Read Part 1 on defining distributed maritime operations.
Read Part 2 on anti-ship firepower and U.S. shortfalls.
Read Part 3 on assembling massed fires and modern fleet tactics.
Read Part 4 on weapons depletion and last-ditch salvo dynamics.
Read Part 5 on salvo patterns and maximizing volume of fire.
Read Part 6 on platform advantages and combined arms roles.
Read Part 7 on aircraft carrier roles in distributed warfighting.
Read Part 8 on China’s anti-ship firepower and mass firing schemes.
By Dmitry Filipoff
Militaries are left with little choice but to design their forces regardless of how well they understand the details of future warfighting. Force design is an exercise in placing educated bets on the future relevance of current and emerging capability. Many of these bets are far-reaching and irreversible, setting in stone much of what will be a service’s capability for decades. But the services must be prepared to make radical changes if the future of warfare heralds decisive new methods.
Distributed naval warfighting and massed fires offer a practical operational context for valuing the combat power of force structure. The broad fundamentals of these warfighting dynamics could provide an enduring basis for force design. By establishing criteria and frameworks based on lasting operational considerations, navies can preserve their relevance.
Critical Traits for Valuing Distributed Naval Force Structure
The factors that make forces concentrated, distributed, or stretched thin are closely tied to how those forces are packaged and postured. In physical terms, these different aspects can describe the density of capability in individual platforms, the way density is spread across a fleet, and how forces are spread across a battlespace. The concepts of force structure, force posture, and force packaging are intrinsically linked and come together to define an overall state of distribution. Consider how force density manifests differently across the following fleet configurations:
- Concentrated force structure in concentrated formations, such as the main battlefleets of WWII, with large battleships and fleet carriers often massed together.
- Concentrated force structure in distributed formations, such as spread-out surface action groups, with each consisting of a few large surface combatants.
- Distributed force structure in concentrated formations, such as dense clusters of small surface combatants.
- Distributed force structure in distributed formations, such as widely separated small surface combatants.
These configurations provide a frame of reference for the different shapes of fleets and how they could interact and compete. The distribution of one’s force structure should threaten to make the adversary’s force structure more concentrated or stretched thin by comparison. These disparities then allow the better distributed force to capitalize on its advantage by inflicting steep sudden losses against the more concentrated opponent, or inflicting cumulative defeat in detail against one who is stretched thin.
The fundamentals of mass fires and distributed naval operations translate into a set of traits for valuing the combat power of naval force structure. The fleet that exhibits a superior combination of these traits will offer better options for force employment and operational design.
Information and Decision Advantage. The informational and decision-making implications of force structure are more difficult to perceive and measure than physical manifestations of capability. But a distributed force’s ability to mass fires and strike effectively first is dependent on securing information advantage.
The physical structure of forces has a major influence over their methods of command-and-control, and how they challenge the command-and-control of the adversary. Force design should be mindful of the limits of command-and-control and the potential of force structure to overwhelm its own commanders. A distributed force structure may be of little use if the added complexity of wielding a wider distribution overwhelms commanders and corrodes the intended operational design.
Much of the decision-making challenge of attempting to mass fires stems from the burdens of sourcing firepower from across one’s own forces, and deciding how to apply that firepower across the forces of the adversary. A distributed force structure should strive to provide superior options for sourcing firepower, while making it more challenging for the adversary to apply their own fires across the breadth of one’s forces. Ideally distributed force structure sets the stage for mass fires to come together more quickly, with greater volume, and at longer ranges than the adversary.
It is not enough for a distributed force to field longer-range firepower, it must be able to out-scout and counter-scout the opposition. Much of a force structure’s ability to offer information and decision advantage will derive from its ability to field platforms with superior sensing, networking, and battle management functions. Each of these functions is critical in being able to find targets, cue fires against them, and maneuver those fires through retargeting functions and other methods. Aircraft in particular, such as high-endurance drones and 5th generation airframes, can do much to enhance to enhance these functions.
Having a superior ability to collect information is not the same as having a superior ability to decide on it. Ultimately much of the information and decision-making advantage will derive from the human element, and how warfighting procedure has been structured to support human choice. One of the more difficult challenges of force design is in perceiving how it will influence the human aspect.
Complexity of Threat Presentation. Distribution is meant to directly challenge the adversary’s ability to secure information and decision advantage, especially by complicating their ability to prioritize fires and interpret the battlespace. Complex threat presentation helps inflict paralysis by analysis, where an adversary’s decision-making is heavily consumed by making sense of the situation, and how the ensuing doubt slows their decision-making. It is a momentous operational decision to launch a large volume of fire and be willing to suffer the resulting weapons depletion. Complex threat presentation makes it more difficult to firmly commit to such irreversible choices.
Each type of platform and payload offers a specific form of threat presentation through its signatures, behaviors, and attributes that create demands for information and interpretation. The state of advantage can change depending on how assets come across on an adversary’s sensors and how easily they can be understood. Aircraft can employ fast maneuver, highly variable loadouts, and quick reload speeds to raise complexity. The steep magazine depth of surface warships can obscure a wide variety of potential weapon loadouts that may only be well-understood well after they launch fires. Submarines are aloof and hard to detect, forcing an adversary to scour for undersea contacts across wide ocean areas. Missiles with robust multimodal seekers and autonomous targeting logic can make it challenging to grasp their behaviors and devise real-time countermeasures. These many capabilities can integrate and overlap, creating interactions that are more difficult to understand than their standalone elements.
The complexity of one’s own force can also be self-defeating. There can be an assumption that a commander will have a better grasp of the complexity of their own forces in the battlespace compared to the adversary. But distribution and a fluid battlespace can challenge a commander’s ability to stay on top of how the complexity is evolving. Force complexity can also challenge units if a lack of familiarity with dissimilar forces hampers their ability to form combined arms relationships. There can also be an assumption that one’s understanding of the opposition’s complexity must be highly sophisticated to devise effective counters, but strong capability and effective tactics can compensate for lack of precise understanding.
There is a fundamental tension between presenting complex threats to the adversary and posing a simpler command-and-control challenge to one’s own forces, and force design must be mindful of striking a deliberate balance.
Longevity of Distribution. A distributed force should ideally maintain a high degree of distribution throughout the duration of the fight and ensure the distributed posture is enduring. It does not suffer from episodic fluctuations that sharply concentrate or stretch thin the force. Longevity of distribution is promoted by effective defensive firepower, deep inventories of weapons, higher numbers of long-endurance platforms, and robust logistical sustainment. It is also a factor of sustainable force generation practices and readiness cycles.
Longevity of distribution in a high-end battlespace will function differently than peacetime naval operations, where forces are continuously rotated to maintain a specific level of presence in the forward environment. The history of fleet-on-fleet combat strongly suggests there is little use for tactical reserves, unlike in land warfare.1 Rather, the fleet that can more quickly surge and concentrate greater forces and then deliver superior firepower first will be far more likely to succeed.
The longevity of distribution for an engaged fleet will be less a matter of devising a sustainable tempo of rotating forces through the battlespace, although that will still be an important function. Rather, longevity of distribution can be achieved by surging large numbers of forces and being able to maintain them for longer in the battlespace. Larger numbers increases the collective magazine depth of the distributed force, which allows the individual platforms to launch smaller increments of contributing fires, allowing them to persist for longer and contribute to a more enduring distributed posture on a force-wide level.
Inventory Breadth and Depth. A distributed force garners significant advantage by having a broader and deeper weapons inventory than its opponents. Inventory breadth is achieved by having a wide variety of numerous platforms that are compatible with long-range weapons. Inventory depth is achieved by having large numbers of weapons, both in the magazines within platforms and in weapons stocks that can be readily accessed for reloading. Deeper magazines allow commanders to diminish uncertainty by erring on the side of firing larger volumes of fire. Deeper weapon stocks reduce the major doubts and constraints that stem from concerns over depleting limited weapons inventory.
Firepower and Payloads. Information and decision advantage may count for little if they cannot be capitalized on with firepower. A distributed force aims to have superior options for massing fires by fielding missiles that have an edge in critical capabilities. These capabilities include long range, low time-to-strike, robust seekers, and waypointing and retargeting capability. Advanced networking and autonomous targeting logic is especially important for enabling missiles to optimize their own searches, defeat softkill measures, and leverage complex attack patterns during their terminal approach. These specific capabilities enhance the ability of weapons to combine into larger volumes of fire, preserve their lethality, and reduce the length of a firing sequence, even if they are fired from widely separated forces.
Much of force structure’s combat value is derived from its ability to deliver and withstand highly lethal payloads, making it vital to understand how different combinations of force structure result in different options for handling massed fires.
Scalable and Proportionate Combined Arms. Force structure must preserve the viability of combined arms relationships across the scope of its distribution. The force structure of a navy’s individual components should all ideally evolve in tandem and in proportion to one another to preserve their combined arms relations. If one dimension of a fleet’s force structure becomes more distributed while another remains relatively concentrated, combined arms relationships may not be as forthcoming.
As one example, the U.S. Navy would already be very hard-pressed to sustainably overlay carrier aviation’s critical enablers over multiple surface action groups that are widely distributed at a distance away from the carrier. If the force structure of the surface fleet becomes more distributed, but the carrier force does not, then many of those more distributed and smaller combatants may be well beyond the reach of naval aviation’s critical enablers. This then puts them and their salvos at greater risk of defeat in detail.
Uneven distribution across force structure can also increase risk to a force’s critical logistical enablers. Smaller ships typically have shorter range than larger ships, which makes them more dependent on logistical support vessels for regular refueling when operating over large oceanic expanses.2 The need to support small warships in a forward operating environment could drive critical support ships deeper into the contested battlespace and put them at higher risk. Or smaller ships would have to remove themselves far and away from the battlespace to meet up with support ships, which comes at the cost of diminishing force distribution.
A force design that plans on introducing large numbers of smaller combatants also demands a commensurate fleet of smaller support ships. Otherwise, the mismatch between the risk-worthiness of the small combatant and the large support ship could substantially increase the risk to critical enablers and force distribution.
Resilient degradation. The attributes that create advantage for a distributed force on a force-wide level should be able to gracefully scale downward if the distributed force fractures into isolated units, rather than allow an adversary to secure outsized leverage by severing links. If the cohesion of a distributed force fractures into standalone units and force concentrations, those isolated elements should still be able to muster substantial volume of fire independently, or be able to form enough proximate connections with nearby forces to mass enough volume on a local basis. Vital combined arms relationships should also be able to withstand force fracturing, or be quickly regenerated by isolated forces seeking each other out.
Last-Ditch Resilience and Effectiveness. Ideally the various elements of a distributed force cannot be easily manipulated into launching wasteful last-ditch fires that needlessly deplete inventory. This instability is minimized by information advantage and by having superior defensive capability at the local level. If elements of a distributed force must fire last-ditch salvos, those salvos are accurate, within reach of viable targets, and can be bolstered by well-controlled contributing fires. Units do not feel compelled to impulsively launch contributing fires to bolster a last-ditch salvo, either because the last-ditch salvo features considerable volume on its own, or due to adequate doctrine and command-and-control.
Critical Tactics and Methods. Aside from more general attributes and traits, specific tactics can create enduring requirements for dedicated force structure. Because sea-skimming salvos should be attrited well before they break over the horizon view of defending warships, the major tactical blindspot imposed by the horizon creates a strong force structure requirement for naval aviation. The desirability of using torpedo attacks to sink warships at far less cost compared to large missile salvos creates a strong requirement for submarines. Certain tactics offer outsized leverage in the battlespace and are deserving of specific force structure. Force structure ultimately exists to manifest the preeminent tactics of the day.
Debating Force Structure Through Small versus Large Surface Combatants
While force design encompasses the whole of the naval enterprise, offering a comprehensive rundown of specific force levels and platform requirements is not the intent of the analysis here. Part 6 assessed the various strengths and weaknesses of major naval platform types, and Part 7 examined the vital enabling roles of naval aviation. Major force structure implications can derive from those factors.
A more focused look at the variability of surface forces can yield broad takeaways for naval force structure. A critical aspect of considering naval force design is in debating the tradeoffs between small and large surface warships in the tactical context of distributed warfighting and massed fires. The comparisons offered here are mainly centered on the magazine depth of surface warships, which is perhaps the core factor in their ability for generating and withstanding mass fires. The average magazine depth of the individual surface force package can have outsized influence over the larger dynamics of mass fires and have cascading effects across combined arms relations.
Small surface warships can be understood as corvettes, fast attack missile boats, and surface warships with a magazine depth of 20 or less vertical launch cells. Large surface warships can be defined as warships with 60 or more vertical launch cells. Useful conclusions about force structure and force packaging can be drawn from how the tactical dynamics of mass fires shift in relation to these two widely separate degrees of magazine depth. A fleet that is more distributed and fields a lower average launch cell count per force package could face very different options and risks when massing fires.
Offense, Defense, and the Unstable Firing Sequence
Small combatants have tended to field smaller missiles with shorter ranges, such as 100 miles or less, and with relatively few missiles per platform.3 This stems from how many of these warships are too small to fit vertical launch cells into their hulls and accommodate the larger and longer-range missiles that would accompany these deeper launchers. Small combatants have instead often had box launchers mounted topside, which imposes major limits on magazine capacity and missile capability. This combination of low magazine depth and shorter-range weapons forces smaller combatants to closely concentrate around a target in larger numbers to achieve enough volume of fire to defeat warship defenses.
The shorter range of box-launched weapons makes it more likely small warships will have to withstand waves of fires if they are to eventually find themselves in a position to launch their own offensive firepower. But when it comes to defensive capability, many small warships that are confined to box launchers also tend to lack the magazine depth and hull space to mount the larger sensors and weapons that facilitate long-range air defense and early warning. Whatever organic air defense capability they field tends to be especially limited, potentially driving small warships toward concentration by the need for denser air defenses. And more warships firing defensive weapons at the same time within the same formation can mean more inefficient weapons depletion, unless those forces are tightly networked and integrated.
If small surface warships are to feature in massed fires, their force structure ideally should equip vertical launch cells at a minimum. Otherwise, a force will incur severe risks by attempting to mass firepower from short-range platforms carrying only a handful of short-range weapons. And even if those platforms do feature vertical launch cells, lower average magazine depth across force packages can have a major effect on the overall character of a mass firing sequence, especially with regard to susceptibility to last-ditch firing pressures, the distribution of timing across a firing sequence, and defensibility. Many of the same disadvantages that derive from box-launched weapons can also be incurred by the increased risk-worthiness of small combatants, where more risk-worthiness implies a capacity for more aggressive posturing in the battlespace.
Small combatants may be heavily dependent on larger warships to provide an enduring measure of air defense coverage. But the isolating effect of the horizon on naval defense tightly compresses the amount of space a warship of any size can defend. A destroyer protecting smaller combatants would only be able to offer meaningful defensive coverage to a relative handful of warships that are very proximate to the destroyer. If a larger number of small combatants want air defense coverage, the more tightly they will have to concentrate around larger combatants, and to perhaps very extreme degrees of concentration. This can create a denser and more distinct mass of signatures an opponent could exploit.
Having aviation provide air defense coverage could allow a wider distribution of small combatants compared to larger warships that are tightly confined by the horizon limit. But aerial assets tend to have more episodic presence compared to warships unless commanders are willing to pay the logistical price of maintaining constant aerial presence. A distributed formation of small combatants may have to hedge against the uncertain persistence of friendly air cover by remaining near larger friendly warships, which comes at the cost of more concentrated force packages.
While steady aviation support can offer more distribution space for small combatants, those warships can still constrain aviation’s maneuver space. In the combined arms relationship between aviation and surface warships, there is a dynamic where the range of the warship’s anti-ship firepower shapes the amount of maneuver space the supporting aviation can leverage in defending the warship and escorting its salvos toward targets. The typically short range of box launcher weapons considerably tightens the amount of space a friendly aircraft can maneuver within between two opposing naval formations. If aviation is to interpose itself in the small space between a formation of friendly small combatants and an opposing large surface warship, then the ranges involved are more likely to put the friendly aircraft within range of the large warship’s air defenses. The range is tight enough to where the aircraft will likely have to worry about its own survivability while also protecting the survivability of the small surface ships and their salvos. And if that target warship launches a last-ditch salvo against the small combatants, the aircraft will be sorely needed to reduce the volume of fire as it is only minutes away from threatening the small warships.
By comparison, vertical launch cells afford supporting aircraft much more maneuver space by virtue of fielding offensive weapons of much longer range. Aircraft that are helping secure warships that are firing on one another hundreds of miles apart will have to worry far less about encountering warship air defenses while shooting down warship-launched anti-ship missiles. The limits of box-launched anti-ship weapons considerably increase the risk to supporting aircraft in this respect.
Shifting toward a more distributed force structure tends to mean a lower average launch cell count per force package, but more force packages overall. Yet this supposed promise of small combatants – fielding more forces across wider distributions – can be in tension with the limits of combined arms relationships. Vertical launch cells can offer small warships more space to distribute and still combine fires, but this increase in spacing and risk-worthiness may take them well beyond the range of friendly aviation support.
It is unclear how willingly small warships would want to venture beyond the umbrella of friendly air coverage, which would already be highly risky for even large warships. Their relatively little long-range air defense capability and the risk of being deprived of friendly aviation support makes widely distributed small warships more susceptible to being stalked, surveilled, and jammed by opposing aircraft. This can put these warships at critical informational disadvantages and make it much easier for the adversary to fire effectively first. If a force is unwilling to risk sending numerous small warships beyond the reach of supporting aviation, then the resulting force posture of those force packages may become more concentrated than what the force design had intended.
Distribution does not only describe the physical aspect of force density, but also the timing aspect of how launches are spread across a firing sequence. It is important to consider where small combatants may fit into a mass firing sequence and how this affects the risk posed to the platform and the firing sequence.
The short range of box-launched missiles typically gives them relatively low time-to-strike, which will likely place their launch platforms far later in a firing sequence, especially one that also includes plenty of Tomahawks. But a small combatant that plans to fire much later in a firing sequence may very well be the first warship to be destroyed by the enemy’s reaction. The longer a warship has to wait to launch during an active firing sequence, the more opportunity the adversary has to launch interruptive strikes against waiting archers. In the case of a small combatant waiting to fire Harpoons or Naval Strike Missiles, it could be forced to wait tens of minutes and even an hour or more while waiting a relatively short distance from the threatened adversary.
Small payloads typically translate into low time-to-strike, which can translate into launching later in a firing sequence, which then converts into more opportunity for a threatened adversary to launch interruptive strikes against the waiting archer. Even if they field longer-range weapons, these effects can also be suffered if the added risk-worthiness of small combatants translates into them being sent deeper into the battlespace and closer to the adversary.
Shortening the firing sequence for the sake of lowering the risk of interruptive strikes against small combatants would come at a steep price. A shorter firing sequence could be obtained by massing enough small combatants so their concentrated formation can launch a standalone salvo of sufficient volume of fire. A shorter firing sequence could also be achieved by combining fires from other domains and platform types, such as aviation, submarines, or stand-in forces that can earn enough proximity to the adversary. But it is debatable how much risk these platforms should assume to help the contributing fires of small combatants become more viable.
Small combatants that do not feature vertical launch cells that can accommodate larger weapons may struggle to put themselves into a more survivable place, both spatially within the battlespace, and temporally within the timeline of a firing sequence. Many of the risks of employing small combatants in mass fires will be mitigated by fielding vertical launch cells that allow them to hold the same long-range weapons that large surface warships can carry, even if their cell count is lower. However, fielding a lower launch cell count per force package still invites some risks with respect to salvo instability.
The relatively weak nature of small combatant defenses makes them highly unstable in a naval missile exchange. A major contributor to this instability is their higher susceptibility to last-ditch firing pressures, which adds instability to the broader mass firing scheme. A warship that can only shoot down a few anti-ship missiles before it is overwhelmed and destroyed may very well be operating on a hair trigger in a major war at sea. If it takes a very low volume of fire for a small warship to feel existentially threatened, then it may take relatively little to provoke these warships into wasting their weapons in last-ditch fires.
And a small volume of fire may not even be needed to be sufficiently threatening. A small warship may have so little defensive capability that methods of active sensing, jamming, posturing, and other actions that could be interpreted as a prelude to an attack could trigger a last-ditch salvo. These methods would allow an adversary to potentially trigger wasteful fires without having to expend any volume of fire of their own. By comparison, larger warships can hold their offensive firepower in reserve while being sensed or even while under active attack, because the incoming fires can have little chance of overwhelming their defenses without enough volume.
A small combatant’s higher susceptibility to last-ditch firing pressures could unravel the effectiveness of a force and its mass firing schemes more rapidly than that of a more concentrated force structure or force posture. In many circumstances a last-ditch salvo will struggle to achieve enough volume of fire, which puts pressure on other platforms to add fires. Because small combatants have smaller magazines, their last-ditch salvos are far less likely to reach meaningful volume without outside support. If small combatants are pressured to discharge last-ditch salvos, then other platforms may also feel strongly pressured to launch contributing fires to give those smaller last-ditch salvos enough volume. If the small warships are close to an adversary or are firing box launcher weapons, then the low time-to-strike would minimize the ability of outside forces to offer contributing fires. This adds further pressure on nearby small warships to launch contributing fires in support of the last-ditch salvos, and makes the firing scheme more unstable. These susceptibility and instability challenges are further exacerbated by the aforementioned difficulties in providing persistent air defense coverage to small combatants.
Larger platforms are less susceptible to last-ditch firing dilemmas by virtue of having denser defenses. It takes more firepower for them to feel existentially threatened, where larger warships are better able to defeat volumes of fire without having their decision-making forced into making irreversible actions. If they must fire a last-ditch salvo, their magazines are deep enough to where they may be able to launch a large enough volume of fire on their own, reducing the pressure on other platforms to contribute fires on short notice, and offering more stability to a mass firing scheme.
When it comes to preserving the longevity of distribution, small combatants can make a force more concentrated through inventory depletion dynamics. Small combatants typically field so few offensive missiles they may have to function like aircraft by firing most if not all of their entire offensive loadout in a single salvo to offer contributing fires. In this sense they combine the disadvantages of both air and surface platforms – the quick depletion of firepower of a small aircraft with the long reload time of a warship.
This can cause small combatants to have a profound influence on the longevity of force distribution in a battlespace. Small combatants could use their numbers to help maximize distribution in the early stages of a fight, but may sharply reduce a force’s distribution shortly after the initial salvos. The shallow nature of small combatant magazines can make their contribution to force distribution more episodic and transient.
After the first few rounds of massed fires, a force may become much more concentrated as its small combatants leave the fight to reload. The ensuing reduction in force distribution makes the remaining warships more vulnerable, and the small combatants may have fewer surviving forces to come back to when they reenter the fight. If a force is counting on a short, sharp war of intense salvo exchanges, small combatants may help frontload the distribution of the force, but then substantially diminish and fluctuate distribution later on.
With respect to complexity of threat presentation, the smaller the magazine, the easier it is for an adversary to ascertain a platform’s missile loadout and tell when it is out of firepower. Many small missile combatants only field one type of offensive missile at a time in their box launchers, simplifying the adversary’s challenge of tracking expenditures and reducing the complexity of threat presentation. Longer-ranged weapons that are fired and waypointed from standoff distances make it more challenging for an adversary to associate specific weapon expenditures with specific force packages. But the typically shorter weapons range and more risk-worthy nature of small combatants can draw them deeper into the battlespace and within easier view of the adversary. If a small combatant depletes itself and then remains in a forward area to maintain a degree of force distribution, it will be easier for the adversary to call the bluff.
Much of the comparison between large and small warships is contingent on specific tactical context. While large combatants have certain advantages over small combatants, it is a broader question of whether a certain force posture or operational design draws more enemy attention toward the larger or smaller combatants of a fleet. Many of the disadvantages of smaller combatants may not be incurred if an enemy believes the larger combatants are more deserving of their massed fires. Much of the drive toward distribution is also fueled by a concern that great power competitors will not struggle to muster overwhelming volumes of fire no matter how dense the naval target. But what is critical to understand is that smaller warships have certain drawbacks that can encourage them to concentrate among themselves and also form force packages with larger warships. And a large group of small ships is still a concentrated formation that can become a priority target for an adversary.
Force packages of large warships can certainly invite catastrophic levels destruction if even a handful of salvos land their blows. Each successful enemy salvo would result in especially steep losses in capability, and where it could easily take 20 or more years of shipbuilding to regenerate major losses. Given the already tightly stretched nature of the U.S. Navy in meeting its existing peacetime commitments, if a single large naval formation falls prey to a salvo, then it could radically reshape the global force posture of the U.S. Navy for the foreseeable future.
A more distributed force structure may be perceived as being able to degrade more gracefully under fire than a more concentrated force structure. But a force that takes distribution to an extreme will be stretched thin, and it may be difficult to perceive the overextension until it is too late. Being stretched thin, whether as a matter of force structure or force posture, invites defeat in detail while making it more difficult for a force to combine its fires. Rather than suffer catastrophic destruction in one fell swoop like a more concentrated force, a force that is stretched thin could suffer rapid cumulative destruction as distributed elements are picked off through defeat in detail.
It is important to be mindful of how small combatants may figure into fleet-on-fleet massed fires, and consider what risks may come with mass firing options whose dependencies could often stem from small combatant disadvantages.
Network Degradation and Fracturing Distributed Forces
Network reliability has a tremendous effect on the extent to which forces and capabilities can be distributed and concentrated in combat. But the distribution and concentration of capability is also what force structure seeks to optimize. A fleet that is built on a vision of a well-functioning network could have a vastly different composition compared to a fleet that expects to mostly fight in the dark.4
Concepts of force employment and force design are heavily influenced by perceptions about the offensive-defensive balance and the hider-finder competition. These beliefs have trended in the direction that the finders and the attackers have been gaining the advantage as sensors and offensive weapons have grown more capable in relation to their counters. It is easier to be found, and once found, it is easier to be destroyed.
Regardless of the overall trends, these balances and competitions are still dependent on specific operational context. The state of advantage is markedly different when a fight is characterized by low emissions, probing scouts, and massed fires held at the ready, versus when the fight has erupted into a cacophony of signatures, networks are degraded or overwhelmed, and widely distributed forces are consumed with their local battles. The ability of a force to mass fires will degrade in combat, especially when command-and-control struggles to keep pace with the rapidly evolving situation.
Force design and force employment must account for how operations may take on a widely different character in these contexts, and how the state of advantage may change. It is especially critical to envision how a collection of widely distributed forces that were meant to combine fires can instead fracture into individual force concentrations that attempt standalone attacks, and what this could imply for designing resilient force structure.
When a network degrades and a distributed force fractures into smaller concentrations, defensive capability rises in relative strength against offensive capability. This is because the act of massing fires across forces is inherently more dependent on networks compared to warship self-defense. While degraded networks could challenge the ability of ships to leverage aviation for missile defense, the radar horizon has an isolating effect on warship defense regardless of the health of the network. An attacking volume of fire can be drawn from a variety of widely separated forces, but the defending volume of fire can be mainly limited to what the targeted warships can muster through their organic capability. A degraded network makes it harder for a ship to make use of its offensive firepower, but the ship’s organic defensive capacity is left relatively untouched. Because of this, the offensive requirement for massing enough volume of fire remains intact, but the ability to meet that requirement becomes much more difficult.
This can shift the character of naval salvo combat when the ability to mass fires is degraded. Standalone force concentrations that are isolated from the broader network may be compelled to seek out other isolated forces in a bid to pool enough capability so they can muster enough volume of fire. But the act of having to seek out and combine with other forces can cause isolated units to release emissions, travel beyond the familiar local battlespace, form denser force concentrations, and engage in other behaviors that increase their targetability.
Because their ability to muster enough volume of fire is more doubtful, isolated forces would also be more pressured to deplete much larger shares of their magazine depth per salvo. Their uncertainty would be especially worsened if they are unable to assess the effectiveness of their attacks against distant targets or track adversary weapons expenditure. This knowledge is valuable for calibrating weapons expenditure, and uncertainty would encourage a force to expend larger volumes of fire to err on the side of risking more overkill to ensure lethal effect. These isolated forces would then suffer quicker depletion than if they could combine their fires in smaller increments with broader forces. As isolated forces form ad-hoc force packages and improvise standalone fires, the distributed posture of the overall force would degrade as isolated units quickly deplete themselves in piecemeal fashion.
Isolated forces that retain a significant amount of capacity, such as larger warships or force concentrations, will be less likely to face these pressures. Larger warships will have deeper magazines, more robust sensors, and organic aviation detachments, where each helps preserve a warship’s ability to gather information and muster enough volume of fire when isolated.
Isolated small combatants that are severed from the network will be less likely to launch enough volume of fire on their own. They will be more dependent on seeking out other forces to pool enough magazine capacity, and where the search for other isolated forces could invite more risk. And even if coherence is preserved, the dependence on outside forces and functioning networks is still greater overall for small combatants. A force that primarily fights as a collection of broadly distributed small combatants is a force that is fundamentally more dependent on network resilience.
Distribution of Fire Across Force Structure
Distribution is often described as a force multiplier through challenging command-and-control, especially by making targeting priorities less clear.5 But steep command-and-control burdens can also come with sourcing firepower from one’s own forces, organizing that firepower into a timely mass firing sequence, committing to seeing it through, and assessing the effects. The density of the opponent’s defenses can increase these command-and-control burdens. While a denser concentration of capability can add clarity to target prioritization, it can also add ambiguity by creating doubts about whether many different kill chains can be effectively harmonized into generating the necessary volume of fire on time. This allows dense defensive capability to also impose challenges on adversary decision-making, but through different mechanisms than force distribution.
When assembling massed fires, commanders have to make decisions about distribution in two key respects. Commanders have to decide how they will source firepower from across their force structure, and decide how to distribute that firepower across the force structure of the adversary. Different force designs will affect the distribution of how firepower is sourced and applied.
A commander who is assembling massed fires will have two primary options for growing the volume of fire. One option is to pull deeper from larger magazines, and another is to add more platforms to the firing sequence. With respect to the command-and-control burden, it should generally be easier to pull deeper from a larger platform’s magazine then it will be to add more platforms to the firing sequence. If a commander decides they need to quickly add more volume of fire to an imminent firing sequence, it may be easier to ask a large warship to fire 30 more missiles than originally planned, rather than source the same firepower by adding multiple new platforms and force packages to the firing sequence on short notice.
Each new platform and force package that is added to a firing sequence will make that sequence subject to more sources of friction, such as by hoping each unit’s local operational circumstances are favorable enough for it to launch fires on time. The more distributed platforms that are added, the more the firing sequence may incur interruptions, delays, and other challenges. A firing sequence that features many small and widely separated combatants and force packages will have more variability. A force that is mainly composed of small combatants is more likely to grow a volume of fire by adding more platforms to the firing sequence rather than taking deeper pulls on magazines.
By comparison, there is less command-and-control friction and less variability when asking a large surface warship, or a denser concentration of forces, to simply fire a larger volume of fire. This is not to suggest that one method of adding fires will always tend to be superior, but it demonstrates how the concentration of capability can simplify command-and-control in valuable respects, especially in a form of warfighting where a speedier ability to marshal volume of fire can be decisive in firing effectively first.
Choosing to organize and launch a large volume of fire against a naval formation is a momentous operational decision and inflection point. But the weight of decision may shift depending on the scale of the target formation and the volume of fire required to overwhelm it. The prospect of incurring substantial weapons depletion in a single firing sequence, while operating with an imprecise grasp of the offensive-defensive balance of naval salvo combat, may weigh more heavily on the minds of commanders when tasked with destroying denser naval formations compared to smaller, more distributed elements.
Decades of naval capability trends have encouraged high-end fleet design to focus on being able to generate and withstand massive volumes of missile firepower. While great power rivalry has set the stage for this incredibly resource-intensive form of combat to escalate, it has also set the stage for asymmetric counters and offsets that could radically reshape naval force structure. A squadron of small quadcopters could render a destroyer impotent where an anti-ship missile salvo could not, or microwave weapons could one day negate salvos that could not be stopped by advanced defensive missiles. Asymmetric counters are appearing on the horizon, but their long-term consequences for naval force structure are difficult to perceive.
The truth of what ultimately makes for superior naval force structure and weapon interactions is a moving target, something that is evolving rapidly and imperceptibly as technology changes and humanity’s ability to grasp the implications ebbs and flows. Much of this truth will remain unseen until it is violently unmasked by high-end warfare.
Part 10 will focus on force development efforts for manifesting DMO.
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. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 39 : No. 1 , Article 1, 1986, https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4426&context=nwc-review.
2. For reference, a 9,500-ton Arleigh Burke-class destroyer can travel 4,400 nautical miles at 20 knots on a full load of fuel, while a 3,500-ton Littoral Combat Ship can travel 3,500 nautical miles at 14 knots on a full fuel load.
“U.S. Navy Destroyer (Ship Class – DDG),” U.S. Navy, https://www.surfpac.navy.mil/Ships/By-Class/US-Navy-Destroyer-Ship-Class-DDG/.
“Littoral Combat Ship Class – LCS3,” U.S. Navy, https://www.surfpac.navy.mil/Ships/By-Class/Littoral-Combat-Ship-Class-LCS/.
3. Common box-launched anti-ship weapons that fit these characteristics include the Harpoon, Naval Strike Missile, and China’s YJ-83.
4. This comment is paraphrased from a similar point made in an earlier work by the author. See:
Dmitry Filipoff, “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 7: Strategy and Force Development,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 10, 2018, https://cimsec.org/how-the-fleet-forgot-to-fight-pt-7-strategy-and-force-development/.
5. These arguments are summarized and analyzed in Part 1 of the series. See:
Dmitry Filipoff, “Fighting DMO, Pt. 1: Defining Distributed Maritime Operations and the Future of Naval Warfighting,” Center for International Maritime Security, February 20, 2023, https://cimsec.org/fighting-dmo-pt-1-defining-distributed-maritime-operations-and-the-future-of-naval-warfare/.
Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (April 9, 2022) – Guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) steams behind amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA 7), April 9, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart)