Category Archives: Tactics

40 Years of Missile Warfare: What the losses of HMS Sheffield and RFS Moskva Tell Us about War at Sea

By Steve Wills

The recent loss of the Russian Navy guided missile cruiser RFS Moskva from a cruise missile strike called forth many comparisons to previous losses of large surface combatants, including the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano and even the Japanese super dreadnought Yamato. Only a few however remembered the HMS Sheffield from the Falklands War. While Moskva was a large and capable surface warship that invited comparisons with the losses of larger combatants, the Russian cruiser’s demise may have much more in common with that of the Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer than Belgrano or any World War II warship.

The birth of the modern cruise missile in the Cold War, and the many sensors, communication tools, and other systems needed to use or defend against anti-ship missiles set the stage for a whole new era in naval warfare. A series of unfortunate events laid the British warship open to attack and a similar version of those events may have doomed Moskva as well. Modern warships are very much “eggshells armed with hammers” and even one hit is enough to put the ship out of combat action or cause her sinking. As the 40th anniversary of the first successful cruise missile attack of the Falklands War recently transpired, it is useful to review the fate of HMS Sheffield to understand what her loss and the loss of the Moskva mean for war at sea now and in the future.

Sentinels in Dangerous Littorals

Air defense is one of the most challenging warship missions in the current environment of cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as conventional aircraft threats. Sheffield and Moskva were both on the front lines of their respective wars serving as air defense units protecting other ships from air and missile attack. Sheffield acted as a picket vessel with the mission of engaging any aircraft and missiles that threatened the British task group aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. Moskva’s task organization is unknown, but as the Black Sea Fleet’s best air defense warship she likely would have been providing air and missile defense for other nearby Russian warships.

A warship’s defense posture matters greatly in her ability to effectively respond to air and missile attack. That readiness may also depend on other ships in the same task group. Sheffield was nominally prepared to respond to air and missile attack, but several factors limited her responsiveness. According to the post-attack investigation and subsequent revelations, Sheffield’s anti-air warfare officer was out of the operations room at the time of the attack, and a satellite telephone call caused interference with the ship’s electronic support measures (ESM) gear. That disruption blinded the ship’s ability to “see” the inbound missile and by the time lookouts identified the attacking weapon it was too late for Sheffield to respond with weapons and countermeasures. Sheffield’s crew might have been excused for that issue, except a battle was raging around them at the same time with other British task force units tracking supposed missile contacts. The other British air defense destroyer HMS Glasgow was in the process of trying to identify an air threat to the group, but the time from the start of Glasgow’s engagement of the unknown aircraft to impact of the Exocet missile fired by one of those aircraft was less than 3.5 minutes. Missile warfare is fast-paced and any degradation in readiness can be fatal.

May 4, 1982 – HMS Sheffield burns after being struck by an anti-ship missile. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Moskva may also have been engaged in normal activity that masked the ability of her onboard sensors as did Sheffield’s satellite phone call. Moskva may have disregarded the threat of air and missile attack to the point that, like a later cruise missile victim USS Stark (also hit by Exocet missiles in 1987,) her defenses were turned off and not available. Warships must always be vigilant in littoral waters where the risk of cruise missile attack is greater due to closer range to shore-based platforms and limited time for response. The Israeli corvette Hanit escaped severe damage or loss from such a surprise attack in 2006 only because the missile did not arm and struck a glancing blow.

What history shows us is that many warships that have fallen victim to anti-ship missile attacks were struck because of poor readiness and situational awareness. These ships were not struck because their defenses could not hold their own against overwhelming missile salvos. Rather, these ships were struck by exceedingly small salvos of only one or two missiles, attacks they were expected to be able to manage handedly. But poor readiness and awareness resulted in their defenses being virtually absent from the engagement, allowing small missile strikes to wreak enormous damage.

May 18, 1987 – USS Stark (FFG-31) the day after being struck by two anti-ship missiles. (U.S. Navy photo)

Eggshells armed with Hammers

Winston Churchill was perhaps one of the first recorded personalities to describe modern warships as eggshells with hammers, but his description is even more valid today than when he was first quoted as saying it in 1914. Heavy armor for the sides (armor belts,) decks, gun turrets, conning towers, and other critical command and control or engineering sections was common in warship construction from the period of the American Civil War through the end of World War II. While evaluations of armor effectiveness were mixed, it was assumed that some amount of steel plate was useful in protecting large and medium warships from damage. Destroyer-sized ships and smaller lacked much armor, but still had some additional protection around gun mounts. Today by contrast only the largest ships such as aircraft carriers have armor. HMS Sheffield was a destroyer but was larger than her World War II counterparts and might have carried armor. Moskva was a cruiser and previous cruisers had moderate armor protection, but the Russian cruiser too was unarmored. What changed to the point where most warships eschewed armor protection altogether, especially in the face of cruise missile attack?

