Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations.
Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls.
Read Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics.
Read Part 4 on weapons depletion and last-ditch salvo dynamics.
Read Part 5 on salvo patterns and maximizing volume of fire.
By Dmitry Filipoff
A Combined Arms Framework for Massing Fires
The act of massing fires across forces is inherently a function of combined arms. Individual platforms should be understood in the broader context of the mass firing schemes they fit into, and a mass firing scheme should be understood as a composite integration of multiple platform types. These mutually supporting relationships are not just a matter of adding more missiles to increase the volume of fire. Rather, the different platforms are working together to compensate for each other’s tactical weaknesses and pose combined arms threats that are far more lethal than what the different platforms can pose individually.
By organizing force-multiplying relationships, combined arms warfighting also highlights critical dependencies. Combined arms warfighting often means that one platform type must allow its operational options to be circumscribed by the limits of another platform type, if they are to work together. By understanding how different platform types make allowances to fit together for massed fires, operational behavior can become more predictable, including to the adversary. But behavior can also be more predictable to one’s own forces, which can enhance doctrinal cohesion in this form of warfighting where cross-platform fluency and coordination is especially critical.
Modern warfighting can feature concepts of operation that focus on splitting these relationships apart to gain leverage over the adversary. Defeat in detail is often conceived of as small detachments falling prey to enemy forces, but it can also take the form of homogenous force packages falling prey to an adversary that asymmetrically leveraged a platform-specific weakness that could have been mitigated by a combined arms relationship. By understanding the purpose of these relationships, a force can know how to take advantage of their absence.
It is critical to recognize that the individual platform communities can be their own worse enemy when forming these combined arms relationships. The act of instituting or reforming these relationships can stimulate friction between communities because combined arms warfighting sets the stage for compromises in concepts of operation and time-consuming cross-community force development. Historically, combined arms debates have sometimes yielded community “purists” who are resistant to cross-community integration. These purists tend to strongly believe in the self-sufficiency of their own community’s capability, and their proposed combined arms concepts of operation often take the form of assigning spheres of activity to the communities that are operationally complimentary but tactically separate.1
The aforementioned need to circumscribe options according to the limits of a different platform type can cause different communities to view each other as a drag or a nuisance rather than a force multiplier. A naval aviator may be loathe to limit their scope of maneuver so they can provide local sea-skimming air defense and sensory coverage for a much slower warship. A warship may be loathe to delegate release authority for weapons in its deep magazine to an aviator flying above, who may be better able to cue and direct long-range fires. Yet these relationships can be a core operational necessity that must be ironed out in combined force development. The current U.S. Navy construct of having carrier air wings conduct deep strikes while surface warships conduct what amounts to a goal line defense against air and undersea threats is a more divided method of warfighting than a truly integrated combined arms relationship. The fact that genuine integrated training and exercising is a very small fraction of the workup cycle compared to community-specific training is reinforcing this construct.2
The challenge of community purists may be encouraged by the breadth of multi-mission capability that already exists within the individual naval communities, especially in U.S. naval aviation and surface forces. In the absence of such multi-mission capability, the need to join specialized forces into integrated force packages would be more clear. But the multi-mission capability that is organic to these naval communities cannot mitigate many of their fundamental platform weaknesses, or the fundamental need for a revamped combined arms relationship that is geared toward launching and withstanding massed fires.
A framework can be established to help understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various platform types as they relate to massed fires, and understand each platform’s unique contribution to the combined arms team. This framework can shed light on how the overall scheme of massed fires can shift and reorganize when a certain platform type cannot contribute due to operational circumstance or lack of capability. This framework can also be used to understand platform traits in isolation to understand key factors of resilience. Understanding the organic capabilities of an individual type of platform can shed light on that platform’s potential for standalone fires, last-ditch salvos, and the usefulness of homogenous force packages. It can also shed light on how these platforms could be taken advantage of when they are cut off from the broader combined arms team. Understanding these capabilities in isolation offers a glimpse into how much effectiveness may be retained if a distributed force fractures into individual force concentrations and units.
Relevant platform traits include but are not limited to: magazine depth, on-station endurance, organic sensing, reload speed, ability to gain proximity to warship targets, and maneuver speed. Each platform’s set of advantages bolsters an overall mass firing scheme in certain respects, while each platform’s disadvantages may be compensated for by other platforms, and possibly circumscribing their behavior in the process.
Magazine depth is how much volume of fire can be fielded on a single platform. Higher magazine depth allows a platform to preserve force distribution for longer, because it can contribute many rounds of small salvos while still remaining on station. If a platform is isolated or under duress, high magazine depth allows the platform to contribute a substantial volume of fire in standalone or last-ditch salvos. Shallower magazine depth translates into higher frequency of reloads during the duration of a conflict, which disrupts force distribution. Shallow magazine depth also results in last-ditch and standalone salvos featuring small volumes of fire that are less likely to be overwhelming.
On-Station Endurance is how long the platform can stay on station as a function of its unrefueled range. The longer a platform can remain on station, the longer it offers options for contributing fires, and the longer it preserves force distribution. Low endurance diminishes the availability of fires and how much a platform can contribute to a distributed force posture.
Organic sensing is how much targeting information a platform can gain through its onboard sensors alone. A high degree of organic sensing better allows a platform to target its own fires directly and manage a killchain that is less distributed across multiple authorities. High organic sensing can also allow a platform to cue the long-range fires of other platforms, if it can reliably deliver its sensor information to a broader network. Low organic sensing makes a platform much more dependent on outside sources of information to target its long-range fires. In the context of standalone or last-ditch salvos, organic sensing capability can help make those fires more accurate, and better preserve the resilience of the platform if it must continue the fight without a network.
