The concept for Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is based on three bedrock tenets: the distributed force must be hard-to-find, hard-to-kill, and lethal. For decades, the Navy has been focused on and has continuously improved its fleet defense capabilities – the hard-to-kill tenet. And, with the recent increased emphasis on the offense, the Navy is making significant progress in becoming more lethal. In contrast, there is limited evidence of progress with respect to the hard-to-find tenet: the very lynchpin of the DMO concept, and the subject of this article.
The hard-to-find tenet and the DMO concept itself are in response to Russia and China as recognized peer threats, including their advanced ISR capabilities to detect, locate, classify, and track (all elements of “find”) and target US maritime forces. When decomposed, the hard-to-find tenet requires consideration of a range of complex activities to disrupt, deny, deceive, corrupt, or destroy the adversary’s ISR ability to find the US force as outlined below.
This is perhaps the most complex but most effective way to be hard-to-find, track and target.
It involves five steps:
Step 1: Analyze the technical performance of enemy information systems. This level of technical analysis applies to each type of active and passive enemy ISR system that could be employed against distributed forces.
Step 2: Analyze and quantify the technical characteristics of US Navy force observables to include radars, line-of-sight communications, satellite uplinks, data links, navigation aids, and acoustic observables.
Step 3: Assess enemy ISR systems probability of detection of specific fleet systems’ observables at various ranges and altitudes, under various atmospheric, acoustic, and diurnal conditions.
The Navy Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS) offers an example of such an assessment. JPALS is a GPS- and radio-based system to guide tactical aircraft to the carrier and through approach and landing on CVN/LHA/LHD ships in all weather and sea conditions.
Pilots returning to a carrier first engage with JPALS at about 200 nautical miles (nm), where they start receiving an encrypted, low probability of detection UHF broadcast that contains the ship’s position, allowing the aircraft to determine range and relative bearing to the ship. At 60 nm the aircraft automatically logs into JPALS via a two-way data link. At 10 nmthe aircraft start receiving precision data and the pilot follows visual cues to land.
The assessment would determine the probability of detection and location of the CVN/LHA/LHD transmitting the JPALS UHF broadcast by Chinese or Russian ISR aircraft and electronic surveillance satellites.
Step 4: Based on the results of step (3), develop and integrate into the combat system the aids to help the tactical commander manage force observables commensurate with the ISR threat to remain hard-to-find; and, to decide if and when it is tactically advantageous to transition from hard-to-find to hard-to-kill.
Step 5: Develop and continuously update a single, all source threat tactical ISR threat picture with the fidelity and timeliness to support the commanders’ ability to make better tactical decisions faster than the adversary.
DMO Force Combat Team
In addition to denying ISR, there are other methods for countering enemy ISR and keeping the force hard-to-find.
If, under the DMO concept, the force has to be ready to operate under mission orders, the combat team will have to be trained and ready to manage the all of the methods that can be used to remain hard-to-find. This will include the identification of the responsible positions on the team, their training, and the planning tools and decision aids they need for the planning and management of these methods for countering enemy ISR.
As with the well-established surface warfare mission areas of ASW, ASUW, and AAW, the tactical commander will require familiarity with and high confidence in the person managing the deny, disrupt, destroy, deceive, and corrupt ISR functions. This position will require an in-depth knowledge of collateral and SCI information sources and methods as well as offboard sensor coverage, tasking, and feedback mechanisms. The position will require in-depth knowledge of enemy ISR systems, their coverage, and, their performance attributes. It will require knowledge of ship/force sensing systems, their performance against various ISR threats, and the atmospheric and acoustic factors that affect their performance.
DMO Battlespace Awareness
Battlespace awareness1 is achieved by the continuous and rapid integration and presentation of relevant information, keeping the commander continuously updated so that he or she can make better and faster tactical decisions. The key factors in this process are relevance and timeliness. The current shipboard system architectures will require modifications to optimize the process for automated integration and presentation of relevant collateral and SCI information. Time is the key factor. An end-to- end analysis of the flow of information from receipt on ship to presentation to the commander would serve to identify and eliminate delays.
DMO force commanders should not only be cleared for access to compartmented information, as they are now, but they should also be educated on and comfortable with these off-board systems, their sources and methods, their strengths and weaknesses, and their tasking and mission plans. They also have to understand how own-ship and off board collateral and SCI information are integrated on the ship, in what space; managed by whom, and, in what form.
In summary, the hard-to-find tenet presents significant challenges that will have to be addressed, both in fleet operations and in Navy-wide efforts to man, train and equip the fleet with the capabilities for its’ successful execution. Two challenges stand out. The first is the determination of the OPNAV resources and requirement sponsor for the manning, training, and equipping the fleet for countering enemy ISR and managing the hard-to-find functions. The second will be adjustments in onboard architectures to assure each commander has the relevant information, in a consumable form and in time to make better decisions faster than the adversary. (A history of the Deny ISR task can be found in the detailed description of the US Navy’s Cold War efforts to be Hard-to-Find provided in Robert Angevine’s paper subject: “Hiding in Plain Sight—The U.S. Navy and Dispersed Operations under EMCON, 1956–1972.“)
The success of the Navy concept of Distributed Maritime Operations depends on being hard to find. This runs counter the JADC2 concept in which all DoD platforms, sensors, and weapons are networked, e.g. continuously transmitting and receiving information via line-of-sight, HF and satellite RF communications that unfortunately present the enemy with electronic surveillance observables that can be exploited to find and attack the transmitting ships. The Distributed forces can receive information via broadcast without compromising their presence. However, the decision regarding if and when to engage in RF communications for active participation in networks will depend on the commander’s assessment of the risk of enemy exploitation of those emissions to locate the force.
