How The Fleet Forgot to Fight Pt. 8: A Force Development Strategy

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards. Read Part 5 on Material Condition and Availability. Read Part 6 on Strategy and Operations. Part 7 on Strategy and Force Development.

By Dmitry Filipoff


“You sort of take on the role of one of the leaders in those battles and you get to rethink it through and you lead the team through that talk and you’re there on station. It’s a very educational experience, and I’ve always envied the opportunity to do that…I always envied these land battles, and the Army or the Marine Corps that fought them because in our business we have nothing like [staff rides]…We can study our battles but we have nothing like that. At the end of our conflict, at the end of our battles, the winners sail away victorious and the losers sink to the bottom, and the sea washes over them and soon after, there’s almost no trace of what happened. Maybe, if you want to reach, you can think about walking the Constitution, and you get a chance to see what war at sea in the age of sail might have been like. Maybe you can walk the USS Missouri and you get a chance to see what fighting that battleship in World War II might have been like…Pearl Harbor, a naval battle of sorts…you can see where the terrain might have played a role. But in general, we don’t get a chance to do anything close to a staff ride, and it’s a stark testament to the unforgiving nature of our environment, and it imposes a level of accountability far greater than any administrative measures that any Navy could ever take.” –Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson1 

Major conditions are coming to fruition that will allow the Navy to transform itself for the high-end fight. A new national security strategy has officially refocused the Department of Defense on great power competition after decades of focusing on lower-end threats. A new deploying construct based on unpredictability will help the Navy reset its operating patterns and find more time to work on itself. New weapons and networks that will give the Navy greater firepower than ever before are about to hit the fleet. The time is ripe for revolution. What force development strategy will guide the Navy into the future?

Setting Priorities

“NIFC-CA employs ships and aircraft to consummate missile engagements beyond the radar horizon. This execution is operational rocket science. Those who master it will be identified as the best and brightest.” –Captain Jim Kilby, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense,” 20162

Force development is a process of evolution, where the education and equipment of the force is being continually updated to align with visions of how future conflict may transpire. A force development strategy must guide this evolution by aligning the components of military evolution, mainly capabilities, tactics, doctrine, and training. These components can be aligned toward producing specific warfighting concepts, and also toward generating individual tactics that are a key element of succeeding in future combat regardless of the higher-order concepts they serve.

But the major warfighting experiments and training events that make force development flourish are undoubtedly large expenditures of time and effort. Their scarcity can act as a constraint that forces prioritization. Numerous stakeholders will be competing for time in order to fully experiment with tactics, capabilities, concepts of operation, and other ideas. The products of force development will then compete for the time of the Sailor, and force the Navy to prioritize what it wants Sailors to be proficient at. As it considers a wide variety of demand signals, the Navy must deliberate on what specific force development questions are important enough to warrant sustained series of experiments and new training curriculum. If Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) is an operational warfighting concept in need of a force development strategy, then the interconnected nature of force development can be revealed in a specific line of effort that develops a hallmark tactic of DMO.

Distributed naval forces will be able to use networking to aggregate anti-ship firepower from across the force and collect missiles into overwhelming salvos on demand. But it is still practically impossible for the U.S. Navy to execute missile aggregation tactics because almost all of its anti-ship missiles have a meager range of less than 80 miles. That hard limit means U.S. ships can barely spread out and distribute themselves if they want to keep their anti-ship firepower concentrated. A lack of long-range anti-ship firepower will stand in the way of the Navy’s ability to full realize its next major warfighting concept until new capabilities are introduced.

Capability introduction must be matched by tactical development. This will require a heavy experimentation component to identify the best means. What is the ideal method to collect firepower from across a distributed force? What are the best methods to program missiles in such a way as to overwhelm and confuse an adversary? Aggregating missile fires can be a hallmark tactic of distributed naval forces, but will depend on the ability of units to execute other tactics as a prerequisite. Units must be able to use engage-on-remote tactics to cue networked fires from widely dispersed forces, and to use retargeting tactics to keep the kill chains of those missiles fresh. DMO requires new interlocking sets of networking tactics if it is to be fleshed out as a concept. 

Training must prioritize proficiency for executing those specific tactics, and should seek to cultivate an overall tactical sense. Units will need good tactical sense to assess the risks of emissions control while facilitating networking. Units must also be trained in executing tactics for managing datalinks, including through jamming and deception. If Sailors are not well-trained in managing datalinks under contested conditions, then a training shortfall can also be enough to inhibit the Navy from making the most of DMO.

DMO can also take a note from how the interwar period Navy prioritized its own force development. Some of the interwar period Navy’s most important subjects of tactical and doctrinal investigation were fleet formations. The advent of airpower and the diverse types of units that could engage one another in naval combat added a significant degree of complexity in designing fleet formations. These formations attempted to promote maneuverability, facilitate the concentration of firepower, and give room for a variety of command and control options from the fleet commander down to the initiative of the unit leader.

Interwar period fleet formation for cruising. (Source: Trent Hone, “Building a Doctrine: U. S. Naval Tactics and Battle Plans in the Interwar Period“)

The advent of distributed operations and the enormous range of modern weapon systems presents the Navy with a similar challenge, but of greater magnitude. The Navy must focus a significant amount of effort into crafting a variety of distributed fleet formations – fighting stances for how a distributed fleet could steam into a contested zone or meet a hostile force of a certain kind.

Because the speed of a ship is miniscule compared to the speed of missiles, a formation of ships could hardly change during fleet combat. A modern fleet action could be over within minutes, causing fleets to rely heavily on speedy aviation for flexibility and responsiveness. Therefore a distributed fleet formation should also pay great care to a distributed airpower formation, and the nature of that fleet-wide ship-to-aircraft interface can help determine tactics for emissions control, retargeting, and engage-on-remote. Understanding how various distributed airpower schemes can overlay distributed fleet formations is a prime area of interest, as well as how critical networking capabilities like NIFC-CA and CEC can be flexed with different formations.

An animation of a hypothetical scenario demonstrating the Cooperative Engagement Capability and an associated fleet formation. (JHU APL)

Distributed fleet formations are a higher-order force development question for the Distributed Maritime Operations concept. A major fleet action is a complex mosaic of many warfighting dynamics, but the Navy needs to prioritizes specialized series of events that flesh out individual areas to gradually fill in this mosaic and refine the larger exercises and simulations.  

However, experimenting with force development usually suffers from handicaps posed by the numerous artificialities and practical restrictions that come with warfighting simulations. Safety regulations can sometimes be so restrictive that they harm the realism of exercises to an unreasonable degree. The use of special “war modes” for certain sensors and electronic capabilities can also be restricted. Firings are often simulated since it can be highly impractical and dangerous to use real weapons. But these restrictions and artificialities run the risk of hiding valuable insight and hindering force development. Force development must find ways to selectively push these limits for the sake of realism and to ensure that tactical investigations are thorough. A force development strategy should define targeted tactical investigations that are being held back by restrictions or obscured by artificialities, and execute specialized series of events in controlled environments. This will help ensure that the details of certain tactics or capabilities are not overlooked, and that surprise is not incurred.

A strong candidate for frequent live-fire testing and experimentation is the incoming generation of anti-ship missiles that are about to hit the fleet. A significant amount of tactical decision-making could still transpire after an anti-ship missile salvo is fired, and much of that decision-making could be in the hands of autonomous actors. Missiles can use a variety of sensors and networking to close in on their targets, refine their attack profiles, and evade defenses. Other platforms can use networking and retargeting to keep the salvo’s kill chain fresh, and ensure missiles are not deceived by decoys or jamming. Actors could in turn seek to interfere with the datalinks that connect the missiles within a salvo and with the broader force. Evolving the tactics, behavior, and decision-making of autonomous missile salvos and those defending against them is a paramount area of interest for focused tactical investigation. 

Arguably one of the most interesting recent developments in naval arms is the advent of the anti-torpedo torpedo, a novel system the U.S. Navy is currently installing on its capital ships. What makes this system noteworthy is that it introduces a hardkill dynamic into modern torpedo defense for what appears to be the first time. Prior to the advent of this system, it appears torpedo defense was confined to only softkill countermeasures – decoys and other distractions that could lure a torpedo away but not outright destroy it. Introducing a hardkill dynamic into torpedo defense could drastically change the tactics of undersea warfare, and create new offensive/defensive dynamics. If the anti-torpedo torpedo proves to be effective enough and widely proliferates, then it could negate much of the American military’s offensive advantage in the undersea domain until its submarines finally get anti-ship missiles. The tactical effects of this seemingly innocuous system could have serious strategic consequences.

Experimental Countermeasure Anti-Torpedo (CAT) launches from the fantail of USS George HW Bush (CVN-77) in May, 2013. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Power projection operations presume a degree of sea control in order to be executed, and in a similar sense, naval power presumes a degree of cyber control in order to function at all. Warships are highly complex machines made up of advanced electronics, and fleets form sophisticated networks from among their many elements. The cyber terrain of an individual warship is enormous (let alone that of a fleet), and offers numerous points of failure.

It is not too far-fetched to suggest that a cyberattack on a ship could spark grievous mechanical failures, hijack equipment from operators, or scramble the code of combat systems like Aegis. In a time of war, ships could be stuck pierside or dead in the water if they are being wracked by cyberattacks. No Navy can afford to lose in cyberspace, making cyberwarfare one of the most important areas for force development. In spite of this, those who led the cyberforensics investigation into the USS John S. McCain collision suggested that the Navy is extremely far behind on establishing even a basic cyber defense capability:

“To generate network situational awareness sophisticated enough to do cyber forensics, the team will need to search for electronic anomalies across a wide range of interconnected systems. A key component of anomaly detection is the availability of normal baseline operating data, or trusted images, that can be used for comparison. These critical datasets of trusted images do not currently exist.”3

Cyberwarfare is a prime area for the Navy to loosen the restraints and create a specialized series of tactical investigations and training events. However, it will be challenging to effectively resource and constrain this sort of exploration because of the expansiveness of the cyber domain. In order to resource realistic cyber warfighting practice and experimentation, the Navy should consider taking ships from each class and turning them into full-time cyber battlegrounds. Crews will be able to practice damage control on realistic terrain, and operators will be able to understand how gracefully (or ungracefully) their capabilities degrade. For certain experiments, cyber Red teams must be empowered to break things and attack systems with the relentlessness of a great power adversary. Over time this will help build a base of knowledge on cyber hygiene, and eventually aim to give the Navy the confidence that adversaries have not been able to pre-position cyber weapons into ships and systems during peacetime.

Designing the Field of Application

“Two interdependent activities, exercises and experimentation, help to bring joint concepts to life. Throughout history, military exercises have served to reduce uncertainty, increase readiness, and refine and test new concepts. Recognizing the complexity of today’s strategic landscape, we are reenergizing and reorienting the joint exercise program…” –Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford4

Military tools are more advanced and interconnected than ever, driving warfighting concepts toward more complex tactics and doctrine. Yet it is infeasible to realistically test the complex tangle of a great power battle when it can involve things as expensive as warships, as numerous as missile salvos, or as expansive as cyber warfare. These trends are pushing military experimentation and training further and further into the virtual realm, and making force development more vulnerable to the caveats of simulation. The difference between what can be reasonably tested and the nature of actual combat has grown to unprecedented heights, and surprises may lie within that gulf of the unknown. Because of this, force development must include a robust system of real-world experimentation and training that pushes these limits frequently and with rigor.

Exercises can serve as the bedrock of force development because only they can serve as the real-world field of application short of war itself. How these events and their participants evolve over time can reflect the pace of learning. The concepts and scenarios that are deemed worthy of sustained real-world testing and training will reflect the highest priorities. The standards that undergird the field of application can reflect the seriousness of force development, and the level of understanding on warfighting. The learning architecture that is built around exercises helps determine how stakeholders can make the most of the field of application. Ultimately, how the military makes use of exercises as the field of application can reveal much about the state of a force development strategy as a whole.

Exercise events can be widely dissimilar, depending if they are focused on training, experimentation, or partnership engagement. The Navy must define standards and create formats for its major warfighting experiments and training events. It can also learn from earlier difficulties in designing major experimentation exercises. The Fleet Battle Experiments intended to be exercises that could test out important ideas for the Navy’s development. However, they became overcomplicated. They often combined elements of virtual forces, live forces, readiness evolutions, and wargaming. On top of this hodgepodge they stacked numerous test goals driven by many stakeholders. All of this complexity made it difficult for the Navy to extract value from the events.

Adding virtual forces to live exercises can be driven by the need to create appropriately large scenarios. However, because they are simulations, virtual forces introduce simulation caveats which can complicate analysis. Compared to live opposing forces, virtual units can certainly be more accurate representations of adversaries in a technical sense, but their behavior may be more simplistic. Virtual forces can hold great value for training events, but they must be more carefully used when mixed with experimentation. 

Wargaming is a virtual field of application, and there is already a significant learning architecture built around certain wargaming programs. Wargames focused on tactics and doctrine should work together with the real-world field of application in a process of cooperative refinement, where wargames can refine concepts for eventual field application. But some balance must be struck between the two, lest wargames get too ahead of themselves or too much is spent on real-world trials.

Adding too many goals to the Fleet Battle Experiments made it difficult to organize follow-on events that could build on insights. Because warfighting is highly complex, multiple rounds of trial and error must characterize force development trials. However, if the Navy is to facilitate this sort of trial and error on the field of application, then events must be tightly constrained to focus on narrowly defined objectives. Otherwise, it is extraordinarily difficult to design the appropriate follow-through for a large-scale event that attempts to answer too many questions for too many stakeholders.

Multiple rounds of trial and error must also require that events take the form of a series, and where a single series can be focused on exhaustively probing only a handful of questions, warfare areas, or scenarios. One can look to the Air Force, with Red Flag as the premier combat training event, Green Flag as the main close air support exercise, and Space Flag which focuses on space-based effects. Those who program the schedule of events for the field of application should often think in terms of series, and not just one-off events.


In a responsible system of force development, warfighting concepts and programs should live or die by their ability to prove their tactical worth. Arguments on the lasting usefulness of a system are not settled by simply identifying the capability it brings or the mission areas it contributes to. Capabilities have to be tested with an eye toward the specific tactics they produce, and in fleshed out environments. Regardless if the systems are functioning in a technical sense, capabilities can be proven useless or even counterproductive in the context of their application. Poor tactical performance in simulations or exercises should be enough to force changes or cancellations as force development weeds out brittle ideas. If a service or a warfighting community is concerned about the viability of a particular concept or a system, then they should be made to compete through superior tactical innovation. But having realistic proving grounds, a robust learning architecture, and a healthy learning culture is not enough to have the utmost confidence in the military’s ability to change. Despite all the good they can do for military evolution, exercises and wargames have often been deliberately shaped to defend preconceived notions.

Objective tactical investigation and competition requires that trials be realistic, unbiased, and transparent to crucial stakeholders. However, defense programs and warfighting concepts do not exist in an objective vacuum, and involve bureaucratic and political equity. Various communities within each of the services compete with one another for resources for their respective programs, and each has their sacred cows. Multiple tools can exist for the same mission, such as for anti-submarine warfare, but reside among the different tribes and communities. Institutional divisions can emerge along varying interpretations on what will dominate in future war. The services can also compete with each other, such as in the infamous Revolt of the Admirals that was driven by arguments that pitted the Air Force’s strategic bombers against the Navy’s carrier aviation. Questions of tactical effectiveness are but one element of these debates, and sometimes parochial interests can become overriding. These dynamics can also go far beyond the Pentagon and also reach into the halls of Congress. Members of Congress can strongly depend on certain defense programs for jobs and political capital, and can hold other attachments to certain systems of interest. In the past, Congress has forced the military to retain platforms that the services deemed to have outlived their tactical usefulness, including battleships and the A-10.

In How Much Is Enough, Alain Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith pointed to how military culture and bureaucracy can be susceptible to unobjective influences, and how independent analysts in the once-controversial Systems Analysis office were able to compensate:

“Military officers as a group (and some civilians as well) are in a position to have very limited intellectual and career independence. While many individuals succeed in standing up to the system, there are numerous institutional factors working to limit the officer’s intellectual independence…The military man lives in an atmosphere in which many assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs – generally unspoken – are shared…Officers who do not share these beliefs are liable to reprisal on their annual fitness reports…This lack of career independence further helps to ensure conformity to the Service point of view…[independent civilian] analysts could more easily ask the hard questions and pose genuine alternatives, arriving at a recommendation via a more rational and objective process. They were not constrained to defer to rank, age, experience, or chain of command. They had the time to think about important long-range policy problems and [had] the room for imagination, initiative, and fresh thinking. They were comparatively free to gore sacred cows. Such liberties are institutionally very difficult to exercise in a military organization, joint or single Service. There have been loud complaints about civilians ‘muzzling the military’; but anyone who is familiar with the system knows that most of the muzzling is done by the military themselves.”5 

For these reasons and others, the Department of Defense and the Congress should establish an independent body that seeks to provide an unbiased set of eyes on major exercising and wargaming programs. Important independent bodies already exist in the Department of Defense, such as the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE, which is descended from the Systems Analysis office) and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOTE). These organizations aid in assessing major programmatic decisions and provide oversight and evaluation of weapons testing, respectively. These organizations play important roles in providing independent assessments, maintaining standards, and help act as a check on the military’s parochial interests. An organization that seeks to provide similar functions for major exercises and wargames could focus on accounting for:

  • Nature and extent of exercise/wargame artificialities and assumptions
  • Fidelity and behavior of opposing forces
  • Fairness of adjudication
  • Effective inclusion and communication of results in follow-on reporting

Exercises and wargames can have enormous programmatic implications like the programs CAPE and DOTE assess. However, they are venues that can still be corrupted by institutional bias. One such example includes the Congressionally mandated “flyoff” between the F-35 and A-10, which was supposed to be an exercise designed to assess the tactical merits of the platforms in the close air support mission. However, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent watchdog, released a scathing report on the flyoff that argued the exercise design was deliberately distorted to favor the F-35. While pointing to a variety of flaws, POGO claimed:

“Air Force leaders…are staging an unpublicized, quickie test on existing training ranges, creating unrealistic scenarios that presuppose an ignorant and inert enemy force, writing ground rules for the tests that make the F-35 look good—and they got the new testing director, the retired Air Force general Robert Behler, to approve all of it. According to sources closely involved with the A-10 versus F-35 fly-off, who wished to remain anonymous out of concerns about retaliation, this testing program was designed without ever consulting the Air Force’s resident experts on close air support, A-10 pilots and joint terminal attack ground controllers…”6

The frequency with which it appears the military distorts the field of application to protect assumptions, to include scripting behaviors and other measures, points to an uncomfortable truth of force development. The military cannot be expected to always accept or disclose the most disruptive implications that can come from investigating the future of war. Despite their hefty mandate, the armed forces, like any other organization, can still stifle progress through bias, bureaucratic inertia, and an unreceptive culture. An independent body that assesses major exercises and wargames can add needed discipline to force development, safeguard the field of application, and promote military evolution that is appropriately receptive to change.

Resourcing and Reorganization

“Sailors are the most modular, lethal, and adaptable asset the Navy has. No weapon system, no matter how technologically advanced, is more instrumental to warfighting effectiveness than the person directing it. But competency and confidence are not naturally ingrained in a sailor. Warfighting effectiveness only can develop in a sailor who is properly educated, rigorously trained, and meaningfully assessed—and all these factors require resourcing.” –Lt. Brendan Cordial, “People Over Payloads,” 20187

If strategy is to inform budget in an age of great power competition, then the Navy must decide how it can invest more into learning tactics and doctrine. Resourcing priorities can focus on providing more operational units in order to increase the frequency of major training events and warfighting experiments, as well as investing in the unique personnel assignments that are specifically tailored toward force development. However, the current political environment and other constraints are not going to allow for a sudden major increase in force development funding. When it comes to resourcing, how the Navy makes the most of its force development will greatly depend on how it reinvests its time.

The Navy’s force development agenda and the overseas operational agenda will compete for the fleet’s time and units. The Navy’s current ability to resource its own force development with enough field trials and opposing forces will be heavily tied to its ability to wind down its overseas operations. With respect to becoming a learning organization that intends to learn more about high-end warfighting specifically, the Navy must weigh the learning value of major force development events versus overseas operations. In this vein, it should be plainly clear that advanced training and experimentation events help the Navy learn more about high-end warfighting than virtually any presence patrol or maritime security mission.

If the Navy wants to maximize the “reps and sets” of its force development, then it can invert what it has long been its operating paradigm. Advanced events like SWATT and the Fleet Problems shouldn’t just be the prelude to a long deployment, they can become the point of a deployment. Allowing units to do these events several times in the course of a single stretch will accelerate the Navy’s learning to incredible heights, and give the training audience multiple attempts to better themselves in large-scale venues. More importantly, this will add greater speed to the Navy’s ongoing transition away from the low-end focus and gradually reduce the strategic liability it incurred. How frequently the fleet chooses to conduct high-end training events at the onset of this transition will determine how quickly the Navy can close the door on any adversary that seeks to capitalize on the Navy’s lingering neglect of full-spectrum skills.

A baseline resourcing requirement can include defining a dedicated opposing force, because major real-world trials will often need meaningful opposition as a basic realism requirement, and dedicated opposing forces require adequate time to train to foreign doctrine. By designating a combination of units to act as a dedicated opposing force, the fleet will also have a major unit that can be mostly focused on solving Navy problems and not just combatant commander problems. Such a force can maximize its size and availability by including virtual units and operating on a workup cycle similar to that of forward deployed naval forces. 

Another resourcing requirement will come from how the field of application is organized, and the various series of events that are defined. Some events could focus exclusively on training while others focus only on experimentation, since the two can be distinct types of events. Many tactical investigations will require a series of experiments, and many units will need to pass through training crucibles each year. How the Navy organizes the field of application and then allocates units and spends readiness across the various events can drive resourcing requirements. 

The Navy has a tremendous advantage over its great power rivals when it comes to resourcing force development. The numerous allies the U.S. has around the world can also put their navies to use in answering critical force development questions. Allies can be asked to investigate specific tactical problems, and can offer more units to serve as opposition forces. Every allied navy adds size to the field of application, and can allow for a more expansive force development agenda that is shared among partners.

Aside from investing more energy toward live exercises and away from forward operations, the Navy must learn to better resource learning at the individual level. The Navy must give Sailors the time to focus on what makes them better warfighters, and also improve access to the career opportunities that hold the greatest value for their development as warfighters.

Debriefs and replays can and should be reviewed by many more than those who actually participated. No Sailor needs to wait to participate in order to learn from a Fleet Problem, a SWATT evolution, or a wargame. The Navy can widen the reach of its learning architecture by creating deliverable lesson plans and replays for each of these events. Easily digestible and widely disseminated deliverables will multiply the size of the training audience, and make the most of expensive exercises. However, this sort of learning experience should not be left to the initiative of Sailors, since the Navy’s lessons learned systems are infamously difficult and underutilized. Instead, Sailors should be mandated to review these sorts of replays and debriefs as a part of their training curriculum, which will ensure the Navy multiplies the value of these events. Also, for certain trials, opposition forces need to be capable and unpredictable enough so this sort of reviewing doesn’t amount to finding an answer key.

Sailors still need to be given enough time if they are to have better learning experiences. The Navy already makes plenty of time for Sailors to learn things, but among numerous workshops, inspections, and trainings, not enough are truly focused on making Sailors better warfighters. Leaders have long sought to cut these burdens and have made some progress, but Sailors are still overburdened and their focus spread thin. The Navy must recognize that many of these burdens are the accumulated baggage of a risk-averse culture and a low-end operating focus that was not well-constrained. Similar to how a SWATT exercise teaches more than virtually any presence patrol, spending a few hours watching a Fleet Problem replay teaches more about warfighting than virtually any admin paperwork. The Navy should redefine individual training requirements for the high-end fight, and then force most other burdens to conform to those requirements and not the other way around.

By the time the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbor, 99 percent of the U.S. Navy’s admirals were graduates of the Naval War College.8 All the admirals who graduated from the interwar period Naval War College learned from a curriculum that included a heavy wargaming component. Through multiple wargames that could last weeks at a time, naval officers acted out major fleet actions against great power rivals and became engrossed in warfighting specifics. This shared wargaming experience was invaluable in giving the Navy’s admirals a common baseline of expertise on tactics, doctrine, and operational thinking.

The first move of Tactical Maneuver IV for the Naval War College class of 1923. This chart shows the Red fleet at the upper right and the Blue fleet in the lower left. (“Battle of Emerald Bank, Tactical Problem IV, TAC 94, 1923. Naval Historical Collection) [Click to Expand]
While many of the modern Navy’s flag officers are also graduates of the College, the current curriculum is more diverse and does not come close to producing the base of warfighting expertise the interwar Navy earned through the same institution. Wargaming programs at the College such as the Gravely and Halsey programs have become very exclusive, yet do not often feature in the experience of flag officers. Wargaming experience should become more mainstream throughout the Navy’s officer ranks because it is a valuable training and research experience, and it is far more affordable training than live exercising.

Distinction in wargaming should also be rewarded with better career prospects. This should hold especially true for earning flag rank because wargaming can help compensate for the natural disadvantages of how command experience evolves. Naval officers usually do not have the opportunity to lead multi-ship operations until they have served for decades and are already fairly senior. A more mainstream wargaming curriculum will help the Navy identify leaders with a knack for commanding large-scale combat operations far earlier in their careers, and ensure that the senior ranks are populated with leaders that have experience thinking through high-end conflict scenarios.


Whether artillery begins to rain on the Korean peninsula, or Iranian mines litter the Strait of Hormuz, or a major terrorist attack unfolds, the Navy must never again allow itself to totally do away with preparing for the high-end fight. The story of the modern American Navy is unfortunately that of an organization that was divorced from the main purpose that had long animated its spirit, and dysfunction radiated throughout its institutions as a result. A difficult transition looms ahead, its urgency underscored by the sudden naval ascendance of a great power rival. 

The U.S. Navy still retains its global preeminence, and has the greatest potential of any other navy today. Its history is replete with historic victories, its resources are unmatched, and the world still regards it as a powerful expression of American global leadership. The mettle of the fleet will be forged anew as an emerging era of great power competition infuses it with urgent spirit.

Now the U.S. Navy is embarking on a bold transformation, and soon it will rediscover the power of its essence–to command the seas. 

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


1. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, USN, Keynote Speech before the Surface Navy Association, January 9, 2018. 

2. Captain Jim Kilby, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Integrated Naval/Air Missile Defense,” CIMSEC, April 4, 2014. 

3. Zachary Staples and Maura Sullivan, “Cyberphysical Forensics: Lessons from the USS John S. McCain Collision,” CIMSEC, January 22, 2018. 

4. General Joseph Dunford, USMC, “From the Chairman: Maintaining a Boxer’s Stance,” Joint Force Quarterly, June 19, 2017. 

5. Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much is Enough?, RAND , 1971. 

6. Dan Grazier, “Close Air Support Fly-Off Farce,” POGO, July 10, 2018. 

7. Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, “People Over Payloads,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceeings, May 2018. 

8. John Lillard, Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II, Potomac Books, 2016. 

Featured Image: NORWEGIAN SEA (Oct. 26, 2018) Aviation Machinist’s Mate Airman Jadah Martinez inspects an after burner for fuel leaks during an active test on the fantail aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Victoria Granado/Released) 

4 thoughts on “How The Fleet Forgot to Fight Pt. 8: A Force Development Strategy”

  1. It would seem that 21st century naval warfighting would be ideally suited for training via use of large scale integrated simulators. Indeed, computer games for decades have used naval battles, both historical and current technology based scenarios. We use simulators to help teach seamanship, just as we use them for training aviators. But do we set up large scale simulators for naval warfighting?

    Effectively a simulator could be designed to replicate a typical CIC in a CG or DDG, as well as the control room of a SSN, with multiple personnel filling the various roles in everything from AEGIS combat info (sensors, target identifiers, etc.) to missile and countermeasures controls, links to own ship’s bridge for ship control, and links to offship actors such as fellow strike group members, aircraft, central command authorities, and other networked nodes, etc.

    Granted, this would be a major undertaking to develop such an integrated warfare simulator, but participants can gain more from a week’s worth of reps and sets in such a simulator than they otherwise could in a full career of actual warfighting exercises. And this approach would be easy to upgrade as new capabilities (sensors, weapons, countermeasures, comms, etc.) are introduced to the fleet.

    Effectively, 21st century naval warfare inhabits a cyber world, with various inputs and outputs that are individually fairly easy to simulate. Taken together as a fully integrated warship/battle group simulator, the benefits in not only teaching tactics, but developing those tactics, would be invaluable.

    1. I have done a bit more reading on this, and it does appear that the Navy has now developed a combat simulator for SuW. If so that is a very good thing. The article that mentioned this also quoted Admiral Brown as saying that when the Surface Warfare community investigated the state of readiness after the 2017 collisions involving DDG 51s that the leadership discovered that the crews of LCS were much more proficient at ship handling than were the crews of other surface warships … and that apparently the advanced shiphandling simulators developed to train the LCS crews had a lot do do with that.

      I cannot help but believe that if the SuW community made SuW simulator training a priority for all its warship crews, it could not help but to greatly improve the fleet’s readiness.

  2. The author writes, “…it should be plainly clear that advanced training and experimentation events help the Navy learn more about high-end warfighting than virtually any presence patrol or maritime security mission.”

    The author goes on to say that, while waiting for a “high-end” fight to occur, the Navy should focus on schools, exercises, and training instead of engaging in real-world operations.

    The Navy is already unable to perform basic navigation skills because it spends so much time fighting fake enemies, fake missiles, fake submarines, and fake aircraft. All of these warfare domains are important, but if sailors lose sight of basic maritime competencies or real-world situational awareness, the war is lost before it begins.

    The enemy gets a vote. Even if the enemy has high-end capabilities commensurate with ours, why would they choose those exclusively when asymmetric tactics prove more effective?

    Our sailors can, and must, be able to fight at all levels of war – simultaneously and seamlessly. Schoolhouse training, simulators, and at-sea home water exercises have their place, but so too does actual engagement in the locations and activities where the next conflicts are likely to arise. Exercising, sailing, and engaging around the world builds familiarity with baseline operations – making it far easier to spot when something is out of the ordinary, the split-second advance warning of the next USS COLE – builds joint and allied capacity, and develops intimate knowledge of operational areas and platforms.

    The Sea of Azov and the South China Sea prove that if we sit around waiting and training for the next “high-end” naval conflict to arise, our competitors, even near-peer competitors (pace Sun Tzu), will have won the war before it starts.

  3. The author writes, “In spite of this, those who led the cyberforensics investigation into the USS John S. McCain collision suggested that the Navy is extremely far behind on establishing even a basic cyber defense capability:” and links to an article by Zac Staples and Maureen Sullivan.

    While the end of that sentence is correct, the beginning is not. I ran the N2 at NCDOC at the time of this investigation and sailors under my charge led the investigation on the ship. They were a small but technically elite team of E-5s and E-6s led by a CWO. This team has gotten little to no recognition for the incredibly complex data collection, analysis, and ultimate assessment that confirmed there was NO cyber involvement in the collision of the USS John McCain.

    CDR (ret.) Zac Staples was invited onto the team as an observer at the request of Fleet Forces, but he was not put in any leadership position.

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