The addition of missiles and the electronic tools needed to search for opponents and guide weapons to targets fundamentally changed warship design in the early Cold War. Missiles were not turret mounted, and at first were fired from rotating launchers and later from vertical tubes inside the hull. Sensors needed to be placed on tall masts, and to keep the ship stable, the missiles and other heavy gear needed to be mounted lower in the ship. This suggests armoring a ship’s hull, but weapons technology changed in many ways with the introduction of the missile. These weapons were large in the case of those designed as ship killers with even early versions possessing 1,000-pound warheads. Some anti-ship missiles can strike a ship at supersonic speeds and deliver an amount of kinetic force that rivals battleship shells. Later variants possessed shaped-charge warheads that upon impact inject a superheated molten jet into the armor, melting a hole for the rest of the warhead to follow. (The Javelin missile employed so effectively by Ukrainian troops against Russian tanks has a shaped-charge warhead.) In addition, the introduction of nuclear weapons served to make armor pointless. While target ships survived terrible atomic test blasts, the radiation from those weapons could not be deflected and would have killed crews without the weapons that carried them penetrating the ship.

Chinese YJ-12 anti-ship missiles at the PLA 70th anniversary parade in 2019. (China Ministry of National Defense)

Once a missile penetrates and explodes, the damage it inflicts can rapidly immobilize or render a warship unusable. The Exocet missile that hit Sheffield did not explode, but it ruptured a fuel oil tank and fragments from the impact ruptured the ship’s firefighting water system. Deprived of water to fight fires, the crew of the Sheffield were driven from the ship to its exposed decks forward of the bridge and aft of the helicopter hanger; a situation that hampered firefighting efforts. Moskva’s final pictures also show heavy damage, from missile impacts in the middle of the ship (amidships) and many scorch marks emanating from port holes and other undamaged sections suggesting a massive fire. Commercially available wargames have also suggested that the Slava-class cruiser (Moskva was named Slava before her 2000 refit) could survive multiple cruise missile hits, but in this case seems to have succumbed to just two hits from medium-sized weapons.

This is not surprising and not a new development. The robust warships from the World War II era, including capital ships, could be immobilized with one or two torpedo hits as well. Even one cruise missile hit can be disastrous to a small or medium-sized ship as evidenced by the 2016 cruise missile attack on the former U.S. High Speed Vessel Swift, then operated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE.) Even an unarmed drone can make a large hole in a ship as evidenced by the 2013 accidental collision of a 270lb target drone and the cruiser USS Chancellorsville during a tracking exercise. Moskva may still have been filled with flammable paneling in her officer’s quarters and had poorly maintained damage control gear as one of the author’s NATO colleagues reported after a 2007 visit to the ship. But most warships today other than large aircraft carriers qualify as eggshells armed with hammers.

May 14, 2017 – HSV-2 Swift in the port of Suez Egypt, after being struck by an anti-ship missile in the Red Sea. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Smudge2075)

Sheffield and Moskva: A Common Fate?

The Sheffield, like Moskva, was not immediately sunk by her cruise missile hit, but instead lingered for several days until she sank in rough seas whilst being towed toward South Georgia island for emergency repairs. Moskva too appears to have initially survived but sank later, and it does not take too much change in weather to sink a heavily damaged warship.

The continuing lesson to be learned from cruise missile warfare is what legendary naval tactics professor Wayne Hughes taught his students for nearly four decades. Hughes always said, “attack effectively first.” Do not be on the receiving end of a cruise missile attack as history suggests there me be only minutes or even seconds to respond. The opposition must be denied the information that allows them to target and fire upon warships with confidence, while priority must be given to securing similar targeting information for one’s own forces to fire first.

Sheffield could not see the missile that fatally damaged her until it was too late to respond and Moskva may have suffered a similar fate. Advanced cruise missiles are now part of many nations’ weapon arsenals and continue to improve in terms of speed, maneuverability, range, and effectiveness. The lessons from both the Moskva and Sheffield cruise missile attacks are not new revelations for naval warfare, but rather the timeless reminder that those who do not prepare their ships and crews to face the most prevalent threats may suffer a tragic fate.

Dr. Steven Wills is 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. His research interests include the history of U.S. Navy strategy development over the Cold War and immediate, post-Cold War era, and the history of the post-World War II U.S. Navy surface fleet.

Featured Image: The Russian cruiser Moskva following an April 13, 2022 strike from Ukrainian missiles. (OSINT Technical via Twitter)

Close the Gaps! Airborne ASW Yesterday and Tomorrow

By Jason Lancaster, LCDR, USN


Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is about putting sensors and weapons in place to detect and destroy submarines. The types of sensors have changed based on technological improvements and types of submarines, but the main principle is minimizing the sensor coverage gaps and engaging the submarine before it is within its weapons engagement zone (WEZ). Speed, endurance, and flexibility make aircraft excellent ASW platforms. It enables them to conduct wide-area searches and engage submarines before a submarine can attack.

Airpower is vital to protecting the center of gravity. In the Second World War, the European naval war’s center of gravity was the trans-Atlantic convoys that supplied the Allies’ war effort. The Allied struggle was to reduce air coverage gaps in the Atlantic to effectively protect convoys. In order to convoy ships across the Atlantic, the Allies had to close the gaps in air coverage. During the Cold War Era, the center of gravity was the power projection capability of the carrier. The challenge was to protect the carrier both for convoy protection and force projection. Today, the challenge to protect the carrier remains, and a dangerous new gap needs to be closed.

The Russian and Chinese navies have invested heavily in building quiet submarines capable of firing Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) in excess of 200 nm. These missiles threaten our Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) because the CSG lacks an organic capability to detect and engage these submarines outside of the submarines’ WEZ. This is not the first time that we have dealt with an increasingly dangerous submarine threat. Today, the U.S. center of gravity for naval combat remains the CVN. To defend the CVN or any high value vessels from submarines, we may find the answer to be similar to what it was in World War II and the Cold War. We can explore the U.S. Navy’s historical use of air power and technology to overcome submarine advantages and then explore future improvements to close the gaps using unmanned aircraft.  