Maneuver Speed. Maneuver speed is how fast a platform can travel. High maneuver speed allows a platform to more flexibly fit into mass firing sequences and manage the risks of emissions. Higher speed can allow platforms to concentrate in larger numbers in shorter timeframes than slower platforms.
Ability to Gain Proximity to a Warship Target allows a platform to build more resilience into a firing sequence. The more proximity a platform can gain, the more it can add to fires launched on short notice. Closer proximity translates into a better ability to insure a firing sequence against attrited fires, preemptively destroyed archers, and improve the distribution of launches across the duration of the firing sequence.
Reload Speed is how quickly a depleted platform can be rearmed and returned to the fight. Faster reload speed preserves force distribution and the availability of fires. A high reload speed as described here means it takes a platform longer to reload. Reload speed is also understood here as a function of maneuver speed rather than magazine depth, where the transit time is usually longer than the reload time. The availability of fires is not only a matter of how fast a platform can be reloaded with new weapons, but how fast the platform can travel between its weapon stocks and its launch areas.
Each platform features some combination of these traits, and a combined arms framework would seek to cover the weaknesses while maximizing the strengths. These advantages and disadvantages illuminate what circumstances constitute favorable terms for launching fires for each platform and their broader operational options. If a platform must shoulder a disproportionate burden of contributing fires, then the effectiveness of the overall mass firing sequence may be defined by that platform’s strengths and weaknesses, and offer an adversary disruptive points of leverage.
The Uneven Nature of Massed Fires and Anti-Ship Combined Arms Teams
These concepts of massed fires have principally focused on organizing forces for anti-ship strikes, and these concepts are by no means a complete conception of combined arms naval warfighting. But the act of striking warships is a challenging priority objective that demands combined arms methods. Aside from managing weakness and earning force multiplying advantages, combined arms methods are compelled by the need to muster the significant volume of fire required to breach the especially dense defenses of warships. Organizing for anti-ship strikes can therefore yield combined arms methods that bring together multiple communities for the sake of targeting a single type of platform.
This results in critical asymmetries in how platforms can come together to mass fires, and how competing schemes of massed fires can interact during combat when one side has an advantage in anti-ship fires. When a massed firing scheme is deprived of its surface force, or its surface force is substantially outranged by the opposition, then the resulting asymmetry becomes especially risky to manage.
While warships can be fired upon by multiple platform types, anti-ship missiles cannot threaten many of those platform types in return. These include aircraft, submarines, and land-based forces. Platforms such as aircraft and submarines are only threatened by weapons that have much shorter ranges than anti-ship weapons, challenging the ability of defending warships to threaten these archers before they fire arrows. Certain platforms have a superior ability to fire effectively first against warships because their survivability is not governed by the same dynamics as symmetrical surface-on-surface engagements.
Yet platforms that cannot be threatened by anti-ship weapons usually face critical disadvantages in on-station endurance and magazine depth, with bombers being somewhat of an exception. These factors are the strengths of surface platforms, allowing them to compensate for the shortfalls of aircraft and submarines, who in turn compensate for the surface forces’ disadvantages in rapid near-term maneuver and ability to gain proximity to an adversary. Surface forces can undergird a scheme of massed fires by being able to bring significant missile capacity forward and maintain it there, unlike most other platform types. Therefore the function of surface forces in the combined arms team is to provide a deep and persistent base of fire for a mass firing scheme, which augments the forces with shallower magazines and more transient presence. By leveraging this base of fire, those other platform types are spared from having to heavily concentrate their platforms, manage the ensuing logistical challenges, and take greater risks. Other platforms and domains can certainly serve as a base of fire for a mass firing scheme if they have the numbers and logistics to do so. But even so, the mass firing scheme is still oriented on launching strikes against warships, and combining multiple communities to take out a critical member of the opposition’s combined arms team.
The base of fire offered by a surface force can have its own scope of maneuver limited by the critical roles of the other platform types. A surface force that ventures beyond the range of land-based aviation will be deprived of one of its most valuable partners in massing fires. Perhaps even more importantly, it will be deprived of the partner that can provide critical air defense coverage for both offensive and defensive purposes. Aviation will be needed to inflict major attrition against sea-skimming salvos well before they break over the horizon view of warships. The adversary can reciprocate this of course, creating a requirement for aviation to provide forward air defense coverage to friendly salvos on their way to the target. Aviation can also reload anti-air weapons much faster than warships, helping warships persist in providing a maneuvering base of offensive fire, rather than having warships be forced to withdraw with unused offensive weapons due to depleted defenses.
A surface force should therefore be keen to stay well within the range of friendly land-based aviation to be able to substantially grow and withstand volumes of fire. Carrier aviation can certainly provide these capabilities, but typically not to the same scale and range as land-based aviation. Carriers can provide valuable aerial support in deep oceanic areas that land-based aviation may struggle to reach or loiter for long. But overall, in a scheme of massed fires, it may be wise to ensure that the base of fire provided by a surface force is adequately overlayed by the base of air defense coverage provided by aviation.
When two schemes of massed fires are competing and interacting during combat, the ability for one force to substantially outrange the anti-ship firepower of the other can have a profound effect on how advantage develops between adversaries. If a force can effectively target enough anti-ship fires to a much longer range than the opposition, then the opposition’s firing scheme may be deprived of the valuable base of fire their surface forces offer. This deeply affects the resulting scheme of massed fires because it splits apart combined arms relationships.
When a force’s scheme of mass fires is substantially outranged by the opponent, then the force can have to heavily focus its aviation on defending its surface forces while the opponent leverages their superior ability to fire first. As waves of massed fires are launched from distant standoff ranges, aviation would need to heavily focus on attriting the incoming volume of fire. The goal would be to inflict enough depletion on the adversary that their ability to follow up on their anti-ship attacks would be diminished, and that one’s remaining strike options would be meaningfully preserved via the surviving surface forces, which have more freedom of action against a heavily depleted adversary.
Because aviation has a natural advantage in both its speed and ability to fire first against warships, aviation would be pressed to reach far out and attack warships before they can launch their longer-ranged firepower against one’s own surface forces. At these extended ranges, aviation is more likely to be acting alone in mustering the volume of fire instead of as part of a combined arms team. Aviation would have to muster significant numbers and aerial tanking to field enough volume of fire, and then have to assemble aircraft into especially dense concentrations around targets to launch timely strikes. On top of this requirement, aviation may be required to make major contributions to fleet air defense as mentioned. Longer-ranged anti-ship firepower therefore forces the opposition’s aviation to shoulder much more of both the offensive and defensive burden, causing aviation to bear outsized responsibility on the combined arms team.
But aviation may not have to be alone in this scenario. When the anti-ship firepower of a surface force is outranged, the combined arms team can still consist of aircraft and submarines, who are both able to bypass anti-ship firepower through their respective domains and earn closer proximity to an adversary. If enough aircraft and submarines can work together to combine fires at the forward edge of the battlespace, then they may be able to strike effectively first against surface forces before they can launch standoff fires against warships.
In similar fashion, the combined arms team in an A2/AD zone can consist of submarines and stand-in forces because of their shared ability to persist deep within a battlespace. While both of these forces may be constrained by their magazine depth, their ability to gain proximity to the adversary can give them opportunities to threaten warships with fuller magazines, and in areas where launching a last-ditch salvo from a warship would be futile.
Different operational circumstances will yield different combinations of combined arms teams. Some platform types may face circumstances that make their ability to contribute fires prohibitive. This can force other platforms to increase the proportion of their contribution to a mass firing scheme, but with the chance of increased risk, and possibly because their platform weaknesses cannot be as effectively compensated for by others. If a distributed force fractures into smaller and individual elements, they would be well-served by seeking out friendly platforms and forming ad hoc combined arms teams to the extent possible. It is critical to consider how to maximize combined arms relationships in a variety of operational circumstances, and to understand how to split apart these relationships for an adversary.
Rapid and Last-Ditch Fires
A key consideration is how different members of the naval combined arms team have widely differing sensitivities to last-ditch firing pressures. This heavily affects the ability of the broader force to leverage the last-ditch salvos of certain platforms with additional fires. These dynamics shape the ability of a force to maintain its resilience and mass firing capability while incurring losses.
Assuming a force has quality situational awareness over a wide area and sea-skimming surfaces, a warship that is under fire from a salvo can have tens of minutes of warning, because that can be the time-to-target of the incoming salvo. This can give the warship a decent window of time to discharge its last-ditch fires, and give the broader distributed force more time to organize contributing fires to leverage the forthcoming last-ditch salvo.
Early warning and last-ditch salvos are different for aircraft and submarines in critical respects. The weapons that threaten these platforms, such as anti-air missiles and torpedoes, have a small fraction of the time-to-target of anti-ship missiles can take tens of minutes to reach a warship. Yet the maneuvering speed of aircraft and submarines is much closer to those weapons compared to the speed differential between warships and anti-ship missiles, where evasive maneuvering is a much more viable method for improving the survivability of aircraft and submarines during the transit of the incoming weapon. But this potentially radical maneuvering can inhibit the ability of those platforms to discharge their salvos in last-ditch fires, where launching those fires could require a steadier movement profile that drastically increases the incoming weapon’s chances of striking the platform. Even if they opted to fire last-ditch fires in reaction, the act of discharging the final salvo may take longer than how long it takes the weapon to reach the submarine or aircraft, unlike in a warship’s situation. Unlike long-range anti-ship fires, the broader distributed force would have virtually no time to organize contributing fires in reaction to anti-air or torpedo attacks.
Compared to anti-ship fires, the kill chains of anti-air and anti-submarine fires may be more easily completed by individual platforms, who will often have sufficient organic sensing and magazine depth. A single fighter with its onboard radar and several anti-air missiles is enough to threaten a bomber, or a frigate with its sonar and several torpedoes can be sufficient to threaten a nearby submarine. The proximate nature of these engagements allows a single platform to satisfy their information needs with organic sensors, and the offensive-defensive balance of these engagements requires far fewer weapons to muster enough volume of fire. By comparison, a warship that needs to be targeted hundreds of miles away and requires dozens of missiles to overwhelm can demand a broader information architecture and carefully coordinated fires from multiple force packages. It takes far less capability to put aircraft and submarines into a position where they feel forced to discharge last-ditch fires.
Aircraft and submarines would have to launch last-ditch fires in widely differing circumstances compared to warships. A warship may never detect emissions from the vast majority of distributed platforms that have launched fires against it. But aircraft and submarines can use their organic sensors to detect the organic sensors of the platforms that are targeting them. A bomber can sense illumination by an incoming fighter, or a submarine may get pinged by a warship’s active sonar. Aircraft and submarines would not wait for anti-air missiles and torpedoes to be on their way to then react with last-ditch fires. Instead, they depend more heavily on interpreting the intent behind emissions and sensing to have enough early warning to launch last-ditch fires and then take defensive measures. Rather than reacting to incoming weapons, they need to sense the platforms that could launch the weapons, which makes them much more sensitive to last-ditch firing dynamics and pressures that can force them to waste munitions.
An opposing fighter squadron that simply vectors toward a group of bombers and illuminates it with radar can be enough to trigger last-ditch fires from those bombers, without the fighters having to expend any weapons of their own. By comparison, a warship that knows it is being targeted, or even under attack by incoming fires, can still hold off on launching last-ditch salvos. This is because a warship can be confident that the incoming volume of fire is not enough to overwhelm its defenses, a factor that is mostly absent from the survivability considerations of aircraft and submarines. A warship’s dense defenses allows it to limit the circumstances that prompt its last-ditch fires to reacting to arrows instead of archers. The existence of launched arrows more reliably indicates the adversary’s intent to strike a target, making warships harder to provoke into last-ditch fires with simpler posturing and active sensing.
Overall, a distributed force can include a variety of platforms, whose different traits and capabilities must be combined for operational effect. As commanders consider how to employ a distributed force in a contested battlespace, they must understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual platform types and how this shapes their options. The following platform breakdowns discuss their individual traits and how they relate to naval salvo combat and mass fires more generally.
Surface warships embody the ability of navies to efficiently bring mass firepower to sea. Blue water navies field a significant amount of their conventional cruise missile firepower in their surface fleets, with launch cells numbering in the thousands for the most powerful nations.3 Some of the most critical capabilities surface fleets offer are their considerable numbers, endurance, and missile capacity, which are central attributes for massing fires and distributing forces.
Despite their considerable strengths, surface ships suffer from long reload speeds which harms their endurance in longer timeframes. Their low platform speed increases the challenge of survivability and their ability to mitigate the risks of radiating active emissions. But their high magazine capacity can give their last-ditch fires substantial volume of fire, with less of a need for outside fires to bolster their last-ditch salvos into overwhelming dimensions.
The large missile capacity of surface fleets is a double-edged sword. Defensive missile capacity can be used to negate offensive missile capacity, and vice versa. As the number of launch cells increases, the volume of defensive firepower that can be used to block attacks increases as well, thereby raising the amount of offensive firepower needed to overwhelm defenses. The very fact that a surface warship can field a large number of anti-air weapons across its many launch cells can force an opposing warship to empty most of its own magazine in a bid to overwhelm that target. Surface warships can easily empty most of their magazines in the course of launching or defending against a single anti-ship missile salvo.
This strongly contrasts with the combat potential and staying power of other types of platforms. Aircraft, submarines, and tanks can earn relatively high kill ratios against equivalent platforms because there is far less need to salvo their main armaments to achieve lethal effect.4 A surface warship may only have enough anti-ship firepower to break through the defenses of a single similarly sized warship, if that. A surface warship can also travel for days and even weeks to enter the fight, only to then expend most of its main armament within a few minutes, and then have to take a long journey back to rearm. Despite the impression of significant capacity, surface warships still heavily depend on combining fires with other forces to limit their depletion and endure in a high-end fight.
No platform’s missile capacity can be effectively understood in isolation from the tactical features of the salvos it may be launching or defending against. An attacking volume of fire can be built across tens of minutes and feature various contributing fires launched from many distributed forces. But when a warship comes under attack by a salvo, the full volume of offensive fire can break over the horizon in a narrow timeframe, while the defending warship must build its own defending volume of fire from scratch within seconds. Because of this dynamic, which will be discussed in more detail in Part 7, there may be some limit to how many vertical launch cells a surface warship can realistically apply to its own defense within the short span of a single engagement. Beyond that limit, additional vertical launch capacity mainly benefits the volume of offensive fires rather than defensive fires. This is partly because surface warships will often have more time to grow the volume of fire when launching an attack compared to defending against one.
The multi-domain nature of modern naval warfighting encourages multi-mission capability and payloads. Modern surface combatants often take the form of multi-mission platforms fielding a variety of domain-specific weapons, and this is partly because they must for survivability’s sake. Submarines, land-based forces, and airborne aircraft are not threatened by anti-ship missiles, but each of these platforms can fire anti-ship missiles against surface warships. For surface warships, there are more threats coming from more domains compared to other naval platforms.
These multi-domain threats pose challenges for configuring the missile capacity of surface warships and limits their true magazine depth. Missile magazine loadouts can be stretched thin across a variety of roles, including anti-ship, anti-air, land-attack, and anti-submarine missions. Each one of these roles can require a large number of weapons for the role to be minimally viable and have enough volume of fire, where weapons can easily crowd out missile cells for other roles. A surface warship with its magazine loadout stretched thin across too many missions may not have enough missiles on hand to credibly launch or defend against a single large anti-ship salvo, creating a dependence on massing fires and combining forces. The challenge of having magazines spread thin at the level of the individual warship can be mitigated by leveraging the broader collective magazine of the distributed force, and configuring magazine loadouts on a force-wide level for distributed fires instead of at the level of the individual platform.
Compared to other missile-firing platforms, surface warships have disadvantages in maneuver, stealth, and susceptibility to attack. The range and speed of modern missiles have greatly diminished the usefulness of warship maneuver at the near-term tactical level. A few minutes or seconds of skilled maneuvering made an important tactical difference in the age of naval gunfights, but modern warships can do relatively little through short-term maneuver to significantly improve their effectiveness against missile salvos, with perhaps the exception of bringing mounted short-range defenses to bear. Maneuver will offer little against missile salvos traveling 15 to 50 times faster than warships, reducing the factors of survivability to defensive capability and deception.
In order to prosecute complex air defense engagements and have broad area situational awareness, surface combatants typically feature powerful sensors that can substantially diminish their stealth. Once these sensors radiate, their unique signatures can provide enough information to help localize and classify the warship at long range, potentially to several hundred miles.5 The usefulness of this information for targeting anti-ship attacks can last for a significant period of time given how long it would take a slow-moving warship to maneuver out of the area it has been localized within. By comparison, an aircraft radiating a signature can use speed and maneuver to quickly put significant distance between its positions, drop below radar horizons, and more effectively manage the risks of emitting.
These high-powered sensors can be employed in defending surface warships against missile attacks, and where missile salvo defense is an especially emissions-intensive form of combat. The ability of these emissions to broadcast the position of the ship could be somewhat mitigated by the short-ranged nature of fighting off sea-skimming missiles breaking over the nearby horizon. But if a warship wants to use its organic sensors to have early warning of aircraft-launched attacks and have the option of defeating archers before arrows, then it will have to radiate at much longer ranges that can paradoxically draw attackers toward its signature.
Launching an anti-ship missile attack can involve little if any organic emissions from launch platforms because of how the great distances involved create a need for outside cueing. But the salvo itself presents a signature that could be traced back to the launch platform, much in the same way that an air wing’s physical signature could be traced back to a carrier. But unlike aircraft or submarines, surface warships can do relatively little through near-term maneuver to mitigate the near-term risks posed by the signatures of their recently launched cruise missile salvos. They must heavily rely on the range of the missiles and capabilities such as waypointing, retargeting, and missile autonomy to ensure that enough distance and complex threat presentation does not create a footprint leading back to the launching warship.
All platforms can highlight their positions and platform type through emissions and fires. All platforms can emit signatures in the process of employing offensive and defensive tactics. But compared to most other naval platforms, surface ships cannot as effectively mitigate risk through maneuver, and surface ships can be fired upon from a wider variety of platforms and domains. In a great power navy, surface ships compensate for their higher susceptibility to attack by featuring high numbers and especially dense defensive capability.
Submarines offer unique advantages in the distributed fight. But their ability to launch useful salvos is heavily constrained by their limited missile capacity and volume of fire, as well as the challenges of undersea communication. Where submarines offer advantage to mass fires is primarily through their ability to gain proximity and the highly favorable tradeoffs of sinking ships with torpedoes instead of missiles.
Submarines are poorly suited for contributing to mass fires in a variety of respects, due to their combination of low magazine depth, long reload speed, and poor organic sensing. Like surface warships, they are heavily dependent on outside cueing for launching fires, but their shallow magazine depth only allows them to fire relatively low volumes of fire, and they are generally harder to communicate with than surface warships.
The solitary nature of submarine operations severely constricts their ability to muster enough volume of fire. Compared to most other platforms, submarines are less likely to operate in groups and are more used to operating solo, which further limits the potential volume of fire. While they can certainly fit into a mass firing scheme or operational-level plan, if submarines do not operate as part of a distinct force package, then they will be less likely to generate standalone salvos or last-ditch fires of overwhelming volume.
An independently fired, close-range submarine salvo is a far cry from an aggregated salvo that is massed from contributing fires launched across distributed forces. If a submarine is to engage warships with missiles in independent circumstances, it will have to rely completely on its own missile magazine, which tends to be very shallow in attack submarines. A submarine’s entire vertical launch cell inventory could easily be depleted in a single attack if it is to have enough volume of fire to overwhelm multiple layers of warship defenses. If submarine-launched salvos are to have enough density and volume, then submarines must fire these salvos primarily from dedicated missile cells rather than through torpedo tubes. While torpedo tube-launched missiles can certainly supplement salvos, the fact that submarine torpedo tubes typically number in the single digits makes it highly dubious these tubes can discharge enough volume of fire on their own against high-end warships.
The current magazine capacity of the U.S. attack submarine force is relatively small at only 12 vertical launch cells and four torpedo tubes for Los Angeles– and Virginia-class submarines. Seawolf-class submarines have eight tubes and no launch cells.6 At 16 missiles, the maximum throw weight of these submarines per salvo is double that of a Harpoon-equipped U.S. destroyer or cruiser, or equal to four F/A-18 aircraft. But that will still be hardly enough to overwhelm alert warships with dozens of vertical launch cells and a range of point defenses. To launch effective missile attacks, submarines may be forced to close the distance to secure advantage at increased risk, or reduce their operational independence by heavily depending on outside fires to combine with their salvos.
While forthcoming variants of the Virginia-class submarine will have 40 vertical launch cells, these submarines will only start entering the fleet toward the end of this decade and will not feature in significant numbers until the decade after.7 The Navy’s four SSGN submarines have enormous capacity at 154 launch cells per boat, but they will be retired toward the end of this decade.8 After these four ships retire, the Navy’s submarine force will have relatively little anti-ship missile firepower for the next 15 years.
Submarines can still launch missile attacks against warships on somewhat favorable terms. By launching salvos from relatively close ranges, submarines can diminish the ability of the adversary to bring airpower to bear against the salvo, and can maximize the amount of time the salvo flies at sea-skimming altitudes. The result is a salvo that can spend most of its flight under a target warship’s radar horizon, and was fired from a range that is beyond the ability of shipboard anti-submarine weapons to be immediately brought to bear with confidence.
But the act of launching a salvo needs time and space to grow the volume of fire and then organize it into a specific pattern of attack, such as a saturation pattern. Submarine-launched salvos may require a minimum engagement range that is defined by these needs, where a submarine may need to use nonlinear waypointing to purchase enough time and space to grow and then organize the volume of fire before it attacks.
Submarines can earn additional advantages by firing from ranges closer than a target warship’s horizon. If a submarine missile attack is launched close enough, then vertically-launched missiles can struggle to reorient quickly enough to make the steeply angled intercepts. This can help negate much of a defending warship’s hardkill defensive firepower, allowing a smaller volume of fire to overwhelm defenses and destroying the warship quickly enough that it has virtually no time to discharge last-ditch fires, or even torpedos. However, the visual cues of such a short-range missile launch broaching the water could help a defending warship localize the attacking submarine more easily than a torpedo attack or over-the-horizon missile attack.
