, and effect across the naval, joint, and likely coalition force. Fleet warfare in an era of GPC requires integrated and distributed multifleet operations on a global level.”
It then promptly reverts back to the theater-by-theater model for the following 35 pages, until it offers an impromptu solution on page 45:
“Fleet warfare in this GPC era will require global coordination that crosses traditional CCDR boundaries. The supported CCDR’s JFMCC will integrate naval activity across CCDR lines under the authorities of a support command relationship. The SECDEF establishes and prioritizes support between and among CCDRs via the support command relationship. When a supporting commander cannot fulfill the needs of the supported commander, the SECDEF will be notified by either commander and will rely on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Services to determine solutions.”
While this may reflect what is permissible in the context of the UCP, it is an awkward and probably slow arrangement that does not seem consistent with the description of global naval coordination requirements on page 10. If NWP-3 is trying to advocate for something different in the way of global naval C2, this is a pretty subtle and frankly weak approach to doing so. The discrepancy between the two paragraphs could be confusing, especially as a doctrinal publication trying to navigate the seams of the issue.
This harkens back to the early 2000s when the Navy was attempting to achieve some degree of global coordination due to shrinking force structure. It established Tenth Fleet to globalize cyber operations, the Global Engagement Strategy Division N52, and according to then-Fleet Forces Commander Admiral John Nathman, a global network of naval component commander operations centers that would coordinate with each other. It is still not clear how much global coordination the Navy is able to accomplish on its own recognizance. This has relevance due to calls by certain members of Congress for the Navy to develop a new global maritime strategy, something which in theory the Navy has no authority to do under the joint structure.
NWP-3 unfortunately does not spend a lot of time discussing naval operations in a joint context. When it does, it says:
“Future fleet warfare will increasingly rely on capabilities not necessarily under direct fleet command. For example, special operations forces, embarked on fleet vessels, could be used to enhance targeting, communications, and other capabilities. Capabilities can also include those inherent within other fleets, or resident within naval forces already in theater. Joint forces, now including space and cyberspace, all have capabilities that can support fleet warfare. Additionally, national capabilities are increasingly responsive and pervasive as technological advances expand across the maritime domain. Furthermore, integrated campaigning below the level of armed conflict provides opportunities in peace to find and refine efficiencies that are practical in war.”
The significant omission in this paragraph has to do with the Air Force and airpower. A large portion of a fleet warfighting manual ought to outline how Navy forces would work with the Air Force in defense (integrated air and missile defense), offense, and scouting. Air Force bombers have considerable maritime strike and mining capabilities that could be magnified via Navy cooperation. Large swaths of ocean create significant demand for domain awareness and tactical-level intelligence that aircraft can provide. Land-based aviation typically outranges carrier aviation and could offer major augmentations to carrier concepts of operation. The other services also deserve more explicit mention. The Marine Corps is getting into the anti-shipping business and the Army is talking about it with its Multi-Domain Operations concept. Why would the Navy’s capstone document on fleet warfighting not discuss all this? Mentions of potential joint collaboration should not be limited to brief hypotheticals, but rather expanded into detailed frameworks for how the joint force can bolster the capability of the fleet and vice versa. Despite being major service-level warfighting concepts, neither DMO nor EABO are mentioned in the document.
As a nit, NWP-3 asserts that British Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar saved Britain from the threat of a French invasion. In fact, Napoleon had already abandoned such plans before the battle took place. The reality is more nuanced; the collective “mission command” decision-making of a number of Royal Navy admirals, along with inspired strategic directives by the First Sea Lord Barham, confounded Napoleon’s attempted combinations in the months preceding Trafalgar to lure Royal Navy forces away from the English Channel so he could mount an invasion. Trafalgar was a kind of coup de grace that freed Britain up to take the strategic offensive. A Navy doctrinal publication should exhibit more careful historical appreciation.
The publication seeks too much erudition in the theoretical realm, leading to a rather confusing conclusion: “Recent history suggests that fleet warfare will be a protracted affair of episodic decisive engagement as each side seeks degrees of sea control suitable for supporting operational objectives.” This illustrates the overall problem with the publication – it resembles more theoretical Naval War College reading than it does substantive and practical guidance for the fleets to operationalize.
