Category Archives: Tactics and Warfighting

Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Operational Level of Conflict in Star Wars

By Steve Wills

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.

Tactical Prowess

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

U.S. Naval War College Graphic Showing a Military Center of Gravity.

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+).

Fighting DMO, Pt. 8: China’s Anti-Ship Firepower and Mass Firing Schemes

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.

Click to expand. Key traits of mainstay PLA anti-ship missiles. (Author graphic)

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.

YJ-83 box launchers mounted aboard a Chinese frigate. (Photo via Wikimedia commons)

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

Ballistic missile bases and brigades of the PLA Rocket Force. (Photo via CSIS China Power Project)

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 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 10-day maritime training exercise. ( by Zou Xiangmin)

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.

Sept. 19, 2014 An internal rotary launcher is seen outside a B-52 bomber. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jannelle Dickey)
A PLA H-6 bomber equipped with two YJ-12 anti-ship missiles mounted on external hardpoints. (Photo by Japanese Ministry of Defense)

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.

A PLA submarine attached to a submarine flotilla under the PLA Northern Theater Command steams during a maritime combat training exercise in early August 2022. ( by Shi Jialong)

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.

China’s Type 003 carrier, Fujian. (Photo via South China Morning Post)

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.

Figure 1. Click to expand. A timeline chart of the max flight times of U.S. and PLA anti-ship missiles, highlighting how PLA firing mass firing sequences can be more concentrated than those of U.S. forces. (Author graphic)

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.

Fighter jets attached to a naval aviation brigade under the PLA Eastern Theater Command sit in their aircraft shelters prior to a night flight training exercise on April 17, 2020. ( by Zhao Ningning and Tian Jianmin)

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

Type 22 fast attack missile boats under the PLA Eastern Theater Command steam in formation during a maritime attack and defense training exercise in waters of the East China Sea in late March 2018. ( by Chen Jian)

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.

The littoral geography of the Japanese home island of Kyushu. (Photo via Google Earth Pro)
The littoral geography of the central Philippines. (Photo via Google Earth Pro)

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. 

Figure 2. Click to expand. The yellow reverse range ring, centered on a location 100 miles inland on the Chinese mainland, shows the area from where U.S. forces enter Tomahawk range of Taiwan and much of the mainland coastline. All other markers are conventional range rings, depicting the range of capabilities placed at the center of their respective rings. (Author graphic)

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.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. For PLA anti-ship cruise missile capabilities and platform compatibility, see:

Dr. Sam Goldsmith, “VAMPIRE VAMPIRE VAMPIRE The PLA’s anti-ship cruise missile threat to Australian and allied naval operations,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, pg. 10, April 2022,

For ballistic missile capabilities, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 64-67, 2022,

2. For Y-18 and DF-26 introduction timeframes, see:

Michael Pilger, “China’s New YJ-18 Antiship Cruise Missile: Capabilities and Implications for U.S. Forces in the Western Pacific,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, October 28, 2015,

For YJ-83, YJ-12, and YJ-18 introduction timeframes, see:

Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, “A Potent Vector: Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments,” Joint Force Quarterly 75, September 30, 2014,

For DF-21D introduction timeframe, see:

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,

3. For assessments of PLA ballistic missile firing rates across China Military Power Report editions, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 64, 2022,

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 60, 2021,

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 55, 2020,

4. For YJ-83 capabilities, see:

Dr. Sam Goldsmith, “VAMPIRE VAMPIRE VAMPIRE The PLA’s anti-ship cruise missile threat to Australian and allied naval operations,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, pg. 10, 13, 16, 20, April 2022,

5. Michael Pilger, “China’s New YJ-18 Antiship Cruise Missile: Capabilities and Implications for U.S. Forces in the Western Pacific,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, October 28, 2015,

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. For terminal sprint capability, see:

Michael Pilger, “China’s New YJ-18 Antiship Cruise Missile: Capabilities and Implications for U.S. Forces in the Western Pacific,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, pg. 2, October 28, 2015,

9. Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger, Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century, Helion & Company, pg. 49, 2022.

10. Amber Wang, “Chinese military announces YJ-21 missile abilities in social media post read as warning to US amid tension in Taiwan Strait,” South China Morning Post, February 2, 2023,

11. “U.S. Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives,” Congressional Budget Office, pg. 45, January 2023,

12. For Chinese surface fleet ship types and numbers, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 53-54, 2022,

Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 8, 27-33, December 1, 2022,

Tayfun Ozberk, “China Launches Two More Type 052DL Destroyers In Dalian,” Naval News, March 12, 2023,

13. Based on the aforementioned sources listed in reference #12, China built roughly 30 destroyers and eight cruisers in a ten-year period from 2012-2022.

14. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 13-14, December 1, 2022,

15. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 60, 2022,

16. Oriana Pawlyk, “B-1 Crews Prep for Anti-Surface Warfare in Latest LRASM Tests,” Military Times, January 3, 2018,

17. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates,” Navy Justification Book Volume 1 of 1 Weapons Procurement, Navy, Page 1 of 10 P-1 Line #16, (PDF pg. 261), April 2022,

18. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 8, December 1, 2022,

19. Captain Christopher P. Carlson, “Essay: Inside the Design of China’s Yuan-class Submarine,” USNI News, August 31, 2015,

20. The Military Balance 2022: The Annual Assessment of Global Military Capabilities and Defense Economics, The International Institute of Strategic Studies, Routledge, pg. 259-261, February 2022,

21. Ian Burns McCaslin and Andrew S. Erickson, “Selling a Maritime Air Force The PLAAF’s Campaign for a Bigger Maritime Role,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, pg. 15-16, April 2019,

22. For PLA carrier production rates, see: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 55, 2022,

23. For DF-26 range, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 64, 2022,

For H-6J bomber range, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 60, 2022,

24. Maksim Y. Tokarov, “Kamikazes: The Soviet Legacy,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Volume 1, 67, 2014, pg. 13, 

25. Lieutenant Commander James A. Winnefeld, Jr., “Winning the Outer Air Battle,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1989,

26. For JH-7 YJ-83 compatibility, see:

Dr. Sam Goldsmith, “VAMPIRE VAMPIRE VAMPIRE The PLA’s anti-ship cruise missile threat to Australian and allied naval operations,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, pg. 13, April 2022,

For J-16 compatibility, see:

Andreas Rupprecht, “Images show PLAAF J-16 armed with YJ-83K anti-ship missile,” Janes, February 18, 2020,

For J-10 compatibly, see: “New Cruise Missile Confirmed For China’s J-10C Fighter: An Anti-Ship Weapon to Boost Export Prospects?” Military Watch Magazine, March 4, 2022,

27. For DF-21 range, see:

“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, pg. 64, 2022,

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:

Christopher J. Bowie, “The Anti-Access Threat and Theater Air Bases,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2002,

For carrier sortie generation rates, see:

“CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford Class Nuclear Aircraft Carrier (CVN 78),” December 2021 Selected Acquisition Report (SAR), pg. 4, April 28, 2022,

“Appendix D: Aircraft Sortie Count,” (for Operational Desert Storm),

29. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 40, August 1, 2018,

30. “Vice Admiral Hank Mustin on New Warfighting Tactics and Taking the Maritime Strategy to Sea,” Center for International Maritime Security, April 29, 2021,

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. ( by Zou Xiangmin)

Fighting DMO, Pt. 7: The Future of the Aircraft Carrier in Distributed Warfighting

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.