Richard Mosier is a retired defense contractor systems engineer; Naval Flight Officer; OPNAV N2 civilian analyst; OSD SES 4 responsible for oversight of tactical intelligence systems and leadership of major defense analyses on UAVs, Signals Intelligence, and C4ISR.
1. Battlespace awareness is: “Knowledge and understanding of the operational area’s environment, factors, and conditions, to include the status of friendly and adversary forces, neutrals and noncombatants, weather and terrain, that enables timely, relevant, comprehensive, and accurate assessments, in order to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and/ or complete the mission.” (JP 2-01)
Featured Image: JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (Feb. 21, 2022) Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) gets underway in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Feb. 21, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Isaak Martinez)
“We have lost the electromagnetic spectrum. That’s a huge deal when you think about fielding advanced systems that can be [countered] by a very, very cheap digital jammer.”—Allen Shaffer, Department of Defense Chief of Research and Engineering, 2014
“Success in past conflicts has relied on information superiority on the field of conflict; this information superiority has been largely dependent on widespread use of modern sensor and communications electronics hardware and software.”—Defense Science Board: 21st Century Operations in a Complex Electromagnetic Environment, 2015
The enemy maneuvered around our networks. On D-Day, theirinformatized system of fixed and mobile jammers swept the skies and seas with impunity, severing critical re-supply and our kill chain. We had no counter-attack. As lethal and non-lethal projectiles rained down upon us, we were clueless to the fact that we’d set the conditions for failure years earlier. Their invisible bullets penetrated each gap and seam in our command and control. Like we did to the Iraqis in the first Gulf War, the enemy exploited every mistake. Our failure to protect the electromagnetic spectrum and control our signatures cost us tempo and decision speed.
For years we remained vulnerable in the spectrum due to legacy systems and poor training. Despite the well-publicized Strava scandal and Bellingcat MH17 investigation, we neglected fundamental field craft. Undisciplined emissions bred bad habits and steadily exposed critical vulnerabilities. There were pockets of excellence where electronic warfare and communications were integrated from the top down, but they were the exception to the rule.
The Marine Corps is not prepared for a battle of signatures. Despite being smaller and lighter than the Army, the Marines are no less vulnerable to attacks from spectrally aware adversaries. In today’s operating environment, stand-in forces in the littorals are heavily dependent upon information for sensing and cueing weapon systems. Yet soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines take the electromagnetic spectrum for granted. The communication of information presents a signature and increases vulnerability. To preserve the kill chain and increase survivability, Marines must practice spectrum warfare at the lowest tactical level. To achieve information superiority against modern threats, the Marine Corps must update training and education, modernize command and control systems, and re-organize for spectrum warfare.
There is widespread agreement the U.S. military haslost dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum. In 2015, the Defense Science Board report found that U.S. military command and control systems are “jeopardized by serious deficiencies in U.S. electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.” A 2017 Government Accountability Office report noted systems continue to contain critical vulnerabilities, despite warnings. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force recently characterized his service as “asleep at the wheel” regarding the electromagnetic spectrum.
The Commandant has acknowledged the Marine Corps is “under-invested” in spectrum warfare-related areas, to include signature management and electronic warfare. Yet the loss of spectrum dominance is also due to legacy command and control systems which will not survive in a conflict between peers. Individual units are also not organized for spectrum warfare, and training and education does not adequately prepare for peer-level spectrum competition.
Friendly communications are routinely subject to detection, interception, and exploitation. Threats range from radio direction finding systems, electro-optical and infrared surveillance, and airborne and celestial systems. While military communications are designed with security in mind, the underlying technology in use today by the Marine Corps to secure their radio transmissions (frequency hopping,waveforms) are decades old. Worse, following the Cold War, the Marine Corps cut electronic warfare systems such as the EA-6B Prowler. As a result, electronic warfare capability in the Marines is only a shell of what it once was, and has led the Marines to adopt systems from other services.
Communications and electronic warfare communities are two sides of the same coin. Both rely on the electromagnetic spectrum to provide and protect access to friends, or deny the same to the enemy. But at the tactical level, the Marine Corpsdoes not possess electronic warfare capabilities needed to stress its systems against formidable peer capabilities possessed by Russia and China. At the same time, Marine Corps legacy command and control systems light up the spectrum with emissions.
Marine Corps doctrine outlines a maneuver warfare philosophy to identify surfaces and gaps to avoid or exploit through planning and analysis. Against a peer adversary, the ability to maneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum is a critical capability, while secure communication networks are vital requirements.
