Category Archives: Tactics

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)

Operationalizing Distributed Maritime Operations

Distributed Maritime Operations Topic Week

By Kevin Eyer and Steve McJessy

Origins and Implications

While the concept of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) may represent the major, new thrust in the Navy’s warfighting thought, it does not arrive out of a vacuum. In order to fully understand both the concept and implications of DMO, it is essential to first understand the seminal documents and thoughts out of which it grew.

The kernel ideas as to what DMO might one day become has existed in Navy circles for some time, and these have grown organically along with certain elemental technological steps. The first of these steps began with the advent of a significant Soviet threat arising with the fielding of a major anti-ship cruise missiles capability in the late 1950s. In response, the Navy undertook two significant programs; a shift in defensive primacy from guns to missiles, and; the development of Tactical Data Links (TDL). Missiles provided the necessary speed and reach, and “TADILs” were designed to share each connected unit’s radar picture among all TADIL capable units in the local force. For the first time forces were knit together by more than flashing light, signal flag, and radio communications.

The second major event was the development of the Aegis Combat System (ACS), which began in the mid-1960s and came to fruition in the late 1970s. It is generally understood that with the advent of the ACS, ships achieved a near full integration of the disparate, elemental combat systems in those ships. Everything in an Aegis ship’s combat systems was suddenly able to work together, synergistically.

The last step necessary in moving from non-integration at any level to full integration of a force occurred with the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), which came out of “the black” in the early 1990s. In a nutshell, CEC operates in a fundamentally different manner than do classic data links. Unlike TDLs, rather than sharing only highly processed symbology in a time-late and low granularity manner, CEC shares raw sensor data directly off a sensor’s buffers, unprocessed, and with such speed and volume that it appears to each every participating unit as if any netted sensor is an actual element of every other unit’s own Combat Management System (CMS). With CEC, an identical, real time, fire-control quality picture of the surrounding battlespace is resolved in every connected unit. Before CEC, an Aegis ship could only engage a threat once that threat was detected by its own radar. With CEC however, if another ship or aircraft detects a threat, any ship in the CEC network can potentially engage that threat because it appears to that ship’s CMS that, “their radar is my radar.” At last not only were Aegis units in a local force internally integrated into a coherent whole, but the entire force was capable of behaving as a single, fully integrated CMS.

But the potential of CEC was much bigger. (Then) Rear Admiral Rodney P. Rempt, Director of Theater Air and Missile Defense on the Navy Staff, saw a more sophisticated future still. A future in which the Navy’s tactical grid would one day be understood as, simply put, an agnostic network of weapons and sensors, controllable by any number of nodes, and without regard to where those weapons or sensors or controlling nodes might be deployed or even in which unit they existed. In the future, if an inbound threat were to be detected, this agnostic, dispersed grid would determine which sensor(s) would be most appropriate, and then, when necessary, the system would pair the most capable and best located weapon with that sensor(s) in order to efficiently engage the threat.

Imagine a hypersonic threat launched from a threat nation. In this agnostic grid, the launch is detected by multiple, mutually reinforcing methods, including satellites of various types and capabilities, as well as by other systems, including for example, intelligence networks. Immediately, other sensors are cued and brought to bear. The mode of a theater AN/TPY2 radar is automatically changed to maximize its tracking capability. As more sensors are automatically brought to bear, a precise track, including origin and aim-point is generated. At the same time, decisions are made at the strategic and operational levels; decisions dramatically aided by the application of artificial intelligence: Is the threat real? What asset(s) is under threat? What hard and soft-kill techniques and systems are best employed? What systems are both in position and possess the capability and capacity necessary for engagement? What is the optimal engagement timeline? What additional sensors should be brought to bear, and when? Jamming? Chaff?  Decoys? From whom and when?  Who shoots? When do they shoot? What ordnance do they shoot?  How many rounds?  Orders are automatically issued to concerned units, yet the entire network, including other decision nodes remain fully cognizant of the larger picture. The system has built in redundancies so that if one node is destroyed, another automatically and seamlessly steps in. And, all of these decisions can be automated, if desired, in order to maximize speed and the optimal response, provided that commanders allow for that automation. Ultimately, only the necessary and best systems are matched to the threat, at only the right time, maximizing effect and minimizing the waste of limited resources. The most effective and efficient method of engagement becomes routine.