Despite their limited magazine depth, submarines play a valuable role in massed fires through their heightened ability to gain closer proximity to targets. This allows submarines to act as insurance against attrited fires and hastily organized firing sequences. If contributing fires are shot down, or if a salvo is fired on short notice, submarines may often be the only platforms that are close enough to a target to make additions to the volume of fire. A mass firing scheme that lacks enough submarines will have less ability to insure its firing sequences against attrition or short-notice launches. And as mentioned in Part 4, submarines can reap substantial benefit by sinking targets with torpedo attacks that are far less depleting than missile salvos, allowing them to substitute a handful of torpedoes for large volumes of missile firepower.
While submarine-launched salvos are especially taxing on their shallow missile magazines, a submarine depleted of missiles is not nearly as much of an at-risk asset compared to a warship or aircraft in the same situation. By operating beneath the sea, submarines are spared from the hefty air defense requirements of defending against anti-ship missile salvos. Even if its missile magazine is depleted, a submarine that has enough torpedoes in its inventory can still endure as a credibly threatening and survivable asset.
Launching long-range anti-ship salvos from submarines can present challenges with cueing their fires. If a submarine is to attack a warship at a distance that goes beyond the relatively short range of its organic sensors, external assets are likely required to cue its fires. Forms of low-frequency communication could provide this information. Certain platforms, especially aviation, could also be helpful in cueing submarine-launched missile fires within contested electromagnetic battlespaces. But the need for timely contributing fires and the ability of submarines to penetrate deep into contested seas could pose risks to platforms attempting to cue submarine-launched fires. Submarine-launched aerial drones can mitigate this to an extent by having an organic capability for enabling over-the-horizon fires.9 But submarine-launched drones may still not be capable enough for submarines to contribute especially long-range fires without external cueing.
The nature of cueing submarine launches can present challenges to leveraging contributing fires from submarines. Compared to the variety of platforms across the force, submarines are among the more difficult to communicate with by virtue of being undersea.10 If a commander wants a submarine to contribute fires to an aggregated salvo, it may involve more complex matters of communication and timing to leverage the capability.
Land-Based Forces and Stand-In Forces
Land-based missile forces can be divided into two broad categories – land-based launchers located on a nation’s homeland such as those of the PLA Rocket Force, and stand-in forces such as those envisioned by the U.S. Marine Corps. These distinct types of forces can play critical roles in massing fires.
Conventional land-based forces, such as those typically located on the homeland of a nation, can consist of coastal defense cruise missile launchers, missile silos, and transporter erector launchers. By virtue of being fielded by land-based platforms instead of more restrictive sea-based platforms, these weapons can take on extraordinary dimensions while still being fielded by highly distributed force structure. These attributes allow land-based missile forces to field some of the most powerful and survivable missile capabilities that exist today.
Land-based forces field some of the largest anti-ship missiles known, such as how a Chinese DF-26 is more than 15 times the weight of a Tomahawk.11 The sheer size of these missiles allows them to maximize two key dimensions of capability – long range and high speed. By having more than a thousand miles of range, these weapons can hold numerous targets at risk on a theater-wide scale and with virtually no maneuver required on the part of the launch platform. Having high speed allows these weapons to travel those long ranges in remarkably short timeframes, which helps preserve the viability of the original targeting data. Through a combination of long range and high speed, these missiles feature a low time-to-strike across a broad area, which gives them a wide array of flexibility for combining fires with other types of missiles. A ballistic missile fired from a thousand miles away can still combine with a subsonic missile fired from a few hundred miles away, because both weapons only need tens of minutes at most to strike the same target.12
The anti-ship weapons that feature these especially high-end combinations of range and speed are mainly confined to hypersonic weapons and China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles. Weapons like the forthcoming land-based Tomahawk launchers will have similar ranges, but not nearly the same speeds. Yet having widespread land-based Tomahawk launchers will vastly multiply the potential distribution and volume of the U.S. military’s missile firepower.
Land-based forces can be extremely survivable and distributable. The scud hunt saga of Desert Storm showed how it was virtually impossible to find these types of launchers, even in open desert terrain with total air superiority.13 It would be even more challenging to attempt direct attacks on land-based launchers well within an adversary’s homeland, and copious amounts of effort could be expended in simply trying to pinpoint them for strikes. By being located on their homeland, these forces can benefit logistically from being near their sustainment infrastructure and enjoy remarkably fast reloads despite the size of their weapons.
Because of the steep challenges of inflicting attrition, countering land-based forces and their fires is mainly confined to countering the adversary’s broader ISR and C2 architecture. If the broader network is degraded, these forces will have little organic sensing to fall back on to generate standalone fires. Their especially heavy dependence on outside cueing makes these forces less operationally resilient and less likely to gracefully fracture into individual force concentrations in the context of a degraded network. By comparison, aircraft and warships can fall back upon their organic sensors to secure a measure of information for themselves when the broader network is degraded.
The lack of maneuverability relative to the speed and range of their weapons can also challenge land-based forces. If these forces are spread far and wide across an archipelago or the expanse of a homeland, they may not be able to maneuver to create denser fields of fire as easily as aircraft or warships can. Instead, their wide dispersal can yield fields of fire that remain relatively stretched thin in the early days of a conflict. Even if these weapons have extremely long range, dispersing these forces to fixed bases that are hundreds of miles apart can dilute the density of their combined fires.
Stand-in forces sharply differ from conventional land-based missile forces in key respects. Stand-in forces are expeditionary units deployed hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homeland and onto relatively small islands proximate to the adversary. This results in much more challenging logistical requirements, which bottlenecks their capabilities. The logistical challenge of sustaining an expeditionary force makes it far more difficult for stand-in forces to field especially large, land-based missile launch platforms. Stand-in forces may be confined to fielding cruise missiles that are both less capable and less numerous than forces operating from their homeland.
Compared to most other types of forces, stand-in forces will be especially challenged to break through strong warship defenses using only what they have at their disposal. Instead, they may suffer similar disadvantages as submarines – able to achieve closer proximity to the adversary than most other platforms, but with smaller missile magazines on hand and therefore more dependence on outside contributors to achieve enough volume of fire. If stand-in forces deplete their shallow magazines, they may create substantial risks for resupply efforts. Using ships to reload stand-in forces in close proximity to adversaries may be far riskier compared to reloading warships or aircraft that are better able to withdraw beyond an adversary’s weapons engagement zone.
Stand-in forces positioned across island chains could provide timely intelligence that helps the distributed force mass fires against targets. Proximity to island chokepoints will simplify the task of both finding naval targets and massing fires against them. Compared to conventional land-based forces located deeper within a mainland, island-based stand-in forces will be better able to use their organic sensors to cue their own fires. It will be a challenge however for these stand-in forces to achieve broader situational awareness without organic aviation capabilities. High-altitude drones may prove far too vulnerable to last in such close proximity to an adversary, and significant amounts of manned aviation could be too difficult to sustain in advance bases.
While stand-in forces could make major contributions in cueing fires, they will be hard-pressed to mass meaningful volumes of anti-ship firepower on their own and to maintain aviation to secure valuable intelligence. And if stand-in forces struggle to field the larger-scale anti-air missiles that are needed to deny airspace at high altitudes, much of their ability to remain stealthy and manage signatures could be diminished by an adversary’s persistent aerial surveillance. The need for small footprints and low signatures is apparent, but it often costs signatures to detect signatures. These stealthy measures may be a critical enabler for a stand-in force, but they could also be a necessary evil when the stand-in force is heavily suppressed by the adversary.
Bombers are one of the most advantaged platforms when it comes to contesting sea control, executing distributed operations, and attacking warships. Bombers feature a robust combination of traits, including high maneuver speed, fast reload times, significant on-station endurance, and an offensive magazine capacity that can approach that of surface warships.
While U.S. bombers have an unrefueled range that is similar to large surface warships, their high maneuver speed consumes this range at a much faster rate.14 While a bomber can travel thousands of miles on a single load of fuel, it will still need to be refueled within the same day, whereas warships can go days without refueling, allowing them to have greater near-term endurance. Yet bombers can rendezvous with aerial tankers in far less time than what it takes warships to meet with their tankers, allowing bombers to provide a substantial proportion of on-station, on-demand fires. The range and endurance of bombers allows them to loiter and be held on call for contributing to aggregated anti-ship fires on a theater-wide scale within hours. Their combination of decent magazine capacity and organic sensing capability can also allow bombers to launch last-ditch fires that approach the volume of warship-based fires but with greater accuracy.
An adversary may develop a sufficient sense of the aggregated firepower available to regional naval forces based on known warship capabilities and dispositions. But they may be less able to account for how airpower and especially bombers could be surged to contribute fires on short notice. Because of their combination of considerable speed and range, adversaries have to assume a wide array of bombers can provide a variety of distributed firing options to the opponent. U.S. warships homeported in the continental United States cannot factor as readily into the latent distribution and firepower posed by a forward U.S. fleet in the same way continentally-based bombers can.
For now U.S. bombers will be confined to firing anti-ship weapons like LRASM, whose early models feature less than half the range of the Maritime Strike Tomahawk.15 LRASM, like the Harpoon missile, has its capabilities confined by the requirement to be fired from multi-role aircraft that are much smaller than bombers. For the U.S., the ability of bombers to fire much larger missiles than multi-role aircraft will go largely unrealized for the anti-ship mission. Yet bombers test-fired air-launched variants of the Tomahawk decades ago in the Cold War and fielded other air-launched cruise missiles with ranges in excess of a thousand miles.16 The ability of bombers to contribute to anti-ship massed fires from standoff ranges will be magnified if they can fire cruise missiles that are similar to what can be fired from warship launch cells.
The U.S. Air Force is developing the potentially game-changing Rapid Dragon capability, which allows cruise missiles to be deployed from pallets dropped from airborne platforms.17 Similar in spirit to the Distributed Lethality concept’s mantra of, “if it floats, it fights,” this capability would introduce significant cruise missile capacity to hundreds of long-range Air Force transporter aircraft.18 Rapid Dragon would vastly expand the scope of force structure that can bring long-range missile firepower to bear and offer a major increase in force distribution. If the Air Force procures enough anti-ship missiles, this capability could be a major force multiplier for mass fires.
September 2021 – Over White Sands Missile Range, C-17 and EC-130 aircraft deploy the first Rapid Dragon pallets to release surrogate JASSM-ERs. (Lockheed Martin video)
Massed fires and naval warfighting are greatly enhanced when different platform communities form combined arms relationships. Combined force development and shared platform fluency will strengthen integration between communities. Warfighters will better understand their role in the combined arms team and the operational dynamics that govern the behavior of their cross-community partners. While these relationships will not be without friction or challenging tradeoffs, they will create a force that is far more effective than one that struggles to rise above its silos and parochialism.
Part 7 will focus on aircraft carrier roles in distributed warfighting and massed fires.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and Community Manager of its naval professional society, the Flotilla. He is the author of the “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” series and coauthor of “Learning to Win: Using Operational Innovation to Regain the Advantage at Sea against China.” Contact him at Content@Cimsec.org.