Today, planning and coordination between communications and electronic warfare personnel is deficient. Furthermore, within combined arms Marine Air Ground Task Forces, the aviation and ground communities operate different systems to support their networks, detect threats in the spectrum, and manage information. For example, while the Link 16 tactical data network is being touted as a core element of future networks, few communicators have experience or training with the capability. Aviation units have the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System “drone killer” to detect and jam drones, but ground units do not. As a result, the ground side lacks familiarity with aviation command and control systems, and both lack unity of effort with the electronic warfare community. This results in a wide gap in skill sets, interoperability, and real-time coordination in the electromagnetic spectrum. Given the future links envisioned by the Joint All Domain Command and Control concept, this will better prepare Marines for the spectrum warfare environment.
#1 People: Train and Educate as We Expect to Fight
“People, ideas, and hardware – in that order.”—John Boyd
Pre-deployment training in 29 Palms should not be the first time a Marine is formally introduced to spectrum warfare. The Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept anticipates Marines will operate in a spectrum denied environment under persistent surveillance. Yet as Jonathan George has written, most units still lack electromagnetic spectrum training standards. To address this acknowledged challenge, the Marine Corps should introduce spectrum warfare at entry level schools. Today, other than a small cadre of technical experts, few Marines receive formal training on friendly or enemy radar systems, but are expected to plan or operate in and around active and passive sensors. Most subject matter expertise in spectrum warfare resides far from the battlefield within organizations such as Marine Corps Information Operations Center.
Second, commands can leverage wargames to teach Marines how to think about operating in a spectrum-contested environment. Wargaming is an inexpensive way to train and educate. In recent years, commercial and military wargames have added the dynamics of the spectrum environment, to include communication links and electronic warfare. For example, DARPA has developed a computer-based wargame that uses an array of communications links and jammers to stress a player’s ability to complete an assigned mission. Wargames can supplement exercises and perhaps in some cases more effectively represent the dynamic challenges of the spectrum environment.
Third, the Marine Corps should add a spectrum warfare curriculum to all officer and enlisted career-level schools. Training and education in spectrum disciplines vary across training and education units, along with standardization and properly trained instructors. Baseline curriculum should be developed within the Deputy Commandant for Information community, with input from all relevant communications and electronic warfare disciplines, anchored by observations from recent unit deployment and force-on-force training after-action-reports.
#2 Ideas: Organize Tactical Units for Information Superiority
“Proliferating systems, rapidly procured and fielded, are making for an increasingly crowded spectrum. Our freedom to operate is jeopardized. As our adversaries learn to get the most from their asymmetric strategies and close the gap with us technologically, our edge in combat will increasingly rely on our singular competencies in integration and operational excellence.” –Huber, Carlberg, Gilliard, and Marquet, Joint Forces Quarterly, 2007
Electronic warfare seeks to detect, identify, and exploit enemy signals. Conversely, communicators enable command and control. While both communities are dependent upon the electromagnetic spectrum, they often operate in parallel. In recent years, more voices have argued for greater resources and integration, but only incremental progress has been made at the tactical level.
In today’s dynamic electromagnetic spectrum environment, battalions, squadrons, and regiments must be organized to sense and fight within the spectrum. For example, per Marine Corps doctrine, a Battalion Landing Team is co-located with an Air Support Element to coordinate and de-conflict air support and fires. Yet no such coordination exists at that level for spectrum warfare. Doctrinally, Electronic Warfare Coordination Cells only exist on a Marine Air Ground Task Force staff, but subordinate maneuver units lack an organization to integrate spectrum warfare.
In contrast, the Navy centralizes this function in every tactical formation through theInformation Warfare Commander. Marine Corps maneuver units require an integrated spectrum warfare role to function in a manner similar to the Navy’s Information Warfare Commander, to fuse spectrum warfare operations and assure information superiority. At the tactical level, communications and electronic warfare functions would be combined under a spectrum officer with responsibility for all electromagnetic emissions.
Ground and air units at the battalion and squadron level should have full-time planners trained to integrate friendly command and control networks with electronic attack, protection, and support activities in real-time. This requires a centralized organization with links to distributed maneuver units. The Army has experimented with multi-domain task forces since 2017, combining intelligence and information operations with space and cyber. Accordingly, every maneuver element, down to the platoon, must possess spectrum awareness capability. This gap is not exclusive to ground forces. Aviation units have also noted persistent challenges aggregating the vast quantities of datain the information environment.
#3 Hardware: Replace the Systems
“Today we generally use the EM spectrum and cyberspace as an enabler for land, sea, air, and undersea operations. We have not yet taken full advantage of the warfighting potential afforded by the merging of the EM spectrum and cyberspace, or the pervasiveness of the EM spectrum into every facet of military operations.”—Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert
If Marine (and Navy) units dispersed across the littorals are to have a fighting chance, the Marine Corps must upgrade its command and control systems for greater survivability. The U.S. Army is heavily investing in this effort, to include a new alternative system to GPS location and timing. The Army is also leaning forward in fielding new electronic warfare systems at the tactical level. While hardware upgrades are an expensive undertaking, the alternative for inaction will be grim on the modern battlefield. While the Marine Corps is experimenting with minimal command posts, currently fielded command and control systems are nowhere near adequate. This effort should include all radios and waveforms without resiliency or survivability characteristics in a contested spectrum environment, such as jam resistance, and low probability of intercept and detection.
