The international community has been tremendously proactive in undertaking operations, exercises, experiments, and demonstration to accelerate the development and fielding of unmanned surface vehicles, reflecting the real importance of these systems to world navies. Much of this work has occurred in and around the Arabian Gulf under the auspices of Commander U.S. Fifth Fleet and Task Force 59.
These ambitious exercises throughout the course of 2022 provided a learning opportunity for all participating navies. These culminated in the capstone unmanned event, Exercise Digital Horizon, a three-week event in the Middle East focused on employing artificial intelligence and 15 different unmanned systems: 12 unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
A key goal of Digital Horizon was to speed new technology integration across the 5th Fleet, and to seek cost-effective alternatives for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) missions. As Carrington Malin described the importance of Digital Horizon:
“Despite the cutting-edge hardware in the Arabian Gulf, Digital Horizon is far more than a trial of new unmanned systems. This exercise is about data integration and the integration of command and control capabilities, where many different advanced technologies are being deployed together and experimented with for the first time.
The advanced technologies now available and the opportunities that they bring to enhance maritime security are many-fold, but these also drive an exponential increase in complexity for the military. Using the Arabian Gulf as the laboratory, Task Force 59 and its partners are pioneering ways to manage that complexity, whilst delivering next-level intelligence, incident prevention and response capabilities.”1
Digital Horizon brought together emerging unmanned technologies and combined them with data analytics and artificial intelligence in order to enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence by applying leading-edge technology and experimentation.2 Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces introduced the exercise and highlighted its potential: “I am excited about the direction we are headed. By harnessing these new unmanned technologies and combining them with artificial intelligence, we will enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence. This benefits everybody.”3
Captain Michael Brasseur, then-commodore of Task Force 59, emphasized the use of unmanned maritime vehicles to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including identifying objects in the water and spotting suspicious behavior.4 He noted: “We pushed beyond technological boundaries and discovered new capabilities for maritime domain awareness to enhance our ability to see above, on and below the water.”5
During Digital Horizon, Task Force 59 leveraged artificial intelligence to create an interface on one screen, also called a “single pane of glass,” displaying the relevant data from multiple unmanned systems for watchstanders in Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center (ROC). Reviewing what was accomplished during this event, Captain Brasseur marveled at the pace of innovation: “We are challenging our industry partners in one of the most difficult operational environments, and they are responding with enhanced capability, fast.”6
One of the features of Digital Horizon, and in line with the first word of the exercise, “Digital,” was the ability of one operator to command and control five unique drones, a capability long-sought by U.S. Navy officials.7 The Navy is acutely aware of the high cost of manpower and is dedicated to moving beyond the current “one UXS, multiple joysticks, multiple operators,” paradigm that has plagued UXS development for decades.
Digital Horizon was a unique exercise from the outset. Task Force 59 worked with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in order to leverage that organization’s expertise as a technology accelerator. Additionally, given the U.S. Navy’s ambitious goals to rapidly test and subsequently acquire USVs to populate the Fleet, CTF-59 used a contractor-owned/contractor operated (COCO) model to bring a substantial number of unmanned systems to Digital Horizon, well beyond those already in the inventory. This approach sidestepped the often clunky DoD acquisition system while providing appropriate oversight during the exercise and gaining operational experience with new systems.
Another distinctive feature of Digital Horizon involved launching and recovering small UAVs from medium-size USVs. This lash-up leveraged the capabilities of both unmanned assets, enabling the long-endurance USVs to carry the shorter-endurance UAVs to the desired area of operations. This “operationalized” a CONOPS that emerged from the U.S. Navy laboratory community years ago.8
The results of Digital Horizon lived up to the initial hype. During a presentation at the 2023 Surface Navy Association Symposium, here is how Vice Admiral Cooper described what was accomplished during Digital Horizon:
“We are creating a distributed and integrated network of systems to establish a “digital ocean” in the Middle East, creating constant surveillance. This means every partner and every sensor, collecting new data, adding it to an intelligent synthesis of around-the-clock inputs, encompassing thousands of images, from seabed to space, from ships, unmanned systems, subsea sensors, satellites, buoys, and other persistent technologies.
No navy acting alone can protect against all the threats, the region is simply too big. We believe that the way to get after this is the two primary lines of effort: strengthen our partnerships and accelerate innovation…One of the results from the exercise was the ability to create a single operational picture so one operator can command and control multiple unmanned systems on one screen, a ‘Single Pane of Glass’ (SPOG)…Digital Horizon was a visible demonstration of the promise and the power of very rapid tech innovation.”9
The results of Digital Horizon could change the way the world’s navies conduct maritime safety and security. Having multiple unmanned systems conduct maritime surveillance, with the operations center then using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to amalgamate this sea of data into something that commanders can use to make real-time decisions, enables navies to “stretch” their crewed vessels and use them for more vital missions than merely conducting surveillance.
As one example of how Digital Horizon brought together COTS unmanned surface vehicles with COTS systems and sensors, the T-38 Devil Ray was equipped with multiple state-of-the-art COTS sensors to provide persistent surveillance. The T-38 provided AIS, full motion video from SeaFLIR-280HD and FLIR-M364C cameras, as well as the display of radar contacts on a chart via the onboard Furuno DRS4D-NXT Doppler radar. These were all streamed back to Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center via high bandwidth radios and SATCOM.
These exercises and initiatives are important if the Navy is to convince a skeptical Congress that its plans for unmanned systems are sound, and represent an important course change in the way the Navy intends to communicate with Congress, by “showing, not telling” what its unmanned systems can do.10 This approach is vital, for as long as Congress remains unconvinced regarding the efficacy of the unmanned systems the Navy wishes to procure; it is unlikely that funding will follow.11
Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, explained this new “show, don’t tell,” philosophy built on an ongoing series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, further indicating that he believes the Navy is “on the same page as Congress:”
“The Navy has a responsibility to be able to prove that the technology that Congress is going to invest in actually works and it meets what we need to address the threat. I think that’s the responsible thing to do…I don’t see it as a fight between Congress and the Department of Navy. I think we’re aligned in our thinking about what has to be done.”12
Indeed, in remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Secretary Del Toro said the Navy intends to stand up additional unmanned task forces around the globe modeled after what Task Force 59 accomplished during Digital Horizon, noting:
“We’ve demonstrated with Task Force 59 how much more we can do with these unmanned vehicles—as long as they’re closely integrated together in a [command and control] node that, you know, connects to our manned surface vehicles. And there’s been a lot of experimentation; it’s going to continue aggressively. And we’re going to start translating that to other regions of the world as well. That will include the establishment of formal task forces that will fall under some of the Navy’s other numbered fleets.”13
Secretary of the Navy Del Toro continued this drumbeat during the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA “West” Symposium in February 2023. In a keynote address describing the Navy’s progress and intentions regarding integrating unmanned systems into the Fleet, he emphasized the progress that CTF-59 had made, especially in the area of successfully integrating unmanned systems and artificial intelligence during Digital Horizon.14
Importantly, the U.S. Navy has now created the infrastructure to accelerate the testing and evaluation of unmanned surface vehicles. In 2019, the Navy stood up Surface Development Squadron One to provide stewardship for unmanned experimentation and manned-unmanned teaming.15 In 2022, seeking to put additional emphasis on unmanned maritime vehicles, the Navy established Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One (USVDIV-1), under the command of Commander Jeremiah Daley.16
This new division oversees medium and large unmanned surface vessels out of Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura County.17 Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One is engaged with the Fleet to move the unmanned surface vessels further west and exercise autonomy, payloads, and hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) systems to ensure that future programs of record (LUSV and MUSV) are successful from inception, and that they provide lethality and combat effectiveness for future naval and joint forces.
Digital Horizon presages a new paradigm in the way navies will think about uncrewed assets, no longer as “vehicles” but rather as “systems” that are nodes in a web of assets delivering far greater capability than the sum of the parts. World navies will conduct ambitious unmanned exercises, experiments and demonstrations throughout 2023 and beyond, and the lessons learned from Digital Horizon will no doubt inform those efforts.
Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the author of 15 books, including four New York Times best-sellers. The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.
1. Carrington Malin, “A Testbed for Naval Innovation,” Middle East AI News, December 1, 2022.
2. Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “US Navy Highlights TF 59 Contributions to Fleet’s Unmanned Vision,” Naval News, January 23, 2023.
