Winning The AI-Enabled War-at-Sea

By Dr. Peter Layton

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is suddenly important to military forces. Not yet an arms race, today’s competition is more in terms of an experimentation race with many AI systems being tested and new research centers established. There may be a considerable first-mover advantage to the country that first understands AI adequately enough to change its existing human-centered force structures and embrace AI warfighting.

In a new Joint Studies Paper, I explore sea, land and air operational concepts appropriate to fighting near-to-medium term future AI-enabled wars. With much of the underlying narrow AI technology already developed in the commercial sector, this is less of a speculative exercise than might be assumed. Moreover, the contemporary AI’s general-purpose nature means its initial employment will be within existing operational level constructs, not wholly new ones.

Here, the focus is the sea domain. The operational concepts mooted are simply meant to stimulate thought about the future and how to prepare for it. In being so aimed, the concepts are deliberately constrained; crucially they are not joint or combined. In all this, it is important to remember that AI enlivens other technologies. AI is not a stand-alone actor, rather it works in the combination with numerous other digital technologies. It provides a form of cognition to these.

AI Overview

In the near-to-medium term, AI’s principal attraction is its ability to quickly identify patterns and detect items hidden within very large data troves. The principal consequence of this is that AI will make it much easier to detect, localize and identity objects across the battlespace. Hiding will become increasingly difficult. However, AI is not perfect. It has well known problems in being able to be fooled, in being brittle, being unable to transfer knowledge gained in one task to another and being dependent on data.

AI’s warfighting principal utility then becomes ‘find and fool’. AI with its machine learning is excellent at finding items hidden within a high clutter background. In this role AI is better than humans and tremendously faster. On the other hand, AI can be fooled through various means. AI’s great finding capabilities lack robustness.

A broad generic overview is useful to set the scene. The ‘find’ starting point is placing a large number of low cost Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in the optimum land, sea, air, space and cyber locations in the areas across which hostile forces may transit. From these sensors, a deep understanding can be gained of the undersea terrain, sea conditions, physical environment and local virtual milieu. Having this background data accelerates AI’s detection of any changes and, in particular, of the movement of military forces across it.

The fixed and mobile IoT edge-computing sensors are connected into a robust cloud to reliably feed data back into remote command support systems. The command system’s well-trained AI could then very rapidly filter out the important information from the background clutter. Using this, AI can then forecast adversary actions and predict optimum own force employment and its combat effectiveness. Hostile forces geolocated by AI can, after approval by human commanders, be quickly engaged using indirect fire including long-range missiles. Such an approach can engage close or deep targets; the key issues being data on the targets and the availability of suitable range firepower. The result is that the defended area quickly becomes a no-go zone.

To support the ‘fool’ function, Uncrewed Vehicles (UV) could be deployed across the battlespace equipped with a variety of electronic systems suitable for the Counter Intelligence Surveillance And Reconnaissance And Targeting (C-ISRT) task. The intent is to defeat the adversary’s AI ‘find’ capabilities. Made mobile through AI, these UVs will be harder for an enemy to destroy than fixed jammers would be. Moreover, mobile UVs can be risked and sent close in to approaching hostile forces to maximize jamming effectiveness. Such vehicles could also play a key role in deception, creating a false and misleading impression of the battlefield to the adversary. Imagine a battlespace where there are a thousand ‘valid’ targets, only a few of which are real.

A War-at-Sea Defense Concept

Defense is the more difficult tactical problem during a war-at-sea. Its intent is solely to gain tactical time for an effective attack or counterattack. Wayne Hughes goes as far in his seminal work to declare that: “All fleet operations based on defensive tactics…are conceptually deficient.”1  The AI-enabled battlefield may soften this assertion.

Accurately determining where hostile ships are in the vast ocean battlefields has traditionally been difficult. A great constant of such reconnaissance is that there never seems to be enough. However, against this, a great trend since the early 20th century is that maritime surveillance and reconnaissance technology is steadily improving. The focus is now not on collecting information but on improving the processing of the large troves of surveillance and reconnaissance data collected.2 Finding the warship ‘needle’ in the sea ‘haystack’ is becoming easier. 

The earlier generic ‘find’ concept envisaged a large distributed IoT sensor field. Such a concept is becoming possible in the maritime domain given AI and associated technology developments.

DARPA’s Ocean of Things (OoT) program aims to achieve maritime situational awareness over large ocean areas through deploying thousands of small, low-cost floats that form a distributed sensor network. Each smart float will have a suite of commercially available sensors to collect environmental and activity data; the later function involves automatically detecting, tracking and identifying nearby ships and – potentially – close aircraft traffic. The floats use edge processing with detection algorithms and then transmit the semi-processed data periodically via the Iridium satellite constellation to a cloud network for on-shore storage. AI machine learning then combs through this sparse data in real time to uncover hidden insights. The floats are environmentally friendly, have a life of around a year and in buys of 50,000 have a unit cost of about US$500 each. DARPA’s OoT shows what is feasible using AI.

In addition to floats, there are numerous other low-cost AI-enabled mobile devices that could noticeably expand maritime situational awareness including: the EMILY Hurricane Trackers, Ocean Aero Intelligent Autonomous Marine Vehicles, Seaglider Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, Liquid Robotics Wave Gliders and Australia’s Ocius Technology Bluebottles.

In addition to mobile low-cost autonomous devices plying the seas there is an increasing number of smallsats being launched by governments and commercial companies into low earth orbit to form large constellations. Most of these will use AI and edge computing; some will have sensors able to detect naval vessels visually or electronically.

All this data from new sources can be combined with that from the existing large array of traditional maritime surveillance systems. The latest system into service is the long-endurance MQ-4C Triton uncrewed aerial vehicle with detection capabilities able to be enhanced through retrofitting AI. The next advance may be the USN’s proposed 8000km range, AI-enabled Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV) which could cruise autonomously at sea for two months with a surveillance payload.

With so many current and emerging maritime surveillance systems, the idea of a digital ocean is becoming practical. This concept envisages the data from thousands of persistent and mobile sensors being processed by AI, analyzed though machine learning and then fused into a detailed ocean-spanning three-dimensional comprehensive picture. Oceans remain large expanses making this a difficult challenge. However, a detailed near-real time digital model of smaller spaces such as enclosed waters like the South China Sea, national littoral zones or limited ocean areas of specific import appears practical using current and near-term technology.

Being able to create a digital ocean model may prove revolutionary. William Williamson of the USN Naval Postgraduate School declares: “On the ‘observable ocean’, the Navy must assume that every combatant will be trackable, with position updates occurring many times per day. …the Navy will have lost the advantages of invisibility, uncertainty, and surprise. …Vessels will be observable in port…[with] the time of departure known to within hours or even minutes. This is true for submarines as well as for surface ships.”3

This means that in a future major conflict, the default assessment by each warship’s captain might be that the adversary probably knows the ship’s location. Defense then moves from being “conceptually deficient” to being the foundation of all naval tactics in an AI-enabled battlespace. The emerging AI-enabled maritime surveillance system of systems will potentially radically change traditional war-at-sea thinking. The ‘attack effectively first’ mantra may need to be rewritten to ‘defend effectively first.’

The digital, ‘observable ocean’ will ensure warships are aware of approaching hostile warships and a consequent increasing risk of attack. In this addressing this, three broad alternative ways for the point defense of a naval task group might be considered.

Firstly, warships might cluster together, so as to concentrate their defensive capabilities and avoid any single ship being overwhelmed by a large multi-axis, multi-missile attack. In this, AI-enabled ship-borne radars and sensors will be able to better track incoming missiles amongst the background clutter. Moreover, AI-enabled command systems will be able to much more rapidly prioritize and undertake missile engagements. In addition, nearby AI-enabled uncrewed surface vessels may switch on active illuminator radars, allowing crewed surface combatants to receive reflections to create fire control-quality tracks. The speed and complexity of the attacks will probably mean that human-on-the-loop is the generally preferred AI-enabled ship weapon system control, switching to human-out-of-the-loop as numbers of incoming missiles rise or hypersonic missiles are faced.

Secondly, instead of clustering, warships might scatter so that an attack against one will not endanger others. Crucially, modern technology now allows dispersed ships to fight together as a single package. The ‘distributed lethality’ concept envisages distant warships sharing precise radar tracking data across a digital network, although there are issues of data latency that limit how far apart the ships sharing data for this purpose can be. An important driver of the ‘distributed lethality’ concept is to make adversary targeting more difficult. With the digital ocean, this driver may be becoming moot.

Thirdly, the defense in depth construct offers new potential through becoming AI-enabled, particularly when defending against submarines although the basic ideas also have value against surface warship threats. In areas submarines may transit through, stationary relocatable sensors like the USN’s Transformational Reliable Acoustic Path System could be employed backed up by unpowered, long endurance gliders towing passive arrays. These passive sonars would use automated target recognition algorithms supported by AI machine learning to identify specific underwater or surface contacts.

Closer to the friendly fleet, autonomous MUSVs could use low-frequency active variable depth sonars supplemented by medium-sized uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUV) with passive sonar arrays. Surface warships or the MUSVs could further deploy small UUVs carrying active multistatic acoustic coherent sensors already fielded in expendable sonobuoys. Warships could employ passive sonars to avoid counter-detection and take advantage of multistatic returns from the active variable depth sonars deployed by MUSVs.

Fool Function. The “digital ocean” significantly increases the importance of deception and confusion operations. This ‘fool’ function of AI may become as vital as the ‘find’ function, especially in the defense. In the war-at-sea, the multiple AI-enabled systems deployed across the battlespace offer numerous possibilities for fooling the adversary.

Deception involves reinforcing the perceptions or expectations of an adversary commander and then doing something else. In this, multiple false cues will need seeding as some clues will be missed by the adversary and having more than one will only add to the deception’s credibility. For example, a number of uncrewed surface vessels could set sail as the warship leaves port, all actively transmitting a noisy facsimile of the warships electronic or acoustic signature. The digital ocean may then suggest to the commander multiple identical warships are at sea, creating some uncertainty as to which is real or not.

In terms of confusion, the intent might be not to avoid detection as this might be very difficult but instead prevent an adversary from classifying vessels detected as warships or identifying them as a specific class of warship. This might be done using some of the large array of AI-enabled floaters, gliders, autonomous devices, underwater vehicles and uncrewed surface vessels to considerably confuse the digital ocean picture. The aim would be to change the empty oceans – or at least the operational area – into a seemingly crowded, cluttered, confusing environment where detecting and tracking the real sought-after warships was problematic and at best fleeting. If AI can find targets, AI can also obscure them.

A War-at-Sea Offense Concept

In a conflict where both sides are employing AI-enabled ‘fool’ systems, targeting adversary warships may become problematic. The ‘attack effectively first’ mantra may evolve to simply ‘attack effectively.’ Missiles that miss represent a significant loss of the task group’s or fleet’s net combat power, and take a considerable time to be replaced. Several alternatives may be viable.

In a coordinated attack, the offence might use a mix of crewed and uncrewed vessels. One option is to use three ship types: a large, well-defended crewed ship that carries considerable numbers of various types of long-range missiles but which remains remote to the high-threat areas; a smaller crewed warship pushed forward into the area where adversary ships are believed to be both for reconnaissance and to provide targeting for the larger ship’s long-range missiles; and an uncrewed stealthy ship operating still further forward in the highest risk area primarily collecting crucial time-sensitive intelligence and passing this back through the smaller crewed warship onto the larger ship in the rear.

The intermediate small crewed vessel can employ elevated or tethered systems and uncrewed communications relay vehicles to receive the information from the forward uncrewed vessel and act as a robust gateway to the fleet tactical grid using resilient communications systems and networks. Moreover, the intermediate smaller crewed vessel in being closer to the uncrewed vessel will be able to control it as the tactical situation requires and, if the context changes, adjust the uncrewed vessel’s mission.

This intermediate ship will probably also have small numbers of missiles available to use in extremis if the backward link to the larger missile ship fails. Assuming communications to all elements of the force will be available in all situations may be unwise. The group of three ships should be network enabled, not network dependent, and this could be achieved by allowing the intermediate ship to be capable of limited independent action.

The coordinated attack option is not a variant of the distributed lethality concept noted earlier. The data being passed from the stealthy uncrewed ship and the intermediate crewed vessel is targeting, not fire control, quality data. The coordinated attack option has only loose integration that is both less technically demanding and more appropriate to operations in an intense electronic warfare environment.

An alternative concept is to have a large crewed vessel at the center of a networked constellation of small and medium-sized uncrewed air, surface and subsurface systems. A large ship offers potential advantages in being able to incorporate advanced power generation to support emerging defensive systems like high energy lasers or rail guns. In this, the large crewed ship would need good survivability features, suitable defensive systems, an excellent command and control system to operate its multitude of diverse uncrewed systems and a high bandwidth communication system linking back to shore-based facilities and data storage services.

The crewed ship could employ mosaic warfare techniques to set up extended kinetic and non-kinetic kill webs through the uncrewed systems to reach the adversary warships. The ship’s combat power is not then in the crewed vessel but principally in its uncrewed systems with their varying levels of autonomy, AI application and edge computing.

The large ship and its associated constellation would effectively be a naval version of the Soviet reconnaissance-strike complex.  An AI-enabled war at sea then might involve dueling constellations, each seeking relative advantage.


The AI-enabled battlespace creates a different war-at-sea. Most obvious are the autonomous systems and vessels made possible by AI and edge computing. The bigger change though may be to finally take the steady scouting improvements of the last 100 years or so to their final conclusion. The age of AI, machine learning, big data, IoT and cloud computing appear set to create the “observable ocean.” From combining these technologies, near-real digital models of the ocean environment can be made that highlight the man-made artefacts present.

The digital ocean means warships could become the prey as much as the hunters. Such a perspective brings a shift in thinking about what the capital ship of the future might be. A recent study noted: “Navy’s next capital ship will not be a ship. It will be the Network of Humans and Machines, the Navy’s new center of gravity, embodying a superior source of combat power.” Tomorrow’s capital ship looks set to be the human-machine teams operating on an AI-enabled battlefield.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He has extensive aviation and defense experience and, for his work at the Pentagon on force structure matters, was awarded the US Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on grand strategy and has taught on the topic at the Eisenhower School. His research interests include grand strategy, national security policies particularly relating to middle powers, defense force structure concepts and the impacts of emerging technology. The author of ‘Grand Strategy’, his posts, articles and papers may be read at:


1. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet tactics and naval operations, 3rd edn., (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 33.

2. Ibid., pp.132, 198.

3. William Williamson, ‘From Battleship to Chess’, USNI Proceedings, Vol. 146/7/1,409, July 2020,

Featured image: Graphic highlighting Fleet Cyber Command Watch Floor of the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy graphic by Oliver Elijah Wood and PO2 William Sykes/Released)

Sea Control 242 – Selling Seapower with Dr. Ryan Wadle and RDML Paula Dunn

By Jared Samuelson

Author Dr. Ryan Wadle joins the podcast alongside the Navy’s Vice Chief Information Officer, Rear Admiral Paula Dunn, to discuss his book, Selling Seapower: Publication Relations and the U.S. Navy 1917-1941, the Navy’s relationship with the public, the press, and parallels to today.

Sea Control 242 – Selling Seapower with Dr. Ryan Wadle and RDML Paula Dunn


2. Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940, by Craig C. Felker, Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History, 2013. 

3. To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, by Albert Nofi, Naval War College Press, 2010.

Jared Samuelson is Co-Host and Executive Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

Sea Control 241 – The Future of Navy and Marine Corps Learning with John Kroger

By Andrea Howard

John Kroger joins the show to discuss his time as the Navy’s first Chief Learning Officer and what he sees as the future of Navy and Marine Corps education.

Download Sea Control 241 – The Future of Navy and Marine Corps Learning with John Kroger

Andrea Howard is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the podcast team at

Service Squadron Ten and the Great Western Base

By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN

USS Houston (CL 81), in a hard turn with her underside exposed, felt the torpedo explosion across the ship. Commander William Behrens recalled “that all propulsive power and steering control was immediately lost. The ship took a list to starboard of 16 degrees. All main electrical power was immediately lost.” The tactical situation was still perilous, and with Houston “rolling sluggishly in the trough of the sea… her main deck [dipping] under at frequent intervals,” Behrens ordered Houston abandoned, save key personnel and damage control parties. USS Boston (CA 69) took Houston under tow for the next 43 hours, until another Japanese torpedo hit Houston again on the starboard side. Most of the preceding shoring and dewatering efforts were undone and Houston risked foundering again. Over the next two weeks, the crew, assisted by the fleet tugs USS Pawnee (ATF 74), USS Zuni (ATF 95), and other ships managed to limp more than 1200 miles to Ulithi. 

That Houston, and many other ships during World War II, survived such attacks and returned home was due in part to the heroics of the crew, but equally to the unsung heroes of Service Squadron Ten, who allowed the Navy to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations continuously for almost two years without returning to port. Service Squadron Ten kept the fleet supplied, fed, fueled, repaired, and happy during that time. The ability to generate combat power so continuously for half the war was a decisive advantage for the United States in the Pacific. 

The Service Squadrons played a pivotal role in sustaining the Fleet as it fought across the Central Pacific. It is a largely unknown history, but one worth relearning with the reemerging possibility of war between major powers. That experience highlights the need to make forward deployed logistics and repair capabilities both robust and mobile to better support the Fleet. Battle fatigued sailors and battle damaged ships simply cannot afford the five thousand mile journey from the South China Sea to Pearl Harbor. Nor can they count on facilities in East Asia for support, just as their predecessors realized during the interwar period when developing War Plan Orange on the game floors of the Naval War College in the development of War Plan Orange. 

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday mandated in FRAGO [fragmentary order] 01/2019 that the Navy and Marine Corps must make naval logistics more agile and resilient to support distributed maritime operations, generate greater readiness, and support the increasing numbers of unmanned systems that will enter the Fleet in this decade. The Navy should take a page from Admiral Nimitz’s playbook and re-establish the Service Squadrons with aircraft carriers as their core. Combined with the other assets, modern Service Squadrons would enable distributed maritime operations, expeditionary advanced base operations for the Marine Corps, and accelerate the deployment of unmanned systems. The history of Service Squadron Ten affords the opportunity to replicate the magic of the Central Pacific campaign in the modern era. 

The Great Western Base

Strategic thought at the turn of the 20th century required the Navy to accomplish one of two objectives: to gain, in peacetime, a strongly fortified base in the Western Pacific or to rapidly establish a major alternative land base in the Western Pacific early in the war. Most timetables required seizure of islands within months after the outbreak of hostilities. 

By the early 1920s, war games and diplomatic failures to secure the “Great Western Base” in the Philippines had forced even the most conservative admirals to reconsider these core tenets of naval doctrine and start innovating around them. The Navy began developing larger colliers, auxiliaries to service ships at sea, fleet oilers, floating drydocks, and more. By 1923, the need for mobile basing had become sufficiently accepted that it became an appendix in War Plan Orange. These advances paved the way for the Navy to unhesitatingly reject Great Britain’s request in 1941 that the U.S. take over one of the finest bases in the Western Pacific: Singapore.1 The doctrine of fixed bases had completely given way to strategic mobility. 

During the interwar period, admirals and planners shifted to a mobile strategy when the basing problems in the War Plan Orange games proved so intractable and unsatisfying to the objectives for the drive across the Central Pacific. These revelations must have been unnerving, “yet they were steps along the path to a formula for victory because planners learned from their frustration to distinguish viable programs from evanescent dreams.”2 A career of preparation, for all the officers involved, allowed them to rapidly adapt to the conditions on the ground and effectively establish the concept of operations for Service Squadron Ten.

American bases in the Western Pacific today—Japan, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, and Singapore—provide vital operational command, logistics, and repair services for U.S. and allied navies, but will be untenable in wartime based on the reach of Chinese weapons. The U.S. military must prepare to fight the war from a sustained position at sea. Hawaii is too far removed from the theater to effectively exercise command and control (C2) in the digital age, with contested electromagnetic, cyber, and information domains, or efficiently sustain forward-deployed combat operations. It is fitting that during World War II, most fleet commanders exercised their authority primarily from the repair ships—USS Argonne (AS 10) being a favorite.

Current U.S. naval doctrine holds fast to carrier warfare, the supremacy of US technology, and the rapid victories that naturally follow. Assurances that American strike groups could operate with impunity in the South China Sea must be rebuked, and the Fleet, from its commanders down to the deckplates, must be re-trained to fight truly from the sea. The Navy must seek to permanently shift operational C2 arrangements down to aircraft carriers or Zumwalt-class destroyers. Aircraft carriers already provide many of the C2 spaces that a fleet commander would need to prosecute the war and offensive capabilities to protect the mobile service squadron. 

If We’ve Got it, You Can Have it

In September 1943, Admiral Nimitz ordered two service squadrons established to provide for fleet logistics and repair in preparation for the drive across the Central Pacific. After a bloody battle on Tarawa in November 1943, Service Squadron Ten moved forward to Funafuti to establish a fleet anchorage there. Several hundred miles closer than the United States’ western most base at the time, Espirtu Santo in Vanuatu, Funafuti provided a closer location to attend to the fleet and provide for repairs should the Japanese Navy decide to offer battle near the Gilbert Island chain. 

Admiral Nimitz gave Service Squadron Ten the responsibility to “furnish logistic support, including general stores, provisions, fuel, ammunition, maintenance, repair, salvage, and such other services as necessity may dictate in the support of an advanced major fleet anchorage in the Central Pacific Area.”3 The squadron would fall under operational control of Admiral Spruance, now in overall command of naval forces driving across the Central Pacific, and service anything that floated, along with Marine Corps and Army units to the maximum extent possible, in keeping with their motto: “If we’ve got it, you can have it.”4 

Admiral Spruance began his bombardment of Kwajalien and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, operating from the anchorage provided by Service Squadron Ten at Funafuti. The aerial bombardment lasted two months, and Service Squadron Ten’s reputation built by the day. The sailors of Service Squadron Ten often worked around the clock, despite being undermanned, to get the Fleet back to sea. A listing of various messages to the squadron shows the daily breadth of work that they did: 






There were certainly shortages of food, fresh water, ammunition, supplies, and even fuel at times, but the squadron distributed what they had equitably to all the units. 

By January 1944, Admiral Spruance realized the value that Service Squadron Ten provided, and insisted on a major change to the upcoming Operation Flintlock to take the Marshall Islands: the Marine Corps needed to first seize Majuro, the easternmost island in the Marshalls, to establish a forward fleet anchorage before executing the landings at Kwajalein and Eniwetok.6 Doing so would allow the Squadron to service the carriers so that they would not have to withdraw out of range to replenish, thereby leaving the Marines to face the Japanese airfields on the other islands alone.7 Admiral Nimitz and the Chiefs of Staff in Washington immediately approved the plan, and the result was significantly higher combat readiness and operational tempo for the Fleet.