The Second World War

The Battle of the Atlantic tested the Allies’ ability to defend trans-Atlantic convoys at points throughout the European Theater of Operations, from Archangel to Cape Town and the Panama Canal to the Suez Canal; convoys had to be protected from submarines. Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was the result of the Allies’ ability to eliminate gaps in air coverage with long range air and carrier-based convoy escorts. The challenge for the Allies was to extend air coverage to cover the entire convoy route. The Allies closed air coverage gaps in three ways: they expanded the number of air stations, developed longer-range aircraft, and integrated the escort carrier (CVE).

In August 1942, aircraft were limited to proximity from the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and the African coast. Air coverage decreased the number of attacks in the western approaches to the English Channel. However, the German U-boats continued their depredations farther to sea into an area where aircraft could not reach. The Navy had to continue to close coverage gaps.

In order to close gaps, the Navy went to work opening air bases around the Atlantic rim to expand air coverage. From Greenland to Brazil, the U.S. worked with host nations to build and develop airfields. Unfortunately, gaining permission to operate an airfield did not mean planes could start flying right away. For example, the Danish government in exile gave the United States permission to operate aircraft out of Narsarsuaq, Greenland in April 1941; VP-6 aircraft did not operate from there until October 1943. In Natal, Brazil, the Navy took over facilities that Pan Am had been developing in 1940, but the facilities did not officially become active until 1943. In the Caribbean, planes flew convoy routes from Coco Solo, Panama to Trinidad and on to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Extent of Allied Air Coverage (Author Graphic)

The Navy acquired the bases to operate from, but to close the gaps, aircraft were required to patrol from those bases. The Navy began the war with long-range aircraft, but not the vast numbers required for the massive amount of ocean requiring protection. Thousands of hours of patrol time were required to detect a submarine, creating a massive demand for aircraft. Congress passed the Two Ocean Navy Act in 1940, but aircraft production and aviation training had to catch up to wartime demand. 49 fixed-wing patrol (VP) squadrons were formed in 1943 alone. The influx of new planes and aircrews allowed the Allies to swarm the Atlantic.

This influx of planes enabled the Navy to cover the Atlantic in aircraft and force the U-boats to change tactics. In 1940, U-boats had submerged at the first sight of an aircraft. Many of those aircraft lacked effective weapons to sink a U-boat. Improvements to depth charges, radar, and searchlights increased the kill count. By 1943, U-boats had been re-armed with quadruple 20 mm anti-aircraft guns and traveled the Bay of Biscay surfaced in packs for mutual defense against aircraft. Submarines shooting it out with aircraft resulted in the sinking of 34 submarines in the Atlantic in July 1943. Between August and December of 1943, the Allies flew 7,000 hours of patrols in the Bay of Biscay alone. 7,000 hours translated to 36 sightings, 18 attacks, and 3 kills. Although the number of sightings was low, the U-boats had implemented a policy of maximum submergence, reducing their ability to travel rapidly on the surface during daylight.

Despite increased bases and more aircraft, the center of the Atlantic remained out of reach to land-based aircraft. This gap was closed by escort carriers (CVEs). These aircraft carriers were converted from merchant ships and equipped with a flight deck and a composite squadron of approximately 20 carrier aircraft; typically F4F Wildcats and TBF Avengers. Escort carriers operated in two main modes; direct support to convoys flying patrols around the convoy searching for U-boats, or as the flagship of a hunter-killer squadron. Initially, the aircraft only flew daytime missions, but submarines would surface to recharge their batteries at night. The aircraft flying off escort carriers became the first to regularly fly night missions. Escort carrier groups sank 53 U-boats during the war, including 60 percent of all U-boats sank between April and September of 1944.

A torpedo plane approaches for a landing while USS Guadalcanal tows U-505 astern. (U.S. Navy photo)

By June 1944, U-boats operated primarily submerged utilizing snorkels. The Allies’ ability to build airbases, manufacture planes, and convert aircraft carriers from merchant ships had enabled them to patrol the entirety of the Atlantic, giving the U-boats nowhere to escape.  Staying submerged dramatically reduced submarine range and speed, and there were more U-boat losses than merchant ship losses by the end of 1944. Closing the air coverage gaps in the Atlantic enabled the United States to transport armies across the ocean, maintain the supply lines to the Soviet Union and Great Britain, and win victory in Europe.     

The Cold War

During the Cold War, the Navy focused resources into the ability to project power ashore by building carrier battle groups and operating them in the eastern Mediterranean and the high north. The Cold War carrier battle group had to contend with Soviet long-range naval aviation, as well as nuclear and diesel submarines. Protecting the carrier against nuclear and diesel-electric submarines required defense-in-depth to prevent coverage gaps where submarines could freely target the carrier.

In the early years of the Cold War, World War II-era aircraft carriers were converted to ASW carriers (CVS) and operated 20 S-2 Trackers and 16-18 ASW helicopters and their escorts. During the 1950s, the U.S. maintained 20 ASW battle groups composed of a CVS and escorts. Budget constraints, a focus on the Vietnam War, and the increasing maintenance costs of aging ships resulted in the decommissioning of CVSs through the late 1960s. To maintain carrier-based airborne ASW, the CV replaced an attack squadron (VA) with an air ASW squadron (VS).