Second, Marine Corps units need tools to dynamically manage the spectrum. A commander today at the tactical level has no situational awareness in the electromagnetic spectrum. Without a common spectrum picture, communicators cannot coherently sense or map the spectrumin real-time, and information cannot provide commanders the ability to make informed decisions. Hardware and software exists to enhance network visibility into a fused display, but over the years program officers have not fielded a common system. Spectrum visualization and RF Mapping tools, such as Radio Map, can provide real-time awareness of the spectrum at the tactical level. The Army has also recently developed a quantum sensor capable of detecting the entire radio-frequency spectrum.
Spectrum warfare becomes more complicated for Marines operating from ship to shore. Shipboard systems are controlled by the Navy, and often even older than tactical Marine Corps systems operated ashore. This paradigm has to change if sailors and Marines are to fight across the Indo-Pacific and rely on “any sensor, any shooter” as the Joint All Domain Command and Control concept envisions.
Third, establish Marine Corps-wide interoperability standards, and work closely to synchronize efforts with the wider joint force. Marine Corps Program Managers routinely field distinct systems that cannot share information, and it gets worse when factoring in NAVAIR, which owns all naval aviation systems. There must be an individual coordinating authority for command and control, to include electronic warfare sensors, across the service with guidance and direct access to Navy program offices to ensure unity of effort.
The Army is investing heavily in electronic warfare, and has wisely established a suite of open architecture standards for added flexibility and interoperability between requirements for intelligence gathering, electronic warfare, and communications links. As one of the Defense Department’s leaders recently noted, the ability to integrate information is perhaps a culture problem first.
Fourth, pursue systems with the capability to send and receive data through local telecommunications networks. For example, Marines or sailors in the littorals will operate in and among high density civilian populated areas with existing cellular and wireless telecommunication infrastructure. Leveraging these networks will be akin to finding a needle in a stack of needles. This technology is currently available, and has been in use for years by organizations within the Department of Defense.
Finally, equip units ashore and afloat with passive and low-power sensors, and invest in laser and light-based transmitters, which offer significantly reduced signatures. None of these activities should be undertaken without close coordination with the Navy, and the joint force. Imagine an autonomous electronic decoy launched by a Marine unit in the littorals, prompting a kinetic strike on the decoy by an Army or Navy platform, thereby unmasking themselves and revealing their position.
“So the third principle, this is the combination of guided munitions and informationalized warfare, will span all types of ground combat, a regular, hybrid, nonlinear, state proxy and high-end combined-arms warfare. And that means, like the Israelis found out, that the foundation for ground force excellence is going to be combined-arms operational skill.”—Bob Work, former Deputy Secretary of Defense
Force Design is an opportunity for the Marine Corps to improve its ability tomaneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum – on offense and defense. This requirement is a historical road block for the technologically challenged Marine Corps. As historian Allan Millett has written, “The challenge facing the Marine Corps is whether its military culture, based on human qualities… can adjust in a war dominated by microchips.” On the modern battlefield, Marines ashore and afloat must practice spectrum warfare for survivability, and to maintain information superiority. To compete in this modern paradigm, the Marine Corps must update training and education, modernize command and control systems, and re-organize functional areas for spectrum integration.
As the joint force seeks to move toward a highly dynamic and fluid “all-domain” warfare, the Marine Corps must achieve unity of effort across all functions, especially communications and electronic warfare. We must stop admiring the problem and settling for incremental change. Aholistic review of the information environment at the tactical level is in order, with a focus on the people, ideas, and hardware needed for information superiority. As Commandant Berger and General Brown recently acknowledged, investment in “truly all-domain command and control” must be accelerated.
Information superiority alone does not guarantee success in war. But if long-range precision strike and distributed forces are critical requirements, then information superiority is essential. This means critical vulnerabilities – command and control systems – must be protected. Marines will be vastly more lethal and survivable – a more credible threat – with integrated spectrum organization, modern systems, and updated training and education.
Maj. Nick Brunetti-Lihach is a Marine Corps Communications Officer currently serving as Operations Officer, Marine Wing Communications Squadron 28. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Marine Corps or the Department of the Navy.
Featured image: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jacory Calloway, a radio operator with 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, sets up a long range communication system while demonstrating expeditionary advanced basing capabilities Oct. 7 to 8, 2020, as part of Exercise Noble Fury. (U.S. Marine Corps photos by Cpl. Josue Marquez)
January, 20XX: With the likely election of an aggressively pro-independence candidate as the new president of Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China initiates a plan to reunify this ‘rebel’ province with its homeland. Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) assets are activated across the theater. Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleets steam to key chokepoints, deterring foreign intervention, while conducting live-fire missile exercises around the Taiwan Strait to intimidate Taiwan and potential interlopers. With the Chinese Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) ensconcing the area of operations, Beijing is confident that no foreign force can interfere with their plans without drastic escalation that no country will accept.