After Flintlock, the Fleet remained at sea for the duration of the war, with Service Squadron Ten supporting it. At the Squadron’s commissioning on 15 January 1944, the squadron consisted of thirteen ships, from an original request of 100, consisting of tenders, tugs, repair ships, survey vessels, and barges. By the end of the war, Service Squadron Ten had grown to more than 600 ships, and the entire Service Force consisted of 2,930 ships and more than 500,000 sailors and officers—a third more than the entire active duty navy today.8 

Repairing the Fleet

It took years during the interwar period for the various Navy Bureaus and shipyards to believe that a repair ship or tender could provide any service of consequence beyond minor repairs.9 Actual combat and sailor ingenuity proved otherwise. In December, 1942, the predecessor to Service Squadron Ten fitted USS New Orleans (CA 32) with a temporary bow made of coconut logs after her bow was blown off at the Battle of Tassafaronga, enabling her to make the transit, stern first, to Sydney, Australia for further repairs. 

Naval battles mean hurt ships and sailors. “Ships had their bows blown off, their sterns blasted away, huge holes torn in their hulls by torpedoes whose explosions created a chaos that had to be seen at the time to be fully realized.”10 The closer the help, the better off the ship and crew were—the Houston never would have made it to Pearl Harbor, nor would hundreds of other ships and their crews no matter how heroic their efforts. Service Squadron Ten enabled the Fleet to keep the Japanese from realizing operational gains from damaging U.S. ships.

For Service Squadron Ten, floating drydocks, repair ships, tenders, crane barges, and a myriad of other assets allowed them to make major repairs to battle damaged ships. Service Squadron Ten made similar repairs throughout the war, and floating drydocks were critical in restoring ships to seaworthy and operative conditions. Their drydocks could easily dock an aircraft carrier or battleship. In February 1945, for example, the repair work of the squadron “varied from such big jobs as rebuilding 60 feet of flight deck on the carrier Randolph in 18 days and new bows on blasted ships, to replacing guns and electrical equipment. In that month 52 vessels were repaired in floating drydocks.”11 The pace of repair operations even began to cause problems back home: “The amount of repairs and the hours worked would have caused peacetime navy yards to throw up their hands in despair. As a matter of fact it was reported that one wartime yard complained that Service Squadron Ten was taking away its work.”12

Becoming Truly Expeditionary

From late 1943 on, the Fleet remained at sea conducting prompt and sustained combat operations. The planning for the campaign required the Navy to consider more than just keeping the Fleet supplied with food, fuel, and ammunition. Ships needed deep maintenance that could not be deferred, Marine companies needed replacements, carriers needed replacement planes and pilots, and sailors needed to rotate back to the States—all without the Fleet returning to Pearl Harbor. How did they do it?

Service Squadron Ten had carried the theme of mobile basing beyond its original conclusions: the Squadron was the Great Western Base. The myriad of repair ships, tenders, oilers, concrete barges, tugs, and other small boats rendered extensive land bases unnecessary. The Squadron simply moved with the Fleet, recalling the remnants of its rearmost bases forward. Escort carriers, usually remembered today for their heroic stand off Samar Island in October 1944 or hunting U-boats in the Atlantic, provided many of the third-order services that the Fleet needed to maintain sustained operations. A few weeks in the life of USS Copahee (CVE 12), is representative: 

“On 17 April, 2 months before D-day for the Marianas, the Copahee left Pearl with 86 aircraft, 390 passengers, and 196 cases of equipment. On the 23d she unloaded her planes at the Majuro air station for further transfer to the fleet, or for use as combat air patrols. Reloading, she took aboard 23 damaged planes, 2 aircraft engines, and 312 passengers, leaving on the 26th for Pearl. Back at Majuro again 12 May, she unloaded 58 planes, 20 of which she catapulted, and 7 cases of airplane parts. The next day she was underway once more for Pearl…”13

The escort carriers played a vital role in keeping the Fleet supplied with ready combat power. While the Fleet had been refueling at sea for some time now, replenishment by aircraft carrier was entirely new, and perfected by Service Squadron Ten and the Service Force later in the war. 

21st Century Service Squadrons

Today’s fleet train will be woefully inadequate in wartime. Two aging submarine tenders, both at risk in Guam, a few floating drydocks, two hospital ships, and the small combat logistics force are all that is available to service a battle force of nearly 300 ships. With most maintenance done ashore in contractor facilities, sailors have lost the ability to conduct the deep maintenance and repair that their predecessors did as a matter of course. 

The Navy has started to procure new auxiliaries, but the penchant for making a ship a jack-of-all-trades has driven the Common Hull Auxiliary Multimission Platform to a price tag of more than $1.3 billion per ship. The Office of Management and Budget sent the Navy back to the drawing board. Ships take a long time to procure. The Navy would do well to buy more floating drydocks and a flight of the new National Security Multimission Vessels, a training platform for merchant marine academies, and integrate them into fleet logistics and repair operations now. With space for a thousand personnel, a helicopter pad, roll on/off capabilities, and container storage, they are flexible platforms that could provide a myriad of services. 

The aircraft carrier should form the core of a modern Service Squadron Ten to meet the CNO’s call in FRAGO 01/2019 for more agile and resilient naval logistics. Combat Logistics Forces require significant protection and must remain mobile to allow Navy and Marine Corps forces to conduct expeditionary operations in the Western Pacific. Sustaining distributed, far forward operations requires the Navy and Marine Corps to rethink how they supply , maintain , and repair forces in a true threat environment. Like the escort carriers that enabled logistics in World War II, the aircraft carrier must shift its role from generating strike aircraft to becoming the sustainment and C2 hub needed to run the war. With it, the air wing must change from primarily strike aircraft to mostly CV-22s. This would provide the requisite lift capabilities needed to support distributed operations while allowing for combat aircraft to deploy forward on expeditionary bases ashore or amphibious ships. 

The rest of the service squadron forms around the modern misfits: expeditionary staging bases (T-ESBs), staging docks (T-ESDs), expeditionary fast transports (T-EPFs), assorted supply ships, hospital ships, floating drydocks, tenders, and a host of combatants, ranging from littoral combat ships to amphibious ships to cruisers. This arrangement keeps the historical responsibilities of Service Squadron Ten alive by generating greater operational availability for combat forces and giving damaged ships an improved chance at survival. The mix of ships in the service squadron would allow for detachments to:

The combinations are limited only by the number of ships on hand. Establishing a rotation of combat forces from combat duty to lighter duty assigned to the service squadron would give crews a much needed respite from arduous combat patrols and to conduct deeper maintenance without having to return to Hawaii or the East Coast. 

Change the Operational Narrative

The best innovations in warfare do not result simply from deploying new technology, but from using technology differently than the adversaries expect . The linking of technology with doctrine enables revolutionary advances in how the Navy fights. Given that China has spent two decades optimizing its national forces to counter American carrier strike groups, the U.S. Navy has the opportunity to change the character of that fight in a single stroke by leveraging its history. Service Squadron Ten provided Admiral Nimitz and his commanders with the necessary facilities, capabilities, and logistics, to keep the press on the Japanese through sustained combat operations at sea. As Admiral Carter noted in Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil

“Daring initiative has been a characteristic of American operations in both strategy and tactics. Our enemies have known the book doctrines as well as we, but they could not throw the book overboard and try something new as freely as we. Thus at times we have had the advantage of projecting moves that they did not anticipate.”14

The Chief of Naval Operations should throw the book overboard today. 

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.


[1] Edward Miller. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991, pp. 75-76.

[2] Ibid, p. 62.

[3] Carter, p. 95.

[4] Ibid, p. 122.

[5] Ibid, pp. 221-222.

[6] Ibid, p. 91.

[7] E.B. Potter. Nimitz. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976, p. 265-266.

[8] Carter, p. 8.
“Status of the Navy.” United States Navy. April 29, 2020.

[9] Carter, p. 1.

[10] Ibid, p. 55.

[11] Ibid, p. 291.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p. 145.

[14] Carter, p. 331.

Featured image: USS Iowa (BB-61) in a floating drydock at Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 28 December 1944. (U.S. Navy photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.