So, in fact, if one understands this networked grid of sensors, weapons and controlling nodes, whether at the tactical, operational, strategic or joint levels, then one begins to grasp both the operationalized reality of DMO, and many of the steps necessary in making DMO a reality.

Early, proto-progress has already been made in this direction. For example, Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA), enabled by CEC, allows ships to engage air threats located far over the shooter’s radar horizon. CEC also enables the “Engage-on-Remote capability which allows one unit to launch defensive missiles against a threat prior to detection of the threat with that ships own sensors. Also, in-flight retargeting allows dispersed units to contribute to an in-progress kill chain ensuring that the data remains as current as is possible. Still, there has been less incentive, post-Cold War, than might have otherwise been expected in a Naval Surface Force determined to lead in this arena. As the primary mission of the Navy shifted away from sea control and into power projection, directed against less sophisticated challengers, the need to operationalize this vision was far less dire. Moreover, in a resource constrained environment, leaps forward were forestalled. For some time, other needs and priorities took precedent.

The Motivation to Leap Forward

In January 2016, Admiral John M. Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) released a document entitled, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. This paper discussed the necessity of a return to a larger strategy of Sea Control, following a lengthy, post-Cold War, period in which no blue-water challenger presented, and during which “Power Projection” was the Navy’s primary strategic approach. Moreover, this document set the table for the Navy’s return to “Great Power Competition,” sighting China and Russia as primary threats to U.S. and global interests. Perhaps most importantly, while DMO per se, was not mentioned, the CNO created a context in which DMO became the only viable solution: “We will not be able to ‘buy’ our way out of the challenges that we face. The budget environment will force tough choices but must also inspire new thinking.” The implications of this phrase were, and are, of enormous significance and these are only now coming more fully into the light.

In January, 2017, Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, responded to the challenge posed by the CNO’s, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority with his Surface Force Strategy, Return to Sea Control. This document discussed an approach which it called “Distributed Lethality.” Distributed Lethality or “DL” may perhaps be best understood in the context of the catchphrase: “If it floats, it fights.” DL was intended as an operational and organizational principle, which will ultimately ensure that U.S. sea control will be reasserted and then sustained, despite a persistent decline in overall fleet size. DL was aimed to reinforce initiatives intended to drive collaboration and integration across warfighting domains; synergies, out of which the sum would exceed the parts. More specifically, and from a programmatic point of view, DL required an increase in the offensive and defensive capability and capacity of surface forces, now and in the future.

The 2017 Surface Force Strategy describes Distributed Lethality as being composed of three tenants:

  • “Increase the lethality of all warships”: There is a clear tension between the undiminished, if not growing, mission sets assigned to surface ships, especially in light of the geographic demands associated with a return to Sea Control, and the total number of ships available. Moreover, in light of the collisions experienced in the summer of 2017, a lack of sufficient time and funding for maintenance was observed. Correction of this issue will inevitably result in fewer ships available at any given time as maintenance shortfalls are corrected.

Back to the tag-line, “if it floats, it fights,” this should be considered to represent the realized necessity that cruisers, destroyers, and frigates cannot be endlessly tied to High Value Units (HVU) whether those are amphibious ships or permanently constituted Carrier Strike Groups (CSG). Those ships must also have an ability to defend themselves, of course, but also a capability to strike hard in order to contribute to the larger mission of sea control. This suggests a compelling need to “upgun” these platforms, making them dramatically more capable both defensively and offensively.

  • “Distribute offensive capability geographically”: This speaks to a wider dispersion of ships, in order to hold an enemy at risk from multiple attack axes, and force that enemy to defend an increased number of vulnerabilities, created by that dispersion. This point suggests what will become clear later, and that is the disaggregation of forces, which is part and parcel of DMO. So, in a genuine DMO environment, amphibious ships and aircraft carriers may be required to operate independently for periods of time.