Exercises such as Ocean Venture ’81 had demonstrated the Navy’s global reach and ability to place strike aircraft on the Soviet border undetected. The Soviets wanted to deny the eastern Mediterranean and the high north to carrier battle groups to protect the Soviet Union from these attacks. The Soviets’ primary means of denial were their massive submarine fleet and long-range aviation assets. The U.S. expected the Soviets to attack the convoy routes that would bring additional U.S. troops, equipment, and stores to Europe, as well as target the carrier battle groups.  

The U.S. developed an ASW system to protect both convoys and battle groups. Submarines and maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft (MPRA) could patrol independently, but also received cueing from the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). SOSUS arrays stretched across the gaps that Soviet submarines would travel to reach the north Atlantic Ocean; from Bear Island to the Norwegian coast, and across the Greenland-Iceland-UK gaps (GIUK). These arrays were monitored by acoustic technicians and able to vector submarines and MPRA to pounce on Soviet submarines as they transited into the north Atlantic. These barriers formed the outer submarine defensive zones that would enable the U.S. to kill Soviet submarines in chokepoints. The role of these submarines and MPRA was sea denial.

A U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3C Orion from Patrol Squadron Eight (VP-8) “Fighting Tigers” flying over a Soviet Victor III-class submarine in 1985.(U.S. Navy photo)

Convoys would be supported by helicopter-equipped ASW frigates and destroyers and MPRA operating from bases in Canada, Iceland, the Azores, and the United Kingdom. The mission of these escorts was not to create permanent sea control, but to create a bubble of temporary local sea control that would enable the convoyed merchant ships to reach Europe without losses. Carrier battle groups would support these convoys, as required, to protect against air attacks, or would head to the Norwegian coast to conduct offensive operations against the Soviet Union.  

The purpose of the carrier battle group was sea control. The typical carrier battle group was composed of an aircraft carrier, 8-10 escorting cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, and the air wing. The carrier battle group utilized defense-in-depth to defend the carrier. The most distant ring was the inorganic theater ASW (TASW) fight utilizing the SOSUS network, MPRA, and submarines. The battle group did not lead this fight, but paid attention to it.  

Submarines that transited past the MPRA, submarine, and SOSUS barriers required the battle group’s anti-submarine warfare commander (ASWC) to defend the carrier. The 1980s battle group’s ASW plan was composed of three zones: the outer zone (100-300NM), the middle zone (30-70NM), and the inner zone (0-30NM). The battle group’s organic outer defense was composed of ASW helicopter-equipped frigates or destroyers with towed acoustic arrays. The VS squadron and helicopter anti-submarine squadron (HS) were to patrol the inner and middle zones, but maintained the ability to pounce in the outer zone, as required. The inner screen was composed of 3-4 destroyers or frigates utilizing active sonar. Active sonar was required because the carrier and its inner screen utilized speed and maneuver to minimize the ability of a submarine to target the carrier. The noise of speed negated passive tracking.

September 9, 1989 – A starboard quarter view of a Soviet Akula Class nuclear-powered attack submarine underway. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

Victory for the TASW MPRA, submarine, and SOSUS team was the number of submarines destroyed. The battle group’s victory was defined avoiding an attack, whether that was from killing submarines, utilizing limiting lines of approach and maneuver, or defense-in-depth deterrence to prevent submarines from closing on the carrier. The Navy utilized multiple assets with different capabilities and limitations to prevent gaps in the carrier’s screen. TASW, multiple surface ships, CV, DD, and FF-based helicopters and ASW aircraft all contributed to the successful defense of the carrier. The skilled ASWC was able to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each part of the screen and keep the Soviet submarine away from the carrier.

ASW Today and Tomorrow

The threat of Soviet submarines seemingly disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the threat of Soviet submarines, U.S. interest in ASW withered. The nation’s peace dividend included the cancellation of the P-3 replacement aircraft, and the reduction of MPRA squadrons from 24 to 12 between 1989 and 1996. The remaining P-3s found their sensors optimized for detecting surfaced submarines and were useful to the Joint Force flying ISR missions over the Balkans and the Middle East. These missions sustained the reduced MPRA force through the budget cuts of the 1990s and the land combat-centric days of the War on Terror. The S-3B Vikings left their ASW role behind and performed mission tanking duties for F/A-18s before being prematurely retired, many with almost 10,000 flying hours left in them.  

In the 2010s, a new generation of ASW aircraft was flying. The P-8A Poseidon replaced the P-3C Orion and the MH-60R replaced the SH-60B and SH-60F. As witnessed during multiple ASW exercises, the combination of P-8As and MH-60Rs is nearly unstoppable. However, there is a clear capability gap at the strike group level. As a theater asset, the P-8s are limited in number, and fly missions across the fleet. The MH-60R has tremendous capability, but a limited range. It is not designed for area searching, but localizing a contact or conducting datum searches.

Full Spectrum ASW’s 9th thread is, “defeat the submarine in close battle.” With modern ASCMs and over-the-horizon targeting, the close battle is at least 200 nm from the strike group. The strike group must rely on the theater ASW commander to prosecute any modern submarines. While the strike group is important for the TASW commander to protect, TASW has a limited number of available submarines and P-8s and a multitude of submarines to prosecute. An organic aircraft capable of long-range ASW would enable the strike group commander to defend a larger strike group operating area, freeing TASW assets for threads 5 (Defeat submarines in choke points), 6 (Defeat submarines in open ocean), and 7 (Draw the enemy into ASW “kill boxes”).

Today, the CSG is composed of an aircraft carrier and three to five escorting cruisers or destroyers, which is half the ships of a Cold War-era Carrier Battle Group, and an air wing. The main organic ASW aircraft are MH-60Rs, helicopters with outstanding capabilities, but limited range. There are no organic ASW aircraft in the carrier air wing capable of searching, localizing, tracking, and engaging submarines beyond the submarine’s WEZ.  

MH-60Rs were not designed for area ASW searches and lack the endurance to search 200 nm from their ship. E-2 and EA-18G aircraft support the ASW fight with their capable radar and electronic warfare suites when the submarine is surfaced, or utilizing a periscope or radar. F-18s, C-2s, and MH-60Ss support primarily through visual search for submarines as they fly around the carrier. But searching for submarines visually or when surfaced are hardly ideal tactics.

Reducing the inner screen in order to get a ship out far enough to conduct a search in the outer zone is incredibly risky. A compelling solution is to establish an unmanned sea control squadron (VUS) squadron. These squadrons would provide Sea Combat Commanders with a dedicated medium-range ASW aircraft that would allow commanders to detect, classify, track, target, and engage submarines outside their WEZ. Everything the aircraft needs already exists. Equip a carrier-capable UAV with Forward Looking Infrared cameras (FLIR), AN/APS 153 radar, and ALQ-210 Electronic Support Measures systems from the MH-60R, LINK-16, active, passive, and Multi-Static Active Coherent (MAC) sonar buoys, and arm it with Mk 54 torpedoes and air-launched ASCMs.

This capable aircraft would directly support the Carrier Strike Group and enable it to engage submarines outside their WEZ. The technology exists. In order to protect the carrier today, the Navy needs to continue to close the gaps.

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has served aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and as operations officer of a destroyer squadron. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.


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Featured Image: An S-3 Viking and A-6 Intruder from the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) fly over a Soviet Foxtrot class diesel submarine. (U.S. Navy photo)

Increasing the Lethality of the Surface Force: A Conversation with RDML Scott Robertson

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss the growth and evolution of the U.S. Surface Navy’s lethality with Rear Admiral Scott Robertson, commander of the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). In this discussion RDML Robertson discusses the cutting edge of Surface Navy training and tactical development, and how SMWDC is planning to take its efforts to the next level.

Much of SMWDC’s effort is geared toward being a learning organization, whether through experimenting with tactics, training WTIs, and digesting technical data gathered from exercises. Going across your various lines of effort, what exactly is being learned and taught by SMWDC?

The center of gravity for SMWDC is our Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTI) produced through our WTI courses of instruction. We have four different specialty strands to meet Fleet needs and each one has differing lengths. All WTI strands focus on warfare theory, deep understanding of surface warfare Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP), study of adversary capabilities and limitations, standardized instructional techniques, and then repetitive application of knowledge in complex scenarios.

SMWDC’s premier contribution to tactical training is Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercises held for ships in the advanced phase contained within the OFRP cycle. A SWATT has both in-port academics instruction and underway training exercises to teach TTPs through scenarios of increasing complexity. During a SWATT, the SMWDC team collects performance data related to metrics, developed and associated with surface warfare TTPs. This data collection allows us to do a number of things. First, it gives quantitative feedback to the ship crews so they can learn from the at-sea exercises and execute TTPs with increased speed and accuracy. Secondly, it gives SMWDC a better measure of the fleet’s overall increase in lethality and unveils areas that need focus or improvement. Lastly, SWATT can isolate and assess gaps in individual, watchteam, and unit-level training that exist and need to be filled to maximize our ship’s warfighting potential.

SWATT, among other underway exercises, allows us to further TTPs in two additional ways. First, it gives us the opportunity to validate, or affirm, that our TTPs work and identify what adjustments need to be made based on our application in a controlled environment. Secondly, it provides the opportunity to work TTP development and experimentation to ensure we can deliver the right TTPs, at the right time, as new systems and capability are delivered to the Fleet, as well as changes to employment methodologies required to keep adversaries at risk.

Rear Admiral Scott F. Robertson (U.S. Navy photo)

We’ve leveraged real-world events to dissect the situation and examine TTPs executed, including weapons system performance and watchstander actions to identify where expectations did or did not meet reality in response to operational commanders’ requests. This has allowed us to tailor our TTP development and training of our WTI cadre in the pertinent WTI COI.

With the release of the National Defense Strategy, great power competition has become the primary focus of the Department of Defense after years of focusing on rogue states and counterinsurgency. What does a return to great power competition mean for SMWDC, and how do you operationalize this guidance and tailor your efforts?

The nature of SMWDC’s establishment and identified lines of operation in our codified Missions, Functions, and Tasks (MF&T) is a measure the Navy as a whole has taken to “operationalize” and act upon the higher-level national security guidance. Therefore, the answer is simple: carry out our assigned duties in our MF&T and continue to learn and build upon our execution as described earlier.

The return to great power competition also means that we have to conduct all of our training (both for WTIs and SWATT) at a level that closely represents or even exceeds the anticipated environment (volume and multi-domain warfare-wise) our ships will need to operate in should a conflict with a great power adversary occur.

A major function of SMWDC is integrating tactical development across the surface warfare enterprise, and ensuring cross-cutting conversations are happening between various entities. How is this integration an improvement from the past, and especially with communicating across communities to their own Warfighting Development Centers?

Before the development of SMWDC (and the greater WDC concept) we had Warfare Centers of Excellence that were separated into entities based on warfare areas (i.e. surface, subsurface, missile defense) rather than tied to an entire naval community (i.e. aviation, surface, subsurface, information warfare, expeditionary warfare). From a Surface Navy perspective, the stovepiping of efforts hindered alignment and cross-warfare area TTP development. Furthermore, the previous WCOEs were charged with conducting work on the intellectual side (TTP development and validation) but not so much on the training and operational side (i.e. the equivalent of a SWATT exercise). Now that all surface warfare areas are combined under one command, we can easily govern cross-warfare area TTP development while providing advanced tactical training to the fleet. The current WDC construct truly enables better alignment and supports increased integration across communities; there are more and more connection points between the WDCs and Naval Warfare Development Command.

How has SMWDC and the WTI program influenced the career continuum for SWOs?

There are three ideal entry points into the WTI training pipeline (not in order of preference), namely between one’s first and second division officer tour (advanced warfighter program), after one’s division officer tours during their shore duty, or after one’s department head tours during shore duty.

All of these entry points are congruent with the current SWO career continuum model such that they do not interfere with the sea/shore tour lengths or milestone goals such as starting Department Head School by the 7.5 year mark. The program is still in the development stages. However, we’re beginning to see our first waves of command-eligible SWO WTIs go before selection boards and have initially high screening rates for patch wearers. Bottom line, the surface warfare community values our WTIs and it shows in milestone selection figures.

One of the founding visions has been the idea of having a Fleet full of patch wearers manning our ships at the Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and Department Head levels. The overall increase in the tactical proficiency and thus lethality of our ships will be impressive and measurable. We are well on our way.

What is the envisioned working relationship between SMWDC and the newly formed Surface Development Squadron?

SMWDC will work with SURFDEVRON to leverage opportunities to develop TTPs and conduct experimentation in conjunction with the DDG-1000-class to shape our understanding on how we can optimize the capabilities this platform brings to the fight. SURFDEVRON is also SMWDC’s gateway to developing the needed TTPs to integrate with coming unmanned assets.

The SMWDC-led series of Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercises are pushing the surface fleet further out from its comfort zone. How are you looking to enhance and expand these exercises?

As we develop capabilities to combat emerging threats, we will expand SWATT schedules of events to ensure we’re flexing said developed capabilities to give our operators a chance to see the capabilities in action and build a level of comfort employing their weapon systems. In the near term, we will be elevating our exercise complexity and be working to induce more failure to stretch ship crews. We envision incorporating unmanned systems and presenting training targets across different domains that mimic profiles that replicate the most stressing threats. SMWDC is also looking to add more offensive-based exercises vice the traditional heavier bias toward the defensive. Lastly, we also know that Live, Virtual, Constructive (VLC) training is a must for inclusion in our future SWATTs to truly train at the high-end.

Rear Adm. Robertson assumed the duties as commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Command, in May 2019. Robertson has served in a highly diverse range of assignments and participated in many campaigns and operations. His sea tours include: 1st division officer onboard USS George Washington (CVN 73); fire control officer onboard USS Normandy (CG 60); weapons/combat systems officer onboard USS Port Royal (CG 73); engineering auxiliaries officer on USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74); and executive officer on USS Gettysburg (CG 64). Robertson commanded USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG 60) during a seven-month counter-narcotics deployment; he also commanded and deployed with USS Normandy (CG 60), the first Aegis Baseline 9 warship with Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air capability. Additionally, he served as Air and Missile defense commander for the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. Robertson’s shore assignments include Aegis Training and Readiness Center (ATRC) as course supervisor and lead instructor for the Force Air Defense Warfare Commanders Course; Joint Staff, J-8 Directorate as the resources and acquisition manager; and commanding officer of Surface Warfare Officers Schools (SWOS) Command. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (March 14, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85), the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69), and the amphibious transport dock ship USS Green Bay (LPD 20) maneuver while operating in the Philippine Sea. U.S. Navy warships train together to increase the tactical proficiency, lethality, and interoperability of participating units in an Era of Great Power Competition. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Harris/Released)

Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy, Pt. 1

CIMSEC mourns the passing of renowned thinker on naval tactics and strategy Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., who passed away peacefully on December 3, 2019. Author of the classic work Fleet Tactics and longtime researcher and faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School, Capt. Hughes made extraordinary contributions to naval discourse. Below is one such contribution. 

The following piece originally featured in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished here in two parts. Read it in its original form here.

By Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., U.S. Navy, (ret.)

A viewpoint almost taken for granted among Defense officials is that national policy determines military strategy, which in turn deter­mines the quantities and allocations of forces. Let me offer a contrasting position:

“What actually halts the aggressor’s action is the fear of defeat by the defender’s forces, [even though] he is not likely to concede this, at least not openly.

“One may admit that even where the decision has been bloodless, it was determined in the last analysis by engagements that did not take place but had merely been offered . . . where the tactical results of the engagement are assumed to be the basis of all strategic plans, it is always possible, and a serious risk, that the attacker will proceed on that basis. He will endeavor above all to be tactically superior, in order to upset the enemy’s strategic planning. The latter [strategic planning] therefore, can never be considered as something independent: it can only become valid when one has reason to be confident of tactical success . . . it is useful to emphasize that all strategic planning rests on tactical success alone, and that – whether the solution is arrived at in battle or not – this is in all cases the actual fundamental basis for the decision. Only when one has no need to fear the outcome – because of the enemy’s character or situation or because the two armies are unevenly matched physically and psychologically or indeed because one’s own side is the stronger – only then can one expect results from strategic combinations alone.”

I have been quoting Clausewitz, of course. We should remember that Clausewitz dealt with ground warfare. The passage above is found in Clausewitz’ discussion of defense, which he and other analysts believe is the stronger tactical posture on land. As will be seen, I hold that the tactical nature of ground war often differs from sea war. Specifically, there has been no corresponding tactical advantage for the defense in naval combat. Nevertheless, in this instance I am happy to take Clausewitz as my text, and assert that what he thought to be the link between tactics and strategy on the ground applies even more strongly at sea, if that is possible.

The reason that a discussion of tactics is appropriate when discussing contemporary strategy is that strategy must rest on the rock of combat capability. One builds decisions from the bottom up: tactics affect the efficacy of forces; the correlation of forces reveals what strategy our forces can support, and a supportable military strategy governs national aims and ambitions.

This is the opposite of the Secretary of Defense’s “Defense Guidance,” which starts with national goals and policies, which in due course defines strategy, and which takes largely for granted that existing forces will be able to execute it. The top-down approach is proper for deriving force requirements to guide procurement policies, but force requirements – if they exceed existing force levels – can only be built in the future. If one is concerned with present strategy, he must know current capabilities and design his strategy accordingly. If the forces are inadequate, then a strategy which is part bluff may be necessary, but it is important for everyone to understand that the strategy is in fact not executable, so that the part which is bluff does not become forgotten and lead to self-delusion. As a case in point, many will remember the 2 1/2 war strategy that lingered on long after it was beyond our capabilities.

Firepower, scouting, and c2 are the three elements of naval force – the means – and attrition is the great end. In the back­ground I can hear Peggy Lee singing her song, “Is That All There Is?” Yes, I think that is all.

Of course, the design of a current maritime strategy is not really so simple that it can be built from the bottom up. The process is dialectical, with policy and strategy goals juxtaposed against combat capabilities. But current strategy, I insist, must rest on a foundation of realistic force comparisons.

Perhaps the sense of urgency about tactical considerations will be made more real by starting with this: It is demonstrable both by history and theory that not only has a small net advantage in force (not the same as forces) often been decisive in naval battles, but the slightly inferior force tends to lose with very little to show in the way of damage and destruction to the enemy.

At sea, there has been no counterpart to prepared positions and the effects of terrain, nor any thing corresponding to the rule-of-thumb, 3-to-1 attacker-to-defender ratio. There are no mountains nor swamps to guard flanks, no rivers to cross or defend, and no high ground. A fleet tactical commander keeps no force in reserve and all his energy is devoted to attacking the enemy effectively before the enemy can attack him. At sea, offense dominates in a way foreign to ground commanders. When a tactical commander is not competitive he had better stand clear; because, as I said, he will have little to show for the loss of his force.

In peacetime, every strategist must know the true combat worth of his navy, as compared to the enemy, or he risks deep humiliation with or without bloodshed. That above all was the tactical lesson for Argentina in the Falklands, which found its navy outclassed by the Royal Navy. In wartime, every strategist must know the relative fighting value of his navy – so carefully nurtured and expensive to build and maintain in peacetime. When committed in battle, the heart of a fleet can be cut out in an afternoon.

Three Tactics-Strategy Interrelationships

The fighting power of forces available determines strategic combinations. This does little to explain why tacticians emphasize not only forces as orders of battle but also the very tactics of those forces as elements of sound strategy. The answer lies in the distinction between forces and force – the difference between an order of battle and fighting power at a scene of action against a specific enemy, or what Russian military scientists call the correlation of forces and means. Here are three examples of how tactics and strategy are interrelated. The first example is in the realm of force planning, the Washington arena. The second deals with naval operations, the battle arena. The third illustrates the danger when either the strategist or the tactician lays his plans without due regard for the risks he may thoughtlessly impose on his counterpart.

First, in the U.S. and Nato studies of the military reinforcement and resupply of Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s, classical convoy tactics were used. The escorts formed a ring around the merchant ships. But the ASW screens so configured could not prevent the penetration of many torpedo­ firing submarines. The Navy’s strategists drew the conclusion that we should buy more ASW protection. Other strategists who toted up the Navy’s hardware bill said there must be a better strategy, better meaning less expensive. One solution was to preposition Army divisional combat equipment in Europe and then fly the troops over to marry up with it. No one questioned the soundness of the convoy tactics on which the gloomy losses were based until the early 1970s. Then some work being done concurrently by the Center for Naval Analyses and a small Nato study group at SacLant concluded that if you opened out the merchant ship formation and embedded the protection inside the convoys, the losses to merchant ships would be reduced by a factor of two or three.

