“The young officer deals in tactics. That is what he cares about most. While he chafes against other duties, his first focus is meant to be the development of skills to bring combat power to bear on an enemy in circumstances of mortal danger.”–Vice Admiral Cebrowski1
“The disconcerting truth, however, is that the modern naval officer is buried in reports… that deal with everything but how to fight.”–Captain Wayne Hughes2
These quotes from classic naval thinkers underline what has been glaringly obvious for years – every American Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) knows that the community spends less time on tactics than it should. SWOs mainly conceive of their professional identities in terms of their administrative function, such as “I’m the Auxiliaries Officer” or “I’m the 1st Lieutenant,” instead of their tactical or operational roles. The CASREP instruction is more familiar to Ensigns than the classic work Fleet Tactics. These administrative duties take up a massive amount of time and energy, and with the surface fleet’s emphasis on program management and material readiness, tactics consistently fall by the wayside. To state it more bluntly, warships are more ready for inspection than they are for war.3
What if it could be different? Other services and communities fulfill the same duties to man, train, and equip without losing their warfighting ethos. Naval aviators identify themselves by what combat aircraft they fly, focusing on their ability to fight over the administrative role they serve within a squadron. Marines conceive of themselves as riflemen even in the heart of the Pentagon.
The Surface Navy needs to cut itself free of its extraneous entanglements and make concrete changes to how it improves warfighting skill. Our most urgent target for reform should not be improving individual tactics on a piecemeal level. Rather, we should be focusing on systematic changes to the personnel and training systems throughout the Surface Warfare community that will cultivate more tacticians.
The lowest-hanging fruit is in the junior officer detailing process. The fleet is missing a major opportunity to incentivize junior officers to be more lethal, but reform would be relatively simple. When assigning officers in the SWO community, detailers at the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) reward extra points for attaining certain advanced qualifications. Officers who quickly qualify as Tactical Action Officer (TAO) and Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), the top tactical and engineering watches on a ship, often receive first choice of their next assignment due to the number of “extra points” they receive when slating for their next tour. This is a great way to incentivize hard work, but the limited scope of this program is a missed opportunity. The detailing process should also assign point increments to more junior tactical qualifications.
The obvious candidates are Warfare Coordinator (WC) positions – the watchstations subordinate to the TAO that actually employ weapons in combat. It is not feasible for most junior officers to become a TAO – a position normally filled by Department Heads ten years their senior – in the few extra months between earning their SWO pin and transferring to a new command. It is feasible, however, for a hard-charging division officer to learn how to fight a single domain under the TAO’s direction. Giving JOs a point incentive by qualifying these watches would motivate them to go after these qualifications earlier. Detailers could begin rewarding the watchstations listed above right away – and include even more, like Anti-Submarine Warfare Evaluator (ASWE) or Tomahawk Engagement Control Officer (ECO), after changes to the school requirements.
Detailers should also reward qualified Antiterrorism Tactical Watch Officers (ATTWOs) with a small point bonus. While not required on most ships, the ATTWO position requires officers to demonstrate calm under fire in a way more academic qualifications fail to achieve. Officers need to confidently know their tactics – but they also need to be mentally prepared to make decisions with limited information, preserve order in chaotic situations, and if needed, order the use of lethal force. Only the ATTWO qualification, with its focus on real-world drills, regularly trains JOs in these skills.
Our proposed model is shown below. BUPERS currently gives 0.25-point bonuses for TAO and EOOW, which are then added to a value calculated off of Fitness Report (FITREP) scores. To minimize confusion – that calculation is fairly complex, and unnecessary for this discussion – our proposal describes fractions of the TAO/EOOW bonuses. When ultimately implemented, the exact scores will also need to be tailored to match those FITREP scores.
This new model has three main advantages – it will make junior officers more lethal, it will create a deeper bench of experience among more senior officers, and it will incentivize retention.
Today’s SWO qualification process only touches on tactics in the Combat Information Center Watch Officer (CICWO) and Maritime Warfare qualifications. These are cursory quals that provide only the barebones foundation of modern warfare. They cover U.S. Navy capabilities and limitations, but leave major gaps when it comes to other great powers and their tactics and doctrine. Despite earning the qualification, a qualified CICWO has not yet been taught how to track and assess threats, launch missiles, or maneuver the ship in combat. In contrast, the warfare coordinator qualifications, with their emphasis on exact weapon employment, countering specific threat tactics, and coordinating with other tactical watchstanders and units, represent a more serious professional achievement in becoming a skilled warfighter. Incentivizing junior officers to go after these specific quals earlier will make them much deadlier and increase lethality on a fleet-wide scale.
These changes will also benefit more senior officers. Today, most officers in the surface fleet formally learn tactics for the first time when going through the TAO curriculum in Department Head school, after seven to nine years of experience. That is much too late for the complexity of today’s weapons and tactics. Incentivizing early tactical qualifications would give Department Heads a stronger foundation, setting them up for success when they assume the TAO role. A stronger foundation will also allow for more advanced tactical education and training to be administered at later career milestones, further elevating the lethality of the force. Given enough years, it will eventually create more lethal captains and admirals.
Finally, these point incentives would boost retention among junior officers. When interviewed, junior SWOs consistently say that they are not well-trained for combat.5 The current point system feeds that problem by only rewarding the qualifications – TAO and EOOW – that are prerequisites for command. Shifting to the new model would improve combat skills across the fleet, and would send a powerful signal that the SWO community values tacticians at all levels. Bonus points for tactical qualifications are not a silver bullet – but they are a step in the right direction, showing junior officers that the Navy sees their achievements as worthwhile in their own right, and not simply as stepping stones to command. By providing tangible professional incentives that directly strengthen the Navy’s core function – warfighting – the Navy will boost warfighter retention and morale.
The SWO community should keep its big point incentives to create high-quality captains – but recognize that the best ships are ones where top captains are backed by lethal, combat-ready O-2s and O-3s. Today’s JOs are starving for a foundation in tactics. Incentivizing them to pursue tactical qualifications early may be the first step in convincing them that the SWO community prioritizes warfighting, and in turn, convince them to stay and grow into more deadly department heads and captains.
LTJG Chris Rielage is a Surface Warfare Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) in the Western Pacific. His publications have previously appeared in USNI’s Proceedings and CIMSEC.
LCDR JR Dinglasan currently serves as the IAMD WTI course of instruction (COI) lead at the Surface Advanced Warfighting School (SAWS), Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). He recently completed his second department head tour as the Combat Systems Officer aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is a graduate of the surface warfare community’s IAMD WTI COI and previously served at SMWDC as an advanced tactical training planner and as the lead instructor/tactics developer for Standard Missile-6 surface warfare (SUW) tactical employment.
1. Captain Wayne P. Hughs Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Edition, U.S. Naval Institute Press, xxi, 2019.
4. This proposal is designed around an AEGIS cruiser or destroyer, as the US Navy’s most common surface combatant. Other watchstations, like a Naval Strike Missile (NSM) Planner on an LCS or Air Defense Warfare Coordinator (ADWC) on an LPD, could also be excellent candidates.
Featured Image: NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain (Dec. 6, 2021) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) departs Naval Station Rota, Spain, Dec. 6, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrea Rumple/Released)
The “Star Wars” franchise continues to build and expand into its 46th year of impact on American and global culture, science fiction and, in some cases, scientific fact. The “wars” side of the story, however, has not always been as accurate as perhaps possible. Hero and villain commanders alike, including General Obi wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and others are more tactical warriors fighting with lightsabers, lasers, and individual strike fighter spacecraft. Tactical planning for space combat such as the briefing scene for the attack on the first Death Star in Episode IV, A New Hope (the original movie), has a World War II movie fleet of pilots in a ready room, and the space fighter combat that follows of a similar vintage. The great star fleets of Star Destroyers, Rebellion ships, Republic and Separatist ships, and the latest series of films with First Order and New republic warships, is mostly backdrop for character dialogue and decision rather than decisive military planning and action.
The “admirals” of these formations (Ackbar, Holdo, and Piett) are mostly tactical fighters, although the unfortunate Admiral Ozzel from The Empire Strikes Back receives the ultimate punishment from Darth Vader for a low-level poor operational decision (dropping out of light speed too early and alerting the Rebels to a system-wide Imperial attack). Grand Moff Tarkin is the originator of the so-called “Tarkin Doctrine” that advocates a counter-insurgency plan based on terror and retribution using the first Death Star and the Imperial fleet, but that seems more the province of a Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy rather than distinct military operation.
One Star Wars leader, however, stands out as an operational-level war planner and strategist. Grand Admiral Thrawn, the blue-skin humanoid leader of Imperial forces in the wake of the death of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and thousands of Imperial soldiers and naval personnel in the battle of the Endor moon, seems the one Star Wars character with War College training and mastery of all levels of war. Created by author Timothy Zahn as a composite of historical military leaders, Thrawn is a multi-dimensional character closer to the modern senior military leader than the rest of the one-dimensional, cartoon-like heroes and villains of the Star Wars saga. Zahn described Thrawn as a quite different kind of villain, stating in 2017 that
“Most of the Imperial leaders we see in the movies rule through a combination of fear and manipulation. I wanted to create something different: a commander who could lead through loyalty. The result was Thrawn, a tactical genius whose troops follow him willingly, and who will fight for him whether or not he’s watching over their shoulders.”
A Star Wars Character with a Career Record
Timothy Zahn’s books on the blue-skinned, red-eyed humanoid admiral detail his discovery by an imperial patrol, and his career as essentially an Imperial surface warfare officer, and then a Joint Force commander. Thrawn attends the premier Imperial Naval Academy, and commands increasingly larger and more capable warships across his career up to Star Destroyer size. Along the way, he confronts bigotry, as the Empire is described as somewhat racist and biased in favor of humans over the aliens that make up a large part of the Galactic realm.
Thrawn is an admirable junior officer who speaks the truth to his superiors. He takes risks but involves his subordinates as a team to get results. He successfully fights pirates as a senior Lieutenant and is promoted to the position of executive officer of a light cruiser (a medium-sized imperial warship.) Thrawn performs well in tactical combat. His ship is damaged in a sophisticated drone attack, but he analyzes the attack pattern and destroys the drones. He is again promoted and given command of the cruiser. After more success in fighting rebels and pirates, he is promoted to command a larger Star Destroyer, and after more success, the equivalent of a carrier strike group command (built around a Star Destroyer and its escorts) and later a Fleet Command with multiple capital ships. While his career progression is considered rapid in the books, it is definable and in line with what one would expect for a senior naval leader.
Thrawn is a tactical expert, proficient in the tactical tools of both the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion. He combines these tactical skills in the maneuvering and combat of starships with operational intelligence on his opponents that includes everything from the ship types and weapons to cultural strengths and weaknesses. Legendary naval tactics expert Captain Wayne Hughes said, “To know tactics, know technology.” Thrawn knows the technological capabilities of his force and combines these with cultural knowledge, what the Naval War College calls “intangible” factors, to achieve tactical overmatch like Air Force tactics expert Colonel John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop process.