3. “U.S. Launches New Unmanned & AI Systems Integration Event,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs, November 23, 2022, accessed at: https://www.cusnc.navy.mil/Media/News/Display/Article/3226901/us-launches-new-unmanned-ai-systems-integration-event/.
4. J.P. Lawrence, “Navy’s ‘Influx’ of Aquatic and Aerial Drones Tested in the Middle East,” Stars and Stripes, December 1, 2022.
5. “Digital Horizon Wraps Up: Task Force 59 Perspective, Second Line of Defense, December 22, 2022.
6. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “New in 2023: Here Comes the First-Ever Surface Drone Fleet,” Navy Times, January 3, 2023.
7. Justin Katz, “Accenture Demos Data Vis, C2 for Multiple USVs During Navy’s Digital Horizons Exercise,” Breaking Defense, December 16, 2022.
8. Vladimir Djapic et al, “Heterogeneous Autonomous Mobile Maritime Expeditionary Robots and Maritime Information Dominance,” Naval Engineers Journal, December 2014.
9. Audrey Decker, “5th Fleet Commander Details ‘Digital Ocean’ After TF-59 Reaches FOC,” Inside the Navy, January 16, 2023.
10. See, for example, George Galdorisi, “Catch a Wave: Testing Unmanned Surface Vehicles Is Becoming an International Endeavour,” Surface SITREP, Winter 2022.
11. “Navy Failing to Make ‘Critical Pivot’ In Unmanned Investment,” Inside the Navy, October 10, 2022.
12. Justin Katz, “Show, Don’t Tell: Navy Changes Strategy to Sell Unmanned Systems to Skeptical Congress,” Breaking Defense, March 10, 2022.
13. Jon Harper, “Navy to Establish Additional Unmanned Task Forces Inspired by Task Force 59,” Defense Scoop, December 4, 2022.
14. Remarks by the Honorable Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Navy, at the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 16, 2023.
15. Meagan Eckstein, “Navy Stands Up Surface Development Squadron for DDG-1000, Unmanned Experimentation,” USNI News, May 22, 2019.
16. “Navy to Stand Up New USV Command This Summer,” Inside the Navy, January 13, 2022.
17. Joshua Emerson Smith and Andrew Dyer, “Navy Ramps Up Efforts on Unmanned Vessels,” San Diego Union Tribune, May 16, 2022, and Diana Stancy Correll, “Navy Creates Unmanned Surface Vessel Division to Expedite Integration of Unmanned Systems,” Navy Times, May 16, 2022.
Featured Image: T38 Devil Ray during Exercise Digital Horizon. (Photo by Dave Meron)
The following originally appeared on Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By Kevin M. Woods and Thomas C. Greenwood
The term multidomain has reached beyond mainstream military parlance to dominate defense-related discussions, concept papers, and op-eds. While the idea of operating across warfighting domains is hardly original, the rapid growth of capabilities tied to the newly minted space and cyber domains is forcing a re-examination of all previous military concepts and doctrine. This article explores the debate around multidomain battle (MDB). Developing a new warfighting concept (as opposed to a slogan or bumper sticker) is difficult because new concepts need to demonstrate that they are sufficiently better than the status quo at addressing the challenges and opportunities in order to justify the disruptive effects of the change. This, as it should be, is a high bar.
The desks of the Pentagon are littered with “transformative” joint warfighting concepts that have appeared with great fanfare only to fall into obscurity. Despite serving as a vehicle to explore ideas, in the end, concepts like Rapid Decisive Operations and Air-Sea Battle failed to move beyond the nascent stage. Some of this can be attributed to a natural resistance to top-down joint concepts, the difficulty of exploring future concepts while maintaining readiness, the lack of coherent institutional processes for examining concepts across organizational boundaries, and, ultimately, the lack of patience for what can be an intellectual slog. As a result, many such efforts were never sufficiently examined so as to generate compelling evidence to drive more than cosmetic changes across the force.
This article advocates two approaches to exploring MDB. The first is to link the MDB concept to the existing body of available evidence. The second is to generate new evidence through experimentation. These approaches are offered not because Service concept developers have not already begun this process—as evidenced by the MDB draft concepts and plans for U.S. Army MDB experimentation in 2018 and 2019. Rather, this article argues that in addition to the bottom-up development of what could arguably be deemed a joint concept, there should also be a parallel effort to explore the top-down or explicit joint, theater-level implications of MDB.
The term multidomain itself is most often used as a modifier for a particular application of military force, such as (multidomain) battles, (multidomain) operations, or (cross or multidomain) fires; however, more substantially, MDB promises more fluid, adaptive, and effective operations simultaneously across five domains (land, sea, air, space, and cyber). Although operations are conducted in and occasionally across these five domains, the promise of a concept that makes domain integration the norm and not the exception is a tall order. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
The logic of MDB’s underlying tenets is widely accepted, but that is not the same as demonstrating the concept’s viability. Will the application of a multidomain approach enable the Department of Defense (DOD) to overcome current warfighting challenges? Will it allow the Services to seize new opportunities? Or, instead, will MDB distract the Services from restoring atrophied conventional warfighting capabilities? Perhaps more importantly, can MDB serve as a unifying concept that DOD business processes can be organized around for the development of future concepts and capabilities?
MDB is a future concept (perhaps near-future, but future nonetheless). As such, it “must be stated explicitly in order to be understood, debated and tested to influence the development process.”1 The maturation of a concept is a critical first step in the birth of any capability. Concepts are narrative descriptions of suppositions formulated from historical and contemporary experiences; however, as debatable propositions, they must be validated before they transition from concept to capability. This requires settling the debatable elements. This article thus argues that concepts on the scale of MDB require a campaign of experimentation that provides compelling evidence for the concept by fleshing out its operational and institutional contexts.2
The State of the Debate
Proponents of the emerging MDB concept make the case that the joint force must adapt to the times, or, as one author put it, “multi-domain battle . . . doctrine is being developed to address the interconnected, Omni domain battlespace of the 21st Century.”3 One of MDB’s strongest proponents, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, argues that “MDB conceptualizes bringing jointness further down to the tactical level [by] allowing smaller echelons to communicate and coordinate directly while fighting in a decentralized manner.”4 Regardless of the operating theater and specific mission, tactical-level MDB operations, noted U.S. Army Pacific Commander General Robert Brown, will drive the Services to “change their distinct Service cultures to a culture of inclusion and openness, focusing on a purple (or joint) first mentality.”5 Rhetorically, at least, the emerging MDB concept is progressing from the often stated but little realized goal of Service deconfliction to increasing interdependency and, in the optimistic version of MDB, seamlessly integrated operations across domains.6
MDB critics dismiss its significance by arguing that it is old wine in a new bottle.7 Even proponents agree that the “idea and desire for cross-domain effects is not new” but contend the traditional Service-domain alignments are inadequate for coping with the new security environment.8 A more fundamental challenge is made by those arguing that the categorization of future war by domain—especially but not limited to the cyber domain—is neither logical nor practical. As one observer notes, “the word [domain] contains some built-in assumptions regarding how we view warfare that can limit our thinking . . . [and] could actually pose an intractable conceptual threat to an integrated joint force.”9
Joining the critics are the cynics, some of whom see MDB’s real purpose as programmatic: a ploy to restore or preserve force structure by returning land power to the tip of the spear in joint operations.10 Others see the concept as requiring deep institutional reforms that are simply unattainable.11 As one pessimist argued, “without consistently organizing, training, and equipping as a joint team, the Services will be ill-prepared to provide multi-domain capable forces to combatant commanders, continuing history’s trend of falling short of the vision of jointness.”12 The institutional questions loom large here. At one end of the spectrum there are calls to form separate Services for the space and cyber domains.13 At the other end, one MDB proponent provides fodder for the cynics by arguing that the only way to implement MDB is to create a single force and eliminate the independent Services.14
Running parallel to the ongoing MDB debate are distinct theater versions of the concept. Because practice trumps theory in the application of military force, how the MDB concept evolves will be strongly influenced by how the operating theaters find a way to employ its promise.