But across the area of operations, small U.S. Marine and Navy detachments operating out of Expeditionary Advanced Bases (EAB) within the first and second island chains rapidly deploy several long-range precision fires systems. Launching swarms of unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater reconnaissance systems, they acquire the locations of the most critical ships of the Chinese fleet, communicating this data to American maritime and joint operations centers.
With targets acquired, Washington informs Beijing that the PLAN fleet will be sunk unless the threat of military action against Taiwan is withdrawn. In the diplomatic dust-up that ensues, America and its partners close the trap with Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), sending disaggregated fleets into the area of operations, further pressuring China with the threat of massed effects from maritime forces.
China sees the off-ramp and takes it. Ships return to port, Taiwan breathes a sigh of relief, and normal maritime commerce resumes. Deterrence by denial avoids a shooting war between great powers.1
The preceding vignette illustrates how Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO) and DMO, aided by emerging fires and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies, can prevent America’s adversaries from applying fait accompli strategies. But consider, instead, another way the story might have played out:
Unbeknownst to U.S. planners, China detected the American EABs long ago. The naval forces communicated using predictable techniques, on easily detectable spectrum, while exercising poor transmissions discipline and signature management. The PLAN had a reliable laydown of American EABs in their theater long before Beijing executed its reunification plan.
As China closed the noose around Taiwan, PLAN forces simultaneously isolated the EABs in the electromagnetic spectrum, cutting off their primary communications pathways. Targeting information was spoofed, rendering the long-range precision fires systems at the EABs useless. Isolated and blind, the EABs were caught unawares as Chinese amphibious forces landed in Taiwan, forcing the sorely outgunned U.S. forces to surrender.
With the U.S. unable to check Chinese aggression without escalation that would lead to large-scale combat, the rest of the international community looked the other way as China forced Taiwan back under its control.
EABO and DMO are the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ bid for success in disrupting the fait accompli strategies of great power competitors, providing the deterrence by denial called for in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). In order to succeed in the A2/AD environment cultivated by America’s adversaries, EABO and DMO will necessarily be facilitated by emerging fires, ISR, and communications technologies. But the critical vulnerability to EABO, DMO, and consequently to deterrence by denial, is signature management.
The risk assumed in EABO and DMO puts signature management at a premium. Detection or denial of Command and Control (C2) systems will hamstring the promise of both operational concepts. Emerging C2 techniques and technologies provide viable solutions to signature management, validating EABO and DMO, and ensuring the sea services will maintain a critical edge in competition and in war.
DMO, EABO, and Deterrence by Denial
The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) describe strategic competition with revisionist powers, namely China and Russia, as the central challenge facing the United States now and in the future.2 In pursuing advantages, such competitors flout the rules-based international order to further their own interests at the expense of those of the United States and its allies. To prevent the United States and others from rolling back their gains, competitors secure their advantages through pursuit and application of fait accompli strategies that quickly seize objectives and create A2/AD zones, preventing opponents from having the time or political will to strike back, as prolonged escalation may be deemed too costly.3 An example of a successful fait accompli was the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Even though the annexation was internationally condemned, wresting control of Crimea back from Russia would almost certainly require large-scale combat operations that would be considered unacceptable.
Historically, the U.S. deterred adversaries through a strategy of punishment. However, the growing military and economic strength of potential adversaries, combined with fait accompli strategies, makes deterrence through punishment nonviable. Instead, deterrence by denial is emphasized by both the NSS and NDS as the preferred means of countering adversary fait accompli strategies. It is the responsibility of the joint force to develop viable deterrence by denial options. While all of the services are working on this problem, the Navy and Marine Corps are supporting deterrence through their respective sea denial and sea control concepts, specifically EABO and DMO. These concepts look to overcome the challenges of the current and future security environment by transforming the application of traditional military principles through disruptive technologies and concepts of operation.
The Navy and Marine Corps are refining the mutually supporting concepts of DMO and EABO to provide joint force commanders with feasible options for deterrence by denial. DMO is premised on the disaggregation of naval forces at sea, distributing their offensive capability geographically.4 Forces are distributed, increasing their survivability, while offensive effects are capable of massing through synchronization and aggregation of sensors and shooters across a theater. This distribution accounts for the ever-increasing threat range of adversary WEZ, reducing the risk to U.S. warships.
DMO is complemented by EABO, in which Marine Corps forces enable sea control and sea denial by establishing and operating from EABs at sea and ashore, using a variety of platforms deployed in littoral regions. Once established in their EABs, naval forces deploy and operate sensor, shooter, C2 systems, and other capabilities required to persist forward as stand-in forces.5
Operating inside the WEZ, EABO enables the stand-in naval forces that provide sea control and denial, and changes adversary decision-making to favor U.S. interests, deters aggression, and prevents conflict. During full-spectrum combat operations, EABO-enabled stand-in naval forces allow joint and naval commanders to exploit opportunities to leverage stand-off forces and win battles at sea and ashore.6
The EABO concept is highly promising and could resolve the wicked problem presented by adversary A2/AD capabilities combined with fait accompli strategies. But EABO is characterized by an extremely high level of risk for EAB-hosted inside forces. The most immediate problem is enabling C2 while reducing detection to ensure EAB survivability, and reducing jamming to ensure lethality and utility at the decisive moment.