While Boyd’s scheme was purely based on technologically driven air combat, Thrawn’ s use of intangible knowledge further expands his use of the OODA loop to get even further ahead of his opponents. For example, in an engagement with New Republic forces after returning to take command of the post-Battle of Endor imperial remnant, Thrawn conducts an unorthodox maneuver of his flagship against attacking New Republic ships that his fleet captain predicts will be easily understood and countered. What the Captain does not understand is that Thrawn has made a study of the planetary home world of the Republic commander and knows that that species fears radical change to the point where they are unable to effectively react in a timely matter. Thrawn’ s tactical maneuver confounds the Republic ships and allows him to gain advantage in the decision cycle which results in their defeat. Had Thrawn maneuvered as if he were facing an imperial opponent with the same knowledge base, and mirror-imaged his opponent, he might not have been successful. The combination of Hughes tactical knowledge, Boyd OODA Loop framework, and avoidance of assuming that opponents would act as he would empower Thrawn as a superb tactical operator.
Operational and Strategic Commander
At the end of the first Thrawn book, one sees the newly minted Flag Officer Thrawn conduct a system-wide campaign against the nascent forces of the rebellion with the Imperial equivalent of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group. Thrawn quickly identifies the “military center of gravity” of the operation as a group of planetary defense weapons protected by an impenetrable shield. He gathers intelligence on the defenses to determine that the weapons are fully effective. Thrawn first employs deception and maneuver, using his Star Destroyer’s escorts as a decoy to distract his opponent and gain knowledge of his opponents’ weapons and weaknesses, while his flagship remains out of range of planetary weapons. Then Thrawn uses what War College curriculum would call “enabling fires” onto the rebel planet’s oceans, with resulting tidal waves that cause electrical casualties to his opponent’s weapon systems and shields. With their force protection measures neutralized, the rebel garrison is forced to surrender or face direct fire from Thrawn’ s battle group. This is just the beginning of a sector-wide operation by Thrawn to eliminate the rebel threat in the sector and restore safe passage for imperial trade. The Imperial Admiral also employs intangibles aspects of center of gravity analysis through decisive leadership of his own forces and estimating his opponent’s culminating point being the destruction of the energy shield by the tidal waves.
Thrawn finally comes into his own as a strategic commander with his return from the so-called “unknown regions” in the wake of the Imperial collapse following the defeat at the Battle of Endor and the deaths of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Admiral Piett, and many other senior imperial leaders in the disastrous engagement. Thrawn re-organized the Imperial remnant as a striking force, sought disruptive technologies that would limit Jedi communication powers, and identified the center of gravity of New Republic forces as a strategic shipyard and warships it produced still waiting to be delivered. The Republic victory at this engagement (Battle of Sluis Van) only comes from a lack of Imperial jamming that the Republic exploits to turn imperial uncrewed platforms against the ships they were trying to capture. Mass takeover of combat platforms through essentially hacking them is a common science fiction element, appearing more recently in the opening episode of the Battlestar Galactic reboot of the 2000s. While Thrawn’ s planning displayed sound operational art, the knowledge of technology and networks is essential for both attack and defense. The U.S. military’s own desire to manage mass uncrewed system operations could benefit from a review of science fiction.
Thrawn Lessons Learned
Grand Admiral Thrawn eventually goes down to defeat, stabbed in the back by his own bodyguard, a sad fate for such a talented strategist, operational planner, and tactician. He remains, however, the most believable, senior military commander in the Star Wars universe and a cut above other officers such as the hapless Admiral Ozzel, Darth Vader’s subordinate Admiral Piett, and the rebel/New Republic commanders like Admirals Ackbar and Holdo who act primarily as tactical commanders. The character of Thrawn offers some useful examples of exceptional operational planning and tactical execution for military planners and wargamers to follow. One can hope that the forthcoming TV appearance of the blue-skinned imperial commander will be as inspiring as the literary versions of his persona.
Popular culture does not always offer significant military lessons, but the Grand Admiral Thrawn character possesses tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war skills worth emulation by the U.S. armed forces. Thrawn’ s command of technology enables his tactical success. His meticulous planning and execution of complex operations echo Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke’s statement that there is genius in diligence. Finally, Thrawn’ s ability to see multiple operations in progress through to conclusion reflects his skill in grand strategy. Thrawn does not raise his voice, use expletives, or “force choke” his subordinates, but mentors them and freely shares his own thoughts and wisdom. Thrawn seeks to understand his opponents’ goals and methodology through their art and culture, and often uses this understanding to gain operational and tactical advantage.
Yes, Thrawn is a villain, and his objectives are often cruel, but that said, his fictional campaigns are worthy of study. As further proof of this applicability, see Strategy Strikes Back, a collection of essays that examines real warfare through a Star Wars lens. While focused on tactics, the book by the same name from legendary fleet tactics expert Captain Wayne Hughes is another useful tool through which to understand what Thrawn attempts to do in the books. Hughes suggests that operational doctrine is the “glue of tactics,” and Thrawn’s own doctrine emerges across the book series as one that uses a mix of technology, maneuver, and application of fires from unlikely locations to achieve tactical and campaign-level success in the books. The Thrawn Trilogy series itself details the admiral’s full career, and readers can explore in depth Thrawn’s operational planning skills across multiple campaigns. In a world where many may not know the great strategists of history, Thrawn may be a good start in getting more young people interested in strategy, operations, and tactical thinking.
Dr. Steven Wills currently serves as a Navalist for the Center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League of the United States. He is an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy and U.S. Navy surface warfare programs and platforms. After retiring from the Navy in 2010, he completed a master’s and a Ph.D. in History with a concentration on Military History at Ohio University, graduating in 2017. He is the author of Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning, published by Naval Institute Press in July 2021 and, with former Navy Secretary John Lehman, Where are the Carriers? U.S. National Strategy and the Choices Ahead, published by Foreign Policy Research Institute in August 2021. Wills also holds a master’s in National Security Studies from the U.S. Naval War College and a bachelor’s in History from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Featured Image: Grand Admiral Thrawn as he Appears in the New Disney “Ahsoka” series played by actor Lars Mikkelsen (credit: Disney+).
Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations. Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls. Read Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics. Read Part 4 on weapons depletion and last-ditch salvo dynamics. Read Part 5 on salvo patterns and maximizing volume of fire. Read Part 6 on platform advantages and combined arms roles. Read Part 7 on aircraft carrier roles in distributed warfighting.
By Dmitry Filipoff
China’s arsenal of anti-ship weapons is truly a force to be reckoned with, and is superior to that of the United States in many respects. These weapons and the tactics that make use of them can be at the forefront of China’s ability to deny U.S. forces access to the Western Pacific. As both great powers build up and evolve their anti-ship firepower, it is critical to assess their respective schemes of massing fires, and how these schemes may compete and interact in a specific operational context, such as a war sparked by a Taiwan contingency. Whichever side wields the superior combination of tools and methods for massing fires may earn a major advantage in deterrence and in conflict.
China’s Anti-Ship Missile Firepower
China has assembled a wide array of anti-ship missiles and naval force structure for generating massed fires. These weapons and the way they have been distributed across platform types come together to form an outline for how China can mass fires against warships. These weapons should be assessed through a framework of the specific traits that highlight their mass firing potential, including launch cell compatibility, platform compatibility, range, maximum flight time, numbers of weapons procured, and numbers of weapons fielded per platform.
China’s main anti-ship missiles are the YJ-12, YJ-18, YJ-83, DF-21, and DF-26. The YJ-12 serves as a primary weapon for bombers and coastal launchers; the YJ-18 is a primary weapon for submarines and large surface warships; the YJ-83 is fielded by multirole aircraft and surface warships smaller than destroyers; and the DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles are China’s most long-ranged land-based anti-ship weapons.1 While there are other anti-ship missiles in China’s inventory, those appear relatively uncommon compared to these five weapons.
Each of these weapons, save for perhaps the YJ-83, is relatively modern and introduced into China’s anti-ship arsenal within the past 10-15 years.2 While the recency of introduction suggests the inventory may not be deep enough for a major conflict, China’s precise weapon procurement rates are not as publicly discernible compared to U.S. forces. However, the U.S. Department of Defense has stated that China conducted more than 135 ballistic missile live firings for testing and training in 2021, which “was more than the rest of the world combined,” excluding conflict zones. The DoD made the same remark about 2020, with China firing 250 ballistic missiles that year, and earlier again for 2019, but with no accompanying figure.3 These firing rates suggest that China has invested in a robust missile production industrial base and recognizes the value of building out deep inventories of precision weapons.
The YJ-83 is a relatively common Chinese anti-ship missile that is widely fielded across its surface and air forces. It is similar to the Harpoon in being a smaller, shorter-ranged weapon that is not compatible with vertical launch cells. For warships, it is primarily fielded in box launchers aboard Chinese frigates, corvettes, and small missile boats. Multirole aircraft can field this weapon as well, making it the primary anti-ship missile for non-bomber PLA aircraft, such as land- and carrier-based aviation.4
The lack of launch cell compatibility makes it fielded in relatively low numbers aboard the compatible platforms. The short range and low magazine depth forces the extensive concentration of platforms to mass large enough volumes of fire. The range of the weapon is short enough that aviation can be forced to concentrate in large numbers within or near the limits of modern shipboard air defenses, although attacking aircraft may still have enough space to fire and then dive to spoil semi-active illumination. Like Harpoon, the greater the proportion of YJ-83s in a mass firing sequence, the greater the risk the force will incur.
The YJ-18 strongly stands out in the PLA arsenal for being its only widely fielded anti-ship missile that is compatible with vertical launch cells.5 It is fielded aboard China’s large surface combatants, the Type 52D destroyer and Type 55 cruiser, and a torpedo tube-compatible version of the weapon is fielded aboard PLA submarines.6 By combining a long range of more than 300 miles with launch-cell compatibility, the YJ-18 offers a strong capability for the Chinese surface fleet to distribute across wider areas and still combine large volumes of fire. Primarily because of the YJ-18, it is starkly clear that large U.S. surface warships are heavily outgunned by their Chinese equivalents, and must compensate for the disparity in offensive firepower with superior tactics, defenses, and combined arms methods.
The YJ-12 has similar range to the YJ-18 and is compatible with a larger variety of launch platforms, including coastal launchers and bombers, but crucially it lacks launch cell compatibility.7 The range of China’s bombers and the roughly 300-mile range of the weapon could allow bombers to reach out at long distances, concentrate aircraft well beyond the range of warship air defenses, and fire effectively first. By being compatible with bombers, this weapon can be at the forefront of China’s ability to fire on warships at extreme ranges from the mainland.
The YJ-12 and YJ-18 feature terminal sprint capability, a major force multiplier that is absent from U.S. anti-ship missiles. By accelerating to around Mach 2.5-3.0 after breaking over the horizon view of a warship, these missiles can offer less than half the reaction time for the target warship to react compared to subsonic weapons.8 This allows the missile to cross much more distance from the horizon before the warship can make its first intercept, and reduces the time it takes the missile to get inside the minimum engagement range of major warship defenses. By substantially reducing reaction time, terminal sprint allows lethal effect to be achieved with less volume of fire compared to a slower weapon. These weapons still fly at subsonic speed for most of their flight to maximize range, especially when traveling at sea-skimming altitude. This strengthens the imperative to intercept sea-skimming missiles with aviation well before they can activate their deadly terminal sprint capability against warships.