In the Pacific, where much of the initial energy behind the cross-domain idea began, MDB has been described as:
ground-based batteries of anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-ship weapons, supported by long-range sensors and jammers, that can strike targets well out to sea. Islands defended by such Army batteries (or Marine Corps outposts) could serve as unsinkable anvils, with the Navy and the Air Force as the highly mobile hammers.15
In support of developing MDB, the Army has recently established a Multi-Domain Task Force in U.S. Army Pacific to accelerate the process of overcoming the tactical and technical challenges associated with reincarnating the Army’s capability to “sink ships.”16 This bottom-up approach to building a joint capability, as one commentator noted, has the potential to simultaneously work toward joint interoperability, interdependence, and integration. But this may fall short of answering how the Services can organize, train, and equip themselves to sustain the readiness required to operate as an MDB capable force.17
Meanwhile in Europe, the Army is offering MDB as a conceptual solution to a different, but in many ways familiar, problem set. The Russian army is no longer the colossus of the Cold War era, but it still presents the challenge of mass. Whereas the Russia’s army does not boast a raw-troop-strength advantage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is threatening a multidomain equivalence in long-range missiles, rockets, drones, sophisticated cyber attacks, jamming, and an integrated information campaign.18The solution, argues the commander of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, is to take the multidomain fight to the adversary:
AirLand Battle started developing the concept of “extended battlefield.” This concept noted that different commanders had different views of the battlefield in geographical terms. [MDB] continues the concept of extended battlefield but now with a focus on the extension across domains and time. . . . [MDB] endeavors to integrate capabilities in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another, creating and exploiting temporary windows of advantage.19
This NATO-centric version of the MDB development process explicitly argues that, just as the earlier Soviet threat drove large-scale change in the U.S. military’s warfighting doctrines, the new Russian threat will drive long-overdue updates to Army force structure and critical warfighting capabilities, especially in the areas of long-range fires and cyber/electronic warfare.20
It is clear, then, that there are multiple lenses through which one can view the emerging MDB concept. Each perspective brings a unique set of operational and institutional contexts to the process of concept development. Having a unique perspective can be a healthy part of a robust debate, but progress requires an agreed-upon set of facts, or, in the case of an emerging concept, a common basis of evidence. The concept development challenge is to generate credible evidence that is relevant to decisionmakers from across the tactical-operational and conceptual-institutional divides.
The Emerging MDB Concept
According to a new Army–Marine Corps white paper, the MDB concept “describes how U.S. and partner forces organize and employ capabilities to project and apply power across domains, environments, and function over time and physical space to contest adversaries in relative ‘peace’ and, when required, defeat them in ‘war.’”21 The white paper posits three key tenets or “interrelated components of the solution,” as they are so labeled in the document.
First, MDB requires appropriate force posture for the “calibration of forward presence, expeditionary forces, and integration of partner capabilities to deter the adversary and, when necessary, defeat the enemy’s fait accompli campaign.” The latter is defined as an enemy campaign that seeks to rapidly achieve military and political objectives before an allied response can be generated. Next, MDB will be executed by resilient forces that “can operate semi-independently in the expanded operational area while projecting power into or accessing all domains.” Headquarters elements will use a mission command philosophy to integrate operations with advanced capabilities. Finally, converging joint force capabilities will “detect and create physical, virtual, and cognitive windows of advantage” during the three phases of an MDB campaign: competition, defeat the enemy in armed conflict, and return to competition. The white paper concludes by offering that the MDB concept allows U.S. forces to outmaneuver adversaries physically, virtually, and cognitively, applying combined arms in and across all domains. It provides a flexible means to present multiple dilemmas to an enemy by converging capabilities from multiple domains to create windows of advantage enabling friendly forces to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to defeat enemies and achieve campaign objectives. Employing the ideas in this concept, the Joint Force can credibly deter adversary aggression, defeat actions short of armed conflict, deny the enemy freedom of action, overcome enemy defenses, control terrain, compel outcomes, and consolidate gains for sustainable results.
While these three tenets establish a useful framework for institutional considerations of the concept, they do not capture some of the explicit and tacit implications of MDB’s potential utility in a theater or joint campaign. To that end, this article offers the following four attributes, derived from the current MDB concept, as potentially useful in developing a joint campaign of experimentation to better understand the concept and to develop evidence for or against its military utility in the joint force.
First, despite the battle suffix, MDB may have more to do with campaigns than tactical actions. The battle aspects required to create windows of advantage are a necessary precondition to creating decisive overmatch.22 However, various descriptions point to an operational-level concept designed to maneuver friendly forces—and direct their kinetic and nonkinetic fires or effects—simultaneously across five domains.
Second, overmatch in one domain may trigger cross-domain multiplier effects that theater commanders can leverage to bypass, unhinge, and defeat an enemy. This, of course, works in both directions, which is why failing to adequately defend the force across multiple domains may have an outsize impact on war termination.23
Third, cyber and space domains may become tomorrow’s most valued battlespace given U.S. force dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum and satellite-enabled intelligence and communications. The continued development of sophisticated cyber weapons and employment means—as well as the direct and indirect weaponization of space—could exacerbate this trend.
Fourth, MDB implies the need to reexamine our approach to joint command and control. The authorities needed by geographic combatant commanders charged with planning, coordinating, integrating, deploying, and employing forces (and their effects) simultaneously across five domains will increasingly challenge the very concept of boundaries and the traditional relationships used to conduct joint campaigns.
The MDB concept remains more aspirational than practical at this point. To overcome the cognitive challenges and bureaucratic inertia described earlier, the concept needs to demonstrate that it is both more than the sum of its parts and sufficiently better than the status quo.
Operational Antecedents: Two Case Studies
Historical case studies aid the concept development process by contextualizing the problem. As critics and proponents alike have noted, “cross-domain” or combined arms operations stretch back into antiquity. The following case studies offer two examples of multidomain operations. Like any case study, some imagination is required to place the perceptions of the past into a future context. These cases provide some insights for how cross-domain capabilities, applied primarily at the tactical level, can have outsize operational implications.
Guadalcanal. The conceptual assumption in MDB is that the joint force commander must leverage the interdependencies occurring between diverse operational activities simultaneously across multiple domains. It is not enough just to manage, coordinate, deconflict, and integrate. In his 1987 article “Thinking About Warfare,” Lieutenant General Phillip D. Shutler, USMC (Ret.), used the 1942 South Pacific campaign to highlight the three strategic pathways (primarily air, sea, and undersea) that U.S. forces had to successfully transit during World War II before they could project combat power overseas. Although he labeled the strategic pathways regimes instead of domains, the underlying concept remains the same.
Shutler observed that once enemy airfield construction on Guadalcanal was completed, Japanese land-based aircraft were capable of attacking U.S. planes stationed 500 miles to the southeast on Espiritu Santo—threatening the supply lines connecting the United States with Australia and New Zealand. Accordingly, the Marines were ordered to seize the airfield on Guadalcanal to deny its use to the Japanese. In other words, U.S. land forces, in effect, were directed to create an antiair warfare shield at Guadalcanal to protect Espiritu Santo. But as the operational campaign progressed, the Marines’ (and later the Army’s) mission shifted from antiair warfare to enabling U.S. land-based aircraft to support subsequent island-hopping battles to the north and the eventual reduction of the Japanese strongpoint on Rabaul.
Initial success, however, required the United States to prevent Japanese ground forces from reinforcing Guadalcanal. A successful landing would have turned the battle into yet another symmetrical and protracted, single-domain, attritional fight between opposing land forces—both of whom sought to control the airfield. As Shutler noted, accomplishing this required U.S. submarines, surface ships, and naval aviation to establish maritime and aviation “shields” (that is, anti-submarine, anti-surface, antiair defenses) that the Japanese had to penetrate before their ground reinforcements could reach Guadalcanal.24
During the critical phases of the campaign, Japanese forces were unable to effectively penetrate the “multidomain” defensive shields, and the Marines were able to preserve their tactical overmatch ashore on Guadalcanal (approximately 11,000 Marines against 2,000 entrenched Japanese, many of whom were civilian laborers). The tipping point occurred on November 14, 1942, when U.S. naval forces attacked and sank seven Japanese troop transports that were carrying approximately 7,000 embarked Japanese troops trying to reinforce Guadalcanal.25 Although the Japanese did partially penetrate the U.S. shields during the campaign, they were unable to do so with sufficient combat power to alter the battle’s outcome.
Once U.S. air operations began at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, a multiplier effect occurred because the Japanese fleet was largely restricted to conducting night operations. This was due in part to additive U.S. airpower projected from ashore and concomitant flexibility gained from an untethered U.S. fleet that could inflict serious losses on Japanese shipping during daylight hours. This reduced Japanese flexibility and freedom of maneuver with implications well beyond the tactical area of operations and marked the start of the U.S. island-hopping campaign.
Like many similar operations in the Pacific theater, Guadalcanal had only marginal tactical utility as an island except for its value to the air domain. The airfield was the operational lynchpin that was denied to the enemy by adroit integration of multidomain activities on the land, sea, and in the air. This further enabled U.S. land-based airpower to support the drive from the Solomon Islands northward into the Central Pacific and eventually to the Japanese homeland.26
Falkland Islands. Almost 40 years after Guadalcanal, we can observe the same multiplier effect in a more modern campaign—the 1982 Battle of the Falklands—that revolved around a centuries-old territorial dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands.27 Like the U.S. fleet in the Solomon’s Campaign, the United Kingdom established maritime and antiair shields around the Falklands in order to isolate the objective area, protect Royal Navy/Marines amphibious operations, and deny Buenos Aires the ability to reinforce its forces.
Multidomain actions in the Falklands campaign were numerous, and the multiplier effects these actions had on the campaign’s outcome were significant. The sinking of the 13,500-ton Argentine cruiser General Belgrano (armed with 15 6-inch guns and 8 5-inch guns) by three conventional torpedoes fired from the British nuclear submarine Conqueror took the lives of 323 Argentine sailors (slightly more than half of their total casualties suffered during the war). But more importantly, this action had a cross-domain effect that forced the Argentine surface navy to remain inside its territorial waters for the duration of the campaign.28Additionally, the sinking of the Belgranodramatically relieved naval surface pressure on Great Britain’s fleet operating in the Falkland littorals, which in turn allowed Royal Navy vessels on picket duty more time to visually detect Argentine aircraft being launched from the mainland and alert the British Task Force.29
The multiplier effect continued when British special operations forces, supported by naval gunfire, conducted an amphibious raid on Pebble Island to further reduce the Argentine air threat. The raid destroyed 11 forward-based Argentine aircraft. While Argentine helicopters and light aircraft were subsequently dispersed around the islands, the raid forced Argentina to withdraw most of its high-performance aircraft 400 miles back to the mainland.30 Thus, Argentine aircraft were required to fight at their maximum operating radius, which greatly reduced their time on station (Argentina had only limited aerial refueling capability). This was a major advantage for Great Britain’s amphibious fleet and embarked ground forces, who were worried they would not have air superiority during the amphibious landing.
Dismissing the Falklands as nothing more than a creative use of limited assets under extreme conditions risks overlooking key multidomain insights that contributed to operational success. If the notion of achieving dominance in one or more warfighting domains is a thing of the past, then learning to leverage a broader but perhaps relatively less robust toolkit is necessary. To modify a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill, “Gentlemen we are out of overwhelming resources; Now we must think.”31
It might be easy to dismiss military case studies of the previous century as irrelevant to the challenges faced when looking forward into the current one. But it is worth considering how these multiple domains were integrated in the first place. The process (including technical, conceptual, and instructional efforts) of integrating new-fangled flying machines into the traditional warfighting domains of the land and sea began decades before a mature concept. It was not a straight line or a preordained outcome. The associated technologies and tactical concepts were leavened by decades of peacetime “experimentation” and wartime adaptation. The resulting capabilities for presenting an adversary with multiple, simultaneous dilemmas across domains changed the way the United States fights at both the tactical and operational levels of war.
The second source of evidence with which to examine the viability of the MDB concept is to look at it from operational perspectives and across a range of contexts. To do this, DOD should subject the MDB concept and its supporting tenets to a rigorous campaign of joint experimentation—even as the specific capabilities are still being developed. Joint experimentation in this context is an inclusive phrase meant to indicate the exploration of ideas, assumptions, and crucial elements of nascent MDB capabilities. To be clear, joint experimentation covers a wide range of activities (from structured seminars, virtual and constructive environments, to field events) and should be seen as complementary or undertaken in parallel with the development of specific capabilities or tactical employment concepts.
We employ the term campaign in association with joint experimentation to indicate that no single event can generate the quality or variety of necessary data. Moreover, only an experimentation campaign utilizing iterative activities with learning feedback loops (including workshops, wargames, constructive and virtual simulation, and live field events) can generate sufficient evidence to genuinely assess what it will take to realize, adapt, or abandon the MDB idea.
In terms of military experimentation, no single method has ever worked. The complex nature of military problems, and especially ones with interactions across five domains, argues for diverse forms of “discovery experimentation” to introduce novel systems, concepts, organizational structures, and technologies into settings where their use can be observed and Red Teamed.32 The results of such a comprehensive assessment will help identify MDB similarities and differences between the theaters, and will inform future doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy initiatives that must be addressed before MDB can become a deployable set of capabilities.
One of the most complex challenges in debates about future joint concepts is not the concept per se; it is the nature of jointness as practiced in a post–U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) environment. Without digressing too far into the history of USJFCOM’s role in joint concept development and experimentation, it is worth contrasting the contexts. Formed in 1999, USJFCOM developed a generally top-down approach to joint concept development and experimentation. While this approach had some advantages, it often resulted in excessively large experiments, with the Services playing a limited or marginally productive role. When USJFCOM was disestablished in 2011, joint concept development reverted to the Joint Staff J7, whose time and resources for experimentation was more limited.33 More recently, Service or multi-Service–led efforts to develop and experiment with new joint concepts are increasing. This can be seen as a bottom-up, collaborative effort. While this approach has many practical advantages over the top-down approach, it is not without challenges—a key one being that the longer joint stakeholders (that is, combatant commands and prospective joint force commanders) remain spectators to the Service-dominated joint experimentation process, the less likely MDB’s theater-wide and strategic-level implications will be subjected to a full examination by the customer.
Under Joint Staff policy for concept development, experimentation begins after concept development. This may be adequate for narrow concepts or mission/domain capabilities where one Service has the lead. But this approach seems ill-suited for complex and multifaceted warfighting concepts such as MDB. As the two case studies indicate, cross-domain overmatch and multiplier effects are often discovered and subsequently leveraged in the course of operations. Early discovery experimentation with some level of joint analysis and sponsorship is essential. Not only will such early experiments increase the capacity to do joint experimentation, but they can also help co-develop Service concepts within a joint context.
As noted at the outset of this article, the MDB debate at this stage is a useful set of thought experiments, but it is not producing tangible evidence. Such evidence would shift the debate from a primarily subjective one to a more balanced and objective conversation. However, the recent history of joint concept development and the very nature of institutional jointness as practiced in DOD are not encouraging. According to the Joint Staff, joint concepts are assessed “using various analytical methods; the joint concept community evaluates both developing and approved concepts to determine whether they are feasible and promote informed decisions on developing new joint capabilities.”34
One potentially more lucrative approach would be to embark on a series of parallel joint discovery experiments designed to identify the specific characteristics, demands, and challenges associated with assessing the feasibility of MDB transcending theater-specific applications to serve as a more universal warfighting concept. Such a joint discovery experiment has historically been at the heart of military experimentation.35
The objective of discovery experiments is to learn, so it is useful to begin with a set of well-defined conceptual and operational conditions. One does not seek a well-defined “concept,” rather a statement of the military problem and a clear understanding of the initial military context. The discovery experimentation approach, supported by an initial data collection plan, is designed to tinker with the variables, modify the conditions, and challenge the assumptions and constraints in a way that dynamically helps refine a nascent concept and identify the kinds of capabilities worth considering. This notion of progressive learning through experimentation generates feedback that enables concept framing, definition, and refinement to occur dynamically.
The ability to use experimentation to explore the utility of emerging technologies and concepts is a force multiplier. Technology cannot be optimized until its impact on warfighting concepts and doctrine is fully appreciated. According to the National Academy of Sciences in a study done for the Navy:
By simulating future systems, [military commanders] can also learn how those systems will work in simulated combat environments and how to use forces equipped with such proposed systems. By such means they can explore new ideas and concepts for the use of variously composed and equipped forces against diverse anticipated threats, and they can learn how to integrate such forces on a large scale in the joint and combined force environment.36
One major challenge in calling for more joint experimentation is the large gap between the operating environment envisioned in the MDB concept and the availability of validated models and simulations. Earlier efforts to support joint analyses (both constructive and human-in-the-loop) with custom designed joint models “amounted to a costly failure with little or no resulting joint analysis capability gain for the Department.”37 Nevertheless, progress in MDB will require some capability to integrate space, cyber, and electromagnetic effects into models designed to explore the interaction of new capabilities and human decisionmaking. Any effort to explore MDB in a joint context must include an effort to integrate existing Service modeling and simulation tools (in the same bottom-up approach discussed here). This will help the Services to operate across new domains in support of specific joint priorities instead of attempting to create a standalone, top-down modeling and simulation solution.
Discovery experimentation is not a free-for-all, but a deliberately crafted and planned approach for addressing an issue long before it becomes a pressing problem. It allows operators to interact with new or potential concepts and capabilities to explore their military utility—something that is not often supported through traditional studies or hypothesis-based experiments. It requires careful attention to the specification and collection of data that will provide solid evidence for the conclusions reached by conducting experiments. If all these constraints are observed, discovery experimentation could be a valuable tool and a useful “way of weeding out ideas that simply do not work, forcing the community to ask rigorous questions about the benefits being sought and the dynamics involved in implementing the idea, or specifying the limiting conditions.”38
It is time to subject the MDB concept to discovery experimentation. To modify slightly Sir Michael Howard’s admonition about future doctrine, it is the “task of military science in the age of peace to prevent new capabilities from being too badly wrong” when the next war starts.39
Dr. Kevin M. Woods is Deputy Director of the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Colonel Thomas C. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.), is a Researcher at IDA.
1.John F. Schmitt, A Practical Guide for Developing and Writing Military Concepts, Defense Adaptive Red Team Working Paper #02-4 (McLean, VA: Hicks & Associates, December 2002), 4, available at <www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/writing/dart_paper_writing_mil_concepts.pdf>.
2. An experiment campaign consists of “a set of experiments, complementary analyses, and synthesis activities . . . conceived, orchestrated, and harvested” in order to better understand the complex issues associated with a warfighting concept. See David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes, Campaigns of Experimentation: Pathways to Transformation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2005), 4.
3. Amos C. Fox, “Multi-Domain Battle: A Perspective on the Salient Features of an Emerging Operational Doctrine,” Small Wars Journal, May 21, 2017.
4. Senate Armed Services Committee, Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., USN, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, on U.S. Pacific Command Posture, April 27, 2017, 19.
5. Robert B. Brown, “The Indo-Asia Pacific and the Multi-Domain Battle Concept,” March 20, 2017, available at <www.army.mil/article/184551/the_indo_asia_ pacific_and_the_multi_domain_battle_concept>.
6. For example, see Joint Staff–issued concept papers Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012), Joint Operational Access Concept (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012), and Joint Concept for Rapid Aggregation(Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2015).
7.Richard Hart Sinnreich, “Multi-Domain Battle: Old Wine in a New Bottle,” The Lawton Constitution, October 30, 2016.
9. Erik Heftye, “Multi-Domain Confusion: All Domains Are Not Created Equal,” Real Clear Defense, May 26, 2017, available at <www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/05/26/multi-domain_confusion_all_domains_are_not_created_equal_111463.html>. For an early related argument, see Martin C. Libicki, “Cyberspace Is Not a Warfighting Domain,” I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society 8, no. 2 (2012).
10. Mike Pietrucha, “No End in Sight to the Army’s Dependence on Airpower,” War on the Rocks, December 13, 2016, available at <https://warontherocks.com/2016/12/no-end-in-sight-to-the-armys-dependence-on-airpower/>.
11.A.J. Shattuck, “The Pipe Dream of (Effective) Multi-Domain Battle,” Modern War Institute at West Point, March 28, 2017, available at <https://mwi.usma.edu/pipe-dream-effective-multi-domain-battle/>.
12. Mike Benitez, “Multi-Domain Battle: Does It End the Never-Ending Quest for Joint Readiness?” Over the Horizon, May 2, 2017, available at <https://overthehorizonmdos.com/2017/05/02/mdb-joint-readiness/>.
13.See James Stavridis and David Weinstein, “Time for a U.S. Cyber Force,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 1 (January 2014). The House Armed Services Committee mark of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act calls for the creation of a separate Space Corps.
14.Michael C. Davies, “Multi-domain Battle and the Masks of War,” Small Wars Journal, May 11, 2017, available at <http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/multi-domain-battle-and-the-masks-of-war-why-it’s-time-to-eliminate-the-independent-services>.
15. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army Must Be Ready for Multi-Domain Battle in Pacific ‘Tomorrow,’” Breaking Defense, January 31, 2017, available at <https://breakingdefense.com/2017/01/army-must-ready-for-multi-domain-battle-in-pacific-tomorrow/>.
16. Megan Eckstein, “Army Set to Sink Ship in 2018 as PACOM Operationalizes Multi-Domain Battle Concept,” USNI News, May 30, 2017. The Army had a standing mission to “sink ships” in the form of the Coast Artillery Corps from 1901 to 1950.
18. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army’s Multi-Domain Battle Gains Traction Across Services: The Face of Future War,” Breaking Defense, March 13, 2017, available at <https://breakingdefense.com/2017/03/armys-multi-domain-battle-gains-traction-across-services/>.
19. David G. Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Joint Combined Arms Concept for the 21st Century,” Association of the United States Army, November 2016, available at <www.ausa.org/articles/multi-domain-battle-joint-combined-arms-concept-21st-century>. The notion of extended battle dates to General Don Starry and the development of the AirLand Battle Concept in the early 1980s. See Don Starry, “Extending the Battlefield,” Military Review 61, no. 3 (March 1981), 31–50.
20. J.P. Clark, “In Defense of a Big Idea for Joint Warfighting” War on the Rocks, December 22, 2016, available at <https://warontherocks.com/2016/12/in-defense-of-a-big-idea-for-joint-warfighting/>. Kevin Benson, “Extending the Second Offset and Multi-Domain Battle,” Real Clear Defense, November 29, 2016, available at <www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/11/30/extending_the_second_offset _and_multi-domain_battle_110411.html>.
21. U.S. Army–Marine Corps White Paper, “Multi-Doman Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century,” September 30, 2017, available at <www.tradoc.army.mil/multidomainbattle/docs/DRAFT_MDBconcept.pdf>. The Air Force is developing a related Multi-Domain Operations concept that combines Air Force theater contributions into a unified air-space-cyberspace capability set in support of the joint force. See “Multi-Domain Command and Control: The Air Force Perspective with Brigadier General B. Chance Saltzman” (Part 1 of 2), Over the Horizon, April 3, 2017, available at <https://overthehorizonmdos.com/2017/04/03/multi-domain-command-and-control-the-air-force-perspective-with-brigadier-general-b-chance-saltzman-part-1-of-2/>. Saltzman makes the distinction with traditional combined arms by arguing, “[combined arms] is using the assets you have, in some cases from different functions or different domains. Whether it’s artillery, armor, infantry, aviation, those are the traditional arms we’re talking because a lot of times we talk about combined arms in terms of the Army sense of things.”
22.Overmatch is defined as “the application of capabilities or unique tactics either directly or indirectly, with the intent to prevent or mitigate opposing forces from using their current or projected equipment or tactics.” See U.S. Army–Marine Corps White Paper, 13, 17, 55, 61, 73.
23. In the context of a specific campaign, all domains are not of equal value. Even opponents in the same battle may, for a host of reasons, not share the same view of a domain’s value.
24. Phillip D. Shutler, “Thinking About Warfare,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 1987, 20, 23–25.
25. J.J. Edson, “The Asymmetrical Ace,” Marine Corps Gazette, April 1988, 51.
26. Guadalcanal was a pivotal battle in the larger Solomon’s campaign but a closely contested fight to the bitter end. The United States suffered a terrible naval defeat in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8–9, 1942, which reduced Allied heavy cruiser strength in the Pacific by more than 33 percent and compelled Navy transport and supply ships to depart the objective area prematurely. Command relationships between senior Marine Corps and Navy commanders were also overly complex, which led to unnecessary friction. For a more detailed account, see Jeter A. Isley and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 130, 153–162.
27. The proximate cause, however, was a textbook case of two serious and mutually reinforcing misjudgments. These misjudgments, as one scholar put it, stemmed from “the belief in London that Argentina would not invade the Falkland Islands and the expectation in Buenos Aires that Britain would accommodate itself to a military takeover of the islands.” See Richard Ned Nebow, “Miscalculation in the South Atlantic: The Origins of the Falkland War,” Journal of Strategic Studies 6, no. 1 (1983), 5.
28. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1992), 246.
29. In an effort to isolate the islands and limit the scope of the campaign, Great Britain declared a 200-mile radius Total Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands. This declaration had the tacit effect of making the Argentinian home waters a bastion for the Argentine navy.
30. Sir Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands, Volume II: War and Diplomacy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 431. Freedman wrote, “This was a remarkably successful raid, depriving the garrison of a number of aircraft and undermining morale, by demonstrating the capacity of special forces to mount operations on the Islands against units that were detached from the main forces.” That said, Argentine aircraft remaining in the Falklands after the raid were assessed to be three Shyvan light transports, two navy Tracker early warning aircraft, nine Pucara counterinsurgency aircraft, four Chinooks, three Puma, and one Agusta 109. Although none of these aircraft threatened the overall outcome of the campaign, they remained a major concern throughout it.
31. The most common original Churchill version is “Gentlemen, we have run out of money: Now we must think.” Some evidence suggests Churchill borrowed the phrase from famed physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford.
32. The other two major types of experiments are hypothesis tests and demonstrations. Both could play a role in narrow aspects of the campaign but could not serve as a description of the overall experimentation effort.
33. Joint operating concepts (JOCs) “broadly describe how the joint force may execute military operations within a specific mission area in accordance with defense strategic guidance and the CCJO. Collectively, JOCs describe joint capabilities required to operate across the range of military operations and encourage further examination through wargaming, joint training, and a variety of studies, experimentation, and analyses.” See Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3010.02E, Guidance for Developing and Implementing Joint Concepts (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, August 17, 2016), A-10.
35. Examples include the Navy’s Fleet Problem series in the 1920s and 1930s that in.tegrated fledgling naval airpower into fleet operations, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s Project B experiments on the use of airpower against shipping, or the Marine Corps’ Fleet Landing Exercises in the 1930s leading to the validation of Major Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis’s amphibious concepts. See Williamson Murray, Experimentation in the Period Between the Two World Wars: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, November 2000).
36.National Research Council, The Role of Experimentation in Building Future Naval Forces (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), available at <www.nap.edu/catalog/11125/the-role-of-experimentation-in-building-future-naval-forces>.
37. The failure of the Joint Warfare System, Joint Simulation System, and Joint Modeling and Simulation System programs stemmed from not only the efforts’ complex and high-risk technical natures but also some of the same integration and development issues that challenge the development of joint capabilities. For a summary of the issues and lessons, see Robert Lutz et al., Factors Influencing Modeling and Simulation to Inform OSD Acquisition Decisions (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses and Johns Hopkins University, April 2017).
38. The authors are indebted to our colleague Dr. Sue Numrich for input on discovery experimentation. See also David S. Alberts, ed., Code of Best Practice: Experimentation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, July 2002), 21.
39. Michael Howard, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” RUSI Journal 119, no. 1 (1974), 2.
Featured Image: Reconnaissance Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force, sourced from Force Reconnaissance Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, and embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), jump from a CH-53E Super Stallion during helocast training in the Gulf of Aden, May 28, 2015. The Super Stallion belongs to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 (Reinforced), 24th MEU. The 24th MEU is embarked on the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and deployed to maintain regional security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joey Mendez/Released)
“…despite the best efforts of our training teams, our deploying forces were not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” –Admiral Scott Swift 1
Today, virtually every captain in the U.S. Navy has spent most of his or her career in the post-Cold War era where high-end warfighting skills were de-emphasized. After the Soviet Union fell, there was no navy that could plausibly contest control of the open ocean against the U.S. In taking stock of this new strategic environment, the Navy announced in the major strategy concept document …From the Sea (1992) a “change in focus and, therefore, in priorities for the Naval Service away from operations on the sea toward power projection.”2 This change in focus was toward missions that made the Navy more relevant in campaigns against lower-end threats such as insurgent groups and rogue nations (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya) that were the new focus of national security imperatives. None of these competitors fielded modern navies.
The relatively simplistic missions the U.S. Navy conducted in this power projection era included striking inland targets with missile strikes and airpower, presence through patrolling in forward areas, and security cooperation through partner development engagements. The focus on this skillset has led to an era of complacence where the high-end warfighting skills that were de-emphasized actually atrophied to a significant degree. This possibility was forewarned in another Navy strategy document that sharpened thinking on adapting for a power projection era, Forward…from the Sea(1994): “As we continue to improve our readiness to project power in the littorals, we need to proceed cautiously so as not to jeopardize our readiness for the full spectrum of missions and functions for which we are responsible.”3
Now the strategic environment has changed decisively. Most notably, China is aggressively rising, challenging international norms, and rapidly building a large, modern navy. Because of the predominantly maritime nature of the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy may prove the most important military service for deterring and winning a major war against this ascendant and destabilizing superpower. If things get to the point where offensive sea control operations are needed and the fleet is gambled in high-end combat, then it is very likely that the associated geopolitical stakes of victory or defeat will be historic. The sudden rise of a powerful maritime rival is coinciding with the atrophy of high-end warfighting skills and the introduction of exceedingly complex technologies, making the recent stunning revelations about how the U.S. Navy has failed to prepare for great power war especially chilling.
Admiral Scott Swift, who leads U.S. Pacific Fleet (the U.S. Navy’s largest and most prioritized operational command), candidly revealed that the Navy was not realistically practicing high-end warfighting skills and operations, including sinking modern enemy fleets, until only two years ago. Ships were not practicing against other ships in the realistic, free-play environments necessary to train and refine tactics and doctrine to win in great power war.
In a recent U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, Admiral Swift detailed training and experimentation events occurring in a series of “Fleet Problems.” These events take their name and inspiration from a years-long series of interwar-period fleet experiments and exercises that profoundly influenced how the Navy transformed itself in the run-up to World War Two. While ships practiced against ships in the inter-war period Fleet Problems, the modern version began with the creation of a specialized “Red” team well-versed in wargaming concepts and competitor thinking born from intelligence insights. This Red team is pitched against the Navy’s frontline commanders in Fleet Problem scenarios that simulate high-end warfare through the command of actual warships. What makes their creation an admission of grave institutional failure is that this Red team is leading the first series of realistic high-threat training events at sea in recent memory.
The Navy’s units should be able to practice high-end warfighting skills against one another without the required participation of a highly-specialized Red team adversary to present a meaningful challenge. But Adm. Swift strikingly admits that the Navy’s current system of certifying warfighting skills is not representative of real high-end capability because the Navy “never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks, against a free-playing, informed, and representative Red.” Furthermore, “individual commanders rarely if ever [emphasis added] had the opportunity to exercise all these complex operations against a dynamic and thoughtful adversary.”
Core understanding on what makes training realistic and meaningful was absent. Warfighting truths were not being discovered and necessary skills were not being practiced because ships were not facing off against other ships in high-end threat scenarios to test their abilities under realistic conditions. If the nation sent the Navy to fight great power war tomorrow, it would amount to a coach sending a team that “rarely if ever” did practice games to a championship match.
These exercises are not just experiments that push the limits of what is known about modern war at sea. They are also experimental in that they are now figuring out if the U.S. Navy can even do what it has said it could do, including the ability to sink enemy fleets and establish sea control. According to Adm. Swift, the Navy had “never performed” a “critical operational tactic that is used routinely in exercises and assumed to be executable by the fleet [emphasis added]” until it was recently tested in a Fleet Problem. The unsurprising insight: “having never performed the task together at sea, the disconnect” between what the Navy thought it could perform and what it could actually do “never was identified clearly.” Adm. Swift concludes “It was not until we tried to execute under realistic, true free-play conditions that we discovered the problem’s causal factors…” In the Fleet Problems training and experimentation have become one and the same.
Why did the Navy assume it could confidently execute critical operational tactics it had never actually tried in the first place? And if the Navy assumed it could do it, then maybe the rest of the defense establishment and other nations thought so, too. Does this profound disconnect also hold true for foreign and allied navies? Is the unique tactical and doctrinal knowledge being represented by the specialized Red team an admission that competitors are training their units and validating their warfighting concepts through more realistic practice? Even though it is impossible to truly simulate all the chaos of real combat, only now are important ground truths of high-end naval warfare just being discovered which could prompt major reassessments of what the Navy can really contribute in great power war.
The entirety of the train, man, and equip enterprise that produces ready military forces for deployment must be built upon a coherent vision of how real war works. The advent of the Fleet Problems suggests that if one were to ask the Navy’s unit leaders what their real-world vision is of how to fight modern enemy warships as part of a distributed and networked force their responses would have little in common. If great power war breaks out tomorrow, the Navy’s frontline commanders could be forced to improvise warfighting fundamentals from the very beginning. Simple lessons would be learned at great cost in blood and treasure.
Many of the major revelations coming from the Fleet Problems are not unique innovations, but rather symptoms of deep neglect for a core element of preparing for war – pitting real-life units against one another to test people, ideas, and technology under realistic conditions. Adm. Swift surprisingly describes using a Red team to connect intelligence insights, wargaming concepts, training, and real-life experimentation as “new ground.” Swift also noted that as the Navy attempted its purported concepts of operations in the Fleet Problems “it became apparent there were warfighting tasks that were critical to success that we could not execute with confidence.” In a normal context, it would not always be noteworthy for a military to invalidate concepts or realize it can’t do something well. What makes these statements revelations is that the process of testing concepts and people in realistic conditions simulating great power war has only just begun.
This is a failure with profound implications. The insight that comes from training and experimenting against realistic threats forms a critical foundation for the rest of the military enterprise. Realistic experimentation and training is indispensable for developing meaningful doctrine, tactics, and operational art. Much of the advanced concept development on great power war by the Navy hasn’t been validated by real-world testing. The creation of the new Fleet Problems is fundamentally an admission that not only is the Navy unsure of its ability to execute core missions, but that major decisions about its future development were built on flaws. While the Fleet Problems are finally injecting much needed realism into the Navy’s thinking, their creation reveals that the entire defense establishment has suffered a major disconnect from the real character of modern naval warfare. The Fleet Problems have likely invalidated years of planning and numerous basic assumptions.
The Navy must now account for how many years it did not practice its forces in meaningful, high-end threat training in order to understand just how widespread this lack of realistic experience has penetrated its ranks. There should be no doubt that this has skewed decision-making at senior levels of leadership. How many leaders making important decisions about capability development, training, and requirements have zero firsthand experience commanding forces in high-end threat training? Could the fleet commanders operate networked and distributed formations if war breaks out? Has best military advice on the value of naval power for the nation’s national security interests been predicated on untested warfighting assumptions?
To Train the Fleet for What?
“The department directs that a board of officers, qualified by experience, be ordered to prepare a manual of torpedo tactics which will be submitted by the department to the War College, and after such discussion and revision as may be necessary, will be printed and issued to the torpedo officers of the service for trial. This order has not been complied with. If it had been, it would doubtless have resulted in a sort of tentative doctrine which, though it might well have been better than the flotilla’s first attempt, could not have been as complete or as reliable as one developed through progressive trials at sea; and it might well have contained very dangerous mistakes.”–William S. Sims 4
Adm. Swift reveals that it was even debated whether free-play elements should play a role at all in certifying units to be combat ready: “there was concern in some circles that adding free-play elements to the limited time in the training schedule would come at the cost of unit certification. Others contended it was unrealistic and unfair to ask units that were not yet certified to perform our most difficult warfighting tasks.” The degree of certification is moot. Sailors are failing anyway because the shift in warfighting focus toward great power competition has not been matched by new training standards and therefore not penetrated down to the unit level.
Adm. Swift notes startling lessons: “In some scenarios, we learned that the ‘by the book’ procedure can place a strike group at risk simply because our standard operating procedures were written without considering a high-end wartime environment.” This is a direct result of the change in focus toward power projection missions against threats without modern navies. According to Adm. Swift the regular exercise schedule consisted of missions including “maritime interdiction operations, strait transits, and air wings focused on power projection from sanctuary” which meant that forces were “not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” In this new context of a high-end fight in a Fleet Problem, according to Adm. Swift, “If we presented an accurate—which is to say hard—problem, there was a high probability the forces involved were going to fail. In our regular training events, that simply does not happen at the rate we assess will occur in war.” The Fleet Problems are revealing that Navy units are not able to confidently execute high-end warfighting operations regardless of the state of their training certifications.
These revelations demonstrate that the way the Navy certifies its units as ready for war is broken. A profound disconnect exists between the Navy’s certification and training processes for various warfighting skills and what is actually required in war. Entire sets of training certifications and standard operating procedures born of the post-Cold War era are inadequate for gauging the Navy’s ability to fight great power conflict.
Mentally Absent in the Midst of the Largest Technological Revolution
“The American navy in particular has been fascinated with hardware, esteems technical competence, and is prone to solve its tactical deficiencies with engineering improvements. Indeed, there are officers in peacetime who regard the official statement of a requirement for a new piece of hardware as the end of their responsibility in correcting a current operational deficiency. This is a trap.” Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (Ret.) 5
Regardless of a major shift in national security priorities toward lower-end threats, the astonishing pace of technological change constitutes an extremely volatile factor in the strategic environment that needs to be constantly paced by realistic training and experimentation under free-play conditions. The modern technological foundation upon which to devise tactics and doctrine is built on sand.
The advent of the information age has unlocked an unprecedented degree of flexibility for the conduct of naval warfare as platforms and payloads can be connected in real-time in numerous ways across great distances. This has resulted in a military-technical revolution as marked as when iron and steam combined to overtake wooden ships of sail. A single modern destroyer fully loaded with network-enabled anti-ship missiles has enough firepower to singlehandedly sink the entirety of the U.S. Navy’s WWII battleship and fleet carrier force.6 On the flipside, another modern destroyer could field the defensive capability to stop that same missile salvo.
Warfighting fundamentals are being reappraised in an information-focused context. The process by which forces find, target, and engage their opponents, known as the kill chain, is enabled by information at each individual step of the sequence. A key obstacle is meeting that burden of information in order to advance to the next step. This challenge is exacerbated by the great distances of open-ocean warfare and the difficulty of getting timely information to where it needs to be while the adversary seeks to deceive and degrade the network. Technological advancement means the kill chain’s information burdens can be increasingly met and interfered with.
The threshold of information needed for the archer to shoot decreases the smarter the arrow gets. Information-age advancements have therefore wildly increased the power of the most destructive conventional weapon ever put to sea, the autonomous salvo of swarming anti-ship missiles.
The next iteration of these missiles will have a robust suite of onboard sensors, datalinks, jamming capability, and artificial intelligence. These capabilities will combine to build resilience into the kill chain by containing as much of that process as possible within the missile itself. More and more of the need for the most up-to-date information will be met by the missile swarm’s own sensors and decided upon by its artificial intelligence. Once fired, these missiles are on a one-way trip, allowing them to discard survivability for the sake of seizing more opportunities to collect and pass information. Unlike most other information-gaining assets, these missiles will be able to close with potential targets to resolve lingering concerns of deception and identification. The missile’s infrared and electro-optical capabilities in particular will provide undetectable, jam-resistant sensors for final identification that will prove challenging to deceive with countermeasures. On final approach, the missile will pick a precise point on the ship to guarantee a kill, such as where ammunition is stored.
The most fierce enemy in naval warfare has taken the form of autonomous networked missile salvos where the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) decision cycle will be transpiring within the swarm at machine speeds. Is the Navy ready to use and defend against these decisive weapons?
The Navy may feel inclined to say yes to the latter question sooner because shooting things out of the sky has been a special focus of the Surface Navy and naval aviation since WWII. The latest technology that will take this capability into the 21st century, the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter-Air (NIFC-CA) networking capability, will help unite the sensors and weapons of the Navy’s ships and aircraft. Aircraft will be able to use a warship’s missiles to shoot down threats the ship can’t see itself. This is decisive because anti-ship missiles will make their final approach at low altitudes below the horizon where they can’t be detected by a ship’s radar. Modern warships can be forced to wait until the final seconds to bring most of their defensive firepower to bear on a supersonic inbound missile salvo unless a networked aircraft can cue their fires with accurate sensor information from high above.
There should be little confidence that naval forces have a deep comprehension of how information has revolutionized naval warfare and how modern fleet combat will play out because there was a lapse in necessary realistic experimentation at sea. The way the Navy thought it would operate may not actually make sense in war, a key insight that experimentation will reveal as it did in the interwar period.