The establishment of the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander headquarters and its embedded Maritime Operations Center (MOC) spelled a new approach to fleet-level command and control. This should be the focus of NWP-3. How do all the elements of a fleet, including surface, air, subsurface, logistics, and others work together? How do they all work in conjunction with joint and perhaps international forces? The theory of operational art is a good thing for officers to learn, but there is currently a gap between that and the teaching of unit and community tactics that needs to be filled. There must be some unclassified way of discussing fleet-level operations that bridges the operational and tactical levels that is specific enough to provide practical clarity for MOC watchstanders, JFMCC planners, and individual unit commanders. NWP-3 should ideally constitute a bridge between the strategic and tactical levels, yet it makes no mention of Admiral Bradley Fiske’s injunction that no strategy is valid unless it takes account of the tactics required to make it work. The idea at the fleet level is to set units up for tactical success rather than counting on them to exhibit tactical genius to make up for deficiencies in broader operational design.
Despite the theorizing about DMO and fleet-level concepts, right now the fleet would fight a conventional war at sea by mainly using carrier strike groups and submarines to some extent. P-8s would conduct anti-submarine warfare and such MQ-4s as are available would provide reconnaissance and surveillance, and perhaps targeting. How exactly the various elements would do this is naturally classified, but the fact that the main source of anti-ship capability still resides in the carrier air wings is something that should be explicitly talked about, and then how the other elements of the Navy support it. At a minimum, such a description would provide a baseline for thinking through other ways of doing business at the fleet level. The Navy needs clearer guidance to bridge its current formations and force packages into the larger-scale combat entity that fleet-level warfare is intended to wield.
NWP-3 is an indicator that the Navy is having trouble shifting gears from a service that has engaged almost exclusively in projecting power over the shore from unchallenged sanctuaries at sea to a force that will have to fight for command of the sea and conduct sea control operations in hostile environments. Moreover, it also indicates the Navy has not gotten joint in its heart despite the years of bureaucratic requirements set up by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The latest capstone document Advantage at Sea, along with its wingman, the CNO’s NAVPLAN, together offer a somewhat better vision of fleet warfighting than NWP-3, although those visions are also hardly satisfactory. As the Navy considers how to transform itself for fleet-level warfare, it will need stronger and clearer frameworks for what exactly that may look like in practice.
Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.
Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 20, 2022) The U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), steams in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Milius (DDG 69), Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship, JS Setogiri (DD 156), Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and the Royal Australian Navy supply ship, HMAS Stalwart (A304), in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Heather McGee)
CIMSEC had the opportunity to ask Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTIs) of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) about the evolution of the Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) events. These events are some of the most advanced combat training events surface units experience, and play a critical role in preparing units for high-end operations. In this discussion, the WTIs highlight how SWATT events are becoming more advanced, what core principles undergird the learning experience, and how Sailors and WTIs are growing from these events.
Past SMWDC leadership has stated an intent to further sharpen SWATT exercises. How have these events evolved and how has SMWDC enhanced the quality of the challenge?
We are always refining and evolving the training given through SWATT and no two SWATTs are ever the same because of it. The data we pull from a SWATT allows us to make intentional changes for subsequent iterations to improve the training fidelity and desired learning outcomes. We focus these changes on areas that we assess improved the performance and preparedness of warships and staffs.
Two areas we have seen sweeping changes in SWATTs are how we train units for mission briefs and the use of live, virtual, and constructive (LVC) capabilities. With LVC, we are able to expand the scale and complexity of training conditions through the use of manned virtual simulators and constructive computer-generated forces. We are able to present ships with a more realistic scenario of a high-end fight, which far exceeds the available assets we physically have at our disposal during a training exercise. We have also added mission briefing requirements for warfare commanders (Zulu and Whiskey) into the final planning conference for SWATT in the past year. Moving into next year, we will be expanding this to the ships during our in-port academics period to increase the mentoring and teaching provided by the warfare tactics instructors (WTIs).
How do the SWATT events complement SMWDC’s new Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC)? How does SWATT help emphasize the more subjective and qualitative metrics of tactical skill in SWCTC versus rote-styled learning?
SWATT is a comprehensive advanced training event which aligns seamlessly with the SWCTC framework. SWATT is focused on improving watch team performance. A unit’s watch teams are evaluated against a series of measures of performance (MOP) based upon advanced exercises defined in Commander, Naval Surface Forces’ Surface Forces Readiness and Training Manual (SFRTM). SWCTC has a complimentary set of MOPs rooted in current tactics and procedures to track individual vice watch team proficiency.
During SWATT, WTIs observe the ship’s tactical teams in action, grade each event based upon the MOP, and provide detailed debriefs for each event. The WTIs and their tactical expertise is how we are able to capture the more subjective and qualitative metrics of a watch team’s performance.
Starting in early 2023, the in-port training portion of SWATT will integrate both the SWATT and SWCTC teams to assess and improve our academic, classroom-based portion of the training. This blended approach to training will pair the lessons we currently teach during SWATT with the question banks currently used by SWCTC. This will allow us to evaluate the training we are currently providing and ensure we are providing the right level of training at the right time to best take advantage of the training opportunities provided during SWATT.