Once deployed within an adversary’s WEZ, inside forces are at constant risk of detection; they must put a premium on concealment. The increasingly contested electromagnetic spectrum, and accelerating capabilities to detect and intercept signals of any kind, mean inside forces will be challenged to communicate with a higher headquarters. This is an imperative because it is required for the command to fire on targets that will incur operational and strategic effects.
As stand-in forces aim to be deployed to key maritime terrain allowing them to employ fires against adversary ashore and afloat targets, they will often be within detectable range of shore-based and afloat direction finding (DF) systems. Communications using higher-power settings needed to successfully connect to higher headquarters will be highly susceptible to detection. Space-based ISR will also be regularly conducting surveillance on this key maritime terrain. Any misstep in the use of current C2 systems will reveal the locations of EABs, allowing adversaries to take steps that will mitigate their utility to any plan for deterrence.
Emerging tactics and technologies can be employed to overcome these signature challenges, mitigating the greatest risks to the inside forces that will be conducting EABO.
For the purposes of communicating while avoiding detection and allowing inside forces to reduce signature and remain concealed in the electromagnetic spectrum, the High Frequency (HF) band is the premier option. In the EAB environment, communications systems using frequency bands higher than HF remain easily detectable; in concert with their low footprint, rapid set-up, and network flexibility, HF radios are the most viable candidate for successful signature management.7 But even HF in normal operating modes is likely to be detected if the location and direction of propagation are being scanned by current DF systems at the time of transmission.8
HF Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) is a tactic that rapidly varies the power output and frequency of HF channels used to transmit, greatly reducing the likelihood of detection.9 With appropriately trained personnel, certain maritime communications systems are currently capable of employing HF LPI.
The challenge is that no training standard currently exists by which to prepare naval communicators to use this technique. Whether HF-LPI is employed or not, and how well it might be executed, is completely at the discretion of individual ship and unit commanders. Though the principles behind HF-LPI are decades old, disruption must first occur in existing standard operating procedures and communications practices across the fleet to ensure HF-LPI is a technique in which personnel are reliably proficient. Such an initiative would be remarkably simple and affordable to implement today, providing an asymmetric advantage over enemy DF capabilities, if the will to employ HF-LPI is exercised.
Institutionalize over Time by Automating Spectrum Modulation
While training in HF-LPI techniques provides a short-term solution, automating this and similar means by which to conceal presence in the electromagnetic spectrum is the long-term answer by which to revolutionize signature management. Emerging spectrum modulation techniques, embedded in systems being researched and developed, will provide this capability.
While Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) is a tried-and-true method to rapidly move across frequencies, new variations provide greater protection. Adaptive Frequency Hopping (AFH) currently avoids crowded frequencies to support Bluetooth, but can be similarly used to avoid frequencies that adversaries are scanning or monitoring. Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) randomizes bit transmission, and is currently in use supporting Wi-Fi networks. While most applications seek dispreads to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, anti-intercept methods would be complemented by reversing this process, hiding the signal in the noise. Fielding systems that automate these spectrum modulation techniques will minimize signal detection, interception, and exploitation.10
Guarantee Signal Integrity – Systems-Based Interceptor and Jammer Rejection
Eventually, inside forces will have to increase their signature when they employ their fires systems for the purposes of achieving deterrence, and when this time comes, signal integrity will trump the need for signature concealment. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently developing communications technologies with the potential to achieve this end. The Hyper-wideband Enabled Radio-Frequency Messaging (HERMES) system works with extremely wide radio frequency bands, while deploying several interceptor and jammer rejection techniques, such as processing gain, integrated filters, and active cancellation.11 The broad spectral spreading further challenges detection systems and increases interference resistance.12 Similarly, the Protected Forward Communications (PFC) program allows military forces to persist and operate in a contested electromagnetic environment using a structured system engineering method.13 The PFC program would protect not only external communications from an EAB to higher headquarters – for example, the order to fire from an EAB at an enemy ship – but also internal communications and signals, such as the signal for a system to fire from an operator within the EAB, and signals from a sensor that would guide ordnance onto target.
Hide in Plain Sight – Nuke the Spectrum
It is not hard to hear a single voice, even in a large room. However, it is very difficult to hear that voice in a crowd. We need to build the haystack in which to hide the needle. At present, EABs and ships operating in the first and second island chains present isolated voices that are susceptible to detection and targeting at even a single breach of signature management discipline. Artificially raising the signature baseline will provide a robust electromagnetic canopy under which inside forces can conceal themselves. Rather than operating under an overarching philosophy of carefully maintained silence and signature control, saturating the spectrum with numerous false emissions can overwhelm an adversary’s ability to make sense of the environment and provide openings for one’s own forces to emit and communicate.