China’s DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles offer critical asymmetric advantages by offering a combination of especially high speed and long range, allowing them to be at the forefront of China’s ability to mass fires against warships. This combination of traits also allows these weapons to combine fires with a large variety of other platforms and payloads on a theater-wide scale. If a Chinese platform is firing anti-ship missiles at a naval formation within the second island chain, the defenders cannot discount the possibility that the salvo could be bolstered by high-end ballistic fires launched from the Chinese mainland. However, if the concentrations of these land-based launch platforms are maintained at their widely separated bases across the mainland, then this will lessen the overlap between their fields of fire and dilute their delivery density. 9
With the anti-ship Tomahawk, the U.S. may soon finally have anti-ship firepower that is more widespread and long-range than what resides within China’s arsenal. But it is a major assumption to think China’s anti-ship capability will remain static in the next 10-15 years as the U.S. builds up its anti-ship Tomahawk inventory. The state of advantage could change if China fields anti-ship weapons similar in design to the Tomahawk, or fields more of its novel missile types, such as the YJ-21 anti-ship missile that was reportedly test fired from a Type 55 cruiser in 2022.10 The YJ-21 could stand to be the first hypersonic, launch-cell compatible, anti-ship missile for Chinese surface forces. While forthcoming variants of the SM-6 could stand to offer similar capability to U.S. forces, it will likely be subject to multiple factors that dilute its anti-ship potential as described in Part 2.11 China has clearly demonstrated a strong interest in developing advanced anti-ship missile capability, and will be motivated to maintain its edge.
Key Elements of China’s Naval Force Structure
China’s force structure features much more variety than the U.S. military in terms of the platform types that can field long-range anti-ship firepower. Select elements and traits of this growing force structure deserve to be highlighted in light of their ability to contribute to mass fires.
Within the past decade China’s surface fleet has emerged as a major force in its own right. After producing multiple short-run variants, several modern warship designs entered serial production, dramatically increasing numbers and capability. Today China’s surface fleet is mainly composed of about eight cruisers, 30 destroyers, 30 frigates, 50 corvettes, and 60 fast-attack missile boats.12 Most of the PLA surface fleet’s capability to fire large volumes of long-range anti-ship missile firepower is concentrated in its large surface combatants, a force of nearly 40 warships that was built within the past ten years. If current production trends hold, this force of large surface combatants could double to around 80 warships within the next decade.13
The asymmetry of certain scenarios and force structure can allow PLA surface warships to take on more favorable missile loadouts compared to the U.S. Navy. Given its expeditionary nature, the U.S. surface fleet faces greater pressures to split its magazine depth across multiple missions, including anti-ship, anti-air, anti-submarine, and land-attack missions. If the Chinese surface fleet is operating within the second island chain, much of the demand for land-attack capability could be offloaded to forces on the Chinese mainland, such as by having bombers, multirole aircraft, and ballistic missiles filling the demand for land-attack strikes. While Chinese frigates and corvettes have virtually no long-range anti-ship or land-attack capability, their anti-submarine capability could alleviate further demand on the larger surface combatants. The U.S. Navy by comparison does not feature frigates or corvettes, which concentrates its surface fleet’s division of labor in its large surface combatants.
By being spared of the need to devote considerable magazine space to land-attack and anti-submarine weapons, China’s large surface combatants could allocate a larger proportion of their magazines to anti-air and anti-ship weapons than equivalent U.S. warships. This advantage could give China’s surface fleet more capability and staying power on a ship-for-ship basis when it comes to fleet-on-fleet salvo combat.
China’s surface forces can be significantly bolstered by non-military elements. China’s coast guard and maritime militia feature numerous vessels, and its commercial shipping fleet is massive. While these ships feature little in the way of firepower, they can considerably enhance the distribution of Chinese forces and complicate targeting by allowing the Chinese surface fleet to mask its presence among these more numerous vessels. China could also reap considerable gains in the ability to mass fires and pose a far more distributed threat if it opts to extensively field containerized launchers that could fire weapons and decoys from commercial ships.14 Missile seekers that are programmed to avoid striking contacts that look like civilian vessels may struggle to differentiate these threats. The threat of hidden arsenal ships residing within China’s massive shipping fleet could pose an especially distributed challenge.
China’s naval service fields bombers within its force structure, unlike the U.S. military. The H-6J variant is optimized for maritime strike and can carry up to six YJ-12 missiles, an increase from the four missiles the H-6G can carry.15 This increased carrying capacity translates into fewer platforms needing to concentrate around a target to mass enough fires.
These bombers are relatively limited compared to their American counterparts with regard to magazine depth. An American B-1B bomber can launch 24 LRASM missiles, a volume of fire that is four times greater than what an H-6J can muster, and with similar weapons range.16 The U.S. can launch a greater volume of fire from its bombers by fielding cruise missiles that are small enough to be compatible with internal rotary launchers, substantially increasing the magazine depth per bomber. By comparison, YJ-12s are large enough weapons that they can only be carried via external hardpoints, limiting the magazine depth of the platform.
However, as mentioned in Part 2, the U.S. Air Force is procuring so few LRASM weapons that long-range anti-ship capability is almost non-existent for the air service.17 The fact that China has dedicated maritime strike bombers within its naval service suggests it is less likely to grossly under-resource their inventory of anti-ship weapons.
The PLAN operates about 50 attack submarines, where all but a few are diesel-electric, which limits their range and endurance compared to nuclear-powered submarines.18 A critical shortfall is the lack of vertical launch cells in all PLAN diesel-electric submarines. They are confined to firing anti-ship missiles from their handful of torpedo tubes, which severely restricts their volume of fire.19 But the ability of these submarines to field anti-ship missiles with terminal sprint capability may allow them to compensate for low volume of fire by launching close-range, high-speed missile attacks against warships.
China fields hundreds of land-based multirole aircraft that could be critical in a naval conflict, including for growing or attriting volumes of fire and securing information advantage.20 Land-based aircraft tend to have longer range than carrier-based aircraft, but most of China’s land-based aircraft are fielded by the PLA Air Force, which will naturally have less familiarity and practice operating over maritime spaces than PLA naval aviation.21 But these aircraft will still likely operate over or near maritime spaces in a Taiwan contingency, making them a considerable factor in naval operations.
Among the many trends of China’s evolving naval force structure, its growing inventory of aircraft carriers stands to substantially tilt the naval balance in critical ways. The U.S. ability to overwhelm China’s naval forces will be enhanced by its expanding arsenal of new anti-ship weapons, but maybe not as much as hoped for because of China’s carriers. A world in which the U.S. military has finally built up enough anti-ship Tomahawks and LRASMs to mass fires against warships is also likely to be a world where China has built around six aircraft carriers, if current production trends hold.22 China is poised to substantially change the balance of naval aviation in the Pacific during the same timeframe it will take the U.S. Navy to field enough weapons to mass anti-ship fires. China’s newfound carrier capability will then be poised to heavily attrit America’s newfound anti-ship capability, which will further drive up the volume of fire the U.S. will have to muster.
But while China may be on track to field more carriers in the Pacific than the U.S. Navy, the U.S. may maintain a critical edge by fielding increasing numbers of the F-35 aboard carriers. It is unclear if China’s carriers will field as many 5th generation aircraft, potentially giving the U.S. major advantages in sensing, networking, and battle management functions that are powerful force multipliers for massing fires.
Nonetheless, the following dueling concepts of operation for mass fires take place in a hypothetical future 10-15 years from now, with both sides fielding considerable carrier aviation capability, and with China able to project a substantial amount of multirole naval aviation over the Philippine Sea.
China versus the U.S. and Competing Schemes of Mass Fires
The U.S. and China have developed forces that assemble massed fires in different ways. In looking at how a potential conflict may play out, it is critical to conceptualize how these different schemes would interact and oppose one another. A comparison of mass firing schemes highlights each nation’s advantages and disadvantages in the context of the other’s capabilities, and forms an outline for how kinetic exchanges could transpire.
What all of China’s mainstay anti-ship weapons have in common is that they can travel to the limits of their range in roughly 30 minutes. The firing sequences of Chinese massed fires will typically be much shorter and concentrated than that of U.S. forces, such as those that rely heavily on Tomahawks (Figure 1). There will be comparatively less opportunity to counter PLA massed fires after they begin, where a shorter mass firing sequence reduces the defender’s opportunity to reposition defensive airpower to attrit inbound salvos, launch interruptive strikes against waiting archers, and organize last-ditch salvos and their contributing fires. The PLA will benefit from a faster decision cycle compared to forces using much longer firing sequences, where multiple rounds of PLA massed fires could fit into the time it takes to mount a single firing sequence using Tomahawks that are launched near the limits of their range. The emphasis will instead be more about complicating the PLA decision to fire through distribution and other means, carefully pre-positioning airpower to attrit salvos soon after they are launched, and striking PLA archers early enough that they cannot initiate massed fires.
U.S. forces may typically have longer firing sequences by virtue of the Tomahawk’s long range and subsonic speed. However, the longer flight time of the mainstay U.S. anti-ship weapon will give it more opportunity to grow the volume of fire and more ability to leverage waypointing tactics, especially to increase the complexity of threat presentation and to feint attacks in a bid to trigger last-ditch fires. This long range and flight time also translates into more opportunity to maneuver across different salvo patterns, and more ability to recover from deception in pursuit of new contacts. China will be hard pressed to match these advantages, especially when its anti-ship weapons that rival the range of Tomahawk are ballistic missiles that are much more constrained in their ability to maneuver and reorient along their fixed ballistic trajectories.
However, the long range and flight time of Tomahawk gives the defender more opportunity to bring airpower to bear against salvos, and where the range of Tomahawk could outstrip the range of friendly escorting aircraft. Mass firing sequences that heavily depend on Tomahawk will have to strongly emphasize salvo patterns and waypointing tactics to compensate for the weapon’s survivability challenges and to preserve as much volume of fire as possible. These specific challenges and tactics also make Tomahawk especially dependent on naval aviation to provide critical information and air defense support to Tomahawk salvos. If PLA warships manage to get within range of Tomahawk-equipped warships, then many of the advantages that come with Tomahawk’s longer range and flight time will be minimized.
China may hold a critical advantage with respect to interruptive strikes, which are used to disrupt an active firing sequence as it is unfolding. China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles can offer plenty of options for interruptive strikes by virtue of their high speed and long range. Warships that are suspected of being waiting archers in a lengthy firing sequence can be attractive targets for ballistic missile strikes, encouraging those warships to launch earlier and leverage waypointing to artificially increase their time to target. But this comes at the expense of frontloading the firing sequence and reducing the distribution of fires across time. China’s potentially superior ability to launch interruptive strikes could then shift the overall interaction between competing schemes of mass fires. China’s superior interruptive ability can lead to the opponent frontloading their firing sequences, which subsequently affords China more time and opportunity to bring defensive airpower to bear against the incoming salvos, while also giving China more time to organize last-ditch salvos and their contributing fires.