In 2018, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (CSG), demonstrated a new concept called, “Dynamic Force Employment (DFE).” The strike group was the first to venture north of the Arctic Circle in nearly three decades, spending significant time patrolling the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. Fundamentally, DFE speaks to deploying Navy forces in a much more diverse set of environments than those which have become common since the close of the Cold War. In the case of East Coast CSGs, standard deployments have featured passage through the Mediterranean to launch air strikes on Middle East targets from either U.S. 6th Fleet or U.S. 5th Fleet waters. According to the CNO, “…we don’t have to go too far back to sort of recapture what it means to be moving around the world as a strike group or an individual deployer and really kind of making everybody guess, hey where’s this team going to show up next? What are they going to bring to us next?”  In short, there are tremendous incentives to spread the available force, for a variety of reasons, and this will require making each unit more capable of operating independently.

  • “Give ships the right mix of resources to persist in a fight.” This point talks to an increase of defensive capability in ships, not only against kinetic threats, but also cyber and electronic warfare. Every ship must be a shooter and also every ship’s sensors must contribute to the larger network. Now all units become integrated, not only internally, but within the larger network, providing geometric synergies. In order to do this, it is essential that ships are able to send and received large amounts of timely and secure data as required, even when under cyber and electronic attack.

What is not discussed directly, but what must be appreciated, is the point that DMO is the necessary connective tissue, which must be built in order to stitch these up-gunned, widely dispersed ships together into a coherent whole.

In December 2018, the CNO released, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0.  According to the CNO, this update more clearly aligned with both the latest National Security Strategy (NSS), released December 2017 and the supporting National Defense Strategy (NDS) of January 2018. While a new National Military Strategy (NMS) will follow, it is plain that these documents orient national security objectives more firmly toward great power competition with China and Russia.

It was here, in this document, that DMO made its first official, public appearance. The CNO called to “Continue to mature the Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept and key supporting concepts. Design the Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 2020 to test the effectiveness of DMO. LSE 2020 must include a plan to incorporate feedback and advance concepts in follow-on wargames, experiments, and exercises, and demonstrate significant advances in subsequent LSE events.”

Further, the Navy was tasked to: “Design and implement a comprehensive operational architecture to support DMO. This architecture will provide accurate, timely, and analyzed information to units, warfighting groups, and fleets. The architecture will include:

  • A tactical grid to connect distributed nodes.
  • Data storage, processing power, and technology stacks at the nodes.
  • An overarching data strategy.
  • Analytic tools such as artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and services that support fast, sound decisions.

Not only will DMO aid in the attack, but it will be critical in the defense. DMO will stretch an adversary’s ISR capabilities as wider areas much be searched to find “Blue” forces. Perhaps more important, widely dispersed forces will hurt “Red’s” ability to mass fires on Blue as their forces much also be more dispersed (though not linked in the same way that is possible in a full instantiation of DMO).

In other words, the time has arrived to define and build DMO. As to exactly how DMO will look and be employed, it is evident that the jury is still, very much, out. Not only is DMO the ultimate fruit of years of thought and effort, but it has become a necessity: Fleet size is not increasing, while demand for ships remains unabated. Sea Control requires a larger fleet – and if not a larger fleet, then new ways of thinking and fighting. DMO is the leading edge of this need.

Setting a New Table in the Fleet

With regard to the actual warfighting side of all of this, activity has been initiated. In February 2018, Admiral Scott Swift wrote a series of articles for Proceedings Magazine. In order to understand the possible Concept of Operations (CONOPS), which will be rendered possible by DMO, it is essential to read Admiral Swift’s essays. He describes a tactical grid, overseen by an operational/fleet-level Maritime Operations Center (MOC) which is charged by a Joint Forces Command (JFC) to implement various “effects,” in different campaigns (for example logistic, anti-submarine, amphibious) across time and space in order to achieve strategic goals.

This is a CONOPS which moves the conduct of warfare to a higher, more broadly-seeing level, above the long-standing primacy of the Carrier Strike Group. Further, it seems plain that in order to successfully carry out these campaign effects it will be necessary to disaggregate the once sacrosanct Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs). For example, a threat submarine is detected in the vicinity of a key logistics asset. The Theater Anti-Submarine Warfare Commander (TASWC) is tasked by the MOC to destroy the threat. In order to execute this task, the TASWC may have to draw a destroyer from a CSG, not only owing to proximity, but in order to bring that ship’s sensors and weapons, including helicopters, to bear on the target. Once the threat is passed, the destroyer returns to the CSG. In short, a general paucity of assets in any high-end fight, in any theater can only be addressed by the precise delivering of only the exact right force to the exact right place at the exact right time.

The point is that the big picture, regarding these campaigns and the respective effects associated with each campaign, resides up the chain-of-command. This picture, which is essential in operationalizing DMO, includes data of all sorts and not simply sensor data. Certainly, the issues associated with classified data being shared, system-to-system and unit-to-unit must be addressed, and this will necessarily be a major factor, requiring understanding and solution as the system evolves. However, while the current flow of data – and the ability to process that data – is directed to the top, this creates a potentially single point of failure. This speaks to a need in future instantiations of DMO to render the system “node-less,” by which is meant that more than one command is potentially capable of running the show. If the MOC is destroyed, the system will require that another command; another shore command or a CVN or a cruiser can seamlessly take over; this is the promise of Artificial Intelligence, more fully realized.

However, even if the desire to achieve DMO exists at all levels, a certain force level will be necessary in order to operationalize the concept. The question is, will that force exist? Currently, the Surface Force has specific numeric requirements for both Large Surface Combatants (LSC) and Small Surface Combatants (SSC). Whether these numbers are attainable is in doubt. Whether fleet size will continue to decline or whether the LCS class is a meaningful element in the DMO construct are, at this point, unknown. The Navy’s number one priority is building the Columbia class, and this means that in order to accomplish this effort sacrifices in other build programs, including the Surface Force, may be necessary.

A glimpse at what may be the Surface Force’s intention regarding the address of both raw ship numbers and the requirements of DMO’s operationalization, may have been on display at the 2019 Surface Navy Symposium, in Washington DC. The Navy may be arriving at the cusp of a true revolution in the shape of the Surface Force. In addition to the SSC and LSC types, which may be thought of as “classic” warships, what was freely discussed was the Surface Forces intention to embark upon the construction of an entirely new universe of Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV), both large and medium in size. It is these platforms; the medium being primarily a weapons carrier and the medium being primarily a sensor platform, which may light the way to an actually dispersed force of weapons and sensors – achieved within a sustainable budget. These USVs will be substantially less expensive than fully manned, multi-mission ships, and they will be the essential population necessary to actualize the distributed grid of sensors and weapons which will enable DMO.

It is also important to consider that even as fleet size remains problematic, the advent of new systems provide a key opportunity, which can be geometrically capitalized upon through DMO. According to Dmitry Filipoff of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC):

 “The Navy’s firepower is about to experience a serious transformation in only a few short years. Comparing firepower through a strike mile metric (warhead weight [pounds/1,000] × range in nautical miles × number of payloads equipped) reveals that putting LRASM into 15 percent of the surface fleet’s launch cells will increase its anti-ship firepower almost twentyfold over what it has today with Harpoon. New anti-ship missiles will cause the submarine community and heavy bomber force to also experience historic transformations in offensive firepower. The widespread introduction of these new weapons will present the U.S. Navy with one of the most important force development missions in its history. This dramatic increase in offensive firepower across such a broad swath of untapped force structure will put the Navy on the cusp of a sweeping revolution in tactics unlike anything seen since the birth of the aircraft carrier a century ago. How the Navy configures itself to unlock this opportunity could decide its success in a future war at sea. The Navy needs tacticians now more than ever.”

The Brain of DMO

If one considers that the vision of DMO has been described for some decades; that a requirement for DMO has been forwarded by the CNO; that a detailed thinking process has been undertaken in both the Surface Force and at the Fleet-level, and that budgetary limitations may force fundamental changes in Fleet composition, then the stage is set to begin thinking about the detailed connective tissue necessary to fully operationalize the concept.

First and foremost, in order to be fully realized, it is essential that Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) have nodes which are able to control the widely dispersed forces elemental to the system. All of these units must be stitched together by what may be thought of as a Battle Force Manager (BFM) resident in the many and varied (potential) command nodes. For purposes of security, this capability may be fully instantiated in some nodes, and only operationalized in others, as required. But, more than one unit will have to have full capability in order to guarantee the reliability and flexibility of the overall architecture.

With regard to the specific attributes of a BFM – the element of a command node which makes DMO command possible – the first requirement is the ability to ensure the composition of a single, commonly held and fully integrated picture of the battlespace, encompassing air, surface and subsurface domains, from the seabed to space, a true cross domain picture. Every node in the grid must possess a real-time, fire control quality picture, whether at the tactical or operational level, and this picture must be identical in every way to every other unit’s picture. Without this single, integrated, real-time, fire control quality picture, confidence is diminished and subordinate systems are dramatically sub-optimized.

It should be understood that this required picture of the battlespace currently does not exist. Despite the much touted “Common Operations Picture,” the Strike Group/Force, Maritime Operations Center (MOC) or Joint Force Commander’s (JFC) picture of the surrounding world is only similar to (but not tactically useful to) that of the Strike Group, the MOC or anyone else. One is reminded of a more powerful, Link 11 picture from the past. It may be useful at the operational level of warfare in that it provides broad, situational awareness, but it is completely insufficient to the challenges inherent to DMO.

As for the discrete capabilities resident in a BFM, it requires several:

  • The BFM will monitor connectivity with every unit, on every circuit, automatically correcting issues of connectivity, and without operator intervention.
  • The BFM “knows” in detail the nature of all ordnance and the weapons posture of every unit in the force. Who has what and what is the availability of that ordnance at any given time.
  • Remote Control Capability: The BFM will be able to change the operational parameters of sensors and weapons systems, grid-wide, as appropriate. It also will know the mission, priority, survivability, and material condition of each unit, with regard to fuel and damage.
  • Sensor/Weapons/Target Pairing Algorithms. The BFM will understand which sensor/weapon combinations are best versus any force threat and automatically issue commands to cause those weapons and sensors, no matter where they are located, to work seamlessly together. This will include both hard and soft-kill systems.
  • A system which knows the operational limits of each node, including the weapons/sensor capability and capacity of each node, either manned or unmanned.
  • The BFM will require access to and ability to sort enormous amounts of data, including intelligence, while at the same time aiding the decision makers by funneling only the most salient and correct prompts to the command team.
  • The BFM will include aspects of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in order to ensure that decision-makers are presented only information which aids decisions, and holds other information in check unless called for. Moreover, this AI is the necessary “brain-power” which enables all other aspects of the BFM, and by extension, DMO.

There are “religious” issues in operationalizing a BFM. To a certain extent it means that a commanding officer may have to cede their absolute control of the systems subordinated to them. Moreover, it is not evident whether the Navy or industry fully grasps what will be necessary or of how to get there. What may be necessary in order to get “there” from “here” is a sort of modern-day, “Manhattan Project,” incorporating all of those companies and commands with either a stake in the problem or a critical capability. Otherwise, one may expect a suitable, capable BFM to only arrive in the long-range time-frame, and in balky fits and starts.

The Two Achilles Heels

Regardless, there are vulnerabilities here. Only now is the Navy awakening to the fact that a profound vulnerability exists in its ability to wage the sort of warfare that has been planned and worked toward for decades. Today, it is increasingly understood that Electronic Warfare (EW) is becoming a sort of sand foundation upon which the entire edifice of Navy warfighting capability shakily stands. In this case, EW should be thought of as the effort by which unfettered and complete access to the entire Electromagnetic Spectrum (ES) is ensured, rather than from the small, tactical perspective of Electronic Attack, Warfare Support and Protection.