These same studies of the tactical details of the convoy engagements revealed that the submarines ought to be able to find enough targets to unload all of their torpedoes on every patrol, unlike the experience of World War II when the average U-boat fired less than one-sixth of its torpedoes on a patrol. The number of torpedoes carried to sea, therefore, became a number of extreme importance. When the fact was appreciated, a more careful look was taken at the torpedo load of enemy submarines and it was decided that we had probably overestimated it, and in so doing overestimated the damage the subs could do over their lifetimes.

With the estimates of probable losses of merchant ships reduced dramatically, did convoying reenter as the preferred strategy? Not exactly, because there were too many other considerations – political, budgetary, and strategic, affecting the decision. The present attitude toward the desirability of convoying is, in some circumstances yes, in others no. Here the interrelationship with strategy enters the picture. If the maritime strategy described by Robert Wood and John Hanley in the previous issue of this journal is executable, then that will have a powerful and positive effect to reduce the need for convoying. If we are surprised as the allies were in World Wars I and II, then the strategist has some assurance that the tactics are in hand to convoy the most vital shipping – if we must.

Secondly, let us next consider a radically different example of the integration of strategy and tactics that shows up at the interface between land and sea, in what felicitously has been called “littoral warfare.” Navies are built and supported in order to influence events on land. It is almost impossible to find an instance of two fleets going out to fight like boxers in a ring – may the best ships win, to the victor goes the spoils and command of the sea. Seldom has the inferior fleet failed to appreciate its inferiority, and so it has been only some matter of gravest consequence which drew the weaker fleet to sea, usually to its doom and with little harm to the stronger.

One of the tactical implications is that the larger fleet in case after case has been burdened with the forbidden sin of split objectives. Look at the 1942-45 Pacific War. Japan or the United States, whichever was superior and on the offensive, almost always entered into battle with prioritized but nevertheless dual missions – to shield the movement of some vital force and to destroy the enemy fleet. The whole Pacific strategy-tactics interface can be studied and understood in that context. The maxim that a fleet should first gain control of the sea before risking an amphibious assault turned out to be impossible to follow, because without the overwhelming strategic consequences of invasion the smaller fleet would not fight. Now look at the sea battles in World War I, in particular those in the North Sea. In this case the battles came about by some subterfuge, a strategic entrapment –the British hoping to lure the High Seas Fleet into a death trap and the Germans hoping to snare some detachments of the Royal Navy, and whittle it down to equality. Since neither Britain nor Germany had a strategic motivation to come to battle at a disadvantage and since Scheer knew his fleet was decisively inferior, there was never a fight to the finish as strategists anticipated before the war. The German High Seas Fleet ended its days not with a bang but a whimper.

As the range of weapons and sensors increased, so did the direct, tactical interaction between land-based and sea-based forces. In my opinion there is no finer example than the Solomons Campaign of 1942-43 of ground, sea, and air forces all acting in concert, not coincidentally or serendipitously, but necessarily and vitally. A subject worthy of more study is the way these interactions on a wider, deeper battlefield will carry over into the realm of strategy and policy. Land-based aircraft and missiles already reach well out to sea. Sea-based aircraft have had an influence that is well known, and now missiles from the sea will also play a role. One of the tactical lessons of the Solomons is this: We do not plan to put the Marine Brigade into northern Norway merely to hold the land flank, but also to hold the maritime flank. The Marines and their accompanying airpower would fight from a vital piece of real estate that will support operations at sea as well as on the ground. It is hard to find a more apt example of littoral warfare in the making.

Thirdly, as an example, let us look at the Mediterranean, and ponder the problem of the Sixth Fleet Commander. He is very conscious of the need to attack effectively first, but he knows American policy is unlikely to give him the freedom to do so. He also knows that policy has often required a forward, and exposed presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. His survival at the onset of war rests on two hopes to offset these two liabilities. The first is that he will be given the freedom of movement in sufficient time to take a geographical position that will make a major attack on him difficult. The second is that his Rules of Engagement will allow him to act with measured force when certain circumstances demand it. Since the steps he must take are in the nature of denying the enemy tracking and targeting information – “antiscouting,” a term I will define later – in my opinion both the location he must take and the actions he must be authorized ought to be tolerable at the policy level. Whether the modus vivendi now in effect is satisfactory both as to tactics (battlefield risks) and to strategy (political risks) I do not know. But it is important to see the conflict between the statesman’s political objectives and the naval commander’s tactical risks in a crisis. The tactician at the scene understands the primacy of diplomatic and political objectives. But an optimum political stance, such as a highly visible naval presence, can require a disastrous battlefield posture. The tactician and strategist both need agreement that to contain a crisis, the nation must be able to win twice, both politically and on the field of battle. 

In days gone by my solution to the Sixth Fleet’s tactical problem was to head west. To solve the strategist’s problem of the embarrassment of retreating in the midst of crisis, my strategists were to make clear well in advance of any crisis that when the fleet withdrew, that was not appeasement but a final war warning, the naval equivalent of mobilizing the reserves. I think now my solution was too pat. But if heading west is not the answer, then the strategist must collaborate with the tactician to find it. The tactical imperative at sea is to attack effectively before the enemy does so. This is simply too compelling a consideration for the strategist to wish away.

Captain Hughes is on the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School, writes widely on maritime and national security affairs, and is author of Fleet Tactics, soon to be published-by the Naval Institute Press.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 27, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russel (DDG 59) and the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transit the Eastern Pacific Ocean Nov. 27, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew F. Jackson)