Anti-ship ballistic missiles can cast a shadow over the air defense doctrines of numerous forces operating within the weapons engagement zone, where warships may be forced to split their attention between sea-skimming and ballistic threats simultaneously. Warships deeper in the battlespace may be forced to radiate active sensors for the sake of defending more distant friendly forces from incoming ballistic threats, since being deeper in the battlespace can translate into more opportunity to make midcourse intercepts of those ballistic threats. By being forced to radiate and launch against ballistic threats, these warships could be highlighting their positions to the adversary. But the ability to shoot down ballistic threats will be a critical form of insurance against China’s ability to leverage its potential superiority in interruptive strikes. In this sense, effective ballistic missile defense can interrupt China’s interruptive strikes, and shift the balance of advantage in the ensuing interactions between competing schemes of massed fires.
China’s Multiple Layers of Massed Fires
China’s ability to mass anti-ship fires can be understood in terms of multiple layers. These layers are a function of the range of the weapons and the platforms that field them. Each layer of land-based anti-ship capability adds a new combination of platform types for growing the volume of fire and increasing the complexity of threat presentation. Within these more fixed layers of land-based capability, naval forces can be maneuvered to augment the density of the overlapping fields of fire. While weapons range and platform range are not enough on their own to extrapolate precise concepts of operation, they are an important point of departure for outlining options and limits.
The longest-ranged layer of how China can start to combine anti-ship fires from across land-based platform types is a mix of DF-26 ballistic missiles and bombers. These two delivery systems are China’s most far-reaching options for delivering anti-ship missile firepower, and could come together to threaten naval targets starting at around 1,800 miles from the mainland.23
Massing fires from this limited combination of platforms poses its own set of challenges, especially by having only two main sources of firepower to draw upon. If bombers are destroyed before they can fire, PLA commanders would be forced to compensate by increasing the expenditure of their most high-end anti-ship weapons. Alternatively, if the kill chains enabling the ballistic missiles are undermined or uncertain, the transiting bombers would have virtually no options to increase their volume of fire while in flight, and may be forced to close with targets to secure targeting information for platforms other than themselves.
Bomber sorties could feature large numbers of aircraft to build a greater margin of overmatch to ensure the volume of fire can remain overwhelming in the face of unforeseen challenges and attrition. This was essentially Soviet naval aviation’s doctrine for distant anti-carrier group strikes, where upwards of 70-100 bombers would fly more than a thousand miles from their bases and then heavily concentrate within 250 miles of a carrier battle group to mass fires.24 The need to mass fires at extremely long range confined the Soviet Navy’s options to gambling a major amount of its bomber force structure in each individual carrier attack, while being limited to homogenous force packages to produce mass fires instead of leveraging combined arms tactics. PLA naval aviation is perhaps in the more favorable position of being able to combine bomber fires with ballistic fires at extreme ranges, allowing fewer bombers to be risked per strike, and being able to compensate for bomber attrition in a timely manner with high-speed ballistic weapons.
Even so, China may not want to risk sending unescorted bombers into distant oceans and risk losing these valuable platforms to opposing carrier air wings, where air wings can better optimize themselves for early warning and air defense when reacting to especially long-range attacks.25 Even with the possibility of combining fires with ballistic missiles, the bombers still have to concentrate their platforms inside a 300-mile radius of the target to launch fires. This could present a lucrative and concentrated target for U.S. carrier aircraft, where only a handful of fighters would be enough to credibly threaten a concentration of unescorted bombers. And the fighters can preserve the anti-air threat to bombers even if the bombers drop below the radar horizons of their target warships. Extensive aerial refueling would be required to ensure the bombers have enough aerial escorts that can accompany them on long-range strikes and contend against carrier air. The limitations imposed by refueling copious amounts of smaller escorting aircraft to extreme range could constrain the range of the larger bomber platforms, despite the extensive reach of those aircraft.
While China certainly has some ability to combine fires at the initial 1,800-mile layer, it remains a highly unfavorable scheme for massing fires, especially due to the challenge of providing extreme range aerial escort to bomber forces and a potentially heavy reliance on its most high-end anti-ship weapons.
With the twin overlapping threats of bombers and DF-26s starting at around 1,800 miles from the Chinese mainland, U.S. naval forces can travel another thousand miles closer to China before encountering the next major layer that adds another combination of land-based air and missile forces. These forces include a mix of hundreds of multirole aircraft such as the JH-7, J-10, and J-16 platforms that can field the YJ-83 anti-ship missile.26 The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile also comes into range at around 900 miles from the Chinese mainland, assuming the launchers are near the coastline.27
This distance is still beyond the range of unrefueled U.S. carrier air strikes, allowing air wings to focus mainly on defense. But this distance is also roughly where U.S. warships and bombers would first be able to fire on Taiwan and the Chinese mainland with land-attack cruise missiles, creating a strong incentive for the PLA to mount a strong naval and air defense at this distance.
Attacking Chinese multirole aircraft would need to heavily concentrate in large numbers within 100 miles of their targets to mass overwhelming fires with the short-ranged YJ-83. But these aircraft are much better able to defend themselves against carrier aircraft compared to bombers and can diversify their loadouts to include a mix of anti-air and anti-ship weapons. If U.S. aircraft are unable to prevent these PLA aircraft from firing their anti-ship weapons, then the number of aerial targets will drastically multiply after they launch their volume of fire. U.S. aircraft will be forced to divide their attention and anti-air weapons between firing on enemy aircraft and firing on enemy missiles that are roughly ten minutes away from impacting friendly warships. And once PLA aircraft fire their anti-ship missiles, they could be well-positioned to attack the U.S. aircraft attempting to attrit the salvos.
U.S. carrier aircraft can certainly be in a position to inflict similar dilemmas on an adversary with their own anti-ship strikes. But a critical difference is that the aforementioned PLA land-based multirole aircraft have longer range than the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 aircraft, and airfields can have a higher sortie generation rate than carriers.28 These advantages can give them more opportunity to inflict these dilemmas and with potentially greater numbers on their side.
However, projecting substantial airpower to nearly 800 miles beyond China’s mainland will still create major demands for aerial tanking capability. To make the most of tankers to extend range, this in-flight refueling would have to take place near potentially contested areas, such as the airspace near Taiwan, the Ryukus, and the Batanes island chain. If the airspace around these locales can be effectively contested, China may be severely limited in its ability to project land-based aircraft in large numbers over the Philippine Sea, forcing China’s carriers to be alone in providing multirole airpower beyond the first island chain.
The next major layer of PLA anti-ship firepower begins roughly 300 miles from the mainland. In this layer, coastal YJ-12 batteries and YJ-83s fired from short-range Type 22 missile boats pose an especially distributed form of massing anti-ship fires. These assets can help the PLA project sea denial over much of the East China Sea, the northern areas of the South China Sea, and over the maritime approaches to Taiwan. The fleet of 60 missile boats in particular could be valuable in contesting sections of the Batanes and Ryukyu island chains and the maritime approaches leading toward expeditionary advance bases posted on those islands.29
These three main layers of combined anti-ship capability have more limited dispositions due to being fielded by land-based forces and small surface warships. On top of these more static land-based layers, China’s surface and submarine forces are able to dynamically extend the scope and concentration of China’s ability to mass fires against warships, and provide a maneuvering base of offensive fire. But these forces have their own limits to survivability and their ability to generate large volumes of fire.
Chinese submarines could arguably pose some of the earliest missile threats U.S. forces face by deploying far and away from the Chinese mainland, but their volume of fire is especially constrained due to the lack of vertical launch cells. Chinese submarines could still stalk certain areas such as Yokosuka, where they could fire on depleted warships returning from the fight, divert frontline assets to local submarine hunting patrols, and generate uncertainty around the maritime approaches to critical naval bases. Chinese submarines could also make major contributions to preserving the broader PLA anti-ship missile inventory by making a priority of torpedoing U.S. large surface combatants, which boast large missile magazines and considerable air defense capability.
China’s fleet of large surface combatants, primarily the Type 52D destroyers and Type 55 cruisers, could add significant volume to a mass firing scheme. However, it is debatable how far forward China is willing to employ these ships from the mainland in a high-end conflict. The need for airpower to be on hand to improve survivability for these ships and their salvos, and to provide critical airborne information functions, limits how far these ships can be confidently deployed. If China extends a surface force from beyond the umbrella of airpower’s critical enablers, those surface forces may be alone in contending with hostile salvos and airpower, especially from U.S. carrier air wings. Sending surface warships beyond the range of supporting aviation and into the weapons range of opposing aviation is a recipe for defeat in detail.
The struggle to maintain a substantial amount of multirole aviation out to a thousand miles from the mainland imposes significant liabilities on any mass firing scheme China can assemble at this distance. But until China can confidently field a significant number of its own carrier air wings, the bulk of naval-enabling airpower will have to come from land-based aviation that may be hard-pressed to fight in distant waters. For now, the U.S. may be heavily advantaged in being able to maintain robust combined arms relationships between its surface and carrier air forces regardless of the distance between those forces and land-based airfields. In the near-term, China’s ability to make the most of its surface fleet’s contributions to massed fires will be heavily constrained by the range and sustainability of land-based airpower, and its limited ability to overlay airpower’s critical enablers over distant maritime spaces.
In designing the overall scheme of massed fires with these limitations in mind, China’s surface fleet fits well within the second main layer of China’s anti-ship firepower. By leveraging a combination of YJ-18s launched by ships and YJ-83s launched by multirole aircraft, China can substantially lessen the burden on its bombers and land-based ballistic missiles to mass fires. Instead, it can focus on using much more common platforms and missiles to generate massed fires while posing a more distributed threat.
The similar range of the YJ-12 and the YJ-18 means China’s surface and bomber forces need to concentrate within a similar ring around a target to combine fires. Through combined arms methods, warships could provide critical air defense and sensing support to friendly aircraft and provide a protective screen from which their airpower can leverage. Carrier air wings that pursue bombers and multirole aircraft could be led into Chinese warship air defenses.
The range differential between the the YJ-12, YJ-18, and YJ-83 is small enough to create a disposition where PLA aircraft and warships can readily provide critical enablers to one another, rather than the more divided nature of having U.S. airpower travel far forward to support Tomahawk salvos fired from upwards of a thousand miles away. While the similar ranges of China’s primary anti-ship cruise missiles can certainly increase force concentration, their similar ranges also create a foundation for force-multiplying combined arms relationships and closely integrated force packages.
The second main layer of anti-ship firepower at around 800-1,000 miles from the mainland appears the most preferable to China. But maintaining a robust scheme for massing fires at this distance will not just be a function of the available combinations of capability. For China, it is a critical operational imperative.
Buffering the Pacific: Competing Mass Fires in Operational Context
China’s potential schemes of massed fires have to be assessed in a specific operational context. While there are many dimensions to future contingencies, a core operational challenge for China in a Taiwan contingency is to maintain a maritime buffer zone out to around a thousand miles from the mainland. If U.S. and allied forces can get within this range, they can launch large volumes of land-attack cruise missile fires against China and Taiwan that can considerably complicate PLA operations. If China cannot effectively contest a maritime buffer out to this distance, it would have to devote considerable airpower toward cruise missile defense over oceanic spaces, when that airpower may be sorely needed for operations elsewhere. Preempting the looming threat of hundreds of land-attack cruise missiles launching from U.S. warships and bombers is therefore a critical operational imperative for China. As opposing forces contest sea control, the success of the anti-ship effort will unlock or deny options for follow-on power projection that could have decisive effects on a campaign.