Training and Experimentation for Now and Tomorrow
“If…the present system fails to anticipate and to adequately provide for the conditions to be expected during hostilities of such nature, it is obviously imperative that it be modified; wholly regardless of the effect of such change upon administration or upon the outcome of any peace activity whatsoever.” –Dudley W. Knox 9
The extent to which the Navy’s current capabilities have been tested by meaningful real-world training and experimentation is now in doubt. This doubt naturally extends to things that the Navy has just fielded or is about to introduce to the fleet. Yet Adm. Swift revealed a fatal flaw in the Fleet Problems that is not in keeping with a high-velocity learning or warfighting-first mindset: “We are not notionally employing systems and weapons that are not already deployed in the fleet. Each unit attacks the problem using what it has on hand (physically and intellectually) today.”
It is a mistake to not train forces to use future weapons. Units must absolutely attempt to experiment with capabilities not yet in the fleet to stay ahead of the ever-quickening pace of change. Realism should be occasionally sacrificed to anticipate the basic parameters of capabilities that are about to be fielded. Sailors should be thinking about how to employ advanced anti-ship missiles about to hit the fleet that feature hundreds of miles of range like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), Standard Missile 6, and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk. These capabilities are far more versatile than the Navy’s only current ship-to-ship missile, the very short-range and antiquated Harpoon missile the Navy first fielded over 40 years ago and can’t even carry in its launch cells. Getting sailors to think about weapons before their introduction will mentally prepare them for new capabilities and warfighting realities.
Information-enabled capabilities have come to dominate every facet of offense, defense, and decision. Do naval aviators know how to retarget friendly salvos of networked missiles amidst a mass of deception and defensive counter-air capabilities while leveraging warship capabilities to target enemy missile salvos simultaneously? Do fleet commanders know how to maneuver numerous aerial network nodes to fuse sensors and establish flows of critical information that react to emerging threats and opportunities? Can commanders effectively manage and verify enormous amounts of information while the defense establishment and industrial base are being aggressively hacked by a great power? According to the Navy’s current service strategy document, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, warfare concept development should involve efforts to “…re-align Navy training, tactics development, operational support, and assessments with our warfare mission areas to mirror how we currently organize to fight.” 10
Despite all the enormous effort and long wait times that accompany the introduction of a new system, the Fleet Problems remind the defense establishment that the Navy can’t be expected to know how to use it simply because it is fielded. New warfighting certifications are in order and must be rapidly redefined and benchmarked by the Fleet Problems in order to pace technology and make the Navy credible. This will require that a significant amount of time be dedicated to real-world experimentation.
So How the Does the Navy Spend its Time?
“Our forward presence force is the finest such force in the world. But operational effectiveness in the wrong competitive space may not lead to mission success. More fundamentally, has the underlying rule set changed so that we are now in a different competitive space? How will we revalue the attributes in our organization?” –Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka 11
These severe experimentation and training shortfalls are not at all due to lack of funding, but rather by faulty decisions on what is actually important for Sailors to focus their time on and what naval forces should be used for in the absence of great power war. Meanwhile, the power projection era featured extreme deployment rates that have run the Navy into the ground.
The Government Accountability Office states that 63 percent of the Navy’s destroyers, 83 percent of its submarines, and 86 percent of its aircraft carriers experienced maintenance overruns from FY 2011-2016 that resulted in almost 14,000 lost operational days – days where ships were not available for operations.12 How much of this monumental deployment effort went toward aggressively experimenting and training for great power conflict instead of performing lower-end missions? Hardly any if none at all because Adm. Swift termed the idea to use a unit’s deployment time for realistic experimentation an “epiphany.”
In order to more efficiently meet insatiable operational demand and slow the rate of material degradation the Navy implemented the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) that reforms the cycle by which the Navy generates ready forces through maintenance, training, and sustainment phases.13 But Adm. Swift alleges that this major reform has caused the Navy to improperly invest its time:
“Commanders were busy following the core elements in our Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) training model, going from event to event and working their way through the list of training objectives as efficiently as possible. Rarely did we create an environment that allowed them to move beyond the restraints of efficiency to the warfighting training mandate to ensure the effectiveness of tactics, techniques, and procedures. We were not creating an environment for them to develop their own warfighting creativity and initiative.”
A check-in-the-box culture has been instituted to cope with crushing deployments rates at the expense of fostering leaders that embody the true warfighter ethos of imaginative tacticians and operational commanders. The OFRP cycle is under so much tension from insatiable demand and run-down equipment that Adm. Swift described it as a “Swiss watch—touching any part tended to cause the interlocking elements to bind, to the detriment of the training audience.” But as Adm. Swift already noted, pre-deployment training wasn’t even focused on preparing for the high-end fight anyway.
Every single deployment is an opportunity to practice and experiment. Simply teaching unit leaders to make time for such events will be valuable training itself as they figure out how to delegate responsibilities in an environment that more closely approximates wartime conditions. After all, if units are currently straining on 30 hours of sleep a week performing low-end missions and administrative tasks, how can we be sure they know how to make time to fight a high-stakes war while also maintaining a ship that’s falling apart?
Being a deckplate leader of a warship has always been an enormously busy job and there is always something a warship can do to be relevant. But it is a core competence of leaders at all levels to know what to make time for and how to delegate accordingly. From the sailor checking maintenance tasks to the combatant commander tasking ships for partner development engagements, a top-to-bottom reappraisal of what the Navy needs to spend its time doing is in order. Are Sailors performing tasks really needed to win a war? Are the ships being deployed on missions that serve meaningful priorities?
Major reform will be necessary in order to reestablish priorities to make large amounts of time for realistic training and experimentation. In addition to making enough time, it is also a question of having enough forces on hand when the fleet is stretched thin. Adm. Swift described a carrier strike group (CSG) being used in a Fleet Problem where “the entire CSG was OpFor [Red team] – an enormous investment that yielded unique and valuable lessons.” Does this mean that aircraft carriers, the Navy’s largest and most expensive warships, are especially hard-pressed to secure time for realistic experimentation and training? Can the Navy assemble more than a strike group’s worth of ships to simulate a competitor’s naval forces?
The recent deployment of three strike groups to the Pacific means it is possible. Basic considerations include asking whether the Navy has enough ships on hand to simulate a distributed fleet and enough units to simulate great power adversaries that have the advantages of time, space, and numbers. But with where the deployment priorities currently stand, the Navy may not have enough time or ships on hand to regularly simulate accurate scenarios.
A Credibility Crisis in the Making
“…there are many, many examples of where our ships – their commanding officers, their crews are doing very well, but if it’s not monitored on a continuous basis these skills can atrophy very quickly.” –Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson 14
When great power conflict last broke out in WWII the war at sea was won by admirals like Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and Raymond Spruance whose formative career experiences were greatly influenced by the interwar-period Fleet Problems. This tradition of excellence based on realism is in doubt today.
What is clear is that business as usual cannot go on. The fundamental necessity of free-play elements for ensuring warfighting realism is beyond reproach. The reemergence of competition between the world’s greatest powers in a maritime theater is making many of the Navy’s power projection skillsets less and less relevant to geopolitical reality. New deployment priorities must preference realistic training and experimentation to make up for lost ground in concept development, accurately inform planning, understand the true limits and potential of technology, and test the mettle of frontline units.
The recent pair of collisions challenged numerous assumptions about how the Navy operates and how it maintains its competencies. Tragic as those events were, they thankfully stimulated an energetic atmosphere of reflection and reform. But the competencies that such reforms are targeting include things like navigation, seamanship, and ship-handling. These basic maritime skills have existed for thousands of years. What is far newer, endlessly more complex, and absolutely vital to deter and win wars is the ability to employ networked and distributed naval forces in great power conflict. Compared to the fatal collisions, countless more sailors are dying virtual deaths in the Fleet Problems that are revealing shocking deficiencies in how the Navy prepares for war. Short of horrifying losses in real combat, there is no greater wake-up call.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
 Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origin, It’s Future.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1998-01/network-centric-warfare-its-origin-and-future
 John H Pendleton, “Testimony Before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Maintenance, Training, and Other Challenges Affecting the Fleet. Government Accountability Office, September 19, 2017. https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/687224.pdf
Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (Feb. 28, 2018) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Megann Helton practices course plotting during a fast cruise onboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)