Currently, swarming technologies are being developed and fielded to provide combat power via small, cheap, attritable unmanned systems. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) are presently testing a ‘ghost fleet’ of small, interconnected attack boats.14 Similarly, DARPA is also experimenting with its Gremlins program, providing low cost swarms of interconnected, unmanned aerial systems launched from a larger aircraft.15 While these systems aim to provide sensor and shooter functions, the concepts can be easily modified to serve a signature deception function. Outfitting swarms of unmanned vehicles instead with transmissions systems that communicate on the same frequencies, power levels, and data rates as those C2 systems employed by inside naval forces, they would provide a swarming mask of signature in any operating environment.
A functional example is the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD), jointly developed by DARPA and Raytheon. The MALD is a low-cost, expendable air-launched system that simulates flight profiles and signatures of aircraft.16 Combining this system with similar decoys deployed across the maritime domain will further confound adversaries.17 By providing a litany of other targets to detect and target, naval planners will have ‘nuked the spectrum,’ creating an exasperating targeting dilemma for adversaries who will have to dedicate an untenable amount of resources to separate the signal from the noise. Naval inside forces, whether operating on EABs or aboard ships supporting DMO, will have the concealment they need to mass effects inside the WEZ and provide sea denial and sea control.
Managing Signature for Deterrence and Denial
The sea services aim to provide deterrence by denial through the related concepts of DMO and EABO. Stand-in forces operating from EABs inside an adversary’s WEZ can overcome enemy A2/AD, prevent competitors from employing fait accompli strategies, and secure U.S. interests across the globe.
However, the high risk assumed by inside forces makes signature management a paramount requirement for success. Conventional means and methods of communications and combat systems operation mean inside forces run a high risk for detection and jamming. By applying emerging tactics, such as HF LPI, along with emerging technologies, including HERMES, PFC, modulation techniques, and spectrum deception, stand-in forces can manage their signature and maintain signal integrity. In acquiring, fielding, and employing these tactics and technologies, EABO and DMO will be viable concepts by which deterrence by denial can be realized. Signature management secured in these ways will ensure the sea services maintain our nation’s advantage to prevent, and if necessary, win the next war.
8. National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, Radio Frequency Detection, Spectrum Analysis, and Direction Finding Equipment, (New York: Department of Homeland Defense, 2019), 12.
9. G. Bark, “Power control in an LPI adaptive frequency-hopping system for HF communications,” HF Radio Systems and Techniques, Seventh International Conference, Conference Publication No. 441., August 1997.
Featured Image: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Dylan Griffen (Left), a field radio operator, and Lance Corporal Brent Millard (Right), an anti-tank missileman assigned to 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, conduct pre-flight maintenance at San Clemente Island, California, May 1, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Manuel A. Serrano)
The recent attacks on merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman by forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has conjured up images from the Tanker War of the 1980s. The bombing of four ships at anchor off Fujairah, the mining of two tankers as they departed the area, and the recent seizure of a British tanker has raised the question of how to best protect commercial ships plying their trade. This is an age-old problem that has been with nations and navies since the days of oars and sail. Without a rehash of every concept used since the dawn of time, there are three major methods that come to mind that can be readily adopted.
Before delving into these concepts, it is best to look at the most recent history, and that is from the aforementioned Tanker Wars of the 1980s. Starting in 1981, Iraq and Iran were engaged in a border conflict that quickly spilled over into the Persian Gulf. Iraqi aircraft targeted Iranian tankers with air-launched sea skimming missiles to economically weaken their enemy. Since Iraq exported its oil via overland pipeline, Iran eventually countered by striking the allies of Iraq, particularly the tankers using ports in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. By 1987, the level of combat had reached such a crescendo that the state of Kuwait sought outside assistance to guard their fleet. After making overtures to both the Soviet Union and the United States, it was the latter who agreed to commence convoy operations, but only if the ships were registered under the American flag. From that point on, the U.S. Navy orchestrated convoys into and out of the Persian Gulf but included only American vessels.
From the beginning, challenges emerged in the convoy system. The first outbound convoy from Kuwait encountered an Iranian-laid minefield. Bridgeton, one of the eleven reflagged tankers, struck a mine. Without any minesweeping equipment on board the escorts, and with fear what a mine could do to the warships, they fell in behind Bridgeton as she plowed her way through the Persian Gulf as the world’s largest ad-hoc minesweeper. Eventually, a system of escorts and mine clearance assets allowed the U.S. to safely move ships through the challenged waters. Fast forward thirty years, the question posed is how can the nations of the world, who depend on commerce from the Persian Gulf, secure the area from potential Iranian threats and attacks?