A key question then is what sorts of combined arms relationships can China maintain out to this critical distance from the mainland, what schemes of massed fires those relationships would yield, and how those schemes of massed fires would interact with those of opposing expeditionary forces. The previous section highlighted how at about 800-1,000 miles from the mainland, China’s combined arms relationships for massed fires can consist of bombers, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and land-based aviation. China’s surface and submarine forces can be maneuvered to add to this mix, which considerably increases the potential volume of fire and complexity of threat presentation.
China would be in the challenging position of having to maintain a maritime defense that is forward enough to hold U.S. surface forces at risk before they can launch land-attack fires, but not so far forward that it outstrips the PLA’s ability to add more platform types to its combined arms scheme of massing fires. It also cannot be so far forward that surface forces outstrip their ability to be well-supported by aviation in the critical air defense mission, or else those surface forces could be alone in facing withering anti-ship fires. The need to maintain substantial PLA surface warships near the outer edge of a buffer zone would also limit their maneuver space compared to the opposing expeditionary forces that can leverage the broader expanse of the Philippine Sea and adjacent waters. This asymmetry in maneuver space would simplify the scouting and targeting challenges for expeditionary forces facing warships that are tasked with reinforcing a buffer zone. But these surface warships are critical for providing a major base of fire that can persist at the outer edge of the buffer zone, or otherwise a disproportionately large volume of the available firepower would have to come from more transient platforms such as aircraft.
U.S. forces can impose some of these buffering dilemmas today because the land-attack Tomahawk missile is widely fielded across its surface warships. Those warships would still have to lean very heavily on U.S. submarines and carrier aviation to destroy opposing surface and air forces in advance, where those forces could prevent U.S. warships from reaching firing areas that are within Tomahawk range of Taiwan or China.
The dynamic significantly changes if China’s anti-ship capability remains constant enough that the U.S. can secure a major range advantage with the anti-ship Tomahawk. This range advantage would threaten to split apart the combined arms relationships the PLA is able to maintain in a distant maritime buffer. The anti-ship Tomahawk would force the PLA to depend more on the platforms that are better able to reach out and threaten U.S. warships while circumventing Tomahawk firepower by attacking from different domains. These platforms include aviation, submarines, and ballistic missiles, but each of these has significant disadvantages, such with respect to sustainability, volume of fire, and survivability. This scheme may be the only combined arms mix that could have a chance of attacking distant surface forces before they could fire first against an outranged surface fleet.
A key challenge then is how to maintain a robust mass firing scheme within a forward maritime defense when the defender’s anti-ship capability is heavily outranged. If the defender’s surface force can be more easily fired upon first, then it can threaten to remove a major base of fire that is undergirding the combined arms scheme for much of the maritime buffer.
A surface force that is outranged or at risk of aerial attack must rely on more creative and combined arms tactics to compensate for the inferior ability to fire effectively first. This disadvantage especially requires a force to place heavier emphasis on scouting, counter-scouting, deception, and stealth. By securing distinct advantage in these specific areas, a force can earn vital proximity to an adversary with longer-ranged weapons, or induce them to launch wasteful fires, or complicate their decision to fire at all. Airpower is valuable for executing these specific tactics that help warships compensate for a disadvantage in the ability to fire first, but a distant buffer zone increases these challenges by diluting aviation’s availability while limiting the surface maneuver space.
A force that is more likely to be fired on first may be forced to focus much of its initial strategy on optimizing for defense, so it can absorb enough volume of fire in the hopes of then transitioning to a more offensive posture that has better options against a depleted adversary. But if the adversary is firing with weapons of much longer range, then they can more effectively withdraw from the battlespace without coming under fire themselves. The buffering defenders may have to content themselves with inflicting weapons depletion more so than platform attrition, and maintaining sea denial rather than seizing sea control.
China has unique options for reinforcing a maritime buffer even if its surface forces could one day face major disadvantages in their ability to fire first. By filling the forward edge of the buffer zone with copious amounts of state-owned commercial shipping, China could vastly complicate the sensory picture of the battlespace. China’s surface warships could then lurk among these large commercial vessels, and work with aviation to challenge scouts that attempt to probe and make sense of the morass of maritime contacts. Submarines may struggle to use sonar to isolate warship contacts amidst the heavy churning of many commercial ships. Anti-ship missiles may need to rise above sea-skimming altitudes to dodge commercial ships and discover warship contacts, potentially exposing themselves to more defensive fires and offering more early warning to an adversary. China’s uniquely asymmetric ability to leverage large fleets of state-owned commercial shipping in naval warfare deserves careful consideration, especially within the context of maritime active defense.
While China’s commercial fleets can vastly increase the complexity of its naval threat presentation, the U.S. has its own unique advantages that can provide similar effects. The long reach of the Tomahawk broadens the geography of firing areas enough to where the U.S. can capitalize on alliance advantages. The Tomahawk has long enough range to where it can be fired from within the complex littoral geography of the Japanese and Philippine home islands and into a variety of Indo-Pacific maritime spaces. This could allow U.S. forces to circumvent maritime buffers or fire upon them from their littoral margins, which are mostly allied territories. This concept is somewhat similar to the Cold War-era concept of hiding carriers within Norwegian Fjords to launch strikes against the Soviets.30 Warships traditionally rely on broad oceanic maneuver to be a major enabler, but operating from labyrinthine littoral terrain can also complicate detectability and enhance the complexity of threat presentation even if it comes at the expense of maneuver space.
While operating within fixed geography can certainly help adversaries localize naval forces, it may be more difficult to mass fires against warships residing within these littorals. Operating from these areas substantially increases the opportunity for warships to leverage friendly land-based air defense and aviation for support, increasing the volume of fire required to overwhelm warships. The challenges of navigating over littoral terrain can also force missile salvos to engage in tactically unfavorable behavior. Anti-ship missiles may have to depart from sea-skimming altitudes when flying over land, or burn more range to maintain themselves over water at low altitudes while taking more circuitous routes toward littoral contacts. Although it may increase warship findability in some respects, littoral firing areas could improve defensibility enough to compensate. The U.S. can carefully consider how the Maritime Strike Tomahawk opens up vast opportunity for launching massed fires against opposing fleets from friendly littorals.
Figure 2 highlights how these competing fields of fire overlap, and how firing areas located within these island littorals offer key advantages. These littorals can help U.S. forces circumvent a PLA buffer zone and bring those forces within Tomahawk range of Taiwan and the mainland coast. These separate areas also offer a substantial degree of overlap for combining fires over key geography. Tomahawk-equipped forces lurking within the complex littorals of Kyushu and the central Philippines will be able to combine and mass fires with one another over Taiwan and a substantial area of the Philippine Sea.
These dueling schemes of massed fires therefore look to increase their complexity of threat presentation with unconventional means. China’s navy could aim to preserve its maritime buffer by lurking within a vast array of commercial vessels, and the U.S. Navy may seek to circumvent or damage the buffer from within a web of allied island geography. While this hardly makes for a traditional view of maneuvering battle fleets exchanging heavy fire, modern navies may be driven toward such methods by the unforgiving ferocity of naval salvo combat and its overriding insistence on firing effectively first.
China’s ability to mass fires against warships is a product of a truly historic evolution. China was a third-rate maritime power only two decades ago, but it has transformed into a force that heavily outguns the U.S. Navy in major respects. China has clearly stolen a march on the U.S. when it comes to developing advanced anti-ship firepower, and now the U.S. is racing to close the gap. But it will still be many years before the U.S. has the tools in place to have decent options for massing fires. By then, the Chinese naval arsenal may have become something even more fearsome.
Part 9 will focus on the force structure implications of DMO and massed fires.
Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development and Counter-intervention Efforts,” Testimony before Hearing on China’s Advanced Weapons Panel I: China’s Hypersonic and Maneuverable Re-Entry Vehicle Programs U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, February 23, 2017, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Erickson_Testimony.pdf.
3. For assessments of PLA ballistic missile firing rates across China Military Power Report editions, see:
28. Air bases can employ “elephant walks” where large numbers of aircraft are surged from an airfield in a back-to-back manner that is not feasible for carriers. Damaged airbase runways are also generally easier to repair than damaged carrier flight decks, such as by using fast-drying concrete that can be ready in several days.
For considerations for air base sortie generation, see:
Featured Image: The Type 55 guided-missile destroyer Nanchang (Hull 101) attached to a naval vessel training center under the PLA Northern Theater Command steams in tactical formation to occupy attack positions in an undisclosed sea area during a recent 10-day maritime training exercise. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Zou Xiangmin)
Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations. Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls. Read Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics. Read Part 4 on weapons depletion and last-ditch salvo dynamics. Read Part 5 on salvo patterns and maximizing volume of fire. Read Part 6on platform advantages and combined arms roles.
By Dmitry Filipoff
The aircraft carrier has been the main striking arm of the U.S. Navy for decades, but distributed warfighting demands something new. Anti-ship missile firepower is proliferating across the force structure of both friendly and competitor forces, creating larger demands for the tactical information required to leverage these long-range weapons. Massed fires heavily depend on information to work, and air superiority is a powerful enabler of information superiority. By focusing on a set of critical information functions and fleet air defense, the aircraft carrier can serve as a powerful enabler and force multiplier for distributed fleets and massed fires. These roles foreshadow how nations who engage in naval salvo warfare without naval aviation will be at a sore disadvantage.
Scouting and Cueing Fires
The ocean is vast and busy, presenting a complicated battlespace to make sense of. Sweeps across large ocean areas teeming with commercial shipping can precede anti-ship strikes as targets must be found and quality targeting information developed. As Captain Wayne Hughes emphasized in his classic work Fleet Tactics, “At sea better scouting – more than maneuver, as much as weapon range, and oftentimes as much as anything else – has determined who would attack not merely effectively, but who would attack decisively first.”1
The horizon not only constrains the ability of warships to defend themselves, it makes them almost completely dependent on outside sources of information to target their long-range anti-ship fires. Warships must be well-supported by other forces that can provide the awareness that allows those warships to accurately launch anti-ship fires to long ranges.
Aviation’s speed, range, and maneuverability makes it an ideal asset for scouting large swaths of ocean, discriminating targets among maritime traffic, and cueing anti-ship fires. Aviation is also useful for denying this information to an adversary, such as through counter-scouting missions that target aerial scouts well before they could sense and cue fires. By comparison if warships are forced to emit to defeat an aerial scout, then they may have abetted the scout in its mission. By screening a naval force, aviation can serve as both the eyes and the cloak that help naval forces fire effectively first.
One of aviation’s most critical advantages in executing these roles is the realm of three-dimensional aerial maneuver. Through speed and maneuver, aircraft can more effectively manage the risks of emitting compared to surface warships. By being able to dip below the radar horizon of target warships when threatened, aircraft can manage their signatures and detectability more dynamically than warships. By shadowing naval contacts at standoff ranges and using maneuver to change the bearing to the contact multiple times over, aircraft can repeatedly stimulate emissions from contacts and use passive sensing to localize and classify targets.2
Since warship radar emissions can travel much further than the anti-air weapons these emissions can guide, aviation has an added margin of security when scouting with passive detection and shadowing warships.3 If aircraft do find themselves within range of naval air defense weapons, their ability to quickly drop thousands of feet of altitude can spoil semi-active targeting and air defense kill chains by diving below radar horizons. The ability of aircraft to use these kinds of maneuvers to preserve survivability while scouting can allow them to earn valuable proximity to warship contacts. This proximity is valuable for stimulating or observing adversary behavior with an eye toward mitigating deception and discovering decoys. By simply scouting or shadowing a warship, an aircraft could stimulate behavior because an aircraft could be interpreted as a harbinger of incoming mass fires.
These attributes allow naval aviation to be at the forefront of finding and classifying targets, cueing anti-ship fires against these targets, and giving prompt notification to friendly forces if those targets have discharged last-ditch fires. Through its superior ability to gain information and mitigate the risks of emitting, naval aviation is uniquely situated to act as quarterback to the broader distributed force.
Retargeting and Reinforcing Mass Fires
Combining missile firepower over a target is an extraordinarily time sensitive tactic. Salvos must cross over the radar horizon of a target within a narrow timeframe to reap the efficiencies of overwhelming fires, rather than have salvos risk defeat in detail. But there will be challenges in coordinating precisely-timed fires across a variety of launch platforms that are hundreds and even thousands of miles apart. Tactics and operations that heavily depend on exquisitely coordinated timing are fragile by nature. This fragility encourages militaries to build redundancy and resilience into their kill chains so they may confidently combine missile firepower from across distributed forces.
A commander could mass fires by precisely positioning distributed launch platforms and then precisely sequencing their fires. However, this is a platform-centric approach to missile aggregation. It limits the flexibility of the individual platforms to adapt to their local tactical circumstances, especially those that would encourage a platform to launch its contributing fires at a different time than what the original firing sequence planned for. The operational availability and behavior of individual force concentrations will be influenced by much more than simply being on call for contributing fires.
Platforms can be afforded more local operational flexibility when their contributing fires can be maneuvered into place after launch, rather than requiring that ideal conditions be met before launch. Firing sequences will be less susceptible to disruption if individual contributors of fires cannot launch on time yet their fires can still be made to fit into an active firing sequence.
This makes in-flight retargeting a fundamental enabler of mass fires, where retargeting adds critical dimensions of resilience and flexibility. As salvos are fired from across distributed forces, retargeting will give commanders the ability to adjust salvo flight paths and maneuvering during an active firing sequence. Rather than depend heavily on establishing highly specific platform positioning and weapon programming before launch, retargeting can give commanders more flexibility to combine and maneuver fires after launch. Retargeting critically preserves the capability to give weapons waypoints after they have been fired, offering commanders greater opportunity to maneuver weapons into combined salvos and leverage waypointing tactics during a firing sequence. Retargeting helps compensate for irregularities and disruptions in the firing sequence, offering individual launch platforms more local flexibility and the overall firing sequence more resilience. Retargeting prevents firing sequences from being locked into place once initiated, preserving a commander’s options for real-time adaptation.
The scope of retargeting’s ability to combine and maneuver in-flight fires is limited by the same factors that define a weapon’s aggregation potential, such as range, maneuverability, and flight times. The amount of opportunity to retarget and maneuver salvos of 1,000-mile range Maritime Strike Tomahawks is far greater than that of missiles with only a few hundred miles of range or a ballistic missile that can hardly deviate from its trajectory.
A longer flight time will also increase the need for retargeting, given how the longer a missile flies, the further its target may have traveled, the more defensive deception capabilities may have been deployed, and the more the overall operational situation may have changed. A subsonic missile launched at very long range, such as an anti-ship Tomahawk, could require more in-flight retargeting to find its target compared to faster or shorter-ranged missiles.
Retargeting can be especially valuable for when targets prove to be decoys, false contacts, or more heavily defended than expected. It can also help salvos remain viable even if they have suffered attrition. If a portion of contributing fires is shot down on the way to the target and it seems the remaining fires can no longer reach overwhelming dimensions, they could be redirected toward a new target that is more feasible to attack. Retargeting can help ensure that valuable missile inventory is not wasted against unfavorable targets and that fresh developments can quickly translate into revised priorities for a firing sequence.
Missiles can certainly have their own onboard retargeting capabilities and employ them together within a salvo.4 But these capabilities are heavily limited by the relatively short range of their seekers and local networks, as well as the need to maintain sea-skimming flight to maximize surprise. It is also unlikely different missile salvos can effectively communicate when separated by hundreds of miles and when flying at low altitudes. Intra-salvo retargeting is more feasible for the organic capabilities of missiles compared to inter-salvo retargeting across a wider area. The ability to communicate between separate salvos may improve once contributing fires come closer to one another near their terminal approach, but that offers relatively little opportunity to make updates for most of the firing sequence.
Using outside assets for retargeting support broadens the opportunity to make earlier updates and corrections to contributing fires. Instead of having a salvo burn through plenty of fuel only to discover poor target selection at the very end of the engagement, outside retargeting allows corrections to be made much earlier in the firing sequence, preserving range and options. If missiles do not have outside assets to update their targeting information during the firing sequence, the missiles’ autonomous programming may encourage them to increase altitude and expose themselves to defensive fires in a bid to gain the information. Outside retargeting can minimize the need for attacking missiles to break from sea-skimming flight profiles, improving their survivability and preserving the element of surprise.
A critical question is who or what can best provide outside retargeting support to salvos. By virtue of speed, maneuverability, and range naval aviation will be especially well-positioned to facilitate the combining of individual salvos into aggregated fires through retargeting. Whether through covering vast ocean areas or by focusing on the airspace around a specific target, naval aviation will be able to work datalinks to combine missile firepower into overwhelming effects.
Assessing the Illusive Offensive-Defensive Balance
As soon as high-end naval conflict breaks out, naval commanders need to prioritize their understanding of the offensive-defensive balance of naval missile exchanges. This remains one of the great unknowns of modern naval warfare that would be uncovered by real combat, of how exactly large volumes of offensive and defensive fires interact and overwhelm one another. Commanders need to know whether their salvos struck the target, how well their missiles withstood countermeasures, and how opposing air defenses performed. As missiles rain down upon warships, collecting data on the effectiveness of a variety of defensive capabilities will constitute an especially critical line of effort for wartime adaptation. Developing a more precise understanding of the offensive-defensive balance is fundamental to optimizing volume of fire, managing munitions inventory, and identifying crucial areas of competitive advantage. In this vein, battle damage assessment and investigating air defense performance are fundamental to securing an edge in modern naval warfighting.
In a form of warfare where dozens of missiles could be needed to break through a warship’s defenses, but only a single hit is necessary to earn a kill, the potential for wasteful overkill is tremendous. If the offensive-defensive balance of a naval salvo engagement tilts even slightly toward the offense, it could take the form of numerous missiles wastefully crashing into a warship that was already long gone after the first hit. But commanders that attempt to precisely optimize the volume of fire to minimize overkill are more likely to risk having their salvos be defeated wholesale. Rather, securing information on salvo effectiveness would be more about understanding the margin of overkill and how much overkill can be reasonably afforded and tolerated, rather than attempting to minimize it entirely.
Commanders would clearly want to know if their salvos were shot down. If they are to organize another attack, they would benefit greatly from estimates of what proportion of the attacking missiles were downed by what types of defenses, and how many air defense missiles were expended by the defenders. These factors can help determine how much volume of fire would be needed in follow-on attacks and what types of offensive weapons may perform better. If targets were destroyed, commanders would still benefit greatly from knowing air defense performance for the sake of optimizing future volumes of fire.
But the ability to assess the effectiveness of missile firepower can be severely challenged by the great distances anti-ship missiles must travel and how targets may be fired upon near the limits of scouting capabilities. Commanders may not immediately know whether their targets were destroyed or if their salvos were shot down without landing hits. The uncertainty surrounding the results of long-range missile exchanges can prolong and complicate the decision-cycle and threaten to yield information advantage to the defender, who will often be in a much better position to assess the battle damage, weapons depletion, and defensive performance of their own forces after being attacked.
Naval aviation can earn the valuable proximity to targets to help gather this critical information. By shadowing naval targets, naval aviation can witness hostile air defenses in action and view how missile exchanges play out. Aviation could help commanders understand the offensive and defensive volume of fire being discharged from adversary warships, and the specific composition of that volume of fire. This can enhance a commander’s understanding of the adversary’s weapons expenditures, how they are assembling massed fires, and their own competing perceptions of the offensive-defensive balance.
This information will be critical for manipulating one of the major levers navies have for adapting the force in the midst of conflict, which is the composition of payloads within platform magazines. By taking a “payloads not platforms” approach, navies can maintain an edge in real-time conflict by flexing missile loadouts in reaction to fresh data on salvo effectiveness and adversary air defense performance. If adversary air defenses prove poor, a navy could afford to bolster its own air defenses by increasing the share of magazine space allocated to such capabilities. Or it could capitalize on the adversary’s disadvantage by filling more magazine space with anti-ship weapons, or with the specific types of weapons that are proving to be more effective.
This information will also be vital in knowing what kinds of salvos and volumes of fire do or do not warrant last-ditch salvos. A more precise understanding of the offensive-defensive balance means less inventory will be lost to last-ditch pressures as commanders have a clearer understanding of what warrants a last-ditch salvo. On the flipside, if it does not take much volume of fire to cause the adversary to discharge last-ditch salvos, then that would be critical to know and exploit.
Understanding the offensive-defensive balance is especially critical given the potentially decisive role of defensive systems with limitless magazines. Although they mainly function at close range, capabilities such as electronic warfare, high-power microwaves, laser dazzlers, and other softkill measures could provide an enduring measure of defense. This could prove critical for keeping warships in the fight even if they are running low on hardkill defenses. Softkill capabilities could also substantially change the nature of modern naval combat more generally. As Capt. Tom Shugart (ret.) points out:
“the consequences of the interplay of jammer versus seeker, sensor versus signature, and hacker versus data stream are likely to propagate from the tactical to the operational and perhaps strategic level in ways not seen before. As one specific and obvious example, a conflict where China’s [anti-ship ballistic missiles] could be consistently made to miss through the use of jammers might be a completely different war than one where that was not the case.”5 [Emphasis added]
This has happened before. The first ever wartime naval missile exchanges highlighted the decisive potential of softkill systems. The naval missile combat of the Arab-Israeli 1973 war took the form of Israeli missile boats successful sinking opposing missile boats despite those adversaries fielding longer-ranged missiles. Israeli electronic warfare was completely successful in jamming every anti-ship missile that was fired at their warships, allowing them to close the distance and destroy their opponents. While these engagements occurred in relatively confined waters between small combatants, Israeli success was likely not possible without extraordinarily successful electronic warfare defenses, and the failure of Arab forces to understand why their missiles kept missing.6 If aviation can gather data on enemy softkill performance in missile exchanges, it may offer a useful view into some of the more decisive factors shaping the offensive-defensive balance.
Air Defense and Shooting Archers
Aside from critical information functions, there is a vital kinetic role for naval aviation to play. Naval aviation will be sorely needed to preserve the survivability of the broader surface fleet. This dependency is best illustrated through the severe tactical challenges surface warships face in defending themselves against missile salvos.
The immutable obstacle posed by the curvature of the earth severely constricts the amount of space and time in which warships can defeat sea-skimming missiles, despite their dense defenses. Sea-skimming flight takes advantage of the radar horizon limitations of defending warships, leaving them with little choice but to engage incoming missiles at a very short distance away from the ship (typically around 20 nautical miles) and with only tens of seconds before impact.7
In a fierce bid for survival, warships will engage a variety of defensive weapons and systems simultaneously to wipe out incoming salvos bearing down on the ship. But the defending warship will be suffering a major disadvantage given how the totality of the attacking volume of fire is already in flight and closing in, but the defending volume of fire has to be built from scratch and achieve significant mass in a matter of seconds. Not all defending missiles can be fired simultaneously, while the attacking missiles can organize into a saturation pattern where they can all strike simultaneously. Even with a very high rate of fire, the defending missiles will be naturally bottlenecked into a narrow stream salvo pattern which may not achieve sufficient volume of fire. Even firing one defensive missile per second may not be fast enough when an attacking supersonic salvo is roughly only 50 seconds away from impact after it breaks over the horizon.
A supersonic salvo could already be about halfway across the 20 or so miles it is visible to the ship by the time the first intercept occurs.8 If a warship is employing the U.S. Navy’s shoot-shoot-look-shoot doctrine, it may only have enough time to fire off a single salvo per threat from its primary defensive armament before this capability is negated by the incoming missiles getting inside the minimum engagement range of defenses.As inbound salvos close the distance, vertically hot-launched defensive missiles will struggle to rapidly reorient for steep downward intercepts, narrowing the amount of defensive firepower available from the missiles in dozens of launch cells to the relatively few munitions of close-in systems that are able to fire on flatter angles. This challenge will be even more severe when saturation salvos aim to get all missiles inside the defender’s minimum engagement range at the same time. In the terminal phase the attacking missiles also enjoy the benefit of traveling at their maximum speed, unlike many of the defending missiles launching from a short distance away. The closer the attacking missiles get to the ship, the less time the defending missiles have to accelerate to higher speeds, further reducing the distance at which they can make intercepts. Because of these factors, even if a warship has a large magazine, a ship may not be able to fully leverage its magazine depth for defense before the first missile strikes the warship.
And missiles may not even need to strike the ship to score a mission kill. As defensive missiles clash with incoming weapons at closer and closer ranges, powerful warheads will be detonating against each other near the ship and at closing velocities of thousands of miles per hour. Exploding missile shrapnel will spray out, easily shredding exposed radar arrays, close-in weapon systems, and electronic warfare suites, systems that are all critical to a warship’s last line of defense.
An SM-6 anti-air missile intercepts a relatively small, 600lb AQM-37C test missile. Note the shrapnel. (Source: U.S. Missile Defense Agency Multi-Mission Warfare Flight Test Events)
As automated combat systems and pre-programmed responses come online and take over these complex engagements, Sailors may have little direct control in those final seconds as enormous volumes of automated firepower attack and defend the warship.
Surface warships should be spared the burden of these harrowing missile engagements as much as possible. This will require shooting down archers instead of arrows and being able to destroy missiles that are traveling beneath the radar horizons of their target warships. But shooting down aerial archers will prove especially challenging because the substantial range advantage anti-ship missiles often have over anti-air weapons converts into a greater ability for aerial attackers to fire first. This range advantage also allows attackers to more easily exploit the radar horizon to turn their standoff fires into lethal close-in engagements for defenders.
These factors make airpower indispensable to missile defense because many anti-ship weapons intentionally fly below the radar horizon of warships in spaces only aircraft can see from above. The speed and altitude of aircraft will give them much more opportunity to shoot down sea-skimming missiles compared to warships. Anti-ship missiles also pose no threat to aircraft, allowing for heavily one-sided exchanges. Aircraft can safely and substantially reduce the volume of anti-ship missile firepower bearing down on friendly warships, and potentially even use jamming to attrit incoming salvos with softkill effects. Aircraft can also organize into horizontal formations that launch anti-air weapons in saturation patterns, perhaps making them the only naval platform capable of launching defensive fires in this salvo pattern at scale.
A squadron of F-14 Tomcats arrayed in a horizontal formation launches multiple waves of anti-air missiles in saturation patterns. (Source “Red Storm Rising: Chapter 20 The Dance Of The Vampires (FINAL CUT)” by FIXEDIT via Youtube, generated with Digital Combat Simulator World.)
Aircraft can use speed and maneuver to provide flexible and on-demand air defense support to distributed forces. A commander can dynamically reposition aircraft based on emerging threats and incoming salvos to bolster air defense capability where it may be needed most. While aircraft may be hard-pressed to reposition in time to intercept missiles with a low time-to-target, they can pose a much more serious threat to missile salvos that can take longer to reach their target, especially the Tomahawk.
These anti-air roles are much more favorable to the air wing in a variety of ways, but especially in terms of volume of fire. Because of the limits of hardpoints and airframes, many multirole aircraft can fire a larger number of anti-air missiles than anti-ship missiles. A fully loaded F/A-18 can carry 12 anti-air missiles compared to only four anti-ship missiles, allowing the aircraft to shoot down more anti-ship weapons than it could fire itself.9 24 F-18s would be required to match the number of anti-ship missiles fielded by a single American destroyer if its launch cells are fully loaded with anti-ship Tomahawks, but only eight aircraft are needed to match a destroyer fully loaded with anti-air Standard Missiles.10A handful of aircraft can therefore be enough to substantially tilt the balance of a naval salvo engagement in favor of the defending warships.
By virtue of having an overheard view, the anti-air weapons fielded by aircraft can be much more effective at shooting down cruise missiles than the much larger shipboard anti-air weapons. A shipboard anti-air engagement can be spoiled by simply having targets dive below the radar horizon of the illuminating warship, where the radar horizon constraint substantially diminishes the range advantage of the larger anti-air missiles that can be fielded via a ship’s launch cells. It is debatable how useful that extra range is for the larger ship-based air defense weapons when so many of these weapons’ dependence on semi-active illumination makes their killchains much more easily disrupted by target maneuvering.
Allowing aviation to pick up more of the air defense mission will allow warships to fill more of their launch cells with offensive weapons, where the added missile size and range is much more useful for a warship’s offensive fires than defensive ones, save for perhaps defending against aircraft or especially high-end threats like ballistic missiles. Aircraft can also reload their anti-air weapons in a fraction of the time it would take warships to do the same, contributing to a more sustainable warship presence. Aircraft will also be critical for providing warships with early warning of incoming salvos, and helping them determine whether and when those warships should launch last-ditch fires.
Aviation is also needed to work the Navy’s NIFC-CA capability (Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air). This allows a warship to fire at targets beneath its radar horizon, if an aerial intermediary can facilitate the engagement.11 This capability helps extend the anti-air battlespace and adds depth to a warship’s ability to defend itself. Extending the anti-air battlespace can also help preserve inventory since the pressure to fire more interceptors per incoming missile increases the closer the salvo gets to striking the warship. But these NIFC-CA capabilities and advantages are dependent on aviation to function.
A common benefit throughout these various methods of applying airpower to anti-ship missile defense is that they substantially extend and complicate the air defense battlespace. This is critical toward increasing the attacker’s challenge in a type of engagement where defending warships suffer significant disadvantage. Regardless of how powerful and capable a warship is, the burden of attacking a warship is substantially lessened by how the radar horizon forces defensive engagements to begin only mere miles away from the ship. Using aviation to extend the air defense battlespace far beyond a warship’s horizon will greatly lengthen the gauntlet missiles must run to hit their targets. If attackers suspect that flexible airpower can be brought to bear on their salvos long before those missiles get near their targets, then they may have to consider expending much larger volumes of fire or reconsider the engagement entirely. They may also have to consider more complex tactics in sequencing and waypointing their fires to stretch defensive aviation thin or pull it away in directions that create opportunities for salvos to break through to targets.
This type of air defense coverage can go both ways. An adversary may also deploy aircraft to diminish the volume of fire to help protect their warships. This creates a strong incentive to provide air defense coverage to friendly salvos on their way to the target, since warships can hardly provide such coverage to their own attacking salvos. If a warship wanted to provide air defense coverage to its own offensive salvos, then it would have to substantially close the distance so its air defense firepower can overlap the range its anti-ship firepower has to travel to the target. But this is unrealistic in many contexts, and would sacrifice much of the anti-ship weapons’ range. And it would still be of little use against aircraft that can still dip below a ship’s radar horizon and engage the ship’s attacking salvo without fear of shipboard air defenses. Aircraft will therefore be needed to not only attack incoming salvos below the radar horizon, but to engage opposing aircraft that are looking to do the same on behalf of their own warships.
Warships can play a longer-range air defense role in this specific fight, when aircraft are dogfighting near the warship in a bid to protect or attack a salvo that is closing in. Aircraft that look to escort attacking salvos may have to contend with defending aircraft whose tactics can force the escorts to maneuver within view of the target warship’s air defense capability. Those maneuvering aircraft could be more targetable at longer ranges for warships than the salvo that is traveling at a more fixed sea-skimming altitude. This can allow a warship to threaten the salvo’s escorting aircraft, which then frees friendly aircraft to focus more on attriting the salvo on behalf of the warship. If there are a significant number of aircraft escorting a salvo, then defending aircraft could pull behind the air defense screen of the warship to enhance survivability, while still being in a position to attrit the salvo, although with perhaps less opportunity to do so than a more forward disposition. If substantial opposing aircraft are encountered, friendly aircraft can fall back upon the air defense screens of the surface warships, and leverage combined arms tactics to fight back against the attacking salvos and their escorting aircraft.
Naval aviation is also critical for defending against bombers, which are one of the most flexible and lethal platforms for anti-ship attacks. Because of their long range and the size of their magazines, bombers can launch substantial volume of fire against warships at distances that are well beyond the warship’s ability to launch anti-air weapons. These features make it especially difficult to destroy archers before they can fire their arrows when it comes to bombers. Aviation is the main asset that can find and intercept bombers and impose last-ditch firing dilemmas upon them before they are able to fire upon warships.
A key challenge is how to maintain these forms of air defense coverage at a distance from a carrier. These tactics are reminiscent of the “chainsaw” tactics of the Navy’s Cold War-era Outer Air Battle concept of the 1980s. A large number of carrier aircraft would maintain a continuously cycling aerial presence well forward of the carrier battle group so they could shoot down Soviet bombers before they could launch anti-ship missiles, and where these engagements would take place between 400-500 nautical miles from the carrier.12 But this tactic was challenging to sustain in practice and could not cover all approach vectors, even when the baseline capabilities were more favorable to the U.S. Navy than what it has today. Those capabilities included a longer-ranged and specialized interceptor aircraft (the F-14 Tomcat), which fielded a longer-ranged interceptor missile (the AIM-54 Phoenix), to threaten bombers that were using shorter-ranged anti-ship missiles than what competitors field today. Under the aforementioned concept of operations for supporting distributed forces, multiple carriers would be needed to sustain multiple chainsaw-type air defense screens, and for distributed surface forces and salvos operating at a significant distance away from the carrier, while using shorter-ranged carrier aircraft against bombers that have longer-ranged anti-ship missiles compared to the Cold War. In practice, it may be infeasible to sustain multiple chainsaws out to a range where they could attack archers before they fire arrows. Instead, the air wings may have to limit their reach and allow the hostile firepower to be launched, and then attrit it to a more manageable volume for the surface warships to finish off.
Focusing much of the carrier air wing on providing air defense against bombers and sea-skimming threats will substantially enhance the survivability of both warships and aircraft. Compared to launching distant attacks against warships, defensive anti-air and interdiction roles allow aircraft to remain closer to friendly forces, fly more safely at higher altitudes, and take on anti-air loadouts that are lighter than anti-ship loadouts. Each of these factors contributes to higher endurance, sortie rate, and survivability for aircraft compared to the challenging requirements of massed long-range strikes against heavily defended targets. These missions better play to aviation’s strengths and give warships much better margins of survival against potent missile threats.
These trends also signal a clear warning to surface fleets. Surface warships should be especially cautious about traveling beyond the support of aviation, or otherwise risk being alone in facing sea-skimming salvos in harrowing close-range engagements.
Carrier Coverage Limits and Information Roles
The major information requirements of naval conflict and the risky nature of massing carrier aircraft for anti-ship strikes both point to a critical takeaway – in fleet-on-fleet combat the carrier air wing should focus more on enabling the delivery of cruise missile firepower from the broader distributed force rather than delivering it themselves. This is a more complex arrangement than the traditional Carrier Strike Group construct, where the air wing would shoulder most of the anti-ship mission. Now the carrier can be asked to provide critical enabling functions for many warships and salvos, and at substantial ranges across a distributed fleet. But while these functions are more favorable to the air wing and the broader fleet for a variety of reasons, they still have critical constraints that can limit how a distributed force can arrange itself and assemble massed fires.
When it comes to securing information, aircraft can be playing multiple overlapping roles in the contested space between opposing fleets. An aircraft retargeting a friendly anti-ship salvo could end up defending that salvo and itself from opposing aircraft looking to intercept. That aircraft could also be shooting down last-ditch fires launched by the target warship it is guiding the salvo toward, while also gathering data on the warship’s air defense performance and the composition of its volume of fire.
These air defense and information functions are highly complementary and integrative. Aircraft will be poised to clash with opposing aircraft that are performing similar information functions as both seek to enable salvos and defend against them. These intertwined functions set the stage for a hotly contested aerial battlespace between fleets as they exchange fire. Securing air superiority in this space, even temporarily, will translate into information superiority that yields significant offensive and defensive advantages.
Many of these critical missions, including scouting, counter-scouting, battle damage assessment, salvo escort, and retargeting support still require proximity to targets and can pull the carrier deeper into the battlespace. This proximity can require that aircraft and aircraft carriers operate from ranges similar to that of launching strikes, except the distances are determined more by sensor and network ranges rather than weapons range. Aircraft that are not E-2s or F-35s may need to get much closer to threats and friendly assets to earn and send this information, and potentially risk themselves against shipboard air defenses. These missions will also require proximity to friendly forces and distributed naval formations to enhance their early warning and air defenses.
The positioning of the carrier and the reach of its air wing will therefore determine the extent of information and air defense coverage it can provide for the broader distributed force and its massed fires. Similar to how weapons range can limit how far forces can distribute from one another and still combine their fires, the limits of air wing coverage can further bind the disposition of a distributed fleet. A fleet will have to limit the extent of its distribution if it is to seize the force-multiplying advantages of these combined arms relationships, while weighing the benefits of those relationships against the risks of greater force concentration.
Consider the need to overlay cruise missile range with aerial retargeting support and air defense coverage to help ensure friendly salvos are well-supported on their way to the target. Combine this with the need to keep surface warships close enough to the carrier that aircraft can interdict opposing bombers before they are within range of firing. Otherwise surface warships could be fired upon and picked off by platforms that are advantaged in firing first against warships. When these multiple combined arms relationships are factored in, the result is a fleet disposition that is considerably more concentrated than simply fielding a variety of widely separated Tomahawk shooters. These relationships and their concentrating effect on fleet disposition are depicted in Figure 1.
In particular, the degree of overlap between retargeting coverage and weapons range can limit the area where aggregation can be supported, and how far platforms can distribute from one another. If a carrier wants to support an extreme range Tomahawk salvo, the carrier could have to be hundreds of miles forward of the launch platforms since the missile substantially outranges the unrefueled air wing. If a carrier wants to provide similar support for a shorter-ranged Naval Strike Missile attack, the carrier could be hundreds of miles behind the launch platforms and still be available. The missiles that can widen force distribution through their longer range may have to forego critical aerial support across wide ocean areas and especially in the final phases of combining fires, because their long range can also take them well beyond the support of friendly aviation.
The air wing will be severely taxed to cover all these critical information functions across a broad battlespace. This will make it extremely difficult if not outright impossible to mass the air wing, either for concentrated attack or defense. LCDR Sandy Winnefeld noted this challenging dynamic in the Cold War:
“So many fighters are required to support scouting requirements that very few are left on deck to counter the threat once it is discovered…in a superb example of Sun Tzu’s maxim, ‘He who prepares everywhere will be weak everywhere,’ airborne fighters are so spread out that they cannot defend against a concentrated attack…Instead, airborne scouting fighters must be rapidly remarshalled to provide firepower when a [bomber] raid is detected… At realistic power projection ranges, the amount of firepower needed to counter [a mass Soviet naval bomber] raid is currently more than even a multi-carrier battle group force can realistically keep airborne continually during a campaign-length operation…the lion’s share of the killing will have to be done by deck-launched interceptors.”13
Extensive scouting and information functions will need to be performed regardless of whether the air wing is heavily concentrated for offense or defense. Those concentrated aerial formations are themselves heavily dependent on effective scouting, cueing, and in-flight updating to effectively perform at long ranges. The scouting demands of wide-area naval defense are considerable enough, especially when attempting to counter opposing scouts and bomber raids at distances that aim to preempt their firings. Adding the scouting demands of mass air wing attacks on top of baseline defensive requirements will stretch the carrier air wing even more thinly, making this combination of multiple steep requirements likely unworkable.
Even though these roles may not do much to increase the standoff distance of the carrier, an information-centric air wing is more survivable because it allows the air wing to be more distributed. Even one scouting aircraft can be enough to conduct the aforementioned information functions, from scouting a target warship at standoff ranges, cueing fires against it, retargeting those fires into an aggregated salvo, and assessing defensive performance and the result of the attack. This is far more preferable than sending masses of concentrated air wings to the limits of their range to launch risky attacks against only several warships at a time. The amount of aviation needed to sense a target and network fires against it could likely be met by far fewer aircraft compared to the numbers needed to mass the volume of fire organically through the air wing itself.
Removing much of the demand for carrier-centric strike operations will improve the survivability of the carrier. Adversaries may not choose to fire weapons near the limits of their range to engage carriers, especially long-range assets such as bombers and ballistic missiles. Instead, they may wait until the carrier is within range of its own offensive capability, knowing that the air wing may then be split between offensive and defensive missions, which lowers the volume of fire required to achieve overwhelming effect. If an anti-carrier strike was launched at ranges that exceed the offensive capability of the target carrier, then the strike is more likely to have to contend with a purely defensive air wing composition. As LCDR Winnefeld noted:
“If the Soviets cooperate by attacking at extremely long ranges, U.S. battle forces will be able to fight the [bomber raids] on their own terms. Carriers will be able to enhance their survivability by orienting their flight deck configurations exclusively to [defense]… Unfortunately, the Soviets may wait…tacticians counting on defeating the [bomber forces] at long ranges may be disappointed by an adversary who is unwilling to come out and fight on the [carrier group’s] terms. Carrier battle forces will probably be required to defend themselves and project power simultaneously.”14
These information-centric missions improve carrier survivability by allowing for more aircraft and hardpoints to be devoted to early warning and defensive capability. But even with their advantages, these information-centric missions may improve the carrier’s survivability only marginally because of the enduring need to earn proximity to targets and friendly forces.
The carrier air wing does not have to be alone in executing these roles. The Maritime Patrol Aircraft community can make major contributions to battlespace awareness and communications, especially through new high-endurance drones like Triton. The land-based aircraft of the MPA community can substantially alleviate the burdens these information missions place on the air wing. However, these aircraft do not equip much in the way of anti-air weapons and are not as maneuverable as carrier multirole aircraft. Their ability to kill scouts and missiles will be extremely limited.
Information can of course come from other assets. The Air Force can play a major role in developing awareness of the maritime battlespace, as well as space-based assets and allied forces. What is less clear is whether the degree of network interoperability and integration is enough to supplant many of naval aviation’s information functions, rather than only supplement them.
The suggested information-centric missions are limited by what resides within the modern carrier air wing. It is unclear whether the mainstay aircraft of the Navy’s carrier air wings – the F/A-18 – has powerful enough sensors and networking ability to conduct these information operations to a highly capable degree. These aircraft often depend on information from the E-2 airborne early warning aircraft, which features long-range sensing, considerable networking capability, and extensive battle management systems. But only a handful of these aircraft are fielded in an air wing, and only recently have they begun fielding variants that are capable of in-flight refueling.15 These limitations greatly constrict the availability of the aircraft and therefore the scope of ocean space that can benefit from their information functions. The F-35, with its modern sensing and networking capabilities, may prove especially useful in executing these information-centric air wing operations. But until the F-35 is widely fielded, the Navy’s ability to reap the benefits of these information functions and harness the broader firepower of the distributed fleet will be constrained.
General platform attributes or mission areas are not a sufficient basis to determine the continued relevance of a platform. Ultimately in combat, a platform lives or dies by the viability of its tactics, of how its specific concepts of employment interact with a contested battlespace, and of the precise details of how it would actually be applied in warfighting. For distributed warfighting at sea, there is a clear argument to be made for the vital role of naval aviation, whether it must come from aircraft carriers or somewhere else. Some of these arguments are couched in the fact that many of the premier weapons of modern naval warfare are themselves fast airborne payloads, that warships are mostly blind to spaces of enormous tactical consequence, and that air superiority is a powerful enabler of information superiority. Navies should carefully consider these factors as they debate the future of their force structure and naval warfare.
Part 8 will focus on China’s ability to mass fires.
8. This estimate is based on the attacking anti-ship missiles traveling at a speed of Mach 2.5, or roughly 32 miles per minute, and the missile taking up to around 10 seconds to accelerate from subsonic speed to its terminal sprint after breaking over a target warship’s horizon. China’s YJ-12 and YJ-18 anti-ship missiles have terminal sprint capability up to Mach 2.5. The Mach 3 speed of the U.S. Navy’s SM-2 anti-air missile amounts to about 38 miles per minute. These two speeds taken in combination amount to the missiles meeting at roughly the halfway point of a 20-mile-long engagement space going from the horizon to the target warship.
10. A U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has 96 vertical launch cells. The estimates of matching of missile capability focuses on number of missiles, not their specific dimensions, and excludes deck-mounted missiles and weapons fielded within the magazines of turreted point defense launchers.