1. Jonathan M. House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century, University Press of Kansas, 2001.
COMNAVAIRFORINST 3500.20D CH4, Chapter 3: Training Cycle. http://elearning.sabrewebhosting.com/CVnTraining/tramanfiles/chapter3.pdf
For balance of time between integrated and other forms of training see pg. 11 of: Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, “Deploying Beyond Their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, November 2015. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA6174_(Deploying_Beyond_Their_Means)Final2-web.pdf
3. For vertical launch cell count for U.S. Navy, see:
“Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2023,” Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, pg. 9, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Apr/20/2002980535/-1/-1/0/PB23%20SHIPBUILDING%20PLAN%2018%20APR%202022%20FINAL.PDF.
For VLS counts for Chinese and Japanese surface fleets, see:
Toshi Yoshihara, Dragon Against Sun: Chinese Views of Japanese Seapower, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 13, 2020, https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA8211_(Dragon_against_the_Sun_Report)_FINAL.pdf.
4. An example of the low volume of fire that is inherent to these types of engagements can be seen in “Operation Desert Storm: Early Performance Assessment of Bradley and Abrams,” Government Accounting Office, pg. 23, January 1992, https://www.gao.gov/assets/nsiad-92-94.pdf.
5. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics And Naval Operations, Third Edition, pg. 188, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2018.
6. For VLS and torpedo tube counts of U.S. Navy attack submarine types, see:
“Attack Submarines – SSN,” U.S. Navy Fact File, last updated March 13, 2023, https://www.navy.mil/Resources/Fact-Files/Display-FactFiles/Article/2169558/attack-submarines-ssn/.
7. For first VPM-capable submarine keel-laying ceremony, see the below. Based on traditional submarine construction and commissioning timelines, this ship will not enter the fleet until near the end of this decade.
Team Submarine Public Affairs, “Navy Authenticates Keel for Future USS Arizona (SSN-803),” December 7, 2022, https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/News-Stories/Article/3238746/navy-authenticates-keel-for-future-uss-arizona-ssn-803/.
8. Ron O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, pg. 10, December 21, 2022, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL32418/231.
9. Thomas Newdick, “The U.S. Navy’s Submarine-Launched Aerial Drone Capacity Is Set To Greatly Expand,” The Warzone, March 10, 2021, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/39700/the-u-s-navys-submarine-launched-aerial-drone-capacity-is-set-to-greatly-expand.
10. Bryan Clark, “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, pg. 13, 2015, https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/undersea-warfare.
11. For launch weights of Tomahawk and DF-26 missiles, see:
“Tomahawk,” CSIS Missile Defense Project, last updated February 28, 2023, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/tomahawk/.
“DF-26,” CSIS Missile Defense Project, last updated August 6, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/dong-feng-26-df-26/.
12. This estimate is based on the typical flight times of similar intermediate range ballistic missiles. See:
Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, “Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert,” Scientific American, November 1997, https://sgs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/2019-10/blair-feiveson-vonhippel-1997.pdf.
Dr. Jamie Shea, “1979: The Soviet Union deploys its SS20 missiles and NATO responds,” NATO, March 4, 2009, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_139274.htm.
Charles Maynes, “Demise of US-Russian Nuclear Treaty Triggers Warnings,” Voice of America, July 31, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/a/usa_demise-us-russian-nuclear-treaty-triggers-warnings/6172981.html.
13. Colonel Mark E. Kipphutt, “Crossbow and Gulf War Counter-Scud Efforts: Lessons from History,” The Counterproliferation Papers Future Warfare Series No. 15 USAF Counterproliferation Center Air University, pg. 18-20, February 2003, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Apr/11/2002115481/-1/-1/0/15CROSSBOW.PDF.
14. For range of U.S. Navy surface warships, see:
“Transforming the Navy’s Surface Combatant Force,” Congressional Budget Office, pg. 5, March 2003, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/report_0.pdf.
For range of U.S. Air Force bombers, see:
“B-52H Stratofortress,” U.S. Air Force Fact File, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104465/b-52h-stratofortress/.
“B-2 Spirit,” U.S. Air Force Fact File, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104482/b-2-spirit/.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula USAF (Ret.), “Maritime Strike,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, September 1, 2019, https://www.airandspaceforces.com/article/maritime-strike/.
15. For Tomahawk range, see:
“Tomahawk Cruise Missile,” U.S. Navy Fact File, last updated September 27, 2021, https://www.navy.mil/Resources/Fact-Files/Display-FactFiles/Article/2169229/tomahawk-cruise-missile/.
The LRASM range of 350 miles is a rough estimate deduced from the JASSM missile it is derived from, see:
“Options for Fielding Ground-Launched Long-Range Missiles,” Congressional Budget Office, pg. 2, 2020, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56143.
16. For Cold War-era Air Force air-launched cruise missiles featuring ranges in excess of a thousand miles, and that did enter service, see:
“Boeing AGM-86B ALCM,” Minot Air Force Base fact file, last updated January 2014, https://www.minot.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/805942/boeing-agm-86b-alcm/.
17. For Rapid Dragon capability, see:
“Rapid Dragon,” Air Force Research Lab, https://afresearchlab.com/technology/rapid-dragon.
Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire, “AFSOC conducts live-fire exercise with Rapid Dragon,” Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs, November 14, 2022, https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/3216532/afsoc-conducts-live-fire-exercise-with-rapid-dragon/.
18. For Air Force inventory of transporter aircraft, see:
“2022 USAF & USSF Almanac: Equipment,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, July 1, 2022, https://www.airandspaceforces.com/article/2022-usaf-ussf-almanac-equipment/.
Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (July 12, 2004) – The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Albuquerque (SSN 706) surfaces in the Atlantic Ocean while participating in exercise Majestic Eagle 2004. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Rob Gaston)