Curiously, this situation has presented itself primarily as a result of the Navy’s focus upon an explosive growth in C5I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems and Intelligence) capability and capacity. Over time, a remarkable and unique ability to bend all elements of a widely dispersed force of weapons, sensors, and information into a single, integrated, global Combat Management System (CMS) has been developed for and by the U.S. Navy. This CMS enables implementation of the new strategy of DMO: Smart War. The BFM is the unit-level foundation which enables that ability. It will exist in all ships and aircraft, perhaps with different capabilities which can be enabled as necessary, making the entire system fully redundant and durable.

Unfortunately, any sensible adversary will recognize the advantage conferred on the U.S. Navy through an undisturbed access to the ES. In a Post-Arabian Gulf era, it becomes increasingly plain that this uninterrupted and secure flow will be a primary point of attack by any enemy possessing the means to do so. So, while it may be desirable to plan to employ this awesome capability, it also seems plain that in any real fight, full employment will be problematic.

Consequently, the Navy must develop the tactical approaches necessary in order to win in an ES-denied environment: An environment in which connections to higher authorities – any connections – may either be interrupted or severed. A CO is cut off from both leadership and external support for warfighting systems. What to do? Seek and destroy? Wait for a solution from above? Go to port? What about fuel?

Former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift evidently grasped the conflict between a maturing, global CMS and the possible loss of spectrum with the 2017 publication of his “Fighting Orders.” While the content of these fighting orders is classified, the shape of them can be guessed at, and perhaps they offer answers to some of the questions which arise in a “Dark Battle” scenario. Nevertheless, it seems essential that still more intense and critical thought be given to these issues, and now. And of equal import, these tactics should be practiced. Where shall I go? What shall I do?

Second, while this issue is somewhat beyond the specific conceptual scope of the DMO problem, there is an overwhelming need to address problems with the size of the Combat Logistic Force (CLF). This is particularly the case with regard to oilers. A combat ship refuels, in general, once every three days, but this can be stretched provided that increased risk is taken as far as available fuel is concerned. As it currently stands the number of replenishment ships available is a problem, even in a non-distributed environment. The days of the Navy possessing a sufficient numbers of oilers so that one could be attached to each CSG are gone.

What will happen as the fleet is broadly dispersed? Where will the fuel come from? Perhaps more worrisome, how can stealth be expected to be maintained when it must be clear to even the most casual enemy observers that not only are oilers are in terribly short supply, but that they travel directly from one HVU to another. Beyond this, oilers are operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC). Not only are these ships manned by civilians who are in no way obligated to go into war zones, but they are completely defenseless without escorts and where oilers may warrant an escort contingent on par with that of capital ships.  

Opening the Aperture

With distribution comes challenges. Not only in terms of connectivity but in terms of the discrete elements in the tactical grid. Far from either shore-based assets or the air wing resident in the aircraft carrier, one must ask how ships will be able to maintain a picture of the surrounding world beyond the range of their own radar. Any hostile surface ship, for example, more than 20 or so miles away may be undetected and undetectable. Not only does this create vulnerabilities for the single unit, but it severely limits the ability of controlling nodes – at any level – to fully grasp the battlespace. A larger, more complete understanding of the tactical grid is required.

Owing to issues ranging from maintenance to crew availability even ships equipped with two helicopters cannot sustain around-the-clock air operations – far from it. It seems plain that the solution to this must lie in a greatly expanded capability and capacity in terms of ship launched and recovered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). UAVs will serve several primary needs in a DMO environment; sensors, weapons carriers, and communication assets. First, small UAVs with sensors can greatly expand the footprint of dispersed ships. And, if they are long duration, this footprint can be maintained around the clock. A good, early example of this type of UAV is the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle. ScanEagle carries a stabilized electro-optical and/or infrared camera on a lightweight inertial stabilized turret system, and an integrated communications system having a range of over 62 miles (100 km), and it has a flight endurance of over 20 hours. Subsequently, improvements to the original design added the ability to carry Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), infrared cameras, and improved navigation systems.