By understanding and measuring tactical performance at the individual and watch team-level over time, we will raise tactical readiness, decrease the variation between our most and least proficient operators, and make the best use of our training resources and opportunities. SWATT and SWCTC are complimentary in realizing the tactical performance we need to fight and win.
What is the value of adding supporting learning activities before and after the events, mainly the in-port academics and structured debriefings? How do these efforts enhance the experience?
From more traditional in-port training to LVC scenarios, the SWATT experience is designed to train ships through a variety of methods. Everyone learns differently, and the different approaches we use during SWATT help us achieve gains with as many operators as possible.
The structured debriefings are one of the most important tools we have. It is difficult to learn from mistakes if people cannot acknowledge they were made in the first place. Ships who already have strong debrief cultures, where people can humbly admit mistakes without fear of reprisal, tend to get the most out of training exercises, including SWATT. No one is perfect, including WTIs, and being self-aware is required to make improvements.
What is the learning value of being a WTI that facilitates these events? How do the WTIs grow and improve from working through multiple SWATT events?
Warfighters complete the course of instruction to qualify as a WTI, but they truly become WTIs during a production tour when they embark warships during SWATT and employ the WTI ethos of ‘Warrior, Thinker, Teacher.’ They are translating the book knowledge into action by advising combat watch teams and developing warships’ tactical proficiency and understanding of warfighting doctrine. Each SWATT is more complex than the last, and WTIs planning and executing multiple SWATTs is essential for continuing their growth and maintaining currency with the latest TTPs and combat system developments.
How does SWATT offer a unique learning experience by being different from a certification event? How does this different format shape the incentives and mindsets of the training audience?
While assessments are an essential method to ensure forces are ready to deploy, having a live exercise event in the Surface Force strictly dedicated to learning is as valuable. The very nature of SWATT gives ships freedom to build on their foundations from the Basic Phase while developing a keen understanding of advanced tactics in an atmosphere that encourages experimentation, taking chances, trying new things, and asking questions.
From personal experience as a department head on a ship, we got more out of SWATT than any other training exercise because we felt more freedom to try new tactics and figure out firsthand why they would or would not work, without fear of failing an assessment as a result. If our warfighters are not given avenues to explore new tactics or to creatively solve problems, it is hard to develop the professional curiosity and ingenuity necessary to give us the upper hand over our adversaries.
In addition, certification events by definition establish a minimal standard to complete. SWATT looks to move beyond a set bar every unit must get over, and instead focuses continuously on the specific processes and areas that units and teams can improve to achieve the highest possible tactical performance.
What kind of data collection occurs during SWATT, such as the efforts of the Data Analytics Working Group (DAWG)? How does this data get applied to inform training and other SMWDC efforts?
Data is collected from every major sensor aboard the ship, from the SPY radar to data links, as each ship executes SWATT serials. This data is taken back to the DAWG, which occurs a few months after SWATT execution, and is used to help reconstruct events and validate shipboard system performance. These data reconstructions help correct training audience deficiencies and improve our own products. For example, positional data could confirm if a ship correctly conducted evasive steering for an inbound torpedo. If ships are consistently having trouble in one area, it is a potential indicator that it may need to be prioritized in the training cycle, or that fleet or SMWDC guidance is unclear. If the latter is determined, depending on the issue, it will be pushed to the appropriate SMWDC office to resolve the doctrine, TTP, or planning.
What does WTI mentorship look like when they are aboard the ships during SWATT and working with the crews? What do you hope the crews can learn from the WTIs and apply themselves going forward?
WTIs work with ships during in-port training not only to provide a baseline level of knowledge for shipboard combat teams, but also to establish themselves as approachable subject matter experts. While embarked and not actively conducting a SWATT event, WTIs work with the shipboard planning cells to assist in the development of briefs, systems setup, and doctrine validation. Crews can learn a lot from WTIs, especially how familiarity with published tactics and procedures can make us all better warfighters.
More importantly, however, crews gain more professional curiosity from working with WTIs. We cannot buy our way out of the tactical problems our Navy faces—we need Sailors to understand our tactics and use them to develop creative solutions to defeat enemies. That creativity does not come without professional curiosity.
During SWATT, WTIs add value in a variety of ways. They routinely engage with large groups in the form of training sessions or briefings. In addition, they often field specific questions and concerns from individual watchstanders or watch teams where the interaction is much more interactive and personal. Being approachable is a hallmark of the WTI cadre, and this is clearly visible and impactful when at sea during SWATT execution.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: (Dec. 30, 2020) The guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104) fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Drace Wilson)