One of the overriding issues that must be addressed is the international nature of global shipping. According to the United Nation’s Review of Maritime Transport 2018, half of the world’s merchant fleet vessels are registered in the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malta. It is very unlikely that parent navies will be providing the necessary escorts for ships registered in these countries, except China covering those of Hong Kong. The use of open registries, or flags of convenience, developed after the Second World War and has proliferated. Even the captured Stena Impero, while flying the flag of the United Kingdom, does not employ any British nationals onboard. The initial question becomes is it the responsibility of the navies of the world, such as the United States, to assume the role of escort? The U.S. did not do so in the Tanker War until ships flying the American flag were attacked. If they do assume the mantle of protector, it does raise the question of what is the advantage of registering a ship under one’s own national flag?
Assuming the national command authority authorizes an escort of vessels in the area, the next question is method. There are many historical examples, from the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War, and the many scenarios conjured up from wargames against NATO and the Soviet Union in a possible third Battle of the Atlantic. These many iterations boil down to three basic types.
Operational Methods for Convoy Escort
First, there is the Bodyguard method of escorting. Whenever the President of the United States, or some other high value individual travels in the public domain, we are used to seeing a phalanx of armed guards, with high-tech weapons, armored vehicles and escorts swarming around their primary target. They are using many techniques, but one of the most immediate is the use of fear. Any assault on the target will be met with overwhelming force and hence they utilize a deterrent strategy. However, even with such a heavily armed escort, this does not mean that an attack is impossible, as we know from history. A truly determined enemy will rarely be swayed from their intended goal, no matter the obstacle.
At first, this method seems to be the option with the best outcome as it provides the most protection and can quickly respond to any potential threat. However, the issue with the Secret Service option is the cost and logistics involved. It requires a tremendous amount of resources and planning to orchestrate any movement. Currently, ships freely move through the area as soon as they are loaded. A Secret Service style convoy operation will mean ships will have to be gathered, wait, and delay their intended offload – thereby disrupting the movement of their cargoes and impacting the economics of their trade. It will also require a large commitment by navies to provide the needed escorts for any such operation.
The second operational method is the Policing method. In any community, town, or city in the United States, the police forces are in their cruisers, on their bikes, or in the air, monitoring and patrolling. The intent of these patrols is to deter crime, but also observe areas and provide quick response should an incident occur. Advocates for this style contend that this forward presence of armed officers, with the ability to call upon reinforcements from other patrolling officers, can handle most situations. Should there be a larger incident, police departments can call upon Special Response Teams (SRTs) to handle any escalation.
With the number of ships transiting the Persian Gulf, a patrol operation in the vein of a police department appears to be a likely candidate for employment. Iranian use of light mobile forces and not employing their larger units – such as frigates, submarines, or aircraft – means that naval forces, such as destroyers, frigates, and corvettes could handle the patrolling of areas in question, with a larger presence in more contested waters. The SRT back-up would be from air assets based ashore or afloat.
The third concept is the Fire Suppression method. Unlike their police brethren, firefighters do not patrol the streets in their fire trucks looking for flames. Instead, they are in stations, strategically located to respond should a contingency emerge. If the situation is beyond the resources of any one station, mutual aid can be called for assistance while other assets are moved to cover the areas vacated by responding units. The biggest change in fire departments is the proliferation of fire prevention education and fire suppression equipment. Most homes and business have smoke detectors and portable extinguishers or sprinkler systems to extinguish any fire before it can envelop a structure.
This method of patrolling could be adopted for use in convoy operations. Like the police method, naval vessels would assume strategic stations to patrol the waters in question. Due to the large number of ships traversing the area, an operation command headquarters, similar to a 911 dispatch center, can receive information from ships sailing the area to discover any potential targets or threats. As ships sail through the most dangerous and contested waters, they can embark armed teams – such as Marines, Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams (FAST), or Armed Guard detachments – to provide close in security until assistance can be provided from naval forces responding from their stations. A few armed personnel on Stena Impero may have prevented the fast-rope of Iranian forces onto the ship.
Variants of these three concepts have all been used in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman area. United States convoy operations late in the 1980s during the Tanker War, and referred to as Operation Ernest Will, were similar to the Secret Service style. During the First Persian Gulf War, coalition navies established a series of checkpoints for ships to check-in at and meet with patrolling warships. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 92nd Infantry Brigade of the Puerto Rico National Guard, was activated and broken up into 13-person teams to embark on American merchant ships transporting materiel to the Middle East.
These recent operations, along with the three methods discussed, are the most likely options available to handle an escort mission in the Middle East. The factors that will determine the course of operation will be the level and frequency of attacks initiated by the Iranians, the amount of resources allocated by the nations undertaking the escort mission, and the willingness of commercial companies to participate in any of these methods. What may eventually develop is the use of all these methods at some point in the future or a hybrid approach to perform this important undertaking.
Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an Associate Professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security. He is also an adjunct professor with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and offers a graduate level course in Maritime Industry Policy. A former merchant mariner, he sailed and worked ashore for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. His book, Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War, is available through the Naval History and Heritage Command. His essay, “Suppose They Gave a War and the Merchant Marine Did Not Come?” won 2nd Prize in the Professional Historian category of the 2019 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest. Another of his essays “To Be A Modern Maritime Power,” was published in the August 2019 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.
Featured Image: An image provided by an Iranian news agency showing an oil tanker burning in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. (Iranian Students’ News Agency, via Reuters)