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

Visualization of the radar horizon limitation. (Source: Aircraft 101 Radar Fundamentals Part 1)

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.10 A handful of aircraft can therefore be enough to substantially tilt the balance of a naval salvo engagement in favor of the defending warships.

PACIFIC OCEAN (March 6, 2019) An F/A-18 Hornet fully loaded with anti-air weapons prepares for a simulated combat mission off the coast of Southern California. (U.S Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dominic Romero/Released)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet from U.S. Navy Strike Test VX-23 in flight with four Harpoon anti-ship missiles. (Boeing photo)

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.

Click to expand. A depiction of how the NIFC-CA capability allows warships to target air and missile threats traveling beyond their line of sight via a combined arms relationship with aircraft. (Graphic via CSIS Missile Defense Project)

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.

A depiction of the Cold War-era Outer Air Battle and “Chainsaw” fleet air defense concept. (Graphic via Maritime Warfare in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime by Andrew F. Krepinevich, CSBA, 2014)

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.

Figure 1. Click to expand. Reverse range rings for Tomahawk, LRASM, and SM-6 are centered on a target SAG, showing how far warships can distribute from one another and still combine fires against a shared target. Regular range rings for all other weapons are centered on their launch platforms. The fleet has to limit its distribution to provide critical aerial support functions to surface warships and to missile salvos. (Author graphic)

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.

BAY OF BENGAL (Oct. 17, 2021) An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 flies over the Bay of Bengal as part of Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX) 2021 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N. Smith)

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.

Naval Station Mayport, Fla. (December 16, 2021) – An MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), assigned to Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19), sits on the flight line. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan T. Beard/ Released)

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.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, pg. 173, Naval Institute Press, 1986.

2. Tyler Rogoway, “Navy’s Super Hornet Boss On The Jet’s Game-Changing Infrared Search And Track Sensor,” The War Zone, July 27, 2020,

3. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics And Naval Operations, Third Edition, pg. 188, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2018.

4. John Keller, “Lockheed Martin to build six more LRASM anti-ship missiles with GPS/INS, infrared, and radar-homing sensors,” Military and Aerospace, March 23, 2022,

5. Thomas H. Shugart III, “Trends, Timelines, and Uncertainty: An Assessment of the Military Balance in the Indo-Pacific,” Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hearing on Advancing Effective U.S. Policy for Strategic Competition with China in the Twenty-First Century, March 17, 2021,

6. Abraham Rabinovic, The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare, revised edition, independently published, 2019.

7. Lee O. Upton and Lewis A. Thurman, “Radars for the Detection and Tracking of Cruise Missiles,” Lincoln Laboratory Journal, Volume 12, Number 2, pg. 365, 2000,

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.

9. Dr. Carlo Kopp, “Flying the F/A-18F Super Hornet,” Air Power Australia, originally published May/June 2001 in Australian Aviation,

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.

11. Wes Rumbaugh and Tom Karako, “Extending the Horizon: Elevated Sensors for Targeting and Missile Defense,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2021,

12. For Outer Air Battle and Chainsaw concept, see:

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Maritime Warfare in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime, Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments, pg. 50-52, 2014,

Thomas P. Ehrhard, PhD and Robert O. Work, Range, Persistence, Stealth, and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat Air System, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 86-89, 2008,

13. Lieutenant Commander James A. Winnefeld, Jr., “Winning the Outer Air Battle,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1989,

14. Ibid.

15. For fielding of in-flight refueling capability for E-2 aircraft, see:

Valerie Insinna, “Northrop to Begin Cutting in Aerial Refueling Capability in E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Production this year,” Defense News, April 11, 2018.

“E-2D Conducts Successful Aerial Refueling Tests,” Naval Aviation News, March 21, 2018.

Featured Image: May 2020 – The Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the Philippine Sea.

Fighting DMO, Pt. 6: Naval Platform Advantages and Combined Arms Roles

Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations.
Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls.
Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics.

Read Part 4 on weapons depletion and last-ditch salvo dynamics.
Part 5 on salvo patterns and maximizing volume of fire. 

By Dmitry Filipoff 

A Combined Arms Framework for Massing Fires

The act of massing fires across forces is inherently a function of combined arms. Individual platforms should be understood in the broader context of the mass firing schemes they fit into, and a mass firing scheme should be understood as a composite integration of multiple platform types. These mutually supporting relationships are not just a matter of adding more missiles to increase the volume of fire. Rather, the different platforms are working together to compensate for each other’s tactical weaknesses and pose combined arms threats that are far more lethal than what the different platforms can pose individually.

By organizing force-multiplying relationships, combined arms warfighting also highlights critical dependencies. Combined arms warfighting often means that one platform type must allow its operational options to be circumscribed by the limits of another platform type, if they are to work together. By understanding how different platform types make allowances to fit together for massed fires, operational behavior can become more predictable, including to the adversary. But behavior can also be more predictable to one’s own forces, which can enhance doctrinal cohesion in this form of warfighting where cross-platform fluency and coordination is especially critical.

Modern warfighting can feature concepts of operation that focus on splitting these relationships apart to gain leverage over the adversary. Defeat in detail is often conceived of as small detachments falling prey to enemy forces, but it can also take the form of homogenous force packages falling prey to an adversary that asymmetrically leveraged a platform-specific weakness that could have been mitigated by a combined arms relationship. By understanding the purpose of these relationships, a force can know how to take advantage of their absence.

It is critical to recognize that the individual platform communities can be their own worse enemy when forming these combined arms relationships. The act of instituting or reforming these relationships can stimulate friction between communities because combined arms warfighting sets the stage for compromises in concepts of operation and time-consuming cross-community force development. Historically, combined arms debates have sometimes yielded community “purists” who are resistant to cross-community integration. These purists tend to strongly believe in the self-sufficiency of their own community’s capability, and their proposed combined arms concepts of operation often take the form of assigning spheres of activity to the communities that are operationally complimentary but tactically separate.1

The aforementioned need to circumscribe options according to the limits of a different platform type can cause different communities to view each other as a drag or a nuisance rather than a force multiplier. A naval aviator may be loathe to limit their scope of maneuver so they can provide local sea-skimming air defense and sensory coverage for a much slower warship. A warship may be loathe to delegate release authority for weapons in its deep magazine to an aviator flying above, who may be better able to cue and direct long-range fires. Yet these relationships can be a core operational necessity that must be ironed out in combined force development. The current U.S. Navy construct of having carrier air wings conduct deep strikes while surface warships conduct what amounts to a goal line defense against air and undersea threats is a more divided method of warfighting than a truly integrated combined arms relationship. The fact that genuine integrated training and exercising is a very small fraction of the workup cycle compared to community-specific training is reinforcing this construct.2

The challenge of community purists may be encouraged by the breadth of multi-mission capability that already exists within the individual naval communities, especially in U.S. naval aviation and surface forces. In the absence of such multi-mission capability, the need to join specialized forces into integrated force packages would be more clear. But the multi-mission capability that is organic to these naval communities cannot mitigate many of their fundamental platform weaknesses, or the fundamental need for a revamped combined arms relationship that is geared toward launching and withstanding massed fires.