Second, these UAVs can extend the attack reach of widely dispersed units. Today, the MQ-8B “Firehawk” is capable of carrying hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and, in particular, pods carrying the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided 70 mm (2.75 in) folding-fin rocket. Depending upon the size of the flight deck, ranging from the very small in the case of LCS class ships to the larger flight decks in amphibious ships, like LPD class ships, the variety and capability of UAVs seems limited only by imagination.

Third, is the matter of communications relay, without which the “distributed” part of DMO ceases to exist. As it stands today, Navy communications face a number of vulnerabilities, not the least of which is a reliance on commercial satellite channels. By lowering the connectivity grid from satellite level to long-endurance UAVs, the grid gains a redundancy which could make the difference between fighting the next war, “in the dark,” and fully realizing the potential of DMO.

The same thinking applies to Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV). Based upon the presentations given by the senior officers of the Surface Warfare Community at the 2019 Surface Navy Association (SNA) it seems abundantly clear that a major shift may be in the offing. Not only is the Surface Force activating a squadron aimed at USV experimentation and development, but it is also plain that the Navy intends to move into the USV world in a big way and in the near future. Evidently, these USVs will be divided into two primary classes:  Medium-sized, which will be carriers of ordnance, and small-sized which will be sensor platforms, potentially of great variety.

With regard to the Medium USV, the need is abundantly clear. A modern Navy has the need for many and varied types of weapons, ranging from short-range point defense to ballistic missile interceptors, to anti-submarine weapons to long-range surface and land strike missiles. The number of cells resident in even the largest Vertical Launching System (VLS) is 122. It is easy to envision these weapons being expended quickly in a real shooting war. Will floating magazines help remediate this problem?  Will they potentially be able to host directed energy weapons?

As for the small USVs, what sort of sensors are under consideration? The problem is that modern radars generally emit a very specific signal, and are consequently, easily identifiable. What can be done to protect sensor UAVs from detection and destruction?  If they are only intended to be activated for short periods and then moved, how useful can they be? Or, if they are all passive sensors, what is the nature and utility of these. Regardless, they will have to pass data and this also creates a threat of counter-detection.

Today, not much is yet known about the potential shape or nature of these USVs, but they are coming. Having said that, there are aspects of these USVs which should be of enormous concern and interest. First, what is the likely stay time on station for these units? How will they arrive on station and what sort of mobility will they have? Is it possible for them to move, perhaps hundreds of miles from station-to-station? What power source will they employ?  Potentially, either variety of USV will have significant power needs, which speaks to greater energy production than may be found in modern batteries.

Perhaps more important, and this is especially the case of those USVs which carry sensors, how will detection by enemy forces and subsequent capture or destruction be avoided? How seaworthy? Semi-submersible weapons carriers?  How will they be serviced and how often will that be required? Perhaps more than any element of a DMO instantiation, with the possible exception of a BFM, the nature of these USVs is critical.

In the Long Run

This discussion only touches upon the surface of what could well be called a “plastic” discussion. In the course of operationalizing a viable DMO system and concept, a voyage of discovery will be necessary, and in this, both blind alleys and new approaches will be discovered. What is essential is a clear understanding of what DMO might look like so that a path to a solution can then begin to be envisioned. Further, it is critical that those involved in these discussions put aside their parochial views in favor of achieving and maintaining a critical edge which will ensure American command of the seas for decades to come. It will take much more than directed energy weapons or UAVs or AI to maintain this command. In order to attain this goal, the necessary effort lies in stitching these systems all together into a single, fully integrated Combat Management System, lying far beyond that which is possible today.

Steve McJessy is a Reserve Commander, living in San Diego. He also works in the defense industry supporting Navy programs.

Kevin Eyer is a retired Navy Captain. He served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62). 

These views are presented in a personal capacity.

 Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 8, 2018) The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), left, and the Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH 181), right, sail in formation with 16 other ships from the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) during Keen Sword 2019. Keen Sword 2019 is a joint, bilateral field-training exercise involving U.S. military and JMSDF personnel, designed to increase combat readiness and interoperability of the Japan-U.S. alliance. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters)