Tag Archives: fleet design

Battle Force Missiles: The Measure of a Fleet

By Keith “Powder” Patton, CDR, USN

Calculating the power of a fleet is a daunting and imprecise task. In the Washington Naval Treaty, tonnage and gun caliber were used as metrics to set the ratio of capital ships between leading world navies. Capital ships were seen as the supreme arbiters of a naval conflict. The London Naval Treaty established similar rules for tonnage and gun caliber for smaller combatants. The United States Navy counts battle force ships, which includes combat logistics forces, toward its end strength. The battle force ship metric is simple hull count, with T-AKE, PC, LCS, DDG and CVN classes all being counted as equals, despite vastly different mission, size, manning, and capabilities. By a simple measure of hull count from 2018-2019 Jane’s Fighting Ships, the USN has 10 percent fewer warships than Russia, and is half the size of China’s fleet.

2019 Fleet total hull count by country.

However, when tonnage is used as the metric, the picture changes dramatically:

2019 Fleet total tonnage by country.

This change is unsurprising. The nature of the fleets are significantly different. The USN tends to operate much larger ships optimized for long range power projection. China and Russia have many missile-armed patrol boats and corvettes compared to the relatively few U.S. Cyclone class PC and corvette-like LCSs.

However, does the metric of tonnage truly measure the power of a fleet? The interwar period treaties considered both tonnage and caliber of guns. These two metrics were related, in that larger guns required a larger vessel to carry them. In general, there also was a direct correlation between the caliber of the gun and its destructive power.  Tonnage also affected how much armor could be carried to protect against gun hits. Another metric used to compare warship power was broadside throw weight. This was the total mass of shells a ship could deliver in a broadside against an adversary. A heavier broadside could be expected to triumph against less armed opponents. However, in the modern era, guns have been eclipsed by missiles as the primary weapon of naval combat. While battleships carried far more powerful weapons and were relatively immune to the deck guns of small combatants, the same is not true of missiles today.  Very similar if not identical anti-ship missiles are carried by small patrol combatants and mounted on the largest combatants, sometimes in identical quantities (eight being a popular number). While the defensive and damage control capabilities of larger vessels may be greater, it still seems likely that a few missile hits will knock most ships out of action, if not sink them. If missiles are the true measure of a fleet’s combat power, then neither tonnage nor hull count is an appropriate metric, because neither is directly related to a ship’s missile capabilities.

For the sake of this analysis, we will borrow Robert O. Work’s concept of battle force missiles (BFM) from his “To Take and Keep the Lead” monograph. BFMs are missiles that “contribute to battle force missions such as area and local air defense, anti-surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare. Terminal defense SAMs, which protect only the host ship, are not considered a battle force missile.” Thus, weapons like RAM, ESSM, SA-N-9, Mistral, and HHQ-10 point defense SAMs would not count toward the tally of BFM. ASROC, Harpoon, Tomahawk, Standard Missiles and non-U.S. equivalents do count. Generally speaking, BFMs cannot be reloaded at sea, unlike shorter-range defensive missiles. They are too large and unwieldy. As such, they also serve as a cap on the offensive or defensive power a ship can provide. When BFMs are exhausted, the ship must return to a secure friendly port to rearm.

The ship numbers and missile capacity considered below were taken from Jane’s Fighting Ships 2018-2019 as a standard reference. In some cases, there are issues with overlap. For example, some U.S. Mk 41 VLS cells can carry a BFM, or quad-packed ESSM, which would not count. Russian vessels are able to fire SS-N-16 Starfish anti-submarine missiles from their torpedo tubes. While SS-N-16 (like ASROC) would count as a BFM, Jane’s did not have a magazine capacity of how many were carried by Russian warships. So, this BFM-launched via surface ship torpedo tube was ignored. Submarine heavy weight torpedoes were counted. While they may not be missiles, they are a primary anti-surface warfare weapon and, in some subs, are interchangeable with BFMs for strike or anti-ship missions. Finally, there was not complete data for all classes (e.g. number of torpedoes carried), so data was extrapolated from similar designs. The results of this BFM count are in the chart below.

2019 Battle force missile total by country.

This accounting of fleet firepower shows the USN has more than twice the BFM of the Chinese PLAN. The gap is even larger if the contribution of carrier-born aircraft is considered. The U.S. has an almost twenty-fold advantage in fixed-wing aircraft operating from ships. Carrier-born aircraft, especially from CATOBAR carriers, can carry multiple BFM and can reload aboard the carrier. In addition, the carrier can have its magazines reloaded at sea, something other ships cannot do with their BFMs. However, it is worth noting that China’s BFM count gained over 1000 missiles since 2017, and the U.S. number has been relatively static.

Using BFM as a fleet metric also allows for different ship sizes. A U.S. Flight IIA Burke class DDG with 96 VLS tubes provides the same BFM capacity as 12 patrol boats with 8 missiles each. Who would win in such an engagement would probably hinge on who had better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support to target the other first. However, twelve patrol boats also have the advantage of being able to be in multiple places at once and needing at least 12 hits to defeat far more than the Burke could likely endure.  Continuing with Robert Work’s characterization, we can classify ships by their BFM count. Currently, warships have classifications of cruiser, destroyer, frigate, corvette or similar based more on politics than clear distinctions. What Work recommended was similar to the old system of classifying ships by guns. In this case, missiles instead of guns. First-rate warships (>100 BFM), second-rate (90-100 BFM), third-rate (60-89), and on down to unrated warships with negligible missile capability. For this analysis, the author augmented Work’s lower ratings with fourth-rate (40-59 BFM), fifth-rate (20-39 BFM), sixth-rate (6-19 BFM), and unrated as < 6 BFM. This reclassification produces the following fresh perspective:

2019 Warships by rating.

There is a clear USN preference for heavily armed surface combatants compared to potential adversaries. The one Russian Kirov is rated as a first-rate warship, but is barely a blip compared to the U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Chinese Type 055 arriving into service will provide China with first-rate warships as well, but still a fraction of the number the USN has. The two U.S. Zumwalt DDGs in 2019 are third-rate ships-of-the-line, but have scores of better armed compatriots compared to the Chinese third-rate vessels. None have a fifth rate combatant (6-20 BFM) unless it is a submarine.

The chart above could spark concern at the rough parity in attack submarines between the U.S., Russia, and China. However, when broken down by type of submarine, the picture changes. The USN relies exclusively on nuclear-powered submarines to provide longer range, greater speed, and more submerged endurance compared to diesel or air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines. This is because the U.S. plans an “away game” with submarines deployed far from U.S. shores, while Russia and China expect to be using their larger conventional submarine fleets close to home.

2019 Number of submarines by type per country.

When the metric of BFMs (including torpedoes) is applied, the U.S. is also shown to have a significant lead in subsurface firepower. While the U.S. has fewer SSGNs than Russia, they carry far more missiles per submarine. The three Seawolf SSNs also have an extra-large torpedo load, as do Los Angeles and Virginia class SSNs fitted with vertical launch tubes, to give them more weapons than other subs their size. This allows them to stay in the fight longer before returning to reload. Newer Virginia class submarines will have the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) installed, further increasing their firepower.

2019 Number of submarine weapons by country.

Of course, any single metric will fail to capture the power of a fleet. Informed opinions will differ on the correct offensive and defensive load mix for a warship, or the qualities of a Harpoon ASCM compared to a P-270 Moskit, 3M-54 Club, or YJ-18. Some of these issues are discussed by Alan Cummings in his 2016 Naval War College Review article on Chinese ASCMs in competitive control. In that article, he shows that for anti-ship firepower, U.S. surface vessels are severely over-matched. However, after 2016, VLS options for surface strike (SM-6 and Maritime Strike Tomahawk) have become feasible. Since the mixture of weapons in a VLS tube battery is variable, the number of cells may now provide a better metric than calculations assuming weapons loads. In addition, one must consider crew quality, training, and readiness as components of fleet power. National character and experience as a sea power also come into play. However, all of these qualities are hard to ascribe metrics to, and arms control treaties and analysts focus on measurable and verifiable metrics.


In the end, a fleet must be measured against what it is expected to do. For power projection abroad, a large number of BFMs (or carriers supporting strikes) would be more capable of performing the mission. Close to home, vessels can more easily return to friendly ports to rearm BFMs, so the total at sea may be less important. Even at equal numbers of BFMs, a fleet concentrating them on a smaller number of high-capacity platforms would be less able to control sea-space than a fleet that spread the same number of missiles over a half-dozen combatants. The more distributed fleet would also be more tolerant of losses. Currently, the USN has its power concentrated in high-end warships, be they carriers, large surface combatants, or nuclear submarines. However, this also makes the USN susceptible to major losses, especially if defenses don’t work as well as expected.

The U.S. has a significant lead in BFMs, but also has global commitments which may drastically reduce how many BFMs can be committed to a particular theater. In the western Pacific, the PLAN is rapidly narrowing this lead. As the United States builds towards a 355-ship Navy, it will need to carefully consider the missions required and, in wartime, the firepower required, to accomplish them.

Commander Keith “Powder” Patton is the Deputy Chair, Strategic and Operational Research Dept (SORD) at the Naval War College. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the official views of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image:  September 3, 2005. US Navy (USN) Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke Class (flight I); Guided Missile Destroyer, USS FITZGERALD (DDG 62) inspect the MK 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) for water to prevent electrical failure. (Photo by: PHAN Adam York, USN)

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 7: Strategy and Force Development

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

By Dmitry Filipoff

Force Development

Exploring the future of conflict while preparing to wage it is a daunting task. Military forces are constantly attempting to perceive how war is evolving, and subsequently orienting their institutions along that vision in order to be ready. However, what makes a military unique from most other organizations is that it does not execute its primary function (aside from deterrence) until war breaks out. This makes it especially difficult to prepare for major war since it is a rare experience that usually cannot be fully understood until it finally occurs. When war arrives, years of preparation are immediately put to the test, and deficiencies are violently revealed. How well a military has prepared for conflict in peace helps determine how much it will have to adjust in war. In this sense, force development is the peacetime equivalent of wartime adaptation. 

The term force development has been used here in place of a term that is often used to describe military evolution, “modernization,” which tends to have an inherent bias toward high-end capability and not full-spectrum competence. The idea of “modernizing” implies a focus on pushing for better technology, yet “modernization” 20 years ago could have meant preparing for low-end conflicts where technological superiority conferred little advantage. The term “modernization” can also encourage a habit of using the procurement of newer systems as a major milestone for progress, and promote the fallacy that once new technology is bought and fielded a shortfall has been filled or an advantage has been gained. What has to be recognized is that once the taxpayer has purchased new military tools the warfighter has an obligation to execute follow-through in the form of developing new tactics and training around those tools. Otherwise, the benefits or pitfalls of new technology will not be fully realized.

Force development as it has been described here intends to convey that the institutions that focus on tactics and doctrine, not procurement, are what primarily drive competitive military advantage. It intends to convey that operator understanding of how to execute and evolve tactics and doctrine is how to best define warfighter competence. Tactics and doctrine must not only be well-understood by the warfighter, they must be thoroughly validated so that they actually make sense in application. The professionalism of the force will punch far below its weight if warfighters are well-versed in warfighting concepts that turn out to be brittle.

Force development still occurs even in the middle of war, but it takes on a far more urgent character. Militaries are often forced to innovate and experiment in the middle of conflict, and spend precious time and resources on force development when those resources could be applied to the battlefield. However, even in the middle of a war (or especially so) militaries often choose to make those considerable investments because wartime adaptation can be decisive. Wartime force development can seek to correct deficiencies revealed by combat experience, rapidly field new capabilities built on fresh tactical insight, or remain ahead of the curve in a general sense as all sides continually pursue better tactics. If a force can enter a conflict with sturdier warfighting concepts then it can focus more of its wartime force development on proactive evolution instead of painful corrective action.

An example of failed peacetime force development and a subsequent effort to urgently correct deficiencies in the middle of war can be found in the U.S. submarine force. The submarine force entered WWII with ill-conceived concepts of operation, a highly risk-averse culture, faulty weapons, and underdeveloped tactics. Submariners at first expected to mostly use sonar to attack their targets (a dubious tactic at the time), were equipped with torpedoes that often failed to detonate upon impact, and had little doctrine for unrestricted anti-submarine warfare. These deficiencies forced American submariners to experiment with new tactics and doctrine in the midst of conflict.1 This force development failure happened in spite of the interwar period wargames, Fleet Problem exercises, and Admirals King and Nimitz both having a decent amount of submarine experience. U.S. naval commanders even had the especially useful experience of watching German U-Boats earn combat experience as they sunk hundreds of merchant ships in the Atlantic before America entered the war. However, as a result of poor force development, U.S. submarines punched far below their weight for many months while the rest of the force still relied heavily on them to take the fight to enemy home waters.

The U.S. military suffered a historically painful force development experience in recent years. Despite after crushing the initial opposition in the opening phases, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to falter hard as insurgents made impressive gains in territory and manpower. The counterinsurgent fight proved to be extremely difficult in these countries due to the complexity of interagency operations, unfamiliar frontline roles, war-torn societies, and a host of many other significant challenges. But as the Department of Defense sought to adapt itself to a difficult fight it at least had the benefit of history. Insurgency is perhaps the most common form of warfare, with around 100 such conflicts in the past century.There was no shortage of case studies to learn from.

The Navy’s current situation couldn’t be more opposite. High-end fleet combat between great powers using precision weapons has never happened before. This is why realistic exercising for the sake of experimentation and investigation is so important. Because there are zero historical examples to draw on, the Navy must dedicate an especially large effort toward building its own case studies of networked fleet combat actions in the form of unconstrained, large-scale exercises. However, the Navy’s long tradition of highly unrealistic exercising translates into very poor institutional understanding on many specifics of future combat.

The Navy’s chronic lack of realistic exercising and its bloated certification system reveal a force development enterprise in disarray. The Navy has many institutions that produce tactical memoranda, concepts of operation, and doctrine, all of which seek to evolve the force. Yet many of these ideas have not been effectively validated because exercises were not used to meaningfully test ideas in realistic environments. The few tactical and doctrinal ideas that did have the opportunity of being tested in large-scale exercises were likely pitted against handicapped opposition forces. This undercuts the process tremendously. Scripted exercises that guarantee easy victory are far more likely to produce brittle tactics and doctrine. These concepts will rarely experience multiple rounds of revision and refinement born from a series of iterative exercises. Clearly there will be many rounds of trial and error if one is testing warfighting ideas against capable opposition. As a result of using weak opposition to validate warfighting concepts many of the Navy’s most important wargames, tactical memoranda, concepts of operation, and doctrine never left the level of a rough draft.

Even if it was effectively validating concepts through realistic exercises, the Navy’s ability to teach the average Sailor new tactical lessons is severely handicapped. Warfighting certifications are supposed to institutionalize the Navy’s force development, but the bloated character of the certification system is strangling the Navy’s ability to become a learning organization. Tactical and doctrinal products cannot turn into meaningful learning if they take the form of just another certification event or inspection Sailors have to check off among the dozens if not hundreds of other events. Many Sailors already feel it is virtually impossible for them to get good at the numerous certifications that have been forced upon them. Because of this, institutions that work on producing tactics and doctrine are having many of their efforts effectively wasted because their products simply cannot compete for time within the certification system. And even if the Navy somehow made enough time for Sailors to effectively study tactical and doctrinal publications, they are being given little opportunity to use meaningful exercises to distill those lengthy publications into actionable and digestible insights. The scarcity of meaningful exercising and the bloated certification system have combined to produce numerous warfighting ideas that are untested, unrefined, and untaught.  

Under these conditions, the U.S. Navy is hard-pressed to define requirements that can remain durable in great power war. There should be absolutely no doubt that an incredible number of latent problems have been accumulated over the years as a result of lax force development and using weak opposition to validate concepts. If the Navy decides to embark on a serious path of transformation for the high-end fight then it must steel itself for difficult corrective actions, stubborn bureaucratic pushback, and the possibility that it may be stuck with tactically disadvantageous investments that could prove fatal in war.


Soon after leaving his term as the first president of the Naval War College he founded, Stephen B. Luce grew frustrated. Just before opening the War College, Luce commanded the North Atlantic Squadron, a unit he used to test warfighting concepts through at-sea experimentation and exercises. After finishing his term at the War College, Luce came back to the Squadron, hoping to conduct more exercising in pursuit of new tactics. Others had something else in mind.

After rejoining the Squadron, Luce’s attention was almost immediately diverted by higher ups. He was ordered to handle brewing fishing disputes that consumed much of his attention for the first year of his command. Unrest in Haiti prompted the Navy to detach one of his ships to the Caribbean. A request from the State Department took another ship. Not long after Luce’s flagship was also stripped from his command to serve elsewhere, the Navy Department inquired about his summer training plans.

Luce had finally had enough. With only two ships remaining under his command Luce fired off a stern letter to Secretary of the Navy William Whitney, and described how a fundamental mission of the Naval War College was being undermined:

“The fundamental idea (emphasis added) is to make theoretical instruction and practical exercise go hand in hand; or, in other words, to correlate the work of the Squadron and that of the College. In the lecture room certain tactical propositions are laid down, or war problems given out, to the officers under instruction. Their merit is then tested in the School of Application, the Squadron, and the result afterwards discussed in the lecture room. This system raises our Squadron exercises to a higher plane than those of any other known to me, and places our Navy, comparatively insignificant in all else, in advance of the Navies of the world in respect to professional education.”3

Today, the Naval War College stands as one of the most important institutions to the Navy’s force development. Aside from educating cohorts, the College performs critical force development functions for the Navy by playing a leading role in its wargaming enterprise. These wargames seek to answer some of the most critical questions of strategy and future development. They can inform war plans, test contingencies, and support major programmatic decisions such as future warship procurement. They can explore new tactics, doctrine, and warfighting concepts. However, the problem that afflicted Luce’s squadron also holds true today. The Navy has allowed operational demand to strip units away from its wargaming enterprise, and no serious effort has been made for decades to “correlate the work of the Squadron and that of the College.”

The Navy continues to use wargaming to make major decisions and provide important insights. However, the validity of wargaming is being diminished by both the rising complexity of networked warfighting and a lack of real-world testing. The Navy is heavily leaning on a tool that is growing ever more dependent on real-world testing for the sake of accuracy, yet the Navy’s exercise agenda appears to rarely reflect major wargaming initiatives. 

Wargames, because they are virtual simulations of conflict, operate on a far wider spectrum of tactical assumptions than real-world exercises. Attempting to recreate tactical accuracy in wargames stretches them to their limits and takes considerable effort. High-fidelity wargames can be extremely intricate programs, requiring meticulous inputs, powerful processing capabilities, and are governed by many rules. Elements of chance can be introduced through randomized results, similar to a dice roll.

Exercises and wargames must work together when exploring tactics and doctrine. Wargames can play out many scenarios in a preliminary manner to narrow down options and ideas. What remains can then be played out in the real world using exercises. In addition to testing out the ideas themselves, exercises can uncover assumptions and collect important technical data that can update the models the wargames operate on. This point was elaborated on by renowned wargamer Peter Perla:

“Careful observation, reconstruction, analysis, and interpretation of exercise events and system and unit performance can provide the insights and data to improve the form of mathematical models and the quality of parameter estimates. In addition, the physical execution of maneuvers and procedures required to carry out the operation can help to identify important operational opportunities or potential problems that the analysis and wargaming may have downplayed or failed to consider at all.”4

As powerful and complex wargames are, they are still only simulations, and cannot come close to the realism of exercises. Exercises have to be used to refine wargames in a continual feedback loop for the sake of refinement, and to keep wargames grounded in reality. Many types of wargames are not supposed to be static, but fluid simulations that are continuously updated through exercises to improve their realism and ensure their accuracy. Significant tactical discoveries should also be enough to prompt the replaying of certain wargames. Exercises can help wargamers more precisely understand the very things that make a wargame artificial, such as factors that must be reduced to dice rolls, inputs, and rules. In short, exercises help wargamers understand their assumptions.

The complexity of Information Age warfighting is one of the most powerful forces diminishing the value of tactical- and operational-level wargaming. As warfare becomes more complex, it becomes more difficult to simulate. This holds true for both exercises and wargames, but it is especially more true for the latter given they are simulations and not real maneuvers. The world of inputs required to accurately simulate warfare has grown to unprecedented heights, especially because so much decisive tactical space now exists within electronic means that are especially difficult to replicate in a simulation.

Networked warfare involves many complex and nuanced electronic interactions between opposing forces. The nature of sensing, deciding, and engaging has become an ambiguous electronic battlefield. Opposing sides will seek to jam, intercept, and deceive communications and sensors across the spectrum. Cyber attacks will seek to cripple systems, collect sensitive information, and proliferate throughout infrastructure. As an anti-ship missile closes in, its seeker can use a variety of sensors to pinpoint its target, and a variety of countermeasures such as electronic warfare will respond in an attempt to confuse the seeker. Bandwidth limitations will shape decision-making, and data will be processed and refined by both man and machine. Operators and autonomous actors will attempt a variety of real-time workarounds in response to electronic attack, and these attacks can cause them to lose confidence in their equipment and each other.

It is already extremely difficult to replicate many of these network combat dynamics in exercises, and for wargames many elements are outright impossible. While a wargamer can make due by using dice rolls to distill combat ambiguity into specific outcomes, this will not often satisfy the tactician or the trainer. Even the supposed strengths of wargaming are challenged by networked warfare. According to Perla, wargaming “is a tool for exploring the effects of human interpretation of information. Wargames focus on the decisions players make, how and why they are made, and the effects that they have…The true value of wargaming lies in its unique ability to illuminate the effect of the human factor in warfare.”5 Yet so much decision-making in modern war is completely beholden to electronic nuances that wargames struggle to replicate, and decision-making is often the direct objective of electronic attack.

Because networked warfare poses immense realism challenges to wargaming, a force development strategy in the modern era demands an especially exercise-heavy process of tactical investigation. Wargames have become more dependent than ever on exercises because exercises can probe whether decisive tactical truth lies undiscovered within the seams of simulation.

Exercises are indispensable to wargames because they can provide the important baseline input of the competence of the force. Even though it can be difficult to program human performance factors into a simulation, these are some of the most important variables to know for the sake of realism. By benchmarking human performance through exercises, wargames can have a realistic baseline of how well the force can perform and then build ideas within the limits of that potential. Otherwise, wargames will be misaligned with the training of the force, and can run the grave risk of producing tactics, doctrine, and war plans that are beyond the ability of the force to execute. To paraphrase a certain quote, you go to war with the fleet you trained, not the one you wargamed.

Force Structure

Soon after guiding at-sea experiments to test future warship concepts, Wayne Hughes became frustrated. The USS ­Guam had been modified to test concepts for the Sea Control Ship (SCS), a warship concept touted by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Zumwalt who desired a large platform dedicated to anti-submarine warfare. However, according to Hughes, the tests were hamstrung by a lack of imagination and poor understanding of how to use exercises to make a warship concept come alive:

“It was my task to design an experiment from which as much information as possible could be gleaned during ten days of intensive interactions between submarines, their target (played by the Guam), and the assorted screening units…SCS success depended on new tactics (emphasis added), which we didn’t have, and the tactical commander’s staff lacked enthusiasm to develop. I had frustrating conversations with the admiral, who thought his responsibility began and ended by rigidly following the test plan…An exercise at sea is as much for tactical development and training as it is for statistical testing. Most new weapons, sensors, and command-and-control systems entail new tactics to reach their full potential.”6

This experience points to a fundamental principle of designing military forces: force structure is founded on tactics.

How a fleet will be used in war is fundamental to its design, and the shape of force structure is guided by a perception of what capabilities and tactics will dominate. When it appeared advantageous to use aircraft to attack ships, nations built aircraft carriers. When a torpedo fired from an undersea platform could produce a powerful combination of surprise and lethality, nations built more submarines. When aerial threats took the form of missile salvos the U.S. Navy led the way in building warships focused on long-range air defense. When platforms were deemed to have lost their tactical relevance, whether ships of sail, ironclads, or big-gun battleships, nations stopped making them.

Three congressionally mandated force structure studies set out to understand what the future fleet could look like, and examined various considerations such as cost, forward presence models, and national strategies. However, while a force structure assessment can be shaped by many factors, the assessment is inherently incomplete if it does not attempt to understand how future tactics and doctrine will define the composition of forces. While the studies took various analytical approaches, the assessment conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies stands out in this regard. 7 It devoted extensive attention to trying to understand the character of future conflict, how capability development is trending across numerous warfare areas, and what new operating concepts may require. All of the studies acknowledged to some extent that visions of tactics and operating concepts are fundamental to designing force structure.

The existence of a platform or payload is solely justified by the tactical options and advantages it offers. The structure of a fleet is therefore the embodiment of concepts of operations that are built on tactics that are meant to work well together. However, the extent to which those warfighting concepts are proven or not is another question. Aligning force structure planning with an ever-evolving vision of future war is a major strategic challenge, and goes to the very core of force development. This point was made clear by maritime strategist Julian Corbett:

“The truth is, that the classes of ships which constitute a fleet are, or ought to be, the expression in material of the strategical and tactical ideas that prevail at any given time…It may also be said more broadly that they have varied with the theory of war…It is true that few ages have formulated a theory of war, or even been clearly aware of its influence; but nevertheless such theories have always existed, and even in their most nebulous and intangible shapes seem to have exerted an ascertainable influence on the constitution of fleets.”8

Those who favored battleships in the interwar period did not accurately predict their fate because their “theory of war” had failed to keep pace with change. They had a flawed understanding of how future war at sea would develop at the tactical level, especially with respect to how the air domain could dominate the surface domain. The American capital ships that were long expected to be the dominant offensive platform for anti-surface warfare instead spent most of their fleet combat actions serving as ships focused on the defensive anti-air mission. New tactical truth led to battleships being modified in the middle of the war to carry additional anti-air weapons and bolster their defensive firepower. However, their enormous guns, the core weapons that originally justified their construction, were totally irrelevant in this new role. If the interwar Navy had accurately predicted the tactical fate of the battleship would it have built them differently? Would it have built them at all?

For all the good the interwar period wargames and Fleet Problem exercises did for the Navy’s force development they often made one major mistake – scripting battles to guarantee a clash between the battleline.9 The potential of the aircraft carrier was rapidly growing, but in the minds of many interwar leaders the fleet combat actions of the era would still frequently feature fights between battleships. Interwar period exercises and wargames were artificially fulfilling this warfighting theory, thereby lending weight to programmatic decisions to procure battleships. It is quite possible that if not for the revealing combat experiences of WWII then navies would have continued building big-gun warships.

Modular force structure can act as an insurance policy against the sort of tactical irrelevance that befell the battleship. Modularity helps ease both peacetime force development and wartime adaptation. A “payloads not platforms” approach can help a force compensate for poorly-adjusted warship designs once conflict reveals hard lessons. Deep magazines and the large variety of missile payloads could allow a modern ship to change its mix of capabilities in far less time than it took a battleship to undergo a refit.

However, net-centric warfare has made adapting modern warships more difficult in certain respects, even with modularity. A key challenge will be in trying to ascertain how tactical outcomes heavily influenced by ambiguous electronic effects will translate into an ideal mix of capabilities. If defensive electronic warfare or jamming proves to be especially capable at defeating missile seekers then an adaptation could take the form of equipping a different missile loadout. Missile loadouts could also be affected by how well datalinks and network nodes can concentrate fires while being degraded by electronic attack. If the network is less resilient than anticipated, then a new missile loadout could focus on making a warship more independent from forces it would have originally relied on for networked fires.

An enduring principle of successful warfighting is optimizing the concentration of firepower. This principle has especially dominated naval force structure, and can be seen in how successive capital ship designs often grew larger and larger to concentrate more firepower. Preferable ways to concentrate firepower through force-wide tactics can also translate into how a fleet is built. Ships of various sizes offer different levels and types of firepower, and the way tactics affect concentration can translate into an ideal mix of platforms. Interwar period navies did not build fleets of only the most powerful platforms in the form of battleships or carriers even though large-scale fleet combat featured prominently in their minds. Rather, their fleets struck a balance between large capital ships and many smaller combatants such as cruisers and destroyers. They felt that their visions of fleet combat created relationships between tactics and concentration that encouraged a degree of platform variety.

Optimizing platform variety has become far more difficult in the age of networked warfare because assumptions about network performance can have a powerful effect on designing force structure. Network resilience will strongly dictate the extent to which capabilities can be effectively distributed and concentrated in combat, but the distribution and concentration of capability is also exactly what force structure seeks to optimize. A fleet that is built on a vision of a well-functioning network could very well have a vastly different composition compared to a fleet that anticipates fighting mostly in the dark.

To use a modern example, a U.S. Navy cruiser has 122 launch cells and a possible version of the Navy’s future FFG(X) frigate could have 16 launch cells. Would the Navy be better served by buying 20 frigates or 10 cruisers, where the cruiser could cost twice as much as the frigate but has seven times the missile capacity? A well-grounded understanding of how retargeting and engage-on-remote tactics shape a distributed force’s ability to mass firepower should inform such a debate.

Today the Navy finds itself at a critical inflection point in building the future fleet. It is currently finalizing designs and requirements for the next generation of surface warships in the form of a future frigate FFG(X), and a family of future surface combatants (FSC). The FFG(X) frigate and FSC warships are expected to serve well into the latter half of the 21st century. The request for proposals for the FFG(X) frigate offers interesting concepts of operation for how the Navy intends to use the platform:

“This platform will employ unmanned systems to penetrate and dwell in contested environments, operating at greater risk to gain sensor and weapons advantages over the adversary. The FFG(X) will be capable of establishing a local sensor network using passive onboard sensors, embarked aircraft and elevated/tethered systems and unmanned vehicles to gather information and then act as a gateway to the fleet tactical grid using resilient communications systems and networks…In terms of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) Concept, this FFG(X) small surface combatant will expand blue force sensor and weapon influence to provide increased information to the overall fleet tactical picture while challenging adversary ISR&T efforts.”10

This is a preview of future tactics and missions, but it hints at a major force development challenge. Requirements for these ships have to try to align with major transformations the Navy has planned. The Distributed Maritime Operations Concept is still in its early stages. The Distributed Lethality concept envisions numerous surface action groups that combine various types of ships into tailored force packages. Networked warfighting can feature various multi-domain tactics and distributed fleet formations, each with a different ability to concentrate firepower and facilitate command and control. Tactics for key capabilities like NIFC-CA, CEC, retargeting, and engage-on-remote will be the bread and butter of networked warfighting. An unprecedented increase in long-range anti-ship firepower is about to hit the Navy as a new generation of anti-ship missiles is fielded.

In short, these future ships must somehow reflect the implications of many net-centric tactics and roles the Navy has yet to develop or discover.

The Navy is heavily relying on simulations such as wargames and tabletop exercises to test concepts of operations for these future ships. According to Navy officials, the FSC program was “preparing for a big wargame…to test out ideas for the FSC family of systems” and that “Based on the outcome of the June wargame, officials should have a ‘surface force initial capabilities document’ written by July to get FSC into the acquisition pipeline.” One Navy official emphasized, “We’ve got to get these wargames right…”11

The Navy’s void of high-end experience is now a critical foundation upon which it is deciding its future. The Navy is led by officers who spent most of their careers in a fleet that failed to train them in sea control, abstained from equipping them with essential weapons like anti-ship missiles, and neglected to give them enough opportunity to test their tactical imagination in exercises. Many of the Navy’s most important wargames and simulations have not been properly tested or refined by real-world experimentation. The Navy has virtually no concrete doctrine for a very complex form of warfare that’s never happened before. This is a recipe for producing flimsy requirements for future capability. 

The experience of testing the Sea Control Ship concept suggests there may be merit to the idea of using real ships to test ideas for future ships. The Navy’s surface warfare directorate has already teased the idea of standing up an “experimental squadron” within the next year, and include a Zumwalt-class destroyer, a Littoral Combat Ship, an Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer, and an unmanned surface ship.12

However, compared to most other force development missions, the enormous investment that comes with a new generation of force structure should already pose one of the strongest possible demand signals for rigorous at-sea experimentation. The modern fleet should already be acting as an experimental squadron for the future fleet. But it appears the Navy is making some of the most important naval force structure decisions of the 21st century without using a series of major exercises to inform requirements. Now the Navy is poised to set sail into the future with a new generation of ships inspired by doctrine born in a simulation, and not in the fleet.

The eighth and final part will offer a Force Development Strategy.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.


1. F.G. Hoffman, “The American Wolfpacks: A Case Study in Wartime Adaptation,” Joint Forces Quarterly, January 2016. https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/643229/the-american-wolf-packs-a-case-study-in-wartime-adaptation/

2. Christopher Paul et. al, Victory has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies, RAND, 2010. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG964.1.pdf

3. James C. Rentfrow, “The Squadron Under Your Command: Change and the Construction of Identity in the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron,1874-1897,” 2012. https://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/handle/1903/12855/Rentfrow_umd_0117E_13092.pdf;jsessionid=A0AEFD1C57596CDFFEAF23292597ECA4?sequence=1 

4. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1990. 

5. Ibid.

6. Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN, “Navy Operations Research,” Operations Research, 2002. https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/pdf/10.1287/opre. 

7. Bryan Clark et. al, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture of the U.S. Navy, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA6292-Fleet_Architecture_Study_REPRINT_web.pdf 

8. Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 1911http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15076?msg=welcome_stranger

9. Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet For War, Department of the Navy, 2010. 


“While no fleet problem was scripted from start to finish, some portions of each were usually set-up in order to play out certain ideas or test particular tactics. After all, the actual playing out of a scenario might not have resulted in a particular type of action developing, such as a battleline clash. So the stage was often set for these, in order to test ideas, new or old. Unfortunately, pre-planned portions of the fleet problems seem to have led to many officers to draw the wrong conclusions about the future of naval warfare. As Mark Allen Campbell observed, ‘The dramatic images of battle lines engaged in long-range gunnery duels with one another may very well have persisted longer in the memories of the officers present than the remembrance of the artificial conditions necessary to get the dreadnoughts into firing range of each other.'”

“For example, as late as 1940 Admiral Richardson concluded that the fleet problems demonstrated carriers needed to stay close to the battleline, in order to be protected by its heavier firepower. Concern about the potential value of the autonomous carrier task force was not necessarily the result of blind unwillingness to see the obvious. Carriers had been “sunk”or “damaged” by surface ships during Fleet Problems IX (1929), X (1930), XII (1931), XIV (1933), XV (1934), and XVIII (1937), and had come under “gunfire” on numerous other occasions. It was not until almost literally the end of 1941 that the Navy had dive bombers and torpedo bombers capable of harming heavy ships in long range operations or fighters with the “legs” to escort and protect them. Until then carriers had to take great risks in order to be effective. The possibility that a carrier might be caught by surface forces was very much on the minds of senior naval officers during the 1920s and 1930s, as can be seen by the 8-inch guns carried by Lexington and Saratoga.”

For Wargaming see: John M. Lillard, Playing War, Potomac Books, 2016.

10. RFI: FFG(X) – US Navy Guided Missile Frigate Replacement Program, Department of the Navy, July 10, 2017. https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=cdf24447b8015337e910d330a87518c6&tab=core&_cview=0 

11. Megan Eckstein, “Wargames This Year to Inform Future Surface Combatant Requirements,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 21, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2017/02/21/wargames-future-surface-combatant-requirements 

12. Ibid.

Featured Image: The USS Zumwalt makes it way down the Kennebec River as it heads out to sea. (The Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty)

Sea Control 125: Bryan McGrath on Fleet Design, Distributed Lethality, and the 350-Ship Navy

By Sally DeBoer

The ushering in of a new administration on January 20th has many wondering what campaign promises will materialize and meaningfully affect the U.S. Navy. Is it reasonable to expect movement toward a “350-ship Navy” and, if so, what might such a Navy look like? Where can increased military spending be focused to have the most immediate impact on the United States’ readiness to address near peer competitors?

To answer these questions, we invited one of the United States’ foremost experts on American Seapower, the Hudson Institute’s Bryan McGrath, on this episode of Sea Control. Hosts Sally DeBoer and Mike also talk with Mr. McGrath about measures to increase force lethality, the newly established N50Z office and efforts to let strategy inform the budget, and burgeoning threats in the 21st Century.

Listeners interested in attending Mr. McGrath’s American Seapower Speaking Tour can find more information here.

Read on, or listen to the audio below. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

SD: The first topic we’d like to discuss with you is fleet design. The forthcoming Trump Administration has, as part of its campaign promise, vowed to increase military spending and indeed establish a 350-ship Navy (as discussed by Steve Wills in his fantastic recent CIMSEC Article: A New Administration, A New Maritime Strategy). Due to sequestration and decreased funding for platforms in general over the past decade or so, as well as the Reagan-era platforms reaching the end of their service life, we are coming from behind. Where should money be spent to have the most immediate impact?

BM: With respect to the 350-ship Navy, I think the thing to keep in mind is that they have wisely not established a timeline for when they want to reach 350 ships. I’ve done a lot of work over the last few years looking at how the industrial base could flex to meet a larger navy and it seems to me that getting to 350 would be beyond anything but an emergency shipbuilding plan during two terms. What they ought to do is concentrate on getting us on a path to 350, articulate what 350 ships looks like, and create a sense of trust in the congress that the Navy can build ships cheaply and efficiently.

One way to get started on this, and obviously Steve Wills is one of the most articulate defenders of the LCS, is to build more LCSs relatively quickly. I have written an article on this for the Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower where I recommend building two ships per yard in ‘17 and ‘18, and then moving to the frigate design and conducting a competition where the winning yard would build the frigate starting in ‘19 and the losing yard would continue to build LCS through 25. These would be the LCS-plus that the Navy is going to bid on in ‘17 that will have surface-to-surface missiles and air search radar, from what I can tell. This would be one way to produce 12-15 small surface combatants between now and ‘25. That keeps those two shipyards in business.

I think industrial base concerns are important and I recently listened to a hearing on LCS where people were making fun of or dismissing industrial base concerns. I think that’s strategically inept. If we are going to build and maintain the world’s finest navy we have to have a strong maritime industrial base. Plus, the fact is that Wisconsin, where one of the ships is built, was part of breaking down that blue wall and helped elect Mr. Trump. Alabama, where the other ships are built, is the home state of his attorney general. There are political realities here.

The other political reality is Sen. McCain and his desire to move away from the LCS ASAP. I think the Navy could go a long way toward meeting Sen. McCain’s concerns if they articulate within the next year or so what the follow-on frigate is going to be and that it will acquire it at the latest by FY26. There’s a hole in the small surface combatant biplane right now during 4 years in the late 20s that we need to fill and keep building ships.

You asked how to get started – hot production lines can build LCS, and build more oilers. We need oilers and need to rebuild the logistics fleet which is far smaller than it should be. We should also consider ship-to-shore connectors, ocean-going tugs, and understand there are a bunch of ships that can be built quickly, on budget, and show that we’re going forward.

Importantly, in ’17 and ’18, and even more important than building ships, is plugging the holes in the maintenance and modernization of the entire fleet, and not just ships but depot level maintenance on aircraft as well. We are at the ragged edge of hollowness right now and if we decide to start building ships willy-nilly on a base of shifting sands when we haven’t addressed modernization issues then we are making a mistake. I think we can build ships and accomplish this, and plus-up personnel accounts so that we can move and train people. If we’re going to build the Navy 30% bigger then costs are going to be incurred that aren’t bound up in shipbuilding.

SD: To expand on this, what are the major obstacles you see to the 350-ship Navy and to building toward a bigger navy or putting a nation on that road?

BM: I think the biggest issue is that the president-elect made a 350-ship Navy an article of his campaign, he won the election, and navies never grow unless the president is behind them. The first thing is the president has to stay behind that goal. If indeed he does, it is likely to happen. It’s not guaranteed because his bankers on Capitol Hill have to write the checks. The one thing that I haven’t heard yet, but I imagine they’re hard at work on a story to articulate why we need 350 ships, where, why, how will they operate, to what extent, against whom and what threats? The thing that many people don’t realize about the 600-ship Navy in the Reagan era is that that number was rattling around for a while in the late 70s and it was an article of the election in 1980, but it wasn’t until Reagan came into office and John Lehman was able to tie the emerging thinking of some really visionary admirals in the pacific fleet to that number. You need to have a story. Congress won’t appropriate money until they know what the plan is and why. That’s the biggest problem.

SD: Speaking of a narrative, it seems to me as a non-expert, that the Republican party has moved toward the idea of non-intervention and Mr. Trump said yesterday (and I know there’s a difference between things said in promotion and things that actually happen) that there would be focus on non-intervention and just defeating ISIS as far as U.S. military policy goes. Does that indicate to you anything about his commitment to the Navy?

BM: I’m not sure I would say the Republican party has gone in that direction, but the president-elect of the U.S. and his support base have moved in that direction. I think there is a serious tension within the GOP. I am one of the other guys, I think about American exceptionalism and think the world is better with more America in it. The road to perdition is paved by trade wars and moving away from a global trade posture. So, the problem or the difficulty that I see in making the case for a 350-ship Navy is in the “to do what?” question. If you are going to lean on allies to pick up more slack and if Russia is not seen as a major threat, then a 308-ship Navy is probably sufficient, the one that is there now. In order to justify 350 ships you have to have a more global internationalist outlook, so there is some tension there. I think they can thread the needle, but it is going to be hard.

MK: I would like to bring up the decline in attack submarine numbers throughout the early 2020s. There are ways to figure that out, like building 2 Virginia-class SSNs and one Columbia-class SSBN-X a year, but that is going to have to get done and paid for or we won’t have that capability. The attack submarine force will sharply decline right about the time the Chinese undersea threat becomes more pronounced. Right now, having dry-dock space to maintain the fleet that exists is at a sheer premium if we’re going to talk about plussing up the fleet and there will need to be an increase in shipyard capacity for maintaining that fleet.

BM: This is a national strategic issue. The Navy and the U.S. military should defend free markets but we don’t have to practice them. There are sound military reasons for excess capacity – excess capacity that you would never maintain if you were running a business – you don’t want excess stock on the shelves. That’s not the way the military works, we need excess capacity so that we can ramp up and have a workforce that can do what you need it to do.

MK: The other thing I would add to that is we sort of, based on some dubious lessons from WWII, think that we can build ourselves out of any deficit at the beginning of a major war. That isn’t the history of WW2, most of the naval conflict was fought with platforms that existed at or programs that were underway in December of 1941. Second, the shipbuilding excess capacity that existed in the country at the time does not exist today. I am not saying that we’re headed for world war, but it’s a worthy intellectual exercise to think about how you would plus that up and recognize the time that it would take to make a massive change in fleet size inside of a strategic challenge would be prohibitive at this point with the complexity of ships that are being built.

BM: It isn’t going to happen. In those days American shipyards were building merchant ships, you could take that commercial capacity and turn it into cannibalized excess shipbuilding, tank, plane capacity, etc. It just doesn’t exist now.

MK: But it certainly does exist in China though!

SD: That’s a great point, and we talked about in an interview with Dr. Andrew Erickson of the Naval War College, who is the editor of the new book Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. Could you speak to the CNO’s recent OPNAV staff reform co-locating the assessment division with the strategy folks in the new N50 office. Reactions have been positive people like the idea of strategy informing budget. What kinds of substantive changes do you think we can expect from this arrangement and are you generally in favor of it?

BM: Who could not be in favor of it? It’s like ice cream or air. It’s what we have all always wanted in theory, right? Every strategist or would-be strategist wants resources to follow strategy. I think the CNO is making all the right moves and saying all the right things but resources following strategy is hard, really hard. It’s challenging enough to have resources follow strategy when you are utterly in charge of all of the variables – like if you’re running a company and can put internal investments where you want them to go and enter new markets as you want to. The CNO and SECNAV don’t have those luxuries. They have to respond to national tasking and to national strategy, so I think there is great value in the exercise and in the attempt. I look forward to its success – I might not bet on it. I’m going to meet with the N50 people to talk about some of these things and maybe my opinion will change. I am looking forward to it. I do like that some of the folks from N81 are being dragged over there and that there will be a way to assign them or have some folks who are in charge of thinking about how the fight will happen and what will be the desired strategic outcomes pushing them rather than N81 making it up itself, which kind of appears the way it has been done for a long time.

MK: I am also in the wait and see category. I think no matter how good your intentions may be there’s a tendency in large organizations to sort of know the answer going in. I think there’s the potential there that we assign the answer before the answer is given. If we’re told to program to 350 ships we will find something to do with them, rather than try to take a top down approach, which may take longer, given our needs.

BM: I think the CNO is doing something even more intelligent and even more potentially beneficial to the navy than this N81/N50 alignment thing. And that is taking a more architectural look at fleet design and dividing up or thinking about that architecture through domains rather than platforms, and assigning a honcho to each domain who then works with the resource sponsors within that domain to create a program that serves the domain’s ends – threats, networking, weapons, sensors, platforms – in a more holistic and integral way so that you’re able to allocate functionality more efficiently in a domain without thinking about air, surface, and subsurface and other things separately. Think about fighting in that domain in the most efficient way and allocate functionality that makes the most sense. That could be truly revolutionary if it works.

SD: Let’s switch gears. Characterize the fleet’s current effort to increase lethality in terms of conflict with proto-peer competitors. Specifically, we talk about distributed lethality – which we know you’re an expert on – and would like you to speak to the command and control construct that would accompany DL and the kinds of training and experimentation the fleet will undergo to implement it.

BM: So I just gave a talk at the OPNAV staff/CNA Future Strategy Forum at the Navy Memorial. I was on a panel that was called “beyond distributed lethality” and one of the things I said was that it was gratifying to think that DL had become so integrated into thinking that we could now move beyond it. Some of that was tongue in cheek but not all of it.

The subject of my talk was split into two halves. The first was command and control and the second was combat systems. With respect to distributing lethality in the fleet, this includes things like maritime-strike tomahawk missiles, SM-6’s surface mode, OTH missile for LCS and SSC, and also SEWIP bloc 2 and 3. The Virginia Payload Module (VPM) in the submarine force is the granddaddy of DL in my view. Those guys were on that a long time ago and it really affected my thinking. The Navy’s doing a good job of spreading its weapons and that is important because it makes you harder to find, harder to attack, you get to attack the other guy from multiple angles, and you get to hold more of what he values at risk and through more ways.

SINGAPORE (November 30, 2016) USS Coronado (LCS 4) departs Changi Naval Base to conduct sea trials after a maintenance period. Currently on a rotational deployment in support of the Asia-Pacific Rebalance.  (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michaela Garrison/Released)

The command and control of a distributed force is something that bears a lot of thought. The way I look at this is that there is a slider, a continuum, that describes an exquisite peacetime network and comms environment that I refer to as the pre-first shot state of the war environment. This involves very centralized control, very strict ROE the kind of thing we exist in so we don’t get some guy popping off a shot at the ragged edge of the network starting a war. That requires a very sophisticated network with high confidence in communications. For peacetime operations that’s probably the appropriate manner of Command and Control whether concentrated or distributed.  You’re still going to want to have centralized control over weapons employment in that environment.

You move that slider to wartime, “the knife fight in a dark closet,” where you’ve lost a good bit of your SATCOM, probably on HL, LPI/LPD kinds of comms, radio silence. Commanding and controlling those forces is a real challenge but it is something we have to think about in the bright light of peace while we aren’t fighting someone in that kind of environment. We have to be able to maintain as much war fighting capability as we possibly can as you move down the sliding scale toward dark and quiet from light and loud. We have to back up aerial layer networks, tactical receiving of satellites, and aerostats potentially. There’s all kinds of ways to set up networks and temporary networks. But we have to be investing money and thinking about it and imbue our commanders with a very honed sense of mission command and that is – go execute your last orders and oh, by the way, if we lose comms, use your initiative. Go kill people and wreck things.

MK: There’s sort of two ways to solve that. The first is by increasing your sensor payload on whatever you think your smallest unit of action is going to be. There’s a lot of inventive ways to look a little further over the horizon, and in the “knife fight in the dark closet,” the potential of mistakes is going to go up. In my view, I don’t think enough effort is being applied to trying to figure out how we’re going to integrate air assets into DL. I have a couple concerns with that, particularly because in a similar place the reason that Vincennes shot down that Iranian airliner in 1988, a part of it was because she was in the dark and couldn’t get her aviation support fast enough. The alert package launched off of the Forrestal and they burned to get there but they couldn’t get there in time. I think there could be a similar mistake, and in a modern 24-hour news cycle, this would look even more poorly. Look at what the Russians are going through having shot down an airliner. There is a lot of blowback from mistakes like that and so I am a little concerned. I would like to see an increase in sensor payload of those sorts of ships to give them a better look without national-level assets.

BM: There’s an interesting DARPA/Office of Naval Research joint program called TERN. It’s a medium-altitude long endurance UAV that would take off and land on LCS, future FF, DDG, and cruisers. I think that it’s a couple hundred pound payload, 14 hours in the air. It’s just a truck and then you decide what package goes on (comms, IR/ER, radar), so that’s one way to get around that problem. The other thing to think about though is – if we’re in the real knife fight, I should hope that mistakes will be tolerated. If we are in an environment where we’ve lost SATCOM and we’re fighting a first world power mistakes are going to happen and you have to minimize them but I would hope that there would be some understanding.

MK: The Lusitania sinking by a German U-boat in a war zone, potentially carrying war material, had huge strategic impact. So no I don’t think so and the idea that the entire rest of the world while we and China go at it is probably not reality. So you know, to say nothing of some potential attempt to egg us on to do something. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

BM: Don’t get me wrong, you bring up good points, and your point about the rest of the world is well taken. If the U.S. and the PRC get into a scrap the pressure to end it quickly is going to be immense which has in my view, huge fleet architecture implications. You damn sure better have what’s out there in the fleet be a force that can deny or deter their aggression. If you can’t, their aggression becomes more likely because the probability of success becomes higher. I’m not trying to say we would willy-nilly shoot down airliners, what I am trying to say is that there will be mistakes, incredible mistakes when command and control is taken away, but I don’t know that we necessarily want to use the fear of such a thing to help design our force.

MK: I would generally agree. I am just arguing that the likelihood of mistakes will be lessened and the lethality of your basic unit of combat will be higher with some set of fast moving fixed wing aircraft that can look at OTH targets.

BM: Keep in mind one of the reasons DL is attractive is because you don’t need CAW, or you would need one less, because they’re finite and there’s a finite supply. They can’t be everywhere at once. This is the thing that I tell my aviator friends: in a first-world scrape, that air wing is going to be very busy not just doing strike but doing ASUW, hopefully someday ASW again, certainly doing ISR. I think the CAW is going to be incredibly busy, maybe too busy to provide air cover for a SAG out there alone and unafraid.

MK: I think that’s probably true and possible.

SD: With respect to increasing lethality, are there any initiatives you feel that don’t get enough attention from fleet leadership that could lead to increased lethality?

BM: Everyone gets all excited about lasers. Lasers have been just around the corner for 30 years and I think there are applications, they are coming, they are out there, but it’s not like I think, ‘If we just paid attention we could move it along.’ The technology is moving along at the rate that it can. Railgun? I like the railgun as a concept; I like it quite a bit. I think I like it more than anything in its ASMD role, if you could throw a high energy projectile that blows up and creates a lot of FOD in front of a missile that is a wonderful way to take it out and it’s cheaper than trying to do so with a missile. Again, railgun is moving along, someday we will solve the energy storage problem. Storing the power is the issue, not generating it. I would like to see a supersonic long-range ASM that could be fired from a surface ship or sub, I would like to see that in the inventory, and I am talking 500 miles or so. I’m relatively satisfied with the weapons, weapons programs, and sensors. What I am not satisfied with is the networking, the ISR, and the connective tissue among all the elements. What we don’t have is all the interstitial stuff that helps tie it all together.

MK: I think we’ve made some really good progress toward EW but I am not quite sure we’re there yet or have thought about what it’s going to take to fight in a heavy EW environment, both in EA or some sort of electronic defense and providing the frequency agility that we might need in a very complex EW environment. I agree and I think that the increase in lethality of surface ship ASW systems has really changed a lot of things with the way that you can do ASW. AN/SQQ-89(V)15 is really a change in model for the surface navy and it is a very impressive system.

BM: Great point, the surface fleet needs a weapon that can exploit the detection range of the V15. We need to get something headed out quickly toward that submarine in the 4th or 5th CZ to put it on the defense. Killing subs is hard, scaring them is easy. Bryan Clark has done great work at CSBA that showed we were much more effective in WWII at scaring subs away than killing them.

Speaking of EW, the second half of my discussion at the Future Strategy Forum was about combat systems and I made the case I didn’t command a ship that long ago (2006), that ship is still in the fleet (USS Bulkley) the combat system is essentially the same, but the kinetic combat system and the EW combat system were not the same system. They were integrated to some degree, but not fully.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 26, 2008) Sonar Technician (Surface) 1st Class Mark Osborne supervises Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Randy Loewen, left, and Sonar Technician (Surface) 3rd Class Roland Stout, right, as they monitor contacts on an AN/SQQ-89V15 Surface Anti Submarine Combat System, aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans)

We need, at the unit level, to have a single combat system that provides decision makers with automated battle management aids, provide strategies that help you conserve weapons, that tell you the better thing to do here is to jam this missile with this technique rather than shoot it with this missile or this gun that kind of full integration of hard and soft kill EW with kinetics at the unit level is required. But then we have to take it to the next level and have networked combat systems in a SAG so the SAG can husband its efforts in the most efficient way, which leads you up to the strike group. You can get to a point where you have almost a web-based combat system that degrades gracefully down to the combat system that is in the ship providing end-to-end functionality within the ship – hard kill and soft kill – that can be networked among other units in order to conserve assets. We have to find a way where  we are not going Winchester on the first salvo.

SD: We had a great debate on CIMSEC where two of our members debated the use of the term A2/AD, what are your thoughts about the CNO’s announcement to move away from that term doctrinally?

BM: First, I have always considered A2/AD to be redundant. A2 and AD are the same thing. It is sea denial – its keeping someone from doing something they wish to do in a chunk of the ocean. So the term itself is redundant. I don’t have any problem with what the CNO did. I think it is reasonable from the standpoint of trying to get people off their fainting couches. People overestimate the “kill zone” that is the Pacific Ocean. It is just not the case, it is looney to think that, but what I think he’s trying to do by eliminating that term is to make sure people understand that we have some tricks up our sleeves and can absorb some of this risk and fight our way in, fight our way out.

MK: I totally agree. He is saying that A2/AD presents it as a fait accompli rather than an aspirational goal is very well taken.

BM: Let’s face it; dealing with OTH radar – OTH radar has different characteristics at night and day. Sun spots, weather comes into play. What’s really needed is the ability in real time to heat map adversary ISR. We have to be able to see where the weaknesses and seams are and that’s where you go project power and do strike, then get the hell out and go do the next one. We can do that, we just have to think our way though it.

SD: I wanted to mention your American Seapower speaking tour. Can you tell our audience what that means, what you’re doing, and how they can attend?

BM: I think we haven’t been doing a good job of telling the American people the value of investing in their Navy and what the payoff is. My speaking tour is targeted to 23 different Rotary Clubs around Maryland. I have done 12 so far and I talk for 20 minutes and answer questions with a bunch of people who don’t ‘get’ the Navy. I am going to the far western edge of Maryland next week, a town called Oakland, and I’m going to  talk to people about seapower. It’s a result of my frustration and my effort to try to do some good.

SD: I want to thank you for your time today, it was a true honor to have you on the show. Any last comments before we sign off?

BM: I love what you guys do, keep it up!

 SD: Thank you very much, sir. Thank you also to our listeners and have a great holiday season.

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. The views of the guests are theirs alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Sea Control 62: 21st Century Fleet Design, Grand Vision or Ruthless Pragmatism

seacontrol2An academic (Dr. Alexander Clarke), an operator (Cdr Paul Fisher, RN (ret)) and a builder (Douglas Clarke) discuss 21st Century Fleet Design and whether it should be driven by a ruthless pragmatism or a more grand design. Intelligent and all very British, they also mention Germany, The War, and railways. Well worth an hour of your commute this week!
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