A framework can be established to help understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various platform types as they relate to massed fires, and understand each platform’s unique contribution to the combined arms team. This framework can shed light on how the overall scheme of massed fires can shift and reorganize when a certain platform type cannot contribute due to operational circumstance or lack of capability. This framework can also be used to understand platform traits in isolation to understand key factors of resilience. Understanding the organic capabilities of an individual type of platform can shed light on that platform’s potential for standalone fires, last-ditch salvos, and the usefulness of homogenous force packages. It can also shed light on how these platforms could be taken advantage of when they are cut off from the broader combined arms team. Understanding these capabilities in isolation offers a glimpse into how much effectiveness may be retained if a distributed force fractures into individual force concentrations and units.

Relevant platform traits include but are not limited to: magazine depth, on-station endurance, organic sensing, reload speed, ability to gain proximity to warship targets, and maneuver speed. Each platform’s set of advantages bolsters an overall mass firing scheme in certain respects, while each platform’s disadvantages may be compensated for by other platforms, and possibly circumscribing their behavior in the process.

Click to expand. A table of platform attributes and their relative ratings. (Author graphic)

Magazine depth is how much volume of fire can be fielded on a single platform. Higher magazine depth allows a platform to preserve force distribution for longer, because it can contribute many rounds of small salvos while still remaining on station. If a platform is isolated or under duress, high magazine depth allows the platform to contribute a substantial volume of fire in standalone or last-ditch salvos. Shallower magazine depth translates into higher frequency of reloads during the duration of a conflict, which disrupts force distribution. Shallow magazine depth also results in last-ditch and standalone salvos featuring small volumes of fire that are less likely to be overwhelming.

On-Station Endurance is how long the platform can stay on station as a function of its unrefueled range. The longer a platform can remain on station, the longer it offers options for contributing fires, and the longer it preserves force distribution. Low endurance diminishes the availability of fires and how much a platform can contribute to a distributed force posture. 

Organic sensing is how much targeting information a platform can gain through its onboard sensors alone. A high degree of organic sensing better allows a platform to target its own fires directly and manage a killchain that is less distributed across multiple authorities. High organic sensing can also allow a platform to cue the long-range fires of other platforms, if it can reliably deliver its sensor information to a broader network. Low organic sensing makes a platform much more dependent on outside sources of information to target its long-range fires. In the context of standalone or last-ditch salvos, organic sensing capability can help make those fires more accurate, and better preserve the resilience of the platform if it must continue the fight without a network. 

Maneuver Speed. Maneuver speed is how fast a platform can travel. High maneuver speed allows a platform to more flexibly fit into mass firing sequences and manage the risks of emissions. Higher speed can allow platforms to concentrate in larger numbers in shorter timeframes than slower platforms. 

Ability to Gain Proximity to a Warship Target allows a platform to build more resilience into a firing sequence. The more proximity a platform can gain, the more it can add to fires launched on short notice. Closer proximity translates into a better ability to insure a firing sequence against attrited fires, preemptively destroyed archers, and improve the distribution of launches across the duration of the firing sequence.

Reload Speed is how quickly a depleted platform can be rearmed and returned to the fight. Faster reload speed preserves force distribution and the availability of fires. A high reload speed as described here means it takes a platform longer to reload. Reload speed is also understood here as a function of maneuver speed rather than magazine depth, where the transit time is usually longer than the reload time. The availability of fires is not only a matter of how fast a platform can be reloaded with new weapons, but how fast the platform can travel between its weapon stocks and its launch areas.

Each platform features some combination of these traits, and a combined arms framework would seek to cover the weaknesses while maximizing the strengths. These advantages and disadvantages illuminate what circumstances constitute favorable terms for launching fires for each platform and their broader operational options. If a platform must shoulder a disproportionate burden of contributing fires, then the effectiveness of the overall mass firing sequence may be defined by that platform’s strengths and weaknesses, and offer an adversary disruptive points of leverage. 

The Uneven Nature of Massed Fires and Anti-Ship Combined Arms Teams 

These concepts of massed fires have principally focused on organizing forces for anti-ship strikes, and these concepts are by no means a complete conception of combined arms naval warfighting. But the act of striking warships is a challenging priority objective that demands combined arms methods. Aside from managing weakness and earning force multiplying advantages, combined arms methods are compelled by the need to muster the significant volume of fire required to breach the especially dense defenses of warships. Organizing for anti-ship strikes can therefore yield combined arms methods that bring together multiple communities for the sake of targeting a single type of platform.

This results in critical asymmetries in how platforms can come together to mass fires, and how competing schemes of massed fires can interact during combat when one side has an advantage in anti-ship fires. When a massed firing scheme is deprived of its surface force, or its surface force is substantially outranged by the opposition, then the resulting asymmetry becomes especially risky to manage.

While warships can be fired upon by multiple platform types, anti-ship missiles cannot threaten many of those platform types in return. These include aircraft, submarines, and land-based forces. Platforms such as aircraft and submarines are only threatened by weapons that have much shorter ranges than anti-ship weapons, challenging the ability of defending warships to threaten these archers before they fire arrows. Certain platforms have a superior ability to fire effectively first against warships because their survivability is not governed by the same dynamics as symmetrical surface-on-surface engagements.

Yet platforms that cannot be threatened by anti-ship weapons usually face critical disadvantages in on-station endurance and magazine depth, with bombers being somewhat of an exception. These factors are the strengths of surface platforms, allowing them to compensate for the shortfalls of aircraft and submarines, who in turn compensate for the surface forces’ disadvantages in rapid near-term maneuver and ability to gain proximity to an adversary. Surface forces can undergird a scheme of massed fires by being able to bring significant missile capacity forward and maintain it there, unlike most other platform types. Therefore the function of surface forces in the combined arms team is to provide a deep and persistent base of fire for a mass firing scheme, which augments the forces with shallower magazines and more transient presence. By leveraging this base of fire, those other platform types are spared from having to heavily concentrate their platforms, manage the ensuing logistical challenges, and take greater risks. Other platforms and domains can certainly serve as a base of fire for a mass firing scheme if they have the numbers and logistics to do so. But even so, the mass firing scheme is still oriented on launching strikes against warships, and combining multiple communities to take out a critical member of the opposition’s combined arms team.

The base of fire offered by a surface force can have its own scope of maneuver limited by the critical roles of the other platform types. A surface force that ventures beyond the range of land-based aviation will be deprived of one of its most valuable partners in massing fires. Perhaps even more importantly, it will be deprived of the partner that can provide critical air defense coverage for both offensive and defensive purposes. Aviation will be needed to inflict major attrition against sea-skimming salvos well before they break over the horizon view of warships. The adversary can reciprocate this of course, creating a requirement for aviation to provide forward air defense coverage to friendly salvos on their way to the target. Aviation can also reload anti-air weapons much faster than warships, helping warships persist in providing a maneuvering base of offensive fire, rather than having warships be forced to withdraw with unused offensive weapons due to depleted defenses.

A surface force should therefore be keen to stay well within the range of friendly land-based aviation to be able to substantially grow and withstand volumes of fire. Carrier aviation can certainly provide these capabilities, but typically not to the same scale and range as land-based aviation. Carriers can provide valuable aerial support in deep oceanic areas that land-based aviation may struggle to reach or loiter for long. But overall, in a scheme of massed fires, it may be wise to ensure that the base of fire provided by a surface force is adequately overlayed by the base of air defense coverage provided by aviation.

When two schemes of massed fires are competing and interacting during combat, the ability for one force to substantially outrange the anti-ship firepower of the other can have a profound effect on how advantage develops between adversaries. If a force can effectively target enough anti-ship fires to a much longer range than the opposition, then the opposition’s firing scheme may be deprived of the valuable base of fire their surface forces offer. This deeply affects the resulting scheme of massed fires because it splits apart combined arms relationships.

When a force’s scheme of mass fires is substantially outranged by the opponent, then the force can have to heavily focus its aviation on defending its surface forces while the opponent leverages their superior ability to fire first. As waves of massed fires are launched from distant standoff ranges, aviation would need to heavily focus on attriting the incoming volume of fire. The goal would be to inflict enough depletion on the adversary that their ability to follow up on their anti-ship attacks would be diminished, and that one’s remaining strike options would be meaningfully preserved via the surviving surface forces, which have more freedom of action against a heavily depleted adversary.

Because aviation has a natural advantage in both its speed and ability to fire first against warships, aviation would be pressed to reach far out and attack warships before they can launch their longer-ranged firepower against one’s own surface forces. At these extended ranges, aviation is more likely to be acting alone in mustering the volume of fire instead of as part of a combined arms team. Aviation would have to muster significant numbers and aerial tanking to field enough volume of fire, and then have to assemble aircraft into especially dense concentrations around targets to launch timely strikes. On top of this requirement, aviation may be required to make major contributions to fleet air defense as mentioned. Longer-ranged anti-ship firepower therefore forces the opposition’s aviation to shoulder much more of both the offensive and defensive burden, causing aviation to bear outsized responsibility on the combined arms team.

But aviation may not have to be alone in this scenario. When the anti-ship firepower of a surface force is outranged, the combined arms team can still consist of aircraft and submarines, who are both able to bypass anti-ship firepower through their respective domains and earn closer proximity to an adversary. If enough aircraft and submarines can work together to combine fires at the forward edge of the battlespace, then they may be able to strike effectively first against surface forces before they can launch standoff fires against warships.

In similar fashion, the combined arms team in an A2/AD zone can consist of submarines and stand-in forces because of their shared ability to persist deep within a battlespace. While both of these forces may be constrained by their magazine depth, their ability to gain proximity to the adversary can give them opportunities to threaten warships with fuller magazines, and in areas where launching a last-ditch salvo from a warship would be futile.

Different operational circumstances will yield different combinations of combined arms teams. Some platform types may face circumstances that make their ability to contribute fires prohibitive. This can force other platforms to increase the proportion of their contribution to a mass firing scheme, but with the chance of increased risk, and possibly because their platform weaknesses cannot be as effectively compensated for by others. If a distributed force fractures into smaller and individual elements, they would be well-served by seeking out friendly platforms and forming ad hoc combined arms teams to the extent possible. It is critical to consider how to maximize combined arms relationships in a variety of operational circumstances, and to understand how to split apart these relationships for an adversary.

Rapid and Last-Ditch Fires

A key consideration is how different members of the naval combined arms team have widely differing sensitivities to last-ditch firing pressures. This heavily affects the ability of the broader force to leverage the last-ditch salvos of certain platforms with additional fires. These dynamics shape the ability of a force to maintain its resilience and mass firing capability while incurring losses.

Assuming a force has quality situational awareness over a wide area and sea-skimming surfaces, a warship that is under fire from a salvo can have tens of minutes of warning, because that can be the time-to-target of the incoming salvo. This can give the warship a decent window of time to discharge its last-ditch fires, and give the broader distributed force more time to organize contributing fires to leverage the forthcoming last-ditch salvo.

Early warning and last-ditch salvos are different for aircraft and submarines in critical respects. The weapons that threaten these platforms, such as anti-air missiles and torpedoes, have a small fraction of the time-to-target of anti-ship missiles can take tens of minutes to reach a warship. Yet the maneuvering speed of aircraft and submarines is much closer to those weapons compared to the speed differential between warships and anti-ship missiles, where evasive maneuvering is a much more viable method for improving the survivability of aircraft and submarines during the transit of the incoming weapon. But this potentially radical maneuvering can inhibit the ability of those platforms to discharge their salvos in last-ditch fires, where launching those fires could require a steadier movement profile that drastically increases the incoming weapon’s chances of striking the platform. Even if they opted to fire last-ditch fires in reaction, the act of discharging the final salvo may take longer than how long it takes the weapon to reach the submarine or aircraft, unlike in a warship’s situation. Unlike long-range anti-ship fires, the broader distributed force would have virtually no time to organize contributing fires in reaction to anti-air or torpedo attacks.

Compared to anti-ship fires, the kill chains of anti-air and anti-submarine fires may be more easily completed by individual platforms, who will often have sufficient organic sensing and magazine depth. A single fighter with its onboard radar and several anti-air missiles is enough to threaten a bomber, or a frigate with its sonar and several torpedoes can be sufficient to threaten a nearby submarine. The proximate nature of these engagements allows a single platform to satisfy their information needs with organic sensors, and the offensive-defensive balance of these engagements requires far fewer weapons to muster enough volume of fire. By comparison, a warship that needs to be targeted hundreds of miles away and requires dozens of missiles to overwhelm can demand a broader information architecture and carefully coordinated fires from multiple force packages. It takes far less capability to put aircraft and submarines into a position where they feel forced to discharge last-ditch fires.

Aircraft and submarines would have to launch last-ditch fires in widely differing circumstances compared to warships. A warship may never detect emissions from the vast majority of distributed platforms that have launched fires against it. But aircraft and submarines can use their organic sensors to detect the organic sensors of the platforms that are targeting them. A bomber can sense illumination by an incoming fighter, or a submarine may get pinged by a warship’s active sonar. Aircraft and submarines would not wait for anti-air missiles and torpedoes to be on their way to then react with last-ditch fires. Instead, they depend more heavily on interpreting the intent behind emissions and sensing to have enough early warning to launch last-ditch fires and then take defensive measures. Rather than reacting to incoming weapons, they need to sense the platforms that could launch the weapons, which makes them much more sensitive to last-ditch firing dynamics and pressures that can force them to waste munitions.

An opposing fighter squadron that simply vectors toward a group of bombers and illuminates it with radar can be enough to trigger last-ditch fires from those bombers, without the fighters having to expend any weapons of their own. By comparison, a warship that knows it is being targeted, or even under attack by incoming fires, can still hold off on launching last-ditch salvos. This is because a warship can be confident that the incoming volume of fire is not enough to overwhelm its defenses, a factor that is mostly absent from the survivability considerations of aircraft and submarines. A warship’s dense defenses allows it to limit the circumstances that prompt its last-ditch fires to reacting to arrows instead of archers. The existence of launched arrows more reliably indicates the adversary’s intent to strike a target, making warships harder to provoke into last-ditch fires with simpler posturing and active sensing.

Overall, a distributed force can include a variety of platforms, whose different traits and capabilities must be combined for operational effect. As commanders consider how to employ a distributed force in a contested battlespace, they must understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual platform types and how this shapes their options. The following platform breakdowns discuss their individual traits and how they relate to naval salvo combat and mass fires more generally.

Surface Warships

Surface warships embody the ability of navies to efficiently bring mass firepower to sea. Blue water navies field a significant amount of their conventional cruise missile firepower in their surface fleets, with launch cells numbering in the thousands for the most powerful nations.3 Some of the most critical capabilities surface fleets offer are their considerable numbers, endurance, and missile capacity, which are central attributes for massing fires and distributing forces.

Despite their considerable strengths, surface ships suffer from long reload speeds which harms their endurance in longer timeframes. Their low platform speed increases the challenge of survivability and their ability to mitigate the risks of radiating active emissions. But their high magazine capacity can give their last-ditch fires substantial volume of fire, with less of a need for outside fires to bolster their last-ditch salvos into overwhelming dimensions.

The large missile capacity of surface fleets is a double-edged sword. Defensive missile capacity can be used to negate offensive missile capacity, and vice versa. As the number of launch cells increases, the volume of defensive firepower that can be used to block attacks increases as well, thereby raising the amount of offensive firepower needed to overwhelm defenses. The very fact that a surface warship can field a large number of anti-air weapons across its many launch cells can force an opposing warship to empty most of its own magazine in a bid to overwhelm that target. Surface warships can easily empty most of their magazines in the course of launching or defending against a single anti-ship missile salvo.

This strongly contrasts with the combat potential and staying power of other types of platforms. Aircraft, submarines, and tanks can earn relatively high kill ratios against equivalent platforms because there is far less need to salvo their main armaments to achieve lethal effect.4 A surface warship may only have enough anti-ship firepower to break through the defenses of a single similarly sized warship, if that. A surface warship can also travel for days and even weeks to enter the fight, only to then expend most of its main armament within a few minutes, and then have to take a long journey back to rearm. Despite the impression of significant capacity, surface warships still heavily depend on combining fires with other forces to limit their depletion and endure in a high-end fight.

The PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer Hohhot (Hull 161) steams in waters of the South China Sea during a maritime training exercise in early August 2020. ( by Li Wei)

No platform’s missile capacity can be effectively understood in isolation from the tactical features of the salvos it may be launching or defending against. An attacking volume of fire can be built across tens of minutes and feature various contributing fires launched from many distributed forces. But when a warship comes under attack by a salvo, the full volume of offensive fire can break over the horizon in a narrow timeframe, while the defending warship must build its own defending volume of fire from scratch within seconds. Because of this dynamic, which will be discussed in more detail in Part 7, there may be some limit to how many vertical launch cells a surface warship can realistically apply to its own defense within the short span of a single engagement. Beyond that limit, additional vertical launch capacity mainly benefits the volume of offensive fires rather than defensive fires. This is partly because surface warships will often have more time to grow the volume of fire when launching an attack compared to defending against one.

The multi-domain nature of modern naval warfighting encourages multi-mission capability and payloads. Modern surface combatants often take the form of multi-mission platforms fielding a variety of domain-specific weapons, and this is partly because they must for survivability’s sake. Submarines, land-based forces, and airborne aircraft are not threatened by anti-ship missiles, but each of these platforms can fire anti-ship missiles against surface warships. For surface warships, there are more threats coming from more domains compared to other naval platforms.

These multi-domain threats pose challenges for configuring the missile capacity of surface warships and limits their true magazine depth. Missile magazine loadouts can be stretched thin across a variety of roles, including anti-ship, anti-air, land-attack, and anti-submarine missions. Each one of these roles can require a large number of weapons for the role to be minimally viable and have enough volume of fire, where weapons can easily crowd out missile cells for other roles. A surface warship with its magazine loadout stretched thin across too many missions may not have enough missiles on hand to credibly launch or defend against a single large anti-ship salvo, creating a dependence on massing fires and combining forces. The challenge of having magazines spread thin at the level of the individual warship can be mitigated by leveraging the broader collective magazine of the distributed force, and configuring magazine loadouts on a force-wide level for distributed fires instead of at the level of the individual platform.

Compared to other missile-firing platforms, surface warships have disadvantages in maneuver, stealth, and susceptibility to attack. The range and speed of modern missiles have greatly diminished the usefulness of warship maneuver at the near-term tactical level. A few minutes or seconds of skilled maneuvering made an important tactical difference in the age of naval gunfights, but modern warships can do relatively little through short-term maneuver to significantly improve their effectiveness against missile salvos, with perhaps the exception of bringing mounted short-range defenses to bear. Maneuver will offer little against missile salvos traveling 15 to 50 times faster than warships, reducing the factors of survivability to defensive capability and deception.

In order to prosecute complex air defense engagements and have broad area situational awareness, surface combatants typically feature powerful sensors that can substantially diminish their stealth. Once these sensors radiate, their unique signatures can provide enough information to help localize and classify the warship at long range, potentially to several hundred miles.5 The usefulness of this information for targeting anti-ship attacks can last for a significant period of time given how long it would take a slow-moving warship to maneuver out of the area it has been localized within. By comparison, an aircraft radiating a signature can use speed and maneuver to quickly put significant distance between its positions, drop below radar horizons, and more effectively manage the risks of emitting.

These high-powered sensors can be employed in defending surface warships against missile attacks, and where missile salvo defense is an especially emissions-intensive form of combat. The ability of these emissions to broadcast the position of the ship could be somewhat mitigated by the short-ranged nature of fighting off sea-skimming missiles breaking over the nearby horizon. But if a warship wants to use its organic sensors to have early warning of aircraft-launched attacks and have the option of defeating archers before arrows, then it will have to radiate at much longer ranges that can paradoxically draw attackers toward its signature.

August 8, 2013 The guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) maneuvers off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Johans Chavarro/Released)

Launching an anti-ship missile attack can involve little if any organic emissions from launch platforms because of how the great distances involved create a need for outside cueing. But the salvo itself presents a signature that could be traced back to the launch platform, much in the same way that an air wing’s physical signature could be traced back to a carrier. But unlike aircraft or submarines, surface warships can do relatively little through near-term maneuver to mitigate the near-term risks posed by the signatures of their recently launched cruise missile salvos. They must heavily rely on the range of the missiles and capabilities such as waypointing, retargeting, and missile autonomy to ensure that enough distance and complex threat presentation does not create a footprint leading back to the launching warship.

All platforms can highlight their positions and platform type through emissions and fires. All platforms can emit signatures in the process of employing offensive and defensive tactics. But compared to most other naval platforms, surface ships cannot as effectively mitigate risk through maneuver, and surface ships can be fired upon from a wider variety of platforms and domains. In a great power navy, surface ships compensate for their higher susceptibility to attack by featuring high numbers and especially dense defensive capability.


Submarines offer unique advantages in the distributed fight. But their ability to launch useful salvos is heavily constrained by their limited missile capacity and volume of fire, as well as the challenges of undersea communication. Where submarines offer advantage to mass fires is primarily through their ability to gain proximity and the highly favorable tradeoffs of sinking ships with torpedoes instead of missiles.

Submarines are poorly suited for contributing to mass fires in a variety of respects, due to their combination of low magazine depth, long reload speed, and poor organic sensing. Like surface warships, they are heavily dependent on outside cueing for launching fires, but their shallow magazine depth only allows them to fire relatively low volumes of fire, and they are generally harder to communicate with than surface warships.

The solitary nature of submarine operations severely constricts their ability to muster enough volume of fire. Compared to most other platforms, submarines are less likely to operate in groups and are more used to operating solo, which further limits the potential volume of fire. While they can certainly fit into a mass firing scheme or operational-level plan, if submarines do not operate as part of a distinct force package, then they will be less likely to generate standalone salvos or last-ditch fires of overwhelming volume.

An independently fired, close-range submarine salvo is a far cry from an aggregated salvo that is massed from contributing fires launched across distributed forces. If a submarine is to engage warships with missiles in independent circumstances, it will have to rely completely on its own missile magazine, which tends to be very shallow in attack submarines. A submarine’s entire vertical launch cell inventory could easily be depleted in a single attack if it is to have enough volume of fire to overwhelm multiple layers of warship defenses. If submarine-launched salvos are to have enough density and volume, then submarines must fire these salvos primarily from dedicated missile cells rather than through torpedo tubes. While torpedo tube-launched missiles can certainly supplement salvos, the fact that submarine torpedo tubes typically number in the single digits makes it highly dubious these tubes can discharge enough volume of fire on their own against high-end warships.

The current magazine capacity of the U.S. attack submarine force is relatively small at only 12 vertical launch cells and four torpedo tubes for Los Angeles– and Virginia-class submarines. Seawolf-class submarines have eight tubes and no launch cells.6 At 16 missiles, the maximum throw weight of these submarines per salvo is double that of a Harpoon-equipped U.S. destroyer or cruiser, or equal to four F/A-18 aircraft. But that will still be hardly enough to overwhelm alert warships with dozens of vertical launch cells and a range of point defenses. To launch effective missile attacks, submarines may be forced to close the distance to secure advantage at increased risk, or reduce their operational independence by heavily depending on outside fires to combine with their salvos.

February 1, 1991 The hatches of 12 vertical-launch Tomahawk missile tubes stand open on the bow of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723). (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

While forthcoming variants of the Virginia-class submarine will have 40 vertical launch cells, these submarines will only start entering the fleet toward the end of this decade and will not feature in significant numbers until the decade after.7 The Navy’s four SSGN submarines have enormous capacity at 154 launch cells per boat, but they will be retired toward the end of this decade.8 After these four ships retire, the Navy’s submarine force will have relatively little anti-ship missile firepower for the next 15 years.

Submarines can still launch missile attacks against warships on somewhat favorable terms. By launching salvos from relatively close ranges, submarines can diminish the ability of the adversary to bring airpower to bear against the salvo, and can maximize the amount of time the salvo flies at sea-skimming altitudes. The result is a salvo that can spend most of its flight under a target warship’s radar horizon, and was fired from a range that is beyond the ability of shipboard anti-submarine weapons to be immediately brought to bear with confidence.

But the act of launching a salvo needs time and space to grow the volume of fire and then organize it into a specific pattern of attack, such as a saturation pattern. Submarine-launched salvos may require a minimum engagement range that is defined by these needs, where a submarine may need to use nonlinear waypointing to purchase enough time and space to grow and then organize the volume of fire before it attacks.

Submarines can earn additional advantages by firing from ranges closer than a target warship’s horizon. If a submarine missile attack is launched close enough, then vertically-launched missiles can struggle to reorient quickly enough to make the steeply angled intercepts. This can help negate much of a defending warship’s hardkill defensive firepower, allowing a smaller volume of fire to overwhelm defenses and destroying the warship quickly enough that it has virtually no time to discharge last-ditch fires, or even torpedos. However, the visual cues of such a short-range missile launch broaching the water could help a defending warship localize the attacking submarine more easily than a torpedo attack or over-the-horizon missile attack.

Despite their limited magazine depth, submarines play a valuable role in massed fires through their heightened ability to gain closer proximity to targets. This allows submarines to act as insurance against attrited fires and hastily organized firing sequences. If contributing fires are shot down, or if a salvo is fired on short notice, submarines may often be the only platforms that are close enough to a target to make additions to the volume of fire. A mass firing scheme that lacks enough submarines will have less ability to insure its firing sequences against attrition or short-notice launches. And as mentioned in Part 4, submarines can reap substantial benefit by sinking targets with torpedo attacks that are far less depleting than missile salvos, allowing them to substitute a handful of torpedoes for large volumes of missile firepower.

While submarine-launched salvos are especially taxing on their shallow missile magazines, a submarine depleted of missiles is not nearly as much of an at-risk asset compared to a warship or aircraft in the same situation. By operating beneath the sea, submarines are spared from the hefty air defense requirements of defending against anti-ship missile salvos. Even if its missile magazine is depleted, a submarine that has enough torpedoes in its inventory can still endure as a credibly threatening and survivable asset.

July 12, 2022 Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Charlotte (SSN 766) prepares to depart Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Electronics Technician 2nd Class Leland T. Hasty II)

Launching long-range anti-ship salvos from submarines can present challenges with cueing their fires. If a submarine is to attack a warship at a distance that goes beyond the relatively short range of its organic sensors, external assets are likely required to cue its fires. Forms of low-frequency communication could provide this information. Certain platforms, especially aviation, could also be helpful in cueing submarine-launched missile fires within contested electromagnetic battlespaces. But the need for timely contributing fires and the ability of submarines to penetrate deep into contested seas could pose risks to platforms attempting to cue submarine-launched fires. Submarine-launched aerial drones can mitigate this to an extent by having an organic capability for enabling over-the-horizon fires.9 But submarine-launched drones may still not be capable enough for submarines to contribute especially long-range fires without external cueing.

The nature of cueing submarine launches can present challenges to leveraging contributing fires from submarines. Compared to the variety of platforms across the force, submarines are among the more difficult to communicate with by virtue of being undersea.10 If a commander wants a submarine to contribute fires to an aggregated salvo, it may involve more complex matters of communication and timing to leverage the capability.

Land-Based Forces and Stand-In Forces

Land-based missile forces can be divided into two broad categories – land-based launchers located on a nation’s homeland such as those of the PLA Rocket Force, and stand-in forces such as those envisioned by the U.S. Marine Corps. These distinct types of forces can play critical roles in massing fires.

Conventional land-based forces, such as those typically located on the homeland of a nation, can consist of coastal defense cruise missile launchers, missile silos, and transporter erector launchers. By virtue of being fielded by land-based platforms instead of more restrictive sea-based platforms, these weapons can take on extraordinary dimensions while still being fielded by highly distributed force structure. These attributes allow land-based missile forces to field some of the most powerful and survivable missile capabilities that exist today.

Land-based forces field some of the largest anti-ship missiles known, such as how a Chinese DF-26 is more than 15 times the weight of a Tomahawk.11 The sheer size of these missiles allows them to maximize two key dimensions of capability – long range and high speed. By having more than a thousand miles of range, these weapons can hold numerous targets at risk on a theater-wide scale and with virtually no maneuver required on the part of the launch platform. Having high speed allows these weapons to travel those long ranges in remarkably short timeframes, which helps preserve the viability of the original targeting data. Through a combination of long range and high speed, these missiles feature a low time-to-strike across a broad area, which gives them a wide array of flexibility for combining fires with other types of missiles. A ballistic missile fired from a thousand miles away can still combine with a subsonic missile fired from a few hundred miles away, because both weapons only need tens of minutes at most to strike the same target.12

The anti-ship weapons that feature these especially high-end combinations of range and speed are mainly confined to hypersonic weapons and China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles. Weapons like the forthcoming land-based Tomahawk launchers will have similar ranges, but not nearly the same speeds. Yet having widespread land-based Tomahawk launchers will vastly multiply the potential distribution and volume of the U.S. military’s missile firepower.

PLA Rocket Force DF-26 ballistic missiles. (Photo via Xinhua)
April 18, 2019 A flight test of a conventionally configured ground-launched cruise missile is conducted at San Nicolas Island, Calif. (DoD photo by Scott Howe)

Land-based forces can be extremely survivable and distributable. The scud hunt saga of Desert Storm showed how it was virtually impossible to find these types of launchers, even in open desert terrain with total air superiority.13 It would be even more challenging to attempt direct attacks on land-based launchers well within an adversary’s homeland, and copious amounts of effort could be expended in simply trying to pinpoint them for strikes. By being located on their homeland, these forces can benefit logistically from being near their sustainment infrastructure and enjoy remarkably fast reloads despite the size of their weapons.

Because of the steep challenges of inflicting attrition, countering land-based forces and their fires is mainly confined to countering the adversary’s broader ISR and C2 architecture. If the broader network is degraded, these forces will have little organic sensing to fall back on to generate standalone fires. Their especially heavy dependence on outside cueing makes these forces less operationally resilient and less likely to gracefully fracture into individual force concentrations in the context of a degraded network. By comparison, aircraft and warships can fall back upon their organic sensors to secure a measure of information for themselves when the broader network is degraded.

The lack of maneuverability relative to the speed and range of their weapons can also challenge land-based forces. If these forces are spread far and wide across an archipelago or the expanse of a homeland, they may not be able to maneuver to create denser fields of fire as easily as aircraft or warships can. Instead, their wide dispersal can yield fields of fire that remain relatively stretched thin in the early days of a conflict. Even if these weapons have extremely long range, dispersing these forces to fixed bases that are hundreds of miles apart can dilute the density of their combined fires.

Stand-in forces sharply differ from conventional land-based missile forces in key respects. Stand-in forces are expeditionary units deployed hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homeland and onto relatively small islands proximate to the adversary. This results in much more challenging logistical requirements, which bottlenecks their capabilities. The logistical challenge of sustaining an expeditionary force makes it far more difficult for stand-in forces to field especially large, land-based missile launch platforms. Stand-in forces may be confined to fielding cruise missiles that are both less capable and less numerous than forces operating from their homeland.

Compared to most other types of forces, stand-in forces will be especially challenged to break through strong warship defenses using only what they have at their disposal. Instead, they may suffer similar disadvantages as submarines – able to achieve closer proximity to the adversary than most other platforms, but with smaller missile magazines on hand and therefore more dependence on outside contributors to achieve enough volume of fire. If stand-in forces deplete their shallow magazines, they may create substantial risks for resupply efforts. Using ships to reload stand-in forces in close proximity to adversaries may be far riskier compared to reloading warships or aircraft that are better able to withdraw beyond an adversary’s weapons engagement zone.

A Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System launcher deploys into position aboard Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, Hawaii, Aug. 16, 2021. (USMC photo by Maj. Nick Mannweiler)

Stand-in forces positioned across island chains could provide timely intelligence that helps the distributed force mass fires against targets. Proximity to island chokepoints will simplify the task of both finding naval targets and massing fires against them. Compared to conventional land-based forces located deeper within a mainland, island-based stand-in forces will be better able to use their organic sensors to cue their own fires. It will be a challenge however for these stand-in forces to achieve broader situational awareness without organic aviation capabilities. High-altitude drones may prove far too vulnerable to last in such close proximity to an adversary, and significant amounts of manned aviation could be too difficult to sustain in advance bases.

While stand-in forces could make major contributions in cueing fires, they will be hard-pressed to mass meaningful volumes of anti-ship firepower on their own and to maintain aviation to secure valuable intelligence. And if stand-in forces struggle to field the larger-scale anti-air missiles that are needed to deny airspace at high altitudes, much of their ability to remain stealthy and manage signatures could be diminished by an adversary’s persistent aerial surveillance. The need for small footprints and low signatures is apparent, but it often costs signatures to detect signatures. These stealthy measures may be a critical enabler for a stand-in force, but they could also be a necessary evil when the stand-in force is heavily suppressed by the adversary.


Bombers are one of the most advantaged platforms when it comes to contesting sea control, executing distributed operations, and attacking warships. Bombers feature a robust combination of traits, including high maneuver speed, fast reload times, significant on-station endurance, and an offensive magazine capacity that can approach that of surface warships.

While U.S. bombers have an unrefueled range that is similar to large surface warships, their high maneuver speed consumes this range at a much faster rate.14 While a bomber can travel thousands of miles on a single load of fuel, it will still need to be refueled within the same day, whereas warships can go days without refueling, allowing them to have greater near-term endurance. Yet bombers can rendezvous with aerial tankers in far less time than what it takes warships to meet with their tankers, allowing bombers to provide a substantial proportion of on-station, on-demand fires. The range and endurance of bombers allows them to loiter and be held on call for contributing to aggregated anti-ship fires on a theater-wide scale within hours. Their combination of decent magazine capacity and organic sensing capability can also allow bombers to launch last-ditch fires that approach the volume of warship-based fires but with greater accuracy.

An adversary may develop a sufficient sense of the aggregated firepower available to regional naval forces based on known warship capabilities and dispositions. But they may be less able to account for how airpower and especially bombers could be surged to contribute fires on short notice. Because of their combination of considerable speed and range, adversaries have to assume a wide array of bombers can provide a variety of distributed firing options to the opponent. U.S. warships homeported in the continental United States cannot factor as readily into the latent distribution and firepower posed by a forward U.S. fleet in the same way continentally-based bombers can.

For now U.S. bombers will be confined to firing anti-ship weapons like LRASM, whose early models feature less than half the range of the Maritime Strike Tomahawk.15 LRASM, like the Harpoon missile, has its capabilities confined by the requirement to be fired from multi-role aircraft that are much smaller than bombers. For the U.S., the ability of bombers to fire much larger missiles than multi-role aircraft will go largely unrealized for the anti-ship mission. Yet bombers test-fired air-launched variants of the Tomahawk decades ago in the Cold War and fielded other air-launched cruise missiles with ranges in excess of a thousand miles.16 The ability of bombers to contribute to anti-ship massed fires from standoff ranges will be magnified if they can fire cruise missiles that are similar to what can be fired from warship launch cells.

December 6, 1979 A left side view of a B-52 Stratofortress aircraft carrying AGM-109 Tomahawk air-launched cruise missiles. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

The U.S. Air Force is developing the potentially game-changing Rapid Dragon capability, which allows cruise missiles to be deployed from pallets dropped from airborne platforms.17 Similar in spirit to the Distributed Lethality concept’s mantra of, “if it floats, it fights,” this capability would introduce significant cruise missile capacity to hundreds of long-range Air Force transporter aircraft.18 Rapid Dragon would vastly expand the scope of force structure that can bring long-range missile firepower to bear and offer a major increase in force distribution. If the Air Force procures enough anti-ship missiles, this capability could be a major force multiplier for mass fires.

September 2021 Over White Sands Missile Range, C-17 and EC-130 aircraft deploy the first Rapid Dragon pallets to release surrogate JASSM-ERs. (Lockheed Martin video)


Massed fires and naval warfighting are greatly enhanced when different platform communities form combined arms relationships. Combined force development and shared platform fluency will strengthen integration between communities. Warfighters will better understand their role in the combined arms team and the operational dynamics that govern the behavior of their cross-community partners. While these relationships will not be without friction or challenging tradeoffs, they will create a force that is far more effective than one that struggles to rise above its silos and parochialism. 

Part 7 will focus on aircraft carrier roles in distributed warfighting and massed fires.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at


1. Jonathan M. House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century, University Press of Kansas, 2001.

2. See:

COMNAVAIRFORINST 3500.20D CH4, Chapter 3: Training Cycle.

For balance of time between integrated and other forms of training see pg. 11 of: Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, “Deploying Beyond Their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, November 2015.

3. For vertical launch cell count for U.S. Navy, see:

“Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2023,” Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, pg. 9, 

For VLS counts for Chinese and Japanese surface fleets, see:

Toshi Yoshihara, Dragon Against Sun: Chinese Views of Japanese Seapower, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 13, 2020, 

4. An example of the low volume of fire that is inherent to these types of engagements can be seen in “Operation Desert Storm: Early Performance Assessment of Bradley and Abrams,” Government Accounting Office, pg. 23, January 1992, 

5. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics And Naval Operations, Third Edition, pg. 188, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2018.

6. For VLS and torpedo tube counts of U.S. Navy attack submarine types, see:

“Attack Submarines – SSN,” U.S. Navy Fact File, last updated March 13, 2023,

7. For first VPM-capable submarine keel-laying ceremony, see the below. Based on traditional submarine construction and commissioning timelines, this ship will not enter the fleet until near the end of this decade. 

Team Submarine Public Affairs, “Navy Authenticates Keel for Future USS Arizona (SSN-803),” December 7, 2022,

8. Ron O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 10, December 21, 2022,

9. Thomas Newdick, “The U.S. Navy’s Submarine-Launched Aerial Drone Capacity Is Set To Greatly Expand,” The Warzone, March 10, 2021,

10. Bryan Clark, “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 13, 2015,
11. For launch weights of Tomahawk and DF-26 missiles, see:

“Tomahawk,” CSIS Missile Defense Project, last updated February 28, 2023,

“DF-26,” CSIS Missile Defense Project, last updated August 6, 2021,

12. This estimate is based on the typical flight times of similar intermediate range ballistic missiles. See:

Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, “Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert,” Scientific American, November 1997, 

Dr. Jamie Shea, “1979: The Soviet Union deploys its SS20 missiles and NATO responds,” NATO, March 4, 2009,

Charles Maynes, “Demise of US-Russian Nuclear Treaty Triggers Warnings,” Voice of America, July 31, 2019,

13. Colonel Mark E. Kipphutt, “Crossbow and Gulf War Counter-Scud Efforts: Lessons from History,” The Counterproliferation Papers Future Warfare Series No. 15 USAF Counterproliferation Center Air University, pg. 18-20, February 2003,

14. For range of U.S. Navy surface warships, see:

“Transforming the Navy’s Surface Combatant Force,” Congressional Budget Office, pg. 5, March 2003,

For range of U.S. Air Force bombers, see:

“B-52H Stratofortress,” U.S. Air Force Fact File,

“B-2 Spirit,” U.S. Air Force Fact File,

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula USAF (Ret.), “Maritime Strike,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, September 1, 2019,

15. For Tomahawk range, see:

“Tomahawk Cruise Missile,” U.S. Navy Fact File, last updated September 27, 2021,

The LRASM range of 350 miles is a rough estimate deduced from the JASSM missile it is derived from, see:

“Options for Fielding Ground-Launched Long-Range Missiles,” Congressional Budget Office, pg. 2, 2020,

16. For Cold War-era Air Force air-launched cruise missiles featuring ranges in excess of a thousand miles, and that did enter service, see:

“Boeing AGM-86B ALCM,” Minot Air Force Base fact file, last updated January 2014,

17. For Rapid Dragon capability, see:

“Rapid Dragon,” Air Force Research Lab,

Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire, “AFSOC conducts live-fire exercise with Rapid Dragon,” Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs, November 14, 2022,

18. For Air Force inventory of transporter aircraft, see:

“2022 USAF & USSF Almanac: Equipment,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, July 1, 2022,

Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (July 12, 2004) – The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Albuquerque (SSN 706) surfaces in the Atlantic Ocean while participating in exercise Majestic Eagle 2004. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Rob Gaston)